Colossal Youth

This appeared in the autumn 2009 issue of Flux magazine (issue 70, pp. 54-57):

Colossal Youth

Arthur Cravan — artist, poet, boxer

You may never have heard of him, but Arthur Cravan was one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. The fact that he wrote precious little — and certainly nothing of any lasting literary value — should not be held against him. Quite the contrary, in fact. The world’s shortest-haired poet, as he often described himself, put all his genius into his life, turning it into a magnum opus full of sound and fury, high farce and convulsive beauty. In so doing, he influenced every single major avant-garde movement from Dada onwards. Cravan was the original Sid Vicious, the blueprint for all the subsequent outrages committed in the name of art. “Let me state once and for all: I do not wish to be civilised,” he wrote — and he meant it, man. Next to him, the YBAs in their shark-pickling heyday were about as controversial as a mug of Horlicks. David Lalé put it in a nutshell: “His was a life dedicated to wanton destruction, to the extent that he elevated scandal and humiliation into an art form” (Last Stop Salina Cruz).

Arthur Cravan (or Fabian Lloyd, to call him by his real name) was born in Switzerland in 1887. His first brush with authority occurred early on when he was expelled from an English military academy for spanking a teacher. Having relocated to bohemian Paris — where he partied hard with the likes of Blaise Cendrars and Kees van Dongen — Cravan planned to fake his own death so that he could publish his first book “posthumously,” in a blaze of publicity. For some reason this stunt was shelved, but he pulled off the more remarkable feat of becoming France’s Heavyweight Champion in 1910 without throwing a single punch. One of his opponents got the jitters and called it quits before the match had even started. A couple of others were directed to the wrong venue thus failing to show up. The last one sprained his ankle as he jumped a trifle too eagerly into the ring.

A big bruiser of a man, Cravan certainly looked the part — Mina Loy, his future wife, would write a book about him entitled Colossus — but his boxing was on a par with his poetry: spirited, at best. Comically enough, he was caught up by his reputation in Barcelona where he was unable to wriggle out of a rumble with former World Champion Jack Jones, an episode which left him reeling, punch-drunk. The fact that he was drink-drunk to start with probably did not help.

None of this prevented Arthur Cravan from flogging his “poet and boxer” image for all it was worth. Although he was a fraud, he inspired a long line of literary pugilists, and even came to be seen by some as the ultimate adventurer-scribe: literature made flesh. Paradoxically, for one whose existence exerts such fascination, he was a self-publicist who had no self to publicise. “I am all things, all men and animals!” he wrote in one of his better-known poems (“Hie!”), before wondering if he would ever manage to “leave behind” his “fatal plurality”. Reflecting on his hyper-protean nature — his dizzying array of disguises, pseudonyms and personae — Mina Loy claimed that Cravan “worked to maintain his reality by presenting an unreality to the world — to occupy itself with — while he made his spiritual getaway”. His whole life, at least from the time he first set foot in Paris, was indeed one long, convoluted disappearing act.

Cravan first gained the notoriety he so craved through Maintenant (“Now”), the literary journal in which he wrote everything under various noms de plume. It was partly a vanity outlet for his poems and essays, but primarily a means of courting controversy. Sourced from a butcher’s shop, the very paper it was printed on highlighted his utter contempt for belles-lettres. In the first issue, he ran a fake interview with Oscar Wilde — his late uncle — claiming that he was still alive. Cravan’s Bill Grundy moment occurred when he devoted an entire issue to gratuitous insults aimed at almost all the painters taking part in the 1914 Independents Exhibition. He opined, for instance, that only a good seeing-to would enable Marie Laurencin to fully grasp the true meaning of Art. As a result, her lover — the poet Guillaume Apollinaire — challenged Cravan to a duel which he narrowly avoided by apologising half-heartedly. He was also taken to court and almost lynched by a posse of avant-garde painters while selling copies of his journal from a wheelbarrow outside the exhibition room.

