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Simon Denny: No place to hide

Art critic Anthony Byrt on Simon Denny from his new book This Model World: Travels to the Edge of Contemporary Art.


The speed of [Simon] Denny’s international ascendancy has been extraordinary. He was in Massimiliano Gioni’s exhibition ‘The Encyclopedic Palace’ at the 2013 Venice Biennale, and the Biennale de Lyon in 2015. He is represented by two of the most influential art dealers in the world, Friedrich Petzel in New York and Daniel Buchholz in Berlin. He has had solo exhibitions at major contemporary art institutions in Vienna, London, Frankfurt and New York.

This momentum made him the ideal artist to represent New Zealand at the 56th Venice Biennale. If a New Zealander were ever going to leave a mark on this event, he was the one, at this moment, who would do it.

Using [Nicky] Hager’s [book]Secret Power as his starting point – and the title of his project – Denny’s proposal for Venice was to examine material from the Snowden leaks and New Zealand’s role in the Five Eyes network. Hager himself was going to be a special advisor. News soon followed about the venues: the Marciana Library on Piazzetta San Marco, and Marco Polo Airport. Both were hands down the most prominent sites New Zealand had ever secured at Venice.

Denny’s proposal had all the swagger, confidence and smarts that have made him one of contemporary art’s rising stars. It was also consistent with the kind of zeitgeisty content he regularly draws upon. He has made projects about high-profile tech conferences, the redesign of New Zealand’s passport for a post-9/11 world, Samsung’s corporate culture and the Kim Dotcom raid. Denny has always struck me as an artist analogous to a ‘cool-hunter’: freelance culture scouts who make their living by staying ahead of the trend curve, selling their insights about changing cultural behaviours to big brands and corporates – a trade immortalised in William Gibson’s 2003 novel Pattern Recognition.

Consequently, I have never been able to entirely figure out whether he is a critic of the corporate neoliberalism that provides him with so much of his subject matter, or an artist deeply embedded within, and beholden to, that system. Denny never takes up a singular or obvious political position in relation to his material; he simply holds up a mirror to the culture around him. But this could easily be seen as a strategic ambivalence; a posture that makes him equally palatable to the collectors who are part of the economic systems he puts in play, and the art world liberals and critics who like to pretend they’re not.

So, as I flew from Berlin to Venice for Denny’s big reveal, on a delayed EasyJet flight full of grumpy curators and writers who’d spent three hours pacing a cramped departure lounge, I had several inter-related questions. Given the magnitude of Snowden’s leaks, could Denny actually add anything to our understanding of government surveillance, its impact on our lives and our complicity in it? Was he prepared to lay his own position on the line? And was he really going to take a risk here, or just cherry-pick ‘local’ content (New Zealand’s role in Five Eyes) to serve his international ambitions?

The answers, as I walked through sliding doors into one of the grandest rooms in Europe – a room Denny had filled with server racks, office desks, diagrams, infographics and national flags – were crystal-clear within seconds.

*

On 15 September 2014, just a few weeks before Denny’s ‘Personal Effects’ opened at the Adam, Kim Dotcom staged a public meeting at the Auckland Town Hall, dubbed ‘The Moment of Truth’. This was, Dotcom promised, the moment he would finally reveal that John Key had known more about him, and the raid on his house, than he had publicly stated. The journalist Glenn Greenwald flew into Auckland to participate. Key labelled Greenwald, somewhat hot-headedly given his key role in the Snowden story, as ‘Dotcom’s little henchman’.

The town hall was packed; thousands also watched on YouTube. On the panel alongside Greenwald were Laila Harré – the leader of the Dotcom-funded Internet Party, which was running in the 2014 general election – and Dotcom’s lawyer, Robert Amsterdam. There were also two video links: one to London and Julian Assange, in self-imposed exile in the Ecuadorian Embassy; and one to Russia, from where Snowden himself offered up new revelations about the New Zealand government’s involvement in the Five Eyes intelligence network. Snowden also adamantly refuted Key’s claims that New Zealanders weren’t being systematically spied on.

In the end, however, there was no smoking gun, no ‘moment of truth’. In a blistering press conference afterwards, New Zealand journalists hammered Dotcom. Metro’s editor Simon Wilson also took on Greenwald for intervening in New Zealand’s political process just days before an election.

