Color, corporations and other fictions

An edited version of this essay appeared in a catalogue published to accompany Danish artist Hannibal Andersen’s 2022 exhibition The Abstract Expression of Privatization. In that work, an installation and a large mural explored corporate claims to the ownership of certain colours.

Hannibal Andersen, from The Abstract Expression of Privatization, 2022. Installation view, Kunsthal Charlottenborg.

Color, corporations and other fictions

Max Haiven

The fact that, today, a corporation – an artificial legal entity intended solely to make money – could declare ownership over a color represents in many ways both the power and the pathology of a system built on the notion of private property, which is to say capitalism. Colors and corporations are both social constructs that become real to the extent that both are enforced through the immaterial infrastructures of convention and law.

As natural as colors seem to us, they are in fact socially constructed categories, unchosen agreements we have entered into that allow us to communicate the experience of reflected waves of light vibrating at a specified frequency hitting our retinas. While the process by which waves of light are sensed by the eye are relatively common to most humans (although many are “colorblind” and neurodivergence is much more common than we tend to imagine), the meaning we give to that sensation is highly culturally variable.

It’s not simply the case that death and mourning is signified by black in some cultures and yellow in others. Across a range of civilizations, the very categories of the color spectrum are organized differently, outside of their particular symbolism.[1] In Japanese, for example, there was not a clear, widely used distinction between blue and green until people there began to communicate extensively with Portuguese traders, in whose language each color was a distinct concept. In Russian and Greek, light blue and dark blue are represented by distinct words and concepts, whereas in English (as this sentence itself demonstrates) the two are the same color that needs to be qualified by an adjective. Some languages and thought-worlds have no distinct words for colors at all and in others there is no abstract idea of color, as distinct and separable from texture, brightness, taste or other sensations.

In seeking to use law (state power) to enforce the exclusive use of a certain range of frequencies, notions of property deconstruct themselves, revealing their dependency on profound contradictions, contradictions that can only be sustained through real or symbolic violence, or the threat of it.

In recent years, advanced technologies have allowed us to specify extremely precise fragments of the color spectrum. The Pantone Matching System is perhaps the most famous, and has had significant consequences for how we perceive the world.[2] It has permitted corporations to make the legal case that they should be granted exclusive use, within specific commercial contexts, of specific segments of the spectrum of visible light.[3] In seeking to use law (state power) to enforce the exclusive use of a certain range of frequencies, notions of property deconstruct themselves, revealing their dependency on profound contradictions, contradictions that can only be sustained through real or symbolic violence, or the threat of it.

To many of our forebears, the idea that one could exclusively possess a color would be tantamount to declaring that an imaginary person owned part of the sun, or that a fictional character owned the sensation of longing. A corporation is, after all, just as artificial as colors are. Emerging in the 1600s, the corporation is a kind of Frankenstein’s monster of capitalism, an artificial lifeform given the breath of life by law and its animating electrical current by an initial investment from those who become its shareholders.[4] The hint is in the name: The corporation assembles many investors’ interests into one body, or corpus. These people buy a share of the enterprise’s profits, but are not liable for the company’s failure. The corporation was established particularly to facilitate expensive and risky oceanic trading voyages, where significant capital was needed up front to outfit the ship and purchase goods for sale and where the potential returns on the investment, while lucrative, were both uncertain and years away.[5] The corporation thus became instrumental to colonialism. The Dutch East India Companies, the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Virginia Company were all instrumental in developing privatized regimes of domination and accumulation around the world. Several such corporations governed the lives and deaths of tens of millions of people. The British East India Company nearly held all of South Asia under martial law for centuries, transforming the territory and its people into a giant facility for the extraction of wealth and exploitation of labor, policed by a completely impune private army or enforced by local elites or warlords.[6]

These early corporations operated under monopolies granted by the sovereigns of their respective empires, but as capitalist modernity progressed (if it can be called progression), corporations became more common and their agents and beneficiaries had their rights enshrined in law. It was long the case that corporations were treated as legal persons, capable of signing and enforcing contracts (that quintessential technology of capitalism), and this was enshrined in US law in 1881.[7] It was recently and disastrously confirmed in the notorious Citizens United case, which permits corporations to make massive donations to influence the outcome of the democratic elections and processes in the name of defending their freedom of speech as legal persons.[8] Similar laws exist around the world, spread either through colonialism or in the name of corporate-led globalization and the harmonization of law to allegedly encourage global trade.