Maintenant proved that writing, for Cravan, was essentially boxing by another means, as did the infamous series of conferences he gave in Paris. During these happenings, he would take swigs from a bottle of absinthe (in lieu of the habitual bottle of water), shout abuse at the spectators and even fire gunshots over their heads. On one occasion, he wore nothing but a butcher’s apron and concluded proceedings by mooning the audience instead of bowing in the traditional fashion. On another, he sold rotten fruit and vegetables at the entrance so that people could pelt him during the performance should they feel so inclined (which they did). His final Parisian gig descended into pandemonium when he failed to commit suicide as advertised — a riot that forestalled his drunken inauguration of the 1917 Exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in New York. Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamp (whose legendary urinal was part of the show) had plied him with gallons of booze beforehand in the hope that his antics would put Dada on the map in the United States. Cravan rose to the occasion: he stumbled on stage looking the worse for wear and started to strip — knocking over a painting in the process — only to be pounced upon and carted away by security. Job done.

Arthur Cravan took Romantic hysteria to its logical conclusion: he was by turns histrionic, attention-seeking, uncontrollable, excessive, hilarious and, most importantly, the author of himself (hustera is Greek for womb). He was also a con artist with a cause. “The world has always exploited the Artist,” he once declared, “it is time for the Artist to exploit the world!” It was his fake-painting trafficking, rather than the First World War, that initially forced him to go on the run. He roamed the Continent, using several fake IDs, looking for “that something the poet always seems to have mislaid,” as Mina Loy elegantly put it. In Barcelona he became something of a living legend among Dadaists. When the war seemed about to catch up with him again, he relocated to New York (travelling aboard the same ship as Trotsky) and fled once more as soon as the Americans entered the conflict. Cravan stole the passport of an artist friend (who had conveniently conked out following a night on the razz) before crossing the Mexican border dressed — paradoxically enough — as a soldier. He was last seen in 1918, sailing away on a drunken boat of his own making (probably bound for neutral Argentina), leaving behind his “fatal plurality” for ever. “Whatever is said and done or even thought,” he had declared, “we are prisoners of this senseless world”. Perhaps he was trying to prove himself wrong.

Cravan was always larger than life and, in many ways, he was just too bad to be true. He was a self-unmade man whose biggest conjuring trick was to spirit himself away by taking elusiveness to the point of illusiveness. “You must dream your life with great care,” wrote this outrageous six-footer who managed to cross frontiers as if he were the Invisible Man. In the years following his disappearance, he would be sighted all over the world in a variety of guises. Several people, for instance, were convinced that he was the shadowy Dorian Hope who passed himself off as André Gide’s personal secretary and sold forged Wilde manuscripts to English and Irish booksellers from his Paris base. There is even a theory according to which he was none other than B. Traven, the mysterious author of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. He inspired Gide’s Lafcadio, the infamous character who kills a man for no other reason but to exercise his free will, and became a symbol of ultimate transgression for the likes of Guy Debord. Dead or alive, Arthur Cravan is still at large.

One Thousand Cranes Can’t Be Wrong

This appeared in the winter 2009 issue of Flux magazine (issue 71, p. 14):

One Thousand Cranes Can’t Be Wrong

An introduction to Matthew Coleman’s “action painting of the heart”

Matthew Coleman had always been an artist — even when he saw himself as a writer or a filmmaker — but it took the mother of all depressions to open up his eyes. “The intensity, the violence of what I went through completely changed me,” he explains. Coleman’s work is the product of “heightened states of feelings”: the canvas is a “battleground” on which the artist squares up to his demons, wielding the palette knife like “a sword”.

The (noble) savage beauty of the Hand Bursts series — which culminates in a bloody mess that could incarnadine the multitudinous seas — conjures up the fleeting patterns Coleman creates on sundry beaches and then captures on camera. The Lines You Should Not Cross are vicious red pencil renditions of the artist’s bouts of self-harming, but they are also reminiscent of those lines literally drawn in the sand that will be, as it were, littorally washed away. The vibrancy of Coleman’s works often comes from this tension between the compulsion to freeze moments in time and the desire to dissolve into an eternal here and now.

The Cry of a Thousand Cranes — red, blue and yellow origami birds hanging in the Saatchi Gallery or from a tree in the artist’s back garden — was inspired by the old Japanese legend according to which whoever folds 1,000 paper cranes will be granted a wish. When I ask him if he believes in this legend, Matthew Coleman just smiles. Then he says, “I want yellows and blues and reds, I want to see them everywhere I walk, all exploding like fireworks”. We both stare in silence at the cranes gently swaying in the breeze.

All the Latest

I’m doing a series of blogs on literary criticism (called “In Theory”) for the Guardian‘s website. The first one, about “The Death of the Author,” was published today.

