Arts Te Papa is changing…

We’re building a spectacular new art gallery and making changes online.

The Arts Te Papa website will be shutting down soon, but head to Collections Online to find your favourite works from New Zealand’s national art collection.

Find out more about the new art space

Keep up to date with news from Te Papa

Other Te Papa Sites

Some kind of sublime: information, illegitimacy, and the Snowden files

Artist Simon Denny interviewed by Laura Preston


<P data-associrn="1527268"></P> <P>In June 2013, the <EM>Guardian</EM> and <EM>Washington Post</EM> newspapers published the first of a series of documents leaked from the United States National Security Agency (NSA) by a former contractor, Edward Snowden. The documents revealed that the US and British governments were working with corporate telecommunication companies to surveil and collect information on their citizens. Artist Simon Denny took this surprisingly visual material as a starting point for <EM>Secret Power</EM>, his exhibition for the New Zealand Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015. Denny’s exhibition conveyed the fact that we are all – New Zealanders included – affected by and complicit in global, government-led, corporate-involved surveillance systems. The project was ambitious, dense in material and in issues. Art writer and curator Laura Preston caught up with Berlin-based Denny to discuss aspects of the exhibition and, along the way, reveal something of his method of working.</P> <P data-associrn="1528087"></P> <P><STRONG>Laura Preston</STRONG>: As way of setting the scene: can you take us on a walkthrough? What did one see inside the Marciana Library?</P> <P data-associrn=""><STRONG>Simon Denny</STRONG>: In the presentation at the library I made vitrines which interpreted some of the visual material from the Snowden slides. I treated these intelligence images and graphics as something rich and something worth monumentalising. I had a lot of the slide imagery redrawn, because obviously the Snowden material was very low res; it was often JPEG-y and pixelly, and I had that re-rendered in vector-based formats, which you can scale to any size and print at any res you like. And also I made three-dimensional object versions of some of the more suggestively 3D logos, imagery, and drawings, often out of Plexiglas, metal, and found objects.</P> <P data-associrn=""><STRONG>Laura</STRONG>: The four server rack vitrines that Te Papa has acquired for its collection, what specifically are in those vitrines?</P> <P data-associrn="1528078"></P> <P><STRONG>Simon</STRONG>: Interpretations of images from the Snowden slides, articulated as stylistically and thematically connected groups, in four vitrines. These images don’t have an explicit author, or rather, they <EM>can’t</EM> have an author, because the intelligence organisations that they were produced inside are very secretive, and the material is illegitimately released, so therefore can’t be claimed. </P> <P data-associrn="1528071"></P> <P>But then I contrasted that in the other half of the presentation inside the Marciana, which will not be acquired by Te Papa, with a deep look into the work of an author who had identified himself online as a creative director working in the NSA, in the American agency. He had put a lot of his poster work, exhibition design work, and graphic work made for the NSA online, as a freelance job–seeking portfolio. This portfolio, to me, fleshed out a potential artistic position within one of these intelligence organisations. It became a potential answer to the question of what kind of artistic position would produce the Snowden-released images – these beautiful, powerful images that became the icons of the most important contemporary debate around privacy and sovereignty in recent memory. </P> <P>So there were two sets of vitrines: one by the former creative director of the NSA and another by somebody we don’t know, or a group of people we don’t know. </P> <P data-associrn=""><STRONG>Laura</STRONG>: What was your initial fascination with the qualities of this visual material?</P> <P data-associrn=""><STRONG>Simon</STRONG>: For me, as a visual artist, I’m always very interested in the way organisations communicate themselves to the world and communicate internally. I was surprised – as many other people were surprised – at the tone of the material. Some of it was more playful than you might assume for something really serious like state intelligence.</P> <P data-associrn="1528077"></P> <P>But I was also disappointed with the conversation that was going on in the media around, specifically, the graphics and design, because there was often a blanket rejection that it could be something other than just ‘amateur’. It was just saying, ‘It’s bad design,’ or, ‘It’s in poor taste,’ or whatever, which I, in general, don’t think tells us much. As somebody that looks a lot at visual stuff –</P> <P data-associrn=""><STRONG>Laura</STRONG>: You don’t make aesthetic judgements?