In March 2007, the Swedish artists Simon Goldin and Jakob Senneby hired a conference room on the seventh floor of an office block in central Stockholm. They had scheduled a meeting with Jamie Wright, an employee of the offshore management firm Sovereign Trust. The room was outfitted with generic Nordic modernist furniture—all natural wood and dark upholstery—and one wall was adorned with black-and-white prints of iconic world capitals. Clusters of bottled water and upturned glasses sat on either side of the table, with blue bowls of candy in the center. Wright showed up a few minutes late, in a rumpled gray suit, having just arrived from London.
“Nice setup,” he said.
“We rent from Regus,” Goldin told him. “They’re international—offices in hundreds of cities, by the hour or day or month. That’s what interests us.”
“Yes, that is interesting,” Wright murmured. He slipped a sheath of papers from a leather document holder. “Just so you know, I’m not carrying any information about you on my person—in case I was stopped at customs.”
The artists nodded approvingly.
“So, what kind of art do you do?” Wright asked.
“Our work is primarily conceptual,” Senneby replied. “Right now we’re developing a project that requires us to establish an offshore company. At this point, we’d prefer not to elaborate on our ultimate ends.”
Wright smiled. “We’re not in the business of asking too many questions.” He proceeded to explain how Sovereign uses surrogate shareholders and directors to conceal the identities of a client company’s true owners.
“Could we go and visit these shareholders and directors?” Goldin wondered.
“Yes, you can,” Wright said. “You can visit Sovereign’s offices in Gibraltar, Hong Kong, or the Bahamas.”
“Fantastic.” Senneby was nodding vigorously.
Wright went over practical matters—split equity, guarantors, succession planning—as the artists listened impassively. “It’s very, very important that you don’t sign legal contracts and don’t sign bank accounts,” Wright explained. “We have Kara Donnelly, our client service manager, in Gibraltar. She’s permanently based there. Just contact her by phone, email, fax. She’ll do everything: transfer money to a bank account, get a contract signed, she’ll do all that for you.”
After two and a half hours, Goldin and Senneby were satisfied. No deal was met, but the artists promised to begin work on the necessary paperwork in the coming weeks. Before Wright left, they asked him to pose for a picture.
Wright fumbled for words.
“Part of our research,” Goldin assured him, as he clasped Wright’s shoulder.
“We’re quite looking forward to working with you,” Senneby said as he snapped a photo with a miniscule digital camera. “Be seeing you.”
Wright inclined his head, grabbed his suitcase, and mumbled goodbye as he exited the conference room and trekked back through the warren of empty cubicles, executive suites, and lounges ringed with microfiber sofas.
GOLDIN AND SENNEBY WERE, in fact, developing a project related to offshore companies. For months, they had been investigating Headless Ltd., which had been registered in the Bahamas through Sovereign. They had discovered Headless through a happy accident of Googling, while researching Acéphale, the secret society founded in the early 1930s by Georges Bataille. They became fixated on the possibility of some connection between Acéphale, which is a French transliteration of the Greek for “headless,” and Headless, the company. But their research was almost immediately frustrated: Like most offshore enterprises, Headless was largely inscrutable, and all details about its ownership and economic activities were hidden from public view.
Rather than take up investigative journalism, Goldin and Senneby decided to behave like reality television directors and stage an investigation of Headless by their own recruits—foremost among these a writer, who would turn the whole endeavor into a mystery novel. They imagined a proliferating cast of contractors and collaborators whose actions would be at times generated by the novel and at times cannibalized by it. The novel would eventually be published by a mainstream press, and so the conceptual art project would be insinuated into the world of commercial fiction. The dream: Someone, say a business traveler on a layover at JFK, heads to Hudson News to pick up a Stieg Larsson novel, and out of the corner of his eye spots a hardcover emblazoned with the Acephalé logo: a cartoonish headless figure with a burning heart in one hand, an upturned dagger in the other, a skull covering his groin.
After asking some friends for recommendations, Goldin and Senneby came upon a forty-year-old novelist and ghostwriter named John Barlow. Barlow, a Brit who had relocated to Galicia, in northern Spain, was the author of Intoxicated, a historical novel about the invention of soft drinks; Everything but the Squeal, a memoir of pork consumption in northern Spain; and the “LS9 crime-mystery series.” Goldin and Senneby emailed him on January 15, 2007. “We are two Swedish artists currently engaged in an exploration of strategies of secrecy and withdrawal, in which the art-historical tactics of surrealist sociologist Georges Bataille and his peers come together with present-day capitalist strategies of offshore incorporations,” they wrote. “As part of this work we would like an author to follow our investigation and use it as a base for a fictional and/or documentary novel. We wonder if this is a collaboration you might consider?”
Goldin and Senneby proposed an initial fee of $20,000. They told Barlow that the novel was to be called Looking for Headless, and that Donnelly, the Gibraltar-based client service manager, would be listed as the author—an entanglement of the artwork and the subject of Goldin and Senneby’s investigation, and an attempt to insert the artists’ own fiction into the gears of offshore finance, which is itself a machine for creating and sustaining fictions that impinge on the world. “To be honest, I didn’t think much of this at the time,” Barlow told me. “After all, it wasn’t going to be my name on the cover.” He agreed to take on the job, and the artists began emailing him with information about Headless, in addition to documents related to offshore finance, links to articles about Lacan—whose enthusiasm for Bataille is reflected in his concept of jouissance, a kind of slavish, painful enjoyment that is even opposed to pleasure; it has to do with aggressive attempts on the part of the subject to go “beyond the pleasure principle”—and economic theory, sketches for scenarios being staged by the artists, recordings of lectures by economists in French forests and Canadian art galleries. “The novel had to portray this abstruse and purposefully mystifying enterprise hinging on a speculative connection between Headless and Acéphale,” Barlow told me. “But it also needed to be a murder-mystery capable of being published and read as such—more Dan Brown than Paul Krugman.”
Barlow was not only charged with ghostwriting, but with managing the shifting relationship between the real world and the fictional realm. “Apart from including the two of us in the story in some way,” Goldin and Senneby said in an early email to Barlow, “it could also be interesting for you to consider how you could include yourself in the writing.”
