Words Ella Lu Wolf
Photography Nick Ash, courtesy of Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne
The Simon Denny Method
Why not exchange the artist studio for a co-working desk in New York? Simon Denny is over the romantic ideal of the artist-as-genius. He is clever, hard-working and well-versed in business jargon. If contemporary art points to not much else but art’s capacity to deal with whatever dictates the contemporary moment, then Simon Denny represents the most contemporary type of artist I can think of. In our conversation, I want to find out more about the Simon Denny business model.
I meet Denny for the first time at a bar in Frankfurt, where he is about to open ‘New Management’, an exhibition exploring the global rise of Samsung. Somewhat accidentally, I had just spent a weekend at a start-up conference in Berlin, and while my friends are only mildly impressed, Denny starts to fire questions at me: ‘What did you pitch?’, ‘Was it a lean start-up?’, ‘Were you going to bootstrap or to attract VCs?’. Clearly, the Berlin-based artist is speaking a language that I don’t understand. He is the figurehead of the tech-savvy artist-entrepreneur – a new type of artist, who has replaced the allure of the bohemia for the virtues of the white collar.
One week to go until the opening of ‘Products for Organising’, Denny’s first solo show in the UK. When I enter the Zaha Hadid Serpentine Galleries Café on a Tuesday morning, Simon Denny and Matt Goerzen, a Montreal-based artist and researcher with whom he collaborated for this show, are having coffee and discussing press releases. When I ask how instalment week is going, I am not surprised to hear that everything is set and done. Denny is on schedule, as always. Over the run of only three years, the 33-year old organized a TEDx conference in tax-haven Liechtenstein with fellow artist Daniel Keller, exhibited his own interpretation of Megaupload founder Kim Dotcom’s bizarre art collection, staged a show titled after start-up scene must-read The Innovator’s Dilemma at MoMA PS1 in New York, and commissioned freelance work from a former NSA designer for Secret Power at this year’s New Zealand pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale. Simon Denny’s practice evolves around the language and imagery of what has optimistically been termed “creative capitalism” – a stage in service-based economy where subjectivity, creativity, affectivity and empathy (once attributes of the idiosyncratic artist) have become sought-after currencies for disruptive innovation. In his densely packed exhibition designs, Denny tackles the contemporary mythologies of corporate power. Yet, he refuses to adhere to an either-or choice between critique and complicity. For him, contemporary art is most productive when it offers negotiable propositions, rather than fixed positions – and it is left to the viewer to make sense of it all.
“I AM A TOURIST IN SILICON VALLEY.”
Can you give me a little intro into the show?
The exhibition looks at three case studies: Apple, the GCHQ [the UK Government Communications Headquarters], and Zappos, a company owned by Amazon. It is known as a “happy workplace”. Tony Hsieh, the CEO, is an ambassador of and a new start-up-ish aesthetic, specifically a model called Holocracy, which uses the idea of self-management as an anti-hierarchical structure within a company. For the GCHQ, we focused on architectural drawings by a guy called Lambert David.
It is interesting to understand how aesthetics and visual language are applied in that context.
Absolutely, creativity and innovation are high aims for all types of organisations – be they state, commercial or non-commercial.
If the corporate space is where innovation happens, why don’t you just go to Silicon Valley and found your own business?
Well, I do have my own business. I am an artist. It’s going quite well.
As an industry built on intangible values such as creativity, intellectual thinking and the access to information, the art world is a pretty good case study for the shift towards a ‘knowledge economy’.
Exactly. I am also a tourist in Silicon Valley, but I think the art world is a great emergent field to have a business in. And a lot of entrepreneurs actually want to activate that world, especially people in the tech space see the art world as a growing industry and want to take part. Take artsy, which is kind of half journalism, half auction.
Returning from Venice, my mother asked me whether she should understand your work on the NSA leaks as sincere documentation or a critical parody. Are you comfortable with people not being able to identify your intentions?
More than comfortable, I cultivate that.
I said ‘It’s both and neither nor’.
And that is the perfect answer from my perspective. I think it is a very productive model to have either side plausibly raised in an exhibition experience. This ambiguity is what we face in our lives whenever we come across a difficult topic such as surveillance. What is an appropriate level of surveillance in an age where national security is a big issue? I don’t know the answer. For me, not knowing is a very honest position and sometimes that even turns into a kind of sublime. And art is a space where we can have nuanced experiences. Art doesn’t need to be one thing or the other, as many other media outlets do
Matt Goerzen: Also, the artist who is working in this organizational manner is very much a figure who is able to create products that allow for a reflection on the conditions of their own production.