None of this addressed what seemed to me the most important aspect of Dotcom’s event: the fact that two of the most prominent ‘outlaws’ of the early twenty-first century – Snowden and Assange – were engaging directly in New Zealand’s political discourse. More than any of the abstractions, ifs and whens about New Zealand’s complicity or otherwise in mass surveillance, this was concrete evidence that New Zealand’s geographical distance is of little consequence. The real moment of truth here was the realisation that New Zealand is implicated in all of it.

That Snowden had chosen to participate in ‘The Moment of Truth’ set the scene perfectly for Denny’s Venice project, which took as its starting point the defence contractor’s leaked slides.

In the Marciana Library and Marco Polo Airport, Denny had found two venues that, like the slides, embodied relationships between information and global power. Marco Polo – named, obviously, after one of Europe’s early heroes of globalisation – was the first Italian airport built after 9/11. The Marciana, meanwhile, was an essential building in the civic life of Renaissance Venice: the repository for its knowledge of the world at the height of its global influence. Designed by Jacopo Sansovino and decorated, in parts, by the greatest Venetian painters – Titian, Veronese, Tintoretto – it is a space that shifts between architectural reality and painted illusion. Its soaring ceiling has trompe l’oeil effects designed to double its height. Around the walls, figures of philosophy and charity and faith stand in scalloped alcoves that don’t actually exist. It is a giant hall of mirrors; an allegorical trick in which its decoration is a humanistic doppelganger for its political function as the state’s ‘official’ library.

Denny’s intervention in the Marciana initially seemed horrifyingly cold and corporate. Viewers entered through sliding glass doors and a transparent portal, on one side of which were the Five Eyes national flags, and on the other, a bizarre upside-down illustration of New Zealand. The main part of the room was filled with two lines of ‘modded’ computer server racks.

Between the rows were two magnificent globes: Vincenzo Coronelli’s 1688 representations of the celestial and terrestrial worlds.

In a parallel to the Wunderkammer of early museums and libraries, Denny had turned his server racks into elaborate display cases. The left-hand row was filled with objects that were all some sort of reiteration, translation or stand-in for an image from a Snowden-leaked slide. Denny had collated these into themes: imagery about the National Security Agency’s ‘Treasure Map’ programme, for example; the UK Government Communications Headquarters’ instructions on the ‘Art of Deception’; slides explaining invasive computer programmes with creepy names like ‘FoxAcid’ and ‘Mystic’.

The case that dealt with invasive programmes contained ugly Perspex bar graphs, a giant image of a wizard holding a cellphone-topped staff, fantasy playing cards and transparent cartoons of acid barrels. At its centre was an eagle, its wings spread and bursting through the top of the box, clutching a roped-up globe in its talons. It was Denny’s translation of a seminal NSA graphic, in which America’s national bird grips the undersea cables that connect the world. The original image is one of the most insidious emblems of the NSA’s desire to ‘collect it all’. Denny’s version, lifted from two dimensions into three, was even stranger and more ridiculous.

Denny performed a similar transformation in the ‘Treasure Map’ rack. The Treasure Map revelations were some of Snowden’s most shocking; here was a programme that gave the Five Eyes partners the ability to map the entire internet and every device connected to it – a tool for total, unaccountable omniscience. At the dead heart of Denny’s cabinet was the head of the T-800: the iconic robot skull from Terminator 2. For anyone who grew up in the 1990s, it is a pop-culture image with the force of a religious icon. In Denny’s version, pristine sword blades emanated from it in a starburst, a halo of cold steel. This was his interpretation of one of the most disturbing examples of the NSA’s visual culture. Terminator 2 was a film about the unintended consequences of technology; that in advancing so quickly, we have created the potential for machines to strip us of our human freedoms. It is remarkable, then, that the NSA would choose as its logo for its most egregiously oppressive programme a robot skull with glowing red eyes, which looks almost exactly like the Terminator.

What Denny did so effectively here was short-circuit the NSA’s narrative by turning its own imagery on itself. Alongside the T-800 there were tiny Macs, cellphones and human beings: all lifted and laid out exactly as they were in Treasure Map slides. Elsewhere, there were Warhammer figurines, references to gaming culture, images of Penn & Teller, translations of flow-charts, graphs and other forms of nerdy data and infographics.

