The Goldfinger We Deserve
by David Kim, Nicky Marsh, Monica Narula & Alex Taek-Gwang Lee
What follows is an edited transcript of a discussion that was recorded at The Bahamas Papers on September 1, 2016. The event, part of the Gwangju Biennale, marked the publication of K. D.’s murder-mystery Headless (2015) as an ebook. David Kim, Nicky Marsh, Monica Narula, and Alex Taek-Gwang Lee spoke about the mystery genre, human sacrifice, the pleasures of fiction that insistently impinges on reality, and wanting to believe that we can speak to power but finding that there’s no one to address. (Due to the poor quality of the audio recording, Taek-Gwang Lee’s remarks could not be transcribed.)
Nicky Marsh On March 25, 2010, Lot 36: Fiction on Auction was sold at the Christie’s London auction house for just over five thousand pounds. The auction gave the winner the right to appear as a character in the novel Headless, which was being produced by the artist duo Goldin+Senneby as part of an investigation of offshore finance. The sale was described on the Christie’s website by a short video featuring the art critic Sarah Thornton. Thornton sold the idea—she pointedly stood next to an empty plinth—by extolling its apparent convenience for the global art dealer: “It’s a concept, and the great thing about conceptual art in our globetrotting, email-skimming times is that the shipping is cheap, the overheads are low, and you can get it just like that.”
Yet the question of what, exactly, you are buying, as the pitch goes on to acknowledge, is more complex, and the advert is aware that this is an exceptionally risky proposition. The financial risks are obvious: Goldin+Senneby’s conceptual art has little traction on the international art market, and the putative owner is described as an “arts patron” rather than an investor. The aesthetic or formal properties of the piece are also unclear: This is a generic thriller with an outsourced author, and issues of literary quality or originality do not appear to be primary. “You may ask, ‘Is the book any good?’” Thornton says. “And the obvious answer is, ‘Does it matter?’” Not mentioned in the advert, but perhaps most pressing of all, is the kind of character and role that is being bought. This part of the novel has not yet been written; the owner of Lot 36 will have no say in how she appears in the text, which has already drawn those involved in its production into the narrative in disturbing and potentially dangerous ways.
The uncertainties about exactly what is being sold are, of course, entirely commensurate with Goldin+Senneby’s larger artistic project, which concerns an economic space that seems predicated upon a disavowal of transparency. Headless offers a political strategy for penetrating the political meaning of offshoring—one that can incorporate its own impossibility and remain alive to its own ironic status, while criticizing our vocabulary for speaking about the offshore realm. Headless fails, but in its curiously literal failure the novel provides a powerful and compelling negative critique of how offshore is represented.
One of the project’s points of origin—which is apparent in “The Decapitation of Money,” Goldin+Senneby’s exhibition at Kadist in Paris in 2010, which recreated the offices of a midcentury Russian bank—is the offshore Eurodollar market that began, in the late 1950s, as a way for Russian and Chinese governments to retain dollars for international trading without fear of American sanction. The market then took advantage of existing tax havens and morphed into an enormous shadow economy, predicated upon a culture of secrecy, invisibility, and anonymity that successfully evaded the taxation and regulatory systems of the postwar Bretton Woods economies. The investigative journalist Anthony Sampson recalls how he “stumbled on its existence by sheer accident in October 1959, and when I embarked on an enquiry about it in London banking circles several bankers emphatically asked me not to write about the new practice.” Headless is thus located in the paradigmatic realm of contemporary globalization, in which money is allowed by the state to function beyond the regulations, laws, and conventions—the sources of political accountability and transparency—that we associate with democratic authority.
Headless’s construction of an artistic version of the offshore, defined by the artist’s strategy of withdrawal, has generated “its own web of confusion, concealment and fiction” as the pair act “somewhat like CEOs, employing and enlisting various specialists—economists, authors, curators, etc.—to carry out aspects of their business,” according to the notes accompanying one installation. The work exists as solo exhibitions, a travel blog, a series of site-specific presentations and events (a walk around the city of London, a talk given in a Parisian wood), and a growing number of academic lectures and critical essays. At the center is the hypothesis that the offshore corporation Headless is actually a contemporary incarnation of Acéphale, the secret society initiated by Georges Bataille in the 1930s and celebrated in his short-lived review of that name.
