The latest in a series of interviews with artists who have a significant body of work that makes use of or responds to network culture and digital technologies.
Screen capture from Femke Herregraven, Taxodus (video game, 2013).
LC: The most publicized of your works is Taxodus, a online game for tax evasion. At the time, you made the game as a way to materialize and map out what you call "a geography of avoidance"—a study of the obfuscatory strategies used by the finance industry that emphasizes their reshaping of space, place and nationhood. Is the game a realistic simulation? Is it important that it is realistic? Might it also be a valuable tool for people who work in finance?
FH: In Taxodus players are "acting" on behalf of multinationals and have to dodge paying as much tax as they can. By setting up intermediate holdings globally, players reveal potential routes through which multinationals in reality can "neutralize" their tax burdens. Players that escape the most tax rank high in the high scores.
The data in the game—national corporate tax rates, withholding taxes and treaties from countries worldwide—is realistic but the mechanisms to set up companies and calculate income and tax are simplified. In reality there are many more parameters involved on a corporate, national and international level; it would be impossible to incorporate them all in a game. I know some big accountancy firms have tried to develop software that basically cough up a fiscal advice, but it failed because it was too complex and expensive. In reality, fiscal structures are highly customized per company and it seems impossible to make a 1:1 simulation of this tax planning industry.
After Taxodus was launched I know some people from the industry were speculating on these kind of tools that could spark cloud accounting and break the monopoly of the Big Four, giving small accountants a chance. A sort of democratization of fiscal advising. But Taxodus is a beta version and was developed in only a few months. The intention was not to make a hyper-realistic fiscal lawyer bot, but to make the basic principles and mechanisms behind the tax planning industry accessible for you and me. Most of data in the game is not public or easily accessible but behind paywalls that only accountancy firms can afford. For me, Taxodus is a public interface to this data and an experimental research model. I could have made a bunch of data visualisations for example but I wanted to make the audience dodge tax themselves. I think by playing you understand more of how companies cut up their legal bodies in order to organize their income most profitably. When playing, your generated tax route gets uploaded as a fiscal annual report and is accessible in a public database. Taxodus was about making corporate tax avoidance accessible for everyone and facilitating a public platform for dialogue and research. As for the people I know from the industry, so far they have been getting all the high scores.
LC: You are working on a new project on the fiber optic cables which facilitate high frequency trading. Why are you interested in this technology in particular, and how has that research manifested itself?
FH: Optic fiber cable has been around for 30 years and now, in relation to high frequency trading, is probably becoming a thing of the past. New trading lines consisting of radio towers that transmit microwaves are increasingly popping up because they cut latency by up to a millisecond. In high frequency trading this could mean a difference of millions of dollars. Having said that, I think it's important to realize that more than 90% of our data still run through cables in the soil and ocean floors. The "cloud" is more like a never-ending plate of spaghetti. I'm researching this physical backbone of the financial world for some years now, with a large focus on submarine cables. I'm interested in the never-ending rat race for reducing latency and maximizing speed—that is as old as telecommunications itself. The contemporary infrastructural endeavours undertaken to cut down milliseconds are immense in terms of scale and money but surely have their equivalents in the past. The first transatlantic cable from is often referred to as the Apollo Moon project of the Victorian era. I explore how this quest for speed affects our daily life, surroundings, landscapes and geopolitical imagination.
The All Infrared Line – 14 (France), 2012-2014. Coastal fortification from WOII situated at current submarine cable landing point..
In general my work often starts with collecting information and objects that are difficult to obtain, or by visiting places that have a hidden function or are difficult to access. I aim at identifying borders—whether physical or in the information sphere—and finding personal strategies to trespass them. I visit places that play for me a relevant role in the offshore economy—from traditional financial centers, to tropical islands or wanna-be Special Economic Zones. There I draw, photograph and film the often hidden infrastructure that stitches this specific place into the global network of offshore finance. It is a sort of treasure hunt with the treasure being the most boring things you can imagine such as plugs, doors, walls and cables. This interests me very much. Infrastructures—like cables, tax laws or patents—are most of the time utterly boring, technical and hermetic. They run in the background so society can continue with its activities on the foreground. And yet, their implementation and operations are never smooth but create conflicts and inequality. You can find a lot of information about all these things online but working on the ground helps me to get a better understanding of the tensions and power structures that these infrastructures put into play.
Right now, for example, while answering your questions, I'm in the sub-Arctic for a new work that deals with how the financial markets will be influenced by climate change. One element of that work is the emerging possibility to lay submarine cables on the Arctic sea bed because of the melting ice. Although at this moment the actual realization of these cables is problematic on many levels, so plans will probably be realized in the near future. At that point these Arctic cables will shortcut the connection between the financial markets of London en Tokyo that are now linked via the Middle-East or the Pacific. Latency is expected to drop substantially. Global warming is literally opening up new paths for trading algorithms—and surveillance.
LC: When you speak about materiality within finance it leads to a discussion about the materiality of the technologies which facilitate exchange of capital. Often I see you tracing the origins of those materials, such as the plant which produces the rubber for early telegraph cables—which then became the carrier for internet traffic. How does history and technology come into play in your work?
