Chaos is a “headless” band of roughly 80 humans who converged in 2022 on the SongCamp network. Three months of collaboration there yielded 45 songs and a glut of layered imagery—in the tens of thousands of visuals—plus custom smart contracts and a minting website. Combined, these materials were deployed toward the launch of a collection of mixed-media NFTs. Open your Chaos Pack NFT—an onchain action subject to a small gas fee—and the pack is digitally destroyed, like the discardable wrapper around a set of trading cards. Four NFTs are minted to your wallet, each token associated with its own song. The sound-image combinations are not static: they are randomized, the album’s art and music associated by surprise according to when you personally release it. The collection, the SongCamp blog informs us, may or may not contain hidden tracks.
Chaos members’ individual occupations, listed in descending order according to approximate volume, include musician, visual artist, “operative,” developer, radio producer, economist, scribe, and lore master. Beyond tech and creative, lore is what fuels Chaos, distinguishing the band through a mythology of headlessness. Theirs is not the first artistic experiment to use this symbolism. Headlessness has been a favorite theme of various past avant-gardes, particularly those seeking radical artistic and political change during times of upheaval and transformation. The head is a symbol of the status quo, of authority, of hierarchy, of oppressive structures of power. Its absence or removal thus conveys freedom from rules and from rulers, suggesting the possibility of escape from the tyranny of the system—of undivided collectivity. In embracing headlessness, Chaos brings a potent art historical premise to Web3.
The removal of the head is also associated with modernity, of both technology and ideas. Beheadings have inherent subversion; they convey a reclamation, a shift in power that favors the marginalized. We look back at the headless relics of Antiquity and, in the sculptures of Ancient Greece, we see the dawn of democracy. When French revolutionaries rolled out the guillotine in 1789, the device was seen as a humane invention, introduced to kill the monarchs whose grisly medieval practices it would replace with new, Enlightenment ideals. During the interwar period, surrealists seeking liberation from the limitations of reason itself looked to headlessness as a means of escaping the mind, at least as it is institutionally received. Then, facing the carnage of WWII, they used the same anti-dualist metaphor to facilitate their exploration of alternatives to the dualling, equally oppressive political systems—fascism and communism—between which they felt trapped.
Most of these glorifications of beheading failed in their attempts at real liberation, however. The French Revolution gave way to a period of bloodshed, and the guillotine became a mascot for the Reign of Terror. The imperialist and capitalist model its luminaries ushered in did little to democratically redistribute power or bring agency to the masses. We find ourselves once more at a time of accelerated technological development, in which the blockchain, for many, offers revolutionary possibility—even, as we see elsewhere in this magazine, providing solutions in war. If Chaos’ lore fits within a history of creative collective interest in headlessness, looking to examples from the past may shed light on how to safely lose our heads in the Web3 space, avoiding the old pitfalls. This is probably an impossible task: dualism, as we will see in the case studies that follow, is a high-security prison. It is in homage to that impossibility that we have chosen a two-part structure to profile something that rejects binaries; that the first part attempts to shrink the head of an entity we know to be without one; and that the second part is fragmented, incomplete, and very likely biased toward the very canon it seeks to reject. What follows is a psychological survey responded to by an unknowable number of Chaos creators, accompanied by annotations that gesture, brutally briefly, toward a history of headlessness in art from the Enlightenment period to our own. What follows is Chaos.
Headless Survey: Here’s a selection of responses curated, chaotically and intercut with headless annotations.
How did you get here?
Escaped the backrooms of Twitter.
When did you get here?
Same time as Cartoon Network.
Do you plan on staying?
I’m not logging off.
Where else could you go, do you imagine?
Back in time, to Paris in the 20s.
What is your idea or definition of “headlessness”?
Not being led by a single individual, rather by an entity. The identity is the absence of it.
Why is it interesting to be headless today?
It’s interesting to be headless today because it’s always interesting to be headless on all days.
What is difficult about being headless?
Being headless is difficult because the human ego still exists whether you’re headless or not.
What are some other examples of headlessness that you have observed outside of Chaos in the world today?
