Sunday, July 6, 2014

05 Career Advancement Opportunity

After the Bolte Bridge assignment I went about my banal day-to-day activities in a kind of trance. I felt as if I was living parallel lives—one as a boring call centre worker attempting to sell vacuum cleaners over the phone, and the other as a secret agent for a nefarious organisation of unknown origins. It was somehow comforting to know that there were other people in Melbourne probably leading a similar kind of existence. I thought about some of the people I had met on the assignment and recalled that the ones who had talked about what they did for a living had ordinary, unremarkable jobs like myself.

I had struck up friendships with a handful of the operatives I had met via email and although they were still largely reluctant to discuss Neurocam, I sensed that this might change if I persisted. Occasionally we would joke about our ‘secret lives’ and referred to ‘that which we can not speak about’. I had never really had ‘online friends’ before, but this seemed like a natural way to engage with people I had met through such peculiar circumstances. It turned out that we all had a lot in common and shared very similar interests and I wondered if this was what had drawn us all to Neurocam in the first place. I tried to isolate a particular quality that my new friends shared, but could only narrow it down to a similar interest in online research into anything new and unusual going on in the world. At a stretch it could be said that we were all people who engaged with the world of ideas in a more intellectual way than your average person. Or were we simply spending too much time online and not engaging in enough real-world social interaction? 

Strangely, it occurred to me that all of us would rather spend our evenings online than watching TV, which I guess was something else differentiating us from the general public. It occurred to me that the people who had the most information on the demographics of a Neurocam Operative were probably those behind the curtain.

I thought more about the idea of Neurocam possibly being some kind of experimental performance art project and did some research to find out what was going on within this genre in the art world these days. I started off by looking at the definition of performance art to see if it was the right fit. In an attempt to define this rather elusive genre, arts writer Kyle Chayka writes that:

If we were to assign performance art a single defining characteristic, it would probably be the fact that a piece of performance art must be centered on an action carried out or orchestrated by an artist, a time-based rather than permanent artistic gesture that has a beginning and an end. Documentation of the performance might live on forever, from photos and artifacts to full video documentation, but the performance itself is ephemeral. If you were lucky enough to be in the audience, then what you witnessed was the true work of performance art.

So was Neurocam an ephemeral set of actions carried out by an artist? It was possible, but after further reading it seemed that performance art itself was bound by certain constraints such as necessitating the presence of an actual ‘performer’ as well as the elements of space, time and the relationship of the performer to the audience. In this sense the term performance art appeared to adequately describe art activities such as the curious ‘tours’ run by Ivan’s Dogs, but I wasn’t so sure about events where the artists were neither present, nor even acknowledged. After extensive digging, I could not find any examples of performances where the artists were not present during the actual events.

Another definition I had come across that seemed more apt was ‘happening’, where “a performance, event or situation could be considered art”. Apparently happenings can “take place anywhere, are often multi-disciplinary, usually lack a narrative and frequently seek to involve the audience in some way.” Happenings were also known to leave considerable room for improvisation. This was more like it.

So was Neurocam an art happening? Upon further research I disappointingly discovered that the term happening was rather antiquated within the context of contemporary art practice, and mainly referred to a bunch of artists in the 60s getting together and painting while others played music or old records and danced. I imagined that there was probably a fair amount of LSD involved as well...

Another interesting term I came across was ‘conceptual art’, which American artist Sol LeWitt defines with the following statement:

In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.

LeWitt is essentially describing a type of art practice where the concepts or ideas informing the work seem to take precedence over traditional aesthetic and material concerns. I couldn’t begin to imagine what concepts or ideas the creators of Neurocam might be grappling with if they were trying to create a work of conceptual art. Were they making some kind of statement about how far people were willing to go to belong to something? Were they dealing with anti- establishment themes? As far as traditional aesthetic and material concerns went, the attention to detail I had experienced with Neurocam seemed every bit as meticulous as a quality theatre production, although arguably anything but traditional. It was very strange to think of Neurocam as a ‘work’, especially a work having been created by an artist or a group of artists. This made me think of what would make Neurocam art and brought to mind a quote I had come across by Tony Godfrey, author of "Conceptual Art," who asserts that “conceptual art questions the nature of what is understood as art.” It seemed logical to me that Neurocam might well be questioning the nature of what art is, but I still wasn’t sure if it was art. I had to find some more examples like Ivan’s Dogs.

