This year, Thierry Raspail, artistic director of the Biennale de Lyon, launched the new cycle of three biennials around the term “modern”. The show “La vie moderne”, curated by Ralph Rugoff, explores the contradictory character of contemporary culture in different regions of the world, addressing how diverse legacies of the “modern” era continue to structure and condition our understanding of everyday life. Recently I met Simon Denny, one of the artists invited to this edition: a discussion concerning privacy, material and immaterial values, theft and ownership in digital age followed.
Could you tell me about the works shown at La Biennale de Lyon?
Ralph Rugoff was very interested in a particular body of work of mine that I’ve been doing for a while now: The Personal Effects of Kim Dotcom. The work follows a particular entrepreneur called Kim Schmitz, the founder of Megaupload who lives in New Zealand. After running into legal issues with his company, the U.S. government filed a lawsuit against him, which was followed by a very spectacular and unusual – at least in New Zealand – raid in 2012. The New Zealand police collaborated with the FBI, and flew down with helicopters and guns, busting out the guy’s door. After the raid, the police seized a whole bunch of his possessions: physical objects he owned and money he had access to from different bank accounts around the world.
I came across a list of the things that were seized in this raid, which represented an interesting account of things, such as sixty bank accounts around the world together with an art collection. The list of objects symbolized the whole gamut of questions around the figure and his company: what is Megaupload doing for privacy, what file sharing and copyright are about these days, how far the US can reach cross the world in terms of jurisdiction? For me, all this developed into an interesting proposition as a sculptural, curatorial idea: on the one hand it was a collection of a well-known entrepreneur, on the other hand it was a subcuration of the U.S legal department on the personal collection of Kim Dotcom. This formed an interesting group of questions to talk about in terms of an exhibition, reflecting the values of entrepreneurship and those associated to privacy.
When did you first start this group of work?
I’ve done it a number of times already, yet every time I’m working in different contexts, so it’s a sort of a constant remade. I showed it in Vienna for the first time in 2013, and then in museums in England and New Zealand – the work has already had a long life. What stays the same every time is the list of things, but the objects that are shown, change constantly. For every exhibition I get a different arrangement of objects, thus trying to sculpturally deal with the idea of transferring information – transferring things in different resolutions and different scales. Sometimes I’m able to bring in things that are very close to the original objects figuring on the list, like cars, and other times I get only models of them. I like to think of this approach as a kind of resolution: for instance, when you’re watching pirated films online, sometimes they’re super great HD, sometimes they’re super pixelated.
The overall theme given to La Biennale by Ralph Rugoff is La vie moderne. How did you approach this topic?
Ralph wanted to look at income disparities around Lyon, which is a big issue over there, and also to question the idea of access – access to information in particular – which is a kind of luxury that makes us modern. In my approach I wanted to emphasize those different points: the story of Kim Dotcom is really all about value. However, this work emphasizes differences in values, because there’s no way I could ever reproduce all of the items of Kim Dotcom, as they represent many millions of dollars. What is finally shown, are representations of these valuable group of objects – instead of money you get fake money, instead of real HD screens you get stand-in mockups. The work refers to discrepancies between those who have and those don’t have, and to the idea how certain business models filter the money into the hands of a few relevant. This is the approach that also makes sense for the theme of La Biennale.
What is the starting point for you when having to recontextualize and adapt the existing body of work?
As an artist, I conceive exhibitions by definition as local experiences: when you go to see an exhibition, you also visit the site and the building with its rooms. Also aspects such as political climate linked to the space matter: informing the viewer on how they see the piece. When working, I try to include some kind of acknowledgement of that. Obviously there are universal elements in exhibitions that are adopted as well, but at the end, work is always more powerful when it has some kind of relationship to where it is, and how it exists. La Biennale de Lyon gives a good example of having to adapt and react to the given context: by and large I was very impressed by the way the director of La Biennale was looking at the climate in Lyon, finding the most important things to focus on thematically.
You have a strong interest towards tech culture, how did it all start?
It’s been a life-long thing actually. I moved away from my hometown to Frankfurt in 2007, which was a big year for tech: smartphones, iPhones especially, were introduced. I had just recently got a laptop, so I was about to start having a different type of relationship with computers than before. Moreover, I had just moved to a new city, where I was lonely, missing my home and friends: I started to interact with the world through this object, and it felt like the world shrunk into this one machine, one screen. For my sculptural practice this was a very interesting experience – why was this object so important for me all of a sudden? What is this network that I’m engaged to, and what does it mean for my work and for my personal life?
Gradually, we started to witness a constant renewal of tech hardware: with all the updates and improvements, it became a symbol of obsolescence. As a sculptor, I found it very fascinating to enter this context, understanding its language and imagery. However, I wasn’t only interested in how tech looked and felt, but in the whole sphere surrounding it. I started to question the whole business surrounding tech: how companies have the power to make major decisions and produce myths, narrating a way of life.
Then I started going to tech conferences and looking into start-up companies, which had become a sort of pop phenomenon all of a sudden. I was observing the language they were using, and took specific examples of their management and branding strategies: I understood how they were producing contemporary culture, in a way that was somehow un-paralleled – the impact and the power they had was overwhelming, changing the way everything looked and felt. For an artist it is very inspiring to take a look at this world, because there is so much cultural information generated in that space.
