This year, BMW released the BMW Concept 8 Series, which combines peerless design with breathtaking speed for an unparalleled driving experience. This unabashedly modern and athletic model is slated for a 2018 release. To celebrate, SLEEK will be profiling a series of innovative designers and artists who work with the idea of speed. In this instalment, we’re interviewing artist Simon Denny.
Simon Denny is an artist based in Berlin that takes the fever dreams of technology companies and turns them into fully rendered sculptures. His raw materials are the pronouncements, personal effects and PowerPoints of some of the most powerful people in human history – be they PayPal billionaire Peter Thiel or the creative director of the NSA. From these, he makes objects that are beautifully Dadaist in their absurdity, and as fact-checked as the finest journalism.
His subject, then, is speed itself – or at least the ideas that underpin the technology that’s making the world spin so quickly. And his work, too, is fast in itself – he makes art with the rapidity of of a guy trying to keep one step ahead of the present.
That’s why we wanted to speak to him as part of this project, supported by BMW. The BMW Concept 8 Series is a reboot of the literally, actually iconic 8 Series, which from the early 1980s to the late 1990s was the ultimate in luxury acceleration. The new vehicle, out next year, takes the earlier designs, and pushes them further – it’s a car that both symbolizes speed itself, allows those inside to experience dizzying acceleration and insulates the driver from a world that can feel more hostile by the minute.
It seemed only right, then, to quiz Denny about how he copes with the pace of change that his work documents. We spoke to him at his studio in the north-western district of Wedding, where he was preparing to ship a collection of board games based on the strange dreams of Silicon Valley for an exhibition in his native New Zealand.
You’re famously productive as an artist. How do you make work so quickly?
Well, I have incredible help and people who have got a lot of patience. That’s how, basically! But I do do stuff very quick: I like to be busy, I like to have lots of things on the go. I feel like I need to work at a certain pace to even get the momentum of a thing going.
How do you mean?
If I’m slowed down, I don’t know what to do with myself. I think by doing, I think! Also, I try to respond to contemporary issues a lot, and that has a timeline to it: so if you want to talk to a certain political mood with a show, you better get that out at the time when it’s still that political mood, or anticipation of it, otherwise it might not speak in quite the same way. Berlin as a city helps me do that because I have been here for a very long time and it’s very easy to get in touch with various people at various producers that are used to working with me. Having the most amazing assistant in the world also helps!
Speed is a founding ideology of Silicon Valley, and your current work is a very head-on critique of the technological-industrial complex’s thought processes. What’s your thoughts on the politics of speed?
There’s a real problem about the speed at which technology gets made, and the moment in which we, as a society, are able to interact with it. I think one of the key questions if you’re talking about speed and politics, is those who have the power to produce the technology, versus society who has to live with the consequences of what that does.
Of course we want things to move forward, we want new things, there are all these benefits that you could say technology has brought. A favourite story that gets told in Silicon Valley is that Alexander Bell thought the top market for his phonograph that was going to be sermons, and had no idea about the music industry that would use his invention. Not even the people building the technology know what it’s going to do. But AI and everything else that’s coming, these are things we have to think about.
A lot of your current work is prototypes of board games. What does the words ‘proof of concept’ mean to you?
Though I do produce these prototypes myself, they show an illustration, not really a proof of concept. But by proof of concept is something that I first heard about through Bitcoin: proof that you could build a growing, incentivised network structure by giving people a return on currency for running the network on their computers. So the fact that it ran and expanded was proof that you could have crypto-currency. Again, these games are prototypes, maybe a proof of concept, but because it needs to be for a display. I also wanted the libertarian games to be kind of like you’re kept out of it: you can view it, but you’re kept out of it.
A lot of your work before the big political events of last year tended towards a journalistic documentation, with you displaying the communications of the NSA and Apple without overtly critiquing them. But it feels like these are much more editorialised. You can tell what your position is.
Yeah I think different voices were called for after last year. I think that was a turn I took in myself. I was like, OK I think we need to say things stronger than I thought we did in the past. So that has been a turn. I was presenting things as they were, a little ambivalent, and I wanted people to take their own versions of it, and present the rhetoric on a stage to question, but left the questioning up the viewer. Now I guess, as you say, I’m editorialising it a bit more, kind of giving it a bit more voice, and adding more of a take on it because I think that’s somehow necessary in the context because there are so many things that are going wrong. And a lot of those things are coming from some of the parts of the communities that I was looking at; the tech community is not as liberal and helpful as we hoped it might’ve been and it’s also the products that they’re making are not necessarily giving us what we really wanted, I guess. The internet is much more questionable politically than we thought it was, and whether that’s by design or just by growth.. but the monopoly is coming to the big four companies there and I think to look at where some of the more extreme forces in the community, like Peter Thiel, are coming from, what their kind of background is, and what different narratives can be outside of them. So that’s also why I wanted to look at this other direction within my local context of New Zealand.
How does the pace of technological change influence your work?
Though it’s focussed on present day, my work is not physically anything that couldn’t have been made 10 years ago, 100 years ago. But I think the way that we think and what we think about is what comes into the work, and I think that is super affected by changes in technology. I mean the time that I’ve lived in Germany, which is about 10 years now – that’s the moment when the iPhone came out until now. Which has brought about a lot of changes in the way we do things! Text messages, you know? The emergence of chat! My attention span is totally shot – everybody’s is. But you can’t do anything without checking your feed or you constantly have this thing in your pocket, and all of that changes the way that we make and think and do, psychologically.
Do you think one should make work at this speed?
Not at all, it works for some people and it doesn’t work for others. I think it might even be a handicap of mine. I just feel like I need to get things done at a certain pace otherwise maybe there’s too many reasons to stop a thing. Doing what I do is pretty crazy. I think if there was more time to consider it, I might lose my nerve!
Move fast and break things, right?
Yeah that’s the Facebook phrase, right? And I understand that but I don’t what know exactly which things I’m breaking, I’m mostly just breaking myself. Ideas rise out of disruptive artistic practice but it doesn’t have a huge impact on the world. I mean, the world is changing so quickly, I don’t know how long the contemporary art world is going to be around for. Maybe we’re in the last year of it, maybe this will be the last body of work I’ll ever get to make at this scale: I don’t know. It’s all so unpredictable and totally insane. We might just look at all these things we have in museums in a minute and be like, “oh…well actually we really don’t think that’s all that valuable anymore.” That’s a total possibility. Maybe the franticness of the pace is also about trying to get things out before they become obsolescent.
For more information on the BMW Concept 8 Series, watch BMW.com