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Artist Simon Denny's Absurdist Vision of Silicon Valley

Where fine art, Silicon Valley, and a Genius-sponsored IRL 'annotation battle' at MoMA PS1 collide.
April 14, 2015, 8:00pm

Annotators at the event. Photo credit: Margarida Malarkey. Courtesy of MoMA PS1

You know that feeling when you find yourself in a place that you've seen on TV and read about in books and magazines, and everything in those portrayals turns out to be true? On a recent misty Friday night, as I milled about a party in the Williamsburg penthouse offices of Genius, the Silicon Valley startup formerly known as Rap Genius, I had that feeling. The decor was decidedly bro-licious. There was a whiteboard with the half-erased remnants of the last brainstorming session. Men visibly outnumbered women. The company recently raised $40 million in venture funding, but when I opened the fridge in search of ice, all I found was a bottle of San Pellegrino and three frozen bananas. There were, however, several boxes of Kind bars in circulation. One guy, who I was sure I'd seen in Fast Company or Wired, was holding what appeared to be a glass of milk.

The party was a sequitur to the public opening, earlier that evening, of The Innovator's Dilemma, a wicked and imperative solo exhibition by the New Zealand artist Simon Denny at MoMA PS1, an unflinchingly faithful and thus deeply confounding portrayal of the tech industry. In a stroke of either tremendous cunning or disastrous miscalculation, the opening was accompanied by a no-joke IRL tech event, the launch of Genius's beta annotation platform, featuring a live annotation battle projected onto a 40-foot screen and set to the beats of DJ Galcher Lustwerk. By the time I found myself standing on the Genius rooftop, washing down my Kind bar with lukewarm Tanqueray, it was unclear where the art stopped and Silicon Valley began.

Attendees at the event. Photo credit: Margarida Malarkey. Courtesy of MoMA PS1

On first encounter, Dilemma feels like a technology trade show. Each piece is even announced with one of those round hanging banners. Corporate logos are ubiquitous. But you're in a gallery, so you pause. The most effective pieces in Dilemma are the ones that, like a crudo served in a fancy San Francisco restaurant, least manipulate the source material. For All You Need Is Data: The DLD 2012 Conference REDUX Rerun, Denny translated onto a series of canvases the 2012 edition of DLD, a tech conference billing itself as "a global network on innovation, digitization, science, and culture which connects business, creative and social leaders, opinion-formers, and influencers for crossover conversation and inspiration." Designed in what is apparently called a "skeumorphic iOS" style (think Garage Band and Photo Booth), the inkjet-printed canvases feature a series of notable quotes from presentations by a usual-suspects roster of tech luminaries like Sheryl Sandberg, rendered in a font not dissimilar from Journeys' logo. Some of the quotes are funny: "This is beer. I wanted water" (Groupon founder Andrew Mason). While others are dismayingly stereotypical: "We are hardwired to share" (AirBnB founder Brian Chesky). A few are genuinely insightful: "Data," said 4chan founder Christopher "moot" Poole, "is the oil of the 21st century."

In a similarly raw work, Disruptive Berlin, Denny turned custom gaming CPUs into sculptures commemorating the ten startups selected by Wired UK for the 2013 article "Europe's Hottest Startup Capitals: Berlin." The piece could pass for a display at the Consumer Electronics Show. And yet it is tweaked just enough to throw you off-balance. The plinths are actually upward-facing flat-screen TVs, and the promotional verbiage emblazoned directly onto the CPUs is awkwardly stilted and emphatic. A nonstop dubstep loop that accompanies the installation serves as an exquisitely germane soundtrack for the whole exhibition.

"When you bring things into an art context and look at it, it's a default expectation that one can analyze it a little bit more, and look at it more carefully," Denny told me a couple of days after the opening, over Skype. (He is based in Berlin.) While the show does certainly invite a level of scrutiny that, as Denny put it, might not be possible at a TechCrunch event, the works are so literal, and, in a way, so trusting that Dilemma may be less likely to challenge your preconceptions about the tech industry and more likely to simply validate them. For people who use words like "scalability" and "cached out" (which means "tired," in case you didn't know), the placement of these artifacts within the white walls of a venerable institution of culture likely comes across as adulatory. On the other hand, to those who, for whatever reason, see the tech industry as overly hyped, it's hard not to read one's own cynicism into the works.

For his part, Denny has insured himself against any personal charges of cynicism by actively—and sincerely—participating in the world that he portrays. For TEDxVaduz redux, he actually organized an IRL TEDx event, in Liechtenstein. This was no artifice. The application process, which the artists memorializes in a series of vitrines, was completely real; so were the talks, as was the stage, and requisite potted-plant prop (which are part of the piece).

But nowhere was the line between art performance and serious tech event more thoroughly confounded than at the Genius launch, which took place in the VW-sponsored geodesic tent in the PS1 courtyard. It was, in every respect, fashioned from the same visual language as the art inside the exhibition, and was no less intriguing and confusing. Annotation, it turns out, isn't a spectator sport, and the DJs dance beats only served to exaggerate the downtempo pace of what was happening on screen. Toward the end of the event, some people started dancing, by which I mean three people started dancing. Was I supposed to dance? Was I supposed to dance and watch the annotation battle? (Is that even possible?) Was this supposed to be fun?

Later, I wondered whether Denny had effectively just tricked Silicon Valley's tricksteriest startup into demonstrating that the technology industry is as curious, mockable, intriguing, and complex as he portrays it to be. Seeking answers, I called Emily Segal, Genius's creative director. She said that having the launch at Denny's show had been her idea. I asked if she felt like Denny was making fun of Genius and the tech industry. "To call it a celebration isn't right, and to call it a cynicism is also not right," she explained. "There are elements of both delight and dismay that come from unpacking this thing."

For his part, Denny admitted that while the Genius event "had a lot of things that tech events had," he also expressed high praise for the startup and its strategy. Emily, he said, is "taking this company which has a lot of edginess to it and a lot of controversy around it and making it really productive."

Simon Denny. Installation view of ' New Management' at Portikus, Frankfurt, 2014. Photo: Helena Schlichting. Courtesy of MoMA PS1

So maybe the real coup was for Genius. Just as Denny's active participation at events like TEDx Vaduz and DLD sets him apart from those of us who merely observe and critique the tech industry from the comforts of the non-tech world, by allying itself with the artist-observer, was it possible that Genius has effectively distanced itself from the increasingly stodgy industry zeitgeist? I asked Denny what he thought. "I'm not sure how possible that is," he said. Genius's gesture illustrates a point central to Dilemma: In the tech industry—as in avant-garde art—the very act of setting oneself apart is an exercise in conformity. In New Management , a piece memorializing an important meeting of Samsung executives, Denny quotes the technology giant's founder, who directs his employees to "change everything but your spouse and kids." But if you operate according to this logic, there is no opt-out. You're doomed if you do, doomed if you don't. That is the real innovator's dilemma.

Silicon Valley's at-times hilarious efforts to extricate itself from this conundrum has made it the subject of much mockery. And while I munched on my Kind bar and drank lukewarm Tanqueray, it was tempting to think that this was just another joke on the industry. But Denny's work is much more sophisticated than that. Maybe, then, the joke is actually on us. Or is there even any joke at all? On Skype, I asked Denny.

"I don't find it weird and funny," he said, without any sarcasm. "I find it serious and amazing."

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