Anyone who says they don’t want to be part of a secret society is lying. They are common enough in pop culture and in conspiracy theories that each of us has a vague image of rituals, hooded figures, and ancient artefacts that are locked away in vaults. There is, of course, the darker side to this idea in the form of the Illuminati or the Bilderberg group, but more often than not they carry with them a sense of prestige, mystery, and knowledge. In Bright Axiom offers yet another perspective on the idea of a secret society; one that foregrounds community and wonder rather than power and exclusivity. Artist/Filmmaker Spencer McCall gives us an inside perspective on the ‘start-up’ secret society/art installation/immersive theatre piece ‘The Latitude Society’.
At first this film feels like an undercover expose on some chilling new secret society that the filmmaker encountered and just happened to document. The real world events and activities of The Latitude Society unfold alongside a fabricated legend behind the society and its world view. These scenes of the film are akin to the story elements of the hugely popular game ‘The Room Pocket’ and its sequels. All under the covenant of ‘absolute discretion’, we hear from members and founders alike, still pondering where the line of reality and fantasy should be drawn. However, the film takes a sharp turn around three quarters of the way through and it becomes very obvious that not only is The Latitude Society some form of hugely expensive art piece, but also that it is pay to play. What starts off as a questionable but engaging spiritual journey slowly starts to remind one of the doomed Fyre festival.
McCall does an excellent job of immersing the audience in the world of The Latitude Society, it almost feels as if we were chosen ourselves. He recreates the events and scavenger hunts of ‘Book 1’ and ‘Book 2’ of the society with precise detail that make you want to follow the breadcrumb trail and it feels completely believable that this was made to uncover some dark, hidden secret. This journey is well complemented by interviews with members and organisers that add their experiences to the images of low-lit hallways, meandering journeys through the woods, and a bizarre holographic creature that shows up throughout the film.
It is hard to know where the line between fact and fiction is drawn, which appears to be absolutely intentional. The society is presented as a magical experience that a few select people were able to experience. It has everything from a not-quite-helpful deity to an arch-rival, much like the Templars to the Assassins in Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed franchise. In fact, there are many similarities to the ideologies of the Assassins to the Latitude society: a belief in a better, freer state of being if we can just throw off the chains of our rigid oppressors.
However the most fascinating part of this documentary is the interview segments with artist and creator Jeff Hull. At first he is just one more voice in a sea of people who had a profound experience with The Latitude Society. He gives his interview dressed as Max from Where the Wild Things Are which arguably suggests that he is the ruler of the realm known as childhood. What becomes clear through his interview is that The Latitude Society is an art piece. It is not a social experiment, it is not a cult, it is not a support network. Some further research into Jeff reveals that this is not the first time one of his experimental, immersive art pieces has had an unprecedented effect on the people who choose to answer the call.
The problems arose when the creators of the society asked their members— who believed it was something unique and special— to pay for the experience. This is when the society broke down. Those in charge saw it, to an extent, as a product to monetise. Members could buy merchandise but that is psychologically different to a monthly fee. They were now being asked to pay for the magic and wonder that gave them something they were sorely lacking. Here the filmmaker lands slightly on the side of the artists, which is unsurprising as Spencer McCall is a collaborator of Hull’s.
In Bright Axiom is part punch drunk- esque immersive theatre experience, part expose on the decay of a tech-start-up-cum-secret-society that grew out of the creator’s hands. It’s a psychedelic escape from the tedium of lock-down, and an insight into the greater potential of art to impact our experiences. However it is also a warning. The Latitude Society would not have been a success if people didn’t believe in it, but that belief is ultimately what caused it’s closure. Spencer McCall takes us through this journey both as an initiate and architect, in a slow, but well-made docu-fantasy that is as thought-provoking as it is bizarre.
In Bright Axiom is available on VOD on July 14th
by Mia Garfield