In the spring and early summer of 2020, off the back of AntiUniversity Festival, which took place online in June, about 80 people took part in a collaborative film project called CORPO.S, a vaguely stylised iteration of the late-classic Surrealist parlour game, Exquisite Corpse, at the behest of my friend Joe and I.


People responded to an open call which the two of us, pretending it might not be obvious who we were, circulated on an Instagram account we made under the name of CORPO.S, which originally we kind of imagined as something like a disguise or avatar/persona, kind of like Steele’s Mr Spectator, or some kind of fictional institution, but which in the end we just stopped thinking about, because it had to be an everyday thing. People responded to the open call and became its participants; received an unsigned email from the email address, with an attached file containing 5 seconds of video footage. Participants then had three days to send back a video file continuing on from the 5sec clip, between 30 seconds and 3 minutes, and most of them did. The open call extended, also, an invitation for people to organise public workshops or whatever within the AntiUni festival week, and a smaller number of people did. The various video submissions accumulated in their passing around and in a month amassed into longer films which are now published here and which in July were screened publicly in a quote unquote guerilla screening in Bridgehouse Meadows off the Old Kent Road. That was in July.


Originally we were going to do it at the end of the festival, in mid-June, but when it came around, it fell about a week into the activity of UK Black Lives Matter’s mobilisations in London of the Black-led insurrection taking place across the US and what was obvious and needed little discussion was that a quote unquote guerilla screening of a public film project was in that moment not a good use of public space. This is what we said, pretty offhand, to everyone involved (/anyone paying attention); we just sent an email and posted on Instagram exactly that: we’re not going to do this right now because it’s not a good use of public space, obviously. 


We kept the exquisite corpse film-chains moving, passing them from person to person -- less and less, as time passed, recognising the names of those receiving and sending back the clips we cut them. Again, to reiterate: not that big a deal, but it’s also true that we were reaching, as we’d hoped we would, and more than we had maybe ever been able to do on purpose in the past, strangers. More than we would have, and more than we ever did, in anything we’d ever done before without the complicity of some kind of institution, we were involving in something people we didn’t know. We re-scheduled the screening a few weeks later and enlisted the help of our friend Dan, who’s good at this kind of thing, to turn the films into something fit for public broadcast (edited, clean, stream-able), and facilitate in public space our only-abstract idea of an outdoor screening actually working. It would have worked, and in the end it did, but it didn’t at first. The scheduled screening ended up not happening because there was a storm. A lot of people seemed to be planning to come. In the summer it doesn’t get dark til after 10, so we didn’t head down to set up until the early evening, by which time it was already darker than it ought to have been because the clouds were bruising badly. In Bridgehouse Meadows, right by Millwall football stadium, we built a screen and set up a projector and sound system, hooking them up to big batteries that Dan takes from e-bikes and which he lent to us, along with almost everything else we needed. When it started to rain, as it had for a while been obvious it was going to, clapped in by actual thunder, we used the projector screen to shield the electrics, bundling everything together in the long grass and trying to wrap the screen around them, tucking its edges under, sliding the material under the heap of stuff that didn’t belong to us. We stood in the bushes out of sight where the rain wasn’t so heavy. A few people were in the park now and then, we could glimpse and see through the rain. We stood in the bushes and watched the lightning, looking a little wild-eyed, trying to use our dinky little institutional infrastructure, a gmail account and an Instagram with like 300 followers, to tell the people who we had to assume might be coming out to go home, that we weren’t actually going to ask them to come and stand out in the dark in the wind and rain to watch these films, we couldn’t screen them, and we were leaving. It didn’t last so long but it was actually a storm, the rain was heavy and close and it was actually hard to see out in the open. And it was night, by now, so it was dark. A few people cycled by and either came up to us or kind of appeared at the edge of the hill and disappeared or went away. In the dark, in South Bermondsey, we were on a hill. There was a charge to the night because of what we’d charged it with bearing out: a fantasy. This was in June after three months of lockdown. The lights of Canary Wharf lack ambiguity (lack mystery, are obvious; go without saying). But they’re there - amidst them in the storm in June and in darkness I could see them as I could also see at intervals, in brief moments, white bike lights flashing and approaching if not passing, and then hovering or going out or turning away. Like candles in a play. Like planes. Some dim, some brighter, maybe pausing - maybe people’s faces - and I could see then small flashing red lights in recess, speeding up and disappearing towards the road; people on bikes that were going away, though some lights stayed: the lights of the city, vaguely sometimes phone screens glowing and once or twice torches, the eyes of foxes, the white coat of a sprinting dog behind a tennis ball, voices, the teeth of laughing strangers and my friends. A presence. A few people approached us, some of whom we knew and some of whom we didn’t; a mixture of friends and strangers; a mixture of strangers who were looking for us, and strangers who were not. There were people in the meadow. We were half-watching. We ran out into the rain from the bushes and waited out the storm in an underpass and our phones ran out of battery. We packed all the gear up and wheeled it home on a shopping trolley when the rain cleared. None of this was a big deal, it was all fine. It was summer, it wasn’t that cold.


