In the days that followed my meeting with The Vorticist I became increasingly agitated about the impending results of the career advancement assignment. After two weeks I began to think that no contact from Neurocam might mean that I had been cut adrift. The sense of loss I felt about possibly not having Neurocam in my life anymore made me realise how much the experience meant to me. I checked in with my Neurocam friends and none of them had heard from Neurocam either, which made me feel slightly better. It was extremely frustrating not having been told what the timeframe for possible promotions might be; our assignments had always been regular as clockwork, but this was a different situation and once again we were at Neurocam’s mercy. Part of me felt angry and annoyed at this constant power imbalance— Neurocam were always in control and there was nothing we could do about it.
During this unbearable waiting period I kept myself occupied with many hours on the Internet attempting to join together the many dots of random information pertaining to a possible explanation of what Neurocam actually was. With a clear image in mind of a bunch of people all wearing identical white kabuki masks and playing chess in a local bar, I came across an interesting reference to a phenomenon called Flash Mobs. Flash Mobs were created in New York during 2003 by Bill Wasik, and are described by him as “a public gathering of complete strangers, organized via the Internet or mobile phone, which performs a pointless act and then disperses again."
The idea had spread rapidly throughout the US and then internationally to many major cities around the world. Examples of recorded “Flash Mob” events include shopping for a ‘love rug’ for a fictitious commune, silent discos where participants gather and dance while listening to music on headphones, pillow fights, synchronised swimming in public fountains, gathering in hotel lobbies and cheering onlookers. I read of a hilarious account of a Flash Mob in Melbourne CBD, where hundreds of people had appeared out of nowhere and started a mock shoot-out wielding bananas, before disappearing minutes later into the crowds.
While the actions played out by the crowds in Wasik’s Flash Mobs didn’t appear to have any obvious socio-political agenda, Nick Tapper in an article for The New Critic points out that:
Seeing how all culture in New York was demonstrably commingled with scenesterism, the appeal of concerts and plays and readings and gallery shows deriving less from the work itself than from the social opportunities the work might engender, it should theoretically be possible to create an art project consisting of pure scene—meaning the scene would be the entire point of the work, and indeed would itself constitute the work.
So Wasik appeared to be facilitating a process where a form of social interaction created unique and temporary works of art where the people themselves become the show, and in a sense, create something which is entirely experiential. I wasn’t convinced that Wasik was creating art, as the idea seemed more aligned with experiments in social networking than the construction of artworks involving a radical new approach to audience participation. Also, Wasik did not claim at any point to be an artist and often said in interviews that he created Flash Mobs because he thought they were funny. It was possible however that the very existence of Flash Mobs could be challenging art’s boundaries in light of what people were doing with live art and conceptual art, where the work focuses on a performance, action or event rather than a tangible permanent outcome.
All the same, the similarities to some of Neurocam’s recent activities couldn’t be ignored. Neurocam was indeed similarly organising groups of people to participate in public acts for no obvious reason other than curiosity or a need to be part of something. The difference was that Neurocam’s public participatory acts were not random or pointless to those involved; they were part of a narrative trajectory. It could be said however that these acts were completely random and pointless to an outside audience. I thought of what the general public would have made of the treasure hunt at Bolte Bridge and the masked chess tournament at Prudence. I also wondered if Neurocam’s overall narrative trajectory, if there was one, could be just as random or pointless as the Wasik’s one-liners. This was a strangely uncomfortable thought. What if I had wasted considerable amounts of my time on something completely pointless?
I questioned what would make people want to participate in Flash Mobs. In an (online) interview with Stay Free magazine, Wasik says that:
People have been spending a lot of time in virtual communities since the Internet took off, and I think people liked the flash mobs because they had an Internet component, yet allowed you to see this virtual community made literal and physical.
This was an interesting idea as it pretty much mirrored what was happening with my Neurocam experience on a smaller scale. I now had online friends who were loosely part of what Wasik was calling a ‘virtual community’. We were like a club with one thing in common—Neurocam participation. The group assignments were hugely appealing because we also got to see the virtual world of Neurocam played out in the physical world. The only thing missing however, were some of the virtual players in our community such as Mr Hastings and Ms Fischer. But it was early days and there was no telling what might be in store if I was promoted.
A word that had been cropping up often in my research into the idea of Flash Mobs and virtual communities was ‘meme’. According to Wikipedia:
A meme consists of any idea or behavior that can pass from one person to another by learning or imitation. Examples include thoughts, ideas, theories, gestures, practices, fashions, habits, songs, and dances. Memes propagate themselves and can move through the cultural sociosphere in a manner similar to the contagious behavior of a virus.
