Tax avoidance by large corporations like Google, Amazon, Starbucks, BP, and Apple—especially in the UK—is a fury-inducing hot topic these days. When smaller businesses and individuals are feeling the crack of the whip when it comes to paying their tax dues, and are punished strongly and without mercy if they don't, it strikes people as particularly galling to see global giants get away with what amounts to a slapped wrist.
Even when these companies are told to pay up, like the £130m deal recently reached with Google, it's seen as way too small a figure compared to what they should have been paying. Following the recent Google controversy the UK parliament's House of Commons Treasury committee has announced an inquiry which will look at the government's policies on corporation tax, whether the system needs an overhaul (obviously) and whether the HMRC (Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs), who are responsible for collecting taxes, is doing enough to stop tax avoidance by corporations (obviously not).
With that in mind, a piece by Dutch artist Femke Herregraven called Taxodus, currently on show as part of the Neoliberal Lulz exhibition at London's Carroll / Fletcher gallery, couldn't be more pertinent. The game, which is also available to play online here, is about offshore tax avoidance.
To play the game, players pick a real company known for tax avoidance—Apple, Coca-Cola, IBM, McDonald's, BP, there are many—and then choose what type of advisor they want before journeying off into the complex, manifold, and remunerative world of tax dodging. "Different advisors offer different advice—some will try to find legal alternatives while others will try to convince players to bend the rules," says the artist. "Players can then ask for a second opinion at any point in the game and manipulate regulations and treaties. This enables players to steer the game in the direction they choose. The game is based on actual information on withholding tax in global tax treaties."
The aim is to avoid paying as much tax as possible. You then download your fiscal report and see the winner. It's one of a number of works by Herregraven and other artists which explore our relationships with the global non-governmental powers, investment banks, and corporations that hold sway over the market and economic forces that reign over our daily lives.
These artists have adapted, and highlight, the strategies used by these companies and banks for their artworks. Herregraven's other pieces in the show include a video, Infinite Capacity Al13, which shows the warehouses where investment banks store masses of aluminium to aide financial speculation. Other works by the artist look at the high-speed algorithmic trading used by investment banks and hedge funders known as High-Frequency Trading (HFT), what Herregraven calls "one of the most opaque, automated, and sped-up processes of the present moment."
Also there is Constant Dullaart’s DullTech™, a startup that's created the DullTech™ video player which plays on any screen and syncs without issues. The company blurs the line between commerce and art as it functions as both a legitimate startup and performance art piece. "The artist is at once the creative, developer, marketeer, and venture capitalist, placed to cash in on any commercial success," the press release for the exhibition notes.
Artist Jennifer Lyn Morone's work is there—the artist is famed for turning herself into a corporation. Jennifer Lyn Morone™ is a registered company and 10,000 shares will be available to coincide with the exhibition. The company sees Morone make diamonds from her hair and turn her scent into perfume. "This model allows you to turn your health, genetics, personality, capabilities, experience, potential, virtues, and vices into profit. In this system You are the founder, CEO, shareholder and product using your own resources," notes the JLM™ website.
One of the products she's developing as a corporation is software called DOME (Database Of ME). The idea is for people to be able to take back ownership of the masses of data we leave strewn around online. The software will let people collect, track, analyze, and also monetize their data. "With this app you can rest assured that your identity and your data are collected and stored for you and only you so your company can sell, lease, rent, exchange or invest it for you to profit."
Jennifer Lyn Morone JLM™ Inc Imperial Diamond, 2016 Diamond made from the hair of Jennifer Lyn Morone 2016 edition. Image courtesy of artist and Carroll / Fletcher, London.
Artists Émilie Brout & Maxime Marion have also turned a business into a work of art with their Untitled SAS (in France, SAS is “société par actions simplifiées,” which means a registered limited company). It is an "immaterial work of art whose medium is a business company, with 'work of art' as corporate purpose and with a capital open to everybody interested in buying shares at their own price."
In an increasingly commodified world, where if an Internet of Things does happen, it could mean even our (currently) offline movements and actions in our own homes will be tracked, stored, and sold for profit. These artworks aren't only conceptual interventions and food for thought, but could also be pointing the ways to citizen empowerment (albeit rather Dadaist) in a world that continues to be ruled by corporations rather than governments.
Neoliberal Lulz is on at Carroll / Fletcher, Eastcastle Street London now until April 2, 2016. Click here for more information.