Barlow soon became an investigator and an instigator, a character and an author. When he began writing the novel, he decided to use parts of the transcript of the meeting with Wright—Goldin and Senneby had made a surreptitious recording—more or less verbatim. The first chapter opens with a writer named John Barlow being questioned in A Coruña, Spain (the real Barlow’s hometown at the time) by Catherine Banks, a beautiful and enigmatic Bahamanian detective. She quizzes Barlow about Goldin and Senneby and wonders what he knows about Jamie Wright. Then she shows him a picture of a headless body resting against a tree, neck like a “meatball pizza, glistening blood-stained fat, ribbons of ragged skin at the edges where the hack-marks are uneven.” Banks sardonically asks Barlow if this is how he envisioned the murder; if not, would he please incorporate this image into his “work of documentary fiction”?
In order to generate additional fodder for the plot, Goldin and Senneby decided to goad Sovereign. They advertised readings in Oslo featuring Kara Donnelly, the client service manager, suggesting she had left Sovereign to become a novelist—the author of Looking for Headless. They soon received a threatening letter from Sovereign’s legal team, demanding that the artists apologize and cease “referring to Sovereign or any of its employees in any way in connection with your business.” Goldin and Senneby decided to start identifying the author as K. D. rather than Donnelly, but otherwise continued to needle Sovereign. That summer, they even commissioned a Spanish detective agency to track Donnelly for three days. The detective produced a surveillance video showing her walking to work in the morning, traversing Gibraltar with her kids, returning home in the evening. The video was accompanied by a formal report—written in vaguely ludicrous, Clouseau-esque Spanish—detailing Donnelly’s every movement:
11:00 hours. We begin observations in Gibraltar. We move to Main Street, where the subject’s place of work is situated. It is a commercial, pedestrian street, full of shops which are visited daily by thousands of people. Number 143 is a four-storied building, although only three are visible at the front. Sovereign Trust’s offices are situated on the ground and first floors. We maintain our position.
Then, in early 2008, Barlow embarked on a research trip to the Bahamas, where he figured he’d flesh out his role, drink some cocktails on the beach—and generate some of his own material, rather than fictionalize Goldin and Senneby’s exploits. (“Life’s too short to stay at home when there’s Caribbean luxury to be had,” the fictional Barlow quips as he boards the flight.) But as soon as Barlow arrived, he realized the search was very much real; he ended up spending twenty minutes on the beach in ten days. Barlow interviewed lawyers and bankers, insinuated himself into Nassau high society, visited the Nassau offices of Sovereign Trust, tracked down Headless’s registration documents. He discovered that Headless had originally been registered at the Gibraltar office where Donnelly worked, and had no named puppet directors. He began to suspect that Acéphale was reconstituting itself eighty years after having gone underground, that the formation of Headless was some kind of beacon, a signal to sleeper cells, and that Goldin and Senneby were somehow complicit—or were themselves being exploited by even more remote, formidable agents.
As Barlow tracked Headless in his schoolbook detective fashion, formulating a subplot based on the excursion, he also spent a good deal of time live blogging at TravelBlog.org. Of course, this was a conceptual live blog, with Barlow purporting to offer a factual account of the investigation being conducted by the character John Barlow (who, in the novel, uses the blog to conceal what’s really happening, to cover his trail).
“I am writing this to prove who I am and what I’m doing here,” Barlow blogged from Nassau. “I have with me the Encyclopedia Acephalica, a surreal text written by the members of Acéphale (the secret society) plus a paperback edition of one of my own books, which has a photo of me on the back cover. I feel that together these books will serve as evidence if things get difficult. At least, I felt that when I packed. Now I feel like a fucking idiot.”
While Barlow was in Nassau in 2008, Goldin and Senneby were in London convening a colloquium on their Headless project, where experts in art, finance, and law discussed the broad implications: “Offshore finance is a manifestation of a wider trend toward strategies of withdrawal. But what might this potential for withdrawal imply, now and in the future?” “The case of Headless Ltd. opens up questions of secrecy and of the ‘fiction’ of place. How does the construction of ‘offshore,’ then, allow for displacement?” “Offshore is a kind of virtuality, constituted through legal rather than digital code, a continually enacted space with people employed to act as representatives for the fictional company. What is its potential for art and artists?”
As the financial crisis unfolded, people began to pay attention to Headless. Within the art world, the sketchy realm of finance is both an object of opprobrium and the source of the collective welfare. Goldin and Senneby’s work was appreciated for posing open-ended questions about the role of obscure codes and procedures in constructing a seemingly alien, sovereign economic reality that had brutally imposed itself on the lives of non-financiers everywhere. Though the invocation of Bataille suggested the avant-garde could somehow turn the strategies that had corrupted financial markets to its own ends, Goldin and Senneby weren’t using art to level an overall political critique, or to mobilize people to do anything in particular. The Headless project began to appear in exhibitions around the world, with Goldin and Senneby sending Barlow (posing as the fictional writer) as their surrogate; the curator would typically interview him about the investigation of Headless Ltd. and the intricacies of offshore finance in front of an audience, and a video of the interview would be displayed as part of the exhibition. One Artforum review lauded the “stunning tangle of obfuscation and misdirection”; a critical essay in the same magazine saw in Headless “the potential for a collective imagination that would reinvent a politics of regulatory justice.”
I had become aware of Headless around this time, and was intrigued by Goldin and Senneby's use of conceptualist strategies to spotlight—even torment—the malfeasant companies that hoarded and hid so much of the world’s wealth, and for the self-perpetuating narrative they built around their skullduggery. And though I hadn’t read too much Bataille, I appreciated the formal analog between the refutation of traditional notions of sovereignty represented by Headless and the artists’ own enactment of a different kind of sovereignty—one that rejects mastery; one that is “the ultimate subversion of lordship,” as Jacques Derrida writes, and so “must no longer seek recognition.” I liked how the gears kept churning even after Goldin and Senneby seemed to have extricated themselves. And so I was pleased when, four years later, I was called upon to participate.
On May 27, 2011, I received an email—through Triple Canopy’s generic “contact” address—from email@example.com, signed by Barlow, Goldin, and Senneby (though the artists were not copied). They proposed “to develop a more cohesive, Web-based presentation of Headless as a performative work of explorative fiction.” I immediately replied to express my enthusiasm and ask if they had any idea what, exactly, a “Web-based presentation” might entail, and why they were interested in Triple Canopy. Barlow was somewhat evasive, saying he had to wait to hear from Goldin and Senneby, but that he was interested in how Triple Canopy might figure into one of the project’s themes, the “outsourcing of creative input.” Perhaps he and the artists perceived some connection between the Headless project and Triple Canopy—an amorphous collective entity (corporation, actually) operating under many guises, using a name appropriated from a military contractor.