Of course, a corporation is not a person and, as such, cannot be punished (except through fines), cannot feel shame, cannot be executed or imprisoned for its crimes and has no conscience. The people who work for or own it can, but the necromancy of the corporation is that an executive that suddenly develops moral scruples about its behavior can and usually will be replaced as soon as those get in the way of their fiduciary responsibility to shareholders to deliver financial returns.[9] And “shareholder activism” only very rarely implies a coordinated effort to make a corporation act in accordance with social or ecological care; quite the opposite: it refers to the way shareholders try to take control or influence corporate management to put their financial gains first. Sure: shareholders are welcome to “vote with their wallet” and divest from companies that do harm. But most shareholders are not upstanding individuals but, rather, other corporations, including pension funds, asset management funds, private equity firms and institutional investors, who have their own shareholders to please. Even in the rare cases where banks, governments or voluntary regulatory bodies have been able to impose benchmarks for “ethical investment,” these typically depend on measurements and enforcement mechanisms that have proven easy for corporations to circumvent by employing legions of lawyers and “compliance officers”.

The result has been disastrous. Those who fear that artificial intelligence will take control of society and the economy misrecognize the threat, for it has already occurred. Corporations are, essentially, artificially intelligent, autonomous organisms of the market, and they have unrivalled and as yet unstoppable control over the world’s economy.

The result has been disastrous. Those who fear that artificial intelligence will take control of society and the economy misrecognize the threat, for it has already occurred. Corporations are, essentially, artificially intelligent, autonomous organisms of the market, and they have unrivalled and as yet unstoppable control over the world’s economy. As governments around the world must increasingly compete to attract and retain corporations in the name of creating or preserving jobs and investment, any hope of meaningfully regulating corporations dwindles. The political spectrum seems to increasingly be limited to, on the left hand, political parties that want to use whatever vestigial powers the state retains to try desperately to protect some elements of society from all-powerful corporations and, on the right, those that see corporate power as natural, normal and inevitable, or try and wed it to some kind of local ethnonationalism, seeing the state and corporations as natural partners in the global war of all against all. Corporate donations to political parties, acknowledged or secret, are commonplace and the influence of corporate-funded foundations or think tanks over policy is profound. This is to say nothing of the close relationship between corporate management and political elites, which ranges from cronyistic to corrupt.

Color and the corporation, then, reflect one another’s fictiveness. Both are social constructs, held in place by conventions of the imagination. But color is, of course, far less dangerous, in most circumstances.

But not all.

The corporation emerged as a vehicle for capitalist empires to extract wealth and subordinate labor around the world. The history of this vehicle is deeply knotted up with the history of race. Race is itself a pernicious fiction, a bogus method for categorizing human beings whose origins go back to the 17th century but which took on modern, allegedly “scientific” meaning in the 18th and 19th centuries.[10] The ideology of race insists that phenotypical characteristics of a person (notably skin color, body type, facial features and other outwardly visible characteristics) not only reveal differences, but that these differences have a significant bearing on a person’s intellectual or moral disposition or capacities. The modern, scientific ideology of race typically insists that these phenotypical markers are inherited from ancestors who evolved under different circumstances and therefore pass down specific persistent behavioral traits. No such traits have been found to be linked to phenotype, of course. While not all forms of racism are obsessed with the phenotype of skin color, many are and have been. Part of the racist ideology is the hallucination of a single “white” race (variously also understood to be “Caucasian” or “Aryan” due to a prejudicial and discredited theory of racial origins), a term which selectively collects people imagined to have European ancestry into a single highly dubious category, in spite of massive genetic, cultural and linguistic differences between them. The artificial ideological category of whiteness was developed to help normalize and justify the Western European project of colonialism and imperialism. Its hallucinatory form was given power and reified insofar as it could define itself against its “others,” or various non-white peoples. For example, people of diverse African origins, speaking a multitude of languages, practicing a wide variety of religions, emerging from very different cultures, were categorized as “black.” This process was fundamentally shaped by the transatlantic slave trade, of which, as we have discussed, the corporation was a crucial vehicle. Enslaved people became “black” through the racist machinations of the institution of the Euro-American slave system. And it was on the basis of the wealth that these people were made to represent, and that their unfree labor produced, that the modern world was made.