Apparently Richard Dawkins invented the word ‘meme’ in his book The Selfish Gene (1976) to describe how one might extend evolutionary principles to explain the spread of ideas and cultural phenomena. Wasik’s Flash Mobs were the perfect example of a ‘meme’ in the way they started off purely as an idea and then spread rapidly through the Internet, like a virus. Wasik says in another interview that:
... the whole meme-making thing is weird. I have friends who basically make memes for a living--for art projects that involve spreading ideas through the Internet. But things spread for reasons that are unknown to all of us.
I found the idea of a new breed of artists spreading ideas across the Internet absolutely fascinating. It made sense that the web was radically changing the way information was accessed and propagated, but it was amazing to think that people, even artists, were specialising in this area. Certainly Flash Mobs had countless forums and chat rooms all over the web, which were propagating the idea like a virus. I wondered what would happen to Neurocam if the veil of secrecy were removed and people all over the World started blogging about their Neurocam experiences. If this happened I would certainly be excited about the opportunity to share my findings with the Neurocam community and would strive towards being the first person to get to the bottom of the mystery. Outside of the Internet it was entirely possible that Neurocam had already become a meme; it was ostensibly a kind of theory, set of ideas or way of thinking that was spreading across the cultural landscape of our society. I wondered how many thousands of people all around the world might be involved and how many Neurocam-related emails were pinging back and fourth through cyberspace. If we, the participants, were making Neurocam what it is, then it was likely that there were considerably more of us than we imagined.
Several days later I finally received my much anticipated email from Mr Hastings. To my dismay, his message did not shed any light whatsoever as to whether or not I was to be promoted. This was extremely frustrating after waiting so long to hear back from them. Hastings merely ordered that I show up at Darling Gardens in Clifton Hill the following night. I was to wait by a rotunda at precisely 11pm, which I thought was rather late for me on a weeknight and altogether somewhat ominous. Although it was good news that I had heard from Neurocam, I was somewhat taken aback by this latest development. Meeting persons unknown in a park in the middle of the night was significantly increasing my level of commitment and trust to worrying proportions. I felt strangely manipulated by Neurocam—they had put me in a position where I had become so obsessed and so worried about being cut off that I would do practically anything they asked of me. Still, I guessed that if I wanted to get the most out of whatever kind of experience this was, I would simply have to continue to follow orders. Part of me also wanted to expose them once and for all, and I knew that the only chance I had of doing this was to continue my involvement.
That night I came across a reference to a project that had happened before Flash Mobs became popular, which was dealing with similar themes in a far more sophisticated way. In 2001 Tim Etchells—in collaboration with the Huddersfield Media Centre in the UK—had developed a project called Surrender Control where anonymous SMS messages instructed participants to engage in bizarre behaviour. Participants were recruited into the project via a catchy marketing campaign using flyers in bars and magazine ads which asked, “Do you want to surrender control?” and listed a phone number. Those who responded with a text message stating “yes” were then inducted into the project and sent a series of SMS messages beginning with innocuous questions such as, “What did you do last night?” and escalating to demanding participation in physical actions like knocking things over, breaking things and touching two people at the same time. At the conclusion of a participant’s involvement they were given a message asking them to forget everything they had experienced.
In an online article discussing Surrender Control, BBC Go Digital’s Jon Wurtzel says that:
With this project, The Media Centre aims to disrupt the patterns and routines of urban behavior with the random and unexpected. If you are on a train, following the instruction to touch two people at the same time will have a different implication than if you're in a business meeting. Surrender Control provides an excuse to escape routine, to behave differently.
This struck me as being uncannily similar to Neurocam in terms of the project’s overall objectives. I thought about some of the unusual ways I had been behaving over the past few months—retrieving objects from safes and train station lockers, searching for missing items with a group of total strangers, stalking random members of the public and playing masked chess. These unusual activities had certainly provided an excuse to escape routine and behave differently, and receiving my instructions via email was not dissimilar to Etchells’ SMS delivery. Neurocam was indeed also disrupting patterns and routines of urban behaviour with the random and unexpected, but to what end? The Media Centre seemed to view this process as an end result in itself, much like Wasik’s Flash Mobs, but was Neurocam simply another clever one- liner? Surrender Control was probably the most similar type of project to Neurocam that I had come across so far, as Etchells had constructed an actual dialogue with his participants in which a kind of relationship of trust was formed. Wasik was simply ordering people to carry out single, unrelated acts, but Etchells was starting off with questions, gradually upping the anti and daring participants to go further and further away from their comfort zones. Surrender Control also had the additional impact of participants working individually rather than in the safety of a group situation. The completely anonymous nature of Etchells’ project was something that I had only ever seen with Neurocam.
