BRAVE NEW WORLD
How do organisations create myths? In his work, New Zealand-born, Berlin-based artist Simon Denny examines the business culture of tech companies, startups, and corporations. From showing at MoMA PS1 to representing his home country at the 56th Venice Biennale, the artist’s installations evoke the feeling of a dystopian Silicon Valley product launch event. For SEEK, Denny opened his studio to fill us in on the politicisation of memes, his fear of failure, and the future of the global financial system.
Interview by Laura Storfner / Photography by Andreas Bohlender
What do artists and startup founders have in common?
If we take Berlin as a common ground, I think both founders and artists are attracted to the “creative” atmosphere, the promise of parties, a kind of international context where lots of people come from many different places; Berlin also offers low overheads compared to other cities in Europe and the States. Another thing might be the fact that artists are, in an unspoken way, expected to embody their practice — the way they appear to the world often can stand in for their work. Likewise, founders are often read as extensions of their companies — the visionary director, the embodiment of the brand. With this, in both cases, comes the expectation that the artist, or the founder, possesses exceptional creativity and is somehow a “special” person. Also, legally, in the eyes of the state, an artist is essentially a small business, a “mom and pop shop” owner with a niche group of clients in the luxury marketplace. Founders of startups are supposed to make businesses, but of a very different nature, of course.
After having graduated from Frankfurt’s Städelschule in 2009, you moved to Berlin, where you immersed yourself in the so-called “entrepreneurial culture.” How did the founders respond to you as an artist?
Mostly, founders were pretty open, more or less interested in what I was doing. I would go along to meetups and events, try talking to people. The scene back then was pretty small, though, so it was quite easy to get to know people. Like, you’d turn up five times to the same crowd. I also attended a couple of hackathons, and since I was collaborating, it was easy to relate to people under those circumstances. After I had done a couple of projects about the tech community, certain people started to follow my work a bit. My contribution to the Venice Biennale in 2015 and the shows I did about blockchain in 2016 were covered in major newspapers that people in tech and finance read. After that, people started cold calling me for conversations. Sometimes it got awkward because, as part of my practice, I’d be critical of a certain aspect of the culture — but people were mostly pretty into the feedback, even if it was negative.
You are known to prefer tech, finance, and science publications over art magazines. What does the Harvard Business Review tell you about art?
[Laughs] Um, I like newspapers, I like a wide range of input, I read the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, and sometimes the London Review of Books, and yes, the Harvard Business Review. Many of these publications also cover art, albeit in a very generalist way — though in itself, this broader perspective is not uninteresting. One still wants the depth and breadth that Artforum, Texte Zur Kunst, or e-flux offer; or the currency of Mousse and Kaleidoscope — these being the publications that speak the language of the art community directly.
Linguistic analysis of startup jargon has long been part of your practice. How does entrepreneurial vernacular differ from art world lingo?
Right, I was particularly interested in elements that offered an impression of what the culture and attitude of tech were really about. Aesthetics and language are two of these things. Terms like “disrupt” and “pivot” say a lot about the focuses of that community. The art world — like any social network — works similarly, though the codified language in art is maybe more complicated, with specialist sub-terms being harder to access, seeing as they are embedded in closed communities. In both spheres — art and tech — actors are looking for opportunities to exploit markets in novel ways, but only in tech are people very open about that, and the difference in language favoured by these two communities, respectively, reflects this difference. Art rhetoric tends to be nuanced, with a tendency towards exclusion and obfuscation. In the tech-business context, this mode would be read very differently. Entrepreneurial language is more direct, and often stated in the positive — for example, “failure” is a good thing in Silicon Valley, it’s taken to be a moment on the way to success.
It almost seems as if the “culture of failure” has become a mantra of the startup environment. Do you have a fear of failure?
To be honest, yes. I mean, I understand and relate to Silicon Valley’s “positive step on the way to success” notion of failure, and I see the freedom this gives founders to take risks and to move in nonlinear ways, toward ideas that might not otherwise be tried. But of course, tech runs on other people’s money — and the “failure” of a company often doesn’t mean financial failure for the founders personally. Venture capitalists expect a certain amount of loss; they operate assuming that the majority of their investments will fail, and enter into their investments with this expectation. And while the failure of a tech business is never exactly celebrated, the people involved can, so to speak, afford to lose the money. Artistic life is different, it’s pretty precarious at the best of times for most people involved, and my experience is not an exception to that. I’m often betting my own money on projects, as are many galleries, and very often things don’t work out as planned, and there are real losses, and you have to make a bunch of personal sacrifices. It’s different.
Could you tell us of a project that failed but still helped you progress?