We left behind, because we couldn’t carry it, the wooden structure we’d built for the screen, figuring it wasn’t going to go anywhere, given the weather (the storm) and how late it was, and how little it would be worth, being basically just a few pieces of timber, and how hidden it was from view, being so far back from the lit path (being, as it was, wholly in the dark), and how hard anyway it would be to take down, without a drill and a few people to pull three or four wooden stakes out of the ground, which would even then be difficult. I slept and I came back to the meadows in the morning early with a drill to take the wood apart but at 8am the whole thing was already gone. 

     -------> Strangers are outside: outside are strangers. When it comes down to it, the Exquisite Corpse film thing we ran was neither exemplary nor exceptional; the activity of doing it amounted to a stab in the dark at an archetypal kind of public art thing, its most and maybe only truly essential material and perhaps its only object (all it ever wanted) being the public that it sought to engage and activate: Other People. I don’t think it’s necessary to talk about the films in order to get at what it is that’s most potent in them: the films are great and you should watch them, but they are not an object in themselves - they are, rather, the material symptomatic of an effort to reach/bring about an object which remains elusive and is therefore probably better searched for in the conditions of its pursuit than in the work that marks it. I.e. CORPO.S, as a summative project, isn’t begging for analysis; to offer it would be to miss the point: in being in possession of some actual magic, it is neither exemplary nor exceptional. What might be exceptional about it, though, or at least unprecedented in relation to its muted sphere of influence, is the fact that it succeeded in a small way in doing something which ought to be basic but continuously turns out not to be, which is, without the complicity of public institutions, soliciting not only the attention but the activity of strangers. All this just to say: I think it’s really cool that there were some people who weren’t from or affiliated to the London art scene who participated in this little project we did and it’s remarkable and therefore worth thinking about why it is that that should be unusual or even a remotely big deal. 


Exquisite Corpse is not a game of our devising: we didn’t make it up, people do it all the time. The work (in this case, the films) produced in playing is not about Exquisite Corpse; Exquisite Corpse is just how you play. The game involves the passing of small acts of poeisis from hand to hand within a uniquely flexible obscurity afforded by the convention of near-total occlusion of your contribution and your relation to the rest of the game. It can be played endlessly and basically is, is played all the time; is essentially unrestricted by medium, and is a form itself, in a way as recognisable in art as is and ever was the sonnet or the landscape painting. It’s not an achievement, it’s an activity: precisely what it offers is activity where there might otherwise be none. In its call for playing dead, it invokes a capacity to incite an oft-foreclosed liveness. It’s a generic thing, and its generality is its magic and what’s great in it, and it ought to be left alone.  