So, was Neurocam just an elaborate media artsy project? Although it was entirely likely that an organisation like The Media Centre in the UK could be running Neurocam, part of me wanted to believe that there was infinitely more to it. Besides, after looking into the workings of media arts organisations, I really didn’t think that they would have the extensive funding available to run such large-scale international projects, especially with no source of generated revenue or even promotional opportunities. Once again I found myself facing the usual question—if Neurocam wasn’t a media arts project, then what was it? My mind wandered off into some of the more extreme possibilities such as a government conspiracy to gather information and control its citizens, or a bizarre psychology experiment funded by some excessively wealthy drug company. It seemed that almost anything was possible at this stage.
The following day at work I was nervous and distracted. I couldn’t stop thinking about my strange appointment that night and what it might entail. I had a strong feeling that something was about to happen which would significantly impact on my Neurocam involvement. To while away the dragging hours I surreptitiously browsed the Internet in my seemingly never-ending quest for answers. While looking further into the idea of audience participation within some of the new kinds of interactive projects I had been looking at, I came across an interesting interview with media arts curator Rudolf Frieling talking about a 2005 show at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art entitled The Art of Participation. The show was essentially a showcasing of participatory artworks from the 1950s until today featuring many famous artists from the art historical archives. Frieling, in an attempt to shed light on some of the more obscure works in the show, says that:
We know what it means to participate in politics or school, and sometimes know what it means to participate in a work of art if we get clear instructions. However there are some projects where it is unclear what exactly is asked of you, or you can only find out by actually doing something. The work requires your input and your act of contribution.
Participating in works where one can only find out about the nature of engagement by actually doing something was an idea that resonated strongly for me in light of recent events. Again I came back to the idea that Neurocam might be a project positioned more in the realms of contemporary art than the more general genre of media arts. While Frieling was talking about works such as Erwin Wurm’s One Minute Sculptures where participants have to interact with everyday objects to create impromptu sculptures with their bodies, the essence of this idea seemed to be a key to understanding my Neurocam experience.
Assuming that Neurocam was an interactive artwork, it was true that the terms of engagement were unclear in spite of receiving what seemed on the surface a clear set of instructions. It followed that the nature of my experience was to be determined by me actually completing the tasks I was set. And also, Neurocam, much like Wurm’s sculptures, required the input and contribution of participants to become a complete work. It now seemed obvious to me—Neurocam needed us operatives to exist. Considering this, I felt better about what I was about to do that evening. I was still however a little confused about the idea of a work that, unlike all other examples I had seen, did not seem to have a fixed point of conclusion or resolution. When was Neurocam complete?
Freiling went on to discuss the idea of “open works of art” which went some way towards answering my questions about the open-ended nature of Neurocam. He states that:
The idea of “the open work of art” goes back to a 1962 book by Umberto Eco, in which he reflects on developments within contemporary art and music where the results of the artwork were not predefined, but rather could change over time, or change by interpretation. He said, in the whole history of art, the act of looking is a kind of interpretation; it’s always different and each one of us sees art in a different way.
Saying that each of us sees (or interprets) art in different ways was somewhat obvious, but the idea of a work with no predefined outcomes that could change over time was very interesting. Did Neurocam really not have a fixed point of conclusion? Events thus far suggested that our Neurocam experiences had been meticulously scripted by Neurocam’s puppet masters, although there was obviously considerable room for our interpretation within this process. In terms of my own interpretation of Neurocam as a possible artwork, my ideas had most definitely changed over time as I had encountered new things. So far I had been playing by Neurocam’s rules as they had strongly urged, with the threat of dismissal, but I wondered how things would have played out if I had not done so. Would they have simply thrown me out? Even if I had been dismissed from their organisation, that would have constituted an ending of sorts, a fixed point of conclusion to the experience of the work. This reminded me again of Strangers and Intimacy, and how each person who attended their live artwork would have gone home with a different story to tell.
It occurred to me that Neurocam may not have expected us to blindly play along with everything they asked of us; that they might be frantically scurrying around behind the scenes trying to come up with new material for us every week. I had no idea who was at the controls, how many of them there were, or what kind of resources they had at their disposal. I had always assumed that they had been working on a large scale and unlimited timeline, but I had no real evidence to base this on. The latest development within the narrative certainly suggested that things might be reaching their conclusion for a lot of participants. I hoped I wasn’t one of them and I hoped that the people behind Neurocam weren’t getting to the end of whatever it was they had been working on. I had become somehow emotionally invested in whatever it was they were creating and I didn’t want it to end.
On the whole I found the interview with Frieling rather thought provoking, but I had to remind myself that however radical some of the ideas he discussed were, he was still operating well within the institutional confines of an art museum:
In this exhibition, we’re interested in ways people can contribute to a work not only by looking—but also by interacting, participating in a group dynamic, or contributing to an artwork. We go, in other words, beyond the viewer.