It’s easy to describe this imagery as dystopian: evidence of a nefarious la-la-land in which our NSA overlords use gamer and sci-fi archetypes to cloak their activities in fantasy. But Denny also showed that it is highly effective design. The NSA slides weren’t made to brief Black Ops tough guys on sensitive missions or convince grey-haired senators of an invasion’s merits. They were made to inspire hackers, geeks and programmers, a lot of whom grew up playing Dungeons & Dragons, watching sci-fi, clocking Doom and abusing each other on 4Chan. The pop references aren’t flippant or accidental at all. They are targeted, precise and extraordinarily readable for the young men and women charged with implementing and overseeing such an epic surveillance system. People like Snowden, who is, it’s easy to forget, even younger than Denny.

The amount of visual information was overwhelming. Denny’s use of transparent materials like glass, Perspex and plastic, along with blue-ish backlighting, made the racks’ internal spaces even harder to comprehend. They were disorienting and repellent; boxes we could see straight through, but that also pushed back out at us. Cartoon wizards and TV magicians bounced off bearded Tintoretto gods. And yet everything was incredibly still. The NSA might have wanted to collect it all, but Denny had frozen it all; stopped the information’s flow, completely. You could practically hear the room creaking in his grip.

At the heart of ‘Secret Power’ was a nagging question: who was the design genius behind the NSA slides? In searching for the author of the Snowden material, Denny’s collaborator David Bennewith ... discovered David Darchicourt, whose LinkedIn profile states, as though it were the most ordinary thing in the world, that he was Creative Director of Defense Intelligence at the NSA from 2001 to 2012. These days, Darchicourt is a designer for hire. Like many freelancers, he puts his portfolios online as a way to hustle for work.

Denny and Bennewith raided Darchicourt’s portfolios and gave them the same treatment as the Snowden slides. The server racks on the right-hand side of the room were filled with the results. Among them were sculptural re-interpretations of exhibition displays for the ‘National Cryptologic Museum’, wacky motivational board games and Darchicourt’s LinkedIn self-portrait – a computer-drawn caricature. The links between Darchicourt’s freelance work and the visual language of the Snowden slides were obvious: if Darchicourt wasn’t making them himself, he was almost certainly involved in setting the brand guidelines.

Darchicourt was clueless about what Bennewith and Denny were doing, even when they hired him to make new illustrations about New Zealand. In response to their brief, he created a cartoon-cyborg tuatara – New Zealand’s national reptile, WiFi-connected and a lot more active than its real-world counterpart. The largest of his illustrations was a world map with New Zealand at the centre and south at the top.

In it, New Zealand takes up most of the globe. Key tourist attractions are identified with cartoons – the Cape Reinga lighthouse, SkyCity, Rotorua’s hot pools, Kaikoura. Sally Field hovers over Dunedin as the Flying Nun. And in a knowing wink to Nicky Hager, Waihopai is marked, while red lines denoting submarine internet cables link Aotearoa to Australia and the US West Coast.

And the reason south is at the top? Just before entering ‘Secret Power’, visitors passed through a vestibule where there was a beautiful fifteenth-century map by Fra Mauro. It is one of the first attempts to map the world, and south is where north would normally be; the world is upside down. This was the first point on an essential linking thread – from Fra Mauro’s map, through Darchicourt’s crazy interpretation of New Zealand’s place in the world, through Coronelli’s globes and that terrifying eagle clutching our networked planet.

‘Secret Power’ was a rigid installation made up of spheres and boxes and lines. Within it, Denny showed us that the world no longer has an up or down, a left and right, a then and now. Everything is visible, all the time; everything is connected; everything is information to be exploited.

For the Marco polo leg of his Venice project, Denny had the entire ceiling of the Marciana photographed and a replica printed at a 1:1 scale. This was then applied to the airport’s floor so that it ran across passport control and through to the baggage hall. It was vast. Every day for months, tourists trundled their wheelie-cases across it.

Denny was making a point here about how these transitional zones grant us the freedom of movement while simultaneously tracking and examining us at every step. While this clearly connects with the overarching themes of ‘Secret Power’, it also felt an awful lot like stating the obvious. Its most interesting aspect was pointed out by both Denny and the writer Chris Kraus in the lavish ‘Secret Power’ publication, where they each reminded us that Snowden had spent more than a month living stateless in the transit zone of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. But this wasn’t a connection the work itself led viewers to.