A few days later I was invited to a dinner party and reluctantly attended in spite of wanting to spend the evening at home on my computer. I thought that it was probably good to get out and interact with people after spending so much time alone on the Internet and obsessing over Neurocam. At the dinner party I met an artist from New Zealand who had recently moved to Australia. We had an interesting discussion about her practice—which mainly involved large- scale wall drawings—and what was going on in the NZ art scene. My ears pricked up when she mentioned a very bizarre art event she had attended a few years ago that had been staged by a friend of hers who was also an artist. I prodded her for more details and she happily told me the full story over several glasses of wine.

The work was called Project George and was staged in Christchurch, NZ during 1998 by artist Jason Maling. Maling attempted to engage an audience in constructing a narrative by focusing on events that had already transpired over several months. In his opening speech at a gallery set up as a detective’s office, Maling informed his audience that they all knew why they were there, and were all implicated in the strange events which had been happening over the last few months. Delivering his lines much like a detective on a case, he proceeded to present fragments of audiovisual material, which were supposedly part of the ‘investigation’. Over the next few weeks he used his impromptu office to interrogate members of the audience who came to see the show. People began to engage with his narrative and brought him several objects (as evidence) that were supposedly part of the ‘investigation’. In an advertised closing event, people turned up to the gallery to find it completely vandalised and Maling nowhere to be seen.

Now I was getting somewhere. Maling’s Project George was very similar conceptually to the Ivan’s Dogs project. Maling had essentially been creating a fabricated narrative by asking the general public to participate in that narrative as if it were a real-life situation. He was not labeling or contextualising the project as art or portraying himself as an artist or the sole creator of the work. His role was to facilitate a series of events that set up the possibility for engagement, much like some of the pervasive games I had been looking at.

After looking at the documentation of the work on Maling’s website, it occurred to me that an interesting aspect of the work was that he had not been in any way dishonest with his audience. His investigation into what he considered a series of ‘strange occurrences’ was based entirely on things he had found in reality and attempted to connect together in unusual ways. He had showed a slide taken in Italy of a burned out car with some graffiti on it and linked the text to something completely unrelated in London, which was then connected to something in Australia and so on. So the audience really was implicated in that his meta-narrative canvas was that of the world around us in which anything could potentially relate to everything if we looked at it in a particular way. I thought this idea was pure genius.

So the question was, what were the similarities and differences between Project George and Neurocam? An obvious difference was that Maling had put himself forward as a public front for his project, whereas I had yet to meet any of Neurocam Management in real-life. Neurocam were infinitely more secretive about their activities whereas Maling had been up-front about everything in spite of the apparent strangeness inherent in what he was doing. His project was also mysterious, but in a more humorous, absurdist way. Another point of difference between the two projects was Maling’s use of a known gallery space as his head quarters. The people who were invited to the event were no doubt selected from the gallery mailing list and probably went along expecting a performance art event or an installation. Which is ultimately what they got, although it was admittedly stretching the boundaries of what is considered performance art and installation. Neurocam was engaging a far broader audience, selected via the great leveling device of an advertising hoarding rather than anything so highbrow as a gallery mailing list.

Both projects were however creating a spontaneous narrative, which engaged the public in a series of improvised scenarios. Project George involved people in an investigation looking into strange goings on, and Neurocam created enough intrigue to motivate people to initiate their own investigations into what Neurocam actually was. Another striking similarity was that both works (assuming that Neurocam was an artwork) required a tacit agreement from the audience to suspend rational disbelief and engage with the narrative framework as if it were real. This was something I had come across frequently when looking at pervasive games, but seemed to be an entirely new concept when considering the ways in which audiences responded to artworks. With Ivan’s Dogs the audience was forced to accept the reality in which they were placed, but participation in Project George and Neurocam required accepting a construct, which was more akin to the way we witness some types of film or theater.

On Maling’s website he was advertising a new project where he wanted people to make an appointment to see The Vorticist. He gave no clues as to who or what ‘The Vorticist’ was, or what this new project was about. I guessed that people would probably engage with his new work on the strength of his reputation alone. I decided to make an appointment and find out what it was all about. Was it possible that Neurocam was just one of a number of strange new art activities going on all around us?

