ArtArtist Simon Denny on NSA art, Genius and Kim Dotcom's weird Predator statue
Hopes&Fears talked to artist and self-proclaimed "tech fanboy" Simon Denny about collaboration, appropriation and his recent project for the 2015 Venice Biennale.
Simon Denny is having a year. Last Spring, the young Kiwi artist opened his solo show, “The Innovator’s Dilemma”, at MoMA PS1. Then, it was off to Venice for the 56th Biennale, where his installation Secret Power, an inquest into the “current iconography of geopolitical power” embedded within an obsolete one, is spread over two historic off-site locations. The halls of the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana play host to an array of server racks showcasing NSA visual ephemera. Meanwhile, the terminal of the Marco Polo Airport has been copy+pasted with life-size photo replicas of the library’s decorative holdings—an aesthetic sleight of hand that doubles, conveniently, as a marketing campaign for the duty-free economy. Here, references range from the sinister to the absurd (a taxidermied bald eagle, a “CrytpoKids” coloring book issued by the NSA).
If information is Denny’s real medium, he has emerged as a kind of archivist for hypertrophied capitalism and its attendant mythos of salvation via “distruption.” His promiscuous collabos with the upstarts of startup have opened him up to charges of tech-bro fanboyism—something the artist himself has done precious little to dispute. On the face of it, Denny inhabits his position so thoroughly it becomes impossible to tell whether he’s a sympathizer in earnest or it’s all part of an epic troll, perpetuated against a gated and equally self-mythologizing art establishment. Hopes&Fears caught up with the Denny in Stockholm, where he is installing his latest work at the Moderna Museet.
HOPES&FEARS: As a segue into your project for the Venice Biennale, I went to the opening of your MoMA PS1 show and was immediately struck by its breadth and magnitude (it helped that there were crowds, alcohol). This may be a facile comparison to make, but it was almost a religious experience. I could imagine what it must have felt like to be a pilgrim in Boccaccio or Chaucer times. What is it about branding and corporate aesthetics that’s so seductive to people in the arts?
SIMON DENNY: That’s quite the comparison. I’m happy to hear that you had such a positive experience. Working with Genius that evening, hosting an event as a part of their beta launch for their full web annotation capabilities, was a really unusual opportunity for me—as was working with Peter Eleey, the curator of the exhibition, and everybody else at MoMA PS1. The fact that all of this came together is remarkable. I have a huge admiration for Genius as a company. Planning an event with their Creative Director Emily Segal and sharing the stage with their founder Tom Lehman added a level of excitement and connection to New York-based tech that I think really lifted the opening celebration for my exhibition into a different sphere.
Simon Denny is a New Zealand-born, Berlin-based artist whose work explores internet and startup culture, technological obsolescence, new modes of information sharing and control, and contemporary constructions of national identity. His expansive, saturated installations combine sculpture, video and performance with advertising and corporate readymades, borrowing liberally from the format of trade shows and tech conferences. His work has been exhibited at the Centre Pompidou, Paris; ICA, London; KW Center for Contemporary Art and Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin; Fridericianum, Kassel; Kunsthaus, Bregenz; Kunstverein and Portikus, Frankfurt; and MUMOK, Vienna, and is included in the collection of MoMA PS1. He represented New Zealand at the 2015 Venice Biennale.
Regarding arts sector interest in branding and corporate aesthetics, I can only speculate but, to me and the peers I’m in touch with, there’s a fascination with companies as powerful cultural producers, and with their communication strategies as a part of this. The contemporary artists I know acknowledge and admire the reach and penetration of companies, and are interested in their company narratives. In my opinion, Silicon Valley can’t be underestimated in what it has given the world in recent decades in terms of ideology and perspective—inspiring, contemporary stories that help us make sense of the world today. To me it seems natural that artists—people who are generally very attuned to and engaged in culture—would spend time unpacking and contextualising material that is so important.
↓ Simon Denny, Secret Power, installation view with Modded Server-Rack Display with David Darchicourt Commissioned Map of Aotearoa New Zealand (2015). Photo: Nick Ash.
