The Necronautical Society - INS in the Press

Untiled, no. 32, Summer 2004

'It is possible to think of the INS as a cultural narrative, a viral entity that exists due to a growing number of participants and collaborations with fellow artists and writers. Many people fail to see the point of the INS's weird research and read it as an ironic joke or a ridiculous mission of mapping death in the style of an expedition ... Without addressing allegations of necrophilia [the INS] considers death only as a space of representation, a realm to be explored and brought out by means of a set of practices such as drawings, maps, texts and speeches (craft as the INS calls it) ... As a tactical and philosophical hybrid between Futurist farce and agit-prop manipulation of the communications network, the INS functions as a complete artwork. The combination of ananchronistic artistic models like the manifesto ... the recuperation of discourses obsessed by control structures (governmental agencies, secret services, party committees) all represent a parody of a totalising project about knowledge, not death.' (Untitled)

Full text:

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb by Diana Baldon

As the stepdaughter of a world-wide sect of Pynchonphiles, I am certain of one thing: my encounter with the International Necronautical Society has necrotised my perception of art. I wish to clarify how I learned to stop worrying about the ‘necro’ side of things and started to love this fictional organisation, founded in London in 1999. Tom McCarthy, the movement’s founder and INS General Secretary, is, as a writer, a great devotee of the American novelists William S. Burroughs and Thomas Pynchon. It’s no surprise that the birth of the INS as an artistic project, currently disseminating like rumour in the art world, can be commented in the light of these two cryptic Masters of illusion. With Pynchon in particular, whose mysterious whereabouts - having ‘disappeared’ in 1963 – have called into question his very existence, theories abound: an interviewee thought of having seen him in drag in his store in the 60s, but couldn’t be sure; other say he might have turned up to their look-alike contest in a New York bar.

I like thinking of the INS as a cultural narrative, a viral entity that exists in virtue of a growing number of participants and collaborations with fellow artists and writers. Many people fail to see the point of the INS’ weird researches and read it as an ironic joke or the ridiculous mission to map death in the style of an Argonauts’ expedition, giving it no value from an artistic and literary point of view. McCarthy describes his society as the ‘…appropriation and re-purposing a variety of cultural 'moments', in particular the now-defunct structures and procedures of early 20th century avant-garde.’ Rejecting allegations of necrophilia, he considers death only as a space of representation, an alternative realm to be explored and brought out by means of a set of artistic practices such as drawings, maps, texts in the art of newspaper’s obituaries and reports, events in the form of pseudo-bureaucratic residencies, hearings and inspections. But, as a tactical and philosophical hybrid between Futurist farce and agit-prop manipulating the communications network, the INS is, in my opinion, one of the most refined and complete art projects I have come across in recent years.

The combination of anachronistic artistic models like the manifesto, the Surrealist and Futurist traditions, the nostalgic recuperation of literary genres obsessed by control structures - governmental agencies, secret services, military committees -, all these figures represent, for the INS, the parody of a totalising project of knowledge, not of death. Through the release, ironic, of a loud and bombastic manifesto, they intend to renew the cross-over between politics, art and literature that characterised the 20th century avant-garde: Should art be political? How can art be political? Their declarations are overloaded, yet a rhetorical pastiche constructing an irritating half-corporate half-Soviet-style fiction, in the urge to command and infiltrate the unknown space of death (and not that of the living dead or Death Metal).

Indeed scandal was in its heyday at the beginning of the 20th century, and it now comes back as a dead loop. The reframing of the disordered network of images in Filippo T. Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto (1909), together with the ‘revolutionary’ irrational imagination described by André Breton in his First Surrealist Manifesto (1924) are valued by INS as metaphors, rather than political statements. These in fact appear within highly staged settings that vaguely recall the New York Happening for their improvised genre of spectacle sitting between art exhibition and theatrical performance and, nonetheless, an outraged audience. I think there are some interesting parallels to be made here between how Susan Sontag has described this art form and the practice elected by the INS: both are, in her words, ‘animated collages’ or ‘trompes l’oeil brought to life’. Orbiting around the core concerns of territory, marking and erasure, the INS’ assessments, examinations, hearings and reports look back at the twentieth century avant-gardes not as art movements but as modes of sensibility cutting across all arts of the past century. Replaying their will to destroy conventional meanings to create counter-meanings, their appreciation for the derelict bits of modernity, atmospheres of entombment and - why not - insanity, the INS construct is the extension of such ideas: an elaborate set of allusions, repetitions and self-references that, if it does refer to something, that would be the experience of making art and literature itself.