I could understand what he was getting at with the idea of participatory group dynamics shaping the outcomes of a work, but I wasn’t quite sure what he meant by the (rather pretentious) statement about going “beyond the viewer”. Obviously an approach to experiencing art that involved hands-on participation took the audience beyond the usual (passive) relationship with an art object, but to what end? Were they temporarily losing themselves in the work? The ‘viewer’ still knew that they were in an art context and that they were expected to interact with the work in some way. Even the title of the show Frieling was talking about made this rather obvious. I considered many of the art exhibitions I had seen where the audience always assumed that interaction was not an option. The somewhat precious nature of art in galleries or art museums always made me resist my instincts to experience what a material felt like, or play around with the arrangement of exhibited objects. What if some of these artists had been open to an interactive experience with their work, but had simply not advertised the fact? With art projects like Maling’s Project George and Strangers and Intimacy, interaction was not so much a choice, rather something that the audience was forced to confront. The only way to not interact in these situations would have been to leave the premises, but I guess even that would have resulted in an experience of sorts.
One of the works in The Art of Participation that I found conceptually interesting was a piece called Automatic for the People, staged by New York artist duo MTAA. MTAA staged a performance that was entirely designed by the audience through a ballot process where people voted on each of 10 details making up the work—the location, props, duration etc. Frieling proposed that this work was significant within the theme of the show because it, “...deliberately blurs the roles of artist and audience, creator and viewer.“
This was a new take on interactive performance works in which the audience had (some) creative control over the outcomes of the actual work. Here, the work was still shaped by the audience, but they were also controlling the situation. What if I were to take this approach with Neurocam and start manipulating events myself? Was this even possible?
Automatic for the People reminded me of a work I had read about recently entitled Chris Barr is available on Thursday, where American media studies student Chris Barr launched a project during 2005 in which ideas for events, actions and situations were submitted by the public to be carried out by Barr himself every Thursday for two months. He then documented these events and posted them on the project website. Among the hundreds of tasks he carried out over this period, some examples were:
Visiting someone who lived in a nursing home who wanted someone to talk to.
Finding poems by female poets, photocopying them and posting them in male restrooms.
Taking a walk wearing two different shoes.
Composing a letter to the FBI, requesting his FBI file.
Although this was not framed as an art project, what struck me about Barr’s experiment was the way in which full creative license was given over to the general public, essentially allowing them to put him in any situation they chose. There appeared to be no obvious links between Barr’s assigned tasks, although they seemed to be vaguely associated with disrupting social norms. Unlike MTAA’s work where the audience were limited to a set number of options on which to vote, Barr’s work opened up the possibility of random members of the public giving him ‘assignments’, which would potentially challenge him in all kinds of ways. I found it fascinating to think that his audience could place him in situations that they themselves could conceive of but (presumably) never actually go through with.
It made me think of the assignments Neurocam was giving us and who was actually writing them. Barr’s work seemed somehow like the inverse of projects like Neurocam or Miranda July’s Learning to Love You More in that it involved assignments being created by the audience and given to the artist, rather than vice versa. Interestingly, the work was still just as dependent on audience participation and would not have survived without it. It brought to mind the fundamental question I was grappling with at present in relation to this type of art practice—who is ultimately responsible for the creation of the work, the artist(s) or the audience? Frieling seemed to be correct in his premise that these kinds of works were indeed blurring the roles between artist and audience, creator and viewer, creating a re-working of these distinctions.
After several hours of immersing myself in researching interactive art projects when I should have been working, I felt more confused than ever about what was happening in the art world these days, what could be considered art, and the ever-changing role of the audience. I set off home in need of a glass of wine and some mindless television viewing before my nefarious late-night rendezvous with the cam.
Later that evening I arrived at the dimly lit Darling Gardens wielding a takeaway coffee and made my way to the small rotunda in the centre of the area. As I grew closer I noticed a man. He was in his early-thirties and looked as if he was waiting for someone. I introduced myself and discovered that he was also a Neurocam operative waiting for something to happen. He seemed just as nervous as I was, and perhaps because of this, willing to talk about his Neurocam involvement. His operative name was “Tript” and he had been with Neurocam for about a year and had completed several assignments, the latest being the masked chess tournament at Prudence. We speculated about what the night may have had in store for us and assessed the potential risk we were taking. I told him about my theory that Neurocam was some new kind of narrative-based experimental art project and he seemed to disagree with this idea, saying that he thought Neurocam was most likely some kind of television initiative like an urban version of Survivor, and that we would most likely end up on some reality TV show. I asked him if this was what was motivating him and he said “No”, it was simply “...one hell of a ride and he wasn’t ready to get off yet”. We both agreed that an organisation with billboards in major cities around the world was not likely to represent anything harmful or untoward, but I sensed that during that moment in time neither of us were entirely convinced.
