My eyebrows have a tendency to perk up when I hear the word ‘corporation’ used in a derogatory way. In fact, my forehead muscles get a particularly good workout when phrases like the ‘evil corporation’ and the ‘mega-corporation’ are thrown about. It’s an unintentional habit, usually coupled with the lawyer-side of my brain begging to ask the instigator: what, precisely, do you mean by that? Because the etymology of ‘corporation’ has a pseudo-utopian bent it. Its earliest predecessor, the circa-15th century ‘corporacioun’, was used in Anglo-Latin to describe the uniting of people in a body with a purpose, a whole made up of the sum of its parts. Then, in its Late Latin iteration, ‘corporationem’ was used to describe the embodiment or fashioning into a body.1 To think that this precursor to the 21st century Frankenstein version could have been made up of real people, fashioned into a body, embodied with a purpose even. It sounds pretty nice, no?
The Corporate Body of Today.
Today, a corporation is generally understood to be an entity which has a legal personality. In the eyes of the law, it is entitled to certain rights and protections. It is conceived as (you guessed it) an artificial body, which from a legal perspective is recognised and treated as a living, natural person would be. Like a natural person, a corporation can own tangible and intangible property i.e. a car, or a trade mark. The ‘corporate veil’ which the corporation is privy to, generally shields the natural persons who own or control it from certain liabilities which may arise from the activities undertaken. However, the corporate veil is ‘pierced’ if a natural person who owns or controls the corporation has acted culpably or fraudulently in their role.2 This enables accountability to sit at the heart of the corporate system. It also enables the body of the corporation to act as a kind skin, a protector housing the organs possessed within.
It’s All in the Name.
Like a natural person, a corporation must have a name. In fact, it can have multiple names. For example, a corporation has a name under which it is registered in a specific jurisdiction. It can also have an altogether different name or names which it uses to conduct its activities i.e. a trading name. For corporations registered in Australia, their names often include an abbreviated suffix which indicates the type of corporate structure it has – such as ‘PTY LTD’, short for the ‘proprietary limited’ private company, ‘LTD’, short for the ‘limited’ public company, and ‘INC’, short for the ‘incorporated association’ – which is the corporate structure of choice for numerous small-scale, non-profit artist-run initiatives operating in Australia.3
Just as abbreviated suffixes are used in the names of corporations to signify the structure of those entities, they have also been adopted by artists and art collectives to signal their concerns with the economic, social, political and cultural remit of corporations. To name just a few, there’s New York-Paris based art-fashion collective Bernadette Corporation (members include Bernadette van Huy, Antek Walzcak and John Kelsey),4 London art duo Lloyd Corporation (Ali Eisa and Sebastian Lloyd Rees), Shanghai’s MadeIn Company (Xu Zhen), Swedish duo Goldin + Senneby’s Headless project – which is centred on a company registered in the Bahamas called Headless Ltd – and the closer to home Debris Facility Pty Ltd, the practice of the Melbourne artist formerly known as Dan Bell. Some have even gone so far as to legally register their practices as corporations, parodying countless celebrities who merchandise their image ala Kim Kardashian (Kim Kardashian Inc.). For example, by registering a corporation in the U.S. state of Delaware, Jennifer Lyn Morone, Inc, claims to have “advanced into the inevitable next stage of Capitalism by becoming an incorporated person”5. Through incorporation – whether purely through the adoption of corporate naming convention or the legal registration of a corporation –the corporate veil is performed. The natural person is pulled back behind the scenes, so that their artistic output is positioned front and center.
The use of corporate names goes hand in hand with the referencing in art works of the aesthetics which are synonymous with the corporations of today. For its April 2014 issue, Art in America magazine featured a dedicated section on this zeitgeist, including a series of web interviews with artists under the title ‘Corporate Aesthetics’ and an article by Brian Droitcour titled ‘Young Incorporated Artists’. In his article, Droitcour discusses how the collective projects K-Hole and the use online networks to simultaneously leverage and reinforce their individual agendas. One of the oft-cited images from Jogging’s Tumblr page is of a Doritos Taco clamped with a lock, created by Jogging founder Brad Troemel. On such images, amongst others, Droitcour writes, “What K-Hole and the Jogging produce looks less like art than an aggressively hip viral marketing campaign for the means of distributed power.”6 It is this mirroring of slick marketing – or more specifically – branding campaigns in art works that has come to be labelled ‘corporate aesthetics’. It is a term which in late 2016 became synonymous with the 9th Berlin Biennale, which was curated by New York-based collective DIS and featured for example, Simon Denny and Linda Kantchev’s Blockchain Visionaries trade fair booths and Christopher Kulendran Thomas’ New Eelam display suite. And yet, it is a phrase which has mainly gained traction in art – rather than marketing – discourse. So much so, that when I Google search ‘corporate aesthetics’ the first page of results comes back with a series of hits made in the context of, contemporary art.
