Newly purchased works from the acclaimed NZ entry at the Venice Biennale have just been unveiled at Te Papa. Toby Manhire caught up with the artist at the notorious Urban Cafe in Newmarket to discuss the politics of his exhibition, the appeal of technology, and whether he might yet get into watercolours.
When Simon Denny’s Secret Power opened at the Venice Biennale last year it scored a swag of admiring write-ups: the official New Zealand entry was among the “pick of the crop”, “easily one of the strongest national pavilions”; its creator was enjoying “an art world moment”.
Inspired by the fallout from former NSA employee Edward Snowden’s leaks exposing the operations of the American surveillance agency and its partners in the Five Eyes network, the exhibition was split between the Renaissance Marciana Library – home to cartography dating back to the 15th century – and the city’s Marco Polo Airport. Nicky Hager, the investigative journalist whose 1996 book gave Denny his title, travelled to Venice as an adviser on the project.
And as of Saturday, Secret Power – or four of the major pieces that comprised it, at least – are on display in Wellington at Te Papa, after the national museum purchased the works for $750,000. There, the Secret Power elements – including with a large metal skull, a taxidermied eagle and server-style cabinets full of NSA inspired miscellany – sits within a full-scale photographic reproduction of the Marciana Library.
Denny, 34, who is these days based in Berlin, stopped for a short stay in Auckland on the way to the opening in Wellington. He suggested meeting in Newmarket, so there was really only one choice: the most significant site in recent New Zealand cultural-political history: the Urban Cafe, where John Key and John Banks met for a cup of tea during the 2011 election campaign.
Denny ordered a peppermint tea, and I placed a surveillance device surreptitiously on the table.
The Spinoff: What was the starting point for Secret Power?
Simon Denny: I was already focused on the culture around primarily commercial tech but I was starting to realise that commercial tech has a lot of crossover with state tech, as well. Then the Snowden thing hit. In the tech community that I was following and in New Zealand, where I’m from and look back to a lot, this was a big deal. Then I looked at the documents that came out and I was just blown away as a cultural producer by how they looked, how they felt. Not only the things that were inside them, which I was as interested in as anybody else, but I wanted to know about these programmes and was as surprised at their scale and the extent to which New Zealand was involved.
But also the way that material came across within this slide-set was really surprising from an aesthetic point of view. You don’t expect a very serious intelligence agency to be kind of playful in the way that they bring across material. At least I didn’t, and many other people didn’t. I heard at the time a lot of people from the media were all “it’s bad design and it’s ugly”. And that’s something that’s not really my jam. I just thought it was really interesting that it looked like that. There was a lot of information in the fact that it looked not how you would expect it to look. But I guess because of my background I don’t really believe in ugly things or whatever.
But they did sort of look bad, didn’t they?
It looked amateurish.
It looked a bit Windows 95.
It looked a little out of date, amateurish. From that perspective I can see that. But there was also a lot of material and information in there that I found really interesting and these illustrations that came out, I thought, well, great. I just thought they were kind of amazing. Then the more I looked into it, the more I realised there was some stuff that was clearly lifted from other sites on the internet. But there were other pieces of visual stuff in there that was clearly generated within the NSA. So that became even more interesting to me, as someone who’s interested in the internal culture and the attitudes and cultural values of tech in general. Knowing what happens inside state organisations and what kind of aesthetics are foregrounded and valued in their communication, that was just like: wow. That was just super, super interesting for me.
Then there was an open call for Venice to do the pavilion and I thought, well, maybe. And I was encouraged by people around me saying “yeah, you should try to do that”. So I got together last-minute with [curator] Robert Leonard, who I’d actually never worked with before, and we put in this proposal that we co-wrote but came from my idea to do something about this material. It wasn’t that well formed at the time when we did the initial application. Then when we were awarded the job, I started to get more serious about what it should really look like, and the research went on.