As if precisely on cue, our conversation was interrupted by the arrival of two cars outside the park. Six black-clad figures emerged wearing black kabuki masks and began making their way towards us. “Tript” and I looked at each other, he whispered urgently, “Should we run?” Rooted to the spot with indecision, we were soon surrounded by the black figures, who seemed to be wearing some kind of strange insignia on the foreheads of their masks. One of them, who may have been the leader, greeted us curtly and told us that we were going on a trip to a secret location and that we would have to agree to being blindfolded before undertaking this journey. He said that we could choose not to go, but if we did, our Neurocam involvement would be over and we would never hear from them again.
I could simply walk away and it would all be over, or I could take a massive leap of faith and let myself be swept up in whatever was about to happen. I felt as if my entire Neurocam experience had been leading up to this moment and it was impossible to walk away, in spite of being absolutely terrified. The ‘leader’ told us that we didn’t have all night and asked if we were coming. I made eye contact with “Tript” and he nodded and I nodded back. The cliché ‘safety in numbers’ echoed somewhere in the recesses of my consciousness. The masked figures produced two large paper shopping bags and placed them roughly over our heads, blocking out the night. As we were led to the waiting vehicles, I kept thinking of “Ivan’s Dogs” while I clutched my still scalding hot coffee.
Inside whatever car I was led into, strange music started up on the stereo as the driver turned on the ignition. It was some kind of meditation mantra mixed with techno beats. It was hypnotic. None of the other people in the car said a word as we sped through the streets to our mysterious destination. I found it quite surreal that I was essentially being abducted in the middle of the night by a bunch of scary people in black masks and was at this moment being driven around with a bag over my head. I wondered why other motorists weren’t calling the police and how they could get away with this sort of thing.
After what seemed like about half an hour of driving we pulled over and I was led out of the car and put into another car. The new car was a bigger vehicle, a 4WD diesel or something, and they had some kind of industrial soundscape playing on the stereo that produced the visceral equivalent of fingers raking down a blackboard. The roads we were travelling on seemed to become rougher and I spilled hot coffee onto my lap, which, had I not been distracted by the unfolding of my own abduction, would have probably been quite painful. After about another half hour of numerous twists and turns the car finally pulled over and I was led, still clutching my takeaway coffee, into the night.
I had absolutely no idea where we might be, but noticed that it was very quiet. No traffic or pedestrians. I was then led up some steps, through a door into what seemed like a very large and musty-smelling space, and up two flights of stairs. Progress up the stairs was extremely slow and I managed to spill even more of my now cold coffee all over myself. I could hear “Tript” fumbling his way up each step ahead of me. Eventually our guides became frustrated with our laborious progress and began to guide each foot to the next step for us. This sped things up considerably and we soon reached the top of the stairs and were led through a series of echoing corridors into what sounded like a large cavernous space. Eerie music could be heard from an adjoining room as we were made to stand facing what seemed to be a bright light. A deep muffled voice in front of us instructed us to remove our bags.
Blinking to adjust to the light I could make out a desk in front of us with a very bright desk lamp shining directly into our eyes. A tall heavy-set figure emerged from behind the light and stood, silhouetted, in front of us. He appeared to be wearing a stocking over his head with bandages from nose to chin and a small slit cut where his mouth would be. Protruding from this slit was a lit cigarette, the effect of which was more than a little sinister. In his peculiar deep muffled voice with a slight English accent he greeted us and introduced himself as Charles Hastings, Director of Operations. At this point I almost dropped my coffee, as after all this time Hastings had become a kind of legend, and to see him in person was really quite overwhelming.
Hastings apologised for the unorthodox means by which we had been brought to him and told us that it was a necessary precaution. He then congratulated us on both being selected for promotion and pointed out that we must now undergo some formalities in order to be officially inducted into our new roles. The first of these formalities was to be a short message via live web link from Neurocam’s Director, Ms Bridget Fischer. My heart leapt in my chest, after all these months of mystery, things were happening so fast. Some of the masked figures opened a sleek-looking laptop on the desk and Hastings motioned for us to come closer so we could clearly see the screen. The desk light was then switched off so all we could see was a Neurocam logo filling the screen. The logo dissolved into a video window in which an Afro-American woman in her mid-forties wearing a dark grey suit and white kabuki mask was regarding us. Her mask bore the same strange insignia, a bit like a squid, that the others all had. She appeared to be sitting at a desk in a high-rise office with a spectacular night view of some extremely large city behind her.
Ms Fischer greeted us in a thick Midwestern American accent and also congratulated us on being promoted, something she mentioned happened to less than one percent of all entry-level operatives around the world. She then gave a brief speech about the need for total commitment to the project as well as complete confidentiality. She said that before we could officially begin our work as ‘inducted operatives’, we would have to sign an official contract.