The entanglement of color, corporations and race reveal to us the terrible power of the imagination when it is put to work justifying, normalizing and enabling exploitation, oppression and injustice. It is also, as Rinaldo
Walcott makes clear, at the core of our concepts of property. While private property relations have existed in many societies, a form of global capitalism wrought out of the history of slavery is one in which they are elevated to an all-consuming ideal.[11] It is a system that emerged, materially and in terms of its core institutions and ideas, from the scene of the plantation, where enslaved human beings were transformed into the property of their owners and also compelled to make those owners more property that could be sold, including food (rice, sugar cane), commodities (indigo, tobacco) or, horrifically, more slaves (by bearing children). For Walcott and others, this is the origin of the modern property system, which also helps explain the anti-black violence inherent to modern forms of the protection of private property, notably police forces and prisons. Property is a fiction, an abstract claim to possess the real world. But like race, this fiction is made into reality through enforcement. The fiction serves to justify reigning power relations, and so has the support of dominant groups and the institutions that serve their interests.

This account of the emergence of modern property regimes adds an important anti-racist and anti-colonial dimension to the influential ideas about property from Karl Marx and Karl Polanyi. The former argued that, under capitalism, private property becomes crucial to the cycle of capital’s accumulation: The bourgeoisie maintain ownership of the means of production (factories, agricultural lands, utilities, etc), whereas the proletariat own nothing but their ability to work. Therefore, the bosses can exploit workers in factories, fields or other commercial enterprises and declare the fruits of that labor as their private property, redoubling their power and control. The communist demand for the abolition of private property referred mostly to the means of production, not to fruits of that production.[12] Meanwhile, Polanyi was to associate capitalism with the rise of three “commodity fictions,” three elemental things that became commodities (or private property) under that system that had never before been fully commodified: land, labor and money.[13]

The “fiction” of commodities and private property is connected to the fiction of race.

Walcott’s approach allows us to see how the “fiction” of commodities and private property is connected to the fiction of race. We might also point to the way that, throughout the “evolution” of the modern capitalist system, many “non-white” peoples were denied the right to own property. Indigenous people around the world were seen as subhuman simpletons incapable of responsibly “improving” the lands they occupied and therefore their property rights could be ignored. When Indigenous people were granted such rights (even though they were based on a completely alien European idea of one’s relationship to land and the world), these “rights” were largely awarded as a pretext to robbery and exploitation.[14]

In the 1800s, the efforts of the Qing imperial court to prevent British and other foreign merchants from importing the socially corrosive commodity of opium, including the seizure of the contraband, was reframed in the British parliament and press as evidence that the backwards Chinese couldn’t understand the principle of private property. This justified two highly destructive wars that created a situation in which the world’s largest economy was not only forced to continue to allow the importation of opium (at the expense of its people: some reports suggest 20% of the population became dependent on the drug) but also the massive suction of wealth from the country, including many of its most priceless cultural treasures which remain in Western collections to this day.[15]

Hannibal Andersen’s mural $!?, part of The Abstract Expression of Privatization

These dense entanglements of color, property and empire help illuminate Danish artist Hannibal Andersen’s 2022 intervention in Copenhagen: a huge mural painted on the side of a prominent downtown building (that once displayed a Pepsi advertisement) depicting what appears to be a question mark merged with a dollar sign, rendered in a palette of two trademarked colors, owned by two Danish corporations. The powdery light blue “belongs” to Maersk, one of the world’s most prominent shipping and logistics firms. The rosy red is controlled by Grundfos, a world-leading producer of pumps.