The reference to Bataille, an early-twentieth-century French philosopher with close links to the Surrealist movement, recurs throughout the project, and the rich ambivalence of his conception of sovereignty is revealing. Bataille’s destructively nihilistic notion of sovereignty—“the refusal to accept the limits that the fear of death would have us respect in order to ensure, in a general way, the laboriously peaceful life of individuals”—offers a way of addressing the state’s abeyance of authority. (How ironic that Sovereign Trust, the offshore company featured in Headless, should assume that name, given that it seeks to evade the laws of the nation-state.) For Bataille, who emphasized expenditure (or consumption) rather than production (or labor), economics has failed because it disregards the “excess energy, translated into the effervescence of life.”
In 2015, the novel Headless was published in the form of a popular thriller; it was proclaimed a “murder mystery,” which narrated and embodied the parody at the center of the conceptual art project by placing it in “the world of commercial fiction,” as Alexander Provan writes in the book’s introduction. “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 Acéphale logo.” The publication of the novel deepens the project’s critique of offshore finance, which functions through a paradoxically mimetic strategy of withdrawal. My argument is that the novel doesn’t use the thriller as an analogy for offshore finance; rather, the novel works to destroy its own genre and the fantasy of agency that the genre promises. The novel’s failure to fulfill the generic conventions is part of the effort to question the assumptions of the genre, which are closely related to the assumptions of the offshore economy.
The first offshore thriller might well have been Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger, written in 1958, the same year that the offshore market emerged. In this novel, Bond is employed by the Bank of England to defend the economy against the threat of gold being smuggled out of the country as part of an international conspiracy: “Gold and gold-backed currencies are the foundation of our international credit,” Bond is told. “We can only tell what the true strength of the pound is, and other countries can only know it, by knowing the exact amount of the value we have behind our currency.” Bond is asked to apprehend Goldfinger and retrieve the gold. “You know about the currency crisis and the high interest rate? Of course. Well, England needs that gold, badly—and the quicker the better.”
Goldfinger is threatening because he possesses offshore status: He is the chief treasurer for the fictional Soviet counter-intelligence agency SMERSH and a citizen of the United Kingdom, naturalized in Nassau (with bank accounts in Zurich and Panama); he is the richest man in England but has never paid taxes there. Goldfinger’s disturbingly sensuous love of gold, his perversity, is associated with his lack of national affinity, his failure to understand the nationally bounded economy dictated by Keynesianism. When Bond furtively searches his home, he learns “precious little except that Goldfinger suffered from constipation and a dirty mind.”
Bond’s vanquishing of Goldfinger’s conspiracy plan gives us, of course, the fantasy of complete masculine agency: He is the archetypal hero of a genre in which the secret agent is granted what the scholar Michael Denning describes as a “magical” agency that can “return agency to a largely meaningless kind of work” in ways that explain that work and the “recognition of one’s own lack of power.” In the figure of Bond, Fleming’s novels produce a kind of agency that is equivalent to that of finance. Like finance, Bond can control time by reaching into the future to preempt a disaster that he alone can imagine; he can control space by exceeding national boundaries in the name of the nation-state.
These assumptions about agency, about the ability of an individual to successfully wrestle with the enigmatic power of offshore and win, are most obviously parodied by Headless. What the novel offers in place of this agency is an ironic dramatization of its disappearance into genre.
This disappearance is apparent from the start, as the narrative is delayed by a fifty-page introduction that describes the complexities of the art project that culminates with the novel. When we finally meet the author and protagonist, a writer of young-adult thrillers named John Barlow, he narrates in the third person. The formal sense that he is both decentered and passive is reinforced by the descriptions of his own life: He sits and watches “fat-chested seagulls arc and turn in the sky above him,” “chatting mums,” “the sugar-sweet Town Hall”—an activity for which he has “abandoned everything: career, country, ambition.” The central formal irony of the novel—the story of the failure of its writing—is immediately made clear by this conflation of authorship and narrative. Barlow is both author and protagonist, but never quite certain about his role as either.