After exchanging several emails in the course of six months, Goldin and Senneby’s plan had not proceeded beyond “developing further the kind of cross-disciplinary connections (between surrealist philosophy and off-shore finance, for example) which have informed the work, as well as to chart the evolution of the project as a piece of mediated art.” Instead of simply presenting large amounts of materials related to the project—which is what Goldin and Senneby seemed to be suggesting—I asked Barlow if he’d be interested in chronicling his experience as the ghostwriter.
At first Barlow seemed skittish, though he agreed to discuss what this approach might entail. He told me not to expect to communicate directly with Goldin and Senneby, that he had been entrusted with complete responsibility for the project. I wondered … the story of Barlow being contracted by Goldin and Senneby to ghostwrite a novel in which he was also a character seemed too pat, too perfect an expression of the themes of the project. Barlow’s website, his author photo, his past work, his email address, his chirpy English fatalism—it was all so generic. I Googled him more deeply. And … turns out the New York Times had reviewed Everything but the Squeal, describing Barlow as “refreshingly honest” and “not as crunchy and ecophilosophical as Michael Pollan.” Nevertheless, for some time I remained uncertain as to whether or not Barlow were genuine. This was the case even when, a few months later, the enthusiasm Barlow showed for producing yet another manifestation of the Headless project waned, and I sensed what seemed like genuine exhaustion and alienation. “Maybe I should write an account of my role in the project,” he emailed. “After so long being writer and character, I feel I really may need to get my position as writer clear, if you see what I mean. I’m but the innocent-ignorant scribe, I’m afraid! Or I was, really I was. May be going a bit out of my head now, some days, others not! But perhaps worth it in the end, as much as anything in the end. What’s the editor’s diagnosis?? Be brutal, Alexander, I've known the cruelty of the editor's pen. Truly I have. And I keep reading about you Triple Canopy people in the Guardian, in The New York Times—really keeping them on their toes!!!”
I didn’t know what to do with these dithering emails. Despite Barlow’s brag of “complete responsibility,” he seemed to want me to tell him what to do—or sometimes even to take the novel off his hands altogether. Barlow had obviously for some time been laboring to maintain a clear conceit of the act of ghostwriting a novel about oneself writing a novel. Occasionally he’d email me Bataille quotes, as if testing the relevance of his research, as if I’d understand better than him. September 15, 2011: “Freedom is nothing if it is not the freedom to live at the edge of limits where all comprehension breaks down.” My response: “V. apposite, should be the motto of mystery publishers everywhere!” By way of reply, I was treated to a barrage of theories about the interconnections between third-wave feminism and reality television in Britain, the failure of Barlow’s recent books to achieve best-seller status, despite his early successes, despite so many commendations from writers and critics who had at some time or another remarked on his talent, his promise.
Barlow was visibly unfit to narrate yet another version of the Headless story. We eventually agreed that the best way to proceed was for Barlow to provide me with hundreds of emails and other documents related to the project, and for me to interview him via Skype, taking notes as I teased out the story of the project from his perspective.
Mind map of Goldin+Senneby's Headless project, exhibited as part of "Goldin+Senneby: Headless" at The Power Plant, Toronto, 2008–9.
BARLOW AND I FIRST SPOKE via Skype in October, using video chat—I felt a need to see his face, to confirm that he was real. When the screen clicked on I got the weird sensation of being transported to a carefully contrived self-portrait: Barlow craned toward the screen, back hunched, elbows propped on desk; the wall behind him was arrayed with hundreds of Post-It notes, photographs, and clippings marked by variously colored lines, loops, asterisks, all bespeaking authorial toil.
“Huh,” I said. “That’s quite the opus you’ve got back there!”
“Oh!” Barlow’s face contorted, his features gathered into a rictus apparently intended to testify to the writer’s intense pride. “Yes, well, it’s a delicate craft.” Barlow went on to remember a map of the novel’s structure that had covered an entire wall at one exhibition of the Headless project in Toronto a few years earlier.1 “I sat in my office studying a smaller version, scrolling this way and that, zooming in and out,” Barlow said. “I tried to retain all of the plot points and characters in my head, the looping between documents and staged events, the shifting personas and flat-out inventions. I realized that Headless had become so unwieldy that one really did need a gigantic map to comprehend the story. I had my work cut out for me, as you see.”
Barlow was affable, though somewhat jittery—the more he talked, the more at ease he seemed; but every five or ten minutes he seemed to catch himself and would become subdued, his speech practiced, his manner impassive, as if somewhere a camera had clicked on. He kept tugging at the outside corner of his left eye. I asked him how his understanding of the project had changed as he became aware of the various conceptual underpinnings. “Call me naive, but I really took the commission at face value,” he told me brightly. “My brief was very well defined: Write a popular, mainstream novel based on the material I was given. I didn’t really think about other parts of the project, nothing that wasn’t explicitly marked for inclusion in the novel. I was just happy for a job, to begin with, you know.”
Barlow described his craft, how designating Wright as the murder victim had propelled the story forward: Banks turns out to not be a detective at all, but rather an international fugitive and an instrumental figure in Headless, though she is also confounded by the company, and pursuing her own investigation (in order to exorcise personal demons). All plotlines flow from, and return to, Goldin and Senneby, but in the course of the novel their authorship becomes muddied, usurped. The same goes for Barlow: “With each new chapter,” Barlow explained, “he is buried deeper, making him by degrees more irrelevant, until he is no longer the author, merely a cog in the horrid plot machine.”
When I asked what Goldin and Senneby thought of these devices, Barlow sighed heavily. “They weren’t so interested in packaging the investigation as a novel,” he said. “What they want is to explore the fictional space in which Headless Ltd. existed and, more broadly, examine offshore as a fiction. We've had words, you know.”
I told Barlow I could well imagine his frustration. “I’ve been trying to figure out the Bataille connection myself,” I said. “I know Bataille thought of sovereignty as a way of contesting authority, as a kind of violence against the established order. He was into waste, right? ‘Unemployed negativity,’ expenditure without regard for utility, etc.”
“Naturally,” Barlow grunted.