</P> <P data-associrn=""><STRONG>Simon</STRONG>: Well, not in that way. I mean, I see images and design decisions as information. This is my take on the visual, and that probably comes from being an art school student and working within a field where one is encouraged to take lots of different aesthetics seriously, because all visual styles are sources of information. And so I found the style and visual language used in the slides actually really compelling. I found the images kind of sublime. The disconnect between expectation and subject matter, between the seriousness of the message of the slides and the playfulness of the illustration work, produced this reaction in me. Viewing this disconnect was emotional and moving. </P> <P data-associrn=""><STRONG>Laura</STRONG>: Having these documents to hand and acknowledging that they gave access to the internal workings of these secret agencies, what did you do next towards treating this information-material and repurposing it to make sculptural works?</P> <P data-associrn=""><STRONG>Simon</STRONG>: The process of making the exhibition was quite long. I made the proposal for the exhibition a long time before I executed the sculptures, and even before I knew a venue. I knew that I wanted to address the visual language of the Snowden slides, in some way, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do with that. The process of making an exhibition for me is about experience making. </P> <P data-associrn="">The exhibition for me is like a live show, in a way. It’s an experience in a time and a place – it’s not portable in the same way that other art forms can be. And so when I was looking for a venue, I was looking for something that would highlight or inform the material or some kind of relationship to it. </P> <P data-associrn=""><STRONG>Laura</STRONG>: I find it really interesting that the work is both site-specific and puts content in dialogue with architecture. You went on to select two sites at Venice: the Marco Polo Airport – a site never used before by the Biennale – and the Marciana Library. Was this decision about taking this dialogue to another level?</P> <P data-associrn="1528069"></P> <P><STRONG>Simon</STRONG>: An airport, for me, provided a space where geopolitical information and knowledge was being used and applied to people in real time. So it was like a space that somehow could be informed by the intelligence material that those type of organisations gather. </P> <P data-associrn="">I took some of the images painted on the walls and ceilings of the library, which were about understanding the value of knowledge, and applied them to the walls and floors inside the airport. So you had this historical imagery to make sense of your contemporary experience there somehow – that’s what I was thinking. </P> <P data-associrn="1528088"></P> <P>And the library was about storage and presentation and care for data, in a way – that’s how I saw it. There is a rich collection of historical visual languages, from old maps to allegorical paintings to even just architectural space itself, in the way that it’s laid out, which was supposedly articulating the value of knowledge and what it was to store, keep, and value information. So those two venues framed what I was doing. </P> <P data-associrn="">I worked very hard on a visual language for both spaces which would make sense for them as well. At the airport I wanted something that would read as native to the language of advertising that airports use, and to work with that language rather than against it, both in terms of scale and materials. So I ended up using a vinyl wrap, which is something that you expect to see in an airport. You also expect to see representations of historical spaces in the airport of a tourism-oriented city like Venice. </P> <P>In the library there is a substantial collection of classical busts, maps in vitrines, wall and ceiling paintings using trompe l’œil and spatial tricks, and a huge density in the visual information. These are also things I tried to work with in my presentation, so the material I brought into the library would dialogue with what was there in an enriching way. </P> <P data-associrn=""><STRONG>Laura</STRONG>: How did the two sites cross over conceptually?