Within the scheme of Denny’s achievements at Venice, however, these weaknesses were minor. ‘Secret Power’ is a major turning point for New Zealand art – not just because of its international critical response, but because it represents a profound generational shift in the national discourse: a different politic, a different understanding of our place in a post-9/11 world, a different way of seeing.

Denny’s main innovation in ‘Secret Power’ was his committed lack of imagination; he didn’t make anything up. All of his material was sitting on the internet, waiting for someone with his synthetic capacities to come along and see the connections. It is pattern recognition of the highest order.

With this project, he has also pioneered a form of collage using the logic of screens, and layers. In digital environments, objects can be spun in any direction to reveal new views but remain complete. Denny does that too, not by lifting information from behind the screen, but by sucking forms through it, allowing us to witness their warping and weirdness as they move from the code-produced dimensions of the machine world into the actual dimensions of ours.

What ‘Secret Power’ has made me realise is that Denny, although he may be ambivalent in a traditional left/right sense, is a deeply political artist.

The great sophistication of his position is that his political and cultural radicalisms have nothing to do with his content, and everything to do with his formal power as a sculptor. He is capable of knocking images off their axes and planets off their poles. He is a hacker of real space; he likes to break things and see how much physical chaos he can cause.

Amid all the froth and the money, all the air-kissing and air-travel and ego-inflation, artists like Denny understand that the art world is the ideal space from which to launch their visual insurgencies. Steyerl is another example. Others include Trevor Paglen, and the filmmakers Laura Poitras and Omer Fast. All explore the relationships among technology, surveillance and the unseen powers that now decide how we live. They also all share a deep understanding of the fact that ‘the visual’ is the fundamental way power is now exercised.

Years ago, we were told that image saturation and 24-hour news cycles would numb us to what we were seeing – starvation in Rwanda, atrocities at Srebrenica and so on. The years since 9/11 have proved that to be wrong.

Our lives are now completely shaped by images. No matter how often we see them, their narrative and cultural force is enhanced, rather than diminished, by their circulation. The planes hitting the towers. Abu Ghraib. Guantanamo. 7/7. A black man holding a bloodied cleaver in Woolwich. The thermal outline of Dzhokar Tsarnaev cowering under a boat tarp in a suburban Massachusetts backyard. Islamic State militants slaughtering innocents on the tideline of the Mediterranean.

The twentieth century, from its start to its end in 1989, was shaped by words. But in the global era, images have taken over as the possessors of revolutionary force. They exceed our linguistic abilities to define and corral them; they are slippery things that operate within networks of our making, but run on their own rules. Their impact hasn’t made us all the same. It has made us fractured and fractious, confused and angry and unpredictable.

I came to Venice without any hope for what I’d see and with doubts about what Denny could do, that it would be just another stop on this strange, bourgeois tour we call the international art world. But what I encountered was a space of interrogation and hard truths, full of blackness and revolutions and visions, both terrifying and productive, for what, and where, the future of the world might be.

 

© Anthony Byrt

From Anthony Byrt, This Model World: Travels to the Edge of Contemporary Art. Auckland University Press, 2016.

Excerpt 1, pp. 194–196. Excerpt 2, pp. 211–222.

Reproduced with permission from Anthony Byrt and Auckland University Press

Read more about This Model World: Travels to the Edge of Contemporary Art

Anthony Byrt, <em>This Model World: Travels to the Edge of Contemporary Art</em>. Auckland University Press, 2016.

Anthony Byrt, This Model World: Travels to the Edge of Contemporary Art. Auckland University Press, 2016.