Later that week I got home from another soul destroying day of work to find the details of my next assignment.


A face-to-face assessment of an operative’s suitability for career advancement.

The 1st phase of Neurocam International’s 2005 operations is drawing to a close.
Due to a disparity between the number of active field operatives and the number of operatives required for phase two, Neurocam has decided to downsize its operational work force. To this end it has been determined that a face-to-face assessment of each operative is required.

Based upon the outcomes of this assessment a determination will be made as to whether each operative should; be recommended for career advancement, be retained in Neurocam’s services at their current status, or dismissed from the organisation.

'Chess problems demand from the composer the same virtues that characterise all worthwhile art: originality, invention, conciseness, harmony, complexity, and splendid insincerity.' - Vladimir Nabokov, 'Poems and Problems', 1969

Below are the procedural details for this assignment. Any deviation from the operational protocol described may result in a requirement of disciplinary action against the operative.

1. Between 8–10pm on Tuesday or Wednesday (date withheld for security reasons) you must arrive at (address withheld for security reasons). Before entering the venue, you must ensure that you are wearing both your white facemask and Neurocam Identifier.

2. Upon entering the building, purchase a drink and proceed upstairs where you will be met by a number of other operatives, all of whom will be similarly masked. Please be aware, two of these operatives will be members of Neurocam’s Management Team.

3. Around the venue you will notice a number of chessboards. As soon as a chessboard is free, you must approach another operative, state your Neurocam Operative name and challenge them to a game of chess.
4. Beyond the exchange of your Neurocam name, you are strictly forbidden from discussing Neurocam in any way throughout your match.

5. Once the game has been won or lost, you are to note the name of your competitor, the outcome of the match and the details of any conversation engaged in during the match.

6. You must then repeat steps 3 through 5 until you have either played every operative in the room, or the allotted time for this assessment is complete (see step 7).

7. At 10.00pm exactly you must cease the match you are engaged in and make a note of which player is in an advantageous position.

8. Within the venue there is a painting, which is the work of a famous individual who has not obtained their fame for their artistic endeavors. Determine which painting and the identity of the artist before vacating the venue in an expedient manner.

9. Submit a report of your assignment (including a record of your winnings and losses, a brief transcript of all conversations and the identity of the famous painter) to the Operations Division ( prior to close of business on Friday (date withheld for security reasons).

NOTE: You will be informed of the results of your assessment within two weeks of the submission of your report.

Operatives are strictly forbidden from revealing any details pertaining to this assignment. Any operative found doing so will suffer immediate expulsion from Neurocam.

Charles Hastings
Head, Operations Division Neurocam International

If there was one thing I had truly come to love about Neurocam, it was their absolute lack of predictability. I felt enormous admiration for the person or people who had conjured up this incredibly bizarre and exciting new assignment. Now that I was looking at the possibility of Neurocam being some kind of artistic experiment or new type of art practice, I could see the creative possibilities inherent within these strange goings on. I was still unsure how I felt about being manipulated into participating in the first place, but I considered that this process might have been an integral part of the experience.

Aside from the fact that I would once again meet face to face with fellow operatives, this assignment was to be the first opportunity to meet with actual Neurocam Management. I wondered what they would be like and whether we would be able to talk to them about Neurocam. Their presence would probably make us slightly paranoid, as they would undoubtedly be tasked with monitoring our conduct. Perhaps attempting to strike up conversations about the cam would not be a wise move. The possibilities presented quite a quandary.

The premise of the assignment was ominous–Neurocam were going to cull some operatives and promote others. I wanted to be promoted more than anything as this would no doubt bring a whole new level to the experience, but I was frustrated that Neurocam hadn’t told us exactly what they were looking for in terms of grounds for promotion. I thought it might be wrong to assume that the operatives who won the most games of chess would be first to be promoted and hoped that this was the case as my chess playing skills were nothing special. I found it somewhat irritating that we had been expressly instructed not to talk about Neurocam while playing matches for Neurocam.