A short piece on Matthew Coleman‘s artwork appears in the Winter issue of the excellent Flux magazine.

On 30 December 2009, Susan Tomaselli devoted her first 3:AM Cult Hero feature to a piece I’d written about Arthur Cravan for the Guardian Books Blog. You’ll find the full text here.

Only Disconnect

This was published on the Flux magazine website on 13 November 2009:

Only Disconnect

Andrew Gallix on this year’s new literary model

“All of this intellect stuff is fine as a consolation (which is how it developed in the first place: Socrates not being Alcibiades),” claims the narrator of an early Toby Litt story. He has a point, of course. Jean-Paul Sartre, for instance, famously confided that he had become a philosopher in order to make up for his ugliness and attract women. Conversely, ghostwriters keep churning out books for celebrity airheads in search of intellectual credibility. And then there’s Gavin James Bower. The author of Dazed & Aroused is the stuff publishers’ wet dreams are made of: a model turned writer; Socrates and Alcibiades rolled into one. “I’m too pretty to be a serious novelist but not pretty enough to be a top model,” he aphorises, “I have no consolation.” Call me jealous, but I have no sympathy.

Bower is far more than just another clothes horse who can string a few sentences together. He started putting pen to paper when he was still reading history at university. Among his influences, he cites Fitzgerald, Burroughs, Ellis, Marx, Sartre and Camus, but also Flux magazine editor Lee Taylor, who gave him his first break: “He was one of the first people who got me excited about being a writer myself”. An internship at Dazed & Confused took an unexpected turn when he was encouraged to go into modelling rather than journalism. After a year or so, his career went the way of the “skinny-jeans-and-winklepickers look,” but not before it had provided him with enough material for a stunning debut novel.

Having walked the (cat)walk, Gavin James Bower can talk authentically about inauthenticity. Alex, the narrator and anti-hero of Dazed & Aroused, slides down the surface of things, barely batting an eyelid when he is fellated by his father’s gorgeous girlfriend. In a rare moment of insight, he realises that the “nauseating truth” about a world in which anything is possible is that nothing is also a distinct possibility. The key to the book probably lies in this oscillation between surfeit and emptiness. Instead of leading to objectivity, Alex’s psychopathological detachment conjures up nightmarish dreamscapes — unreal cities — in which glamorous models are for ever tripping over the vagrants who litter the streets. From the ranters whose messages are always incomprehensible to the news bulletins invariably watched on mute, information overload leads to communication breakdown. The protagonist is bombarded by messages — via leaflets, billboards, freesheets, bumper stickers, graffiti or even fridge magnets — but they remain mere juxtapositions. On Oxford Street, for instance, he passes two men holding placards: “One sells Jesus to passers-by while the other advertises a buffet lunch deal”. The only point, if there is one, is that everything has been commodified. Gavin James Bower describes his character as a “personification of the capitalist social relation — an estranged individual who exploits others and refuses to connect to anything”. Yet, in spite of all that, he remains strangely alluring. Even when it comes to coke, the devil has all the best lines.

Dazed & Aroused is published by Quartet Books.

Colossal Youth (Abridged Version)


An abridged version of “Colossal Youth,” my piece on Arthur Cravan, was posted on the Flux magazine website on Friday 13 November 2009:

Colossal Youth

You may never have heard of him, but Arthur Cravan was one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. The fact that he wrote precious little — and certainly nothing of any lasting literary value — should not be held against him. Quite the contrary, in fact. Oscar Wilde’s nephew put all his genius into his life, turning it into a magnum opus full of sound and fury, high farce and convulsive beauty. In so doing, he influenced every single major avant-garde movement from Dada onwards. Cravan was the original Sid Vicious, the blueprint for all the subsequent outrages committed in the name of art. “Let me state once and for all: I do not wish to be civilised,” he wrote — and he meant it, man.

Arthur Cravan (or Fabian Lloyd, to call him by his real name) was born in Switzerland in 1887. After being expelled from an English military academy for spanking a teacher, he relocated to bohemian Paris where he partied hard with the likes of Blaise Cendrars and managed to become France’s Heavyweight Champion without throwing a single punch.

