The International Necronautical Society is a semi-fictional organization closely modeled on European avant-gardes of the early 20th century. It replays, not without parody, the politically-inflected structures of these avant-gardes, with their manifestoes, committees, splinter groups and purges. At the same time the INS makes use of these structures to generate artistic projects that explore the relations between death and representation. The representation of physical death, as in obituaries and memorials, is only a starting point for the INS’s exploration of the ways that all representations inhabit a zone of conceptual death. Death, that is, is viewed by the INS as “a cipher for the outer limit of description, for the point at which the code breaks down” (Verhagen 2004). The founder and General Secretary of the INS is Tom McCarthy, the artist, writer and theorist.
Of the numerous philosophical influences on the INS’s conception of death the main one is Maurice Blanchot, in such essays as “Literature and the Right to Death,” “The Gaze of Orpheus,” and “The Essential Solitude.” The conceptual “space” explored in Blanchot’s book The Space of Literature becomes, in the INS’s first manifesto , an outer space navigated by “necronauts” engaged in a tongue-in-cheek version of imperialism. The manifesto asserts “that death is a type of space, which we intend to map, enter, colonise and, eventually, inhabit.” Mapping, the first step in this process, has for its paradoxical model the completely blank map depicted in Lewis Carroll’s "The Hunting of the Snark"; this is discussed in the First Report of the General Secretary of the INS, whose title, Navigation Was Always a Difficult Art, is a quotation from Carroll’s poem. The manifesto later promises “to bring death out into the world. We will chart all its forms and media: in literature and art, where it is most apparent; also in science and culture, where it lurks submerged but no less potent for the obfuscation.” The INS aims to construct a “craft” which, beyond the implied spacecraft, is a matter of artistic and critical techniques. This craft, the manifesto says, “will convey us into death in such a way that we may, if not live, then at least persist.” Other key themes of the INS are repetition, especially in its relations with Freud’s death drive; encryption (codes but also psychoanalytical crypts as described by Nicholas Abraham and Maria Torok in The Wolf Man’s Magic Word: A Cryptonomy ISBN 0-8166-4858-1); mourning; and the role of a materialist practice in this mapping of death.
The INS was launched in 1999 at a London “articultural fair” organized by Gavin Turk, where McCarthy handed out 200 copies of the First Manifesto. Its precedents were documents such as Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto, and semi-parodic artistic organizations like Neue Slowenische Kunst and the Association of Autonomous Astronauts, both of which McCarthy had encountered in the 1990s. (For an interview between McCarthy and the AAA, see: http://www.necronauts.org/interviews.htm). It falls into the category of what historian/curator Inke Arns has called “post-historical” avant-gardes (Arns 2004).
The INS almost immediately attracted the attention of the art world, with London’s Lux Gallery inviting the INS to hold its first AGM there in July 2000. In 2001 London’s Austrian Cultural Forum invited the INS to take up a two-week residency in their gallery space, reconceived as the “Office of Anti-Matter.” There the INS summoned 20 cultural practitioners, including philosopher Simon Critchley, novelist Will Self, and writer/artist Stewart Home in order to “interrogate” them on the Society’s concerns. The General Secretary’s report on this residency was published as "Navigation Was Always a Difficult Art" (Vargas 2002).
In 2002 McCarthy announced in a radio interview that the INS would be setting up a radio station to broadcast illicit messages in the style of the dead poet Cegeste in Jean Cocteau’s 1950 film Orphee. In preparation for this, a second set of hearings was held in November 2002 in London’s Cubitt Gallery. Cultural practitioners with experience in radio—including artist Cerith Wynn Evans, activist Heath Bunting and novelist Ken Hollings—were publicly interrogated in a room arranged by set designer Laura Hopkins to resemble a combination of Stalinist show trials and Un-American Activities Committee hearings. Out of this event emerged the Second General Secretary’s Report, titled Calling All Agents (Vargas 2003). The radio station itself was installed in London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts in a room designed—again by Laura Hopkins—to resemble a World War II “Operations Room.” Forty assistants cut up and mixed both “live” and “archaic” text garnered from sources as diverse as newspapers, radio, television, Ovid and Robert Graves. These were projected onto the walls and re-arranged according to what the INS called “technical and metrical procedures” arrived at by following various poetic forms such as the sonnet and the villanelle. The texts created in this way were transmitted around London by FM and via internet around the world to collaborating stations in the US, Europe and Australasia.
In 2004 the INS opened an office in Berlin, declaring it to be the “World Capital of Death.” The artist Anthony Auerbach, who holds the position of INS Chief of Propaganda, did field work in the city to seek out sites where the traces of death had most evidently been erased, especially monuments and memorials. These were surveyed using “low altitude aerial surveys”—that is, close-up photography of the pavement at each site. This material was then interpreted using, among other things, a painstaking inventory carried out by professional accountants of each grain of sand visible on the surface of the photographs.
Other projects carried out by the INS include the infiltration of the BBC website with INS propaganda; the reenactment before a grid and then inside a wind tunnel of a Mafia shootout in Amsterdam; a “Declaration Concerning the Relationship Between Art and Democracy” that begins with the axiom “good art despises democracy to the same measure as bad democracy covets art.”