“And then throughout the novel Acéphale, which is a kind of model of sovereignty, is thought to be on the verge of reconvening,” I said. “But I can’t for the life of me figure out what this has to …”
“Listen …” Barlow stammered, interrupting me. He then went silent for some seconds. Finally, he moved his mouse, clicked, and focused his eyes on the screen. “Let me put it this way,” he said in a strange new mocking tone. “We are concerned with the strategies of withdrawal and invisibility that are used to construct the legal virtuality of offshore locations. This is where a secret society such as Acéphale might be relevant, in that a secret society is itself an invented, fictional space, as I’m sure you realize. Which explains our interest in the mystery genre.” Barlow chuckled, clicking distractedly as his eyes dodged side to side. I decided to let the question go.
Barlow baldly informed me that before becoming acquainted with Goldin and Senneby, he had never heard of Acéphale. His knowledge of Bataille, the French philosopher of eroticism, transgression, and sovereignty, was limited to the pornographic novella The Story of the Eye (1928), which he said was “well-thumbed in my youth.” Though Barlow had graduated from Cambridge and gotten a PhD in applied linguistics, his familiarity with contemporary conceptual art was minimal. When Goldin and Senneby contacted him, he was intrigued, even flattered. Despite the eccentricity of the proposal, Barlow assumed the artists would behave like typical clients, outlining the book in broad strokes, sending the occasional raft of comments or complaints, but mostly leaving the writing to the expert. “I imagined that the whole job might take six months.”
Barlow claimed to enjoy the work at first, even as it came to exceed his contractual obligations. Goldin and Senneby receded from view, imitating the practices of offshore companies, which become anonymous by registering puppet directors to stand in for the “beneficial owners” whose identities are concealed.2 Their behavior also echoed the Acephalé secret society's purposeful, temporary disappearance, as proposed by the novel, and so evoked Lacanian notions of the “absent center.” Barlow’s employers preferred not to discuss the project in person or on the phone, and had only met him once. “I thought about this,” Barlow told me, shrugging, “and realized I prefer email communication anyway.”
Much as Barlow slipped seamlessly into his role as Goldin and Senneby’s surrogate, so did several of the experts who were involved in the London colloquium, especially intellectual property lawyer Pia Sarna and self-described “economic geographer” Angus Cameron. Cameron became something like the gang’s Eldridge Cleaver, an unrelenting and often obstreperous figure, expounding on offshore finance—which he calls one of the “economic xenospaces” that characterize our “contemporary xenotopia”—in venues from Toronto to Paris.3 As Cameron theorized, Barlow played catch-up, transcribing and building plotlines around the academic’s lectures. “Originally, I found this kind of setup to be an important resource at the novelist’s disposal,” Barlow explained to me in another conversation in November, his head and eye-prodding finger blurred by the Skype transmission. “It may seem rather cute and self-regarding at first, but think about it as a way of evolving a story. Your palette expands, and writing becomes almost like movie-making: You can try things out and see the rushes at the end of the day’s filming.”
However successful, these mutually constitutive fictions made the novel all the more Gordian. Besides Wright, no one is murdered until the last fifty pages. Barlow spends chapter after chapter wondering who killed Wright and why, or if Wright is even dead, and not part of a diabolical scheme masterminded by Banks, or masterminded by Headless higher-ups and carried out by Banks. Barlow the character seems too flummoxed to do very much investigating—mostly he drinks, Googles, discourses on the lack of vigor, the lack of craft in contemporary thrillers—and so the mystery stagnates, the plot congeals.
After speaking with Barlow several times and reviewing his cache of emails, I became convinced that he and the other “collaborators” were being manipulated by Goldin and Senneby. While Barlow toiled fruitlessly, manically, and hermetically, Goldin and Senneby were recognized and rewarded handsomely for their stew of esoteric theory and faux-investigative journalism, in the form of exhibitions and prizes, glowing reviews, and escalating prices. The right to become a secondary character in the novel was even auctioned by Christie's in London on March 25, 2010, for $8,398. (The buyer, the founder of a company called Art Discovery Ltd., subsequently decided that he did not actually want to be named in the novel.) Why did Goldin and Senneby even care about publishing the novel, I wondered. Whether the project ever reached its conclusion was probably immaterial to the artists, who had joined the rarefied ranks of critics, hedge-fund managers, and writers who have prospered, and even been lionized, because they seemed to have anticipated the global financial crisis.
Of course, I was also intrigued by Goldin and Senneby’s ability to engineer this monumental, recursive endeavor. (I began to think that the greatest resonance with Bataille was the ungovernability of Headless; Bataille had asserted that we cannot possess sovereignty and yet are “doomed to seek it,” and so “sovereignty must inhabit the realm of failure.”) Like Barlow, I suppose in my own way I found the position of surrogate conceptualist—which could be attained, if temporarily, by submitting to the dictates of Goldin and Senneby—somewhat tempting. I appreciated the artists’ work, but I also wondered if I might be able to seize control of some aspect of the Headless project, become a player in the narrative.
In addition to pushing Barlow to reveal the machinations of Headless, I began—not without a hint of sadism, I must admit, though really I didn’t have anything to prove here—to challenge the story he seemed to be telling himself about his own role. Had Barlow not realized that, regardless of how he exercised his authorship or inhabited his character, he would only ever be a slave within a plot of someone else’s making? Goldin and Senneby made a habit of granting Barlow autonomy, encouraging him to disappear into his character, only to cut him down to size each time he sent a draft, issuing cryptic, unexecutable edits: “Try to imagine an interplay between the characters searching for what is hidden, as in Headless—but also, implicitly, that wider ‘xenospace’ to which Angus refers, or the space of the suppressed, in psychological terms.” To Barlow, the performance of the search for Headless came to seem incommensurable with the genre conventions to which Barlow the ghostwriter was obliged to adhere. And when he sought Goldin and Senneby’s help in resolving the narrative, they recommended he instead mimic Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49.
So why did Barlow continue?
