Putting the capital in decapitation

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Goldin+Senneby, Headless, 2007- (Photo: John Barlow)

As a lead-up to the Headless Conference, co-organizer Ginny Kollak shares her essay “Putting the capital in decapitation” which is excerpted from the brochure accompanying the exhibition “The Office for Parafictional Research Presents Headless: Work by Goldin+Senneby” on view through March 21 at CCS Bard. The Headless Conference is a mini-symposium for this exhibition.

Goldin+Senneby is the identity-resistant “framework for collaboration” established by Stockholm-based artists Simon Goldin and Jakob Senneby in 2004. An interest in capitalist logic and networked culture guides their investigative practice, which explores juridical, financial, and spatial infrastructures through performance and role-playing, invented (and often virtual) realities, writing and publishing, and public interventions.

Headless (2007-) is the artists’ ongoing analysis of the shadowy realm of offshore finance. The subject represents a nearly perfect encapsulation of Goldin+Senneby’s many preoccupations, but perhaps its most relevant feature is its provocative and strategic use of masking, secrecy, and withdrawal. The system is evasive by definition: its procedures allow a company’s assets to be protected from taxation or other bureaucratic regulation, and the identities of its owners and their true business practices can be concealed. In spatial terms, examining an offshore company can be thought of as encountering a space that shifts readily from an impenetrable barrier to an empty void—like a hologram, it appears and disappears according to the perspective from which it is viewed. From a moral standpoint, offshore’s slippery visage is just as apt to inspire bored yawns as righteous indignation: one man’s exploitation is another’s tedious paperwork. Still, like most unknown territories, offshore triggers mainly sinister readings. A more anthropomorphic understanding might conceive the offshore company as something monstrous—a decentralized, elusive body that moves without any visible means of control—a headless organization.

Headless Ltd is a real company registered in the Bahamas, one of a number of sun-soaked former British colonies in which the offshore financial industry flourishes. The company is the focal point for Goldin+Senneby’s multivalent inquiry, whose numerous manifestations—texts, performances, interventions, and illustrations—take place in the open and behind closed doors.

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Goldin+Senneby, Headless, 2007- (Photo: John Barlow)

All of these actions are accounted for in one way or another through the project’s ghostwritten novel. Called Looking for Headless, its plot hits on all the major conventions of mass-market thrillers—surveillance, double agents, paranoia, and so forth—while tracing the actions of artists Simon Goldin and Jakob Senneby as they enlist a group of co-conspirators (some of them unwitting) to help investigate Headless Ltd. But the whole thing, it seems, may also be the brainchild of a “fictional author” known as K.D., formerly an employee of Sovereign Trust, the real-life corporation that handles the day-to-day administration of countless offshore companies, including—at least until very recently—Headless Ltd.

And yet there is another writer at work here, competing with K.D. for narrative authority. One of Goldin+Senneby’s collaborators is the novelist John Barlow, who has been contracted by the artists to help them uncover any concrete information about the company. Their pursuit is fictionalized in a detective story written by Barlow. This “work of documentary fiction” is based on raw material sent by the artists—correspondence, dossiers, surveillance tapes, and the like—along with what he unearths in his own investigations, which for Barlow included an all-expenses-paid sojourn in the Bahamas.

Among the hypotheses that the artists mean to test is the rather far-fetched notion that Headless Ltd represents a contemporary incarnation of the political group and secret society Acéphale, whose name comes from the Greek word for “headless.” Founded in the 1930s by author Georges Bataille and his friends from earlier ex-surrealist and communist confederations, Acéphale retained the revolutionary political edge of previous groups while pursuing an unconventional vision of the sacred. Legend has it that its members took an oath indicating their willingness to be decapitated for their cause; none, however, would volunteer to be the executioner. The connections between Acéphale and Headless Ltd are clearly tenuous, yet still tantalizing—especially when considered in light of Bataille’s later writings on alternative economic structures. Such speculation, though unlikely, is not idle: the novel describes a brutal case of kidnapping and decapitation that may be linked to Goldin+Senneby’s interest in the offshore company. Perhaps, then, there is more than mere coincidence at stake here.

Such secretive organizations are not the only aspects of Headless that remain obscure. Even the artists’ role in their ongoing investigation is difficult to pin down. Mimicking the corporate structures that they critique, Goldin+Senneby have outsourced many of the project’s various components to independent practitioners. These writers, filmmakers, curators, designers, and theorists become spokespeople for the artists, while also bringing their own voices into play. It might make sense, then, to think of Goldin+Senneby as investors: they have backed particular contributors in the hopes that they will pay out unexpected dividends. There’s risk involved, of course, but Goldin+Senneby ask those who follow them—readers included—to take on some of that risk as well.

Yet like the alienating perspectives of globalization, these practices can also be frustrating—even for people who are fully invested in Headless. Take curator Kim Einarsson, for example, who has contributed to the project in numerous ways, even lending her personage to a character in the novel. In spite of her intimacy with the work, she is clearly exasperated when she writes about it in the Swedish magazine Geist: “It’s all very confusing. Who is actually the person holding the pen?”

Headless operates in this grey area between truth and fiction, toying with narrative genres, political and economic structures, and theoretical critiques of authorship, identity, and visibility. All the while, its novel manages to toe the line between escapist fiction and uncomfortable reality, prompting some fundamental questions: Is the story really just a trashy airport thriller, or does it have something more substantial to say? And what if Simon Goldin and Jakob Senneby really have embroiled themselves in some kind of murderous plot? Ultimately one must ask of each aspect of the story, what does it mean if this part is fiction and, also, what does it mean if it is not?