The Prism Palette: Interview with Simon Denny

Simon Denny

When we meet, Simon Denny is repacking a billionaire’s possessions. Specifically, the possessions of the German-Finnish entrepreneur Kim Dotcom, founder of video storage site Megaupload, which form part of the collection showing at the Lyon Biennale this autumn. Reimagining the objects that were seized from by the FBI, placing them in the context of a gallery, this series of works deals, like much of Denny’s oeuvre, with the connections between images, data and reproduction on the internet.

It’s been a busy year for the New Zealand-born, Berlin-based artist, who has also presented work at the Venice Biennale, where his show “Secret Power”, dissecting the graphic language of NSA slides released by Edward Snowden, contextualises the graphic elements of the documents, fitting plexiglass versions into pimped-out server racks. In this body of work, he also anonymously engaged former-NSA creative director and now freelance designer, David Darchicourt in several commissions, including a map of New Zealand, placing this designer’s signature and cartoonish style alongside other imagery from the slides, used internally at the NSA as well as other security agencies.

Meanwhile, “The Innovator’s Dilemma”, showing this summer at MoMA PS1 has featured material from the artist’s various bodies of work, including his work reframing the Digital-Life-Design (DLD) tech conference and on a watershed moment in Samsung’s business practices. In person, Denny is charming and eloquent in the model of the startup founders and media 2.0 professionals whose vocations have inspired his work so much. In his Berlin-Wedding studio, we chatted to him about innovation, disruption and how his work is similar to journalism.

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 David Darchicourt Designs for NSA Defense Intelligence, 2015, photo: Nick Ash

Sleek: “The Personal Ef­fects of Kim Dotcom” has been presented several times in different contexts. How does it change?
Simon Denny: I made several editions of this project, which looks at the stuff that the Virginian courts wanted to take off him as part of the extradition process. It’s a curated collection within a collection, which is quite a remarkable thing, because what we have is not simply a collection of Kim Dotcom’s belongings but those possessions that were seized – “selected” if you will – by the courts. And every time we stage the exhibition we get different versions of these objects, including a giant statue of the alien from the film “Predator”. The list stays the same but the objects standing in for the list in the exhibition change, reflecting this idea that Kim was allegedly involved in facilitating the illegal mass distribution of Hollywood films and MP3s. I want to have these objects stand in for them, as if they’re at different resolution. Sometimes we get the exact same thing as Kim has, which I think of as the “hi-res” surrogate.

What inspired your show in Venice?
The venue was Biblioteca Natio­nale Marciana, which is one of the oldest libraries in Venice. There were these amazing paintings by Titian and Tintoretto on the walls that, in my opinion, seemed to be allegories about the value of acquiring and keeping knowledge, and could be interpreted as “intelligence” or something like that.

Why did you feature the Snowden slides in the show?
When they came out, a lot of people were talking about what they were saying, what PRISM’s doing and so on. My idea was that through imagery, you could get different kinds of information that you could get from just the text on the slides, and through a design analysis, you could approach a more holistic understanding of the types of attitudes that are in that context. What do they choose as a language to use? And why would they do that? For example, why would designers use the T-800 from “Terminator” to represent a Google Earth system? You could say it’s jocular, meaning, “We’ve got the most badass tech in the world”. Another attitude might be that designers can build a sort of critical angle on the treasure map system. Putting that into an art context, where we are used to looking at images and unpacking them, I think, is a way to understand these forces a little bit.

Simon Denny, Secret Power, installation view, 2015, photo: Nick Ash
Simon Denny, Secret Power, installation view, 2015, photo: Nick Ash

Where did David Darchi­court come into this?
As we were researching, I came across his LinkedIn profile that said he was the creative director of the Defense Intelligence Agency for the NSA from 2001 to 2012. Artists like David Darchicourt are tasked with doing two different things. On the one hand, transforming boring, bureaucratic objects into fun adverts, and on the other hand, they’re making complex data more tangible.
The Snowden slides are not attributable because GCHQ and the NSA are keeping the identities of the people that made them a secret. In fact, the New Zealand prime minister John Key even claimed that these documents were pure fabrications. But then when you get an artist like Darchicourt putting his own information online, you get an understanding of who these people might be.

Darchicourt didn’t know that you were using his work until after the show went on display. How has this “reveal” moment worked out?
Two days before the exhibition began, we gave the Guardian a tour of the gallery, then they gave Darchicourt a call – since of course, his phone number’s on his website and also on the sculptures. Darchicourt said he was very happy about the whole thing and surprised but also intrigued. They also managed to get more info about this particular “Poison Nut” logo, which he had designed. And in terms of the Snowden story that’s very significant, because it was the first time that anyone producing these slides has been identified.
And of course, the Guardian had a role in the original Snowden releases, too, so I see the material’s journalistic interaction as somehow performative and part of it.
Simon Denny
Some people thought that the slides were ugly.
I thought the international rejection of them as amateurish and ugly was kind of unimaginative. I think Darchicourt creates amazing work that’s also very evocative and which manages to make some of these quite complex concepts tangible and sublime. The way he packages these serious subjects in playful imagery also creates a very interesting tension. People could have tried to engage with these in a much more productive way rather than just dismissing them as unattractive.

Your work has also dealt with material from the tech and startup scene. How have they reacted to your use of their narratives?
Digital-Life-Design (DLD) really liked how I used them, though it was something they would never do. I think when I presented my work to the wider DLD community – talking at the conference about my DLD project – that was a little more baffling for some people within that community.
Samsung were not so happy and said that they would prefer I didn’t feature their stuff, but I went ahead and did it anyway. I hope that they’re happy about everything now that they’ve presumably seen it, but we haven’t spoken since. It’s definitely not the case that everyone’s always happy with being involved but I think there’s definitely a positive mix. A bit like journalism!

To what extent do you feel a part of startup business culture?
I’m a fan of taking powerful culture seriously rather than sending out critique or resistance to it. I’m not out to get the startup scene – I think it’s an amazing thing and I think some of the people I’ve met there are some of the most interesting people. I also feel close to a lot of these people in attitude and position!

Simon Denny, Modded Server-Rack Display with David Darchicourt LinkedIn Profile, 2015, photo: Nick Ash
Simon Denny, Modded Server-Rack Display with David Darchicourt LinkedIn Profile, 2015, photo: Nick Ash

Do you see this Silicon Valley-esque language of innovation becoming part of the art world?
I think tech is mainstreaming right now. People are more aware of tech and Silicon Valley and all that language gets mixed into society. For example, five years ago you didn’t see the word “disrupt” used with this frequency in the New Yorker. Now you do, and without specifically referencing the tech scene. So, it’s more like culture in general, including art, becoming more affected by the visibility and power of Silicon Valley.

Do you see yourself as an innovator?
I think “innovation” has a positivist and modernist overtone to it, within an art context, which makes it more problematic to talk about it within this framework. I would like to see what I do as furthering a kind of conversation, entering material into an art dialogue that is maybe under-represented in art. But innovation in general, I think it’s a great ideal to aspire to within a certain space. But it’s not without its issues!

Simon Denny

Interview: Josie Thaddeus-Johns

Portraits: Pawel Pysz

Simon Denny: Products for Organising is on view at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery until 14 February 2016

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