The Sovereign Group—“Intelligent Offshore Tax Planning Since 1987”—is a management company catering to high-net-worth individuals and corporations who wish to avoid paying taxes. It is primarily involved in managing offshore corporations, trust funds, and pensions, providing “a full range of cross border wealth management services from [its] strategically located global office network,” including branches in Gibraltar, the Channel Islands, the Bahamas, Switzerland, and Bahrain. Their website advertises services including “yacht registration” and the ability to “purchase your offshore company online now.” They even sponsor an international art prize.
Sovereign is, in fact, a real corporation, but if it seems like the kind of thing that could have been invented by a conceptual artist, it’s because offshore finance is, at its core, a large-scale fiction-making operation. This is the basic thesis of the Swedish conceptual art duo Goldin+Senneby’s project “Headless.” It begins, appropriately enough, with Sovereign; more precisely, with an offshore company, Headless Ltd., registered by Sovereign in the Bahamas in 2007 and managed by their Gibraltar office. According to the artists, they came across Headless Ltd. accidentally, while researching dissident Surrealist Georges Bataille’s interwar secret society Acéphale and decided to follow the trail, wondering if there could possibly be a connection between the two. Their investigation would take the form of a work of “documentary fiction,” a mystery novel about the search for Headless by the “fictional author” KD, whose name and identity were appropriated from a supposedly real client-services manager at Sovereign’s Gibraltar office. Produced over the course of eight years, what may or may not be the final version of “KD”’s novel, Headless, was published by Triple Canopy in March.
In his introduction to the novel, Triple Canopy editor Alexander Provan outlines the basic trajectory of the project. After their chance encounter with Headless Ltd. in 2007, Simon Goldin and Jakob Senneby—who have worked together since 2004 under the banner Goldin+Senneby, which they describe as a “framework for collaboration…exploring juridical, financial, and spatial constructs through notions of the performative and the virtual”—scheduled a meeting with Jamie Wright, a Sovereign Group representative, under the auspices of wanting to set up an offshore company of their own for a forthcoming artwork. During the meeting, Wright mentions KD’s name in passing—Kara Donnelly in this version, but in earlier drafts that have circulated over the years, it’s Kate Dent or Kelly Duncan—and she becomes their unwitting collaborator.
“Behav[ing] like reality television directors,” in Provan’s words, Goldin and Senneby recruited a cast of collaborators from various fields who would carry out different aspects of the search for Headless Ltd. on their behalf, including Angus Cameron, a geographer at Leicester University who has written extensively on offshore finance; intellectual property lawyer Pia Sarma; filmmakers Kate Cooper and Richard John Jones, who created a documentary about the project, Looking For Headless (2010); Swedish curator Kim Einarsson; and John Barlow, a British ghostwriter and mystery novelist. In addition to those who explicitly agree to collaborate, there are dozens more who participate unknowingly or unwillingly, like KD, whom the artists hired a private detective to follow around Gibraltar; her full name was apparently redacted from the novel after Sovereign’s lawyers sent Goldin+Senneby a cease and desist letter.
Orchestrated by Goldin+Senneby with varying degrees of specificity—in some cases participants were given comprehensive briefs, in others, they were told to simply show up—real-world actions were staged to provide fodder for the Headless novel, conceived as a mass-market thriller that would ideally be published by a large commercial house. They hired Barlow as KD’s ghostwriter, inviting him not only to write a novel about Headless Ltd and its mysterious origins but to incorporate himself as a central character, allowing a fictional version of the text’s actual formation to become one of its central narrative threads. Excerpts of the in-progress novel were incorporated into Goldin+Senneby’s exhibitions and presented at lectures and readings around the world, events that would, in turn, form the basis for subsequent chapters.
All of this makes for a fairly incoherent book, perhaps by design: As it turns out, gallery openings and quasi-academic lectures are not the stuff of airport thrillers. The literary agent Edward Orloff rejected the manuscript, explaining in a letter quoted at length that “the central question—who or what is Headless Inc.—is just not riveting enough to sustain a 300-page book…Somehow the whole project felt a bit like a mystery invented for the sake of a mystery.” Over time Barlow begins to unravel under the pressures of the project’s shifting imperatives. Authorship is continually muddied, as entire chapters of Headless begin to arrive at Barlow’s doorstep, supposedly by KD herself. Large segments of the novel involve people talking about the novel. No one seems to know how Bataille fits in to any of this. Goldin+Senneby seem to be more interested in the idea of a published book than its actual content: according to Barlow, “Goldin and Senneby were obsessed with the process. They used that term constantly; everything was about maintaining an allegiance to the process.”
Even Provan’s previously straightforward introduction begins to go off the rails as soon as he arrives at the point where he enters the project as a prospective collaborator (circa 2011). As he recounts his own involvement, the essay increasingly takes on the paranoid, pulp-fiction tone of the novel that follows, retrospectively calling everything else he has thus far presented as fact into question. Just as “John Barlow” can’t seem to figure out where Goldin+Senneby’s directorial machinations end and “real” events begin, “Alexander Provan” is revealed to be less a reliably detached commentator than a character, emblematic of the project’s tendency to cannibalize anything it touches.
