Artist Si­mon Denny has been away for a decade be­com­ing art­world fa­mous. Now he’s re­turn­ing with an am­bi­tious ex­hi­bi­tion that un­packs the strange pol­i­tics of cut­ting-edge tech­nol­ogy, and the pe­cu­liar tale of re­cent New Zealand cit­i­zen Peter Thiel.


In al­most ex­actly a decade, artist Si­mon Denny has forged an ex­tra­or­di­nary rep­u­ta­tion in the in­ter­na­tional art world, win­ning pres­ti­gious prizes and stag­ing solo ex­hi­bi­tions at New York’s MOMA PS1 and Lon­don’s Ser­pen­tine. Al­most all of these projects have ex­plored the per­va­sive im­pacts of new “dis­rup­tive” tech­nolo­gies on our lives – from in­ter­net piracy through mass sur­veil­lance, to bit­coin and blockchain. And as Se­cret Power, Denny’s ex­hi­bi­tion at the 2015 Venice Bi­en­nale showed, New Zealand has been an essen­tial pres­ence through­out. This week, Denny re­turns to Auck­land with a mul­ti­lay­ered ex­hi­bi­tion at Michael Lett that delves, in part, into the strange world of Face­book in­vestor and re­cent New Zealand cit­i­zen Peter Thiel. Be­fore he left Ger­many for his trip back to New Zealand, Denny and I talked on the phone about his lat­est work.

AN­THONY BYRT: Let’s rewind 10 years. When you left New Zealand in the mid2000s, you weren’t look­ing at the tech world at all. What changed?

SI­MON DENNY: I’d had a prac­tice in Auck­land that was very fo­cussed on ma­te­ri­als and think­ing about space, and re­ally work­ing with “stuff” in the stu­dio. When I moved to Frank­furt, I no longer re­ally had a stu­dio, I felt dis­placed, and my lap­top be­came su­per-im­por­tant to me. I started re­al­is­ing that ev­ery­thing I was do­ing was through this ob­ject; the in­ter­net and that lap­top be­came my whole world. I thought, well, if I’m an artist who’s in­ter­ested in the ex­pe­ri­ence of ob­jects, why am I not mak­ing some­thing about the most im­por­tant ob­ject in my life? From there I got in­ter­ested not just in tech­no­log­i­cal ob­jects but in who was mak­ing them, and who was defin­ing what was pos­si­ble within the pa­ram­e­ters of tech. And that’s how I stum­bled on the startup world, which was to­tally new to me.

That came to­gether in All You Need is Data – the DLD 2012 Con­fer­ence, which was shown in Auck­land as part of the 2014 Wal­ters Prize.

That was re­ally the first work I made about the tech­nol­ogy com­mu­nity and the pol­i­tics of tech. A bunch of my friends went to this con­fer­ence in Mu­nich, ‘Dig­i­tal Life De­sign’ (DLD) in 2012, which [the su­per-cu­ra­tor] Hans Ul­rich Obrist was cu­rat­ing artists into. But it was re­ally a startup con­fer­ence. There were all these crazy-pow­er­ful peo­ple speak­ing, like the founder of Twit­ter, the founder of Wikipedia, the COO of Face­book. It was the glit­terati of the tech scene. I thought it would be in­ter­est­ing to make an art­work about the con­fer­ence – to try to ex­tract some sort of mood from this group of peo­ple and give a snap­shot of their val­ues. That’s where it all started. Ev­ery it­er­a­tion of my work since has looked at the tech com­mu­nity from that an­gle. The sig­nif­i­cance of what these peo­ple build and why they build it is get­ting more im­por­tant by the day, and the work of un­pack­ing what that means cul­tur­ally is just enor­mous. ——— THOUGH IT HAS never been shown in its en­tirety here, Denny’s Se­cret Power at the 2015 Venice Bi­en­nale was one of the

most po­lit­i­cal shows by him or any other New Zealand artist. Tak­ing its ti­tle from a 1996 Nicky Hager book, it used the NSA Pow­erpoint slides Ed­ward Snow­den leaked in 2013 to ex­am­ine the vis­ual cul­ture of mass sur­veil­lance and New Zealand’s own role in the Five Eyes in­tel­li­gence net­work. In a “na­tion­al­is­tic” con­text like the Venice Bi­en­nale, where Denny had been se­lected to rep­re­sent his coun­try, it was a huge roll of the dice. But it worked. The world’s me­dia were fas­ci­nated and it be­came one of the ma­jor talk­ing points of the Bi­en­nale.

How were the seeds of Se­cret Power planted?

That project felt blessed from the be­gin­ning. Like ev­ery­body else, I saw the Snow­den slides. Be­cause I was in­ter­ested in tech and how or­gan­i­sa­tions present them­selves to the world, they were deeply in­ter­est­ing to me. They just weren’t what you ex­pected to see from a gov­ern­men­tal agency: they were jokey, boast­ful, dark, and also had this Pow­erpoint aes­thetic, which I love. Snow­den him­self and the way the whole thing was framed was re­ally in­ter­est­ing too. So I thought it was re­ally fer­tile ter­ri­tory.

