In conversation with Simon Denny
New Mangement, 2014. Installation View, Portikus, Frankfurt (Main). Photo: Helena Schlichting
New Mangement, 2014. Installation View, Portikus, Frankfurt (Main). Photo: Helena Schlichting
Using technology in art gives an artist and the public a chance to do something that was never possible before. By using technology in art, one can create entirely new art forms, hence new experiences. I mean, that is also how Interview Magazine started, how everything around Warhol started. The Factory was a place of experimentation with all types of art, so now having Simon Denny in Interview is the most logical step. Simon Denny is a multidisciplinary artist whose work unpacks the politics around technology, business culture, surveillance, etc. He is pushing the boundaries of what is known as a traditional art and is embracing the fact that technology is an integral force in the advancement and progression of culture. In all his work he is creating new human experiences, which are on occasion complex to understand or even explain. Denny is collaborating with the machines. He is also an artist that has been exhibited in Serpentine Gallery, MoMA PS1, he represented New Zealand at the 56th Venice Biennale, etc. all by the age of 34. Denny was born in 1982.
We sat down with Simon Denny for an extensive interview to talk about future, hacking and his heroes. Though Denny is our hero, we know that even heroes have heroes.
So, Simon, for a start, how would you describe your work to someone who is not so engaged in the tech world?
My work tries to unpack the cultural space that the giants of the emergent power, that is the global Tech community, occupy. It’s about looking at how the people that define our communication networks present themselves, what their values are and how we want to engage with that. I think sometimes the politics of these communities are less than visible, so I see what I am doing as some kind of way of digesting that with the tools that art has to offer. Art is good at meta, and I try to apply the critical languages I have been a fan of in art to a cultural space with a huge amount of impact on the way we live and think.
What’s your background? How did you get to become an artist?
Through the kinds of gate-keeping systems that are in place in the art community, I went to art school. I first did this in Auckland, New Zealand where I grew up and then in Frankfurt. Universities and art schools are usually where the art community I am a part of starts. I then met people, followed my interests with various ongoing conversations I had and was really lucky with timing and my background. I had a much easier path than many to get the opportunities I have had.
Were you always interested in technology or that came with your move to Frankfurt and time when you first started thinking about computers differently and consequentially started producing art infused by technology and the way we communicate with the world?
Yeah, that totally came with my move. I was suddenly away from home with basically nothing except a 2003 laptop. This object became my portal to the world. It was access to learning at school, entertainment at home and like all contact with friends that were not in Frankfurt. That was the year the iPhone came out (2007), and it was just becoming super clear to my friends and me that this was the beginning of an entirely new or mutated cultural logic. I wanted to look into the people defining the hardware and software protocols that were ushering in this change. I wanted some kind of insight into what value systems underscored these powerful objects and evolving network infrastructures.
When you put your work out in public, do you ever feel that once it’s in circulation the work gets manipulated and moulded by different approaches/ways of understanding?
For sure. I mean, I think that meaning making in art is collective and has as much to do with a practice’s reception as it has to do with what I or any artist intends. I also believe in art as a space for experiments and risks. Engaging in a live dialogue around an emergent cultural space (like Tech) is risky because politics can shift and perceptions can change over time. There is never a ‘final word’ on a discussion around a certain topic, especially if one is truly dealing in the contemporary. Part of what I do is trying to articulate how a certain moment feels, so when the mood changes it can reflect a time and a place from a particular perspective. That is clearly only possible if what I am doing is digested and packaged in a wider discussion, both in the art world and beyond. Maybe in the tech community itself to some extent, if possible. This is necessary, but it also means I am not totally in control. Sometimes I feel as much as a passenger or a navigator of the work’s meaning.
Do you see your work adapting to the journey it goes through once you release it?
I can’t help but do so. Each move is informed by the reception of the move beforehand. I am as much a viewer of my work as I am an author in certain moments, I exist in both roles. A body of work is made, released, and then there is some kind of feedback that happens that makes me see it in certain ways. That cycle and how the world feels to me at certain time influences what happens in the next moment when I become an author again. Obviously, that process is not as kind of compartmentalized as that summary implies, but essentially those are the variables at play. How people feel about certain outputs seems to change at certain times, sometimes to the point where the meaning of work can also shift a lot, physically it doesn’t change, but the dialogue around it and therefore the meaning of it does. So, I adapt in meaning as an author as I engage and output at different moments, and so does the work, already in the process of reception, which I guess never stops until nobody cares anymore.
Installation View, Berlin Biennale 2016
How often do you involve audiences in the process/artwork?
