Neurocam and the theatre of re-enchantment (Part 2)

For me, the question of what Neurocam actually was is the least interesting one. In fact, it was exactly this question that precipitated Neurocam’s demise. Far more interesting are the questions of what Neurocam created, what it could have been and why it failed.

The prosaic explanation is that Neurocam was an interactive art experiment by Melbourne Artist Robin Hely, whose oeuvre is centred in the manipulation of his audience. Hely describes Neurocam as being:

…loosely based on the idea of unwitting audience participation as explored by John Fowles’ 1966 novel, The Magus, in which the main protagonist’s entire reality is gradually subverted by what is presumed to be an elaborate work of theatre, in which the relationship between director and audience is redefined and the world itself becomes the stage.

This key idea can be traced back to G.K. Chesterton’s 1905 novel Club of Queer Trades, in which an organization known as the Adventure and Romance Society set about perpetrating complex theatrical fabrications in order to give individuals a series of unexpected life-changing experiences.

Project Neurocam similarly attempts to mask its content, context and objectives in an attempt to construct spontaneous, evolving narratives where the participants are a key component of the work itself and the role of the artist is continually being redefined by the involvement of the audience.

Neurocam’s original website contained the following by a quote by the organisation’s ‘CEO’ Bridget Fisher:

Some of the most rewarding experiences we have come about through random circumstances of which we have no real understanding. It is sometimes important to commit to something we know very little about if the act of commitment in itself becomes part of an experience.

Every person who signed up for Neurocam did so because they wanted to have their reality fucked with on some level. Underneath there was a desire for re-enchantment, to have the carpet pulled out from them as they are exposed to something beyond their ken. There was a yearning desire to participate in a greater mystery than that offered by mundane reality. Why else would someone sign up to strange and shadowy organisation and allow themself to be sent on weird assignments for no obvious purpose?

And in that respect Neurocam worked. It asked its participants to accept that answers were out of their control. Relax, have fun and accept whatever comes up.

Not knowing also subtly forces to question our own reality; every situation becomes multivalent with interpretation, which is why some random guy crossing the street to ask me the time can be perceived as a test by the agents of Neurocam. This constitutes re-enchantment of the world, pure and simple. Re-enchantment recognises the subjectivity of our own experience and that there are potentially hundreds of explanations for even the most objective-seeming occurrences. Re-enchantment causes us to question the certainty of our reality.

I am reminded here of Thomas Pynchon’s magnificent The Crying of Lot 49, in which the protagonist Oedipa Maas is made executor of her ex-lover’s estate and becomes embroiled in a vast, far-reaching conspiracy that progressively engulfs her reality with each new revelation. I believe that Neurocam and The Crying of Lot 49 describe a system obverse to that of progressive initiation.

In most initiatory mystery systems, the candidate becomes increasingly intimate with a central mystery as he or she progresses through that system. From a rank outsider who knows nothing, each initiation reveals a different aspect and deeper levels of that mystery, so that by the time of the final initiation they will have enough knowledge to comprehend the central mystery in its entirety. The simplest analogy is that a piece of the jigsaw is added with each initiation, but each added piece is chosen specifically to shed light on what has come before and hint at what awaits in further revelations.

However, for Oedipa Maas and the participants in Neurocam, every time a new mystery is revealed it only complicates the picture. There is no objective truth to be grasped at the end of it all, just further confusion and paranoia. At the end of The Crying of Lot 49 Maas waits for the big reveal, the “crying of Lot 49” in auctioneer parlance, which will either explain everything or, more likely, send her into utter madness as the conspiracy she has unearthed breaches the ability of her mind to contain an understanding of it.

Conspiracy theories are appealing and addictive because they are the mind’s ways of systematising the ineffable connections between disparate events. They bring order to the chaos, because to abandon oneself to chaos is supposedly to head towards madness. But what if the truth was that to bring order to chaos is madness. What if accepting the inevitable chaos of the world we live in is the truly sane response. This is what Neurocam asked of its participants as we went down the rabbit hole and embraced what would socially be considered madness. As HP Lovecraft infamously said:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.

