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.

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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.

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Religion and re-enchantment

One of the first steps in re-enchantment is to become religious. This is something of a controversial view, so I better define exactly what I mean.

When I refer to religion, I don’t mean belief in some gaseous invertebrate floating in space that will smite you if you don’t believe in Him. I’m also not referring to the practice of turning up at a steepled church every Sunday to mouth a few empty paeans to this same invertebrate, from fear that you might end up somewhere hot and reeking of brimstone for eternity when you die. That’s not religion, it’s just attempting to connect with something bigger than yourself so you don’t get swamped whenever you contemplate your own insignificance in the universe.  You don’t even need a church for that; that sense of belonging is obtainable from your football club, your political affiliation or through your subculture. My homeboy, Carl Jung, dubbed this participation mystique.

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It’s not God’s fault. He’s just been going through a lot lately.

At the other end of the spectrum, I’m also not talking about some anaemic new age Source of Light/Love/Unity that can’t be defined or pinned down but gives you a warm uplifting feeling like it’s lab-grade spiritual prozac.

I’m using the word in a very literal sense. The word itself, ‘religion’ comes from the same Latin root as ligature: ligare. Re-ligare: to bind again. Interestingly, the word religion is also cognate with the words rely and liable and is antonymous with negligent. Read into that what you will.

By religion, I mean a personal relationship with the world that is expressed through symbol. In practise, religion is a symbol system built through myth, prayer, ritual and archetype. In this definition, religion represents an individual’s relationship with their own universe. There cannot be one True Religion: in fact there are 7.5 billion true religions! I’m also not saying that there shouldn’t be Christianity, Islam, Hinduism or any other common belief system, but rather that your Christianity should look different from mine and from everybody else’s. It’s natural that there will be some overlap as we inhabit a world where we share common symbols and mythologies. However, my religion is pertinent to me and me only. As is yours.

Religion is:

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World-creation

Think about it: the universe is vast beyond comprehension. It makes no inherent sense to the rational mind because it cannot be apprehended rationally. I’m not saying that there isn’t an appearance of order; that is different to rationality. Rationality is a human construct and the universe we inhabit is beyond rationality. Therefore we need to apprehend it in an irrational way through symbols like myth, prayer and archetype, which are all manifestations of our irrational unconscious. Religion is a rational response to living in an irrational universe

To make sense of this senselessness, to survive without massive ego loss, one needs to create a symbol system that is personally relevant and meaningful. You could piggy back onto someone else’s, but as I’ve described above that’s not religion. The truly religious person is drawing upon their own experience, their own relationship with the world and their own understanding of it to construct something that is a unique and personal expression. It doesn’t have to be coherent or consistent, just so long as it makes sense and gives meaning to them. Religion empowers you to make your own meaning of the world and not be suckered into someone else’s.

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Poetic Terrorism

In an age of mass-produced culture, eschewing participation mystique and creating your own individual religion is an act of subversion. Participation mystique is a complete abdication of your responsibility to create your own meaning in the world. It’s much more convenient for those with control that you adhere to the religions you’ve been culturally conditioned to, rather than forge your own way. By using their symbol structures you open yourself more readily to control and manipulation.

With your own personal religion, institutional dogma and hierarchies cannot control your belief systems as easily as they can when they’re telling you what to believe and how. In an indiviualistic culture that emphasises shallow cultural role models as a means of dumbing down the population this is almost an imperative. Make your own religion, be your own god!

Finally, it’s poetic because religion is much an aesthetic position as it is a meaning-making one. Religion is ultimately a creative expression of your worldview.

Ecology

Binding yourself to the universe, becoming more attenuated to the world in which you live draws you into a closer relationship with it. Cause and effect become more clear, as does systemic awareness. Environmental awareness begins with knowledge of your place in the ecosystem and a religous practice turbocharges this. That is ecology.

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My religion

It’s taken me many years to get to this frame of thinking. I’ve been fascinated by religion since I was young, but grew up an atheist and deep down consider myself agnostic. I have conversed with a god but definitely don’t believe in “God” as a hoary dude or any other thing, although I find some of the gnostic belief systems quite appealing. I’ve long been taken with Grant Morrison’s take on our own divinity, which is essentially a form of gnosticism.

My personal religion is very much a work in progress: a hodgepodge of Thelema, animism, pop Buddhism & Hinduism, Jungian psychology and shamanistic practice. I love mythology, I pray, I’m a massive fan of Liber Resh as a daily practise, I like talking to inaminate things, I carry several of my ancestors as personal allies and I have several other ritual tricks in my kit bag.

Sometimes my religious system is completely contradictory based upon my mood or my desire to avoid falling into fundamentalism. One thing I like about Thelema is that it is left up to the individual to interpret it in anyway that he or she sees fit without recourse to the ideas of anyone else, which is kind of what I’ve argued here. However, I find that this instruction is occasionally undercut but the slavish adherence and adoration of Thelema that I’ve observed here and there. This is participation mystique again. It’s an easy trap to fall into; we all do it in countless ways and religions are funnels for this kind of belief system. However, it becomes more marked when it occurs in a system that is centred upon self-directed gnosis. But then again, who am I to criticise another’s free interpretation of a individualistic doctrine?

To wrap up, the point of this essay is that it isn’t what you believe or which entity you believe in or even how you go about doing it. It’s just that you believe in something, no matter how ridiculous, nonsensical or illogical. It’s that you have some kind of symbolic practise and framework that binds you to this world and that you take steps to maintain it.  Finally and most importantly, whatever you  believe please don’t force it upon anyone else. Religion is a private conversation between you and your universe. Enjoy it: it’s for you only!

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