The early internet, Mondragon, and mycelium.
What is your idea or definition of “chaos”?
What are some examples of chaos in the world that have informed this view?
Nature. All human behavior. Humans trying to make sense of life. Humans trying to survive. Humans trying to create. Everything is chaotic, all sense of static order is chaos in disguise.
Surveying paintings, sculptures, and drawings, Julia Kristeva’s The Severed Head: Capital Visions is “a study of the head as symbol and metaphor, as religious object and physical fact,” further developing the art historian and psychoanalyst’s famed critique of “the power of horror” and expanding it to explore “the potential for the face to provide an experience of the sacred.” To continue citing Kristeva’s publisher, Columbia University Press:
“Kristeva considers the head as icon, artifact, and locus of thought, seeking a keener understanding of the violence and desire that drives us to sever, and in some cases keep, such a potent object. Her study stretches all the way back to 6,000 B.C.E., with humans’ early decoration and worship of skulls, and follows with the Medusa myth; the mandylion of Laon (a holy relic in which the face of a saint appears on a piece of cloth); the biblical story of John the Baptist and his counterpart, Salome; tales of the guillotine; modern murder mysteries; and even the rhetoric surrounding the fight for and against capital punishment. Kristeva interprets these ‘capital visions’ through the lens of psychoanalysis, drawing infinite connections between their manifestation and sacred experience and very much affirming the possibility of the sacred, even in an era of ‘faceless’ interaction.”
Quotes from The Severed Head may interfere with the other annotations that follow. [KRISTEVA QUOTE : “It is not surprising to see beheadings appear in the midst of schisms and discord—other ways of separating, of splitting off, of pulling away. Dante had already expressed this when he placed his decapitation victims in the ninth bolgia in the eighth circle of Hell.”]
Can headlessness be, paradoxically, a state of mind?
A state of mind only in the softened etheric body of the collective. It can not be achieved by a singular state of mind—shared perspective is a requirement.
What other organs—or systems of organization— do you find useless or overrated?
Reed, piped church…
On what occasion, if any, is a head useful?
A head is useful if you look good in a hat.
What do you most dislike about the idea of the head?
You can get stuck in there.
Which living person, entity, system, or institution do you most despise?
Social media and its effects on the human psyche.
Judith’s beheading of Holofernes was a popular subject in the artistic production of the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Donatello’s famous depiction in bronze shows the virtuous Hebrew widow with her blade raised, about to strike down the Assyrian general who tormented her—a scene often interpreted to be symbolic, in early Renaissance Florence, of the courage of the commune against the tyranny of foreign powers that threatened its independence. Judith figures in art historian Susan L. Smith’s doctoral dissertation, “Power of Women,” which describes the preponderance at the time of depictions of “an admonitory and often humorous inversion of the male-dominated sexual hierarchy.” Writing on the same topos, Hélène Cixous remarks: “Unlike man, who holds so dearly to his title and his titles, his pouches of value, his cap, crown, and everything connected with his head, woman couldn’t care less about the fear of decapitation (or castration), adventuring, without the masculine temerity, into anonymity, which she can merge with without annihilating herself: because she’s a giver.”
In a somewhat different camp, in Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes In the Art of the Renaissance, Erwin Panofsky famously uses paintings of Holofernes’ demise to demonstrate the importance of iconology, describing at length what makes Judith imagery differ from representations of another biblical figure, Salome, who is also often depicted with the head of her victim. It might be considered ironic that Panofsky should have chosen a visual of beheading to demonstrate the importance of iconographic knowledge.
Which living person, entity, system, or institution do you most admire?
I’ve been thinking a lot about Bitcoin but I haven’t got any.
Do you think about Chaos and headlessness in terms of dualism, or in terms of offering an alternative to dualism?
A dualistic counterweight.
Are there ways of talking about Web3 that you find useless, counter-productive, dangerous, or otherwise problematic?
Disregarding the elements of Web2 that actually worked.
What do you like most about Web3 in general?
It offers a sandbox of creative expression while offering a substrate for new structures to emerge.
What do you like most about the language of Web3?