But that’s kind of how the whole thing started, with my fascination with this material and thinking there was a lot more in there than people were seeming to give it credit for in a wider discussion of the material. It was being dismissed rather than looked into.
The situation that you placed the works in was always going to be important, because New Zealand doesn’t have a permanent pavilion in Venice.
That was an important part of framing it, yeah. Our application had none of that information in it but when we were awarded the job then you get to do site visits and there was a list of 300 possible venues that I could occupy, that were supposedly for hire. I looked around a number of those and then the moment I walked into this library I was just like, wow, that is really something. Seeing globes, map depictions, alongside these beautiful kind of weird allegorical paintings –I actually didn’t really know what they were at the time, but as I did a bit more research it turned out they were allegorised for the value of keeping knowledge and acquiring knowledge. And the fact that they’re so close to the other buildings of power in the central core of Venice was also something really attractive.
I looked at some other venues that would’ve been quite good, too. There’s a marine museum there, like a naval museum, which I thought was also quite an interesting place for it but not as spectacular as the amazing room that was the library room. Then on my way back to Berlin, in the airport space, I was also like, “that could also be quite an interesting space.” I got greedy: “I want more than one.”
It seems as though those venues were somehow intrinsic to the work. How do you then deal with picking it up and transplanting it into a museum space?
Any time one does a museum exhibition, it’s somewhat site specific. I have this idea that an exhibition is an experience. It’s a local experience. You go to a certain place and you stand in a certain room, within a certain street, whatever. All of the contextual information you have of being in that space and time and country and whatever, comes with the experience of viewing the show. So you kind of make a new show, every time. Obviously there was a lot of site-responsive and site-specific things that I set up for that experience in Venice, and you can’t take that building with you, you never can. But there’s other ways of activating the material. There’s never one way to skin a cat, I think.
Te Papa is also quite a specific place. It also comes from a specific moment in exhibition-making theory, I feel, and museum design. It’s quite a fun, experiential place. It’s quite visual, it’s full on, There are lots of transplanted things without context and fake surfaces and it’s a very graphic experience. So the idea of remaking or transplanting a vinyl wrap of the part of the building that the show was in in Venice made a lot of sense within the exhibition language of that space. You’ll never get the same experience as being in Venice. You’ll never get the same experience as going to any art exhibition. But you will get a different exhibition experience which I think will mean a different thing but will touch on some of the same issues.
The fact that you’re used to a spectacular way of experiencing material in that museum, that language makes sense. And an interesting sense. Because this time this presentation is about Te Papa saying yes, this is culture that we believe in and this is the national museum and this is something important to New Zealand.
It will never be the Secret Power that was in Venice. It can’t be. The elements aren’t all there, the experience isn’t there. The time is also different. I feel like people’s feelings about Snowden are slightly less urgent than they were at the time. But I think it will be a really interesting thing to look at and say, “this is official New Zealand culture. This is something that the powers that be have decided is important and interesting to consider alongside all sorts of other important artefacts that are intrinsically of value to New Zealand.” And I think that’s something really worth looking into because part of my experience with unpacking what the relationships were within the Snowden material was like, “OK, New Zealand’s really committed to this.” They’re committed to the relationship with the US. They’re committed to intelligence and the necessity for it. And so we actually value this stuff. This is important cultural stuff.
Our government has decided that’s something we want to support anyway. So to make that statement within the national museum, I think, is reinforcing that decision which is sometimes made a bit behind the scenes.
Do you mean it’s ironic?
I don’t necessarily see the irony in that. How do you mean?
Insofar as your work is a critique of the NSA Five Eyes, the state which is allied to all of that is now paying for a critique.
