Following an acclaimed showing at the Venice Biennale, Simon Denny’s politically charged Secret Power is now on view at Te Papa. Henry Oliver spoke to investigative journalist Nicky Hager about his role as special adviser on the exhibition.
I met Nicky Hager last year on the Golden Staircase of the Marciana Library in Piazzetta San Marco, Venice. The ceiling of the impossibly ornate staircase, rising from the public square to the first public library since antiquity, contains an allegory for the acquisition of knowledge. We sat outside in the sun, halfway up.
I was there to cover the opening of Simon Denny’s exhibition Secret Power at the 56th Venice Biennale for Metro (having profiled Denny the year before). Hager, the author of the 1996 book from which the exhibition took its name, was there as a consultant to Denny, having helped guide Denny through the tangled wires of global surveillance in light of the Edward Snowden leaks.
Hager’s involvement in the project, funded, in part, by Creative New Zealand, had caused a minor controversy when his involvement was paid for by the very government he makes a living calling to question. Arts Patron Dame Jenny Gibbs initially pulled her contribution, before giving CNZ a different amount to fund an ‘assistant curator’ to attend the Biennale, giving her the peace of mind that her money wasn’t benefitting Hager.
While he’s amazing at generating and sustaining media attention to maximise his work’s political power (all but one of his books have been published in an election year), talking about the politics of his involvement drained him of his charismatic intensity. It both agitated and bored him. But he seemed to love sitting in the Venetian sun, talking about art.
The Spinoff: What do you think of the show? You’re obviously someone with an intimate relationship to the material.
Nicky Hager: I’m not here as an art critic, but I would have been disappointed if it had looked like a public information display about intelligence because that’s not what this was supposed to be. Art’s got a different role. And it’s certainly not that. I think it’s really fabulous, I love the way Simon wanted to produce something on a real issue in the real world, but he’s created this out of it, through care and thinking about all of the different aspects of what makes a piece of visual art, as opposed to a lecture around the subject. I’m blown away by it.
What was your thinking when Simon approached you? Art is typically so different from investigative journalism. Were you skeptical? Did you have mixed emotions or did you just instantly think, ‘Oh, of course, anything to get this material out’?
I was in the middle of researching and writing a book, which means the rest of the world has faded out a bit. So I didn’t think about it very hard, and I just gradually built up a relationship with Simon, by Skype, by emails, and then we met. And I’ve got keener and keener as I’ve gone along, because it was a really nice experience to watch an artistic process. It’s been a fun sideline in my life of helping him, and talking things over, but only now seeing what he’s made from them.
You’ve written a book about, not exactly this material, but some of this material. So you made a book, which is your communication device, and then Simon was interested in the material, and he’s got his own communication device, sculpture or exhibition-making. Having worked with Simon on this project, how do you feel about how contemporary art works as a communication device? Do you think it’s an effective way of saying something serious?
When you write a book, most people don’t read the book. They hear about it, they hear debate about it, they hear how you sound in the media. Same with a work of art. It’s playing a different role, and some people hear about it, some people love it, some people are affected by it to do something else. It’s not like a press release, it’s not like a one-to-one communication.
I think that something like this exhibition is having a social impact in a completely different way. That’s how it feels to me, that it will actually make some people think, and it will get the ideas out in a way that I never could. In my work, I’ve got a very specific mission, which is that I’m trying to find out things, and be as accurate as I possibly can be, and communicate them to somebody who wants to hear. That’s not the same thing that this is doing.
An artist is involved in a different process, but it’s been really interesting to watch Simon, because he’s really fixated on accuracy. That’s why they brought me into this. I would say, he’s taken more notice of the Snowden documents and their contents than the vast majority of journalists in the world. He’s analysed them, and he’s gone through them, in a way which I have done, as someone who’s involved in intelligence issues.
Isn’t it interesting that there’s an artist doing that? You could have an artist who wanted to do something on Edward Snowden, and grabbed some bits and pieces, and sort of papier-mâchéd them together and that was good enough, but he’s got a much more serious mission, in the way he wants to be accurate.