Regarding what’s gone on here, we can, however, ask: if what it is is not an object in itself (if what it is is not its object), if it is a means to an end, what is its end? If it is an activity, then what is its activity? What does it do? What are we, who play it, doing? Despite or perhaps in tandem with the extreme genericism of Exquisite Corpse, any answer I can offer to this question is going to have to be specific, kind of niche, in this instance. All this comes from and likely doesn’t reach far beyond a particular situation, which is our situation - the vague encampment, perhaps, set out in the vague peripheries of art and culture and scholarship, as they operate in our locale, by an inevitably vast and often contradictory muss of affiliations to (e.g): AntiUniversity; various anti-capitalist ideological positions and political organisations; this publication (Eilidh); the people who Joe and I know and have access to, who, because we are not famous, are our friends. All the aforementioned in their different ways and to differing extents, in how they are of relevance to each other, have to them a certain glow which is more than just an aesthetic, which is the mark of being small-scale if not actually DIY and, if not actually underground, somewhat marginal; at least aspirationally kind of counternormative; not always (often not), but always at risk of being badly organised and ineffectual though usually well-intentioned and sometimes incredible, and almost always, most of the time, unpopular. The old glow of the not-shiny is recognisably a mark of what is called, but is rarely meaningfully, the ‘radical left’, even if that doesn’t cohere to much and means what it might mean only inconsistently. Such a trace/such a mark (you recognise as you recognise the fade of a home-printed zine, the projector screens of union meetings in community centres or town halls, the black soles on the feet of kids who live in their studio spaces; densely populated whatsapp chats (emoji polls); genuineness in old Rambler folk songs and Union hymns; dry hairgel sluggish at the collar of an old man’s biker jacket; Labour stickers scratched off of cargo bikes in January 2020, obscure internet queer meme aesthetics) indicative of certain decisions and commitments that tacitly or explicitly, with or without articulated reasoning or fully-coherent intent, have been made.


→ It can mean different things to be unpopular, in terms of earnestness and cynicism, in terms of knowingness. To be unpopular might be to be hated, but as it applies to the milieu we’re vaguely in and to which I’m now trying to refer, to be unpopular is to lack the interest or attention of many people (it’s not as though we can claim to be surprised that the conditions of mass culture preclude the would-be countercultural or the subcultural from mass-ness, or that unpopularity isn’t in small ways often an unabashed and explicit goal). Avant-garde art and counternormative aesthetics are unpopular sometimes on purpose, but left wing politics, which in the end do have to be reckoned with by claims to radicality, aren’t, or at least they oughn’t be. 


It’s not that we would call ourselves avant-garde, but what we like is avant-garde, and what we deride is rarely. More to the point, this isn’t about whether there’s such a thing as political art or what that would be, if it would/could be avant-garde, or if this is it. I don’t think Joe or I would say that we were engaged in the activity of making Art this spring and summer, and we definitely wouldn’t say that what we were doing was political, and we’d be right on both fronts, probably.  What I can say is that I don’t really know what we did and why we did it, but the fact that we did it anyway ought probably to be understood in relation to a desire for what’s good in art, and a desire for the political, even if we never expected it to be either of those things. The desire for the political is meaningfully distinct from the desire to do politics, though inevitably interconnected, often confusingly. Exquisite Corpse, then, as a form and, here, as the form which we engaged in order to make something happen, is charged with providing a means to an end. Coming up against things which we do often and which can’t quite be said to do what we want them to do but still serve a purpose, evidently, given the devotion with which we carry them out (for free, with great effort), we are compelled to ask not what is this but what do we imagine it to be?


We continue to expect the arrival of things which we are so rarely able to summon or encounter, like lovers circling the site of a glimpsed and gone romance. Fantasies take on forms, even if they end up being the wrong ones. They settle and once they’ve settled, maybe the only way to shake them loose again is to realise them, or to exhaust them in trying and failing, until they lose consequence and we can less painfully forget them. Most of us, when we think we’ve found the right form for longings which could be lifelong, will persevere with that form to the point of self-depletion. It’s not so simple, though, as to say that to abandon them is always right. If what you want seems often reasonably to be impossible, to remain committed to it necessarily will require some level of self-delusion in the face of disappointment. Again, that’s a general thing. When Joe and I conceived of doing this Exquisite Corpse film project, we originally had this vision we could only part-articulate, of us providing some kind of impetus and prompt/facilitation for ‘people’ ‘everywhere’, ‘all over the country’ to set up their own like DIY screenings in public space, in the street, wherever - the vision, never quite specific, was maybe of like flat blocks, post boxes, bridges, hedgerows and mountains and road signs, sheets hung out from people’s windows, slung between trees in public places, all serving as screens for projections of the finished film as we live-streamed it. Absolutely central to the fantasy is the absence of us, our anonymity, twinned with our relevance to the activity, and our understanding/our recognition of it. 


