the riddle in the middle

In my journey from observing to creating there was a crucial intermediary phase: participating. Not in an ARG — they were, in the end, too fictional for my liking. They were also too mechanical: giant jigsaw puzzles made of pieces that the players earned by solving other puzzles. The ARG was a world of clicks rather than whispers; solutions rather than suggestions. And there was always a progression toward a finite end. The teaser clues that led players into newly launching ARGs came to be called rabbit holes, but I’ve always thought of them more as yellow brick roads.

One day though I stumbled down a rabbit hole into a world that seemed to be made entirely of whispers. My involvement with this world; with this project that wrapped itself in one veil after another, would ultimately span several years and several continents, and influenced me greatly in my quest to make a game that walked between two worlds.

There is no straightforward way to describe Neurocam. Outwardly it had all of the appearances of an ARG, and was frequently mistaken for one — even by some of its participants. But in reality it was everything an ARG was not (for better and for worse). Launched into the world via one simple, cryptic billboard looming over inner city Melbourne traffic, Neurocam steadfastly refused to identify itself as art, game, cult, marketing campaign, or any of the other things that observers speculated it might be. Essentially it was a shell; a mysterious entity that recruited “operatives” for odd assignments that never seemed to track toward any larger goal. There was no overarching fiction, no game world, no puzzle to be solved.

And yet a community accreted around this strange seed, and then stories, which gradually became a story — the story of what Neurocam actually was. Lived experience of the project melded with speculation about its meaning, until finally there was no distinction between the two. The operatives become Neurocam, and Neurocam became its operatives. Creator Robin Hely, who publicly denied any involvement with the project until years after its conclusion, acknowledges this intent: Neurocam was ‘an attempt to construct spontaneous, evolving narratives where the participants are a key component of the work itself’ (Hely 2013, p. 5).

Hely has referred to himself as a ‘reality artist’ (2013, p. 174), and his oeuvre reveals a consistent method for working with this medium: uncompromising ambiguity. Whether secretly recording his own atrocious behaviour on a blind date (Hely 2002) or earnestly presenting himself as a New Age healer (Hely 2010), the question always lingers: is this real? Neurocam amplified this methodology by withholding the contextualising frame of an artist presenting an artwork, which created a much deeper experience of uncertainty for those who were most actively involved. 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.

That is, until there wasn’t. Neurocam had started as a Melbourne-based operation, but unexpected publicity (Moncrief 2004, AnnaRat 2004) led to an explosion of interest internationally. Early operations in Melbourne were a study in relational aesthetics (Bourriaud 1998): participants were brought face to face (or mask to mask, as per the prevailing aesthetic of the project) — in a dimly lit bar, at a bustling train station, under a towering concrete overpass. To silently play chess; to exchange locked briefcases bearing unknown contents; to retrieve a hidden object. Overseas operatives, understandably, did not have the same experience. Initial assignments attempted to evoke the thrill and mystique of these real-world interactions: tail a random stranger for half an hour without being noticed; eavesdrop on a conversation and record the details as accurately as possible; plant a message in a library book. But eventually the assignments turned administrative: Neurocam’s primary mechanism for coping with its bloat of international participants was to “promote” them into management. Operatives were assigned the very aliases that they had previously encountered as Neurocam “executives” — the collection of personas that formed the super-structure of the project.

For a while participants accepted this enfolding, and assumed that it was yet another veil. The project persevered. But it also underwent a fundamental change, which in hindsight can be identified as a crucial point of failure. (Or at least, a point at which many of the early operatives began to lose interest and walk away.) Only now, a decade later, have I come to fully understand this change. Not just the what and the how, but the why.

Promoting operatives into management changed who we were talking to, both literally and symbolically. Neurocam had always traded on its ambiguity: by refusing to be one thing, it could be anything — or even nothing — and claim no culpability. For most of the time that the project was active, its associated website featured a long list of all the things that Neurocam was not. ‘Neurocam is not a pyramid marketing scam. Neurocam is not a cult religion. Neurocam is not a psychology experiment. Neurocam is not a terrorist training organisation’ (Moncrief 2004, para. 6). And yet amidst all of this equivocation, one certainty was offered: ‘Neurocam is an unveiling’ (ibid. para. 42).

An unveiling implies an unknown; an unknown implies an Other; an Other implies possibility. The possibility of acknowledgement, invitation, communication. A spark of electricity between poles. This was the frisson that fuelled Neurocam.