Instead of the story of Barlow investigating who’s behind Headlessand the apparent death of the Sovereign employee Jamie Wright, the novel tells of the processes that prevent its realization. In some ways, of course, the text adheres to a familiar and longstanding metafiction tradition: the frustration involved in Laurence Sterne’s inability to narrate the birth of the eponymous Tristram Shandy in the eighteenth century, the fear of Martin Amis’s narrator in London Fields that “someone made me up, for money” in the 1980s. Barlow shares with these characters a fragmentation of self that is coded in increasingly masculine and visceral terms, marked by his alienation from his wife and family. (It starts with his inability to respond to a simple text—“Everything OK?”—and ends with the devastating message, “Ring me when all this is over, I’ve taken the boys.”) Barlow’s haplessness stands in stark contrast not only to the obviously hyperbolic sexualization of the thriller protagonist but, more mundanely, the assertion of a conventional paternal masculinity that identifies so many of the thrillers that narrate the post-2008 crash. Novels by John Lanchester, Sebastian Faulks, and Alex Preston conclude with the repentant financier accepting a previously neglected fatherhood in a bid for redemption, and attempting to rebuild a more authentic version of the masculine self.
As Provan writes, the failures of Barlow as “an investigator and an instigator, a character and an author,” and the subsequent diminishment of his masculinity, are made structurally apparent through his female counterparts writing him out of the novel: The story finally belongs to the women. The investigator/instigator dyad is, of course, assumed by C. B. (Catherine Banks/Carla Bustamante), a somewhat typical femme fatale who appears to possess the powers of the thriller hero: She is “staggeringly beautiful,” extraordinarily intelligent, and superhumanly capable, requiring no sleep. As Carla, she is the rogue agent who we eventually learn is financed by her father’s shadowy offshore money, and who blew up a Bahamian prison cell to save her illegitimate brother, from whom she is almost entirely estranged. As Catherine, she is the accomplished Interpol detective who breaks Barlow’s opening reverie and appears to trace the mystery at the center of the Headless plot. The sophistication and the futility of the attempt, and the two roles she embodies, find a generic corollary in her desire to write a thriller “of fiendish complexity but extreme elegance” in a “Cervantes-Joyce-Conan-Doyle-Barthes-Pynchon-Keenan style.”
This list points to the tradition of the literary quest that is rarely fulfilled, from Cervantes’ quixotic tilting at windmills to Joyce’s Dublin-bound Odyssey to Pynchon’s postmodern and circular paranoia. This is a neat history of experimentation that is clearly about the journey rather than the arrival. Yet C. B.’s own homage to this tradition, The Headless Void, does not even get as far as the beginning of the quest. As the title suggests, the novel is characterized by emptiness and stasis: Banks looks at the “shining expanse” of the empty sea, she tries to fill the empty page, she deletes what she has written; she later recalls her “magnum opus” as safely out of sight and unpublishable, “hidden on a memory stick somewhere nice and quiet.”
Whereas C. B. identifies with a tradition of literary experimentation, K. D., whose name emblazons the cover of Headless, identifies with the genres of the middlebrow thriller that produce a resolution denied to the experimental text. As an actress who is employed by Goldin+Senneby to play the part of K. D. says, she reads “all sorts of things, from Paulo Coelho to James Ellroy, from Isabel Allende to Patricia Cornwell.” It is hardly surprising, then, that the initial descriptions of K. D. are pure pastiche and suggest the commodification of the popular genre that the book is aiming to both parody and fulfill: “It all began with The Da Vinci Code. I was reading it on a flight back to Gibraltar, where I live. ‘You could do this,’ I told myself. ‘You could write this stuff.’”
K. D., a former employee of Sovereign, overcomes the difficulties of actually writing a new blockbuster, whatever its literary or economic value, when she realizes that “my whole career was spent inside an invented world, where names are devised from thin air and locations mean nothing but words on a page. I lived and worked in a fiction, and now I was going to turn it into a work of art.” Both the offshore and fictional realms are “made up for money.”
In the novel’s dramatic closing chapters, Barlow speaks of appropriating K. D., “the English lady from Gibraltar,” for use in his novel. “He pulled her into the mystery, a mere flick of the pen, a narrative decision made in seconds.” He realizes that he must destroy and embody her. He is “not the writer, he is the executioner.” Barlow at once attacks and attempts to save Angus Cameron, the theorist of offshore finance contracted by Goldin+Senneby; he seems to be controlled by K. D. and Jamie Wright, the novel’s two putatively innocent victims.
