7 November 2015
The Quietus

As a new show called The Gold Ones opens at Hackney’s Xero, Kline & Coma gallery, Nottingham’s Reactor group reflect on their landmark Total GHAOS project.

“I went to a shed near the station in Nottingham. I was captured and interrogated.” – Frank Abbott, GHAOS Actor

“…No revolutionary Party has ever before set itself the task of building from scratch a whole new society, but this is the primary objective of the Reactor Party and will result in Total GHAOS…” – from the Reactor Party Manifesto

Ten years ago, a group of artists from Nottingham built a world in a warehouse. It was a world built on stilts, constructed from scaffolding in a vast, open space with very high ceilings. Everyone had a role, from the seals working in the mine to the lynxes on the Supreme Council. It was a world complete, with its own rules and values, all watched over by the benevolent eye of the Reactor Party and their Secret Police.

It only lasted four days, but talking to the people who were there a decade later, it seems astonishingly fresh in their memories. They can still hum from memory the not-quite-off-key motif of the Reactor Party Anthem. They can still picture the bearded face and bulbous limbs of Uncle Commi. They still hate Skepticus REX and REXist behaviour of all kinds. For they had achieved Total GHAOS.

There were no performers and no audience. Everyone who passed through the doors became a GHAOS Actor and helped to make this world a reality for those who were there. And over the course of the weekend, some 5–700 people did just that. “GHAOS became another version of the world that you were trying to realise,” Niki Russell of the artist group, Reactor, explained to me, “at which point the old world of Dark Arts would fall away.”

“I worked in the passport control and processing. It was housed under some creaking scaffolding in a little nook with cardboard computers. I remember thinking the ceiling was going to come crashing down on us all when on the floor above some extremely energetic callisthenics was taking place. I kept a relatively low profile for fear of being caught by the secret police and being punished.” – Jon Burgerman, GHAOS Actor

“…the Dark Arts have a new leader, Skepticus REX … the source of REXism lays within the Dark Arts and as such manifests itself as an individualistic aversion to discipline … REXists spread lies not because they fear GHAOS in the world, but because they fear GHAOS within themselves … Search out and mercilessly destroy all seals…” – from the Reactor Party Manifesto

The seeds of Reactor had been sown in 2002. It started, “as a very loose collaboration,” Russell explains. “It was a bunch of people that happened to be occupying different parts of an old warehouse building in Nottingham. We were using it as studios, event space, etc. There was a set of people in different parts of the building who started putting on events together.”

Mostly just out of university, they had no particular plan or programme. They just started doing stuff. Not collectively at first. It was an umbrella for the various individual projects of different members of the group. Only with 2003’s GHAOS Starts Here, a commission for the city’s annual Now Festival, did they embark on a real collective practice.

“We were given access to all of the archives of the festival, going back 20 years,” Russell tells me. “The idea was that the event would re-stage all of the events that had ever been part of the Now Festival. But the archives were pretty ragged and sparse. Sometimes, all we had to go on was a name. We knew nothing about what the work was.”

Much like the Slovenian collective, IRWIN, who in 1984, restaged in Llubljana the landmark Luzern exhibition of new American art, Back to the USA, based only on a stolen catalogue; where the details necessary for an accurate reproduction were lacking, the Reactor artists were forced to interpolate their own hypothetical fictions. Such creative (mis)interpretation, they dubbed GHAOS.

“We were interested in creating a word that doesn’t exist and fictionalising what that word means,” Russell says. “It’s kind of a mode of behaving, an encouragement of not seeing things the way they are – or are assumed to be – but actively engaging in believing them to be another way. Say, this is a table, but within GHAOS, it becomes something else.” According to the definition on the Reactor website, GHAOS is at once “light-hearted confusion” and a type of “cheerful formless substance supposed to have existed before the universe’s carefree creation.”

There is an origin story, of sorts, for this strange new world, involving an avuncular bearded type called Uncle Commi finding a little girl in the forest, many years ago, and eating her. Through this act of primeval cannibalism, GHAOS is born through him. As Philip Henderson, another core member of the Reactor group puts it, “Uncle Commi embodied the myth of GHAOS.”

“Uncle Commi was a nostalgic, friendly, Father Christmas-like figure, who watched over proceedings in a vodka-induced hazed. You felt safe when ‘Uncle Commi’ was around. He was the friendly face of much darker, elusive forces of power at play at the top of the stairs.” – Ellie Harrison, GHAOS Actor

“… focus your I.C.S. [Inner Conceptualising Space] on return from the future. Bring back the egg-box to build walls, towers, arches and pyramids … Always remain watchful like the LYNX and do not eat quiche…” – from ‘Words to a Lost Cousin’, a spoken word recording of Uncle Commi’s voice, as printed in the Reactor Party Manifesto

“Everybody was given a job role as they entered,” Russell tells me. “In order for the world to function everybody had to be doing their job. It required a certain number of people within at any one time to make it work. Even things like, the clock was manually operated. If somebody wasn’t turning over the digits on the clock then nobody would ever be able to stop working.”

And who assigned the different job roles? “People,” Henderson says simply, “whose job it was to assign roles.” One participant recalled to me that, having finished being interrogated upon entering the warehouse, he was immediately assigned the job of replacing his own interrogator.

“Each person, as you came into Total GHAOS, you were interviewed,” Russell says. “You were assigned an animal status within the world. And then they went on to the Party Office where they were assigned a new name. They were given a work pass and a Party manifesto which would inform them about what needed to be done within the world. Then they would go on to another party office where another official would assign them a job role based in some loose sense on their animal card.”