How did Nicky Hager and the Five Eyes/ New Zealand an­gle en­ter the project?

At that time I hadn’t made work about gov­ern­men­tal tech be­fore, and I cer­tainly wasn’t an au­thor­ity on the is­sues in­volved. Ob­vi­ously I was mak­ing the New Zealand pav­il­ion, so there was an in­her­ent na­tional-rep­re­sen­ta­tion an­gle to the whole thing. And there was this book, called Se­cret Power, which had come out in the 1990 sand had talked about New Zealand’s in­volve­ment in the same thing [as the Snow­den slides]! And Nicky was in touch with the jour­nal­ists who were break­ing the Snow­den stuff, like Glenn Green­wald. So I thought it was amaz­ing that New Zealand had this guy who’d done all this work, which in ret­ro­spect looks much more im­por­tant than it did at the time. At the same time as the an­nounce­ment of my project, [Hager’s book] Dirty Pol­i­tics dropped, and Nicky be­came a very vis­i­ble fig­ure. It was an amaz­ing set of cir­cum­stances that came to­gether. ———


New Zealand Herald jour­nal­ist Matt Nip­pert broke a story that had all the bones of a Denny project: the news that the Sil­i­con Val­ley su­per-in­vestor Peter Thiel is a New Zealand cit­i­zen. Thiel was a co-founder of Paypal and the first out­side in­vestor in Face­book: a kind of techno-seer who now backs ev­ery­thing from biotech­nol­ogy star­tups who want to help us live for­ever to a com­pany that wants in­ter­net-con­nected fridges to mine bit­coin. Not long af­ter Nip­pert’s first ar­ti­cle about “Cit­i­zen Thiel” was pub­lished, Denny and I be­gan cor­re­spond­ing. To­gether, we started re­search­ing the con­nec­tions be­tween Thiel’s world­view – a mix of hard­core lib­er­tar­i­an­ism, Chris­tian the­ol­ogy and Lord of the Rings fan­tasy – and New Zealand. We ended up fo­cussing heav­ily on one of Thiel’s favourite books, an ob­scure and bizarre lib­er­tar­ian text from 1997 called The Sov­er­eign In­di­vid­ual, which talks about the com­ing col­lapse of na­tion-states and the ways “cy­ber­cur­rency” will lib­er­ate in­di­vid­u­als from the bur­dens of democ­racy and tax­a­tion. We also dis­cov­ered that the book’s au­thors, James Dale David­son and Lord Wil­liam Rees-mogg, had been in­volved in a con­tro­ver­sial prop­erty trans­ac­tion in Wairarapa in the mid-1990s – ex­actly the same time Hager was work­ing on his book Se­cret Power.

Denny has syn­the­sised these con­flu­ences and co­in­ci­dences into his new ex­hi­bi­tion, The Founder’s Para­dox. His re­sponse to the Thiel and Sov­er­eign In­di­vid­ual ma­te­rial has been

to cre­ate elab­o­rate board games that riff on pop­u­lar strat­egy games like Set­tlers of Catan and De­scent – Jour­neys in the Dark. But as an an­ti­dote to all this an­ar­chic in­di­vid­u­al­ism, he has also cre­ated games based on Max Har­ris’ The New Zealand Project – a book that maps out a com­pletely dif­fer­ent vi­sion of New Zealand’s fu­ture: one, in Har­ris’ for­mula, of “care, cre­ativ­ity and com­mu­nity”.

Peter Thiel has been a cen­tral fig­ure in your Sil­i­con Val­ley uni­verse for a long time. Why was now the right time to make a show about him?

From his book Zero to One to his in­volve­ment with the Trump elec­tion, to found­ing and in­vest­ing in some of the most far-reach­ing com­pa­nies on the planet – Thiel is a cul­tural fig­ure who is un­de­ni­able in his in­flu­ence. The fact that he’s in­volved in New Zealand pol­i­tics now, al­beit tan­gen­tially – as you say, it suits my in­ter­ests very well. I’m in this strange po­si­tion as a Pake­hˉaˉ New Zealan­der who’s lived in Ger­many for 10 years. My New Zealand­ness and my re­la­tion­ship with the coun­try is al­ways in me, but I’m also re­ally in­ter­ested in a global con­ver­sa­tion. Some­how, the fig­ure of Thiel seems at the in­ter­sec­tion of all these things. That’s not all pos­i­tive; I think a lot of the things he’s touch­ing on are po­ten­tially neg­a­tive. I think his ques­tion­ing of democ­racy is highly prob­lem­atic. But his in­flu­ence is re­ally out­sized. A num­ber of the peo­ple I’ve got to know over the years in Sil­i­con Val­ley view him as a very im­por­tant thinker. So tak­ing his phi­los­o­phy se­ri­ously and un­pack­ing it is some­thing that has a cul­tural rel­e­vance for New Zealand, but also just as a liv­ing per­son in the world right now. We need to know what we’re deal­ing with here.