However, as humans we can only tolerate so much uncertainty. The nature of the human mind is that it needs to contain and understand its experiences, like Oedipa Maas trying to make sense of the complicated conspiracy of Trystero and Thurn und Taxis. And whilst Neurocam may have engaged its participants in a mystery, those participants couldn’t help but dedicate themselves to solving that mystery.

Neurocam’s greatest success was creating an entire community and subculture devoted to working out what Neurocam was. This was an inadvertent consequence that seemed to take even Hely by surprise:

Once the Neurocam community noticed Henstock’s blog (which turned up on a basic Google search of “Neurocam”), hundreds of operatives followed suit and started their own Neurocam blogs. Within weeks an online search on Neurocam revealed several pages all linking to various first-hand accounts from Neurocam participants detailing their latest experiences. This rapidly evolved into a series of online forums dedicated to collectively solving the Neurocam mystery.

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The formation of Neurocam’s online communities also had a lot of benefits beyond providing a means to engage with a broader audience. As the project was initially set up with a view to providing experiences exclusively for individuals, the rise of the online communities added another layer to the work. It allowed participants to work together with a collective goal – to collaboratively construct their own idea of what Neurocam was. This created endless speculation and theories about who or what was behind the project, which then become an integral part of the work. Neurocam, it seemed, was whatever its participants projected onto it.

I suspect that this is the point where Hely lost control of his project and Neurocam began to jump the shark. When the focus of Neurocam turned from blind participation to solving a mystery it became a piece of theatre. I also think because Hely didn’t foresee this occurring, he lacked the narrative drive to sustain it. It was only a matter of time before Neurocam collapsed under the weight of its own mythology.

In his essay Immediatism, Hakim Bey defines art and experience as existing on different grades of mediation. Watching a movie, for example, is a purely mediated experience. The audience sits on one side and is but a witness to the projections played out before them. A less mediated form of art would be role-playing games, where the participants are characters in the action, but are nonetheless still being led through a pre-configured scenario. A completely unmediated form of art would be a game of exquisite cadaver or a potluck dinner, where every participant is a co-creator of an event where the outcome is yet to be determined.

In the form of a mystery school, Neurocam existed as an immediate participatory art project. When the scene moved from participation to speculation then it morphed into mediated theatre and so the magic was lost. Neurocam became empty speculation not participatory mindfuck, destroying the sole reason for its own existence.

I don’t think Hely expected Neurocam to grow as big or carry on for as long as it did. I also don’t think he anticipated that an entire community would spring up ready to solve a mystery that really wasn’t a mystery but an experience with no aim or end. At its peak it was a fantastic ride, but it could not be sustained, as the natural tendency of the participants was to try and unravel it. And so it collapsed.

To be concluded…

Neurocam and the theatre of re-enchantment (Part 1)

On December 2004 the Saturday Age ran a story on its front page that would have profound consequences for my life. The story (worth a read if only for the quaint use of the term web logger) was an investigation into a strange organisation by the name of Neurocam. Neurocam had announced itself to the world via a billboard on Alexandra Parade and a website. Its modus operandi appeared to be  sending masked operatives of clandestine missions for purposes unknown. Was it a cult, an art experiment or something even more sinister? No one seemed to know but whatever it was, to me it sounded awesome!

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The infamous billboard

Curious, not to mention a little apprehensive, I decided I would investigate Neurocam further and possibly even join. I stuffed the newspaper article in my top desk draw and promptly forgot about it. Two months later, while clearing out the black whole that is my top desk draw, I rediscovered the article, recalled my initial curiosity and subsequently got online and sent an email to Neurocam applying to join. Almost immediately I received an email:

Dear Applicant

Thank you for expressing interest in Neurocam.

Your application has been forwarded to a designated officer within the Human Resources Security Division so that our organization can further evaluate your suitability for recruitment.

In the interest of facilitating an expedient assessment, the Human Resources Security Division is currently implementing a series of background checks.