Well, every time. As I say, I think that reception is also creation but sometimes more explicitly also. TEDxVaduz was a collective project that involved overlapping institutional frameworks in making sense. Without the country (Liechtenstein) reading as a place associated with financial ‘offshoring,‘ without TED itself being THE dominant rhetorical package for propagating a certain strain of Silicon Valley values, without the other artist speakers and the local Vaduz-based audience attending the event at the Kunstmuseum, none of the gesture would have read. We were all performers, both institutions, and individuals. That was also the case in my Venice pavilion in 2015. The Guardian newspaper became a similar institutional vehicle for performance and the ‘star’ of the show. David Darchicourt, a talented designer that worked for the NSA, became at once the audience for the project and its subject. The New Zealand Arts Council, the Marco Polo airport, and the Biblioteca Marciana and those communities that interface with each of these institutions were also in that position, both as performer and audience.
How much time do you spend on research and how much time on the actual making of an artwork?
I guess, for me, the research is also part of the making, and it’s often a process which is concurrent. I start producing the objects or structures that will inform my output as I am researching, so the material or intellectual output of my process happens concurrently to my research, not after. A project may pivot many times before release, and if I was first researching then executing, the content might be out of date or under-informed upon release. But this is part of the risk of making contemporary art that interfaces with emergent cultural spaces. One cannot simply know things and then execute.
Having said that, a typical project for me takes between 6 months and two years to conceive and execute. That’s not to say it might not continue to evolve in meaning and execution after its debut, just like we spoke about in the previous question. Projects like ‘The Personal Effects of Kim Dotcom’ are like this. His politics evolved, so did my varying presentations. It ended up being a project that began in 2012, first made public in 2013 but was still ‘live’ even in 2016, with further iterations that meant something maybe even opposite to how they started their journey.
Your work requires a lot of financial support, I would say. Do your supporters mostly come from the art world or tech world?
Financial support for my projects comes almost exclusively from the art world. Tech people have been generous with access to information and intellectual property at times (and at times the opposite), but funding for my practice follows a very traditional art world model – sales of objects, institutional arts funding, private collector support. It’s also, by the way, very precarious. I often ‘bet the farm’ on projects of scale (like the Venice Biennale project) where I put in a lot of my own money that I have managed to gain off previous gambles. I hope I am able to continue production at scale if necessary, but also I am a believer in the art that also doesn’t cost so much to make. It’s obviously not always about big complicated objects, even though many of my recent projects have ended up taking that format.
Have you ever hacked someone for private matters and not for work?
Haha, depends on what you mean by ‘hack.’ Making friends could be seen as a Hum-Int hack, right? But like seriously, no, I am actually not all that dexterous in hacking as my work’s focus might suggest. I would not know where to start with a private hack, or indeed why one would even choose that direction in private matters.
Secret Power, installation view, 2015. Photo: Paolo Monello
Secret Power, installation view, 2015. Photo: Paolo Monello
Who are some of your heroes?
Artist heroes are almost too many to name also my peers and friends become my heroes in many moments. Michael Stevenson was a big influence when I was going to art school in New Zealand. His complex, humorous and clever way of working through content was a big inspiration for me. Luke Willis Thomson is another hero closer to home, an artist who I met one a trip back to Auckland who now lives in London and is doing amazing things in risky territory, processing very complicated politics. Barbara Steveni’s step to create Artist Placement Group has been an inspiration of how organisations of artists can try interface with industry. Raindance Corporation and all its splinters from Radical Software to TVTV was an example for me of how artists have dealt very meaningfully with contemporary media (in this case TV and video in the 1970s). I feel like parts of what DIS do, could be seen as a sort of recent update of that kind of approach. Mike Kelley has also been a constant reference point for me in complex exhibition making practice that also distils moments outside of art in a really productive way, as has Isa Genzken in her use of materials and space in exhibition craft. Martha Rosler in terms of political engagement and critical viewing… I could go on and on…
In one of your old interviews, where you talk about Peter Thiel (he is the PayPal co-founder and Facebook’s first professional investor, Trump supporter, etc.) you said, “I realized these kinds of people are designing our future, our world.” Tell me more. How are they designing it? Are we supposed to be afraid of them?