Right. This is a great legacy of conceptual art. Just think of this Robert Morris piece Box with the Sound of its Own Making. This is the type of thing that we love.
“PEOPLE IN THE TECH SPACE SEE THE ART WORLD AS A GROWING INDUSTRY AND WANT TO TAKE PART IN THAT.”
How important is it for you to make work that speaks to the history of its own genre?
My personal feeling is that cultural forms only make sense in a context and that the genre of contemporary art is a learned space where you can play with expectations. I am a product of art schooling, I learned the canon relatively deeply and I am a huge fan of it, so I cannot help but position my contribution in relation to that canon. Movies do this, pop music does this, anything that is bracketed as a cultural form comes with a series of expectations and histories. A nuanced, geeky play with those histories is part of any serious interaction with that space. In this exhibition, there are lots of things that Matt and I have had fun with in terms of referencing other practices and in terms of reflecting on contemporary art production as a body to interact with. People who are reading this publication are probably coming from a similar angle: You are learning the codes of a game in which you want to play.
I still feel like what you do is different from the traditional notion of appropriation, since you do more than simply take an object from one cultural space and put it into another. Your own position seems to be more complicit with your material.
Well, appropriation is a gesture that has been canonized since the 1980s. I think today everybody uses appropriation. When you post an image of SpongeBob SquarePants you are not like ‘I’m posting this image of SpongeBob SquarePants’. It is just part of contemporary visual language now. And I think art practice has come to incorporate that, too. Show me a practice that doesn’t include appropriation today. There isn’t any! Even contemporary abstract expressionist practice is a quoting practice anyhow. I think it that is part of the fabric of what we know.
Do you agree with David Joselit who claims that contemporary art is necessarily concerned with the reframing and recontextualization of existing images?
Yes, Joselit is a smart thinker.
Matt: I think this discussion should not be limited to contemporary art, since the idea of appropriation is integral to corporate and organizational structures as well. Particularly in the tech world every development is premised on something that someone else has done before.
“FOR ME, NOT KNOWING IS A VERY HONEST POSITION AND SOMETIMES THAT EVEN TURNS INTO A KIND OF SUBLIME.”
A friend just started working at Rocket in Berlin, which is a company that specializes in copying foreign start-ups.
Matt: Exactly. You could make a pretty strong case that every tech company rips off other tech companies.
Rocket are great with that. A lot of people who found companies have worked there. My personal take is not that it’s bad to clone things. They are taking a huge space in business that is widely available and utilize it. That is work. Just because you make a clone of something that doesn’t mean that it is not a legitimate business. And just because you take an image that doesn’t mean it’s not an innovative use of the image. Originality is not interesting.
Matt: Cultural forms like hacking, which we look at in this exhibition, are always about finding ways to repurpose or to open up existing forms. And organizations like the GCHQ or Zappos are always looking outside of themselves and try to pull that into their own constitutions.
Would you be fine with me describing your own practice as cultural hacking?
People have done that and I think it is a nice fantasy, a great brand. But there is this genre of artists who actually are hackers and I cannot genuinely claim that I am that. But I am a fan of hacking and I am a fan of art.
I find it interesting that you describe yourself as a fan of art, a fan of tech and a fan of hacking. To simply like something seems like a bold position to take in an art world that has, arguably, a tendency to over-intellectualize.
To call myself a fan is super empowering. When you are really into something, you can get a lot out of it. This also relates to people talking about my work in terms of distance and criticality. If you directly collaborate with somebody, it gives you a different type of information than when you are very distanced from a subject.
And you have very actively contacted people, from DLD to Samsung.
Exactly, DLD is a really good example of that.
They were quite happy with you doing that.
They were super happy with me doing that and also really open. Also, I think I made something completely different from what I would have made from a distance. The fact that I did have such access and that I was responsible for showing them what I had done at the end of my research process made me think very deeply about every decision I made, whereas when you are at a distance from something you can be very flippant about it. It is very different if you actually have to sit down with that person and be like ‘I did this thing because of that’. And fans are often one of the most accurately critical people. If you really care about a certain subject and the direction in which it goes, then you really get to know the issues involved. I think to value the thing you are looking at is a good way to approach criticality.
