Simon Denny is a contemporary artist from New Zealand. He redesigned the Kiwi passport, represented his home country at the Venice Biennale in 2015, did three exhibitions about Kim Dotcom, had solo shows at MOMA PS1 and the Serpentine Gallery. Currently residing in Berlin, his artistic language came to birth when he was a scholar at Kunstverein Munich.
When you came across DLD whilst your residence at Kunstverein Munich, you’ve dedicated a full-blown exhibition to that particular conference. To my knowledge, this was your first work on technology at this scale. Was that a key moment, in which you found your artistic language?
I actually came across DLD because my friends were speaking there. I was part of a loose social group of artists that were in 2012 mostly based in Berlin. The conversation was tight and there was a kind of sense of shared conversation at that point. Many of those artists were invited in 2012 to speak at DLD. I was making art back then about technology, but I was focused on the digitization of TV and switch from analogue to digital broadcast – and its accompanying changes in hardware. I made a lot of sculptures of screens – CRT tube screens kind of dissipating into flat screens.
I was thinking about the Internet as a user, but I had no idea of the group of people and the cultural context of where the internet comes from.
Watching the videos of the 2012 DLD was my introduction to that world. Then, coincidentally, I found myself on a residency in Munich. As the conference had such an impact on me, and I was there, I thought it would be something that could be generative to me and make sense if I were to make a show in Munich. Then an offer came from the Kunstverein to do a show in January – which is when DLD happens – and it all started to fall into place as something that made sense to really focus on. This is when I reached out, through Hans Ulrich Obrist, and asked if I could get access to the archive from 2012 and permission to make a piece about the conference. It was the first time I had worked graphically, and the first time I worked at a scale like the Kunstverein allowed. I did a full transcript of the conference and reinterpreted the graphic language of its stage design – and kind of filtered all that through the UI logic of skeuomorphism – which was Apple’s current UI logic of the time, representing functions with slightly retro images of objects, like a trash can representing where one deletes files. Working through the quotes by entrepreneurs, the graphics and style of the design, and an installation experience, which to me encapsulated the slightly overwhelming feeling of being at DLD, was a lot to process. It started an artistic process that has been a big part of my work up until today. It was a very important work for me.
How would you describe your particular artistic language, the aesthetics of it, and how they have evolved?
Well, from the DLD show onwards I guess I have focused more and more on trying to frame the cultural values of the Tech community, to represent them in various ways though exhibitions that focus on either significant incidents or prominent figures as case studies. I mix these with the language and strategies of recent contemporary art – like the history of institutional critique, installation art and art that has an intersection with documentary. The visual language has always tried to be close to the subject matter I cover – so exhibitions often ended up looking a bit like trade fair presentations, something from CES or Techcrunch. I have used case-molding (the practice of making custom computer cases for competitive gamers) as a way of continuing to build sculpturally on existing tech hardware and keep the physical components relevant to the subject matter. As my perception and the public image of the Tech community has evolved, and as design and politics within that community has shifted over time, so has the look and feel of my work.
Your piece on Kim Dot Com, a resident in your home country New Zealand, was an installation with replica pieces of Kim’s personal belongings that were confiscated by the state. Apart from its incredible (visual) storytelling about their grotesque owner, what was the key message?
I was trying to find a sculptural framework to explore issues that I saw as important in tech at that time – privacy, sovereignty, intellectual property, ethical or unethical business practices, interactions between law and disruptive business leaders, conflict between private companies and states. Kim’s story was so spectacular, and also so close to home for me that I felt I had enough access to make a piece that resonated on those issues but also a bit on my identity as a New Zealander and New Zealand’s changing reputation and associations politically. I thought that bringing together copies or versions of the objects that had been confiscated from Kim by the New Zealand and US legal process would be a way of unpacking value both from the perspective of an eccentric tech entrepreneur and also of the legal arms of these countries. It was a way to visualize value in quite a tangible way.
Also the idea that he was being accused of essentially enabling large scale copying of files,
and part of the repercussions for doing that that being the seizure of a lot of very bulky tangible goods, some of which are classified as artworks, seemed to say something about the discrepancy between the concepts of ownership and property at stake between the state and the entrepreneur.
Your work on new media and its contradictions and protagonists are wildly acclaimed. To me, it seems, it focused on the Internet first, and than became subsequently more political - as a lot of shit like the NSA scandal bubbled up. Was your reverse espionage piece the turning point? Can you tell me more about this work?
I think that is a nice observation. My interest in the Tech community at first was definitely not as politicized as it has become. As this community has grown in power and influence I guess its natural that the areas they influence have deeper political significance, and anybody working on distilling the cultural implications of these – such as my practice – will be touched. I think the pavilion at the Venice Biennale I did as New Zealand’s entry in 2015 was a turning point, or a peak in a certain direction for me. The “reverse espionage” was essentially me making my pavilion’s focus the work of a talented illustrator that worked at the NSA for many years and was responsible (as we found out during the production of the exhibition) for some of the logos that were featured in the Snowden leaks. I engaged with the illustrator and had him produce some works for the exhibition but without his full knowledge of the exhibition and context I was putting his work in. I did this all under the auspices of producing “official New Zealand culture” and so was also commenting on New Zealand’s proximity to the USA. This was the first major piece I had done that focused more on the state side of tech rather than private companies. Recently we have seen a significant selection of the Tech community framed closer to far right administrations like Trump’s. This is a shift in my political understanding of where tech lies on the political spectrum also – where I assumed for the longest time that there was a significant difference between libertarian positions and far-right positions. It seems clear that this is now not the case, which will also have to be built into future practice of mine.
And then there’s your latest stunt: the RISK blockchain version, where you redesigned the famous game by translating it into blockchain scenarios. To me, again, it shows that you turn more skeptical towards technology promises without loosing your enthusiasm for it, right or wrong?
Yes I think that is fair. I remain a fan of some of the innovations and promises of tech, but as the long-term politics of some of the tech community become clearer to me – that they are closer to positions like Trump’s than I ever thought could be possible –my fascination has also mixed with more skepticism. In exploring the political implications and promises of the blockchain – which is a technology derived from Bitcoin – I saw the market-based logic in the systems around tech in an even more clear way than I had in previous projects. I chose three companies – Digital Asset, 21 and Ethereum – as case studies for companies working with blockchain in contrasting ways – to create a kind of tangible spectrum for a range of activities that can seem quite opaque to people not from the tech community. I used the form of the board game Risk to show some of these differences in positions – from what was represented on the boards themselves geopolitically, to the various representations of armies, to the “attack and defense” dice. The Risk game with its central “conquest of the planet” narrative and its various details proved a pretty good vehicle for unpacking the politics of this world. Interestingly in the process of showing this work, it became clearer and clearer that the CEO of 21 Balaji Srinivasan was closer to the emergent Alt-Right, up until the point where now its clear he is being considered for Trump’s administration as the head of the FDA.
What’s next, are you planning a Trump tweeting sculpture or reversing „fake-news"?
Both pretty good ideas. I toyed with a proposal in December about a fake-news like situation regarding climate change narratives recently, but it didn’t work out. Right now I am working on a piece about Shenzhen, the tech community there and some of the implications of the geopolitical shifts in manufacturing and innovation – also central to Trump’s positions on trade. I am also planning a group of works trying to understand the political theory of René Girard who was a big influence on Peter Thiel.
Part of me wants to continue the critical work I have been doing recently and part of me wants to work on organising and focusing on more positive alternatives to some of the negative developments I see happening in politics and tech.
I guess it’s a time of transition for me in any case – the work I have been producing pre-Trump and post will have to reflect a different attitude.