The lights flicked back on and Hastings’ team produced hefty contracts and pens for us and we were told that we had to initial each page and sign on the last page. The contents of the contracts were steeped in dense corporate jargon almost impossible to decipher. I was so taken aback by the situation that I found it very difficult to read the very small print on the sixty or so pages. I dutifully initialled each page and signed on the dotted line, as did “Tript”. All the while Ms Fischer was watching us from her high-rise office via the Internet. When we had finished and Hastings had collected our contracts, Ms Fischer congratulated us again and told us that she looked forward to working with us. She signed off and the screen blinked back to the Neurocam logo.
Hastings then gave us a convoluted speech about the important work that was being undertaken by Neurocam and how it was only possible with people like us on board. I had no idea what he was talking about and was more confused than ever. After his speech he produced two neatly wrapped packages the size of a shoebox from the desk and told us that we were not to open them until we were in total privacy. He said that the contents of the packages were of the utmost importance and would show us the way to proceed. At this point he asked us if we had any questions and, completely intimidated, we both shook our heads dumbly and muttered “No”. Hastings then bid us “Farewell and Godspeed!” then strode briskly out of the room.
Our bags were placed back on our heads and we were led out of the building, ushered back into the cars and driven back to where we had been picked up what seemed like a lifetime ago. Our Neurocam escorts instructed that we not remove the bags until at least a minute after they had departed, which I suspected was to make sure we didn’t see their licence plates.
Once they had gone, “Tript” and I removed the bags and stared at each other in amazement. “Tript” was first to speak and said that that had undoubtedly been one of the most fucked up nights of his life. I had to agree. I noticed that by now almost all of my coffee was on my trousers and not in its cup and wondered why I been holding it all this time. We had a long conversation about what the night’s events had meant and both decided that we were just as clueless as before and had no idea of what we had just signed up for. We were both clearly impressed by the idea that Ms Fischer, the leader, was right now sitting in some penthouse office in LA or somewhere getting on with her Neurocam business. If Neurocam was some kind of elaborate interactive art project, the scale and art direction of it had just exceeded my wildest expectations. The game had been taken to yet another level and in spite of having just been through a weird and scary encounter, I was still willing to be a player.
When I got home that night in the early hours of the morning I unwrapped the parcel Hastings had given me. It contained a CD with a Neurocam logo on it, a brand new iPhone which was switched on and ready to go, and a very expensive looking black Japanese kabuki mask with a red insignia of a squid placed on the forehead between the eyes. Surrounding the stylised squid design was text, which spelled “Nautonier”. I knew that this was French for ‘navigator’, but I had no idea what it had to do with Neurocam. As for the mobile phone, I could only assume that Neurocam would no longer be using email to contact me.
The next day I called in sick at work, as I was still slightly traumatised from the bizarre developments of the previous evening. With time to reflect on what had happened I began to realise that Neurocam still wasn’t quite fitting the mould of anything remotely similar to what I had uncovered in my research. Sure, it had similarities to “Ivan’s Dogs”, “Project George”, “Strangers and Intimacy”, “Snowdancing”, “Learning to Love You More”, “The Vorticist”, “Surrender Control”, “I Like Frank”, “Flash Mobs” and the bizarre kidnapping business in New York—but it just wasn’t the same as any of them. It clearly didn’t label itself as any kind of art project, couldn’t be played as an ARG and had no transparency whatsoever in terms of who was running the show and for what reason.
Assuming that Neurocam was something to do with an art project involving a highly organised team of actors, props and locations, there had to be some kind of precedent out there that would shed some light of why someone would go to so much trouble and for what reason. I decided to breach my confidentiality agreement and seek some outside help. I had to discuss this with an expert in the field, NZ artist Jason Maling aka “The Vorticist”.
Fortunately I was able to see Maling that very afternoon and spent over an hour telling him about my bizarre adventures with Neurocam and my attempts to figure out what it was all about. He listened intently and asked me several questions. We discussed Neurocam for several hours and he seemed to think that it was possibly some kind of art/theatre hybrid project that was seeking to engage an audience outside of the constraints and labels of the art world. He mentioned another project by the UK performance artists collective Blast Theory called Kidnap. During 1998 Blast Theory had launched a lottery in which the winners had the chance to be kidnapped. Ten finalists around England and Wales were chosen at random and put under surveillance. Two winners were then snatched in broad daylight and taken to a secret location where they were held for 48 hours. The whole process was broadcast live onto the Internet. Online visitors were able to control the video camera inside the ‘cell’ and communicate live with the kidnappers.
