Simon Denny's new Auckland exhibition is a must-see

Photography Michael Lewis

Building the future

Artist Simon Denny has been away for a decade becoming art-world 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 multi-layered 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 mid-2000s, 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 1990s and 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.

In January the 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 P¯akeh¯a 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.