When I subtly pressed Barlow on this point, he gave me—his Webcam, actually—an avid glance, licking his lips. “Well, I did prolong the agony by dragging the monkeys into it,” he said, breaking into high-pitched laughter. He eagerly explained that in order to conclude the plot without resolving the basic questions of the novel, he needed a grand conceptual gesture. His ingenious solution, intended to unite seemingly disparate themes and plot points, was to take a scene from Bataille’s “The Sacrifice of the Gibbon,” a grotesque story inspired by a visit to London Zoo in the late 1920s. Bataille describes a female gibbon “trussed up like a chicken,” tied face-down to a stake planted in a dirt pit, where “her huge screaming pink anal protrusion stares at the sky like a flower.” A nude Englishwoman then caresses the bare rump, which is “even more upsetting to see when touched by pretty white fingers,” before “the beautiful boil of red flesh is set ablaze with stinking brown flames.”
Barlow felt “rather proud” of the novel’s numerous monkey-related thematic intersections: the sacrificial rites of the Acéphale society; the Barbary Macaques roaming Gibraltar, where Headless Ltd. was registered; the scene in the novel involving a monkey beheading in the Bahamas.
How distracted from the ostensible goal of producing a mass-market novel had Barlow become if he genuinely thought that a Bataille story about gibbon rape would, as he said, “really bind everything together nicely for the average mystery reader”? Or had Barlow—recall Cambridge, the PhD—been exaggerating his own naïveté all along? Was the gibbon thread his way of exacting revenge on his employers, who seemed to know less about the world of commercial publishing than Barlow knew about conceptual art? After all, inspired by Barlow, Goldin and Senneby had decided that the apotheosis of the artwork would be a real-life performance by Angus Cameron: a lecture about offshore finance and sovereignty delivered before a monkey enclosure at the London Zoo in September 2010. Barlow was tasked with imagining the scene—the final chapter of the novel—and writing a fictional account in advance; he has the Barlow character reappear with plans to stab Cameron to death in order to halt what he imagines to be a conspiracy involving a human sacrifice that will augur the reconvening of the Acéphale secret society, just before the entire enclosure is inexplicably engulfed in flames, with no human life spared.
Barlow: Attached is a first draft of the zoo chapter.
Goldin+Senneby: The scenery descriptions are very good! We feel that more can be done with the monkeys. What is played out between them? Maybe the Angus chapter can become more allegorical (using the monkeys). Maybe it is within the monkey cage that the brutality can be visibly played out.
Barlow: The idea of the monkeys acting out a more specific allegory is nice, but what are they acting out? I mean, they can’t wear name tags; I’ve been about as specific as I can. The only acts of violence with obvious echoes of the novel would be a beheading and an anal rape. Wouldn’t this be a bit meaningless, mere repetition?
Goldin+Senneby: Can the assumed relationship between Bataillean secrecy and offshore finance be acted out in some way? Is it possible to give the reader the feeling that the whole narrative up until then has actually been acted out inside the monkey cage—in a subtle way? Art Discovery Ltd. wants the novel (and implicitly the fiction) to continue, while the monkeys want it to terminate? Do you understand what we are after?
I ALREADY KNEW that Barlow's willingness to stick with the Headless project had to do with his own difficulties as a writer: After winning the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize for a novella published in 2002, he published three books with major New York houses, but never hit the best-seller lists. As time went on he tried his hand at ghostwriting, mystery, and, most recently, young adult fiction; he even dabbled in print-on-demand, thinking he might join the ranks of self-published phenoms. Having worked at magazines since graduating from college, and witnessing my own writing and employment opportunities dwindle, I could sympathize with him. We spent much of our first Skype conversation trading gripes about the industry. Barlow evidently takes pride in his workmanship, and was disappointed that Headless—the title had been truncated by Goldin and Senneby—wasn’t faring so well in the marketplace. “The book was always going to be a long shot,” he told me. “But at this point agents are turning down absolutely everything, and those editors who still have jobs are just playing it safer and safer.”
While Goldin and Senneby wanted to produce a mystery novel because the genre resonated with the overall theme of the project, Headless ultimately got caught up in the morass of the publishing industry—the antithesis of the invisible infrastructure and phantasmic reproduction of capital that characterizes offshore finance. A handful of literary agents had voiced appreciation for the project’s ambition but pessimism about the novel’s commercial prospects. Headless did seem, on the surface, to have it all: serpentine murder plot, international intrigue, latent political critique, exotic locales, sympathetic archetypes, byzantine historical substratum, PG-13 eroticism (in the form of a bumbling Brit idly fantasizing about long-legged Bahamanian women). But the agents believed that the Headless conceptual art project still dwarfed the Headless novel.
“The book is, after all, about a conceptual art project being made into a popular novel,” Barlow told me, exasperatedly. The notion of a hydra-headed conceptual art project about offshore finance circulating within the old-fashioned—if newly tech-savvy—economy of mainstream publishing was certainly intriguing, but also quite obviously improbable. “In general, mass-market fiction is not about the production of mass-market fiction,” Barlow admitted. “Perhaps Headless is commercial fiction for lovers of conceptual art who are also fans of gut-wrenching, keeps-you-on-the-edge-of-your-seat thrillers.”
Barlow’s account suggests that Goldin and Senneby believed (as do many conceptual artists) that commercial forms are more or less standardized; they can be coopted easily enough, at least by those trained to manipulate such forms (i.e. conceptual artists), without too much regard for the desires and habits of their audiences. When I asked Barlow about this, he said, “Goldin and Senneby were obsessed with the process. They used that term constantly; everything was about maintaining an allegiance to the process.”
Barlow finally finished a draft of the novel in early 2010, and Goldin and Senneby summoned him to Paris for a two-day summit—their first, and only, face-to-face encounter. “They were remarkably similar to how I had portrayed them in the script for the Maastricht performance,” Barlow told me. “Simon was the showman, jumping from art theory to economics with brilliant dexterity. Jakob was cagier, focused entirely on the art and its meaning, often he’d be like contextualizing and refining Simon’s ideas, if you see what I mean?”
“How do you know they weren’t just performing their characters?” I asked.
“Don’t know why they’d do that.”
“Well, weren’t you planning to write about the episode?”
“I wasn’t sure I wanted to write a chapter about myself arriving in Paris, I mean, now that I’d squared the circle of writing a novel about unresolved secrets that had commercial appeal. I wasn’t looking to be told, ‘No, sorry, try again.’”
