Fillip 10 — Fall 2009

Re: Democracy, Economy, and Power

Christian Hillesø, Kate Steinmann, and Johan Tirén

Eight years ago, artists Johan Tirén and Christian Hillesø sent letters to the CEOs 
of the top 100 Fortune Global 500 companies asking for their views on power, economy, and democracy. In 2008, they repeated these inquiries, sending identical letters to the CEOs of the top 100 companies of that year. Most of the corporate leaders they 
addressed didn’t reply, while a few sent “non-answers,” typically via their public 
relations officers, indicating their unavailability or unwillingness to respond. 
A handful sent brief, substantive responses to the 2000 letters, and, so far, only 
one has responded in any meaningful way to the 2008 letters. The project, titled 
_What Is Your View?_ is included in the exhibition There is no audience! on view at 
Montehermoso, Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain (22 May to 30 August 2009) and curated by 
Adnan Yıldız. 

For more information:

Kate Steinmann: 
Your epistolary inquiry into the corporate mindset intrigues me. The three questions you posed in letters addressed to the CEOs of the top 100 Fortune Global 500 companies in 2000 and again in 2008 appear, at their surface, straightforward, open-ended. The terms—democracy, economy, power—are in no way delimited. The term “economy” isn’t even preceded by a “the,” which broadens interpretive possibilities. The third term, “power,” in the context of the other two, does add a certain sense of menace; at the very least, it raises questions about problems that may arise in relation to the other two. But you’ve left the questions at that, and you do not disclose your own views. It is as if you wanted to offer an apparently “neutral” screen onto which recipients would project their own ideologies. Of course, this was a deliberate strategy, as were the particular questions you asked and the contexts—temporal, political, social—you chose to ask them in. The inquiry reminds me of a personality test: it’s biased, but it assumes an air of impartiality, and it invites self-definition.

What is perhaps most significant is that so many CEOs chose not to respond. Yet given that the corporate stance is inherently so impersonal and antipathetic to the recognition of individual voices, I’m surprised that you received as many replies as you did. These manifest a variety of attitudes, ranging from curt dismissal (Royal Ahold: “Please don’t send us letters anymore”) to polite detachment (HSBC: “I apologise if I appear unhelpful but I thank you for taking the trouble to write to me and for your interest in HSBC”) to enthusiastic engagement (United States Postal Service: “Our democratic model has proven to be durable and responsive to the needs of a diverse people over the course of more than two centuries, providing a formal framework that preserves the core principles established in our Declaration of Independence”) and beyond. Only one letter, from Allianz, surmises that your inquiry is part of an artists’ project, but they don’t seem to know what to make of it. 

It is not surprising that several replies expound on the merits of free market capitalism. Kmart’s statement on the economy is brief: “Laissez-faire, free market.” Nestlé’s view is that “If liberty, individual responsibility, and wealth creation 
are seen as valuable, a free economy is superior to all other systems developed by mankind so far.” For Verizon, democracy “is what makes a free economy possible and 
it is what motivates a free society to succeed,” and “a free economy helps make peo-ple free as well.” 

Of course, troubles in the “free market” have been made especially public recently, and the timing of your inquiries has been prescient. You sent the initial round of letters out only a few months before the pivotal events of September 11, 2001, which strengthened alliances between the neoconservative security state and neoliberal global economics. Your letters also preceded, by just a few months, the spectacular collapse into bankruptcy of the energy giant Enron (whose CEO, Ken Lay, received one of your letters in 2000).

In fact, the Enron debacle, considered (at least until the past year or so) to be among the worst corporate crimes in history, is a case study__in the operation of power and democracy in the neoliberal global economy. Money bought Enron access to power—power in the form of energy, power in and over the US government and other national governments, power over peoples’ lives and livelihoods—which it abused. Recent events have confirmed that this was not atypical of the operations of “market democracy” as they too often play out. But it was profoundly undermining to what I think of as democracy in its meaningful sense—the sense in which people have access to means for governing their own collective and individual lives. 

Enron’s fall was supposed to have been a cautionary tale that would teach banks, investors, ratings agencies, government regulators, and elected officials something about corporate corruption and greed. But fraud, conspiracy, insider trading, and wild risk-taking was allowed to continue, and since 2008—the year your second set of letters went out—we’ve been experiencing a financial crisis that is far more profound.

Kmart’s slightly sinister statement on democracy in their reply to you is that it is “advanced” and “not for all nations.” Such a response is consistent with corporate 
interest in promoting non-participatory, top-down forms of “democracy.” Actually, Kmart CEO Chuck Conaway is in the news again these days. Just after Enron’s collapse, Kmart filed for bankruptcy in a similar scandal that revealed rampant corruption within the company’s ranks, and Conaway is on trial for allegedly having misled shareholders during the period leading up to that filing. In this light, it’s interesting to consider another statement in Kmart’s reply to you: “Need power, but it can corrupt.”