Maling suggested that if Blast Theory were kidnapping people in the name of art back in 1998, it was not so unusual that I had been abducted the previous evening. He pointed out that I had willingly signed up for my experience as had Blast Theory’s participants. When I mentioned that I hadn’t known exactly what would happen to me, he said that Blast Theory’s participants hadn’t either; their abductions had taken place at times and locations that had taken them completely by surprise. They had however, signed up for a ‘kidnapping’, so they at least knew that was something that might happen to them.
Maling confessed that he was confused about Neurocam’s total lack of media presence as they were obviously a large and well-funded organisation that must have had a history of similar work. He suggested that although the word ‘Neurocam’ turned up nothing on the Internet, perhaps this was simply the label of the latest project from a group who could be operating under another name. I thought of the name Nautonier on the insignia of my new mask and made a mental note to google it. Conversation then turned to the possibilities of art projects not labeled as art and how the audience would only have a ‘pure’ experience if they thought that the situation was ‘real’. He seemed genuinely excited by this idea and said that just because it may not have been done before did not mean that Neurocam weren’t the pioneers in the field. As we parted he told me to also check out a work by Italian artists Bosetti and Cuocolo called Private Eye as well as attending a performance project that was happening in Melbourne at present called Collapse. He wished me luck in my Neurocam journeys and told me to keep him posted. As I was walking out the door he called out to me that if Neurocam wasn’t an art project involving elements of theatre, then there was one other possibility that didn’t bear thinking about—it was real.
On the way home Malings’ parting words plagued me. What if it was real? What if Charles Hastings really was Charles Hastings and Bridget Fischer really was the Chief Executive Officer of Neurocam International sitting in her high-rise office in the US? The thought blew my mind. I remembered the CD that they had given me and how, frustratingly, the CD drive on my computer wasn’t working at the moment. Perhaps the contents of the CD were the key.
At home I looked up the kidnap project and found an interesting article in The Independent where Blast Theory’s Director Matt Adams was quoted as saying:
They (the participants) also love the idea of entering the unknown - that's so rare in our lives. Everyone who's registered will now look at life through slightly different eyes.
This very much reminded me of how Neurocam had created a similar shift in my own perceptions, especially now that I had absolutely no idea what to expect. In another article in the Sunday Times, journalist James Armstrong had undergone his own art kidnapping experience with Blast Theory and reported that:
My view of the performance was clouded by the terror, frustration, boredom and fury that dominated my 24 hours in captivity. Then again, maybe that was the point of it all. Certainly, no other performance I have ever seen has brought about such intense extremes of emotion.
This certainly resonated with my experiences the previous evening; I really hadn’t ever felt such a range of strong emotions as a response to any form of art or entertainment before. Come to think of it, I probably hadn’t experienced such strong feelings in my entire life generally.
I had a look at the work Private Eye as Maling had mentioned and could see why he had suggested it. At the Melbourne International Arts Festival during 2005 Italian artists Renato Cuocolo and Roberta Bosetti had set up an elaborate performance piece beginning with Cuocolo hiring a private investigator to secretly tail his wife Bosetti. The work then played out over three acts, to consecutive audiences of one. In the first act Cuocolo invites the spectator into the lobby of the Grand Hyatt to view the videos and photographs of Bosetti created by the private investigator. In the second act the spectator is invited into a hotel room occupied only by Bosetti, whose seductive performance is calculatingly designed to elicit a secret from the spectator. Once this confession has been extracted a knock comes at the door and Bosetti ushers the spectator to a hiding place behind a false wall, where concealed peep holes allow the spectator to witness the same scene played out with the next member of the audience. On a promotional website for the project, Cuocolo and Bosetti write that:
It is as if the real and the imaginary were running after each other, as if each were reflected in each other, around a point of indiscernibility. Indiscernibility implies that we no longer know what is real or imaginary, not because they are confused, but because we do not have to know and there is no longer even a place from which to ask.
This was a fantastic example of how the dynamics of theatre, when placed in an art context, could fabricate a construct of reality for individual participants. I imagined what it must have been like being directly engaged by Bosetti to share an intimate moment, only to realise that another person had been secretly watching. There was something I found slightly perverse about this idea, as participants were deliberately manipulated by trained actors/performers into tacitly becoming part of an actual scene, which was witnessed by another audience. But wasn’t I being manipulated in the same way? In this case the audience was also an integral part of the creation of the work, but like with Neurocam, the situation was not interactive in the sense that participants could directly control the outcomes of the situation. I felt that this brought to mind an important distinction to be made between interactive works where the audience shaped the work, and interactive works where the work shaped the perceptions of the audience. I liked Cuocolo and Bosetti’s comment about not being able to distinguish between what is real or imaginary because there is no context from which to even make an assessment. I thought that this could be the ultimate aim of such works—to create a reality in which traditional notions of fact or fiction are reversed. I guess this could be seen as an alternate reality of sorts, something I had come across in the game world, but was now seeing in the art world. Certainly it was an idea that overturned traditional notions of art.
