Simon Denny Explains the Future


Visiting the Artist's Berlin Studio to Discuss Everything from Colorblocking to Blockchain

Interview: Zoma Crum-Tesfa
Photography: Lukas Gansterer

When New Zealand artist Simon Denny moved to attend an art school in Frankfurt, suddenly all of his friends were on the other side of the world. Very quickly, his laptop became the center of his life. Everything went through this object, and suddenly he became very interested in its impact on the world. He recalls, “I thought, maybe I should be paying more attention to the thing that is maybe the most important object in my life. I got less interested in the formal aspects of what the screen was and more interested in the background of who was producing that shit. I got very interested in the cultural values of the tech world and why certain things were elected to be important. I wanted to map that culturally.” Since, Denny has become known for work that translates the endeavors of the tech world—from management proclamations at Samsung, to the world’s first selfie stick, to the emergence of blockchain—into immersive multimedia art installations. His pavilion for the 2015 Venice Biennial addressed New Zealand’s role in the United States surveillance program with an installation focused on former NSA graphic designer David Darchicourt that led to Darchicourt’s announcement that he had participated in the Edward Snowden leaks.

Zoma Crum-Tesfa spoke to Denny at his studio in Berlin.

Zoma Crum-Tesfa: Let’s start off somewhere lightweight. Right now, art and fashion are coupling together more frequently than in the past. And it seems art is often used to legitimize certain things within fashion—

Simon Denny: I can see that, sure.

And you are one of these fashionable artists. Do you find it surprising considering the subject of much of your work are elements of tech culture?

I’m not sure that I am a fashionable artist. I do find some of the attention surprising, although not because of the tech culture angle. There are a lot of beautiful artists in the world, and it’s not this self-deprecating thing, but I’m not a so much of a looks guy. I care about my presentation—like, I want to be tidy and inoffensive, or whatever—but I know other people and artists, who I admire, who are interested in self-presentation in a much more serious way. They investigate conversations around fashion, and I admire that. Like, when buying sneakers, I’ll often consult friends, like Emily Segal, formerly of K-Hole, who I have collaborated with on art projects also.

Well, she’s a very well-dressed woman.

Exactly! She’s someone who is following and engaging with things I have often yet to hear of. I’m a fan of the craft of anybody who uses any kind of content that has impact and scale. But I have no stake in this game. There is only a certain amount of energy one has and I choose to spend most of it on getting my projects done. 

"I would hardly wear such a thing, much less lay on concrete in it."

Yeah, but you also aren’t canvassing college freshmen who wear basketball shorts at all hours for your style tips.

[Laughs] I could be. I’m not particularly interested in appearing up-market right now. I like a tracksuit, personally. But, like, you look for the person who has the right skills to do the job, you know?

You seek the council of specialists.

Yeah.

What if a specialist would be wrong? Like, in 20 years or so, you look back and realize what you were wearing was really foul.

I’ve already experienced that. The first Vogue shoot that I did, they brought along these amazing Gucci suits to my apartment. Like a double-breasted paisley suit and a silk scarf. And they wanted me to lay on the floor. I got the images back and it was a great photograph—I can see where they were coming from—but really? I would hardly wear such a thing, much less lay on concrete in it. But, on the other hand, it’s like, I’m wearing a Gucci suit and laying on the floor—that’s awesome. I don’t really care.

It was funny to watch you do an interview introducing your pavilion for last year’s Venice Biennale with a plastic bag in your hand. Do you regularly shop at airports?

That was not just a plastic bag, that was my tote bag! I made that as part of my merch experience for the Biennale.

Oh, my bad.

Every time you do a pavilion, you need to make an official tote bag. And, we thought—me and designer David Bennewith, who I partner with on many projects—“Wouldn’t it be amazing if the tote bag was a plastic shopping bag?” Of course, we also ended up making this huge book and, in the end, you had to double-bag it in order to carry the thing.

Could it not have been paper?

We liked plastic for that project. It felt more toxic. We did use supposedly biodegradable plastic—or, whatever—but you know that doesn’t really work. It just feels better.

What was the graphic on it?

The graphic was the logo that we did for Venice and it comes from Nicky Hager’s book, Secret Power, which was also the title of the show. He was one of the first people who developed this notion that New Zealand was collaborating closely with the USA in their intelligence. Anyway, his book is from the 1990s and it has these amazing graphics in it. I found this one map where New Zealand is in the center so not much else of the world is visible, which fit the project, so I used it.