And you de­cided to use Max Har­ris’s vi­sion in The New Zealand Project as a sort of coun­ter­point to Thiel’s lib­er­tar­ian world­view. Why?

We’re in this mo­ment that’s emerged from the Trump/brexit ef­fect on pol­i­tics, and the chang­ing per­cep­tions of news me­dia, where we’re start­ing to get these propo­si­tions that imag­ine dif­fer­ent ways of [so­ci­ety] work­ing. Thiel is one end of that, where he’s imag­in­ing a world with the frame of some kind of lib­er­tar­i­an­ism. But then you get other peo­ple imag­in­ing what it might be to build so­ci­eties based on to­tally dif­fer­ent val­ues. When you in­tro­duced me to Max’s writ­ing, and when I started think­ing about what it meant for New Zealand, it made sense

as a kind of counter nar­ra­tive. Be­cause while I think Thiel is im­por­tant, I think it’s also im­por­tant to look at things that as­pire to other kinds of hope as well. Har­ris’s anal­y­sis of New Zealand pol­i­tics struck a dif­fer­ent chord with me, par­tic­u­larly around re­dis­tribu­tive ways to deal with fi­nance, and a con­tem­po­rary ef­fort at fram­ing de­coloni­sa­tion, which seems such an im­por­tant but re­ally dif­fi­cult process to get right. I was re­freshed by that.

The two op­pos­ing views re­ally turn this show into a con­ver­sa­tion about what the fu­ture looks like and who gets to cre­ate it. Re­lated to this is your fas­ci­na­tion with blockchain and bit­coin, which both make an ap­pear­ance in the ex­hi­bi­tion.

This is an­other thing I’ve flip-flopped on a lot. It’s such a com­pli­cated topic. Bit­coin and blockchain have scaled into things with un­de­ni­able power – in shift­ing where fi­nance is go­ing, and where net­worked com­put­ing is go­ing to go. Most of the peo­ple I’m in con­ver­sa­tion with in tech who are build­ing com­pa­nies and star­tups are say­ing that this is the next web; that this is go­ing to be the ba­sis of the next in­ter­net. It was the same feel­ing I had com­ing to the DLD project in 2012 – I was like, this is a wa­ter­shed mo­ment that’s go­ing to have a huge im­pact on the way we think about the world and the way we can act. Peo­ple in­ter­ested in cul­ture need to un­der­stand this, and I feel like I’m an artist who may have a tool­kit to trans­late what this could mean into vis­ual/cul­tural space.

That brings us to The Sov­er­eign In­di­vid­ual, which is a very weird and trou­bling book pub­lished in 1997. But it does do a very good job of an­tic­i­pat­ing blockchain and cryp­tocur­rency. And it’s one of Thiel’s favourites.

That book is kind of amaz­ing. There are re­ally dark parts of it. But its way of imag­in­ing a world where na­tion-states sim­ply don’t ex­ist and aren’t a part of our land­scape – and let’s hope that doesn’t come into ex­is­tence – is kind of pre­scient. I have to be clear – it’s not a vi­sion of the fu­ture I par­tic­u­larly look for­ward to. But it has an out­sized in­flu­ence on a group of pow­er­ful peo­ple who are imag­in­ing the [fu­ture] world. To un­der­stand that headspace is very im­por­tant if you want to be part of that con­ver­sa­tion, in the sense of either build­ing along­side these peo­ple and aug­ment­ing what they’re do­ing, or di­rectly op­pos­ing them. To think about where these in­ter­ests are com­ing from, and what these in­ter­ests re­ally are, is, to me, a su­per-ur­gent thing to do.

But this is the chal­lenge of your work for some peo­ple, I think – and I was one of them for quite a while: know­ing what it is you’re try­ing to say. As in, where Si­mon Denny the “in­di­vid­ual” stands in re­la­tion to such con­tentious ideas.

I’m gen­uinely am­biva­lent about a lot of this stuff. I’m cu­ri­ous about things that change the world. But I find it easy to see dif­fer­ent sides of ar­gu­ments, and much harder to reach a clear con­clu­sion about things that are con­stantly chang­ing. While I re­ally want to draw at­ten­tion to cer­tain ar­gu­ments and things I think have a lot of cul­tural im­por­tance in the world, to say some­thing res­o­lute – like, this is this way or that’s that way – I find re­ally hard to do. I don’t in­ter­act with the world like that, and I don’t feel like that about things in the world. My craft is ex­hi­bi­tion-mak­ing. That is re­ally what I do. Ev­ery time I make a work I try to get all of those sculp­tural and vis­ual things to re­flect the con­tent. So I think the high­est-qual­ity mes­sage I can de­liver comes from how my ex­hi­bi­tions look and feel, and how they read as con­tem­po­rary art. I re­ally value art, and it’s art for a rea­son. ●

The Founder’s Para­dox, Michael Lett, 312 Karanga­hape Rd, Sat 18 Nov-fri 22 Dec.


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