The fantasy of offshore finance is the creation of anonymous, powerful worlds as easily as in fiction. In the novel, the fantasy is realized through characters typical of the genre—which the novel claims do not exist, even though their presence can be confirmed with a Google search. The novel’s perfect and final failure entails the destruction of the metafiction status of the novel and the reassertion of a sense of the real, however impossible. Headless parallels and echoes the formal absences that characterize the offshore economy while exposing the limitations of our vocabulary for representing this realm—a vocabulary that can easily replicate offshore’s mystery, allure, and power, even in criticism and mockery. In other words, Headless does not reveal the offshore economy so much as the fantasy that sustains it.
David Kim I will begin by reading a short passage that occurs approximately two thirds of the way through the novel. The passage suggests that the protagonist, who is referred to both as Carla and Catherine, notable for her skills as an assassin, beautiful and quite seductive, ended up as a globetrotting agent, taking directives from an unknown entity.
Fourteen hours later she flops onto the bed, a little fuzzed-out after listening to the dull drone of the plane’s engines for ten of those hours. Her hearing always takes a while to get back to normal; it’s the closest she gets to jet lag.
Up above her is a candelabra, modest in dimensions yet still slightly too big for the room. Its droplets of crystal cast out tiny flecks of white light as they turn slowly in the air. She watches them and considers the nature of her life: taking flights as if they were buses, checking into places like the Lanesborough as if they were twenty-dollar motels, spending whatever she wants. And the thing is, she has no idea who pays.
That was the deal. Three years ago. It all happened so quickly, no time to think, and nobody offering to negotiate. So she took it. Carlos didn’t deserve a life sentence. His daughter would have grown up with a convict for a father, dragged to prison every fortnight to sit across the table from a man in chains called Daddy that she hardly knew. Nobody deserves that. So Carla took the deal. And this is what she got. Her own life sentence.
She hasn’t eaten anything since lunch on the flight. But the merest thought of food appalls her. She’ll eat later, somewhere nice, when this is over, when her nerves get somewhere back to normal. For the moment she’ll just lie here in one of London’s finest hotels and tell herself that she made the right decision. People would kill for her lifestyle. And Carla had killed. Not on purpose. But it had been inevitable. It was always going to be that way. She understood that now.
To read closely and aloud in this manner departs very much from the manner in which we would commonly read a paperback mystery novel. But the texture of the passage rewards close attention. Note the rather laborious use of dramatic devices—Carla’s upward gaze at the ceiling, the crystal droplets, the ray of light in the room—which foreshadow an intimate moment of introspection and what we might understand to be revelation. Note the rapid accumulation of different literary tropes: a decisive break from the past, self-sacrifice, and so on. Like much of the novel, this passage is written in a loose, third-person omniscient narration; the perspective often drifts closer to that of the protagonist. Here, as Carla’s mind predominates, you can detect the literary coloring of her own interior monologue. She is an aspiring or failed novelist, and she seems aware that she is having a moment; she puns very badly. The pace quickens, the sentences get shorter.
When I first read these paragraphs, sitting at my desk, I experienced a surging rebuke. I was even briefly lightheaded. The muscles in my shoulders loosened and I breathed more deeply. Until that moment, I failed to properly realize the intensity of my frustration and fatigue when faced with the novel’s countless deferrals and omissions and dead ends. Now, by contrast, I was certain that the novel would finally reveal everything about Carla, this character of remarkable beauty, composure, foresight, and skill. Questions leapt to mind: Who is she working for? What motivates her? What are her ends? I prayed for enough information to arrange Carla and every other character in hierarchies of significance and responsibility within the context of the book and the project.
But, as has often been observed, Headless is defined by absences and abortive explanations. For me, this produced a treacherous desire to have a complete explanation, a total theory of the work. I toggled between a set of diverse perspectives: a utilitarian one, for example, which seemed to reduce all statements of value to a rank arranged along a single axis. Hegelian perspectives, Marxist ones, materialisms of all stripes. Neoliberal and reactionary perspectives as well.
These feelings did not merely appear, but enveloped me. They resembled nothing so much as the movement of matter which fills the slight vacuum left by a passing object. Imagine the way that air curls after a fast-moving car, or the way that the water churns in the wake of a boat. With these images in mind, I became keenly aware of my position in the wake of an act of withdrawal. Something—Bataille, Acéphale, Sovereign, offshore finance, the artists Goldin and Senneby—had already withdrawn, had already passed by me, well before I had read any of this odd book.