Goldin and Senneby demanded that the novel be pared down to its essence; entire chapters were to be jettisoned. The artists, who had always paid more or less on time, offered Barlow several thousand additional dollars from their war chest to continue work. He grudgingly accepted. “What else could I do?” he said. By that point Barlow had completely taken refuge in the character he was creating (and which Goldin and Senneby were now eviscerating). “The made-up John Barlow started to seem like a more interesting person than the real one. He was wittier, more adventurous, more personable. His life was just sexier—flying around the world to speak at galleries and party with artists, then sneaking off to investigate clandestine companies. I didn’t want to go back to being, um, him—the other Barlow—until the story had come to a conclusion, if you see my point.”
And yet Barlow had good reason to suspect that Goldin and Senneby wanted to defer, perhaps indefinitely, any such conclusion. Their edits started to feel more like essay prompts taken from an introductory course on philosophy and the novel: “What is the minimum of external plot needed to take forward the narrative? Could the narrative develop through inter-character relationships? The fictional domain seems particularly productive for developing these more internalized and psychological aspects.”
“All of a sudden it was as if they had never read a book that starts with point A and proceeds to point B,” Barlow confessed. And yet he obliged them, even while attending to the relationship he had established between the real world and the fiction. The more changes Goldin and Senneby requested, the more Barlow strived to build their meddling and his resultant frustration into the story. “I thought I could outgun them through the writing,” he muttered.
After the artists told Barlow that one of the chapters was utterly “boring”—the worst thing you could ever say to a mystery writer—he narrativized the psychological unraveling of the Barlow character and reassigned authorship to Angus Cameron, essentially writing himself out of the story. In this new draft of the novel, straining to make sense of the machinations of Headless, the author-detective has a nervous breakdown and his wife leaves him. His madness culminates when he peers out of his office window and in the street below sees a horde of monkeys madly fucking each other.
Goldin and Senneby responded dismissively to this maneuver. “We have kind of already been told (in the previous chapter) that Barlow has gone mad under the pressure of the project,” they wrote in an email to Barlow. “His wife and kids leave him, which seems like a more important wake-up call than being told that his chapter was boring. What's his motivation?”
WHEN BARLOW FINALLY delivered a preliminary finished draft one year later, Goldin and Senneby suggested he work with a professional editor. They hired Amber Burlinson, a London-based editor, to prime Headless to be sold to a commercial publisher. “To make this a fully rounded novel, rather than an extended artistic project, I think you need to broaden the story,” Burlinson wrote in her initial response. “The constant see-sawing of probability concerning who might ultimately be pulling the strings is both intriguing and, after a while, slightly bothersome. Every person and every event in the novel serves the same purpose: to find out the ‘truth’ about the pursuit of Headless.”
How could the author of the LS9 crime-mystery series and Everything but the Squeal completely overlook character, plot, and setting? “I concentrated entirely on the various ‘events’ surrounding the project, and on trying to draw each of these somehow into the story,” Barlow pronounced, staring stonily into his screen, again sounding like he was reading from a website. “I had, in my enthusiasm for this artwork, somehow forgotten what makes commercial fiction actually tick.”
At this point Goldin and Senneby were out of money; out of desperation, Barlow finished the novel for free in the course of nine months. On February 2, 2012 Barlow sent me the “final manuscript,” noting that Burlinson had “helped me finally escape the exigencies of conceptual art and simply write a novel.” He sounded like he was speaking of an AA sponsor.
“How does it feel?” I wrote back.
“Not sure,” he replied.
I mentioned that I had plans to be in northern Spain that summer and wondered if he could recommend places to visit in Galicia.
“Do you have Everything but the Squeal?” he said.
“Yeah, but I’d like to do a bit more than gorge myself on pork while I’m there,” I wrote, appending a smiley. Radio silence. “So, where in Galicia do you live?” I pursued in a subsequent missive. Again there was no reply.
A week later I turned to Headless. I skimmed. Improved pacing. Characterizations more fastidious. Plotlines less cluttered. Passable psychological revelations and one-liners (the bread and butter of the genre). And yet the morass remained. The story was still stifled by the foundational concern with its own genesis, which may have driven the author to madness but wasn’t arousing my interest so much anymore. I wearied of the conjectures as to Goldin and Senneby’s sorcery and/or treachery. If I were reading this on my flight from JFK to Heathrow, I’d want some explosive discovery that undoes the global financial system … Tony Blair as Acephalé incarnate, for instance? I supposed I couldn’t do any better with the material. Wondering if my judgment was off, I asked a friend, literary agent Edward Orloff, of McCormick & Williams, to read and consider representing the novel (without telling Barlow). A few weeks later he responded with ample enthusiasm for the conceit but a grim diagnosis for the novel:
Is it possible to cross-pollinate Bataille with two Scandinavian conceptual artists and somehow emerge with a best-selling novel? Why not. And if that novel was propelled by nothing more than the story of its own creation? So much the better. The setup here is brilliant, and I dove into these pages with great interest. … But the fact is I don’t see how to help bring this project into the world, at least not with the trade publishers I usually work with. … 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—a feedback loop with not quite enough at stake.
Ultimately, the publication of Headless seemed beside the point. The project had been in gestation for so long that the model for mass-market publishing had changed. Barlow’s preferred touchstone, the paranoid conspiracies of Dan Brown—perfectly suited for describing the nefarious, nebulous world of high finance—were displaced by novels that hinge on violence and eruptive psychosexual forces, such as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Fifty Shades of Grey. Publishers grew adept at commodifying jouissance. And Triple Canopy’s approach to digital publishing was no longer bleeding-edge, or even very edgy. Initially, I had suspected that Goldin and Senneby approached Triple Canopy because the magazine was ahead of the curve as far as the upheavals being experienced by traditional publishers, and so could offer an escape route if necessary. In email to Barlow on March 20, 2012 I wrote:
What if we publish not just excerpts, but the entire novel? This is a bit tricky, because technically publishing the novel is the culmination of the project. But actually, publishing the novel with a commercial press is the culmination, right? Publishing it as a POD book with TC would mean both making it available and further deferring the publication of the envisioned commercial novel. Which is to say that the commercial novel would still not exist, and may never exist, so the conceptual core of the project remains elusive. And, of course, publishing some or all of the novel in this form doesn’t even preclude a commercial publisher picking it up. As you know, mainstream publishers often now troll the self-published POD and e-book best-seller lists to find books that can be published on the cheap, having already proven marketable. So: the book cannot be published; it must be published. Or something like that.
But even then, Goldin and Senneby were stuck on the conventional mass-market approach. “G+S prefer only excerpts at this stage,” Barlow responded. “I don’t agree, but who am I, right? The bastards!”