How are people like Thiel designing the future? You partly answered the question yourself. He’s an investor in one of the most important and influential media platforms on the planet (FB) and is close to the current president of the USA to mention two points of strong influence. He has also invested in powerful big data companies that touch the military and health care internationally (Palantir). He is involved in researching education, Seasteading, anti-aging, the list goes on. He’s deep in researching and designing possible influential global businesses of tomorrow. The way those systems (like Facebook and Paypal) behave as software that shapes the way we think as much as the way we can communicate is super powerful. Also, as a very influential V.C., the ideas that he thinks are good, have much more chance of becoming real. He will simply fund projects that are in line with his politics. The influence is there, and the politics are more than problematic if you value democracy and are against authoritarianism and monopoly, which I am. So the answer to the other part of your question, “are we supposed to be afraid” of such people? I mean, again, I can answer that in the first person, I certainly am. In Thiel’s recent lawsuit on behalf of Hulk Hogan, he mentioned something like “single-digit millionaires have no purchase on the legal system in the States,” which was his reason to be involved, as he has – much – more money and therefore influence in that system, and felt strongly about the case. If this is true, and it may well be the case that it is, it means the system is corrupt and undemocratic. It goes without saying that in my mind a justice system needs to as fair as it can be, and accessible to all.
He stands in for a class of Silicon Valley influencers that are really problematic, structurally, and in terms of where money is distributed, where it stays and who has access to capital. Just the VC system itself is problematic like this. Take Uber, for example, they are a venture funded company that gains its (global) market share by putting other Taxi companies in any jurisdiction, without state protection in the industry, out of business by offering a more convenient service for less money. Why are they able to offer that service cheaper? Because that is the bet. VC funds can lose billions of dollars for ten years, and the company will still gain market share at the end of that period because nobody else in the industry can sustain such losses over such a long period, just because they are not as wealthy. They offer their products at a loss, which is a price nobody in the industry is able to do, especially smaller players, so they put everyone else out of business and gain total monopoly at the end of the period. And this is even without mentioning how ‘platform’ companies like this shift as much risk as possible to their customers, which are both – the drivers and the passengers. They own almost no assets and are not responsible for their asset’s upkeep beyond the software and infrastructure that keeps the software in place.
Theil studied under Rene Girard at Stanford – the ivy league university which is part of the backbone of Silicon Valley. Girard’s mimetic theory also seems like a big influence on Thiel’s widely read book ‘Zero to One,‘ and the scapegoat, another mainstay of Girardian theory, is visible across right wing politics rhetorical strategy… I could go on about the position. It’s a pivotal one because it’s a nexus of a lot of very powerful things I think more people should be more aware of the political implications of.
How do you think our future will look like?
I am not sure, of course, and future-casting is very complicated as a practice (even very informed people are often wrong), but we are (societally) going to have to deal with many undeniable truths in the coming years. The fact that jobs are fewer due to automation globally is something that needs addressing. Even if that is only a dip in the type of jobs that are on offer (if more skilled work in education and healthcare become our new growth industries as some commentators are saying), there is going to have to be, at the very least, a massive shift away from ‘unskilled labor.’ The fact that narratives that used to provide people with a lot of meaning and societal cohesion are now not as believable as they once were is something we all have to face. That the trend for the wealthy to accumulate more wealth is leading to an enormous amount of inequality that seems hard to address structurally, is very important to take seriously. This is to say nothing of the way that global commerce and politics as it exists today will exhaust our planet’s resources very soon. In order to address any of these issues in an efficient manner, I think we need some kind of fairer global governance system that is not lead by (but also does not ignore) finance. I believe that we need democratic checks and balances on free markets, to remember that markets themselves are not inherently naturally self-correcting and ideas of meritocracy need to take into account structural and systemic disadvantages for participants that may not be visible to those in power. We will need some kind of version of redistribution of capital. Be it in the form of UBI (which is also complicated in the way it might be implicated could vary wildly on its impact) or in versions of 20th-century welfare that would be adapted to contemporary conditions. I hope we don’t go towards a future where there is a very wealthy élite that occupies an ecologically unspoiled or somehow insulated part of our planet, while much more are left to fend for themselves in an increasingly hostile environment.
Do you think artists have a responsibility to engage with the political issues that the world is currently embroiled in?
I mean, I think in terms of resources. I think right now, for me, it really makes sense for art to be looking in the direction of politics more explicitly. I would not like to prescribe what artists should and should not do. I think part of the methodology of art that I value, and that for me produces some amazing ways of seeing culture, is that there is a lot of scope for experimentation and risk. I think that also what looks political and experimental sometimes might not be and vice-versa. So, I would always say that an open art methodology should be valued whatever the direction of the individual project or set of interests happen to be.
But yes, I personally prefer an art world that is self-consciously politically engaged. I find the work more compelling and interesting at the moment when it has an overtly political dimension to it. As a companion to this idea, obviously, the art is so much more a part of finance that it feels very important to address art’s structural role in becoming a space of speculation. A luxury space that addresses those at the very top of the economic spectrum, which is inherently deeply political and while happening for a long time has only accelerated recently. Art needs to take this into account to stay meaningful. If that is a naturalized kind of norm that is never addressed, I think art loses its potential and power.