“You’d get deeper and deeper into it,” Henderson says. “Even the initiation would be quite a detailed process.”

“Also we removed people’s watches and phones, stripping back people’s connections to the outside world,” Russell continues. “There were no windows. It was very difficult to not be involved. Everybody around you was acting as though this was what was happening. Even if you thought you weren’t doing something, you were still playing a particular role.”

“It was also made quite difficult to leave,” Henderson adds.

“My story would have made a perfect piece of Reactor Party propaganda: The story of a plucky cloak room attendant who rose through the ranks to finally become a Supreme Council member through hard work and dedication to Party doctrine and Uncle Commi.” – Ayden Walters, GHAOS Actor

“All Cousins need to work together in order to create a fairer, utopian world. Cousins, together we are stronger, do you intend to help your fellow cousin?” – from the Reactor Party Manifesto

Once you made it in to Total GHAOS, there was plenty to occupy your attention. There was a cinema (showing just one film, on a loop). There was Uncle Commi’s Mausoleum, should you wish to pay your respects to the revered figurehead. You could sign up to the Cousin’s Army. You could join the Russian Dancing Bear School and learn to be a dancing bear. There was a club and an art exhibition (though GHAOS Actors had first to make the art, mostly pictures of Lynxes). A cigarette factory (mostly, I’m told, staffed by children). A mint, cranking out egg boxes. There were Peelers upholding the law and secret policemen chasing down malfeasants.

What happened if you were arrested? I wonder. “You were sent to the asylum,” Russell explains.

“For re-education,” adds Henderson.

“It was on the lowest level.”

“A kind of torture chamber, really. Mental torture.”

“Big Nurse re-educated you. She’d go through a number of different processes that were designed to help you conform.”

“And anybody who couldn’t be reformed in the asylum, would be Strawberry Sparkle.”

“I had been promoted to the head of the space programme and was building a water powered rocket to extract egg cartons from the moon. While I was working, a man came up to me and tried to convince me to start a revolution against the Party. I told him that it was dangerous talk and that he should stop thinking such REXist things.” – Ayden Walters

“…Undertake merciless criticism of fellow-actors’ REXist zigzags and inconsistencies … In the sphere of theory destroy the roots of REXism…” – Reactor Party Manifesto

“Ultimately, what you want is everything to be happening simultaneously and for it then to be too confusing to really take in,” Russell explains. “Then it becomes more GHAOS.” At its most populous, Total GHAOS would have appeared a hive of activity, with numerous activities taking place at once on all the different levels. There would be music playing, constant announcements, people banging on the scaffolding with their shoes in revolutionary fervour.

As much as the language toyed with totalitarianism, by the very nature of a world built on scaffolding, nothing was ever really cloak and dagger – it was all too visible. The Secret Police appeared to be disguised as secret policemen, complete with trench coats and newspapers with holes cut out of them. Even the CCTV cameras and monitors – provided by way of sponsorship by a local security firm – were in plain view.

“You could have used the cameras for any function you liked,” Russell says, “but most people did it to tell on people, basically. Which did result in a number of arrests.”

Were you ever worried, I ask, that all this might go to far? “I guess we were sort of surprised that people didn’t rebel more or try to change it more,” Russell says. “Ultimately, it’s just a reflection of things that have been observed in larger world situations. Often people don’t coordinate a rebellion at the level of how something operates but undertake to manipulate the rules to benefit themselves at a small, petty level.”

Was Total GHAOS a utopia or a dystopia? “A utopia – for people that followed the party line.”

“I remember feeling quite uncomfortable with some moments and quietly refusing to enthusiastically participate – as I may well do if a similar compulsory activity was ever imposed by a real governing regime.” – Ellie Harrison

“…GHAOS intends for us to behave in a particular way, to create a certain type of world, a true community of professional GHAOS Actors…” – from the Reactor Party Manifesto

“The thing is, within Total GHAOS but also with a lot of Reactor projects, to quickly understand that nobody else knows what’s going on either,” Russell says. “There were interesting moments where we were re-instructed as to what should or shouldn’t be happening. You’d know that’s not the case but also that it is the case now.”

The project proved to be the beginning of a new way of working for Reactor, revolving around creating “spaces that weren’t reliant on us performing functions within them. There have been instances since then where we’ve set up this kind of world and things just happened. But that was the first time.”

The interest in total institutions continues up to their present show at Hackney Road’s Xero, Kline & Coma space, entitled ‘The Gold Ones’. Welcoming you into a “place before place … a time before time,” ‘The Gold Ones consists of a series of videos and sound elements that introduce visitors to the “Cosmic Care Home” inhabited by quasi-divine “Gold Ones”. “We’re interested,” Russell says, “in these entities that are supernatural and all-powerful but then also unable to look after themselves. This is the first of a series of exhibitions that will gradually reveal the Cosmic Care Home. In some ways, the show here is almost like a backstory that may have existed in relation to Total GHAOS but wasn’t available to anybody else.”

“If there had been a tattoo parlour in Total GHAOS, there’d certainly be a bunch of people with a rendering of Uncle Commi on their bodies today. It was a bit like when you go to a rave or something, where upon entering you know the rules or normal society have been tweaked and people go a little berserk.” – Jon Burgerman

“Like every important revolutionary movement in world history, GHAOS must follow a tortuous road and never a straight one. One careless move may lose the game, but GHAOS as an alternative to the Dark Arts is not only a goal of the distant future, for which we are fighting for, but a society that we are creating here and now through everyday resistance.” – Reactor Party Manifesto

Robert Barry