"Before the beginning of great brilliance, there must be chaos. Before a brilliant person begins something great, they must look foolish in the crowd."
The I Ching
After a period of wondering what the Reactor party are up to, hearing rumours of strange antics with Bob Hope puppets, being confused at talks and slideshows telling of their great deeds kindly funded by Arts Council East Midlands. I finally managed to bear witness to the event that was Total Ghaos. Brightly coloured adverts had enticed me to this event described as a "microcosmic society on scaffolding". I was curious to witness a Reactor event. However, that turned out to be impossible. There was no witnessing to be done, I was required to join the party on entry to the cold warehouse full of scaffolding on Crocus Street: I was to participate or be banished from proceedings.
Once we had signed up to the party and were in receipt of several dubious looking badges of a pseudo soviet design, my husband and I were greeted by a dribbling man in tweed who kindly informed us that we were to leave our old lives behind and to place our contact to the outside world (mobile phones etc.) in a locker. I felt like I had signed my life away to a cult, or worse, to an art performance. This fear was soon allayed by getting more deeply involved with the role play. Very quickly did this world seem to become a reality, an entry to state of mind where new rules applied, but I didn’t know about them yet... and that made me very uneasy. This anxious feeling was not dissimilar to the atmosphere at a regular art event – where people speak in a strange code and look at your cheap shoes a bit strangely. Over the years I have managed to adapt my own persona for such events, with armour of black clothing and emotionless facial expressions to hide a multitude of feelings from boredom and embarrassment to amazement and wonder. Today was no different, but for some reason I felt that I was not correctly attired for Total Ghaos.
Each newcomer was assessed in a cubicle and after a series of questions that seemed random and a little bizarre (can you cook eggs?), we were issued with a card with an animal printed upon it and given a new name, a workbook and a party manifesto. The piranha card I was dealt apparently gained me a certain amount of stamps in my work book and a new name: Donny. I looked around at my fellow victims/inmates/participants and noticed that they were called a lot cooler things than me, ‘Takk’, ‘Fester’, ‘Bunkum’ and the like. I asked to change my name but the party official at the desk was not amused. I joined the queue which was full of people waiting further reconditioning feeling that I would prefer a number to being named after a big toothed seventies heart throb.
We watched a video explaining the rules of Ghaos as well as some basic health and safety tips for getting about the scaffolding, and then we were asked to recite an allegiance to the party, repeating meaningless phrases such as: By the glory of Ghaos, I will lead a truly Ghaotic life! Or I wholeheartedly accept the party line without question! – It amazed me how easy it was to say such strong words, even in jest. It was easy because I was surrounded by others who were slightly confused, slightly amused and slightly too scared of the consequences of making a fuss or taking issue with these strange declarations. Could I have made such easy allegiances and declarations to a political party in the real world? Maybe I could, given similar circumstances or situations – my friends and family surrounding me, equally baffled. Yet I reassured myself that no-one could throw me in jail or shoot me here if I consciensciously objected….could they? I decided to carry on with the adventure which was beginning to feel more dreamlike or at the very least like a sinister version of a Reality TV show. ‘I’m a curator….get me outta here!’ I wanted to cry.
Excerpts from the manifesto:
"Some cousins do not understand that the Party and the events the Party organise, of which they are members, are both instruments for carrying out the tasks of the revolution. They do not realise that they themselves are the makers of this revolution, but think that their responsibility lies solely in being a bystander, not a maker of the revolution. This passive mentality of cousins is a manifestation of scepticism, individualism and fear, such weakness of character cannot be accepted for a GHAOS Actor [i.e. the audience]. Unless this passivity is eliminated the number of professional GHAOS Actors [i.e. the audience] will not grow within the Party and as such the heavy burden of the revolution will remain on the shoulders of the few, much to the detriment of GHAOS."
