Neurocam and the theatre of re-enchantment (Part 3)

So deeply did some of the Jejune Institute’s participants descend down the rabbit hole that the project’s creators had to organise a mass debrief and closing ritual to gently return them to the real world. By the time it had wound up, nearly ten thousand people had signed up with the Institute but nobody knew what it actually was. Was it a) alternate reality game, b) strange cult or c) bizarre participatory art project? It’s the subject of the Spencer McCall’s somewhat histrionic 2013 documentary The Institute, which ends up drinking the Kool Aid and leaving the audience no wiser by its end.


Jejune Institute debrief

Had the Jejune Institute not been created in the city that had also given birth to the Cacophony Society, Discordianism and Emperor Norton, I’d consider it a direct rip-off of Neurocam: An opaque organisation with no clear motive or purpose, muddied with mis- and disinformation, that sends its participants on crazy missions for no obvious rhyme or reason. Sounds awfully familiar.

It’s probably not helpful to compare, but I see Jejune as an example of what Neurocam could have been. Unlike Neurocam, the Jejune Institute had greater resources, narrative structure and went on for much longer, although it’s much easier to undertake massive art projects (the answer was c, by the way) in the US than Australia where the scale of everything, including arts funding, is so much greater. And it’s that scale which excites me. Think about it: that ten thousand people signed up for an organisation they had no clear idea about with the sole desire to have their realities fucked with points to a genuine human need. Similarly, by signing up for Neurocam we were aiming for a state of art-induced psychosis, where the barriers between reality and performance become permeable. Neurocam gave us that in part. The Jejune Institute’s participants received it in spades.

I’m a gamer from way back and using language and imagination to enchant my reality has been deeply imprinted. ARGs never really did it for me; mostly they seemed to be elaborate efforts in product placement and fuck anything that the dead hand of neoliberal corporatism touches. Also, most ARGs are centred on problem solving rather than character and interaction, which is fun to a point but not particularly fulfilling. I’ve always found LARPing to be immensely enjoyable although I think that’s more from the catharsis that comes from bashing things with giant foam swords than any inherent fantasy. The problem I find with all three is that they approach a sort of uncanny valley that strives for verisimilitude but always comes up short.

This is why Neurocam and the Jejune Institute are so powerful. Through participation you surrender control of your reality and enter a liminal zone where interpretation of reality is multivalent and there is no internal leap of imagination required, because any fucking thing could be possible. These are play and the imagination’s Temporary Autonomous Zones, the places we run to when tabletop roleplaying no longer cuts the mustard. Possibility abounds. An immersive game world is created around you, which is beguiling and almost impossible to extract yourself from without debrief.

A similar device is used in David Fincher’s 1997 movie The Game, where Michael Douglas slowly has his entire reality undermined to the point of madness and thus wakes himself up from the torpor that his life had become. Because that’s what we ultimately want from these immersive experiences: to be shaken awake from our slumber and to know magic and possibility. And the only way to get it is to be driven towards madness.

At the end of it all though, we are just participants relying on external forces to re-enchant our world. Even Jeff Hull, the creator of the Jejune Institute talks about wanting to “give participants experiences” with just enough leeway for independent thought. That is, they are guided throughout with bare autonomy. I find this troubling. There must be a line between subverting our reality as our own agents rather than as actors in another’s charade, which harks back to the issue of immediacy I discussed in the previous post. How do we create our own re-enchantment that is not reliant on the imaginations of others?

A Little Nonsense Now and Then is Relished by the Wisest Men

<em>Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures</em>

Willy Wonka had it right. So too did the Symbolists who played games to distort their reality, the derivé being a case in point. Ten years ago in Kathmandu I swallowed a choice block of hash and took myself on a derivé through its narrow and twisted thoroughfares, exploring the many old temples and shrines that litter the city, dodging cows, cars and monkeys and wandering with no direction or intent, guided only by the random flash of sign or symbol or sudden feeling of instinct. For six hours, I felt as if I was living in a vast magical ritual full of purport and occult meaning and saw a Kathmandu that exists on the other side of the liminal veil.

This kind of self-derived re-enchantment comes from a derangement of the senses however it is done (with chemicals, ritual, dance, movement, voice, games or whatever the imagination can produce). In fact, the imagination is the only limit on how you can achieve such derangement. Aleister Crowley suggested pretending you’re a puppet whose every move is controlled by ‘Ajna’. Antero Alli recommends going out for a walk and only seeing the spaces between things. The aim is to walk towards madness without actually going mad (I use the term mad to mean a complete derangement of rationality and the senses rather than as a perjorative) and therein lies the art and also the danger. You may not come back but unless you want to spend the rest of your days as an empty husk on the couch glued to your reality TV shows, you have no choice. You must take that leap!

Games and art have their place. Neurocam enlivened my world by expanding what was possibly in my reality and through it I met some great (and not-so-great) people and had a fun time. But I was motivated by a desire for re-enchantment, to have my world fucked with, and rather than do it myself I handed that responsibility over to strangers. And if the Jejune Institute attracted nearly ten thousand people this suggests that I am not alone and that there is a general discontent with the state of our individual realities. Sometimes it’s necessary to hand over the keys of our derangement to others. And while this is something which Neurocam, the Jejune Institute or anything external can provide, every time we go through an initiation or rite of passage we give away our mental and physical integrity to others. I may touch on this in future posts. Ultimately, however we are responsible for the re-enchantment of our own worlds.

So go forth, walk towards madness but never find it. Let imagination be your guide.



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.


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…