There was a distinct element of tension in this latest development as some of us would be cut off from an ongoing activity that had become an important part of our lives, while others would (rather exclusively) be taken to new heights. I thought about the idea of my Neurocam involvement reaching its conclusion and the idea was not an appealing one. Whatever kind of art or game experience this was I did not want it to end just yet. I guess it was like watching a really good movie or reading an engrossing novel. But the difference was that this was happening in real time and we would not be able to rewind or flick back to the beginning.

In the days before the career advancement suitability assessment I conversed with my Neurocam friends often via email and between us we found a local supplier of cheap white Japanese kabuki masks. 

During my lunch break one day I made a visit to this costume shop on Little Bourke Street and found that their supply of kabuki masks was rapidly dwindling. I asked the girl behind the counter and she said that it was really weird that after selling none of the masks for months, all of a sudden she had dozens of people wanting them in the last three3 days. When I got home that day I made the necessary adjustments to the mask as per Hastings’ instructions in the last assignment—cutting off the chin section at the line of the upper lip. I thought it was clever how he had withheld this detail from the recent assignment brief, making sure that only those who had heard his recording at Bolte Bridge would know what to do. Trying on the mask made me feel like some strange member of a demented cult sect. I could only imagine what a room full of us would look like to the general public ... were we about to become a living, breathing part of someone’s conceptual artwork?

A couple of days later I was looking at websites from some of Melbourne’s art galleries and noticed that a gallery called West Space was advertising a ‘live art event’ which was limited to 10 participants per night. There was a brief write-up about the event, called Strangers and Intimacy, which explained how it was a collaboration between artists, performers and actors from Australia and the UK. The write-up didn’t really say what the event would involve beyond touting it as ‘an unforgettable evening not to be missed’. Never having been to a ‘live art event’ before I decided to sign up. I received a message back almost immediately saying that they could fit me in the following evening at seven, and to arrive at the address and wait outside. In preparation I brushed up on my art lingo and discovered an interesting definition of live art by UK artist Joshua Sofaer:

Live Art is when an artist chooses to make work directly in front of the audience in space and time. So instead of making an object, or an environment (a painting for example) and leaving it for the audience to encounter in their own time, Live Art comes into being at the actual moment of encounter between artist and spectator. Or at least even if they are not physically present, the artist sets up a situation in which the audience experience the work in a particular space and time, and the notion of ‘presence’ is key to the concerns of the work.

I wasn’t entirely sure how live art differed from performance art, but supposed it was to do with the way live art focussed more on the ‘encounters’ between artist and audience, implying a more direct kind of interaction. I was intrigued by Sofaer’s mention of works where the artists would not be physically present, but would set up situations to be experienced by the audience. Wasn’t this exactly what had been happening with Neurocam? I came across another ambitious description of what live art attempts to offer the audience:

Live Art offers immersive experiences, often disrupting distinctions between spectator and participant. Live Art asks us what it means to be here, now. In the simultaneity and interactivity of a media saturated society, Live Art is about immediacy and reality: creating spaces to explore the experience of things, the ambiguities of meaning and the responsibilities of our individual agency.

If the distinctions between spectator and participant were being reinvented in the context of ‘creating spaces to explore the experience of things’, I wondered exactly what kind of art experience I was in for. Needless to say I was interested to see how Strangers and Intimacy related to some of the art I had heard about recently.

The following evening I arrived at the (locked) front door of West Space Gallery to see a small crowd of eight or nine people milling about. It seemed that some of them knew each other, but most had come alone. We chatted about the strangeness of being made to wait outside a gallery without knowing what was in store for us.

At some time after 7pm a window opened above us on the second floor and an attractive young woman leaned out and dropped a feather, which slowly drifted down towards us. A middle-aged woman caught the feather and while she was examining it the doors opened and another attractive young woman came out and led her back in the door and up the stairs, indicating that the rest of us were to remain outside. Another feather was dropped from above and the process repeated until all of us were eventually led up the stairs, through a series of completely empty rooms (which I assumed was the gallery space), and into a small cramped room at the back of the space.