My first post was unfortunately right where I had started – at the door! I felt like I was doing very badly at snakes and ladders and just slid back to start. I didn’t let this get me down. Maybe it was a test… after all, Communism in reality was really all about hanging about in queues, right? I looked up ‘queue’ in my manifesto to find the definition: A line of non-party members waiting for admission to total Ghaos. The waiting about created anticipation for the event, a bit like waiting in a queue for a mediocre ride at Alton Towers – does it make it more exciting for having waited? The repetition became comforting and in as real life – the time on your hands encouraged you to chat, in character, with other people who were hanging about.
It is beginning to sound like I hated the evening, but nothing could be further from the truth. Once inside Ghaos, my cynicism was forced out by throwing myself on the mercy of the event itself. Once I had thrown caution to the wind I realised Ghaos had a narrative quality and addictive element like a compulsively played computer game. If I can just get to the next level…
Excerpt from the Manifesto:
"We believe that this society should be a two-way affair, about participation, not merely consumption - we will not sit at the end of a one-way production. Within GHAOS there exists a new paradigm of creation, one where anyone can be involved, and anyone can succeed, based not on their connections, but on their merit."
Why did I enjoy it? Because I went away feeling I had subverted the system just like I might do in real life. I felt a childlike achievement in trying to undermine the given authority. I worked at keeping my head down and became good at being a convincing liar etc, just like I had done in the outside world when I had come face to face with this type of pack behaviour at boarding school. I tried to slow the event down by trying to engage in conversation with my perceived saviours or oppressors. Just as at school, the people in the middle management positions were just as ignorant as me: not yet working on the highest echelons of the hierarchy – individuals who had not created the strata system themselves, but swept along by the euphoric theatricality of it all. These people are easy to lie to, ‘did you complete your task on time?’ ‘Oh yes.’ ‘Did you enjoy your task?’ ‘Defiantly. I loved it.’ And on some levels that was my version of the participation – I perhaps sunk lower than I was able to in the real world. I stole cigarettes (drumstick lollies) from the factory I was made managing director of, I helped myself to potato vodka in an unattended bar – things I like to think that I would never end up doing in real life. I felt justified in my disobedience because I had been kept waiting for instructions in several of my jobs. It was easier to steal things in this new world and I invented justification for doing so very easily, just as I had invented my own allegiance to the party. I was a Ghaos actor.
Excerpt from the Manifesto:
1. Every GHAOS Actor (i.e. the audience) should be trained to almost military discipline in their actions.
2. Every GHAOS Actor (i.e. the audience) should sacrifice their own opinions, feelings and advancement to protect the unity of the Reactor Party.
3. Every GHAOS Actor (i.e. the audience) should cultivate the habit of perseverance, in order to struggle for the interests of all other GHAOS Actors [i.e. the audience].
4. Every GHAOS Actor (i.e. the audience) through speech should match the Party’s speech.
5. Every GHAOS Actor (i.e. the audience) through actions should be as though prescribed by the Party.
6. Every GHAOS Actor (i.e. the audience) must drop their opposition of current GHAOS ideology in respect of international discipline.
7. Every GHAOS Actor (i.e. the audience) has a responsibility to help those cousins who are Weak, who are not yet able to use their I.C.S.
8. Every ‘GHAOS Actor’ (i.e. the audience) as a member of the Reactor Party, must act in accordance with the directives of the Supreme Council.
9. Every GHAOS Actor (i.e. the audience) should not confine themselves to the use of I.C.S. [Inner Conceptualising Space]; they should shoulder the important work of propaganda and setting up Party organisations.
10. Every GHAOS Actor (i.e. the audience) to apply I.C.S. in analysing and creating the situations that surround them, instead of making a subjective appraisal.