Closer to home, artist Kate Fulton’s The Artist Funded project precedes the popularity of the ‘corporate aesthetics’ label, but could easily be slipped into the later discourse around it. In 2004 Fulton initiated The Artist Funded project in artist-run spaces in Melbourne and Sydney, including Bus Projects and West Space, Melbourne. The project took the form of an open source logo which was made available to artists to design and use on exhibition catalogues, posters, bags and other classic art merchandise, which parodied the types of corporate and government sponsor logos attached to contemporary art exhibitions. Fulton initiated the project in order to make audiences more aware of the realities of exhibiting in small-scale, not-for-profit artist-run gallery spaces, where artists are often expected to self-fund their work. Fast forward almost 15 years later, that expectation generally remains.
In applying the ‘corporate aesthetics’ label to art practice, we could back-track decades earlier. Think of Andy Warhol’s logo screen prints of the mid-1980s, including Apple, 1985 Mobil, 1985 and Paramount, 1985, as well as a collaboration with Jean Michel Basquiat, which featured the logo of GE. The longevity of the brands which he selected to copy are a testament to Warhol’s brilliance. A lesser known historical example is a group exhibition which was held at the Renaissance Society in Chicago in 1980. Tellingly titled Objects and Logotypes: Relationships Between Minimalist Art and Corporate Design, the exhibition featured minimalist sculptures – such as a Donald Judd wall box – beside logos designed for use by large corporations in the 1950s and 1960s. In the accompanying exhibition essay curator Buzz Spector wrote:
In the ubiquitous presence of logotypes like the CBS “eye,” IBM’s girder-like initials, … the artists who came of age in the 1960s assimilated the hard-core message of the successful logotype. And it is in the context of such graphic design that much Minimalist art yields up the secrets behind its formal effects.7
Spector’s use of the word “assimilated” to describe the connection between minimalist art and logos is particularly fitting here. After all, the process of assimilation involves incorporating as one’s own (pun intended).
Chains of Command.
While the use of corporate aesthetics and naming conventions by artists is usually deliberate, the working methods of some art collectives and curator-cum-artists can inadvertently resemble operational hierarchies of the corporation. The operational hierarchy of a corporation relies on an authoritarian chain of command. Much like the military ranking system, the higher the rank, the greater the authority one is entitled to. In the art world context, the question of who has authority and who can trump that authority is often debated in terms of the relationship between the artist and the curator. This is best demonstrated with reference to e-flux’s online publication of Anton Vidokle’s text “Art Without Artists?” in 2010,8 which was accompanied by a backlash (predominantly by curators) that ricocheted across the art world and continues to live on as required reading in post-graduate curatorial programs today. A classic example of this authorial struggle is the declaration of artistic autonomy which appeared in the June 1972 edition of Artforum and the German newspaper Frankfurther Allgemeine Zeitung. Signed by such artists as Hans Haacke and Richard Serra, the declaration was prompted by the exhibition in Kassel, Germany from the same year, documenta 5: Questioning Reality, Pictorial Worlds Today. Curated by a three member working group which included the self-anointed independent curator Harald Szeemann, documenta 5 featured an overarching thematic concept which focused on the distinctions between art and image (a theme which continues to be used in numerous art exhibitions even today). The manifesto published in Artforum asserted that a work of art should not be exhibited in a broader thematic context without the artist’s consent.9 Yet of the ten artists who signed the declaration, only five withdrew from the exhibition, the others choosing to have their cake and eat it too.
Almost fifty years later acts of withdrawal by participants in response to measures from curators who cross the artist divide continue, often accompanied by a strategic, published declaration announcing the reason(s) for withdrawal. Soon after the opening of the DIS-curated 9th Berlin Biennale, Melbourne-based art-fashion collective Rare Candy and their collaborators Alden Epp, Spencer Lai, Natasha Madden, Ander Rennick and Amber Wright, sent a letter to e-flux which announced their ‘reclamation’ of their proposed work from a sub-exhibition curated by yet another Melbourne-based art-fashion collective, Centre for Style. The letter was published on e-flux conversations and incessantly shared by readers on social media. The letter explained:
We took issue with the exhibition being framed under the loose rhetoric of ‘community’ and ‘collaboration’ without the proper recognition of the authorship of those of us who form that community, nor the communication required of a collaboration. We felt the dissolving of our work into an anonymous display, labelled as ‘community’, only served to blur the distinct voices within.10
A multi-level and multi-collective authorial hierarchy was clearly at play, not unlike how one might feel as an employee at the bottom of the pecking order in the 21st century Frankenstein-like corporation.