That it pulls from all different knowledge domains from culture to technology and politics to economics.
What do you feel is missing from the promises and/ or language of Web3?
Independent artists collectively making a balanced living from their art on the blockchain versus venture capitalists with bad taste in art.
If you could change one thing about the “space,” what would it be?
That extended chunky font that people keep using.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
The Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (Encyclopedia, or a Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts) was a general encyclopedia published in France between 1751 and 1772. Edited by Denis Diderot and, until 1759, Jean le Rond d’Alembert, it had many writers, belonging in large part to a bourgeois circle of “men of letters” known as the philosophes. Advocating for secularism and the democratization of knowledge, the work is known as the ultimate representation of the Enlightenment thought associated with the French Revolution and the birth of liberalism. More than 100 contributors to the encyclopedia have been identified, and many entries are not signed, their authors wishing to remain anonymous. Diderot signed the article on the “Encyclopedia” itself, however, expressing a desire to change the way people think. He describes a task that is impossible to achieve alone: “[O]ne will never bring a good dictionary into being without the help of a large number of different talents, because ... things can only be well defined or described by those who have long studied them .... A general analytical dictionary of the sciences and arts cannot, therefore, be the work of a single man. I will go farther: I do not think it can be the work of any of the literary or scientific societies now existing, either separately or collectively.”
The surgical techniques and instruments described and depicted in the Encyclopédie include trepanning, an intervention in which a hole is drilled into the skull. The unsettling treatment was not new in the 18th century, but had long been practiced on individuals behaving abnormally as a means of ridding them of evil spirits. Trepanation can be seen as a precursor to lobotomy. The section of the Encyclopédie focused on surgery also includes papers by Antoine Louis, the surgeon and physiologist who designed the prototype for the guillotine. For this reason, the mechanical executioner was initially called a louisette. Then it was renamed for Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, a doctor and medical reform advocate who, having failed to successfully abolish capital punishment, proposed that “the criminal shall be decapitated,” solely by means of “a machine that beheads painlessly.”
[KRISTEVA QUOTE: “In the end, as a requisite homage to Guillotin, it had to be called the guillotine for good. Some resistance, however weak, could be glimpsed here and there. It was hard to find a craftsman to make the fatal cleaver. The government’s official carpenter, Guidon, prepared an exorbitant estimate: and didn’t the tradition of the carpenters’ guild forbid them from working on instruments of torture? In the end, a German from Strasbourg was recruited, Tobias Schmidt, harpsichord maker and sometime musician. The beheading machine had to be made by the rules of art: heads would be cut with a harpsichord’s precision!”
Can you imagine any other time, space, or context in which Chaos could exist?
Of course: it could exist in the past, it could exist in the future, it could exist on Mars, it could exist anywhere and whenever humans might find it useful to gather.
How is Chaos a response to “our times”?
“Our times” for musicians, anyway, includes an online world where everything we do is moderated by a middleman. Social media platforms demand free content from us, streaming platforms pay very little, touring is less and less viable. Chaos takes back the creative means of production.
Do you believe in (linear) “time”?
No way, yaw on.
Do you believe in the notion of “the self” or “selfhood”?
Yes, but I think we’re all the same self.
Diderot had fallen out with d’Alembert when he fictionalized his former Encyclopédie colleague in D’Alembert’s Dream. Initially published anonymously, the work consists in three imagined philosophical dialogues covering such colorful topics as bestiality, masturbation, spontaneous generation, and how trepanning proves the material basis of thought by demonstrating that brain function changes in response to applied pressure. During the titular dream, d’Alembert talks in his sleep, speculating on a future human form that is the opposite of headless: “The original shape of a creature degenerates or perfects itself through necessity and habitual functioning. We walk so little, work so little but think so much that I wouldn’t rule out that man might end by being nothing but a head.”
What is an individual?
An island in search of a shipwreck.
What is your most valued means of communication?
What is the importance of using images as part of the practice of a headless band?
Well it is crucial as it gives us a face :) (or less poetically, a brand).
Is the headless entity a hero/is headlessness heroic?