As Goldin+Senneby describe, the decision to outsource to production of virtually every aspect of the Headless project to others was an “act of withdrawal,” mimicking the operations of offshore finance in which the true protagonists intentionally recede from view, delegating public responsibility to representatives and endlessly deferring culpability for their actions. The artists’ involvement in Headless takes place entirely behind the scenes; Barlow doesn’t even meet them in person until 2010, three years into the project. “Withdrawal” also allows them to remain fundamentally ambivalent about anything that occurs within the project: any of its stakes, successes, or failures are projected onto John Barlow, while they remain disinterested specters. As a result, the novel seems to hedge against any possible criticism, preemptively posing any number of questions and doubts about its own ethical or aesthetic validity. Because Goldin+Senneby takes no position of its own, Headless is able to accommodate all of them.
“A story is the perfect offshore product,” says an actress hired by Goldin+Senneby to portray KD in one of the novel’s many mind-bendingly reflexive episodes. “It doesn’t exist in space or time, it’s just an idea expressed in a particular way. A fictive world is pure intellectual property. It can travel around the world in milliseconds, just like modern financial products.” Indeed, the novel’s tangled web reproduces the black hole of offshore operations, creating a literal work of fiction whose characters insinuate themselves into the real world so thoroughly that even Goldin+Senneby’s closest collaborators on the Headless project seem unclear about how much has been staged, and by whom.
Or are they? Headless is an exercise in induced paranoia for its readers as much as its characters. As the novel continually folds in on itself, the absurd begins to seem plausible and the mundane unreal. Does Headless Ltd even exist? Does John Barlow? Does Sovereign? Wouldn’t a company entrusted with managing the movements of billion-dollar fortunes be able to afford a copyeditor for its website? Why does its Wikipedia page have no citations from external sources, or an edit history prior to 2009? Is the idea of Acéphale’s continued existence, in the form of an offshore corporation, really so implausible?
When early iterations of “Headless” began to appear publicly in exhibitions, Goldin+Senneby were praised for their foresight, as the project seemed to anticipate the role of increasingly dematerialized financial products in the global financial meltdown. They insisted, however, that this was basically uninteresting to them: in a 2009 interview with Brian Droitcour published on Rhizome, they state, “the recent financial crisis has not made anything more or less clear regarding our investigation into Headless Ltd., nor regarding our wider research into strategies of withdrawal and displacement.” Elsewhere, a Goldin+Senneby spokesman tells Kim Einarsson, the curator, that they aren’t especially concerned with how money parked offshore tends to be used—drug cartels, terrorism, trafficking, etc.—but rather with the “mythology” created by such invisible corporations. “For them, an offshore company is a kind of dramatic fiction, acted out against the backdrop of the geographical places that the business is connected to.” Their interest in “offshore,” then, as they often call it, is above all formal. As Cameron wrote in a 2014 article in the Journal of Critical Globalisation Studies describing his work with Goldin+Senneby, the artists seemed to view structures of offshore finance with “a certain degree of creative respect,” impressed by the ingenuity required to create such labyrinthine schemes.
Indeed, while more generous critics, like Cameron and the art historian TJ Demos, have drawn out the connections between Bataille’s theories of sovereignty and transgression, the structures of offshore finance, and the unruliness of Headless’s many irresolvable strands to suggest an underlying, politically disruptive core, a more cynical take is that “offshore” is a red herring here: Headless Ltd., like Bataille’s Acéphale, is interesting to Goldin+Senneby because it is secret, not because of what it represents about contemporary political economy. The hypothesis that Acéphale—details of which still remain tantalizingly out of reach to art historians—has reformed as an offshore “International Business Company” might be a more thrilling prospect than a genuine investigation into the workings of offshore finance, but it also threatens to turn it into little more than an art world parlor game. After all, who, truly, is surprised by the revelation that offshore is an empty center, a nonspace made of legal loopholes and dubious treaties that allow the most powerful to exert control obliquely? Or, for that matter, its relation to the international art world? (As the fictional Barlow thinks to himself at a lavish dinner celebrating a Goldin+Senneby exhibition at the Galleria d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea in Bergamo, “Are the Bonaldi family [the gallery’s patrons] not precisely the kind of people likely to use offshore?” Well, obviously.)
For all Goldin+Senneby’s emphasis on the way fiction and reality intersect in offshore corporations, Headless feels most frivolous when its absurdist framework hits up against the real-world consequences of its ostensible subject: in Cooper and Jones’s documentary Looking for Headless, commissioned by Goldin+Senneby and screened in conjunction with various exhibitions, Gavin MacFayden, director of the Center of Investigative Journalism, points to the fact that the refusal of the wealthiest members of society to pay their taxes contributes to the erosion of publicly funded social services for others in dire need. “It’s not just innocent,” MacFayden says. “But that’s also not what the inquiry is about. That’s ancillary, part of the background…What they’re really talking about is the mysterious world…of secret societies, strange philosophical concepts of vacuity and virtuality and all that.” It is telling that they tend to refer simply to “offshore,” a term whose vagueness similarly elides any concern for the technical particularities of the industry and the specific, varied ways in which offshore corporations might actually be used.
While Headless’s engagement with offshore structures often feels superficial, more a fetishization of secrecy than a probe into its logic, the idea of invisibility and withdrawal as a potentially subversive strategy has taken on an additional significance in the years since the project’s debut. Whether Facebook, Google, or the NSA are any more interesting to Goldin+Senneby than the financial crisis remains to be seen. But the question of who has the privilege of remaining invisible in an age of widespread corporate and governmental surveillance is a latent theme throughout the novel. “You are your Google history!” says Barlow. “Where you go, what you do there, questions asked, money spent, the brand of beer you drink. You are on show, John, in an infinite number of ways. The most visible person imaginable. And right now, someone is watching.”