How do you do it?
I think for me looking at the politics of those who yield power and influence, to look at the aesthetics they use, the values that underpin it, the systems they implement and how, is a pretty tangible place to start. If we do not know the coordinates of those in power, we do not know what to address. If we understand nothing of the mechanisms of the things that change our world, then we have no possibility of developing effective tools to engage with them. I think we should take seriously both those things we understand and agree with and those things we don’t. I believe that art is well positioned to unpack and put on stage things that affect us culturally in a very contemporary environment that we might not think of as having a cultural dimension, to give us the experience of digesting it and decide what we want to do with it. Any art that does this in a profound way is a public service. Any art that can move us emotionally through a way of truly sensing what is happening to us politically, I think is worthwhile.
What is your primary concern at the moment?
I guess it’s trying to figure out a way to take forward what I have been doing, in the space of diagnosing problematic positions in exhibition form, further into space where I am imagining answers or trying to help to imagine answers. I think, doing things in the way that I have been doing them in the past few years, has been an important part of me learning about a field like tech, that I think is powerful and useful to address. I am trying to figure out how to imagine answers as well as diagnose problems right now, and it’s not a straightforward thing. I think diagnosing problems is a lot easier than suggesting potential answers, and there’s a bigger margin for error and mistake in proposing productive directions forward. One can easily make mistakes or propose directions that turn out not to make sense because it’s harder to imagine problems in a speculative palace than see them in an existing set of phenomena. We also exist in a space right now where there is very little tolerance in the arts for failure. For exploring directions that are hard and problematic, knowing that there will be miss-steps, that also makes things much harder to do.
When and why, did you move to Berlin? How does the city influence your artistic practice?
I moved from Auckland to Frankfurt to go to art school, and then from Frankfurt, I moved to Cologne very briefly and then to Berlin. Mostly because most of my friends, people making art that I was connected to, and my girlfriend at the time was in Berlin. I was for sure influenced by what I felt was the artistic conversation around me – other artists unpacking the tech space – it was a pretty exciting time to be moving to Berlin. I think intellectually, I was strongly influenced by those peers I came into contact with through the school in Frankfurt and Berlin afterward. The dialogue that was dominant in Frankfurt amongst the students I was in touch with was very focused on art history. I was a fan of that and into that, but the group of people I came into contact with in Berlin was more focused on science, on technology and business and how that was influencing our culture. I found their enquiries to be more focused on the contemporary, about unpacking the world we live in, rather than orbiting around a more specific space in art’s recent past. That seemed more urgent at the time and shifted my perspective and focus on the path I am still on in a way.
Which projects are you currently working on, and what are inspirations and influences behind it?
I am working on a piece for a talk and a performance at the EU Parliament in Brussels that is part of a summit that looks at the future of the internet in Europe. Many industry leaders and policy makers will be there, including people like Bill Gates, and they have asked me to speak from an art perspective to a question around the future of media. I am developing a video for that and intervention into the summit that proposes anonymous message boards as a potential space to explore for artists looking to participate in creating stuff that gets distributed in a different kind of way across the internet. I am thinking of a forum where some of the creative energy that goes into producing gallery work (luxury products, economically speaking) might be redirected into producing something that could spawn a grassroots political language of the left in the way that 4chan memes have become such powerful carriers of right wing ideas to certain communities. I have all sorts of thoughts around what makes a space that might work in this way, and some exciting conversation partners including people that have studied anonymous spaces and people that code and understand how software influences behavior. It’s an attempt to start doing what I mentioned before – to propose answers as opposed to just diagnosing problems. I hope it can be the type of space where reputational problems are also not the primary concern, where criticism can happen to creative work that has no impact on people’s reputation that correlates with income and opportunities in our current art system.
Modded Server-Rack Display with Former NSA Designer/Guardian
Thiel Contrarian San Francisco Board of Supervisors Resolution Mist, 2016
Simon, now after all of this, a serious question – do you cook? What is your best dish?
I do cook. Well, I used to cook, but just because at the moment I do not have that much space in my kitchen, there is no real oven. But when I was cooking more, my best dish, I think, was a carrot and mushroom loaf, kind of like a vegetarian meatloaf. It’s a dish I learned as a teen. My parents encouraged my cooking by expecting I would cook at least two nights a week when I was a teenager. I learned a lot from them, and then I learned more from my former partner who is an amazing cook.
What is the longest you’ve gone without sleep?
Haha, um, a few days. I don’t do nootropics though, so one reaches a physical limit.
Interview: Katja Horvat
Photos: Courtesy of the artist
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