There’s two things I will say to that. The first is I think that the criticality is nuanced in the piece. I think critique can get a lot of different interpretations. Critique to some people can be someone saying, “fuck you, I think it’s bad” or whatever. But my notion of what great critique is is more like “let’s look at what this means and let’s look at how it operates.” It’s not rejection of the value system that it’s looking at, necessarily. It’s a careful look at it. I don’t want to say the NSA is bad or all intelligence is bad. That’s not what I’m trying to do with the work. The second thing is that intelligent regimes of any kind, or intelligence organisations of any kind, should in fact pay for their own critique. That’s a part of, I think, having a healthy dialogue around what you’re doing and therefore a better job of what you’re doing. You hint at an irony, I would say it’s actually a big plus that they would pay for their own critique and that they’re mature enough to do that. That shows something healthy about the direction of where that’s going.
On that question of critique, does the work make an argument? Because Nicky Hager’s works clearly are in part mounting arguments.
He has a clear point of view that is eloquently put across and very urgent. You get a clear sense of what his position is and that, I think, is very important to the way his work functions. I also enjoy that in his work. I’m a fan of Nicky’s, I think he’s a really smart journalist and I think New Zealand’s very lucky to have somebody working in the way that he works, with that degree of commitment. But there’s lots of different ways to do things and I think an art exhibition, from my perspective, can open things up and also ask questions rather than direct people to make the same conclusions as you do.
I mean, long-form journalism, opinionated political books can be a great vehicle to bring across an argument to convince people of something that they otherwise wouldn’t think. I think art can do that, but I think art can also do other things and it can muse on a subject without directing people as explicitly to a conclusion. And I think art is very fundamentally a central experience, it’s about a space and time and all these things that we’ve been talking about before. And I think that sometimes that can be utilised really effectively to make very pointed, opinionated critiques and directions. Other times it can flesh out the experience of a subject to give other people different types of ins to thinking about it for themselves.
So tell me about the Nicky thing. How did that relationship work?
It was great. So it came about not through me. In my practice, particularly when I’m gonna do something which I think is important – which is kind of almost anything I do – but I felt there was a lot of responsibility with doing a) the national pavilion for New Zealand, and b) something about this topic. It was a hard thing to take on and when I take on things that are difficult like that, or actually anything, I try to look for people to guide me through the material. Because I might have a certain impression as an avid newsreader or whatever, but I’m not an expert on these subjects. I’m often an amateur fan of the subject matter rather than a real pro. So I approached the team within Creative New Zealand who were helping me with the show to say “I think I need an adviser for this material. I feel like it’s important I get my facts straight and we need somebody to guide me through,” and Nicky’s name was put forward as one of a small handful of people – I think your name actually came up as well.
And I thought, OK, Nicky, cool. Then I met with him and we just kind of talked about the material. He was also very open. That’s the other thing which is great about Nicky, in my close association in working with him. He has his opinions and they’re his opinions and he’s very clear with them. But in dialogue, he also recognises that there’s a range of opinions in the world. And I think our standpoint on this material does differ to some degree. Where he’s, as you say, very resolute about it, I’m a little more agnostic about the whole range of things. And he was fine with that.
He guided me through “this is maybe an important document, this is not such an important document”. I was like, “What does this mean? Where would likely this particular image come from? Is that an important thing?” When I was looking at David Darchicourt, this illustrator that become a focus for the piece and a kind of case study for the piece who used to work for the NSA, when I came across his material, that was something that I showed Nicky and said, “Hey, what do you think of this guy?” I showed him some of his other work that I found on his own personal website and said “What are these posters likely to be for? What do some of these words mean?” Very helpful fact checking stuff. And also just to make sure that I hadn’t completely missed out on a whole section of the discussion around things that I just didn’t find because my friends weren’t reading it or whatever. He tried to kind of eliminate my filter bubble a little bit.
Darchicourt is fascinating. He collaborated with you, too – unbeknownst to him. Which is pretty perverse.
I wanted to have a sense of the illegitimate in the piece. I think it wouldn’t be doing justice to the visceral feeling we had of looking at these known stolen documents if it was a very safe presentation with no risk to any of it. So I thought activating this figure who’d been involved potentially in generating some of this material as an author, to engage him in a slightly surreptitious way. And then to have the audience know that all this material was used basically without permission.