H&F: Speaking of which, typically, your work is installed in the standard white space of a gallery or museum. But the Marciana Library is this ornate, gilded, historic national landmark while the Marco Polo Airport is a global contemporary transportation hub teeming with humanity and advertising. What were some of the challenges and perks of working within such an environment?
SD: I like to work in conventional museum and gallery settings, but I also really enjoy working with spaces that don’t have this kind of build and give you a lot of content to work with or against. For the Venice Biennale, I am very lucky that the country I was commissioned to represent, New Zealand, didn’t have a permanent venue for their national pavilion. This meant that I could taper the choice of venue to suit the content I was working with—to make the container for the exhibition an important part of that exhibition and how it reads.
I chose the Marciana Library and the Marco Polo Airport as two spaces that relate directly to the official knowledge of a nation state. The library was a space designed and built at a moment when Venice was commercially and politically very powerful. The building and the paintings that decorate its interior were intended to read as a series of allegories that describe the value of knowledge, civic and military duty and other key values of that particular society at that particular time. It was state-commissioned image making.
The Airport is instead a very important site for knowledge today. It is a tightly guarded and surveilled gateway to the city—where knowledge-as-intelligence is used to classify and sort people as they enter Venice. So these are two state-related containers for knowledge reflecting the values of different moments, one expressed with rich imagery, and the other through a procedural, highly controlled space.
Working with a functioning library, with academics and librarians, of course requires a different kind of communication process than working with the marketing department of an airport. I found both situations had their own challenges—but all of the challenges turned out to be things that enriched my pavilion. The restrictions of working inside a priceless architectural masterpiece adorned with paintings by Titian and Veronese, and those of a security-sensitive space where millions of people transit through every year are clearly different. To be allowed to work in the airport, I had to pass an aviation security course. With the library, there were many weight and placement restrictions for my sculptures. We also had to rewire the room to manage the electrical demands of my display systems. But learning about avsec in the airport and needing to understand something of the historical and structural complexities of the library helped me shape a more sensitive presentation.
↓ Simon Denny, Secret Power, installation view with portrait (2015). Photo: Michele Crosera.
H&F: In both instances, how much say did you have over the installation and display? Are you a control freak about the way your work is presented or are you open to leaving certain elements up to chance or circumstance?
SD: I guess the short answer would be I had a lot of say and I care a lot about every detail of every exhibition I make. Everything viewers see is carefully considered. I guess I am kind of a control freak—who is also not totally closed to the opportunities offered by chance and circumstance! Any exhibition process involves constraints. I like to work with the qualities that a certain space and opportunity offers. MoMA PS1 has a history and a specificity to the space as a renovated Romanesque Revival building—different than a library or an airport in Venice, but still unique and a bit eccentric. The institution also operates in some ways as a brand, and there are certain expectations and conversations around that. A presentation modelled after a trade fair, which works with companies like Genius and focuses on the culture around the tech industry, feels like something that’s appropriate and interesting to address at MoMA PS1 at this moment.
↓ Simon Denny, Modded Server-Rack Display with Some Interpretations of David Darchicourt Designs as Freelance Designer (2015). Photo: Nick Ash.
Simon Denny, Custom-Ordered and Finished Herman Miller Resolve System Office Furniture with David Darchicourt Designs and Imagery from Slides (2015). Photo: Nick Ash.
H&F: You collaborate frequently with entities and experts outside of the art world (in the case of the New Zealand pavilion, Clear Channel, the marketing department of Marco Polo, even a former NSA creative director, David Darchicourt) to conduct research, gather materials and, finally, fabricate your installations. From a distance, and maybe somewhat naively, it would seem unusual that people with vested commercial or political interests would be so accommodating. How do these relationships come about? To what extent are you transparent about your intentions?