We were vaguely visualising, maybe, people hacking into the animated billboards in city centres and on motorways; someone daisy-chaining extension cords out of their living room window to play the livestream on a laptop out in their front garden, on the street. People organising zoom calls to teach each other how to improvise generators or whatever to power a soundsystem and a projector, and building screens - teaching each other how to build screens. People charged with energy like phantom ghosts that flit about the ordinary we can only imagine: we weren’t visualising specific people; all that could be said for certain is that the people were unrecognisable to us, they couldn’t have been our friends and they couldn’t have looked like us. In fantasising an erratic vision of people which wouldn’t linger on them once their presence was implied, we were visualising strangers - the general public. 


If I was pressed, I could elaborate visions as they came to me in this fantasy I never consciously authored. People stretching sheets over improvised frames of broken fences and open windows; of screens going up in fields and on beaches and in actually wild places on mountains and the tops of municipal buildings locked up to the virus, and of people arriving at them and sitting, in the dark, down, all anonymous to each other -- Other People, people I don’t know -- their faces swept clean by darkness haloed blue-ishly and barely by the dry glow of a projector they’ve borrowed from a furloughed office administrator. This wouldn’t have happened, though it could have. The vision moves me; though we know it to be foolish, I think it moves a lot of us. The imagination makes its impression felt through inexactitudes you return to and you find ways to share. As a fantasy, which is what, even if we realised it, it would probably still be, it’s kind of archetypal and kind of a genre in itself. As a genre of fantasy, it concerns, as fantasy does, a desire for something which is imaginable but beyond our reach: not impossible, but inaccessible to us. What’s most compelling in it perhaps is its twinned grandeur and humility: it doesn’t seek to gain anything, and it doesn’t seek the solving of a problem. Its vision doesn’t extend to an end, it’s barely able to contain its excitement (its anxiety, its nervous energy; its frustration; its need to concern everything) to settle on a single scene for long enough to ascertain anything other than the fact of the activity it hopes it could incite. Its dream is just that other people would turn out to not necessarily agree with you or be your friend or love you, but that it would be in some way possible to access each other in some vaguely affective way such that something could happen involving all of you but led by none of you. We could call this fantasy something to do with the rhizome or the Network and most of you would get the gist of what we’d mean. It strikes me that in articulating this we approach something like the longing that is behind almost every iteration of disastrous or merely disappointing attempts at non-hierarchical/rhizomatic/lateral/networked/acephalic organisation in and outside of the collaborative production of art. Longing has to do with fantasy, obviously; the most quotidian fantasies (of love, ambition, nationality, fame - of belonging) are distinctive in that they create situations in which we return to and persevere with what doesn’t work, what isn’t working. 


When little is working, fantasy is charged with a lot. The fantasy that animated Joe and I into doing this project is one which I am saying is generic and far-fetched and not limited to us or our milieu (to you). It’s what moves us in the videos of the quarantined Italian neighbours singing popular song from the windows of their decent housing. The fantasy is one of casual, mass participation, and in so being, it is a fantasy of figureless or even disfigured publicity; a fantasy of disembodied publicity. I suspect it is involved with the desire for the political as it might manifest in those who make not policy but art. The fantasy gestures towards a body politic or at least a collective subject that can operate and have agency without needing to borrow or take the form of the Public Figure (such that your work could ‘mean something’, and your life spent making it could ‘add up to something’, without you needing to become famous, given that you almost certainly will never be able to do that without at least partial complicity with normative institutions you are committed to refusing, and which you disavow). The fantasy is one of a reconfigured publicness, of publicity re-formed through a revision of the fantasy that gives it form, wherein it’s possible to uphold and tend to an active desire for the political without having to re-enter the normative public sphere. Where you could be unpopular and access others who are unpopular via a route which could bypass the popular and the normatively institutionalised. It’s a desire for a form of belonging which could include you without having much to do with you, allowing you to be imperfect and incoherent and weird and, perhaps most significantly for us, angry, but not with individual people: you love - you need - people. In this fantasy your anti-establishment aesthetics, your punk-ass clothes, would be able to in the same breath meaningfully say fuck you to the Tate and I love you to the millions of people who have a nice time there on a weekend visit sometimes. It is not a melodramatic fantasy even as it is spectacular. It turns out to want very little, but the little that it wants asks a lot. It is not a narrative fantasy, and its subjects, places -- its relevant characters and actors and specificities -- needn’t be stable, as far as it is concerned. It doesn’t demand of itself coherent narrative or conclusion of any kind; the only thing it reliably presents is the affect produced by a scene or a situation which is the fantasy’s object. We desire the scene because we imagine that its realisation would be evidence of something which we want and need and lack, the conditions under which the thing can happen. We try to give it form so that we can share it. 