While waiting for a response I began researching what information I could discover in the public sphere regarding this enigma. What I found was an entire blogging community of Neurocam operatives, with codenames names like Tript, American Guy, Teigan, Lady J and Xade. And so my journey down the rabbit hole began.

The day after sending the email I was walking down my street, on my way home from work. At the time I lived on one of the busiest arterials leading out of Melbourne’s CBD. Out of the corner my eye I saw a guy making a beeline for me from across the road, weaving his way through six lanes of afternoon peak hour traffic directly towards me. He was a big guy, unshaven, sweaty and somewhat dishevelled and he looked at me with what I thought was recognition.

‘Excuse me?’ he said, stepping right into my path. ‘Do you have the time?’

‘Um, sure. Around four-thirty.’

‘Thanks,’ he puffed. With that he turned and crossed back across the road, through the traffic and back on his way.

I was nonplussed. Was this some kind of test and was this random stranger an agent of Neurocam? As part of the Application process I’d had to provide my address and personal details, so it wasn’t out of the question. Suddenly I found myself thrust into a world of countless possibility, infused with subtle paranoia and profound numinosity. Anyone could be an agent of Neurocam; what strange tests awaited me?

A few days later I was formally confirmed as an operative with the self-selected moniker of Rorschach. Although I’d been experiencing something of a prolonged identity crisis in my life at the time, in retrospect choosing a mentally unstable, neo-fascist vigilante as my codename may not have been the most inspired choice. Nor perhaps was joining a shadowy covert-ops organisation as a way of resolving that identity crisis. But live and learn…

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Uh wot?

My first mission was to find and photograph a portal (I’m looking at you, JK), which lead me scurrying through city alleyways not knowing the full purpose or reason for what I was doing. I had a sense of just making it up as I went along, half using vague instructions and the rest with my imagination. I found a lovely red door in Guildford Lane, which could lead to nowhere else but to mystery. I took a photo of it and reported back with a commendation that I had done well. At the same time I delved deeper into the blogging community, starting a blog of my own that is long defunct and making a few online connections along the way.

What had I gotten myself into? Within the blogging community there was endless speculation but no real consensus about Neurocam. A consistent figure in it all was the involvement of Melbourne artist Robin Hely and the most likely explanation was that Neurocam was some kind of interactive art project. But nobody was certain about anything. Adding to the confusion there were also those that delighted in the obfuscation, adding their own muck to the mix through misdirection and barefaced lying. As Melbourne artist, Jess Kilby wrote, regarding her experience of Neurocam: “Occasionally a veil would drop and some sort of truth would seem to be revealed, but behind one veil there always seemed to be another.” Veils and lies and mysteries abounded. Everything could be read in muiltiple ways and nothing was as it seemed.

Soon after Neurocam appeared to undergo some kind of behind the scenes coup and to all extents was finished. After my initial search for portals I received no more missions. The organisation’s halcyon period was in the month after the initial Age article, when it attracted hordes of thrill seekers and curious minds. The black hole in my top desk drawer meant that I was a little late to the party.

The coup played out and was disseminated through the mouthpieces of selected bloggers within the community. Instead of being part of a giant mystery us operatives were now witnesses to an opaque soap opera and whatever sense of possibility, meaning and numinosity vanished with it. That which had made Neurocam so interesting had gone. As a community we were left to our own devices and speculations but we were no longer engaged in any cohesive movement. It was interesting and it was fun but the community lacked the transporting power that Neurocam had for us. People began to drift away from boredom of lack of fulfilment.

This wasn’t the end of the story, however. I’d happened to mention my involvement in Neurocam to a work colleague and it transpired that not only was she familiar with Neurocam, she knew two operatives, the bloggers Johanna and Xade. From there I was to encounter more operatives in the meat world and some of these were to become close friends. And more. I did mention that Neurocam would have profound consequences for my life and several years later I would end up marrying one of those operatives, Lady J. We’re no longer married but still remain good friends. Whatever else Neurocam may or may not have been at the very least it created a community and that community would leave a lasting impression on my life. Despite its failings, which are many, there is that.

To be continued…