The people I knew to be at the helm of the Ghaos army looked like they were having a whale of a time in their fancy army clothes – with helmets made of colanders and sink plungers. In the brave new world, all of these audience members were doing what they told them to. At last came my chance at some of the ‘cerrrazy’ fun: I was promoted to work in ‘Boardway’, a reconstruction of the real trendy art hangout in Hockley. It was my job to run the cinema and wear a giant egg box on my head. No one came to my cinema… even with my attempts to publicise it by walking the streets of level one, evangelising about a film about Ghaos, came to nothing.(If someone had told me an hour earlier that I would be doing this, I genuinely would not have believed them, in fact I would have been horrified.)
Meeting up with my husband at the end of the night, I discovered that he had stolen a lot more vodka than I had done, which had subsequently endeared him to the ghaotic cause even more than myself. This had, in turn, made him head of the space programme and I was quite jealous. I went away slightly drunk and euphoric about the new ‘cousins’ I had made. For the first time in ages I wanted to carry on talking about the art after it had finished. In fact I carried on thinking about the event throughout the following week. That is part of the success of the event – it created a desire to return to Ghaos. Although the event manages to suck you into it for a lot longer than you originally anticipate, there is no way that Ghaos actors can master the system quickly enough in order to gain control over the situation. The desire to return, to re-read the manifesto to find its flaws, to steal and cheat your way to the top, to earn more credits (a crude monetary system made from egg boxes) – made many people go back and try again to subvert the Utopic vision of Reactor.
I still have major concerns about how it manipulated some audience members, but doesn’t all art evoke some sort of reaction in its audience? Was this even art? Checking Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics I was reminded of some of the new rules that artists are being encouraged to play with:
The world is made up of random encounters (Lucretius, Hobbes, Marx, Althusser). Art, too, is made of chaotic, chance meetings of signs and forms. Nowadays, it even creates spaces within which the encounter can occur. Present-day art does not present the outcome of a labour; it is the labour itself, or the labour-to-be. Ghaos was all about the audience making the labour for itself. Bourriaud regards art to be a form of information exchanged between audiences. The art, in this sense, gives audiences access to power, the means to change the world!
When I was inside Total Ghaos, I struggled to find an example or another art work to compare this to. It was impossible when I was there, but I have since arrived at two worthy examples; the first as living inside a Thomas Hirshhorn piece. This Swiss artist creates rough and ready environments using everyday materials such as plastic sheeting, cardboard, aluminium and torn magazine pages, which reflect upon current social issues. Hotel Democracy, installed at Tate Modern and displayed as part of the Common Weath exhibition, enabled visitors to walk around the model building of two floors, looking into the various rooms at images taken from the media that relate to struggles for democracy. The comparison lies with use of everyday materials to create a Utopian environment – although Ghaos arguably affects an audience member more deeply because of their own participation.
The second recent piece is a film I saw at the Venice Biennale this year. Polish artist Artur Zmijewski’s film Repetition, is a documentary recording of the re-enactment of the Stanford Prison Experiment – a famous psychological experiment studying human behaviour in prison conditions, conducted by Professor Philip Zimbardo at Stanford University in 1971. The original experiment isolated a group of volunteers playing the roles of "inmates" and "guards". Zmijewski’s film differed from the original (which had to be interrupted early when participants displayed pathological, sadistic, and violent behaviour) in that it included professionals who had prior knowledge of the first experiment and real-life experience; one was a former prison inmate.
Ghaos had a similarly experimental feeling to it. It created a thoughtful insight into how easy it is to persuade and cajole participants into behaving totally out of character. Ghaos made me reassess my own political thoughts and feelings – it was almost too easy to be led. Zmijewski’s film highlighted individuals who were able to resist the expectation of the audience to turn into violent bullies, as the original experiment had done.
Ghaos had no predictable outcome or guarantee of safety, and yet it never felt as though it had the potential to turn into a Dystopia. It remained an enthusiastic vision throughout, and its attempts to allude to other failed Utopic societies such as communist Russia or Nazi Germany through theatrical deeds and familiar iconography only added to its entertainment and, dare I say it, comedic value. It’s clear that by doing away with the traditional role of an audience, Reactor have managed to create a greater sense of community and social relevance for all who take part in their antics.