It’s worth emphasizing that my desire at this moment was utterly formalist. I cared not at all about offshore finance or the murders in the novel, which perhaps also happened in real life. I offer you this reconstruction not primarily to subject you, a captive and sweaty audience, to a story about myself. Instead, I wish to model a paradigm of ethics in which emotions and affect are essential elements.
When I say that emotions are essential to ethics, I don’t mean that they are inevitably part of ethical reactions, although that may also be true. More precisely, I mean that it may be impossible to completely and accurately characterize any ethical position without making reference to the emotions. Take this one quite simple and rather extreme example: If I say I believe that violence against children is evil, if I do not also hate and detest instances of such violence, if I do not also feel revulsion, sadness, and anger, you may be skeptical of my initial statement.
Another point follows: If you believe that it is an important feature of our ethical universe to hate violence against children, detest or condemn evil acts, and if you also believe that is impossible to fully hate or detest without experiencing strong emotions, then you must also believe that emotion is a central part of our ethical universe. An ethical universe without emotion might exist, but it would be radically different than the one that we inhabit. Of course, we shouldn’t accept our emotions simply on their appearances. We must also apply careful and rational reflection. We must ask ourselves questions like: What do our emotions reveal about our values? Are these values consistent with what we wish our values to be? Are our emotions in proportion to these values?
To accomplish this program of self-reflection, we must be rational as well as affective beings. We must apply the language of affect, which is likely to be poetic or literary. We must decide which are the pertinent moments for examination, and then decide how ethics are applied to expression and realization in politics.
That said, allow me to offer four topics that we can take up in the discussion. First, how should we evaluate the impulse toward a total theory of the work? What do we gain or forsake by adjusting to the generality of which we speak? When, if ever, is it productive to discuss the “Market” with a capital M and “Finance” with a capital F? When is it important to make more local, nuanced arguments?
Second, what other emotions are evoked by the reading of ethics, the experience of the novel? What do these emotions reveal about our prior positions? What do these emotions suggest about our relationship to the world in and beyond the novel?
Third, and most pertinent, what are the ethical valences, if any, of emotions like frustration, irritation, confusion, boredom, disinterest? I described hatred, but only to illustrate the point—and probably a limit. These other emotions are more elusive and certainly more dependent on context.
Fourth, what is the relationship between genre and emotion? For example, what affective punctures, expectations, and inclinations does the thriller or detective novel generate in us? And to the degree that we want to think about this intersection between genre and emotion, what other genres might we imagine as relevant and particularly nurturing to the values and public discourses that we wish to have with one another?
Monica Narula I was searching through my email. I discovered a message from 2006 that said: My name is Simon Goldin and I’m involved in an artistic practice called Goldin+Senneby. We would like to give a talk. We can come down from Sweden. Etc. That talk never happened. It could be that I never replied, I don’t know. Now, ten years later, they’re not here, I am. They’re not speaking, I am. Some kind of balancing of forces is happening. They’ve made me a part of another artistic practice. I’ve put in the time to read a 350-page book. It’s a fascinating book. As you read, it becomes the inverse of a Matryoshka doll. The point of a Matryoshka doll is that you open it and you see another doll; you open that doll and you see another one. There’s a kind of logic. With Headless, there’s a bigger door inside a smaller door. You can’t know how many times the smaller door is going to reveal a bigger door. At some point it might stop, but it could go on forever.
When reading a novel, you’re hoping for some kind of laying out of ideas, for something that you can grasp, so that you can go home and say, “I feel good because I read this.” Headless promises to do this, but instead opens up and expands, then does this sucking-up, tornado-like thing. It opens up in order to collapse. It’s completely legible, but at the same time completely incomprehensible.
If you think about your signature as a child, it’s a move toward illegibility. You write your name properly and then you try and make it squiggly because that authenticates your maturity. You feel that you are you when you make a signature.
This book obfuscates. You don’t know what’s going on. Headless represents—and has instigated—an investigation, but also reveals that there can be no personification of power. We all like to believe that we can speak to power, that we can speak truth to power, that we can enjoy a moment of engagement. But power has to have embodiment. This is the existential conundrum that we all feel: We want to speak to power and realize that there is no one to speak to.
What forms have social systems and capital taken in the past hundred years? When capital takes over it devours and denudes the landscape, transforms the landscape into its own image. What we end up with is not evidence but an event-shaped hole, missing bodies. Which is why forensic tools are necessary to figure out that something has happened. You learn what has happened through reconstruction. Headless is an event-shaped hole.