Cravan first gained the notoriety he so craved through Maintenant (“Now”), the literary journal in which he wrote everything under various noms de plume. Sourced from a butcher’s shop, the very paper it was printed on highlighted his utter contempt for belles-lettres. He filled an entire issue with gratuitous insults aimed at the artists taking part in the 1914 Independents Exhibition. As a result, he was challenged to a duel by the poet Apollinaire and almost lynched by a posse of avant-garde painters. Result.

Art, for Cravan, was essentially boxing by another means, as proved by the infamous conferences he gave in Paris and New York. During these happenings, he would knock back absinthe, perform drunken stripteases, shout abuse at the spectators and even fire gunshots over their heads. His final Parisian gig descended into pandemonium when he failed to commit suicide as advertised.

The onset of the First World War marked the beginning of a convoluted vanishing act that led him — in various guises — from Paris to Mexico where he disappeared at sea on a drunken boat of his own making. His body was never found. For years to come, he would continue to be spotted throughout the world. Arthur Cravan is still at large.

The Future is Going to Be Boring


This appeared in the summer 2009 issue of Flux magazine (issue 69, p. 77):

The Future is Going to Be Boring

Despite his bohemian hairdo and stripy tops, Lee Rourke is a creature of habit. Every single story in Everyday, his 2007 debut, was composed of a Saturday afternoon in the very same east London pub. And each one of these stories (or “fragments” as he prefers to call them) bears more than a passing resemblance to all the others. Time and again, the author retreads well-worn ground like a criminal constantly returning to the scene of his crime. Photocopying machines abound — underscoring this repetition compulsion — and the figure of Sisyphus looms large, from the hypnotic sway of a lady’s derrière in “Cruel Work” to the Groundhog Day pattern of “Footfalls”. If there is nothing new under the sun, all that remains is an eternity of repetition, recycling and re-enactment. That’s the gist of it.

“Our future is already boring, and we’ve not even reached it yet,” laments one of the scientists (echoing J. G. Ballard) in the piece you are about to read. Lee Rourke is rapidly becoming the poet laureate of tedium. One of his early “fragments” is called “Being Lee Rourke is Boring” — a title that exemplifies the author’s curious oscillation between self-aggrandisement and self-effacement. Should his dedication be in any doubt, Rourke is preparing a critical study in which he analyses how ennui has been “a central creative force” in literary history. He has also just completed a poetry collection that delves into the mind-numbing, soul-destroying monotony of office life: its eponymous emblem is Varroa destuctor, a bee-killing mite. “Most of my characters are either ergophobic or have major philosophical problems with the nature of work,” the author says.

Lee Rourke, a 37-year-old London-based Mancunian, is already one of the leading lights of the Offbeats and a respected reviewer. His first novel (published next year by American indie Melville House) is bound to further raise his profile. The Canal revolves around the Ballardian triumvirate of boredom, violence and technology. Set against the backdrop of Regent’s Canal — “one of the myriad arteries that flood a city like London with activity” — it is a book about dwelling “in the Heidegerrian sense,” about “the toing and froing of human interaction within a mechanised society” as well as the tale of “one man’s search for understanding and companionship”.


The Importance of Doing Nothing


This appeared in the summer 2009 issue of Flux magazine (issue 69, pp. 50-51):

The Importance of Doing Nothing

You know something is seriously awry when even the Tory leader claims we should be focusing on GWB as well as GDP. General Well-Being is a catch-all phrase, but in our long-hours culture it can only mean one thing: striking a better work-life balance. As Paul Lafargue — Karl Marx’s son-in-law — pointed out, God seems to have sussed it from the word go: “after six days of work, he rests for all eternity” (The Right to be Lazy, 1883). Although scripture is notoriously open to interpretation, prelapsarian Eden is patently presented as a work-free environment. It is only after the Fall — and, crucially, as a result of it — that men were condemned to earn their dough: “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground” (Genesis 3:19). Women, for their pains, would bring forth children “in sorrow”. The word ‘travail’ — French for ‘work’ — also happens to refer to labour pains: it derives from the Latin tripalium which, fittingly enough, was an instrument of torture. As for ‘labour’ itself, it comes from labor meaning ‘trouble’. No wonder work is a four-letter word (to quote the 1968 Cilla Black number famously covered by the Smiths).

