Meet the Artist Taking On Apple, the NSA and GCHQ

Is this man the new face of oppositional art? Or just a guy on a mission to piss powerful people off.

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26 november 2015, 6:00am

All photos via Serpentine Sackler gallery

To steal marketing material from the NSA, download architectural drawings from GCHQ, sneak into hacker conferences and then present your findings in a former gunpowder store just metres from Buckingham Palace is either the work of a maverick or a maniac. As I sit at a table waiting for Simon Denny to arrive, I'm intrigued to find out which one he is.

Born in 1982 in New Zealand – a country so cut off that my uncle used to beg air stewards to smuggle him in Levi's and David Bowie records up until the 1980s – Denny is already being talked about as an important figure in the contemporary art world. His "Secret Power" show at the Venice Biennale this year saw him decorate the Marco Polo airport and Marciana Library with images used by the NSA's internal marketing team, while his 2013 show, "Simon Denny and the Personal Effects of Kim Dotcom", recreated the entire inventory of confiscated items taken by New Zealand police during a raid on the notorious file hosting criminal's home.

Denny's latest show, "Products for Organisation" at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery in London, is similarly absorbed with the uneasy alliance of technology and authority. Splitting the gallery into two distinct but interwoven narratives, the exhibition maps out the organisational models of hackers and large corporate and governmental organisations like Apple and GCHQ. It is the poacher and the gamekeeper, made art.

But what's behind his work? Is Denny the new face of oppositional art, or is he simply on a nihilistic mission to piss off the most powerful people in the world? I met him to find out.

Hi Simon. "Products for Organising" is a brilliantly nebulous, corporate, Silicon Valley-style title. Did you want this exhibition to feel like something from that world?
Simon Denny: Yes. The show explores this very hip organisational model called "holacracy", which is a supposed horizontal, self-management style used at Zappos, an American shoe store. One of their taglines is "holacracy is not anarchy"; they're trying to harvest the productiveness of a haphazard, non-hierarchical authority, but without the risk of total anarchy.

It sounds like that old European notion of Bacchanalia, the festival during which a child or fool or pig was elected Lord of Misrule for a day in order to more successfully reimpose authority afterwards. It's like they've understood that every organisation needs a valve for discontent.
Yes, it's like a homeopathic approach to anarchy and mischief. A friend of mine just wrote a really interesting text on holacracy; he identified that everyone is treated like an entrepreneur and given agency, but without the actual, real investment of owning a piece of the company. You don't own anything, but you have the heavy burden of self-management.

You collaborated with a couple of other artists and researchers for this show. How did that relationship work?
Matt Goerzen and I met after my Kim Dotcom show. We decided to go to a few hacker conferences and hackathons together, just to get a glimpse into that world. We went to a hackathon held between Deutsche Telekom and Evernote, where we told them we wanted to do something called KickMeNote, which was an app for anonymously bitching about your friends. They told us it might promote cyberbullying. Then, a couple of months later, an app was announced that was almost identical to our product, called Secret. Of course it ended with people cyberbullying and the company collapsing. But the founder exited with a couple of million dollars.

Hackathons remind me of that reverse-colonisation narrative in Dracula – the thrill of getting penetrated.
Exactly. It's basically security testing, where these companies invite people to bombard their vulnerabilities.

It's funny, because we really don't do that in the creative industries. I never ask people to bombard me with my failings as a writer. Although they do it anyway.
I have a lot of people in the studio telling me that my ideas are shit. Having space for that in the creative process is one of the things that has made my last few projects more enjoyable.

How do you feel about holding the show in the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, which is an old gunpowder store?
It's great, especially as the show has a bit of an architectural undercurrent because we've tried to represent these two management models, visually, in the space. On one side you have products for emergent organisations, the hacker side, which you walk up and around and over and under. And on the other side you have the products for formalised organisations, that are these architectural drawings and models that you look down on.

I knew that the building would fit the sort of physical experience I wanted the show to have – one of moving through the exhibits, looking down on diagramatic models, exploring a space from two different vantage points. Also, the fact that this has been used to store weapons, and the technology I'm talking about has come to be weaponised recently; that certainly appealed to me. To put management models from GCHQ in a former arms store, I think is an interesting thing.

GCHQ are pretty serious people, you know. Are you worried?
I mean, I'm not unworried. But I don't like to go into situations where nothing's at stake, either.

For your last exhibition, you commissioned the former NSA creative director David Darchicourt to produce fresh works for you without telling him they were going on display. You then showed them alongside works he'd had leaked by Edward Snowden. Do you want your visitor to have a sense of peril?
Certainly in "Secret Power", the fact that people knew David Darchicourt had had his images leaked by Edward Snowden – that they'd been put in this position without him knowing – made it feel like you were prying. "Products for Organising" is about management – about how we organise people. If anything, I suppose it's about taking very chaotic processes and trying to turn them into products.

So this show is about how we codify and commodify the very way people get organised?
Exactly. Looking at the GCHQ building, I focus on this guy who works as a head developer and was tasked with redefining the way they used the office. He went to a conference called "Spark the Change", and one of the pieces in my show is based on an amazing diagram he produced there of how he wanted to improve the physical space of the office. Those architectural designs were just published online. I also found his Twitter account. It's amazing what you can just find on Google.

You know Google have that thing about not being evil, do you think they're evil?
They haven't actually uttered that phrase for quite a long time. I think they have the potential to be whatever they want. And if that's evil, then they could be evil. I'm more concerned that they have the potential to be anything, without them even wanting it.

When I think about this stuff – when I get worried in the middle of the night – I have to remember that even Google is just people in an office and a shed full of servers whirring away somewhere in the desert.
That's interesting. I've been talking to a guy about the cable network of the internet. He's been doing these deep sea dives where he goes down to choke points in the infrastructure and actually finds the internet running along the bottom of the sea. He's been taking photos of it. The divers who he's with will pick up a cable, and he's like, "Yes, that's the internet." One of the main things to come out of the Snowden thing, actually, was the realisation that GCHQ don't see the internet as a cloud, but as hardware and cables and points of access.

This exhibition is divided into two halves; you now live, part of the time, in Berlin. Do you think that context has informed the way you work?
I work in a former communist building full of Socialist symbolism, but often work in the West; most of the German gallerists are from the West. I'm actually planning a project in one of the former governmental buildings. When the wall came down the building was heavily restored by a huge management school. But they only had budget to restore three quarters of it, so the final quarter hasn't changed since 1990. We've secured that space for summer next year. There's this huge mural of a dove rising out of a nuclear power plant. It's such an amazing dichotomy. You'll walk into this beautiful lobby and if you go left it'll be this management school, and if you go right you'll come into my exhibition space. It's going to be great.

"Products for Organising by Simon Denny" is at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery from 25 November 2015 to 14 February 2016.

@NellFrizzell

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