</P> <P data-associrn=""><STRONG>Simon</STRONG>: There were a couple of things that I felt were really good about marrying those two spaces. One was contemporary, and the other historical. I was, particularly in the library, trying to suggest a lineage of history for this contemporary visual material, for the Snowden archive’s aesthetic, let’s say. I was trying to put that in a longer history, to try and make it easier for viewers to look at it as valuable visual material, even as art. </P> <P data-associrn="1528067"></P> <P>Also, to foreground this idea about data and application of data and value of data, in radically different contexts. A border is a place where you need geopolitical data on people. You have to have it, or you can’t have a border. And a library is a place where data is valued and stored. So on that very basic level, that was a data-application logic to the pair. And plus, inside the library there are these really foundational maps. So it’s not <EM>just</EM> a library, and it’s not just about an allegory of storage of knowledge. It’s also about visual articulation of geopolitical knowledge, in a very tangible way, with very famous examples. I felt maps were legible as important to travel and borders, and that was another kind of connection. </P> <P data-associrn="">And in the library I tried to take some of that very contemporary glass and steel and lights feeling that you get in an airport and apply that to the way that the displays inside the library were constructed. So I wanted there to be some kind of data exchange between the two venues, in terms of time-stamped design language.</P> <P data-associrn=""><STRONG>Laura</STRONG>: You first engaged the known author of some of the visual material contained within the Snowden files, former creative director with the NSA, David Darchicourt, by commissioning him to design a tuatara character to represent New Zealand history and also to draw a map of New Zealand based on information from the Snowden files. What is your strategy in centring in on one figure? </P> <P data-associrn="1528070"></P> <P><STRONG>Simon</STRONG>: An individual’s actions in an organisation are never without context. Finding Darchicourt, finding that figure and looking at what he was doing and trying to understand how he would act within an organisation like the NSA, helped me understand what was going on in making those images and why they were looking the way they were looking. A case study is often a way to pin things down in a really tangible way that you can then apply questions to. Why is he making this kind of image? Oh, because <EM>x, y, z</EM>. And then you can use that as a frame for understanding what’s going on in a larger sense.</P> <P data-associrn="">With the commissioning process and the way that I engaged him, that was also a way to give that material a relevance and a depth to it as well. I felt that it was great, once I’d found the ‘hand’ of the NSA, that he should then start describing some things from New Zealand. I felt it was a way into understanding the huge role that the US plays in the way that we New Zealanders work culturally. </P> <P data-associrn=""><STRONG>Laura</STRONG>: The work certainly asks us to think about what are we given access to and what we are willing to let slip under the radar ... However, your approach to framing a situation has more recently been criticised for not taking a critical position. Do you think it matters that you are impartial? Does your approach give you greater access to the communities that you wish to make work about?</P> <P data-associrn=""><STRONG>Simon</STRONG>: For me, an artist’s work can be about the contemporary and about making sense of the contemporary. I’ve chosen to follow that path in my practice. And the contemporary is complicated. So as a visual artist who wants to deal with a wide range of topics – important topics that people care about and talk about – I’m often not an expert in the material that I’m approaching. </P> <P data-associrn="">So I often look to people for help in understanding and in exploring and in articulating material. I’m very grateful to the different people that come into my production practice in different ways. Some I just appropriate from and never have contact with, and others I get very close to and work alongside. </P> <P data-associrn="">I’ve been making art for a decade, and I found that when I started to involve the work of others a lot, that the work was more interesting to me, both in the making process and in the final product. Years ago, when I used to have a very private practice – a very studio-based, room-based, individual artist’s practice – I didn’t find I was learning a lot. In fact, I found I was going around in circles a lot. I was trying to discover something that wasn’t there. That was my experience of being that kind of maker. And so, I was just curious about the world outside my studio. The moment I opened up my practice to other people’s decision-making processes and other people’s expertise, I just learnt so much more.</P> <P data-associrn="1527500"></P> <P>One of the first art works that I made that I was very happy with is about a conference full of tech people. When I started making that work, <EM>All you need is data: the DLD 2012 Conference redux</EM>, I knew nothing about the tech world at all. I then started learning about it through the process of very carefully listening to what those people were saying at that one conference. The experience of open research, I think, was a very formative one for me also in what I ended up doing in <EM>Secret Power</EM> and other projects.