FH: For me, dealing with infrastructures also means dealing with a large timescale. The backbone of the financial world is an accumulation of technology, innovation, capital, labor, conflicts but also time. Historical research plays a large role in my work. I've been working for a long time on how the contemporary geography of offshore financial centers is intertwined with spatial organization of the old colonial British Empire. Half way the 19th century British colonies were connected to the City of London in global spiderweb of early telegraph lines. Many Caribbean islands became parking places for capital in the 1970s because they were tightly wired up in the global telecommunication system and yet distant enough to not contaminate the center of the Commonwealth. This work takes form of collecting historical documents and objects and now, more recently, in producing a series of new objects that deal with the materiality.
Through my work I explore the changing relation between capital flows and materiality. Where wealth once had a material condition and was contextualized by its territory it is now disconnected from a specific place, labour or material production. In finance money is purely made from the circulation of money. It can materialize from itself—it's like alchemy. It's quite interesting how the dematerialization of money in the late 1960s early 1970s coincided with concepts on the dematerialization of the art object. Capital flows are mostly read through a language similar to art: abstraction, signs, ideas, information and linguistic exchange. In my work I intend to melt finance back again into a material condition. Infrastructure is crucial in this process. The backbone that allows capital to be disconnected from material conditions is built from limited resources and manifests itself as highly material in our physical surrounding. The natural rubber you mentioned, was for early telegraph lines in the Victorian age the holy grail, similar to as what coltan is now for mobile phones and devices in our digital age. The sudden and tremendous demand for a specific materials that comes along with the emergence of a new technology activates many new conflicts over materials, ownership and territory. Since finance is now mainly a question of technology there is for me an urgency in stressing the connections between for example latency and plants, trading algorithms and melting ice or colocation and landing points. I think for many of us it's very difficult to understand how money is made in the financial markets. Highly complex financial products, trading algorithms, it's mostly a immaterial black box—even for traders. The irony is that the stakes of financial investments are often material ones. Investors bet on the spread of ebola, wheat scarcity or how real estate prices drops because of rising sea levels. It's funny how bad I was in economy at high school. Those calculations and charts—it just was too abstract for me. I guess that is reflected in the way I approach the financial world in my work. Stressing the connections between finance, places and material conditions is my strategy for getting an understanding of how the financial markets influence and shape our societies.
LC: How do you think of your own practice, as artist and as designer and as researcher? Do you find it productive to cross disciplinary boundaries? How do you feel about these terms which are used to describe what it is you do, display of research and how it becomes contextualized in public?
FH: My work gets labelled in different ways and I like that ambiguity. It means its open enough to engage with different fields. Yet, the mechanisms and results in for example art and design are very different. The same work can be shown and evaluated from completely different criteria. This can be complicated as maker but it creates a rich feedback loop at the same time. In my practice I create research in the form of indexes, maps, texts, interviews, drawings, photos and videos. Sometimes the research is the actual work, other times I make a new work in the form of installations, publications, games or prints. I think of my work as tools or manuals that can help me—or someone else—navigate, deconstruct or reflect on complex matters such as the financial world. An emerging question is how I present my work online or through the format of an exhibition. I guess because of my background in design it is not always natural that the work is being displayed instead of being used.
Talking about the cross-disciplinary, I'm also part of Bitcaves, a collective for design and research. Basically it's an umbrella for all sorts of things: commissions, residencies and cross-disciplinary collaborations. Next to working individually it's for us valuable to be part of a collective. It's nice to be able to switch between different modes of working and collaborate with different types of makers. In general I connect with people from different disciplines through my work, such as academics, business people, journalists, craftsmen, financial experts. When you dive into something thoroughly you naturally end up with a mosaic of people outside of your field. Sometimes you meet people you prefer not to work with but it's unavoidable because you clutter together around a very specific interest or expertise. Around your own work you naturally construct some sort of family. A family is by nature a diverse and cross-disciplinary social group that no member entered voluntary. Yet, the dynamics and exchange within that family—even with the pedantic uncle, nervous aunt or on-hormones-tripping cousin—are, for me, crucial as a human being and as an artist.
How/when did you begin working creatively with technology?I actually grew up around analog tools. There was always lots of carpeting and construction going on which I liked a lot. So for me it was probably more software: I think it was Photoshop in high school. I was so amazed by that stamp and air brush function, I was clicking and dragging for hours.
Where did you go to school? What did you study?
I did a bachelor in graphic design at Artez Arnhem and a master in design at Sandberg Institute in Amsterdam. Both studies have a strong research component in which students are challenged to developed their own questions and research around things that they feel personally engaged with.
What do you do for a living or what occupations have you held previously?
I'm an artist/designer/researcher. Next to that I teach design research one day a week at Artez Arnhem, and have done that at Sandberg Institute last year. I have also worked part time in a butchery for 7 years. Which looking back now was actually very useful. Meat is also at the center of a very complex industry. In those twelve hour working days I think I unconsciously learned some skills and strategies that have proved their usefulness today. Kinda from meat infrastructure to money infrastructure you could say ;-)
What does your desktop or workspace look like?
A never ending mess—which is very comforting to me.