Once we were all crammed inside the very small room the door was shut and locked and we were left there for several minutes. During this time we all sat down on the floor and made ourselves as comfortable as possible within the cramped confines. Some time later the lights were switched off and we were thrown into complete darkness, which was unsettling to say the least. If that was not enough to make us feel uncomfortable, extremely loud sounds began to issue from a small vent on the floor. The sounds were incredibly strange; somehow primordial and chaotic without any connection to anything obviously tangible. At best they could be described as demented wailing. The overall effect was extremely disarming, especially as it continued for at least 15 minutes. Being tightly packed into a room full of complete strangers didn’t help matters, as I felt more than a little bit claustrophobic.

After what seemed like an eternity the sounds stopped and the lights came on. The door opened and another woman we had not seen before entered wearing some kind of maid’s outfit carrying a birthday cake with several candles alight. She was singing happy birthday as she reached out and grabbed the hand of one of the audience members and led him out of the space. As she departed the room loud sounds issued from the adjacent room—people cheered and whistles were blown as if a party was in full swing.

We were then led out by one by one by the cake-wielding woman. I took her hand and was taken to another room where a party was indeed in full swing. The room was now inhabited by twenty or so people all talking, laughing and drinking as if they were right at home in a familiar environment. As I was led through the crowd I was approached by a woman who seemed to know me, who introduced me by name to some of the people at the party, including the hosts. What followed was so utterly bizarre that I had absolutely no frame of reference or way of behaving that empowered me in any way. I was completely at the mercy of a bunch of professionals who knew exactly what they were doing. It was like being inside a play but not having any lines. Over the next two hours I witnessed drunken arguments, animated conversations about all manner of subjects and a tearful confession from a naked girl in the bathroom who told me that her boyfriend had just left her because she had cheated on him. I was also made to dance with a complete stranger and look her in the eye while telling her that I loved her.

When I got home that night I felt like I had experienced some kind of epiphany regarding contemporary art. Essentially I had just been to a gallery and seen some art, but to me the event had been infinitely more potent than anything I had ever encountered in a gallery situation before. I had just had an experience, and it had engaged me on several levels. I had been taken completely out of my comfort zone and had experienced a range of emotions, thoughts and ideas. The key to this amazing event had been the fact that its creators had managed to construct an entire reality through a series of brilliant interconnecting performances, which were seamlessly improvised to engage the participants every step of the way.

Strangers and Intimacy was like a combination of Ivan’s Dogs and Maling’s Project George. It created a situation where the audience were in some ways forced to accept the reality around them, but the script could be adapted at any point to accommodate unpredictable deviations. An interesting aspect to this approach was that each participant had probably gone home with a different story to tell about the evening’s events; only people who had needed to use the bathroom would have encountered the naked crying woman, and while I was in there with her I probably missed all kinds of other things going on in other rooms.

My West Space experience had left me hyped for my upcoming Neurocam assignment. I had just experienced first hand what was now possible in the context of contemporary art, and was all but convinced that Neurocam was playing a similar game. They weren’t doing it in an art gallery, but perhaps this did not matter. If I could be coerced into challenging situations within the seemingly ‘safe’ confines of an art gallery, then why couldn’t this happen anywhere? In both cases I still had the option of opting out of proceedings at any time, but there was also a similar kind of manipulation at play which kept me motivated. I wasn’t exactly being duped by either party, but they were certainly presenting their information in a somewhat selective way. Strangers and Intimacy had not at any point announced that they were artists or that the scenario was an artwork. I imagined that their performance would have worked equally well in another context completely removed from the art world if they had been able to somehow get an audience together. So was this the only real difference between Neurocam and Strangers and Intimacy—the way in which they gathered an audience and the types of venues they used?

I continued to investigate the emergence of a new type of art practice that seemed to alter the fabric of an audience’s reality and attempted to trace these ideas back through recent art history. While performance art and happenings dated back to the sixties, live art was a term that was first used in the UK during the mid-eighties to describe new and existing works. Interestingly, the list of officially recognised ‘live artists’, such as Marina Abramovic, Vito Acconci, Laurie Anderson, Joseph Beuys, George Brecht, Stuart Brisley, Chris Burden, Gilbert and George, Tehching Hsieh, Paul McCarthy, Hermann Nitsch, Yoko Ono, Nam June Paik and Wolf Vostell dated back several years before the term was actually created to encompass a diverse range of performances and happenings. Unfortunately this had the effect of diluting the clarity of what I had considered to be catchy new terminology describing a unique genre.