“WHAT IS AN APPROPRIATE LEVEL OF SURVEILLANCE IN AN AGE WHERE NATIONAL SECURITY IS A BIG ISSUE? I DON’T KNOW WHAT ANSWER.”
How do you consider the element of fiction in your work?
Information and misinformation, various narratives, fact and fiction – I think it is hard to separate these things sometimes. And certainly in the space of mythology, for example in different kinds of organizations, fact and fiction become kind of blurred. Sometimes the story and the motivation behind the myth are more real than what is real, do you know what I mean? Certainly with that Samsung monument in New Management, which may or may not exist, a sense of not quite knowing gave me the freedom to embellish that space. That is often the fun part of art. In the list for the Kim Dotcom exhibition some things were very specific and other things were like ‘Fiberglass sculpture’. Then, as an artist you can build those narratives in the way you want to. With Secret Power, that space between information and misinformation became really interesting in the context of surveillance.
Matt: I think in a way the world necessarily fictionalizes itself. For New Management Simon hired two freelancers to translate a text about the Chairman of Samsung. When you read those translations side by side, you see two very different narratives emerging. Since there is no such thing as a perfect translation, you have to choose which one you want to believe in. What you consider to be real becomes a matter of intuition.
I think this process of meaning making is what art is so good at investigating and unpacking. Art is the space where these questions become productive. Art is very well tooled to ask questions like ‘What does an image do?’ and ‘What is the meaning making in an image?’
I think that this point is important to consider in relation to the information density of your exhibitions. You don’t need to read every single word in order to get it.
No you don’t. It’s funny with that, sometimes just the knowledge that something has been identified and explained is already enough for me to trust that authority. That trustworthiness of information is important. People sometimes say my work is super complicated, but that is a relative thing. In a science museum or a history museum we are used to used to needing an explanation in order to understand those cultural artifacts.
“YOU ARE LEARNING THE CODES OF A GAME IN WHICH YOU WANT TO PLAY.”
It is interesting how authority is established in different disciplines. In science, you believe what you see, as long as there are lots of numbers and pie charts and diagrams. When it comes to art, people have very different expectations.
Yes, and playing with those expectations is definitely something this exhibitions is about.
I’d like to ask you about the language you use to talk about your work, which is very close to the language used in the corporate world, which you look at. How do you like it when your work is discussed along certain curatorial and art theoretical frames, as for example with the art post-internet exhibition or with Speculations on Anonymous Materials at the Fridericianum?
I welcome that. I have personally chosen not to introduce these theories into my work, but if people think my work is relevant to contemporary art conversations, then lucky me!
You leave the interpretation to the critic.
And I think a lot of critics like to do their own work. I’m a big fan of Mike Kelley and he is a textbook example of an artist who theorized his own work and a lot of critics I have talked to said they felt like there is no space left for their work. Then again, I think in the case of Mike Kelley the act of self-theorizing was something like a meta-level that was part of his artistic project and there is plenty of room to situate that.
After the Venice Biennale, MoMA PS1, the Serpentine Galleries…where do you want to go next?
I will spend some time in New York in the next couple of months, I will try and get a desk at weworkand see what an artist can do in a shared office environment instead of a studio. I’m also doing research on Silicon Beach in LA where I look at tech companies and how they have changed the community around Venice Beach.
“THE GENRE OF CONTEMPORARY ART IS A LEARNED SPACE WHERE YOU CAN PLAY WITH EXPECTATIONS.”
Your work evolves so strongly around the here and now, in a sense it is archiving the present. How do you think your own work will be archived?
I think using a lot of contemporary stuff and putting it into a package that makes sense at the time is potentially something that is future-proof anyhow. We are always interested in what happened in the past. And taking aesthetic forms of a certain moment will be interesting in the future for an economic access point to that moment, because they carry so much of their time in a tiny, cute package.
Since 1 Granary is primarily a fashion magazine, will we see a Simon Denny fashion project anytime soon?
You know I have so many artist friends who are engaged in fashion, but I have never found myself there. I don’t know enough about the history of fashion and what fashion is. I’m a big fan of DISmagazine and I almost did a T-Shirt for them…
…A Simon Denny T-Shirt next to the Zizek T-Shirt?
I love the Zizek T-Shirt. But I just don’t know enough about fashion to go into it.
See Simon Denny: Products for Organising at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, London, 25 Nov 2015 to 14 Feb 2016