And then, at least from my non-art critic eyes, he didn’t want to have a series of display panels saying, “This is what Snowden says,” which is why he’s come and talked through the visual imagery, which means that somebody could argue, “That’s not even about the stuff. That’s just about some imagery.” But, to me, as someone who would never have done that, I think that’s a really clever way of making people think. People who wouldn’t think about it another way. Coming through the side door of all the layers of the imagery, he brings people to the same thing in a totally different way, if they’re interested, and they look at it.
The imagery of the Snowden documents was a talking point early on.
I’m not surprised it got into his head, because of the imagery, but also all the weird words. That would have been a great pity if everybody had just taken it as fact, fact, fact, and no one had realised what a fascinating thing it was. And all around the world, the public was responding as much to the strangeness of the names of the projects as they were to the rest of it, because that was what was giving people that strange feeling.
It highlighted the clandestineness of it, and the cultishness of it.
So it’s not surprising that it appealed to somebody with Simon’s interests. The project’s about New Zealand’s role in the world on these issues, but he’s come into it from the angle of the language, and the imagery, the layers and layers of detail about these astonishing and powerful systems.
What’s been your involvement? A collaborator, a fact checker?
Simon’s a great collaborator. He was interested in my thoughts and feedback about the visual side of it, which I would have thought, take it or leave it, because it’s not my field. I’ve got friends in the art world, I talk about art with them. I gave him my view, and, to my surprise, he would listen.
He really cared about the factual detail of what he was doing. He could have blurred together some stuff which, for most people, would have looked exactly the same as long as it was ‘some of Snowden’s stuff’. But he wanted it to be really accurate, so my specific role has been to help him find stuff, and to talk it over, and to make sure that it was more accurate than most journalism is on this subject. Which it is.
I’m interested in your involvement and the attention that it gets from a New Zealand media perspective. Part of it is just the nature of your work. Then, there’s the timing, coming after the election and Dirty Politics. Is the media attention on everything you do something that happens every book cycle, or has Dirty Politics brought a bigger spotlight than usual?
It’s pretty much happened every time. I’ve had this many times on different things over the years. So I know that it fades away again, and that’s fine. Remember, I’ve been involved in this project for over a year. I actually didn’t think that that book, which became Dirty Politics, was going to be very big. I completely misjudged how it would be received. A lot of it was just having my head down, I was researching like hell, and I had various enjoyable little sidelines helping people who are writing books. I do lots of things at once, like all of us do, and this is one sideline which was a fun one, where I was helping on an art project.
Did it annoy you to generate a certain kind of attention to this project – why is this guy involved in something the government that he’s so critical of is helping pay for? – or is it just the way it goes for you?
One of the ways that our media works is that if somebody is in the news, anything they do is rated as newsworthy, which I think is silly. So once I was going to be involved in the controversial thing in conflict with the government, it was inevitable that anything else I did would be related to that – just mindless celebrityhood for a little while. Then, overlaid on that is the New Zealand thing of questioning public funding for the arts, the way which no one would ever do for public funding of sport, for example.
So it was a coincidence of, here’s this guy who’s being involved in a political controversy and he’s related to something where there’s public funding for the arts. It’s not surprising that there was going to be a few rounds of that. I don’t think it was too bad, because actually, they are different things, and they were just different projects.
It was not surprising that it happened, and it was also good that nobody got over-excited about it, because actually, we all have different parts of our lives. In a small country, we overlap in multiple ways. So what? I would have rather that I didn’t cause those little bits of headache for the people involved in this project. Luckily, it didn’t grow into anything that it ever needed to be.
So how does it feel to be in Venice and see this thing take shape?
I think for anyone who’s interested in the world, being involved on the inside of something, in this case, being involved on the inside of an arts project, is a really fun and interesting experience. The nearest experience for me has been when my books have been made into stage plays, and I’ve had the opportunity to see how something I did, or subjects I worked on in nonfiction prose, were made in different ways through all the different aspects of what a play is and actors are. It’s made it something completely different.
I loved watching that process, and it’s the same thing here. It’s a great privilege to be involved in a process of just making a work of art. Seeing all the people, and all the different kinds of collaboration, and all the components of what makes up a piece of visual art is so different from something written on a page. I’m grateful that I can see that and be part of that.
Secret Power is on display at Te Papa, Wellington, until February. Entry is free.