Do you underscore that within the exhibition?
Yeah. It was foregrounded also in the press release. I wanted that to be very clear. I mean, that was in Venice. In the Te Papa presentation there is no Darchicourt material. They decided to acquire a certain number of things and not other things.
That’s not because of his response?
Oh he was great, it was a wonderful thing. Charlotte Higgins from the Guardian came the day before the show opened and I gave her a two-hour walkthrough of the material. She’d done her research. She was concerned about my approach, she wanted to make sure what I was doing was making sense because she’d read the press release which foregrounded this action. After that, she went away and said, “Well I’m going to think about how I’m going to approach the writing of this” and then she called him up. She said, “hey, you know there’s this exhibition in Venice, it’s basically starring you,” and she asked these amazing questions which got these wonderful quotes about how he felt about it, how he felt about his work and what he saw as his role in the institution. And also how he basically felt about me using his materials as well. It was all very positive. I mean the guy is clearly a very smart guy.
Was there part of you sitting there thinking he might go in hard on this?
Yeah, it wouldn’t be fun if there wasn’t any possible risk of this way or that way. I was like “maybe this guy won’t see this in the way in which I hope he does”. But he did, he did see it in the way which I hoped he did, which was great. And we had a follow-up phone call and I, again, explained to him one to one why I did this and how. It was good. But of course there’s that risk and that was great.
Another person you’ve sort of collaborated with – that might be overstating it a bit – is Kim Dotcom.
Yeah I made fan art about Kim Dotcom.
Were you in touch with him about that?
No. We tried to reach out at the beginning. I mean, proximity is always a question. I feel like when I’m using somebody as a case study, some person or some company as a case study, I have to make a decision at some point of how close I want to get. That decision comes with lots of different factors and it varies from thing to thing. Particularly commercial companies: it’s very difficult for them to say yes to a bunch of things, particularly large commercial companies. They’re never going to get a brand sign-off for an artist to work with their brand in the way that I would like to work with them if they have a huge amount of board members and there’s no real value for me to step out and work with their material. So I often make a pragmatic decision of “I haven’t asked, they haven’t said yes”. So neither party is kind of responsible.
Do lawyers ever get involved?
So far I haven’t had much legal interaction. I have a lawyer which I talk to from time to time and ask about certain things and usually they give me a “this could happen or that might happen”. But I don’t do that too much. I did a show about Samsung actually, in 2013. I tried to get close to them and reach out a lot for this thing. I was doing something about a kind of memorial that they made to a moment of management change. And I wanted to get close to the material. I wanted to look at it and I wanted to make sure, and I wanted the people involved to say, “yes, you can do that.”
They ended sending me a lawyer’s letter from their legal department while I was doing the research for the show, saying that they didn’t want me to do it and that they’d prefer I didn’t make the show. I then made a decision to go ahead and do it anyway. And then we didn’t get any response. Again, I guess I like to think that even if my work has a part of it that asks questions, it’s always also holding the subject in revere. I’m saying, “this is an important thing. This is something that’s special and should have further cultural significance added to it.” That’s inherently a part of any project of mine, saying “good or bad, whatever people think about this, this is culturally significant and we need to value that”.
A second thing is, I think, in a world which is increasingly protected and privatised, it’s hard to engage with anything in these days that doesn’t have a protected brand affiliation. I think if we really want cultural material that deals in an independent way with the contemporary world, we need to allow for a figure like an artist to move among that stuff freely. Otherwise we’re going to get a very safe culture that doesn’t have anything to do with the contemporary environment we’re living in. so I have kind of have a quite hard line on that one. And so far i feel like, because of the tone of my exhibitions and because of the value and credence that I give the subject, it hasn’t made anybody feel litigious or whatever. But, fingers crossed, I may get a huge lawsuit tomorrow, who knows.
You’ve been in Germany how many years?
