Artists, Inc. 

When a family goes corporate, art consumes life.

Page 3 of 5

The couple also sold an empty Savarin coffee can for $48, the exact amount they needed to buy their daughter new shoes. Death & Taxes had obtained a corporate discount when buying the coffee, so the couple declared the cans as products of their project.

To Philpot, coffee cans and quarterly reports sound neither like products nor art. He tells them, gently, that venture capitalists are probably not going to invest in their little company because, well, VCs actually want to make money from their investment. "If you had a product," he ventures, "a tangible product people could feel, and it caught on ... "

The conversation turns into a discussion on the meaning of conceptual art. Fletcher explains that while the project may sound weird, they're hardly the first conceptual artists to push the definition of art. In the '60s, he recalls, artist Robert Barry did an installation consisting entirely of invisible radio waves (which could, however, be picked up on gallery visitors' radios). Barry would then "catch" the waves in a box and sell the box, Fletcher says.

Reichert makes the point that it's the artist, not the finished product, who gives a work its value. She cites Andy Warhol's painting of soup cans, which leads her back to the Death & Taxes coffee cans. "It's not the price of the coffee can," she argues, "it's the price of the thinking that went into the work."

"I'm still seeing Andy Warhol with a product, you know," argues the oil-change franchiser. "They're all over the place, and prints of him in different colors, and I can understand the concept. I think he's a traditional artist."

Obviously, the artists sitting in his cubicle are not. Fletcher and Reichert's first collaborative life-art piece featured them having couples therapy with a counselor in front of an art gallery audience. After Isabel became pregnant, they tried to sell the naming rights of their unborn child on eBay in a piece they called "Bait." (No one took the bait, so they named her Lucy.) In the past year, they hired a paparazzo to stalk them as if they were movie stars, and take their photos doing mundane things like drinking coffee at Starbucks. They also secured a patent for a totally useless invention called a "dust reorganizer" that takes dust and blows it around.

Philpot plays it completely straight. He begins going over the basics of assembling a business plan to send around to investors. "You formed a corporation, and you're taking a business approach to your art, so you might as well follow through with it," he advises.

The meeting concludes with Philpot telling them how he once was on the same plane flight as Andy Warhol. The artists pack up their video gear and thank Philpot, who offers a polite goodbye, but still looks like he can't figure out what in the hell this is all about.

Death & Taxes began as an artful tax dodge. Fletcher and Reichert were inspired by Paul Kos, an artist friend, who had an installation featuring a parrot named Pablito he had trained for more than a year to sing "The Internationale," a Socialist anthem. Of course, the parrot had to be fed. At the end of the year, Kos wrote off the cost of bird food on his taxes, which drew scrutiny from the IRS. A government auditor told Kos he couldn't deduct groceries. But Kos argued that these weren't his groceries, but food for his singing parrot — his art. Surprisingly, the IRS let him write off the expenses.

His experience got Fletcher and Reichert thinking about the possibilities for people who view their lives as art. "We were asking questions about taxes," Reichert recalls. "If your life is the artwork, then shouldn't it be possible to deduct the living expenses that we label as art?"

Fletcher says they realized that if their art were accepted in its purest form — as life — "it may present the largest loophole ever."

Getting from that "eureka" moment to reality took the couple more than a year. Fletcher says he and Reichert are very secretive about their ideas in the early stages. They fear that if they tell all their friends about a fledgling project, they'll lose the motivation to carry it out. The first person they told, in June 2005, was a white-collar criminal attorney.

They knew they would risk being audited, since the IRS doesn't usually allow deduction of routine personal expenses. Their attorney worried that the feds would come down on them for what he called an "illegal on-shore tax shelter." An accountant the lawyer recommended suggested they could survive an audit if they described their business as a service that "assumes the responsibilities of budgeting, managing of the cashflow, and paying the bills of its clientele."

On January 3, 2006, Death & Taxes Inc. was registered with the secretary of state as an official California corporation. The "taxes" part of the name is obvious, while "death" referred, in part, to a work by the late conceptual artist Joseph Beuys called "How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare." The full name was catchy, too, a nod to Benjamin Franklin's famous axiom.

Once in business, the couple installed a punch-clock with time cards in their dining room. It's the standard machine many businesses use for hourly workers, although Reichert and Fletcher give it a new twist: Upon returning home from their day jobs, they would punch in to life at Death & Taxes and record their time spent living. When they left for work in the morning, they'd punch out.

Besides adding to their artistic mischief, they hoped the clock would help keep the taxman at bay. As Fletcher explained when it was installed last March, "The intention of the project isn't to avoid paying taxes, but the method we've chosen to file may raise a couple of eyebrows. We believe time cards will provide additional evidence to any would-be auditor that we're serious about what we're doing."

But over time the artists moved away from the tax angle. Fletcher says they felt they could only take that idea so far. "If the piece stopped at taxes, it wouldn't have been successful," he argues. "We wouldn't really need a board of directors because we could just ask our friends to help with the corporate accountability. We also could have done our own tax return because I think we would have pushed that envelope as far as we could, and no self-respecting accountant would have signed the 1040."

The couple, however, lacks a clear answer for what their project means now. Ditto some of their board members. "The more you talk about it, the more confusing it gets," concedes Sue Mark, a West Oakland artist. "I still don't quite get what they're trying to do."


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