How did you observe the development of the local tech culture here in Berlin compared to that in the US, in Silicon Valley in particular?
There is definitely a certain eco-system here in Berlin embedded for start-ups, impacting strongly the way they evolve. I was asking myself about the factors that make Berlin such a tempting place to come here and launch a business. Then I realized that it is, at least partly, for the same reasons why artists move here. I started noticing more and more similarities between young start-up founders and me and my artistic peers. Founders of companies seem to be kind of symbols for their companies, embodying the values of their brands and their products. The same goes for artists: often they are expected to be a personification of their artistic practice, not to mention the idea of taking risks and doing something innovative – thinking outside the box. I found so many similarities in my own practice: I was an immigrant here taking risks with money, trying to make my way through. Finally, observing these tech companies and their narration allowed me to express my own story through it.
Do you see yourself as an immigrant here? You treated this theme also at Venice Biennale with your installation Secret Power at Marco Polo airport, incorporating the ideas of restriction and surveillance.
Obviously I’ve had a relatively easy time as an immigrant compared to some other people. Nevertheless, I’m still not a permanent resident: I have to renew my visa, prove my income, all these things I didn’t need to worry about in my home country. All these procedures have made me more aware of the political role that national identity and background are playing. An airport terminal is a great example of this, because there one has to go through all different types of procedures: searching, surveying, lining up – at the end it’s about proving one’s identity. At the same time, certain people have to undergo different procedures than the others because of their background.
Having the possibility to use the airport terminal was great, allowing me to interact with that space and thus evoke the idea of crossing borders with all the aforementioned aspects – sovereignty, space, privacy. In parallel to the airport terminal, my second installation, the one in the renaissance library, allowed me to talk about knowledge: how it is gathered and valued. The library has some of the best artists of our western canon: it is about making images, while looking at the allegories dealing with knowledge creation and its maintenance.
You’ve been in Germany for a while now, how did you end up here in the first place?
I started my studies in arts at the university of Auckland in New Zealand. After my graduation, I was part of the young art scene in Auckland, making a lot of shows over there. A sort of turning point happened in 2007, when I met a German curator Nicolaus Schafhausen: that year he worked on the German pavilion at Venice Biennale with Isa Genzken, whose work I am a big fan of. Schafhausen was doing a lecture tour back then and happened to see some of my works in New Zealand, and we got along very well. At that point I was looking for possibilities to broaden my horizon, to leave my hometown and go study in another part of the world, and Schafhausen suggested Städelschule in Frankfurt. After my studies there I decided to move to Berlin, which was a kind of thing to do after art studies Frankfurt.
Last spring and summer must have been pretty intense periods for you, besides the pavilion at Venice Biennale you also had a solo show recently at MoMA PS1, The Innovator’s Dilemma. How did you experience all this? What about other forthcoming projects and shows?
There has definitely been a lot happening lately – it’s been crazy, exciting and stressful at the same time. I feel really lucky right now: having the possibility to do all these different projects. You know the feeling when you have all sort of crazy ideas in your mind, and you’re not sure whether it’s even possible to realize them – and this has been the case, which is amazing.
I’m working on an exhibition for the Serpentine Galleries at the end of November. The show will look at management practices, and how different companies – both larger organizations and smaller hacker amateur groups – innovate in terms of management. Management is a story that we tell not only to others, but also to ourselves: innovative management practices are the ways that organizations come together and build the dream. Looking at what those practices are and how they’ve changed over the years is something that I’m really interested in. For the show, I will take different examples of this by looking at management diagrams and organizational charts. Also smaller, hacker-like spaces fascinate me: for example, how a group like Anonymous comes together and how they organize themselves: it is about community building.
I’m also very interested in architectural elements of those organizations – buildings where organizations reside and they’re imagined, with their massive and symbolic buildings. In December I’m invited to do a show at Hammer Museum, which is going to look, like the work in Lyon, at the changing nature of neighborhoods in Los Angeles. I was recently on the West Coast and noticed how Venice Beach, a traditional spot for artists and bohemians, has turned into the place to be for start-ups: some of the most iconic start-ups in LA, such as Snapchat, are at Venice Beach. What does creativity mean in LA and at Venice Beach at the moment? By and large, it will be about how all these elements brought together – strategies, identities and physical spaces – build the dream and the team behind it.
Simon Denny was born in Auckland, New Zealand in 1982. He studied at the Städelschule, Staatliche Hochschule für Bildende Künste in Frankfurt (2009) and at the Elam School of Fine Arts at the University of Auckland (2004). Solo exhibitions of his work have been held at MUMOK, Vienna; Kunstverein Munich (2013); Aspen Art Museum, Colorado (2012); Neuer Aachener Kunstverein, Aachen (2011); Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, Missouri; Halle für Kunst, Lüneburg and Artspace, Sydney (2010). His work has been presented in major survey exhibitions, including the 55th Venice Biennale (2013); 16th Biennale of Sydney (2008) and 1st Brussels Biennial (2008). He was the recipient of the Baloise Art Prize at Art Basel in 2012, and represents New Zealand at the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015. He lives and works in Berlin.