Selflessness can be heroic, but in this case, I think no.
What do you value most about the idea or possibility of anonymity?
Accountability can be a real subjective beast.
What do you find to be negative about the idea or possibility of anonymity?
Accountability can be a real blessing.
The Radical’s Arms is a satirical etching by English caricaturist George Cruikshank originally published on November 13, 1819. The British Museum’s description of this work reveals a critique of the function and symbolism of the guillotine, and the contradictions between the ideology the machine claimed to represent and the reality of its gruesome deployment:
“A guillotine with a raised triangular blade represents the escutcheon. On the blade are (left to right) a very rampant and realistic tiger, with paws dripping blood, a shouting mannikin [wearing a strait-jacket], a fool’s cap, a dagger. In the space below the blade is a terrestrial globe, on fire and topsy-turvy (cf. No. 13274): the letter ‘S’ where the North Pole should be, the letter ‘N’ below. The letters ‘W’ and ‘E’ are similarly reversed and placed upside down. A male (left) and female (right) Radical stand one on each side of the guillotine, as supporters. Both are degraded members of the underworld. Each stands under a noose suspended from a cross-beam of the guillotine, projecting on both sides to form gibbets. The man has a long distorted neck, encircled by a rope, as if he had been cut down from a gallows. In his hat is a tricolour cockade. He holds up a knife dripping blood and a glass of gin, grinning with gap-toothed ferocity. On One of his bandy legs is a broken shackle. A pistol and two purses project from his coat-pocket, and two bunches of ill-gotten seals hang from his waist. He tramples on a book of ‘The Laws’, and a broken pair of scales, emblem of Justice. At his feet are also ‘Magna Cha[rta]’, ‘[Bill] of Rights’, a broken sword, a mitre, and coronet. The woman is a fat trollop, sturdier but if possible more degraded than the man; she holds up a bottle of ‘Blue Ruien’ [sic, = gin] and a glass. Her pocket is stuffed with purses, her dress is torn, her legs partly covered with tattered stockings; she tramples on a Bible inscribed ‘I H S’, beside which lie a crosier, cross, and broken chalice. At her feet are two papers: ‘Social Order’ and ‘Virtue’. On the ground between the Radicals, and immediately below the neck aperture of the guillotine, from which blood is streaming, lies a royal crown, reversed. The guillotine is surmounted by the crest: two headsman’s axes, from which blood streams, centred by a large cap of Liberty, with tricolour cockade. To this two lighted candle-ends are fixed (as in the caps of sewer-men, &c.). The motto is ‘No God! No Religion! No King! No Constitution.’”
It should be noted that Cruikshank’s social satire, which attacked the royal family and political leadership across party lines, was also often racist, anti-feminist, and/or xenophobic. He was a hard drinker turned fanatical teetotaler whose mores swung, pendulum-style, between what would have been viewed in his lifetime as good and bad behavior. Despite his large illegitimate family, his obituary in Punch magazine read: “There never was a purer, simpler, more straightforward or altogether more blameless man. His nature had something childlike in its transparency.”
What is enlightenment, and is it desirable?
To be honest, I’ve been on the quest and it feels like a dead end.
What is a “community”?
A group of people coordinating together around a shared value or resource.
What is a “band”?
A group of people producing goods/services/experiences to bring to a marketplace.
What historical event or phenomenon are you most invested in not repeating or continuing?
The Bubonic Plague.
The term Gesamtkunstwerk, a German loan word meaning “total work of art,” was coined, but not invented, by Richard Wagner in 1849. The composer saw the synthesis of every creative form to be the “artwork of the future,” and opera as the Gesamtkunstwerk’s prime expression. Today we seem to strive for artistic totality outside the theater as well, seeking fusion in fashion shows, augmented reality, and in multimedia drops on the blockchain.
What would you like to die?
What are you?
I am a Twitter account.
What is your relationship to mythology?
I create my own daily.
What is the best way to create a myth?
Are you concerned with the notion or sense of having control?
Yes, control creates chaos.
Why do you use theatrical structures (“acts,” etc)?
Because it’s always better to play.