<em>Simon Denny: Secret Power</em>, 2015. Installation view, Marciana Library, Venice, 2015. Photograph by Jens Ziehe

Simon Denny: Secret Power, 2015. Installation view, Marciana Library, Venice, 2015. Photograph by Jens Ziehe

<em>Simon Denny: Secret Power</em>, 2015. Installation view, Marciana Library, Venice, 2015. Photograph by Jens Ziehe

Simon Denny: Secret Power, 2015. Installation view, Marciana Library, Venice, 2015. Photograph by Jens Ziehe

<em>Simon Denny: Secret Power</em>, 2015. Installation view, Marco Polo Airport, Venice, 2015. Photograph by Michele Crosera

Simon Denny: Secret Power, 2015. Installation view, Marco Polo Airport, Venice, 2015. Photograph by Michele Crosera

Simon Denny, <em>Modded Server-Rack Display with Some Interpretations of Imagery from NSA TREASUREMAP Slides</em>, 2015, Te Papa (2015-0052-4/AA-DZ to DZ-DZ). Photograph by Nick Ash

Simon Denny, Modded Server-Rack Display with Some Interpretations of Imagery from NSA TREASUREMAP Slides, 2015, Te Papa (2015-0052-4/AA-DZ to DZ-DZ). Photograph by Nick Ash

Simon Denny, <em>Modded Server-Rack Display with Some Interpretations of Imagery from NSA TREASUREMAP Slides</em>, 2015 (detail), Te Papa (2015-0052-4/AA-DZ to DZ-DZ). Photograph by Nick Ash

Simon Denny, Modded Server-Rack Display with Some Interpretations of Imagery from NSA TREASUREMAP Slides, 2015 (detail), Te Papa (2015-0052-4/AA-DZ to DZ-DZ). Photograph by Nick Ash

Simon Denny, <em>Modded Server-Rack Display with Some Interpretations of Imagery from NSA MYSTIC, FOXACID, QUANTUMTHEORY, and Other SSO/TAO Slides</em>, 2015, Te Papa (2015-0052-1/AA-KO to KO-KO). Photograph by Nick Ash

Simon Denny, Modded Server-Rack Display with Some Interpretations of Imagery from NSA MYSTIC, FOXACID, QUANTUMTHEORY, and Other SSO/TAO Slides, 2015, Te Papa (2015-0052-1/AA-KO to KO-KO). Photograph by Nick Ash

Simon Denny, <em>Modded Server-Rack Display with Some Interpretations of Imagery from NSA MYSTIC, FOXACID, QUANTUMTHEORY, and Other SSO/TAO Slides</em>, 2015 (detail), Te Papa (2015-0052-1/AA-KO to KO-KO). Photograph by Nick Ash

Simon Denny, Modded Server-Rack Display with Some Interpretations of Imagery from NSA MYSTIC, FOXACID, QUANTUMTHEORY, and Other SSO/TAO Slides, 2015 (detail), Te Papa (2015-0052-1/AA-KO to KO-KO). Photograph by Nick Ash

Simon Denny, <em>Modded Server-Rack Display with Some Interpretations of Imagery from GCHQ ‘The Art of Deception’ Slides</em>, 2015, Te Papa (2015-0052-3/AA-ET to ET-ET). Photograph by Nick Ash

Simon Denny, Modded Server-Rack Display with Some Interpretations of Imagery from GCHQ ‘The Art of Deception’ Slides, 2015, Te Papa (2015-0052-3/AA-ET to ET-ET). Photograph by Nick Ash

Simon Denny, <em>Modded Server-Rack Display with Some Interpretations of Various Map Depictions from Snowden-Leaked Slides</em>, 2015, Te Papa (2015-0052-2/AA-ER to ER-ER). Photograph by Nick Ash

Simon Denny, Modded Server-Rack Display with Some Interpretations of Various Map Depictions from Snowden-Leaked Slides, 2015, Te Papa (2015-0052-2/AA-ER to ER-ER). Photograph by Nick Ash

Simon Denny, <em>Modded Server-Rack Display with Some Interpretations of Various Map Depictions from Snowden-Leaked Slides</em>, 2015 (detail), Te Papa (2015-0052-2/AA-ER to ER-ER). Photograph by Nick Ash

Simon Denny, Modded Server-Rack Display with Some Interpretations of Various Map Depictions from Snowden-Leaked Slides, 2015 (detail), Te Papa (2015-0052-2/AA-ER to ER-ER). Photograph by Nick Ash

Simon Denny and <EM>Secret Power</EM> at Te Papa, 2016. Photograph by Mike O'Neill. © Te Papa

Simon Denny and Secret Power at Te Papa, 2016. Photograph by Mike O'Neill. © Te Papa