I’m going to read a couple of fragments.
A massive Bahamian hotel, strewn with franchised eating outlets, and with a great big casino at its heart,” he writes, as he comes to understand that Goldin and Senneby have given him a real-life riddle to solve, and that each part of the solution involves some hitherto unknown trip on this foreign island, and an equally unknown trip into a world of intellectuals and obscure artistic movements.
Then, as he attempts to keep too many confusingly complex ideas in his head at once, like trying to juggle jellyfish, a sudden clear line of thought emerges: If Acéphale wanted to hide something, to hide itself, perhaps, to make a symbolic act of withdrawal, what better place than the epicenter of architectural conformism, a massive modern hotel? According to Bataille these “great monuments rise up to oppose all disquiet and dissent” and “speak to and impose silence on the crowds.” Together with airports and shopping malls, the modern hotel is everything that Bataille et al hated about modernity. And if a secret society wanted to stage its act of withdrawal somewhere poignant, to add a touch of irony to its location, the Bahamas—playground of American conformism, of the rich, of predictability and self-constrained action—would be a brilliant choice.
“It is them,” he says. “Got to be. Goldin and Senneby are Acéphale.”
The hotel and the experience of sheer terror that it inspires is related to the novel’s representation of the seamlessness of capital. And then there’s the airport.
As he makes his way off the plane and treks along the dull concourses of Heathrow, looking around for cameras, wondering what intentions could be read into his expression, the way he moves, the direction of his glance. He feels like he’s on camera again, like in Bergamo and Oslo. But this is not so enjoyable now. It’s not a game anymore.
He stands in the queue at customs. Who does that to an innocent person and her kids? What if it’s Headless? Does Headless do this to people?
Barlow emerges into the cold English air, cell phone in hand. He needs to call someone. But there’s no one to call. There never is, not about Headless. He wouldn’t know where to begin. A name, a pun? Sovereign states, secret companies, money, monkeys. A game that’s not a game. A game that’s not funny.
You play or you don’t.
Let us turn to sovereignty in the context of Headless, which is a thing without a head, a thing with its own strange and complicated kind of sovereignty. Headless is a novel, and fiction is about control. The writer conceals and reveals the various parts of the plot as necessary; he calls all the shots. Within the narrative, he wields absolute power. He is indeed the sovereign power of his own fictive material, of his own fictive realm. The parody of sovereignty is an essential theme of Headless, and that includes mimicking the strategy of offshoring by concealing Goldin+Senneby’s role through the use of agents like me—and possibly you—who act on their behalf: “Up above, Goldin and Senneby sit patiently on their branches, looking on with benign interest, and occasionally picking fleas from their coats.”
I want to end with a story of a body that rejects being a person and being headless. There was a Persian mystic and sage, Sarmad, who in the seventeenth century abandoned his wealth and wandered to Delhi. Originally a Jew, he was gay, had a lover named Abhai Chand, and walked around naked. He always chanted, “There is no god,” rather than, “There is no god but God.” People warned him to watch out, but he said that he was “still absorbed with the negative part,” and couldn’t move on to saying “but God.” Unfortunately, he did get into trouble: He was charged with public nudity or blasphemy and beheaded. But, according to legend, his severed head uttered, “There is no god but God” several times, suggesting that in death he understood life—and that he was not an apostate.
Audience member The main question seems to be how a novel can deal with the abstractions through which capitalism works. Whereas in the 1960s and 1970s the tendency was to deemphasize who is speaking, now the concern is to whom the author speaks. The addressee is absent. On a vulgar level, this relates to the problem of tracking who owns things like luxury apartments, given that records recede into oblivion.
Alexander Provan I want to address what is revealed and what remains concealed in this novel in terms of structures of finance. We’ve been talking about the effectiveness with which the novel describes and performs certain opaque aspects of the economy that are actually hugely significant. Offshore finance is not limited to places like the Bahamas; these strategies are enacted, or enabled, by many of the world’s major economies—but especially by the United States, England, Ireland, and so on. Covert transactions account for an enormous portion of global economic activity. The novel is illuminating as a description of these processes, and yet I don’t think it purports to provide any kind of ultimate revelation.