The entangled webs of artists/curators/designers/creators and their accompanying authorial concerns has become a common symptom of network-style collective practices. Take for example, the now defunct London-based art collective Lucky PDF (Oliver Hogan, Yuri Pattison, James Early and John Hill). For their quintessential project Live from Frieze Art Fair this is LuckyPDF TV, 2011 the group invited more than fifty of their friends and creative collaborators to participate and show work as part of television-style episodes which were broadcast daily during the Frieze Art Fair. As was the case with Rare Candy and their collaborators, Centre for Style and DIS, the publicity received primarily referred to those higher up in the chain of command – LuckyPDF. Although no responding public declaration was made, ruffled feathers were calmed by the group through the deliberate and more direct acknowledgment of those involved in later iterations of the project. For example, when the episodes were screened as part of an exhibition I curated at Bus Projects in 2012, TV Dinners, LuckyPDF requested that a list of credits be printed out and made available to read by visitors near the screened works (in addition to the rolling credits included after each episode). Looking back I wonder how effective this strategy was. The productive tensions which accompany most forms of communal authorship may, on the occasion of that exhibition, have been missed. But to whose detriment? To LuckyPDF? To their collaborators? LuckyPDF? Bus? The viewer? Mine?
Office politics aside, incorporating and adopting an organisational hierarchy that is legally recognised has its benefits, both outside of and in the context of art production. In Australia, the majority of small scale artist-run initiatives which are incorporated have adopted a species of corporate structure which is suitable for operating not-for-profit – the incorporated association. Usually, incorporated associations are established for cultural, charitable or recreational purposes and profits must be applied to the objectives of the organisation. Like all corporations, the incorporated association must comply with its governing rules and the applicable legislation in the state or territory in which it is incorporated.
By virtue of its incorporated structure, incorporated associations are also able to continue on, regardless of changes to its members. Of the almost hundred-odd small scale artist-run initiatives presently operating in Australia, those which have survived the longest have taken the step of registering as incorporated associations. They include Firstdraft (incorporated as FIRST DRAFT INCORPORATED in New South Wales in 1986), Watch This Space Inc (incorporated in the Northern Territory in 1993), West Space Inc. (incorporated in Victoria in 1993) and Platform Artists Group Inc (incorporated in Victoria in 1994).
Without doubt, the incorporated structure of these artist-run intiiatives has enabled them to weather their fair share of office politics and even the occasional coup, to receive funding and the odd gift. In turn, they have been vital training grounds for emerging artists, art collectives, writers, curators and other creative types. They are an important testament to how the body corporate can and should be, used for good, not evil.
- <p><a href="https://www.etymonline.com/word/corporation">etymonline.com/word/corporation</a> <a href="#fnref1:1" rev="footnote" class="footnote-backref">↩</a></p>
- <p>Officeholders of corporations are subject at law to directors’ duties. For example, corporations registered with the Australian Securities and Investments Commission under the Corporations Act 2001 (Cth) must comply with the duties provided in sections 181 – 183 of this Act.  <a href="#fnref1:2" rev="footnote" class="footnote-backref">↩</a></p>
- <p>Note that while the prefix ‘INC’ is used in Australia for solely for incorporated associations, whereas in the U.S., the same prefix is used more generally to refer to all entities that are incorporated. <a href="#fnref1:3" rev="footnote" class="footnote-backref">↩</a></p>
- <p>Bernadette Corporation’s fashion film Hell Frozen Over, 2000 was featured in the exhibition at Bus Projects Dolci & Kabana: Brand Delusions Presented by Dolci & Kabana (Ricarda Bigolin & Nella Themelios) with collaborator Simon Browne (Couresy Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York) 18 September – 6 October 2012). <a href="#fnref1:4" rev="footnote" class="footnote-backref">↩</a></p>
- <p><a href="http://jenniferlynmorone.com">http://jenniferlynmorone.com</a> <a href="#fnref1:5" rev="footnote" class="footnote-backref">↩</a></p>
- <p><a href="http://www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-features/magazine/young-incorporated-artists/">http://www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-features/magazine/young-incorporated-artists/</a> <a href="#fnref1:6" rev="footnote" class="footnote-backref">↩</a></p>
- <p><a href="http://www.renaissancesociety.org/publishing/133/objects-and-logotypes/">http://www.renaissancesociety.org/publishing/133/objects-and-logotypes/</a> <a href="#fnref1:7" rev="footnote" class="footnote-backref">↩</a></p>
- <p><a href="http://www.e-flux.com/journal/art-without-artists/">http://www.e-flux.com/journal/art-without-artists/</a> <a href="#fnref1:8" rev="footnote" class="footnote-backref">↩</a></p>
- <p>The declaration was signed by Carle Andre, Hans Haacke, Donald Judd, Sol Le Witt, Barry Le Va, Robert Morris, Dorothea Rockburne, Fred Sandback, Richard Serra and Robert Smithson. <a href="#fnref1:9" rev="footnote" class="footnote-backref">↩</a></p>
- <p><a href="http://conversations.e-flux.com/t/rare-candy-and-collaborators-withdraw-work-from-berlin-biennale-over-authorship-legibility-concerns/3899">conversations.e-flux.com/t/rare-candy-and-collaborators-withdraw-work-from-berlin-biennale-over-authorship-legibility-concerns/3899</a> <a href="#fnref1:10" rev="footnote" class="footnote-backref">↩</a></p>