The hotel room scene with Bosetti made me think about the previous evening’s encounter with Hastings and crew. Had the entire scene been acted out entirely for the benefit of operative “Tript” and myself, or were there other layers involved? It was quite possible that other participants could have been present or that the entire thing was being filmed and broadcast on the Internet or some kind of live-feed TV to another audience. I hoped this was not the case, as this would have made me feel truly exploited. I also wondered at the extent to which we had been manipulated into accepting the reality they had presented us with. What if we had disobeyed instructions and removed our blindfolds or tried to pull off Hastings’ mask? What if we had asked him directly what Neurocam was all about? Had they known that we would be so utterly submissive?
The rest of the week passed uneventfully and my Neurocam phone did not ring. It was incredibly surreal to have a brand new iPhone that was fully paid up by parties unknown for reasons that were entirely unclear. I had looked in the phone’s directory and it contained no contacts and had not made any calls. I carried it with me at all times along with my usual phone in the hope that something would happen.
That weekend I attended the performance event Collapse that Maling had told me about. An artist’s collective called Red Cabbage who consisted of several artists, performers, actors and musicians had created Collapse. As instructed I made my way to a small jetty underneath the Westgate Bridge where 10 or so other punters were milling about. We were met by a large pleasure boat, invited on board and given glasses of champagne by young men and women wearing white plastic overalls. The boat took us out to sea where the skipper killed the engine and let us drift for some time. A strange noise like a foghorn issued from the bowels of the craft while we were drifting. The engine started and we changed direction and headed for what looked like an abandoned industrial area along from the Williamstown Marina. As we put in I noticed a number of people dressed in filthy rags who looked like concentration camp victims toiling away next to the wharf lugging large sacks full of something out of the ocean and up the beach. Over the next hour we were subtly led by more of these concentration camp-like people, all wearing different colored rags, through a series of massive warehouses and old factories which were all inhabited by people going about their business and seemingly oblivious to us guests. The inhabitants of this post-apocalyptic state seemed to have their own complex culture and hierarchy, which was discernable through their behavior with some of them ordering others about and pushing and shoving them, while others would command respect in a more detached way. The scene was impressively set up in terms of art direction with lighting, props and music all integrating seamlessly with what looked like a long since abandoned factory.
On the way home from the performance I thought about how similar to a play it had been. The only real difference was that the audience moved through the space from scene to scene which all unfolded in real time. At one point I had attempted to stray from the rest of the audience members and explore another part of the ‘set’ and been briskly grabbed by the arm by one of the ‘guides’ and shoved back to where I should have been. I thought that Red Cabbage had been very successful in constructing a seamless reality in which the audience were able to experience being ‘cultural tourists’ in a situation where the rules, rituals and behavior was altogether foreign. I did find myself disappointed by the lack of interaction however—I had wanted something to happen, something that would have impacted more actively on the audience. While it was interesting to play the voyeur for a while, I felt that Red Cabbage could have upped the stakes and made us a more integral part of the reality we were (passively) witnessing. Even something as simple as being enlisted to help lug heavy sacks out of the ocean would have been interesting. As I was now discovering, art no longer had to be a passive proposition; lattes could be spilled and people could get their feet wet. As far as I could tell these kinds of experiences could have two parts to them—art direction/choreography and acting/direct interaction with the audience. Traditional theatre used mostly a passive combination of art direction, choreography and acting, whereas twentieth century Avant-Garde Theater sought to create a more active relationship with the audience, but still within the confines of the theatre environment. Newly emerging art projects were adding the additional element of actors/performers directly engaging with an audience during events or situations, which were clearly not intended as theatre. Neurocam was going one step further and doing all of this without warning the audience in any way what they were getting themselves into, how long it would last, or how pervasive it would be.
That night I pulled apart my computer and installed the new CD drive I had purchased. I felt a rush of excitement as I inserted the glossy disc Neurocam had given me. It was an auto-run application that filled my entire screen. I watched the slick presentation with utter amazement. Neurocam wanted me to assist them processing applications from people wanting to join the organisation and recruit those who were deemed suitable. They also wanted me to set what they called ‘entry-level’ assignments for these people. The assignments were the exact same ones that I had completed over the last year. It quickly dawned on me that most of my Neurocam experience so far may well have been dictated by some other operative somewhere who had received this very same promotion a year ago. While I liked the sense of empowerment that went with helping Neurocam perpetuate their project by setting up experiences for other people, I was disappointed that they had cleverly set up the situation so I was still no closer to finding out who they were and what they were doing.