Are you a Gesamtkunstwerk (“Total work of art”)?
Living and breathing, baby
What scares you most about the “Gesamtkunstwerk”?
The need for authoritative evidence.
THE ORIGIN OF THE WORLD
L’Origine du monde (The Origin of the World) was painted in oil on canvas by Gustave Courbet in 1866. The work depicts a nude woman lying on a bed with her legs slightly spread and is famous for its close-up of the model’s vulva. Her head is not pictured, her figure cut down to her torso and thighs. Yet in 2013 the French tabloid Paris Match reported that an expert had authenticated a painting of a young woman’s face and shoulders as L’Origine’s upper half and suggested that it had been severed from the original work. The subject, in other words, had been beheaded.
[KRISTEVA QUOTE: “The king is not looking at the severed head; no one looks at a severed head except art lovers, voyeurs like you and me.”]
Are you concerned with or practicing numerology?
I use it to justify my life crises pending on the year.
What are some significant numbers to you, and what do they mean?
Zero. In computer science, a program starts with zero. This to me signifies the start of something new, interesting, or novel. This also can signify a blank slate. The zero can also be seen as a circle, looping around and around and around.
If generosity is something of intrinsic value, what makes it so?
Wholehearted acceptance of the gift makes it so.
What is important about games and playing them?
That they end.
What is fearsome about games and playing them?
I think games, at their worst, can manipulate. If your labor is being gamified you need to pause and make sure that labor is also being fairly compensated (with money or knowledge or enough fun to make it worthwhile).
This 20th-century artistic, literary, and intellectual movement emerged in France in the aftermath of World War I. During the war, André Breton, the “pope” and accepted founder of surrealism, served in a neurological hospital for veterans suffering from shell shock where psychoanalysis was used therapeutically. Sigmund Freud’s theories of dreams and the subconscious would also inform surrealism, which Breton defined in his 1924 Surrealist Manifesto as “psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express ... the actual functioning of thought ... in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.” Automatic drawing and writing were core elements of surrealist practice. Dream and trance states served an escape from the rational mind, a jailbreak from the head.
Headlessness, appropriately, figured often in surrealist art and writing. Max Ernst’s 1929 La femme 100 têtes (The Hundred Headless Woman) is a particularly explicit expression of the theme. The artist’s first collage novel, it was made from chopped-up illustrated publications from the 19th century, reassembled and re-captioned to introduce the adventures of Loplop the Bird Superior, a recurring character in Ernst’s work. The book’s English title loses a double entendre in its French one, which can be read as “the hundred headless woman” or “the hundred-headed woman.” In the surrealist lexicon, however, having many heads was akin to having no heads; the real thing to avoid was only having one.
Is there a hierarchy of the senses, and what is it?
Hearing, seeing, touching, smelling, tasting.
What makes something valuable?
What makes something humorous?
My grandpa said there wasn’t much funny about humor.
This rare medical condition, in which humans and other animals are born with more than one head, is rarely survived into adulthood. As a trope of literature and mythology, however, polycephaly is both prolific and enduring. Ancient Greek legend features an entire polycephalous family. Typhon, the father, is a many-headed serpentine giant who attempts to overthrow Zeus and fails, landing himself in Tartarus, or hell for Titans. His children include Cerberus, the multi-headed dog who guards the gates to Hades, and the Lernaean Hydra, the sea snake whose body replaces every lopped off head with two more. Almost invariably, these creatures are depicted as monsters, and share a similar fate with their father: they are either killed or captured by a single-headed hero. The only Greek god said to have more than one head was Hecate, and she presided over witches and crossroads.
Polycephalous beings play the role of monstrous villain in most mythological traditions, with the notable exception of Hinduism, where four-headed Brahma, five-headed Gayatri, and six-headed Kartikeya—to name just three—are worshiped. The Romans also celebrated a multi-headed god, which, unlike the majority of their pantheon, was entirely their own: Janus, the god of gates, was equipped with two heads joined into one so that he could look backward and forward at once, and thus preside over beginnings and ends alike.
Where is the humor in order?