If we mean business failure, as in a project that generated no profit or even ran at a loss, that would be like half of my exhibitions. But while in a startup context business failure equates creative failure, this is not always the case in art, at least not in the mythology art upholds. Personally, one can see how earlier work, however successful or not, is often — like in Silicon Valley — a step toward developing a project with broader and deeper resonance. For instance, I was experimenting with some kind of Arte Povera scatter installation strategies before making art about tech. Though at the time it seemed totally not of any value to me or anybody, I later realised that it was during this period that I was able to hone the craft of installation: working with materials, space, scale, and context.
When you are in Berlin, where do you go to find inspiration?
I go see people: friends, other artists, or those I’ve gotten to know in other contexts, like academics, economists, or startup people. I also like the Cinestar at Potsdamer Platz, but I go there to chill, not necessarily for inspiration.
For your exhibitions, you often work together with corporate partners. Where do you see creative potential when involving yourself with these superstructures?
I would like to answer this question with a quote from one of my favourite books, Keller Easterling’s Extrastatecraft, which speaks to the idea of what “critical” engagement is assumed to look like: “Entering the market as an entrepreneur, even if only to manipulate that market, is mistaken for collusion. Giving positive attention to agents of systemic change rather than negative opposition to a series of enemies is mistaken for an uncritical stance. Relinquishing overt resistance is mistaken for capitulation or ethical relativism. Answering duplicity with duplicity is mistaken for equivocation or lack of conviction rather than a technique to avoid disclosing a deliberate strategy.”
During the 2016 Berlin Biennale and for your recent exhibition at New York’s Petzel Gallery, you focused on the history of blockchain technology — a decentralised, transparent system that some claim is the future of financial infrastructures. What in particular intrigued you about this phenomenon?
Foremost, the scale of the cultural shifts it implies. Blockchain is a very radical proposal and it’s positioned to touch the most fundamental aspects of our infrastructure. For example, Bitcoin — an alternative, global private monetary system operating beyond the parameters of traditional currencies and banking practices — has already gotten us to start thinking in terms of this emergent supranational world of private finance. Blockchain is born of this context. But further, it promises something even bigger, representing not just a restructuring of financial systems, but a decentralised internet, a path to breaking up Google’s, Facebook’s, and Amazon’s monopoly on attention and information flows, and to a more self-governing, transparent world of trade.
According to critics, the blockchain system will most likely be co-opted by corporate entities.
This idea that blockchain doesn’t mesh well with the existing financial world is not true. Bitcoin proposed an alternative currency — or at least that was its early narrative. But platforms and currencies like Ethereum (ETH) are something quite different. For example, ETH is a digital currency that operates using “Solidity”, a Turing-complete blockchain programming language. As such, ETH is incredibly stable, but, moreover, can host a whole range of apps that can easily and securely integrate other currencies (based on ETH) as part of their infrastructure. ETH offers “smart contracts”: self-executing encrypted contracts, and other kinds of infrastructure that both increases the security of traditional banking while lowering labour costs.
And what about the potential drawbacks?
A blockchain-driven revolution in the financial system will not likely happen in a way that cuts out bankers. Just because the container changes doesn’t mean the actors who know how to use it will. I can definitely see a future wherein lots of private currencies exist, though, one wherein companies contain the attention value they attract in tokens issued on top of an underlying currency like ETH. There are some major questions that blockchain brings up, and they far exceed the “good vs. evil” frame typically invoked in more mainstream discussions that limit the scope of this technology’s implications to a question of “privately issued cryptocurrencies vs. state issued” and the mores of regulated finance.
Speaking of good vs. evil — in a political climate of nationalist tendencies, you are holding a lecture at the European Parliament in Brussels. What can we expect?
Yes, it’s for this annual summit on the future of the Internet in Europe that will include specialists and high-level professionals across various fields, ranging from tech business to government. When thinking about what an artist could offer this audience, meme warfare seemed apt — how memes have, possibly in unintended ways, become a powerful medium for spreading right-wing, anti-EU, pro-fascist messages, and whether and how the Left might be able to counter-message along similar medial channels. Before and during the recent US election, anonymous message boards like 4chan had been producing content in a certain framework — organically growing the craft of trolling and political messaging. Memetic formats developed there — such as image macros, simple MS Paint-style cartoon characters, and other things that initially seemed politically neutral — have since been co-opted by the Right and codified with meanings that a few years ago seemed improbable. The talk I’m giving will be partially a performance — including other artists. The aim, here, is to try and grow languages and tactics that can have a reach and potency that matches this trend from the opposite side of the political spectrum.•