We Are All Necronauts


This appeared in the summer 2009 issue of Flux magazine (issue 69, pp. 42-43):

We Are All Necronauts

For the past decade, the International Necronautical Society has been encouraging us to learn to die in new, imaginative ways

“Trying to beat death isn’t interesting — any dumb Christian thinks that’s possible.” Tom McCarthy, General Secretary of the International Necronautical Society (INS), firmly believes in the virtues of demanding the impossible: “What was interesting was launching an absurd, metaphor-laden conceit and using it as a tool and structure to make meaning happen.” The absurd conceit in question — “death is a type of space which we intend to map, enter, colonise and, eventually, inhabit” — was contained in the organisation’s founding manifesto drafted ten years ago. The sheer barminess of such a mission statement placed it squarely “in the zone of silence and impossibility from which,” according to the INS, “all good art stems” (Declaration Concerning the Relationship Between Art and Democracy, 2003). Contrary to expectations, Necronauts do not spend their time trying to make contact with the beyond (which, as materialists, they fail to believe in anyway). Instead, they tune in to the “illicit frequencies” broadcast from that twilight interzone twixt life and death, speech and silence, a de Kooning and its erasure…

Necronautism takes us on a journey from the sublime to the subliminal. As stated in the INS’s latest publication, “thinking awakes in the wake of something unthinkable” (Joint Statement on Inauthenticity, 2007). This “something unthinkable” refers to Necronautism’s implausible premise, but also to what INS Chief Philosopher Simon Critchley calls “originary inauthenticity” — the trauma of materiality which prevents us from feeling at one with ourselves and the world. Art’s frequent attempt “to extinguish matter and elevate it into form” is doomed from the start since an artwork is necessarily an imperfect material reproduction of its author’s original concept. The repressed facticity of factitiousness resurfaces through neurotic repetitions or reenactments from which the INS conclude that “Art is not about originality, but about the repetition of the copy”. For their part, Necronauts eschew the facile temptation of sublimation: they are “modern lovers of debris, radio and jetstreams” who “celebrate the imperfection of matter” by “taking the side of things” (following Francis Ponge) and letting “matter matter”. Tom McCarthy points out that his celebrated first novel Remainder is precisely “an allegory of that attendance to the materiality of things, the haptic-ness of experience, rather than the abstracting and idealising negations of these”.

Over the past decade, INS activities have frequently been dismissed as mere schoolboy pranks, and there is indeed a decidedly ludic side to many of them. In 2002, INS propaganda was infiltrated into the source code of the BBC’s website — an event which was described in Burroughsian terms as an “experiment in viral transmission”. The following year, most of the First Committee members were expelled in a purge which referenced both Stalin and André Breton. James Flint and Hari Kunzru, for instance, were shown the door for colluding with the middlebrow British publishing industry. My favourite example — which evinces the mad circular logic of Carroll or Orton — is that of Shane Brighton who was expelled for expressing the wish to leave the society although the First Manifesto clearly states that this is impossible (“We are all necronauts, always, already”).

The INS members’ obsession with diagrams, cartography, crypts and encryption also lends their experiments a charming Boy’s Own flavour which is probably tinted by the General Secretary’s Tintin fixation. For Necronauts, travelling into death — “eyes and mouths wide open so that they may be filled from the deep wells of the Unknown” — is clearly conceived of as an awfully big adventure (to quote Peter Pan). It will be an even greater one if they ever achieve their ultimate goal of building “a craft” aboard which they intend to complete their momentous journey. I fancy it as a cross between the Nautilus, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and some demented contraption Wallace and Gromit could have devised over cheese and crackers, although the crafty word also refers to the acquisition of new analytical tools.

“Humour and the deadly serious aren’t mutually exclusive,” argues McCarthy, “indeed, one can help the other”. Like a great novel, the INS produces multiple, sometimes contradictory, meanings and its potency derives from this very ambiguity. “I’m interested in things that only make sense within the grey zone of metaphor,” he says, referring to that liminal space beyond which no representation is possible. “You want whatever you do to be as wriggly and difficult as possible”. A prime example of the INS’s slipperiness is McCarthy and Critchley’s Joint Statement on Inauthenticity which was — or was not, depending on who you believe — delivered in New York in September 2007. To add to the confusion, the INS Department of Propaganda refused to “authenticate” the transcripts, recordings and pictures of the event (or non-event) circulating on the internet, although they probably all originated from the very same shadowy department in the first place. Inauthenticity was taken to its logical metadramatic conclusion at Tate Britain in January 2009 when McCarthy and Critchley hired actors to play their parts and read the Joint Statement in their place.

With its manifestos, proclamations, statements, hearings, departments, inspectorates and Soviet-style executive council — not to mention its labyrinthine network of committees, sub-committees, moles and sleepers — the INS has adopted all the trappings of authoritarian avant-garde movements like the Futurists or Surrealists as well as the sinister aesthetic of Kafkaesque bureaucracy and multinational corporations. Many of their public meetings are staged in galleries or institutions which are redesigned (by Laura Hopkins) to resemble military operations rooms, Stalinist show trials or, appropriately enough, McCarthyite hearings. The 2003 Declaration Concerning the Relationship Between Art and Democracy (read by the General Secretary at the Serpentine Manifesto Marathon in October 2008) even contains the provocative view that “fascism and art go well together”. Yet, in spite of all this, McCarthy and his fellow Necronauts believe that “Art is the most anti-totalitarian thing there is, inasmuch as good art always sides with the partial and incomplete and broken against the spectre of totality.” The fact that the INS’s oeuvre amounts to a veritable Gesamtkunstswerk (total artwork) of Wagnerian proportions — encompassing art, drama, technology, anthropology, literature and philosophy — is just a further turn of the screw.

Ten years ago, when the First Manifesto was handed out at a London art fair, McCarthy’s writing career seemed to be going nowhere slowly. The INS was partly an opportunity to produce literature by other means: “I wanted to create a non-academic format and arena for discussing things — discussing them actively rather than in a tame, emasculated way.” If, according to W. H. Auden, “poetry makes nothing happen,” art can actually turn that nothing into a happening. One of the reasons why the INS parodies the Modernist avant-gardes is that they already provided a model for this fertile coupling between literature and art. The society’s modus operandi is thus in keeping with this desire to harness art’s “active potential.” A series of hearings leads to the publication of a theoretical report which is finally put into practice as a work of art.

Critchley explains that the Necronauts are “trying to do for death what the Situationists did for sex”. Two of the INS’s most striking installations were inspired by Cocteau’s Orphée in which a dead poet transmits coded messages over a car radio — messages reminiscent of those broadcast by the BBC to French resistants during the Second World War. “A man or woman in London reads a line of poetry into a microphone and in France a bridge blows up — or not,” McCarthy says, before adding: “Poetry — real poetry — should harbour that potentiality somehow.”