It’s worth mentioning that, in the novel, Goldin and Senneby are the ones who maintain sovereignty. They provide a framework within which the main characters attempt to find their own agency—through their narration of this process and their own lives. But, of course, that effort is doomed. You have the sense, especially from the passages we’ve heard, that Goldin and Senneby are overseeing the narrative as it unfolds. Whether or not they’re intervening at every step, they’ve effectively set up a system that they can regulate in order to serve their own purposes.
Monica Narula Once you know something, you can act, right? What’s interesting about our dilemma is that information doesn’t change the equation. Headless doesn’t give you that much information, but it pushes you in the direction of realization, and possibly action. If you want to find out more, you can look elsewhere. But then you wonder which aspects of the novel are real, which have occurred in the world that you occupy, and that question can’t be resolved. Which means that the novel impinges on reality and vice versa, and the status of any information that you might glean from either realm becomes dubious.
Triple Canopy has just published the ebook version of the acclaimed murder-mystery Headless, which was originally published last year with Sternberg Press and Tensta Konsthall (and is currently sold out). On the occasion, a number of writers, scholars, and artists will read from the novel and ruminate on offshore finance and the free rein of capital.
Headless is a delirious romp through the world of offshore finance, conducted by a British ghostwriter who seems to have uncovered a sacrifice-obsessed, Bataille-inspired secret society of global economic elites who will do anything to maintain their power. The ghostwriter, John Barlow, is hired by the Swedish artist duo Goldin+Senneby to investigate Headless, an offshore firm registered in the Bahamas. Barlow happily agrees to write up his investigation as a mystery novel, to be published under the name K. D. But soon Barlow is implicated in the decapitation of a police officer in Nassau, and his novel becomes a matter of life and death. The more he struggles to grasp the plot, the further he slips into the dark world of covert capitalism.
X-TRA describes Headless as “an airport paperback in the spirit of The Da Vinci Code” the Believer lauds the novel as “brilliant”; ARTnews calls it “an exercise in induced paranoia for its readers as much as its characters.”
In addition to reading from Headless, Alex Taek-Gwang Lee, David Kim, Monica Narula, and Nicky Marsh will discuss the mystery genre, human sacrifice, and the pleasures of fiction that insistently impinges on reality, among other topics. Triple Canopy editor Alexander Provan will moderate. The Bahamas Papers is part of the eleventh Gwangju Biennale, “The Eight Climate (What does art do?)” where Goldin+Senneby is presenting the installation Headless: From the Public Record (2009).
- David Kim is a JD candidate at Yale Law School, where he is the curator of JUNCTURE, an initiative devoted to art and human rights. He collaborates with Council, a curatorial platform based in Paris. He has recently written about the work of the artist Jill Magid in The Proposal (Sternberg Press). Prior to law school, he worked as a management consultant at McKinsey & Company. He holds degrees from Columbia University and Harvard University.
- Nicky Marsh is a professor of Twentieth Century Literary Studies at University of Southampton in the UK. She works on cultural representations of finance and money and is cocurator of the national touring exhibition “Show Me the Money: The Image of Finance, 1700 to the Present,” coeditor of Literature and Globalization, and author of Money, Finance, and Speculation in Recent British Fiction.
- Monica Narula is, along with Jeebesh Bagchi and Shuddha Sengputa, a member of Raqs Media Collective. Raqs enjoys playing a plurality of roles, often appearing as artists, occasionally as curators, sometimes as philosophical agent provocateurs. Raqs makes contemporary art and has produced films, curated exhibitions, edited books, staged events, collaborated with architects, computer programmers, writers, and theater directors, and founded processes that have left deep impacts on contemporary culture in India.
- Alex Taek-Gwang Lee is a professor at Kyung Hee University. He received an MA in philosophy from University of Warwick and a PhD in cultural theory from University of Sheffield. His publications include Theory After Althusser, Futurism, The Obscene Fantasy of Korean Culture, and Nationalism as a Sublime Object. He has been an editorial member of journals such as English Language and Literature, Journal of Theory and Criticism, Journal of Literature and Cinema, and the Gwangju Biennale’s journal, NOON. In 2013, he organized The Idea of Communism conference in Seoul with Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek and co-edited, with Žižek, The Idea of Communism 3.
- Alexander Provan is the editor of Triple Canopy and a contributing editor of Bidoun. He is the recipient of a 2015 Creative Capital | Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant and was a 2013–15 fellow at the Vera List Center for Art and Politics.