In trying to find examples of live art not concerned with more traditional performance practices, I came across an interesting work called Snowdancing created by French artist Phillipe Parreno in 1995. Parreno had set up a party and everything that transpired during the 90-minute event became the artwork—clusters, conversations, awkwardness, and all. Some of the partygoers were acting under Parreno’s instructions and played certain key roles, creating a blurring of the line between reality and fiction as most participants were reacting spontaneously to the situation as it played out around them. This sounded very similar to Strangers and Intimacy and I wondered if it had been an influence. If this type of work had occurred over 10 years ago, I wondered if there was a solid tradition of this kind of live art practice. If so, I would have thought that I would have heard about it. I guess it was possible that it was simply not that popular and didn’t have much of a following. The other possibility was that it was operating more on an underground level, focusing entirely on the experiences themselves rather than publicity or documentation.

On the day of the assignment I was so excited that I was hopeless at work. Time dragged unbearably and I found myself zoning out often. My supervisor, who had been monitoring some of my calls, called me into her office and asked me if everything was OK. I wanted to tell her that I couldn’t concentrate because I had an appointment with some masked strangers to determine my fate within a strange organisation called Neurocam, but thought better of it. It would have been hugely ironic if I been sacked from my real life job and promoted with Neurocam. When work was finally over I had an hour to kill before my appointment with the cam and found myself distractedly wandering the streets with the cut-down white kabuki mask in my bag. I contemplated arriving at the location early, but didn’t want to risk anything that might compromise my promotional possibilities.

The venue was a bar on Victoria Street in North Melbourne called Prudence. As I approached I saw several people arrive wearing white masks and quickly put mine on. Thankfully I had widened the ill-placed eyeholes and could see through the mask quite well. A casually dressed man in his early-thirties wearing a similar (but more expensive) mask to mine with a curious logo on the forehead was standing by the door. He greeted me and asked for my identification. 

thought this was odd and pulled out my wallet, thinking that he wanted to see my driver’s license. “Your Neurocam ID” he said. I felt foolish, I had been so nervous that I had forgotten to put on my Neurocam Identity badge. I fished it out of my pocket and he ushered me through the door. So this was a bona fide member of Neurocam Management. He seemed very unapproachable so I didn’t attempt to strike up a conversation. I wondered if I would recognise him in a crowd without his mask on and laughed to myself about Neurocam sending members of management on an assignment where we all happened to be conveniently wearing masks.

I brought myself a beer at the bar and headed upstairs. The bartender hadn’t seemed at all phased about my mask and there were no unmasked customers around so I assumed that Neurocam had hired the entire venue for the evening. At the top of the stairs was a series of large interconnecting rooms, each with several tables and chessboards set up. Most of the tables were occupied with masked figures hunched low over their boards. I was met by a tall balding man in his late-thirties wearing a mask with the same strange logo, who ushered me impatiently to a seating area where a couple of other masked operatives were gathered. It was impossible to tell if any of the people from the Bolte Bridge assignment were present as every person in the room was wearing an almost identical mask.

I made polite conversation with the other operatives in the ‘waiting room’ and made a joke about the tall Neurocam guy who was standing at the top of the stairs. “Friendly fellow isn’t he?” I said. The others appeared not to share my joke and looked sheepishly about. The tall guy came over and told us that there was a table free. I took this opportunity to challenge the operative beside me to a game of chess. His operative name was “Pale Figure”, not someone who had been present at Bolte Bridge. I found it odd that he also had a cut-down mask like my own and wondered if Hastings had run another Bolte Bridge-style assignment with another batch of operatives, or if he had simply sent a different set of instructions. As we made our way to a table I noticed that there were about 50 people present, almost twice the number who had attended Bolte.

While I was engaged in a game of chess with operative “Pale Figure” I looked around the room and was struck with the absolute strangeness of the situation. The décor was that of an old English mansion and several antique lamps cast subdued reddish light about the space. The light was caught on the smooth white faces of the masked figures all hunched low over their chessboards, deep in concentration. The little conversation about the room was a low murmur over a series of what sounded like old movie soundtracks being played on an ancient stereo system. In terms of art direction, the setup reminded me of a famous scene in Stanley Kubrick’s 1999 film Eyes Wide Shut  in which Tom Cruise’s character happens on a mysterious gathering of masked men who are part of a secret organisation set up as a kind of Masonic Brotherhood dedicated to extravagant and illicit pleasures. Cruise’s character is exposed as he does not follow the correct protocols of one of their ‘meetings’.