Almost 10. Kind of nine-and-a-half.
How engaged in New Zealand politics are you? Because there’s Kim Dotcom, obviously there’s Secret Power, there’s Nicky Hager, we’re sitting here in the Teapot Tapes cafe. Do you follow stuff like that? Are you still engaged in New Zealand politics?
I drift in and out depending on what’s going on. I dip into various different worlds in my professional life and in my personal life. The last six months I’ve not really thought so much about New Zealand politics because I’ve been thinking a lot about people working with Bitcoin and the future of Bitcoin and blockchain. And I’ve been making projects about people that are building different worlds upon this hope for a different future of blockchain.
I started thinking about sovereignty and how digital is affecting sovereignty and that was touched on in both of those projects in New Zealand. But I feel like the Bitcoin stuff has a bit more of a global reach to it and feel to it. So I was sort of thinking more about stuff that was happening like Brexit and Trump and these kinds of things in different places. So I haven’t been engaging intentionally in New Zealand politics personally this last little bit, but then again I might return to it and look very closely for a moment in the future. I kind of drift in and out. But I feel like a New Zealander.
When I lived overseas I sometimes felt, rightly or wrongly, I had a clearer view of New Zealand when I came back once a year and saw how it was changing.
I feel like I don’t understand as much when I come back, actually.
I don’t mean necessarily politically here. Maybe culturally, in a way.
You know what, I could make arguments for both sides of that, within myself. I think in some ways I have a perspective and other things to compare it to, so that gives you something. But in another sense I feel like the longer I’m away, the less I understand about the logic of the everyday. I’m still close to family and friends here so that’s the kind of input I get in terms of what I take in here. My worldview was formed as a child and young adult as a New Zealander and it’ll never not be from that point, you know what I mean? But yeah, as I get older I also don’t really know how things work and how it feels to live here. I think living here 10 years ago is different than living here now. It must be.
Did you register the Eleanor Catton stuff that went down here?
A little bit, yeah. I was following that at the time because I was more in the Venice project at that point, I was a bit closer to it.
But as an artist who engages with politics, did you respond to that? Part of the criticism from Sean Plunket was “you’ve taken money from the state, how dare you?”
I guess that returns to my opinion of what I said before about a potentially critical project being funded by the government. In my opinion, a healthy organisation, regime, institution, company is interested in critique, wants to have critique, is hungry for it. Because it helps it improve. I was disappointed in that type of conversation. You have to keep things in a context. It was a novelist giving an opinion about politics which she knows and cares about from her perspective. And a journalist and a number of politicians responding from a very different place. I feel like there was a lot of cross conversation and they didn’t really meet. And that was a bit disappointing, that people didn’t try to meet each other a little more. I’ve watched a few things and there were things that she said that she kind of directed at very general stuff like neoliberalism, which of course is quite a hard thing to pin down. And then the prime minister called her out on that kind of thing. I feel like if people had a bit more patience for each other’s position and understood each other within the context, a more generous conversation could be had where you would really meet somewhere.
I don’t know, I always try to meet people where they’re at if I can. Of course my sympathies go with a critical artist’s voice being, I think, unfairly dismissed. I think that was definitely, from my perspective, what was going on. But within a better framework I feel like there could have been a really generative discussion out of that conversation and instead, because of the way certain things were framed, it was just dismissed and name-calling in the end. Which I think is a shame.
Neoliberalism, there’s a funny one.
It’s a really funny one. It’s very difficult to pin down. Here’s the one thing, no one would call themselves a neoliberal, so that’s first and foremost a problem. Because it’s a point of critique just in its name. You’re already talking about something that people don’t agree on, what it is.
So in his new book, the art critic Anthony Byrt has I think a chapter on you in which he writes, “I’ve never been able to work out whether he” – you – “is a critic of the corporate neoliberalism that provides him with so much of his subject matter, or an artist deeply embedded within and beholden to that system.”