Where is the humor in disorder?
What is the creative function of entropy?
I think entropy is a creative function of existence.
What is your favorite metaphor?
As deep as the ocean. So above is so below.
What is an example of a good joke?
I am tragically unfunny.
What is your relationship to spirituality?
Energy rules everything.
How would you describe what you “do”?
I exist and create light and transmute darkness into light.
What is the creation mythology of Chaos?
A gift from Eris.
Created by Georges Bataille, Acéphale (1936–1939) was a public journal of religion, sociology, and philosophy, and a secret esoteric society whose members were sworn to secrecy. The project’s name is derived from the Greek akephalos, meaning “headless” or “without a chief.” In print and in practice, Acéphale condemned fascism, hierarchy, and the human head itself—a symbol of the oppressiveness of the Enlightenment view of “reason.” The headless Acéphale mascot, like all the journal’s illustrations, was created by André Masson, and is described by Bataille in the first issue:
“Man escaped his head like a prisoner escapes prison. Beyond himself he found, not God who is the prohibition of crime, but a being who does not know prohibition. Beyond what I am, I encounter a being who makes me laugh because he is headless, who fills me with anguish because he is made up of innocence and crime: he holds an iron weapon in his left hand, flames like a Sacred Heart in his right hand. In a single refinement, he unites Birth and Death. He is not a man. Neither is he a god. He is not me, but he is more than me: his belly is the maze in which he loses his way, loses me with him, and in which I find myself again being him, that is to say, a monster.” – Georges Bataille, “The Sacred Conspiracy,” Acéphale, 1936
Acéphale devoted a double issue to reclaiming Friedrich Nietzsche from the fascists; its other heroes included Dionysus, Don Juan, the Minotaur, Søren Kierkegaard, Heraclitus, and the Marquis de Sade. Bataille used the word “acéphale” to describe a “universe characterized by risk rather than responsibility; the opposite of a ‘state.’” The group considered themselves “ferociously religious,” and the periodical advocated, with verve, for a sacrificial “practice of joy before death.” Soon, Acéphale became perturbed by its own agenda: with fascism on the rise in Europe, it was impossible to celebrate the idea of beheading. Acéphale disbanded in 1939, very shortly before the outbreak of World War II, its members horrified by their own celebration of violence as their comrades faced literal execution. The project and its ideology have thus come to be best known as failures. Acéphale has also been called a “successful impossibility.”
[KRISTEVA QUOTE: “Inner experience is a transubstantiation that necessitates a beheading, a traversal of consciousness so that the inferno of the void can be revealed.”]
What mythologies has Chaos inherited?
Greed, envy, joy, transformation, reward, balance.
What is the image that best represents Chaos?
100 minus 23 times 1000 little squares on a screen.
What is the image that best represents headlessness?
There is no singular image.
What is the sound that best represents the collective?
Synth C minor 7 chords in Ableton Live.
Does being physically apart from others make it easier or more difficult to be headless?
It’s much easier to see the body from this far away.
Self-described as a Stockholm-based “artist subject,” Goldin+Senneby have been exploring the structural correspondence between conceptual art and finance capital since 2004—an investigation in which headlessness has played a critical role. In a body of work known as Headless (2007–2015), they investigate offshore finance and its production of virtual space through legal code.
When did you first realize you were headless?
When I was in the dream.
You have no head; do you fear loss of any kind?
I’m sorry I have to refuse to play in this thought exercise because I believe everyone should keep their head.
How do you wish to live?
What do you think about artificial intelligence?
It’s a positive thing, but we’ll turn it into a negative.
Do you believe in the possibility of the “new”?
You knew it.
In 2022, Chaos is where headlessness meets Web3. From the group’s website, chaos.build: “80 human beings from all over the world have converged on the Songcamp server and committed to 8 weeks of collective creation. Of these 80 individuals: 45 are musicians, 9 visual artists, 6 engineers, 5 radio producers, 3 economists, 2 lore masters and 7 operatives gluing it all together. The result: a headless band called Chaos, accompanied by a music NFT project like you’ve never seen before.”