As far as I could tell, the only Neurocam Management Personnel present were the guy on the door and the guy at the top of the stairs.

The evening wore on and I lost some games and won some games. At one point the tall Neurocam guy took a phone call which my opponent and I both overheard, explaining that he was "... at this Neurocam thing ... oh it's quite the story, mate ... it goes back, like, a year ... Graham got me into it ..." As he was obviously distracted I looked at the girl opposite me, operative Constance, and asked her, “Do you really think he’s Management?” Constance gave me a ‘cut’ signal by running her hand in front of her neck in a chopping motion and shook her head. I gathered that she didn’t want to risk talking about Neurocam.

Shortly before 10pm I remembered the other part to the assignment—to identify the painting. I wandered through the rooms and looked at the four or five paintings on the walls. A few other operatives were looking at the paintings as well and seemed to be gathered around one in particular, a painting of the seven dwarves by JW Gacy. I overheard a discussion about JW being John Wayne as in John Wayne Gacy the infamous serial killer. I wrote this down and left the building. I had won one game of chess with operative “Pale Figure” and lost two games to operatives “Constance” and “Midnight”. I sincerely hoped that my Neurocam involvement would not be compromised by my lousy chess performance. It struck me that Neurocam could have had several management members present, all participating in chess games to monitor operatives’ conduct. But why chess? Was this an analogy for the complex game Neurocam was playing with us?

All in all it had been a very strange evening as I had interacted with several people without having what I would call a real conversation. The atmosphere of the event had been one of mystery, intrigue and tension—elements obviously carefully controlled by Neurocam. Having actual Neurocam personnel present had been disappointing for me, as I couldn’t help thinking that they seemed to be very much like operatives who might have been higher up the food chain and merely carrying out different assignments. It occurred to me that if some of us were promoted we might find ourselves in a similar position and be given assignments where we facilitated events for other operatives. If this were the case, I wondered who the ‘real’ management were and how many promotions it would take to actually meet them. I found it vaguely distasteful that this was set up as a kind of hierarchy where it implied a sense of status to be rubbing shoulders with Neurocam’s upper management. I thought about what I would do if given such a position of power. Would it be satisfying to have this higher status and subsequent power and control over others? Would this be another test?

I considered the possibility of the evening’s events being part of a live art project and could definitely see similarities to the work of Ivan’s Dogs, Strangers and Intimacy, Project George and Snowdancing. The main difference was that Neurocam was still at this point operating in a more mysterious and removed way; we had yet to have any real contact with the puppet masters or understand fully what their agenda was. Also, the narrative construct was more elaborate and seemed to span over a far longer time frame than the one-off performances of similar works. I decided to dig deeper while I waited impatiently for the outcomes of the career advancement assessment.

While trawling the net I came across a link to a very interesting interactive performance project staged in Adelaide during 2004 by UK artists collective Blast Theory. The project, entitled I like Frank, used 3G mobile phones and a central website to engage an audience in tracking down a man named Frank. The project explored the intersection of real and virtual spaces in much the same way as alternate reality games. Players interfacing with a virtual representation of the city were able to figure out clues and text them to people in the streets.

I like Frank reminded me of the Bolte Bridge assignment where we had worked as a team to solve a narrative based puzzle in much the same way as players in an ARG context. It was interesting that Blast Theory considered themselves to be a ‘performance art collective’ when this project was almost identical to some ARGs. After reading all about the project on their website, I couldn’t help thinking that the project was unsuccessful in terms of testing the boundaries of this kind of hybrid space within an art context. The artists relied too heavily on gaming strategies and pre-determined modes of engagement, which led to a relatively predicable and overly safe experience for participants. There was also the question of motivation. If Neurocam had presented itself as a kind of heavily monitored hybrid art project which one could sign up to participate in, I don’t think I would have bothered. Neurocam seemed to have an edge in that it was not contextualised in any obvious way, but was it art or some kind of subversive experiment that had nothing to do with performance art or live art practice? Strangely, this uncertainty was what made it so appealing.

