Acting the Academic

Deputy Head of School, Angus Cameron, reflects upon one of the stranger tasks he has been asked to perform: being a central character in a murder mystery novel.

Working as an academic often involves slipping between identities. The person at the front of the lecture theatre is not quite the same person that inhabits the committee room, the research seminar, the staff meeting or the conference gala dinner.  We routinely adjust our public persona to suit the audience and the venue – it’s something that comes with the job. Sometimes, however, events conspire to require a rather more extreme multiplication of the academic identity, and the result can be…interesting.

In March 2008 I was invited to participate in a round-table discussion about offshore finance.  Having published on the topic and with an ongoing interest in the evolving geographies of the tax state, this was not unusual. It also made sense that, when I got to the Regus Office in Tower 42 in the heart of the City of London, a few other academics, journalists, curators, bloggers and others had also been invited along.  The invitation – and this is where things started to become slightly strange – came from a Swedish duo called Goldin&Senneby who were running a conceptual art project called Looking for Headless. We’d all been sent two thin, roughly bound documents to peruse in advance, texts which turned out to be the first two chapters of a detective novel also called ‘Looking for Headless’, though with the author’s name blacked out. In them, a British novelist living in Spain is confronted by a detective and accused of complicity in a murder plot – a beheading.

It was further explained to us on behalf of Goldin&Senneby (they were not present) that the project was an exploration of the interface between contemporary art and offshore finance. More specifically, the idea was to investigate possible links between a secret society established in Paris in the late 1930s by Georges Bataille, on the one hand, and a recently discovered company called Headless Ltd., on the other. As the project unfolded, its events would become written serially into the novel so that fact and fiction were related in a less than straightforward manner. The real novelist described in our preparatory reading materials, John Barlow, was, during the meeting, blogging live from the Bahamas, where he had been sent by Goldin&Senneby to track down Headless Ltd. The company, for its part, had really been incorporated in the Bahamas in 2007 by a Gibraltar-based offshore agency called Sovereign Group. The name redacted from the front of the novel, it turned out, was that of an employee of Sovereign Group that had been followed by a private detective hired by Goldin&Senneby. Not the kind of event that I had been expecting.

After two hours of spirited discussion we went our separate ways and, apart from a few exchanges of email addresses, I assumed the workshop would amount to another line on my CV, an interesting anecdote. A couple of weeks later, however, I was contacted by Goldin&Senneby and invited to act as their ‘Spokesperson’ for Looking for Headless.  I readily accepted, the discussion in Tower 42 having been stimulating and assuming that this would be a short lived bit of fun.  Far from it.  Over the next seven years I was sent to venues around the world, standing in for the artists often at short notice. I gave lectures in a forest near Paris and near a monkey cage in London Zoo. I addressed galleries in Cairo, Melbourne, Toronto, Mexico City, Paris and others. I wrote articles on offshore finance for a mass-market Brazilian newspaper. Throughout, I both witnessed and experienced the expansion of my academic identity into many different versions of myself.

As ‘spokesperson’ it was my responsibility to explain the connections between the project’s many intertwined elements in a series of ‘performance lectures’ and, more generally, to enable Goldin&Senneby’s self-styled ‘act of withdrawal’ from the project. Not only did I appear in public in different guises, but also started to crop up in the project’s various outputs. Cast as an ‘expert’ I appeared in a documentary film commissioned by Goldin&Senneby. Recordings of my Headless lectures now issue in perpetuity from sculptural installations in various galleries around the world. I even appeared in a play (in a brown corduroy suit!) written by curator Kim Einarsson for short-lived art magazine ‘News of Common Possibility’.

But the main output of the project is the novel Headless, recently published and which will be launched at a series of events over the next few weeks.  Written in response to the events outlined above, in it a fictional version of Angus Cameron (as opposed to the real version writing this) came to life. This Angus Cameron emerges fitfully as the serially-written novel and the characters within it evolve.  In one episode, for example (one which did not make the final cut), the really fictional Angus destroys a laptop in his garden shed because the paranoia of Headless has overwhelmed him. Poor chap. The strangest aspect of this experience wasn’t the often unflattering (if depressingly accurate) descriptions of my namesake, or even reading an account of myself getting stabbed, but the re-incorporation of my research into such a completely different form.

But what, as someone senior (and bluntly sceptical) in the University asked me recently, has any of this to do with the price of fish? Even though the project has been running now for seven years (and shows no sign of abating) this is not a question with a simple answer.  Headless presents us with a very different way of ‘researching’ a notoriously impenetrable topic: offshore finance. Research in this instance does not follow the traditional pattern of amassing focused empirical data, subjecting it to analysis and producing definite, logical conclusions.  Even if this were possible (the whole point of offshore being to ensure that ‘data’ is not available), conventional approaches, even inter- or post-disciplinary ones, tend to restrict themselves to particular types of information and research goals.  While this is entirely appropriate and understandable, it does not exhaust the possibilities of understanding or representing the world.

Headless ‘works’ by creating a partial model of a world, allowing it to intersect with the ‘real’ thing and seeing what emerges. It is not, therefore, goal-oriented: it is not going to lead to policy pronouncements, regulatory reform or any other particular action.  It does, however, offer a space to think actively about the complex interweaving of art, money, creativity, spatiality, identity, presence and absence. And certainly the responses the project stimulates in audiences – often starting as puzzlement, but quickly embracing the strange complexity of the whole – suggests to me that it is effective in communicating something, without needing to be prescriptive about what that something is. Hence the decentred, headless, nature of the project, and my/our multi-headed attempts to represent it, are a curious form of action-research – allowing the object of enquiry to bring itself into a fragile, contingent reality. My recent experience, whether as Talking Head for the Headless organisation, or as Deputy Head for the one I’m blogging for now, suggests we academics often lift one mask only to reveal another.

Originally published at http://staffblogs.le.ac.uk/management/

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