Anyway, I realized that the entire project was perhaps not meant to be encapsulated by a mainstream thriller, but to exist as a form of circulation that evokes the movement of offshore money from one fictional financial domain to another, producing surplus value (for the investors) with each exchange. Barlow’s efforts, like my own, could not but add to the plot. Now, with the returns diminishing, it seemed to be time for Goldin and Senneby to invest elsewhere, and so to finish my own writing.
In April, I Skyped with Barlow one final time, ostensibly to check some facts and “fill in a few gaps in my story.” The first few minutes were stilted: I asked how he had been, how his latest crime thriller, Father and Son, was coming along; he mentioned something about ebooks, grunted disconsolately, his eyes inert, like a beast grown hopelessly bored with its enclosure. I thought about how either frantic and erratic or robotic and enervated Barlow always seemed; even after speaking to him numerous times—albeit on Skype—I couldn’t really describe him without resorting to shop-worn tropes. Again, I wondered if he were merely acting.
“So let’s say this whole thing really has, um, torn you apart,” I proposed recklessly, half-sarcastically. “Wouldn’t that—wouldn’t some kind of creeping schizophrenia be totally pleasing to Goldin and Senneby? After all, it conforms to the dichotomies and dissociations governing the project: the fictional performance outpaces reality, the withdrawal of the author augurs a new—and in many ways more powerful—representational entity. And then there’s the paranoia, another time-tested characteristic of the genre: your fantasy of omnipotence, your fixation on the fiction coming to life, your suspicion of being at the center of an all-encompassing conspiracy. It’s the underlying principle of novels by masters like Dan Brown and Thomas Pynchon, meant to elicit the right combination of, say, incredulity and inquisitiveness in the reader.”
Barlow sat completely still, cupping a jelly jar full of red wine, wrapped in what appeared to be a decomposing mariner's cape. I got a spine-tingling sensation: This entire psychodrama really did feel like part of the act, the overarching performance structuring the novel’s endless production. I became convinced that Barlow’s nervous episodes and the treacherous overidentification with his character were part of the artifice. What if he were the one constantly delaying, and by doing so preventing the book from being finally collapsed into the art project—even coopting the entire Headless enterprise—while ostensibly submitting to the dictates of Goldin and Senneby? Perhaps there were no dictates, only Barlow’s own inventions (including the email record), and Goldin and Senneby were the ignorant ones? I remembered the final chapter of Headless, in which Goldin and Senneby are depicted as a pair of monkeys perched on a tree branch overlooking Cameron’s lecture at the London Zoo. As Barlow unleashes chaos beneath them, the artist-monkeys remain impassive, unmoved; they have been rendered—or perhaps they always had been—powerless.
As I thought about this, blanking out on the Skype chat and typing up a few crucial notes to myself, Barlow began to tap his fingers on the desk—slowly at first, then picking up the pace, then thunderously with both hands. I watched, now riveted, as his gaze drifted above his computer’s camera, focusing on the ocean just beyond his window. I felt I could no longer contain myself. “John, give it up!” I shouted. “I know you’ve been using Goldin and Senneby all along!” Even as I blurted this out, I knew I wasn’t quite sure what I meant, or how the pieces fit together.
The tapping stopped. “Alright then, Alexander,” Barlow said calmly, despite the constant twitching of his left eye. “Very well, Alexander.” There was none of that chirpy Englishness now; more like growling. “You want to know the truth about Headless? Why don’t you just fucking look.”
Look where? I tried to think of a clever follow-up. Barlow’s screen went black. His Skype status went from “online” to “offline.”
ONE MONTH AFTER I imprudently confronted Barlow, I received an email from him with the subject line FULL CIRCLE. Barlow wrote nothing, only forwarded a message from Simon Goldin concerning a new angle for the novel: “Would it be possible to add any kind of sex/perversion/eroticism to the narrative? Toward the end of the novel there is quite a bit of writing about Bataille/Acéphale and sex and death. If it’s going to be a bestseller, perhaps we need a bit more erotic perversion, something to draw the reader in and even be arousing? Another victim?”
Several minutes later another email from Barlow arrived, with no subject. It said, simply: “PARTICIPATE IN THE DESTRUCTION OF THE WORLD AS IT PRESENTLY EXISTS, WITH EYES OPEN WIDE TO THE WORLD WHICH IS YET TO BE. (Bataille, Acéphale, volume 1, 1936.)”
I promptly forwarded this email to Goldin and Senneby, along with a brief explanation of my suspicions. I asked if they were aware that Barlow had furnished me with hundreds of emails related to Headless, if those emails were genuine. I reminded them of my intention to publish these materials. The artists didn’t respond.
The next month I was traveling to Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain, to mount an exhibition at Centro Cultural Montehermoso Kulturunea as part of a grant I had received the previous year. Given that my story still had no conclusion, I considered taking a page from Goldin and Senneby’s playbook and hiring a detective to track down Barlow; Vitoria-Gasteiz is just six hours from Galicia by car, and I had been planning to vacation along the northern coast anyway. In the end, my travel preparations were somewhat rushed. I asked another Triple Canopy editor, Lucy Ives, who happened to be in the office on the morning of my departure, if she wouldn’t mind making some phone calls on my behalf. Lucy merely blinked.
“So you’ll do it?” I was feeling around my sweater pocket, where the remains of a joint from the previous night’s farewell festivities had lodged inconveniently.
“This is that fake novel?” Lucy was typing something. Her foot jogged at the end of one bare leg. I knew that she also had literary ambitions; she had published something or other and was always talking about Ezra Pound and language.
“Uh, right,” I was saying, “it’s just this English dude, the one who wrote about eating pigs. He’s, uh, it’s all on the Google Site!” I hoped her interest wouldn’t be overly piqued. “Ask Peter if you’re confused,” I sternly concluded. And with that I sailed out of the building into car service, into terminal, into flight.
Minutes after my arrival at Montehermoso, however, I espied a fateful-looking poster in the main hall, emblazoned with HEADLESS and the Acéphale logo. Skittishly, I asked the curator if he knew Goldin and Senneby, and if he had had any part in their project. “They made work here in 2008, as part of a group show,” he said. “I like their project! Super critical but truly quite amusing. It’s to my taste.” I half expected Barlow to plunge through the door and shout, “Surprise!”