SD: My intentions evolve according to the level of access and interaction I am able to negotiate in each situation. I collaborate in the “normcore” way—on the terms of the organization I am collaborating with. Sometimes I am able to get close to my subject and other times I am not. My distance from the producer in each case depends upon how near I can get and still deliver the content I think is relevant for the broader audience I’m communicating with in my work. There’s a spectrum of motivations from both sides in any exchange—no two exchanges involve the same constraints. I see this aspect of my work as a performance. I try to reflect and perform the relationship that the subjects I am working with offer up themselves. To put it another way, my approach to collaboration mimics the subject’s own approach to collaboration.
With Clear Channel, I paid market rates for their services—a lot of money for me—so the benefit was conceivably purely financial for them. On a personal level, the account manager was excited to do something that departed from what he was normally involved in, but the benefits for the company were essentially business as usual.
With the Marco Polo Airport, the benefit from their side, as I understood it, was participation in a pavilion at the Venice Biennale. I imagine, for many collaborators, their involvement follows a kind of typical marketing logic—they perceive that they can benefit from my presentations and my audience.
With Samsung, I came from a fan position—an invested person wanting to delve deeper into the philosophy behind the products. Samsung, in this scenario, is the producer and I am the consumer—one is free to engage with their products but their production processes and corporate policies are closely guarded trade secrets—so, all the more seductive to a fan. It was interesting because the feedback I got when I first approached them during the research phase was that they were not interested in being involved in my project. I don’t know what they think about it now that it’s out there in the world. I’d like to think they appreciate the added value I brought to their myth-making process by translating foundational texts and spreading thoughts about their corporate values to art audiences that they themselves are invested in and involved with.
With startups and startup-focused events like the 2012 Digital-Life-Design (DLD) conference in Munich, which was the subject of my piece All You Need is... Data?, the culture is all about inclusivity, and blocking participation would not be in line with that spirit. The value for DLD was likely them being inclusive of an art position that addressed and engaged their content, with support from established art institutions and audiences in Munich and beyond. This is part of their wider cultural strategy.
↓ Simon Denny, Secret Power, installation view (2015). Photo: Nick Ash.
H&F: What about in the case of high-profile or controversial individuals who are interested in preserving some level of anonymity?
Kim Dotcom’s position is all about anonymity and mediation. The collaboration is through a sort of cloudy, emergent market experience. I contacted him about the exhibition, but at a mediated distance, and while he didn’t actively object, he also didn’t offer support or facilitate any further contact. So I continued my work in an “unofficial” capacity.
David Darchicourt was the employee of an agency that uses the public as a medium for its own ends while actively resisting inquest or oversight about their activities. I mirrored this in my interaction with him (facilitated by another platform, Behance, which operates under entirely different global free-market values of exchange and accountability). When I spoke to Darchicourt after The Guardian had contacted him, I let him know about the project in full detail and explained the way I used his material. I proposed that working at a distance from him, celebrating, reframing and quoting his work within my own, in effect relieved him of the responsibility of choosing to participate in a discussion around leaked NSA documents—something he would likely not be legally allowed to do as a former employee. In Secret Power, then, it was clearly me that framed his work alongside leaked material, not him. The fact that he designed the logo for the NSA’s POISONNUT program, a VPN attack orchestrator that is part of SSO and TAO, is interesting from a cultural and aesthetic perspective but, of course, should not implicate him as an individual in the objectives and effects of that initiative or, more broadly, align his aims with those of his former employer.
H&F: On the other hand, you also routinely collaborate with other artists like Emily, who’s also part of K-Hole, and Daniel Keller. How does the nature of these collaborations differ?
SD: These exchanges are subject to the same logic. Dan and Emily are essentially my artistic peers—we are of a similar age, with similar backgrounds and cultural references, and working under similar conditions. I collaborate in the “normcore” way again, on their terms, but with them I am able to be very close. The nature of collaboration changes with the level of proximity and access. The terms of collaboration here are far less mediated than collaboration with a massive organization or a highly public (and possibly highly secretive) figure from another tradition, subject to different incentives, reference points and notions of accountability.