It is a modest dream we dream often. Which we return to optimistically when we are optimistic and when we are very sad, when we have reasonable cause for despair. We don’t know what we’re expecting, we know what we don’t want. We struggle to know what we’re working with - we know what we lack. We lack, evidently, not number, but access to ourselves in being many. We ought to be able to speak in revolutionary terms about the fledgling and the very lame, if that is so often, in most places, all there is available to us, and even then not easily. 


We do weird things and we make stuff. We dress kind of well and kind of badly; we make music that mostly only we like. We come back to something like this fantasy all the time and pursue it, as best we can, not selflessly but to no applause and always-insufficient participation for the terms on which we dreamed of its worth. We are getting older and we are not becoming adults in the way that would be economically recognisable to those whose dreams of becoming-somebody in public are twenty, thirty years old; who are often our parents and our teachers and our idols and who might love us or who we might love. We have no reason to expect that things will get better; we expect that they will get worse. We do not have clear routes to the public we have reason to believe is the only source of power for the way out of the bullshit, who we need and who we hope need us. These are the fantasies we fuck around with and, when we can, we will exhaust ourselves in acts of pure devotion to give them form.   


→ → → →          What are we trying to do? We’re trying to keep going without the stuff we work hard to keep refusing, as well as all that has refused us. If you asked us why I think we’d mostly say something to the tune of we think the best of life lies with and among the people. But we don’t know the people and they don’t know us. They aren’t where we are and they rarely show up at all when we try in our haphazard ways to reach them. Any fantasy that would be serviceable to the effort of trying to do without all that we disavow will have to be able to sustain itself over long periods of inactivity and apparent futility - would have to be a fantasy of mass publicity and/or mass-ness in general which could tolerate extended periods of near-total solitude and deep and regular scenes of disappointment, long and early causes for despair. But it would also have to be able to sustain some level of immunity to a kind of self-enclosure wherein we are prone to foreclosing on those who we once were devoted to mobilising but who we’ve, it seems sometimes, given up on trying to rouse, because we’ve never seen it happen and have ceased to be able to believe that it ever will. Which is to say: such a fantasy would need to allow simultaneously for long periods of absolute inactivity and unresponsiveness from the public without foreclosing on its liveness, its constant potentiality for activation, and its constant omnipresence, even in apparent inactivity or chronic unavailability. 


And, all this just to say: I suppose whatever magic there is in the game Exquisite Corpse has to do with that - there’s something of that fantasy involved in the playing of the game. An aesthetic experience which provides a framework for you to participate in something which is mass-participatory without you needing other people to be immediately apparent in their presence there along with you - i.e. it’s a fantasy of collectivity which can tolerate inconsistency in its reality and irreality and can sustain itself through long periods in which it all seems thankless and futile and you are on your own, and could even handle the possibility that that might be all it ever comes to - just you on your own, maybe all wrong, trying. 


All this just to say: maybe it turns out that what’s good in the game Exquisite Corpse is that there’s something in the nebulous formalities of its activity that might give form if only vaguely and dimly to the fantasy I’m describing. 