Nestlé’s comment on power is oddly transparent. It appears to point to democracy and the free market as forces that actually authorize the abuse of power: “Power and its exercise is vital in any society. Democracy and a free enterprise system are so important because they legitimize, limit, and regulate the way it is being used and sanction its abuse.” I can assume only that the company didn’t quite mean to say this, but perhaps they were just being honest.

For me, then, What Is Your View? highlights the ways democracy increasingly has been eclipsed by monetarism—and, in particular, the role globalized corporations and the globalized banking system have taken in this process. Corporations continue to enjoy rights above and beyond those of persons, as well as power sometimes exceeding that of states, profiting at the expense of those who are less powerful (in most cases with government support), too often shielded from the rule of law, and unaccountable to the public. The particular brand of “democracy” that sanctions this kind of corporate behaviour has been a disaster for many local economies and many of the world’s people, and this reality is the background against which I understand the questions posed in your letters. 

Ultimately I see your inquiry as one that appeals to ethics. That the corporations’ answers—as well as, importantly, their “non-answers” and failures to answer—seem, 
in contrast, and in all their variety, to be based largely on calculations of productivity and profit, is not unexpected. What is interesting is that your project provided corporations with an opportunity to explain their views on issues intimate to their operations largely on their own terms—yet within guidelines that encouraged them to step outside their official identities. The responses are unusual exercises in corporate rhetoric and self-representation in that they are external to branding typically found in advertising, annual reports, and so on. Some may question your decision to provide a platform for corporate propaganda, but I think the project assumes a certain criticality on the part of the audience. Frans-Josef Petersson has said that Johan’s work “requires trusting the viewer to react as a moral subject rather than as a passive consumer of political ideas,””1 (read footnote)”:#note1 and it seems to me that What Is Your View? depends on just this sort of trust. As such, it is consistent with your joint as well as your individual artistic practices, which are grounded in political activism and the construction of a more critical and discursive public sphere.

The exchange you have initiated performs the important work of bringing a new kind of attention to political realities, and clearly it does so in different ways for different participants and readers. I wonder what has been at stake for you in pursuing What Is Your View? Would you comment on your methodology and provide some background to the project? I’m also interested to know what impact this project may have had on your own views on democracy, economy, and power. What kind of responses did you expect from the CEOs, and what do you think of those you received? How has your project been received on the Internet and at Montehermoso? What is the future of the project?

Christian Hillesø: 
For us, What Is Your View? has been a part of an ongoing research practice that has its origin both in and outside the field of contemporary art. As you also mention we see it as an action toward what might be described as “structural power.” We wanted to construct a more critical sphere, and hopefully one among many, that could be part of public discussions. One of these public discussions was the Montehermoso exhibitions space.

After the collapse of Enron, and what was then going to be a start of the financial meltdown, something did change. What we saw was that mission statements, companies’ values, and speeches on moral and ethical subjects were put up front. The companies indeed wanted to portray themselves as “persons” with morals. We immediately found these “persons” and their thoughts of interest as they were a big part of our own lives—the products that surround us in everyday life. We narrowed it down to a few naive questions that looked simple but are quite open-ended and that we ourselves still find difficult to answer. The letters we sent were signed by us as two individuals with no reference to our occupation or our political point of view.

We see this action as an ongoing project and would like to continue sending the same letter. It would be interesting to compare them over the years and notice the changes that this “person” goes through. Its also in our interest to keep bringing these questions up and see if we are able to somehow answer them.

Johan Tirén: 
I think you pinpoint some of the issues that have been important for us when working with the project. For us this work is both a performative action and a kind of a 
(naive) research. Is it possible to get in contact with these very powerful men—
nearly all of them are men—as citizens, and not as people with a position of power 
to speak from?

The performative part of the project is very much rhetoric in the sense that we did not expect every company to answer. By posing the questions we hoped to reflect on different structures of power, regarding both the globalized market economy as a “non-democratic” structure within the western democracies and, at a more direct level, the relationship between these leaders (who most of us can’t vote for or against) and the citizen, the consumer and the worker, who from one point of view is the foundation that these companies build their wealth on. 

I am not sure that we appeal to the ethics of these companies with our project. 
But by sending the letters and posing these indeed very open-ended questions, we’re creating a space where the readers of the project can challenge their own views on these issues. In one sense you can see it as providing room for critical thinking on western society and what we’re building it on.

So far we have gotten mostly positive response on our project, but I don’t think the project is so widely recognized. We’re showing the entire project, where it is today, in an art context for the first time in the exhibition at Montehermoso.

You ask what the future of this project is. I don’t know, but we don’t see this as a finished project. Rather we see it as a never-ending reflection and a discussion that we’re looking forward to continuing, with or without the participation of the addressed CEOs.

Folio EOut Now