↓ SIMON DENNY, Secret Power, installation view with portrait (2015). Photo: Michele Crosera.
H&F: Your work usually centers on the tech industry and its metanarratives of “innovation” and “disruption,” whereas Secret Power examines a government agency and its networks of surveillance and resistance. In light of the commission, can you explain the shift from corporate to national geopolitics?
SD: My work for the Venice Biennale was an official national commission for New Zealand—the highest commission an artist can get from the state. I felt it was important to include this aspect as content and address issues that are relevant to both the tech industry and the nation state. It’s hard to draw a line between technology, commerce and government today—these things are interconnected. Snowden’s exposure of PRISM and other NSA programs raised the question of commercial tech’s complicity with intelligence agencies. This was and is a big discussion in tech circles post-Snowden.
From another perspective, every project in “The Innovator’s Dilemma” that focuses on the tech industry in different cities also includes an interaction with those cities as geopolitical identities or brands. There are a number of European politicians speaking at DLD. It feels as much about Munich or Europe as vital tech locations as it does about Silicon Valley rhetoric. “Disruptive Berlin,” an exhibition I had in 2014 at Galerie Buchholz in Berlin, looked at the way commercial entities like TechCrunch work with Berlin as a city-brand. Berlin is a city that is eager to be recognised as a tech and innovation hub—there is state marketing that is specifically aimed at attracting young entrepreneurs and emerging companies that are included in events like TechCruch Disrupt Europe: Berlin. So, these ideas are bigger than Silicon Valley, even if they originated there.
I’ve considered New Zealand’s communication strategies before in Channel Document, a project I showed at Art Basel in 2012, which was about the redesign of the New Zealand passport, so this territory is not exactly new to my practice. I see these areas of my practice as part of the same discussion, closely related and equally important.
H&F: You’ve been accused of being insufficiently critical of neoliberalism and technoutopianism. The validity of that particular charge aside, do you think this is a valid criteria by which to evaluate your work... or contemporary art production in general?
I think there could be more productive criteria with which to interpret art being produced today. To me, that argument feels like it comes from a perspective that sees artistic positions outside of or apart from industry. But how can this be realistic today? It’s a reality that governments work closely alongside industry, as Snowden has publicised. It’s also a reality that cultural institutions are increasingly financed with private funding. Culture, even art, is created and distributed, if not actually by private companies, then at least in close conversation with them. To immediately dismiss the myth-making and storytelling that companies produce as propaganda not to be interacted with on its own terms, rather than to take it seriously, is to underestimate an important voice. The kinds of messages valued by sources as powerful as Silicon Valley are certainly worth some consideration.
An art conversation that always demands the same flavour of traditional “criticality” is one that runs the risk of missing out on serious engagement with some of today’s most impactful voices. I think ideas like disruption and innovation are interesting to consider alongside the conventional myths created by art and our inherited modernisms. If a certain kind of “criticality” is demanded and performed in the same ways over again and over again, I would argue it ceases to be potent and challenging, and becomes an unquestioned norm. There should be room, I hope, for other approaches in an experimental field like art.
↓ Simon Denny, Modded Server-Rack Display with Some Interpretations of David Darchicourt Designs for NSA Defense Intelligence (2015). Photo: Nick Ash.
Simon Denny, Modded Server-Rack Display with Some Interpretations of Imagery from NSA MYSTIC, FOXACID, QUANTUMTHEORY, and Other SSO/TAO Slides (2015). Photo: Nick Ash.
H&F: The question of appropriation has been coming up a lot lately. Paraphrasing what you told DIS, appropriation in art is so commonplace these days that it no longer seems out of the ordinary, so what really matters is the way it’s done more than the act of doing it. Can you talk more about this with regard to your work? Do you think the hysteria surrounding appropriation is misplaced or, maybe, a dissembling of some deeper fear or impulse?
SD: I think appropriation is common in life as well as in art. We are all used to sending and posting images of an origin we are maybe not so concerned with or informed about. This is how contemporary communication works, and creative output should be able to reflect this as a norm as well.