Later that night, I again reviewed the correspondence Barlow forwarded and was annoyed to find no reference to any meeting between him and the artists in Spain in 2008. I watched twenty minutes of a game show involving an aquatic obstacle course and passed out.
The next morning, I awoke to a smug email from Lucy. She had contrived, through the auspices of some kind of urban planner friend from college, to narrow things down. Barlow did not in fact live in the elegant city of A Coruña, but some fifteen miles away, near the fishing town of Malpica, to be exact, on a strip of land known as the Costa da Morte. Lucy signed off with a flaming skull and a series of weeping emotica. I set out to endure the opening of the exhibition and then, the next day, took a rented Prius to find Barlow. Six tooth-loosening hours later, I rolled up to an isolated collection of run-down farms atop a magnificent promontory overlooking the ocean. I had booked a room at a sixteenth-century farmhouse down the street from Barlow’s—the only accommodations in the area—and now I sat on the bed and wondered how to comport myself. I am not a natural detective and couldn’t imagine doing anything other than knocking on Barlow’s door and saying, “Hi John, it’s me, Alex—from Triple Canopy.” And then, I supposed, he would invite me in, and I would ask him questions; or he would slam the door in my face, or hack me to death with a meat cleaver in front of his wife and children and then write an asinine memoir about the experience, about which parts should be slow-cooked in order to bring out the flavor. At this point I despised Barlow for getting me involved in the project, and also resented myself for allowing it to happen. I went out for dinner at the only restaurant in town; the dining room was a patio abutting a field taken up by constantly defecating horses. Due to my pathetic Spanish, I accidentally ordered three different fish plates instead of three pieces of fish. I picked at the carcasses, drank a bottle of wine, slogged through a print-out of my story so far, and then stumbled back toward the coast to catch the sunset.
Between the farmhouse and the edge of the cliff was a field of dense grass and purple wildflowers, which slanted in the evening breeze. The coastline was bathed in reddish light, and as I walked forward I began to hear my favorite sound: the sea crashing against rocks some thirty feet below me. “What the hell am I doing here?” I wondered. I rubbed my eyes with my fists, as if that would provide an answer. When I opened them again I saw a blurry figure in the distance, a man’s body ambling toward the horizon.
“Barlow?” I called out, at first experimentally and then with greater feeling. “Barlow!” It had to be him! The figure swiveled and faced me as I approached—walking briskly, then half-jogging. One hundred yards of thick, wet grass and wildflowers separated us. “It’s me, Alex!” I shouted. He stood still. “Shit, that was inane,” I thought. As I advanced, I made out a fleshy English face, then a tuft of hair flapping like a beleaguered sail, and knew it was Barlow. He turned and bounded toward the edge of the cliff, and without quite realizing what I was doing I gave chase.
As I ran, Barlow descended behind the ridgeline, and when I reached the edge of the cliff he had disappeared. I surveyed the beach below, panting. No sign. There were thickets of trees and shrubbery on all sides, no obvious paths. Barlow could have scrambled down the precipice, but I doubted his chances—his figure seemed not to have recovered from Everything but the Squeal. I peered into the blackness of the Atlantic for a minute, caught my breath, then ran a few hundred feet inland to a trail leading down to the beach.
The sun had sunk beneath the ocean by the time I arrived at the shoreline ten minutes later, and I couldn’t see much of anything. A crowd of old fishermen stood before me, making the final casts of the evening, so I walked up to them. Finding one who spoke English, I explained that I was looking for a friend, an English man, who had been running along the water. After some communal mumbling, the fisherman tugged at his beard, conjuring a memory. “Your friend … he went that way.” The fisherman slowly raised his hand and pointed toward the ocean. “But don’t worry, we’ll catch him.” He and his friends laughed riotously. I told them—in English—they could go fuck themselves and retreated, hiking back toward the farmhouse.
Though I knew he had fled, I decided to stop at Barlow’s on my way home, as a last-ditch attempt to find some resolution. The house was a squat one-story stone structure along the main road, painted light blue, the facade crowded with hydrangeas. I knocked on the door, then turned the knob—unlocked. I flipped the light switch and a single, bare bulb buzzed on. The house was in disarray, mostly dust and boxes. Barlow’s wife and kids actually had left him, it seemed, or they had never existed. An old wooden table was pressed against a window facing the ocean, piled with manuscripts and empty bottles of wine. On the adjacent wall I saw the familiar assemblage of pictures of the various players in the Headless project, dozens of Post-Its, yellowing business cards and photocopies, all orbiting around an image of the Acephalé logo, the headless man with the burning heart, upturned dagger, and skull codpiece.
This, I thought, was a total contrivance. In fact, the entire house felt like a set piece. Whether or not products of Barlow’s real or fictional unraveling, these devices were clearly constructed for the sake of the novel, or writing the novel, or … incorporating me into the novel. Whatever that meant.
Not wanting to turn on any additional lights, I squinted at Barlow’s “mind map” and futilely tried to read his notes and parse the relationships. Noted below a photo of a Nassau hotel: “Could be anywhere—the modern hotel as architectural monument to conformism.” Not helpful. A few inches down, a handwritten note: “Ring me when it’s over. I’ve taken the boys. Susana.” Makes sense. I traced my finger along the crude lines connecting Angus Cameron to Simon Goldin to Kara Donnelly to … Alexander Provan. Barlow had pinned a picture of me, taken from Facebook, to the center of the board. Beneath it he had scrawled, in all caps with multiple underlinings, AUTHOR. Beside me there was an additional likeness I recognized as one of Lucy’s authorial photos. It was annotated, “Wants in.”
Feeling light-headed, I returned to Barlow’s desk and sat down, then poured myself a glass of wine from a half-empty bottle. I gazed out toward the ocean and saw before me, on a shelf directly in front of the desk, a manuscript with a mocked-up cover that reeked of commercial publishing: a blood-splattered dagger bearing the Acephalé logo lying on a white-sand beach, a cloaked figure looming in the distance, a heavy mist obscuring the moon. The title, printed in lurid bold type: HEADLESS. Barlow’s name—not K. D.’s—was emblazoned across the cover, along with a description: “A shocking tale of financial crime, secret societies, murder, manipulation, and the new world order, by the award-winning author of Everything but the Squeal.” Across the top of the print-out Barlow had jotted “Final revision, July 24, 2012”—the very same day. I immediately flipped to the last page.