Another work with similarities to Neurocam that I uncovered was artist and filmmaker Miranda July’s web based work Learning to Love You More that was launched in 2002. July engaged an audience by posting ‘assignments’ on her website which were completed by participants who documented the results and uploaded them on the site. The assignment idea was strikingly similar to Neurocam and participation relied on a sense of community created by the participants themselves. I had also never heard of any other artwork (other than perhaps Neurocam) that required an audience to actually go out and do stuff, which was quite a commitment in itself. I was really excited about the possibilities inherent within July’s work as I imagined that in getting her audience to independently participate in doing things offline, they would no doubt get to have ‘experiences’ that might alter their perceptions in some way, much like with Neurocam. I made a note of some of her assignments for my records:

Interview someone who has experienced war. 
Record the sound that is keeping you awake. 
Make a portrait of your friend's desires.
Give advice to yourself in the past.
Re-enact a scene from a movie that made someone else cry. 
Make an exhibition of the art in your parent's house.
Act out someone else's argument.
Ask your family to describe what you do.
Make a protest sign and protest.
Spend time with a dying person.
Curate an artist's retrospective in a public place. 
Recreate an object from someone's past.
Make a documentary video about a small child.

July’s work certainly encouraged participants to engage with the project in a creative way and had attracted over eight-thousand participants over its seven-year lifespan. Although Learning to Love You More also used the structure of assignments to facilitate audience participation, it did not have any over-arching theme or narrative like Neurocam or like a game.

At this point the only thing all of the works I had been researching had in common was the relationship between artist and audience; these situations had been set up to make the focus of the work the actual participants themselves, not the actions, props or art direction from the artists/performers. Also, these projects did not seem to be documented. I had searched for many hours on the Internet and had not been able to find video, photographs or anything more than brief textual descriptions of the works. As far as I could tell, this represented a radically different way of looking at art, which was ephemeral and not based around object-based outcomes or even extensive documentation.

During the next week I had my appointment to see Jason Maling’s creation The Vorticist, which turned out to be in a small, sparsely furnished room at the Abbotsford Convent. Maling himself, who was wearing a very smart looking blue velvet waistcoat and tie, met me at the gates. He led me through the grand old buildings regaling me with tales of their history as a nunnery. It seemed that the convent was now being used mainly as artists’ studios. Once inside his room, Maling sat me down next to a small table covered in the same blue velvet as his waistcoat upon which sat an assortment of strange equipment. We chatted at length about a range of topics and I had the sense that Maling was always cleverly directing the conversation into areas in which he had control over the content or stories to tell. We talked a lot about UFOs and ghosts, which is not something I am usually conversant with.

After a while he opened a box on the table, which contained a set of brass spinning tops of various sizes. He set up a piece of blue carbon copy paper under a sheet of thin drawing paper on top of a marble slate and asked me to spin the tops on the paper. Not knowing what to do, I randomly selected various tops and spun them randomly on the paper. The copy paper left traces of fine lines underneath the translucent drawing paper, which were visible from above. When I had returned all of the tops to their box Maling removed the top layer of paper and rolled it up using a very old looking rod that he said belonged to his great grandfather. He bound it with some blue velvet and presented it to me, telling me it was mine to keep. Underneath where the paper had been was a beautiful blue layer of copy paper, which had inscribed the inverse of the drawing I had made on it. Maling said that this was his copy and that he would makes notes on our 'appointment’. He showed me a book that contained numerous blue drawings next to meticulous notes about the conversations he’d had with what he referred to as his ‘subjects’.

On the way home from the strange meeting I reflected on how the experience could be considered art and what kind of art it was in relation to some of the works I had recently participated in and read about. I had made a drawing, but I had the feeling that was not the point of the exercise, or the artwork. I thought more about the strange conversation we’d had and it dawned on me that perhaps this was the work. If a conversation could be art then I was sure that Neurocam’s activities could also be art. But I was still uncertain. Even though Neurocam could plausibly be a work of art, it was still entirely possible that it had nothing to do with art and was simply an incredibly elaborate marketing campaign for some kind of gaming company. 

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