</P> <P data-associrn=""><STRONG>Laura</STRONG>: You have spoken of Darchicourt’s imagery as being highly representative of the contemporary world as much as it has become iconographic for the global surveillance topic. As an artist do you see your position as one of representing, critiquing, or adding further commentary to the topic of your research?</P> <P data-associrn=""><STRONG>Simon</STRONG>: As a modus operandi for my work in general, I don’t look into a topic or context to point out what’s going wrong with that topic or context. That’s not my motivation or my interest. I look for a topic which I think is really captivating and important and try and make it clear as to why I find it captivating and important. Important things aren’t all good or all bad, and I think a complex understanding of the way that the world operates necessarily embraces some kind of contradiction.</P> <P data-associrn="">The more I learn and work, the more I see the complexity of the way things are done in lots of different contexts, and I think that’s rich information, and I’m glad to have <EM>rich</EM> information. I think exhibitions are a place, art exhibitions particularly are a contemplative space, where people have time to look at things and unpack things and consider things. It’s like a <EM>consider</EM> space, so that’s a great space for making things that are presenting something which is a bit closer to the level of agnosticism which drifts through the world, in a way.</P> <P data-associrn=""><STRONG>Laura</STRONG>: Once the exhibition opened, it then came out, in fact through the <EM>Guardian</EM>, the real context in which Darchicourt’s designs were being shown. Was it important for you not only to present that information but also to enact the history that these images now carry?</P> <P data-associrn=""><STRONG>Simon</STRONG>: Totally. I think some of the power of the images in the Snowden slides obviously comes from their illegitimacy. That’s what makes them potent. You <EM>know</EM> you’re looking at a stolen document, and that gives it some gravitas. </P> <P data-associrn="1528100"></P> <P>When I found the Darchicourt profile and when I decided to make the show pivot around him as a figure in the quest for an author of the Snowden slides – have a proposition that this figure could be this author – I wanted to engage that figure in a very active way and keep that illegitimacy in the tone of the work. So I used a lot of his images without his permission. That’s one layer of illegitimacy. And another layer was that I misled him – or rather, was intentionally vague about the way that I would use the material that I commissioned from him. And it wasn’t even me that was commissioning it, it was a friend of mine, David Bennewith. So I had a complex process of making sure that he didn’t understand what the images were going to be used for.</P> <P data-associrn="">The result was this whole show which had this tension to it, where the ostensible subject of the exhibition wasn’t aware that the entire show was about him and wasn’t aware that it was going on. And the act of then opening that up to the journalistic process, bringing the <EM>Guardian</EM> in, to then inform him that it was happening, was a performance, keeping that very important tone of revelation: these questions of who has access to my data and who has access to my desktop and what are people out there doing with my stuff? And I think that gravitas stayed because the material was made in this way. People knew from that <EM>Guardian</EM> article, and knew from the show and the way that the show was framed in the didactics, that his material had been used without permission. And that makes you look at it in a different way.</P> <P data-associrn="1528091"></P> <P><STRONG>Laura</STRONG>: What are your thoughts now on the exhibition and how it worked in the world and what it could still do?</P> <P><STRONG>Simon</STRONG>: Specifically in relation to the Te Papa acquisition, I think it’s fantastic that people will go to Te Papa and hopefully see these images that they recognise from the Snowden slides and have access to some of what I think is important about them and also what I think is <EM>moving</EM> about them – that sublime experience which I found so powerful in unpacking the original slides. Hopefully people will think about what that means to have in conversation with our greatest cultural treasures, which must be what’s in Te Papa. </P> <P data-associrn="">I think it’s a great thing that there’s been an opportunity to short-circuit the process of reification and include very contemporary and very problematic images – images that make you ask questions about why culture is a certain way – in along with other things which are being affirmed as ‘official’ culture. I think that’s a very good outcome for me, in terms of what I wanted to do with <EM>Secret Power</EM>.</P> <P data-associrn="">&nbsp;</P> <P data-associrn=""><EM>Acquired works from Simon Denny’s</EM> Secret Power <EM>exhibition will be on display at Te Papa in September 2016.</EM></P>
Simon Denny, Marco Polo Airport, 2015. Photograph by Paolo Monello