If it does this, and I think it does, then its ability to do so has something to do with the way in which it affords its participants an anonymity which is not passive. In the game, when it’s your turn, all you get is a scrap of what you’re being passed, the tiniest indication of how you might fit yourself into the chain without being too greatly affected by what’s in there. The scrap passed on is the minimum frame to ascertain the presence of a stranger without being slipped a glimpse of them. The game is called Exquisite Corpse and we tried to be cool in calling our iteration of it CORPO.S but we were basically just trying to call it CORPSE; the name is not a metaphor, but it lends itself well to this fantasy as we played it out - if what we’re tracking is a fantasy that demands evidence of the activity of strangers without having to account for what that would be and who they are and why they are doing what they’re doing or if they care about you or if you care about them, then the fantasy is served well by casting the strangers as the playful dead. This, I think, is what we were implying. We play dead, in a way, maybe, when we go to lengths to pretend that we’re not doing anything, when we are. In our administration of the CORPO.S thing, Joe and I exaggerated the degree to which we were operating in anonymity, we played up to a vague persona of impersonality, taking obvious pleasure in the possibility that no one would know the emails they received were from us, that we were anonymous, and that in acting under such an anonymised though flimsy guise, we were deactivating the animacy of our actual selves, giving them the rest special to the socially dead (the anonymous: the strange). We did not consistently succeed in following this through entirely, but we kind of tried to prevent the participants from knowing who each other were, weakly but earnestly extending the obscurity of depersonalisation to them and asking them to don that guise and play that part in the playing. And as we played out this fantasy, we imagined the anonymous to be, playfully, the dead, and sat back to receive with wonderment their subsequent activity as evidence of a special magic, the ghostly goings-on of corpses. 


The dead are strangers. Or they might as well be, because though we can talk to them, we can’t expect a reply. We’ve never been able to achieve the popularity and the distinct form of publicity described by the fantasy that compels us. We can decide not to foreclose on the things we've never been able to summon/access, but to maintain faith that they're real and available and live, we need to sustain our activity with a fantasy fit to tolerate their continual absence; and it turns out that pretending they're dead weirdly works to keep them alive for the purposes of that effort. We made an open call, saying: hello, please join us. A lyrical address to the dead - apostrophe - works best when they are absent and you are affectively and mentally in sovereign control over the ways that they are ‘with’ you. The condition of that kind of expressive freedom is the absence of your interlocutors, whose death disables the potential anxiety of status shame, of guilt and fear of being caught out as being ideologically inconsistent, and enables the assertion of a defiant right to your engagement, your inclusion and involvement. To be honest one of the biggest barriers for people like us in ‘engaging the public’ is basically just that we’re worried we’ll embarrass ourselves and say the wrong thing and turn out to be imperfect and not able to easily act out our best intentions. 


The game sketches out the conditions for a scene that pesters adults who don’t know (might not know) each other into playing out scenarios of encounter, which is to say, scenarios of risk. Risky business, life in public; often thankless and almost always exhausting. It ought at least to be fun, sometimes. Actual collectivity is way more vulnerable-making and embarrassing than we sometimes let ourselves imagine. Exquisite Corpse provides, with a simplicity and a generality (an impersonality), the necessary conditions for the emergence of ways of engaging with strangers in a way that a) leaves their strangerhood intact, and b) facilitates collaboration without subjecting each stranger to the exhaustive demands of universality.


Regardless of whether every single one of the other participants was your close friend, the game provides a framework, more special than it seems, which mediates the relation between you and Other People as strangers. It is, I suppose, a scene of estrangement, for which the cost of entry is low. A reasonable ask. The very least. Your involvement in the thing that involves all of you is not contingent on your personality or what you do, beyond your participation. Mere attention brings the thing between us into being. Procedure becomes poiesis; is what it is. The formal protocol of the Exquisite Corpse game provides a decorum of anonymity and a form of mutual availability that doesn’t demand intimate access to the other - is, therefore, liveable. Sociability isn’t about nobility or even generosity. It’s not about friendship with others, either. Society is not friendly association with others; it’s friendly association without others, in the absence of the other, in the exhaustion of relational individuality. Obviously it’s a collective thing, but we’re not trying to make a community; it’s an exercise in low-light, weeknight publicity: pale neon and low-love, low-energy, low-cost exchange of dubious sociality and merely fleeting presence in the room, and how might that be enough.