The administrative turn removed the second pole — there was no longer an unknown. No Other but ourselves, swimming warily around each other in disguise. Inevitably fictions began to rise, attempting to resurrect the missing pole. But the Other cannot be invented; this is what at long last I have come to understand. For something that is invented is inherently contrived, and therefore known.

Of course Neurocam was artifice from the beginning; a sly meta-fiction about the constructed nature of reality. But before its final veil was dropped to reveal a hall of mirrors, the artificial Otherness of Neurocam was still ambiguous enough to evoke a transformative uncertainty. By instigating situations that transgressed the bounds of everyday experience, the project allowed participants to experience an Other in themselves.

For my part I found that this expansion of awareness persisted beyond activities related specifically to Neurocam, altering not only my perceptions but my relationship to the prosaic world of daily life. The encounter with my own Other seemed to attune me more readily to the presence of other Others, making audible their whispers and inviting a reply. The effect of this expansion was extraordinary: for the first time, I could see beyond the fictions of my own life. Possibilities abounded.

This was the genesis of my creative practice, and I have continued how I began. I remain preoccupied with the traversal of the liminal. After several smaller projects that experimented with and in this intermediary space, The Parallaxis has been my quest to truly understand the mechanisms of its magic.

Perhaps perversely, I set out to do this with a game. T1

T1:The first draft of this section included a comparison between the unravelling of Neurocam and the enduring tendency of critics to search for meaning in the enigmatic works of Marcel Duchamp. At the time my understanding of Neurocam’s collapse was based not on the idea of an absented Other, but on the notion of a mystery that had been mistaken for a puzzle. This mistake went beyond the casual misreading of Neurocam as an ARG, to a much deeper need amongst participants for a template to both guide and justify our actions. In this sense it was not really a mistake, but rather an unconscious behaviour in response to intolerable uncertainty. We turned the unknown into a game, and thereby made it safe.

As the second draft came into focus, it seemed to supersede the first. I prepared to eliminate the passage on Duchamp. But on rereading it before discarding I found that it still resonated, not only with my Neurocam experience but with the themes that have manifested through The Parallaxis.

‘We drag Duchamp’s work out of the darkness of nonmeaning into the light of familiar ground,’ writes art historian Gavin Parkinson, ‘because in its magnetic strangeness it resembles nothing we have seen before, and that is disquieting’ (2011, p. 36).

Parkinson writes at length about the tendency of critics to approach Duchamp’s inscrutable oeuvre as a threat to the rational mind, treating it as a code to be cracked despite Duchamp’s own ‘endlessly quoted Wittgensteinian statement “There is no solution because there is no problem”‘ (ibid. p. 39).

He continues: ‘Duchamp’s assent to missing links of various kinds — vagueness, lack, irresolution; blind spots, absences, secrets — intrigues his readers versed in traditional and orthodox techniques of interpretation and explication; intrigues in the fullest sense of that word: intricating, entangling, trapping. Far from encouraging scholars to observe and comment on its disconnectedness, the heterogeneity and obscurity of his oeuvre act as a cue for rampant connectivity‘ (ibid.).

Parkinson argues that this drive toward connectivity misunderstands the nature of Duchamp’s ‘indeterminism, uncertainty, and undecidability’, which are not problems to be solved but rather ‘manifestations of his practice to be observed’ (ibid. p. 37).

‘In this light, secrecy is the purloined letter of his work, directing our attention not to what is supposedly behind, hidden, or secret, but to that which has disappeared because it is on show; not to what is purportedly concealed, but to the act of concealment; not to what the work means, but to what it does (how it suggests meanings)’ (ibid.).

While Neurocam participants varied in their approach to the experience, an urge toward “rampant connectivity” most certainly prevailed. Whether postulating theories about the true nature of the project, attempting to unearth clues in website metadata, or trying to decode secret messages that bore no message, we worked tirelessly to dispel the very shadows that gave us cover; made us Other. I don’t think we even realised that we were doing this.

And mea culpa: I was the worst. I never played an ARG, but oh how I played Neurocam. I played it like an investigative journalist, which appeared to be the only game that I knew how to play. Rational, deductive, constructive. More comfortable with the scaffolds of design than the free-fall of discovery.

Not what the work means, but what it does. The shadowy mechanics of its magic — which will do what shadows do, when thrust into the light.

If Neurocam showed me how I played, The Parallaxis would teach me how to play differently.