You lifted the graphic or were inspired by it?

No. Well—

It was lifted.

It was both, you know? It’s always both.

Multiple authorship comes up in the way you describe your process and even how you organize your presentation personally. How did this influence your show in Venice?

Well, I never make anything alone. I have this great team that shrinks and grows, and this network of artists and thinkers that I’ve been in touch with. They frame my interaction with these subjects. Venice was a really good moment for me, because I felt it was very significant for all the people involved in producing it. The whole thing was about this artist, David Darchicourt, that worked for the NSA. Because of the indirect participation of The Guardian around the opening of my show, this guy Darchicourt ended up claiming authorship publically of some of the visual content released in the Snowden leaks. Politically, that was a strong outcome and also for me personally. 

Simon Denny: Blockchain Future States; Installation View; Petzel Gallery; 2016 Photo: Jason Mandella

Is the idea of collaborative endeavor also part of what appeals to you about blockchain? That using a distributed database, like blockchain, is a movement away from these more hierarchal systems of power?

Blockchain is hopefully an example of something very bottom-up. Instead of, for instance, multinational organizations governing exchanges between peers, the parameters of the exchange are encoded and automatic. So over time, more and more of these institutions would no longer be necessary. That prospect for our future, which at times can feel very bleak, is a prospect that to me has some optimism.

Where does the optimism lie for you? Like, I understand that blockchain is probably an inevitable part of our future, but I have trouble finding that optimistic.

So, take the Internet, for example. At the beginning, the Internet was kind of this ideal thing. You could communicate with anybody, anywhere in the world and have information that was free. Now, however, the Internet has become centralized rather than decentralized. It is essentially colonized by these few monopolies. What I like about the proposition of blockchain is that it says we need to reset that. Even how it’s managed to scale so quickly in awareness is quite promising.

It’s interesting how you are accessing a certain nostalgia we have towards the Internet to massage in your point about blockchain, which to be honest, I’m still not totally sure I’m on board with—like, look up Brock Pierce, everybody.

Examples are always helpful. If you have an example, you can unpack a specific instance of something and it can be revealing about a whole subject. Look at the way that Pokemon Go accessed nostalgia to get access to a market. I think that as a strategy is something relevant and interesting. I’m trying to tell these stories that I think are important and urgent—like, bitcoin and blockchain contain a proposal for a future vision of sovereignty. And that’s complicated! I need any help I can get to help people look at that shit.

“As an artist, including many voices is what is important to me.”

Yes, but, while the economic intentions of blockchain seem clear, the geopolitical intent seem less so. Do you not worry that blockchain will also become centralized in a similar way?

I am not really one hundred percent sure. I am listening to a lot of voices—some very skeptical, who say blockchain will advance radical individualism and libertarianism, leading to more extreme divisions between haves and have-nots. Others saying it will lay the foundations for a fairer, more distributed, more transparent version of globalism—that if you replace the existing possibilities of infrastructure, then different ecologies become possible. But, as an artist, including many voices is what is important to me.

Do you have specific hopes for what these alternative ecologies might look like?

I’m open to many possibilities. It’s hard to be too specific about the nuances of a future you would like to exist in as the technology that shapes it changes so rapidly.

Simon Denny, Secret Power, installation view, 2015. Photo: Jens Ziehe

What blockchain apps are you using today?

None really actively. I would like to use more actually. I have a bitcoin wallet, somewhere, but I don’t even know what’s in it right now. My primary goal has been to research, talk to people who are deeply involved and make a good exhibition for people to go into. Maybe there are audiences who don’t care at first about tech or blockchain, but they can get a worthwhile moment out of what they see in front of them and that will interest them into potentially going deeper.

But these subjects are not just a metonym for thinking about more immediate ideas and experiences.

Not only, I hope. I try to think of the work that I do and research as inspiration toward some kind of constructive proposition for better systems. I want globalism to work. I really do! An ideal future, however, has to be a world that is ecologically sound, one in which everybody has access to that experience and dream of a decentralized network where you can communicate with anybody, anywhere in the world and have extensive information for free.

Interview: Zoma Crum-Tesfa
Photography: Lukas Gansterer