A template frequently used by the INS in their last projects is an extract from the 1950s re-elaboration of the Orphean myth by poet, artist and filmmaker Jean Cocteau where Orpheus is feverishly listening to signals sent by mysterious radio announcements. Later the poet will be seduced by Death who, rather than a scary skeleton with a scythe, is a beautiful princess riding in a magnificent Rolls Royce escorted by motorcycle police and controlled by the Committee of the Underworld, which is a city ruined by an aerial bombardment. Like Cocteau, the INS intends to expose issues relating the production of art, inspiration, imagination and, in particular, frequency. This has resolved in the complex re-enactment of the cinematic passage which took place last April at the London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts under the heading Calling All Agents and involved numerous Transmission Agents, Dactylographic Assistants (as they were called) and other personnel recruited among writers, artists, producers and cultural critics. The passage embodies the INS’ plan to find an unknown ‘frequency of discourse’, acting on people's minds, between their fantasies and paranoias, and occupy it. Visually inspired by Ken Adam’s view of the Pentagon’s underground ‘War Room’ looking at model planes over the world, the reconstruction of an INS radio station didn’t read into Kubrick’s parody of Cold War but paid homage to Burroughs and Pynchon’s ideas of media going haywire. Calling All Agents was the set up of a broadcasting unit, namely ‘the crypt’, where freshly-recruited ‘INS agents’ were instructed to source information out of all available media — telephone, TV, radio, internet, press — to be cut, juxtaposed and broadcast it back together by the INS Communications and Encodings Subcommittee. Translating Pynchon’s belief that every medium is a drug taken from the communications stream, and his scenarios made of agents running around, hallucinating and praying for their daily chimera, the INS associates turned London’s complex surface into a ‘transmission site’ that resembled a WW2 French Résistance cell, or Burroughs’ control room of his Rewrite Department. The latter’s ‘cutup’ method — an extension of the collage and montage techniques employed since the avant-garde to interventions in other media — helped the group to find the buried codes, the ‘pockets of resistance to reality’ (Derrida) that ‘operate and dwell within a space which is already dead.’ Refining the understanding of the work of art as a process, the re-arrangement of scripts, prose, data and pop culture at large occurs behind signals and noises, full of lost messages and encrypted meaning. Whether in the role of participants, viewers, witnesses or Dactylographic Assistants, we are all INS agents because, in one way or another, we must search for the codes that navigate through culture or simply try to find out what the hell this organisation is about. The thing is, if we ask ourselves: Is this art or non-art? Information or dis-information?, we-cum-receivers can find a strange but true reality where the most unlikely facts pop up out.

Going back a year in time, this ambitious project was announced at Cubitt with the Second First Committee Hearings: Transmission, Death and Technology in November 2002. This preliminary convention cross-examined depositions by practitioners from the fields of sound, wireless communication and cryptography in view of laying ground for the INS radio transmission. Inspired again by the interrogation scene in Cocteau’s film, Laura Hopkins, the INS Environmental Engineer, conceived a ‘Hearings Chamber’ where the Delegation — consisting of, INS General Secretary McCarthy, INS Chief of Propaganda (Archiving and Epistemological Critique) Anthony Auerbach, and novelist BBC broadcaster Zinovy Zinik — sat behind a table on a raised podium facing the ‘witnesses’. These included, amongst others, artist Cerith Wyn Evans who, having employed Morse code light pulses in his practice, is an expert translator of Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok’s interpretation of the notion of encryption from Freud’s case study The Wolf Man, and cultural critic John Cussans for his interest in the technologisation of spiritualism throughout the twentieth century. The findings have been later published in the booklet Calling All Agents. General Secretary’s Report to the International Necronautical Society in which McCarthy has mapped the motif of the crypt in relation to the Freud-Abraham-Torok triangle via Hergé surreal masterpiece Tintin and the Cigars of the Pharaoh and Leo Marx’s lessons of coded poetry lines to British agents parachuting themselves into France during World War II.

The image of the crypt mentioned by Wyn Evans suggested the perfect INS model, which reminds me of ‘Collossus’, the device built in the UK during World War II to crack the enigmatic Nazi radio signals and bombing targets of the Luftwaffe: not yet interpreting but tuning in, listening, transmitting the hidden associations that appear in the background Rausch, that crackling domain between radio stations that is just as mystifying as revelatory as the rush of dope. This feeling undeniably echoed in Manu Luksch and Mukul Patel’s evidence of their experiment at Ventspils International Radio astronomy Centre, in the Latvian forest, where they picked up and re-transmitted phone conversations through the giant satellite dishes of the former Soviet spy base.

What truly amazes me is how the INS dares to mimic the formalism of a hierarchical, totalitarian structure that exploits authoritarian propaganda and hyper-bureaucratic language. Indeed their scheme is to replay the avant-gardes’ appropriation revolutionary organisational structures, from the conspiratory cell to the party committee, and re-enact Burroughs' paranoid theories of a universe made up of pre-recordings. But while speech is subordinated to a world of controlling files, activities and visual products are forced into black and white photographs and abstract diagrams, maps that seem inseparable from the attendant notion of imperialistic domination. The conceptualisation of space is confident: it determines existing and invented locations, pilot scripts, manoeuvres of things moved by the strategic convention of the arrow to show the orientation of trends that are secretly at work in the world. But the pursuit of the group, both humorous and serious, is not to realise but interrupt these signifiers, and keep conducting absurd researches that are, in the end, a distillation of that Symbolist paranoia described by the poet Gérard De Nerval who thought of bringing into sight the forces around us, later formalised by the Surrealists not without a certain dose of ‘black humour’. Breton and his fellows from the Bureau des Recherches Surréalistes believed their movement was ‘…a cry of the mind turning back on itself’. They defended the absence of all control by reason in the same way the paintings of Max Ernst, who invented compulsive ‘collage novels’, presented a strong resistance not only to the eye but also to the mind. Outside all aesthetic or moral preoccupations, he ‘pulled Beauty down on his knees, found her embittered and cursed her’ (Arthur Rimbaud) just like the INS’ enquiries present images which systematic displacement is packed with allusions to art, history, science, psychoanalysis that make apparent that the only way to understand them is through silence and repetition.

Isn’t this perhaps what we experience today? These artists’ comprehensive approach, their method of hunting down extra-literary, extra-ordinary, associations keep reminding us that life and art cannot be so easily confined to what is considered ‘real’ simply because it appear so. I am not talking about a post-Situationist détournement of signs, images, sounds or films that enjoy solid places in contemporary culture, but about what Heidegger, in The Way to Language, says: ‘…before it comes to be said, that is, spoken – the poet’s work is only a listening.’ We shall therefore accept that Necronautism, as any other creative venture, is ‘the annunciation, performance and repetition of a craft which does not work to be entered into eyes and mouths wide open so that they may be filled from the deep wells of the Unknown.’ (Tom McCarthy)