Intended to provoke conversation and perhaps a legal response from the corporations in question, Andersen’s intervention aims not only to highlight the absurd fiction that a non-human entity – a corporation – can declare exclusive sovereignty over a section of the commonly visible electromagnetic spectrum. The placement of this mural in a public space where passersby were accustomed to seeing advertising also implicitly begs the question of what kind of infrastructure of power and belief need to be in place in order for us to sustain this fiction?

A casual observer, then, might glance at Andersen’s enigmatic mural and unsee the complex imaginal infrastructure on which it rests, but they could not avoid a sense of being haunted by something beyond the frame.

To ask a question about the infrastructures that sustain these corporations’ fiction of “intellectual property” is to place into critical proximity fiction and infrastructure. It’s perhaps not a coincidence that both Maersk and Grundfos are part of that invisible but essential world of processes and things that make the capitalist economy function. Maersk is not only responsible for moving goods around the world on container ships; it also operates ports, drills for deep sea oil, provides a wide range of clients logistical services and offers a wide range of affiliated horizontal and vertically integrated services. The corporation is a small but significant player in a globalized capitalist system that we depend on every day, even though most of us only rarely catch sight of Maersk’s ships, with their iconically hued hulls, or its identically colored standardized shipping containers in which everything from ramen noodles to plasma TVs to medical equipment to smuggled human beings make their way around our interconnected planet.

Likewise, besides those of us who work in industrial construction or maintenance, most of our eyes have never seen a Grundfos pump, even though it’s not unlikely that one such device is essential to the heating or cooling of the building in which we might be sitting, the water system we depend on, the power grid that electrifies our lives or the agricultural infrastructures that grow our food. In both cases, the corporation’s possessiveness over their proprietary brand color seems inversely proportional to its public visibility. For these companies that have made themselves so profitably pivotal to the logistical and infrastructural underside of today’s global capitalism, the color is itself a kind of infrastructure that signals the deep entanglement of law, belief, enforcement and sheer economic momentum that keeps the whole system running.

It is the infrastructures of the imagination that interest me here, and the way this artwork implies them. We have explored how corporations, race, color and notions of property operate as solidifications of the imagination. They are all fictions held in place and given real power by social convention, the movement of wealth, and regimes of enforcement. And yet, like the infrastructure and logistics that these two corporations represent, this vital process is largely rendered invisible. And the violence and exploitation underneath is also hidden.

As far as global corporations go, both Maersk and Grundfos don’t stand out for their evil. And yet, beyond the fact that both companies keep with the dominant capitalist paradigm and hold essential services for ransom to achieve their profit motives, more too is at stake. Maersk, like any company that operates ships and container ports and oil extraction and logistics, has rightly been targeted for doing business with regimes that abuse human rights.[16] The shipping industry, driven by and profiting from the reckless consumerism that demands goods be transported around the world, is among the world’s leading emitters of greenhouse gasses and huge cargo ships take their toll on the oceans and their life.[17] Maersk’s significant influence on Danish politics is a matter that concerns many who care for the health of that country’s democracy.[18]

At first glance, there is nothing offensive about manufacturing pumps, but when one realizes their importance to the infrastructure of oil and fossil fuel extraction, including fracking, or their usefulness in ejecting water from mining operations around the world, or their use in coal and nuclear power plants, or as part of natural gas or oil pipelines, one might think again.

A casual observer, then, might glance at Andersen’s enigmatic mural and unsee the complex imaginal infrastructure on which it rests, but they could not avoid a sense of being haunted by something beyond the frame. It is not simply the enigmatic symbol, half question mark, half dollar sign, that acts almost like a magical sigil or rune, summoning up something from the folds of our reality. It is also those colors which suggest a forgotten association. After all, if they did not have such evocative power, surely their corporate owners would never have endeavored to make them their property, at considerable expense.