Do they have to be mutually exclusive? There’s maybe a question to that. Neoliberalism is a problem. Again, I think this is one of those words that gets used to blanket cover for a certain widespread commercialism and general political liberalism, that’s I think what it kind of means. We all operate within that, it doesn’t matter where you’re working from. Unfortunately, or fortunately, that’s where we’ve ended up. That’s where The Spinoff is working from, that’s where everybody in the world has to start with how they pay rent. That’s the context, right?
And yeah, you want to look at that context, you want to ask questions, you want to ask where it comes from, you want to ask what the models are, why certain things are valued and others are dismissed. You want to look at all of that very carefully but you’re also – you are that. If you’re participating in a system, you are the system also. That’s true from a small participation to a large scale participation.
Some might say that means there’s complicity.
Anybody who’s experiencing doing anything at scale of any kind knows that many contradictory things can run together at the same time. That’s certainly been my learning experience. I don’t want to pull that out into a full generalisation. But I need to fund my projects so I need to make things that have at least a possibility of sales to them, that doesn’t mean that you only make abstract painting which would be ultimate form of sales work or whatever. But it means that you have to think about who a potential buyer might be for these kinds of things, and there has to become a format as part of what you’re doing.
Does that mean you would pull back on a critique or perspective on something to make it more palatable?
No, that’s actually something I don’t do. This is a good distinction to make. And I’m thinking on my feet here but I think format-wise, one can make a great anything. Great pop musicians have to make songs within three minutes, that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to make something really significant within that framework. But I never pull back on the hardcore-ness of my content. That is something I don’t do. I make sure that the framework is nuanced enough to be not stupid. Doing simple polemic things is great, but what I prefer to do, and what I think I’ve become better at doing, is doing something which asks a lot of questions, is challenging, but is not necessarily always easy to say “that’s exactly where that’s coming from”. And that’s also the potency of it, because if it was it would never get through the door. That’s not a compromise, that’s acknowledging the wonderful complexity of things. That’s where I come from with it.
You mentioned your Bitcoin work. Have you seen that Kim Dotcom is promising that his new Mega will be based on the blockchain.
I didn’t actually know that, that’s great. That’s the crazy thing about what I do, it links up. The more I follow these things – and I started it just because I thought my laptop was really important – I started to look at who was building tech.
When was that?
When I moved overseas, when I left home. When I left Auckland to go to Frankfurt. My laptop became the only important thing I owned, basically. It was my communication portal for my friends and family, it was how I learned at school, it was how I socialised online. Everything was through this object. For somebody who was a sculptor and really into objects it was like why am I making art about anything else apart from this thing? If this is the most significant object to me, it is to many other people, and let’s look at what that means. So then I just intrinsically got into tech and after looking at the form a little bit, then I started looking at the anthropology and the people behind it. Who’s making these? Making it so that I can do this thing but I can’t do that thing. It’s possible to do that but impossible to do this or that. So that became important to me. But the more you follow this stuff, tech is just so important to the direction the world is going. So each new moment, each new important thing, has a tech angle on it which is really important. So all these things came together, all these serendipitous things keep happening in looking at this material. Because I think it really is on the cutting edge of culture, a little bit.
So that’s your oeuvre, for want of a better word, or a decade of it. Is there part of you that thinks you’ll get that done then for the next thing go sit by a pond and do some nice watercolours or something?
I do draw. I do have a drawing and painting practice which I sometimes use. I’ve done some Bitcoin drawing which I really like. I like drawing as a medium, it’s a great medium.
But tech culture is the fascination.
For now. I mean, who knows? I think everything’s related to tech. What’s more important than tech culture in the world? Well probably climate change but climate change is also related to tech. It’s related to business, it’s related to governance. Tech is my window to the most important things that happen in the world right now, you know? But they just keep being a part of that. How can technology not be a part of our future?
The transcript has been edited for length and clarity. Secret Power is on display at Te Papa, Wellington, until February. Entry is free.