Simon Denny, Marco Polo Airport, 2015. Photograph by Paolo Monello

Simon Denny, &lt;EM&gt;Secret Power&lt;/EM&gt;, installation view, 2015. Photograph by Jens Ziehe

Simon Denny, Secret Power, installation view, 2015. Photograph by Jens Ziehe

Simon Denny, &lt;EM&gt;Modded server-rack display with some interpretations of imagery from NSA MYSTIC, FOXACID, QUANTUMTHEORY, and other SSO/TAO slides&lt;/EM&gt; (detail), 2015. Photograph by Jens Ziehe.
Purchased 2015, Te Papa

Simon Denny, Modded server-rack display with some interpretations of imagery from NSA MYSTIC, FOXACID, QUANTUMTHEORY, and other SSO/TAO slides (detail), 2015. Photograph by Jens Ziehe. Purchased 2015, Te Papa

Simon Denny, &lt;EM&gt;Secret Power&lt;/EM&gt;, installation view, 2015. Photograph by Jens Ziehe

Simon Denny, Secret Power, installation view, 2015. Photograph by Jens Ziehe

Simon Denny, &lt;EM&gt;Modded server-rack display with some interpretations of imagery from NSA TREASUREMAP slides&lt;/EM&gt; (detail), 2015. Photograph by Jens Ziehe.
Purchased 2015, Te Papa

Simon Denny, Modded server-rack display with some interpretations of imagery from NSA TREASUREMAP slides (detail), 2015. Photograph by Jens Ziehe. Purchased 2015, Te Papa

Simon Denny, &lt;EM&gt;Modded server-rack display with some interpretations of imagery from NSA MYSTIC, FOXACID, QUANTUMTHEORY, and other SSO/TAO slides&lt;/EM&gt;, 2015. Photograph by Nick Ash.
Purchased 2015, Te Papa

Simon Denny, Modded server-rack display with some interpretations of imagery from NSA MYSTIC, FOXACID, QUANTUMTHEORY, and other SSO/TAO slides, 2015. Photograph by Nick Ash. Purchased 2015, Te Papa

Simon Denny, &lt;EM&gt;Modded server-rack display with David Darchicourt LinkedIn profile&lt;/EM&gt; (detail), 2015. Photograph by Nick Ash

Simon Denny, Modded server-rack display with David Darchicourt LinkedIn profile (detail), 2015. Photograph by Nick Ash

Simon Denny, &lt;EM&gt;Secret Power&lt;/EM&gt;, installation view, 2015. Photograph by Paolo Monello

Simon Denny, Secret Power, installation view, 2015. Photograph by Paolo Monello

Simon Denny, &lt;EM&gt;Secret Power&lt;/EM&gt;, installation view, 2015. Photograph by Michele Crosera

Simon Denny, Secret Power, installation view, 2015. Photograph by Michele Crosera

Simon Denny, &lt;EM&gt;All you need is data: the DLD 2012 Conference redux&lt;/EM&gt;, Installation view, Auckland Art Galllery, 2014

Simon Denny, All you need is data: the DLD 2012 Conference redux, Installation view, Auckland Art Galllery, 2014

Simon Denny, &lt;EM&gt;Modded server-rack display with some interpretations of imagery from GCHQ ‘The Art of Deception’ slides&lt;/EM&gt;, 2015. Photograph by Nick Ash. 
Purchased 2015, Te Papa

Simon Denny, Modded server-rack display with some interpretations of imagery from GCHQ ‘The Art of Deception’ slides, 2015. Photograph by Nick Ash. Purchased 2015, Te Papa

Simon Denny, &lt;EM&gt;Modded server-rack display with David Darchicourt commissioned map of Aotearoa New Zealand&lt;/EM&gt;, 2015. Photograph by Nick Ash

Simon Denny, Modded server-rack display with David Darchicourt commissioned map of Aotearoa New Zealand, 2015. Photograph by Nick Ash