The designers who put together the NSA slides that Snowden leaked are a perfect example of how rote this kind of communication has become. The NSA’s MYSTIC and QUANTUM decks and the GCHQ’s “Art of Deception” decks are filled with images of various origins—and, by and large, the origins of those images are, conversationally, beside the point because they are woven into a narrative focusing on something particular to the group of people using them.
Certainly, within the art community, discussions around appropriation have become conventional—very interesting but mainly relevant in a historical sense by now. It’s like sampling in music, it’s been around for a long time. Appropriation has been common practice in art at least since collage was invented in the early 20th century. It’s hard to find work that doesn’t involve some kind of direct or indirect reference in today’s art world. A world where Snapchat and Instagram are standard is comfortable with communicating through images. It’s like a 2012 Slate article said about music in relation to words:
“In the case of text, the permissibility of quoting goes essentially unquestioned. If book reviewers needed the author’s permission to quote a work under review, meaningful criticism would be impossible. The back-and-forth, you-said-I-said dialogue of the blogosphere would be against the law. Historians wouldn’t be able to quote historical newspaper accounts of the events they’re describing. Where exactly the line is between quoting someone’s writing and straight-up copying it is often unclear, but the need to preserve a healthy space for quotation is uncontroversial.”
For me, the media discourse surrounding Richard Prince’s Instagram paintings—which is where I have seen extreme reactions to appropriation in art recently—is kind of uninteresting. He is extending a logic that has been foregrounded in his work since the 1970s into social media. What is surprising to me is that there has not been more discussion about gender in his work. For me this is a much more genuinely problematic aspect of what he does, which remains highly relevant yet underrepresented in commentary around his work. But, of course, that’s a different conversation.
↓ SIMON DENNY, Secret Power, installation view (2015). Photo: Nick Ash.
H&F: Off topic, but what did you make of Kim Dotcom’s Predator statue?
SD: It’s an awesome object! Like the other property that was seized by the New Zealand police on behalf of the United States District Court of Virginia, it represents an amazing intersection between the values of one of the world’s most innovative entrepreneurs and a legal system that has global reach. For me that list of objects—a great curatorial frame for Kim’s estate—stands in for one of the most charged discussions around privacy, access and sovereignty and its interaction with innovation and business that we have today. So, to me, the Predator reads like an awesome artwork in a group show or art collection curated by the US justice system.
H&F: Can you tell us a little about what you’re working on now and what’s next for you?
SD: I am in Stockholm right now as a part of an exhibition at the Moderna Museet, which focuses on art history and how it relates to the contemporary moment. In 1969, there was an exhibition that started here and travelled around the world called “Poetry Must be Made by All! Transform the World!” It was curated by Ronald Hunt and Pontus Hultén and proposed a lineage for art-as-participation in wider industry and society, showcasing art from interwar Russia alongside Surrealism and Dada. The premise was that the then-contemporary graffiti made around the May 1968 student and worker protest activities and the Black Panther movement could fit into a history of participatory artwork. It was very controversial at the time, but has become a touchstone for many artists and curators since then.
I was asked by the director of the Moderna Museet, Daniel Birnbaum, and his friend, Hans-Ulrich Obrist, to develop an exhibition that reinterprets the spirit of that show. I have been working with the architect Alessandro Bava on this. We designed a tower that mimics the design of a trade fair booth for a first-person shooter game to spotlight this history alongside resonant contemporary material—complete with sandbags and AK-47s in various guises. The May ’68 and Black Panther graffiti here mixes with graffiti we lifted from Grand Theft Auto V, Peter Thiel quotes, models of The Hunger Games sets and Anonymous’ Anti-Isis Operation imagery, along with classic paintings from revolutionary Russia and amazing Surrealist drawings. It’s made of faux-brick digital prints on top of a scaffolding tower; the viewer enters the tower and can view these items as they ascend. It’s kind of a different proposition for an art exhibition in a museum like this.