Color, law, belief, race, capital fold in on themselves like origami such that even when one part is hidden inside the newly dimensional object, nonetheless they remain and are implied by the structure of the whole. Capitalism is unseeable in its totality, a sublime system in scope and magnitude. We are destined to only see fragments of it. But each fragment, like a shard of a hologram, contains a reflection of the totality.

In my book Art After Money, Money After Art: Creative Strategies Against Financialization I argued that part of art’s power in a world dominated by money is to offer us new glimpses of the capitalist paradigm of which we are all (artist and spectator, gallery and advertisement) a part. Art’s critical promise doesn’t come from its distance from capitalism but from its proximity.[19] In fact, the category of “art,” like property, like race, like the corporation, is also a fiction, held in place by belief and enforcement. What separates Andersen’s work from the Pepsi advertisement that preceded it is that the advertisement reaffirmed these fictions. It depended on and reinforced the imaginal infrastructures on which our mode of capitalism depends. Andersen’s mural does the opposite. Its charismatic enigma asks us a discomforting question.

We can only hope that Andersen is sued by Grundfos or Maersk, adding the performativity of a courtroom drama to the artistic work. Indeed, the possibility of a scandalous lawsuit is implied in the artwork’s performative breach of trademark laws. Another timeline, in which such a legal case plays out, is a virtual element in the work. But beyond risking opprobrium for targeting an artist, more is at stake that might dissuade these companies from such legal adventures. As it appears today, the work is subtly mischievous. Were its full implications to be spelled out in a court of law and in the newspapers, they might bring to the surface a number of profound questions about our world that such companies might prefer remain submerged.

[1]    Bevil R. Conway and Ted Gibson, “Languages Don’t All Have the Same Number of Terms for Colors – Scientists Have a New Theory Why,” The Conversation, accessed December 10, 2022,

[2]    Kevin Yuen Kit Lo, “The Propaganda of Pantone: Colour and Subcultural Sublimation,” Grafik.Net, March 5, 2016,

[3]    Charlene Elliott, “Color Codification: Law, Culture and the Hue of Communication,” Journal for Cultural Research 7, no. 3 (July 2003): 297–319,

[4]    Joel Conrad Bakan, The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power, 2nd ed. (New York, NY: Free Press, 2005).

[5]    Ian Baucom, Specters of the Atlantic: Finance Capital, Slavery, and Philosophy of History (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005).

[6]    Nick Robins, The Corporation That Changed the World: How the East India Company Shaped the Modern Multinational, 2nd ed (London: Pluto Press, 2012).

[7]    Adam Winkler, “‘Corporations Are People’ Is Built on an Incredible 19th-Century Lie,” The Atlantic, March 5, 2018,

[8]    Kevin Musgrave, Persons of the Market: Conservatism, Corporate Personhood, and Economic Theology (East Lansing, Michigan: Michigan State University Press, 2022).

[9]    Max Haiven, Cultures of Financialization: Fictitious Capital in Popular Culture and Everyday Life (London and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

[10]   For reasons of brevity I am skimming a deep and complex field of knowledge, details of which can be found in Dr. Alana Lentin’s Understanding Race Syllabus as well as her other insightful work:

[11]   Rinaldo Walcott, On Property (Biblioasis, 2022).

[12]   For a gloss as well as an insightful engagement with the settler colonial roots of property that Marx misses, see Robert Nichols, Theft Is Property! Dispossession and Critical Theory, Radical Americas (Durham: Duke University Press, 2020).

[13]   Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation : The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time, 2nd Beacon Paperback ed.
(Boston  MA: Beacon Press, 2001).

[14]   See Nichols.

[15]   Max Haiven, “Our Opium Wars: The Ghosts of Empire in the Prescription Opioid Nightmare,” Third Text 32, no. 5–6 (November 2, 2018): 662–69.

[16]   See;;

[17]   Laleh Khalili, Sinews of War and Trade: Shipping and Capitalism in the Arabian Peninsula (London; New York: Verso, 2020).

[18]   See

[19]   Max Haiven, Art after Money, Money after Art: Creative Strategies Against Financialization (London: Pluto, 2018).