In ancient Greece, work was restricted to slaves — a set-up which provided a blueprint for the West until the Industrial Revolution. By the early nineteenth century, however, “the voice of busy common-sense” — as Keats dubbed it — had become deafening (“Ode on Indolence,” 1819). Nietzsche observed how people were beginning to feel guilty of “prolonged reflection”: “Well, formerly, it was the other way around: it was work that was afflicted with the bad conscience. A person of good family used to conceal the fact that he was working if need compelled him to work. Slaves used to work, oppressed by the feeling that they were doing something contemptible” (The Gay Science, 1882). “It is to do nothing that the elect exist,” Oscar Wilde reaffirmed defiantly in the face of a triumphant work ethic. Contemplation, he lamented, had come to be regarded as “the gravest sin of which any citizen can be guilty” rather than “the proper occupation of man”. It is this gradual erosion of the contemplative life — “the life that has for its aim not doing but being” — which writers and dreamers have always tried to resist (“The Critic as Artist,” 1891). Robert Louis Stevenson — who poured scorn on those “who are scarcely conscious of living except in the exercise of some conventional occupation” — argued that idleness “does not consist in doing nothing, but in doing a great deal not recognised in the dogmatic formulations of the ruling class” (“An Apology for Idlers,” 1881). In How to be Idle (2004), Tom Hodgkinson — co-founder of The Idler magazine (1993) — reminds us that “living is an art, not something that you fit in around your job”.

Pockets of collective anti-work resistance appeared at regular intervals throughout the 20th century, from the drop-out beatniks to the unemployed punks. The Sex Pistols’ brazen “I’m a Lazy Sod” contained the classic line: “I don’t work, I just speed; that’s all I need”. Bow Wow Wow’s second single — “W.O.R.K. (N.O. Nah No! No! My Daddy Don’t)” — turned the tables on Thatcherite austerity by celebrating the rise of the idle poor. Many like Morrissey went looking for a job and then found a job and heaven knows were miserable now. 1991 saw the release of Slackers as well as the publication of Generation X whose protagonists relocate to the Californian desert after opting out of the rat race. Douglas Coupland’s downshifting classic was subtitled “Tales for an Accelerated Culture,” mirroring the parallel rise of the Slow movement anticipated by Bertrand Russell (“In Praise of Idleness,” 1932) and chronicled by Carl Honoré (In Praise of Slow: Challenging the Cult of Speed, 2004).

“Our epoch has been called the century of work,” Lafargue wrote, back in the 1880s, “It is in fact the century of pain, misery and corruption.” “Labour is the one thing a man has had too much of,” D. H. Lawrence echoed in the 1920s (“A Sane Revolution”). Unsurprisingly, Dr. Frank Lipman’s current diagnosis is that we are all completely knackered (Spent? End Exhaustion & Feel Great Again, 2009). So what are we to do? One option is to follow the advice of New Rich guru Timothy Ferriss whose best-selling The 4-Hour Work Week (2007) is designed to teach you how to let money make itself by outsourcing your business. Alternatively, we could turn to Melville’s Bartleby who, when asked to do anything, answers: “I would prefer not to” (Bartleby, the Scrivener, 1853). We could also take our cue from Jerome K. Jerome — the forefather of Phone In Sick Day — and get our kicks from the illicit thrill of skiving: “There is no fun in doing nothing when you have nothing to do” (“On Being Idle,” 1889). Following Thierry Paquot (The Art of the Siesta, 1998), Hodgkinson prescribes hitting the snooze button where it hurts: “Edison promoted the idea of ‘more work, less sleep’. The idler’s creed is ‘less work, more sleep'”.

One man who devoted his life and, er, work (8 slim volumes in 65 years) to sleep was Egyptian émigré Albert Cossery. His was a militant form of idleness which he saw as the only way to fully enjoy “the Edenic simplicity of the world”. In an early short story, the inhabitants of an impoverished neighbourhood are prepared to kill off those who interrupt their sacred slumber before noon; in another, an Oblomov-style character refuses to leave his bed for a whole year. Cossery was convinced that those who rejected (or were deprived of) material wealth gained access to a heightened state of consciousness hence the constant association between destitution and nobility. In 1945, he checked in to a poky hotel — on the very same Parisian street where the iconic “Ne travaillez jamais” (“Never work”) graffito would soon appear — and remained there, doing precious little, until he passed away last year. Cossery chose to get a life instead of a job. Perhaps more of us should do the same — the world might be a better place.



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.”