DAMN°: Your New Zealand Pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennale was the talk of the town. How do you look back on it?
Simon Denny: It was interesting for me to represent New Zealand, as I no longer live there. It was an open call. I was encouraged by my peers; I applied and got it. I was wondering how to do a show that makes sense in that context. The Snowden thing had just occurred, so I thought: This is the most geopolitically significant thing that’s happened in my country for a long time. New Zealand was strongly involved in that network and was in a way also seen as part of the power of the NSA. The international perception was very interesting. So that was a very good place to start. And then there was the process of finding a venue, as New Zealand has no permanent space in Venice. For me, that was kind of a gift. Exhibiting there was definitely the most challenging thing I’ve ever done. My team doubled or even tripled in size. I was also really growing as an artist. It was a breakthrough piece for me. I learned a lot.
SD: The library had this amazing resonance with the material I was dealing with in the Snowdon slides, because it is very visual and houses a special representation of the knowledge and power in Venice. There are paintings and maps there from the time Venice was at its most powerful. I used the airport – a kind of gateway to Venice – to transfer images of the library’s interior onto the oor. You were literally crossing borders, subjected to intelligence. I liked the idea of having a contemporary space and an ancient space in Venice, both speaking about knowledge, power, and geopolitics.
SD: Exactly. When you make exhibitions and they go on tour, there is always the question of how much you take of the things that were specific to the space. But it works with both bodies of work I am showing here [Products for Organising, as presented at the Serpentine Gallery in London, and Secret Power from Venice]. How large organisations function and what this means relates a lot to a place like Brussels.
DAMN°: Central to your show is the work of Da- vid Darchicourt, graphic designer at the NSA. How did you manage to track him down?
SD: My friend David Bennewith is a design academic and did a lot of research. He asked people on Twitter to identify the maker of that one design and got a reply back saying: ‘Check out that guy on LinkedIn’. Which is how we got to Darchicourt and saw his Adobe profile where he showed his work. We looked at it and knew it was exactly the kind of frame we were looking for.
DAMN°: Was it all so transparent?
SD: Yes, that’s the amazing thing. On his website there were all these posters he had done for Infosecurity. This led me onto my other research. There was a wealth of content – completely different from the Snowdon case, which was one big question mark. His profile gave me the context to piece together more meaningfully what was happening in the Snowden slides.
DAMN°: Was he willing to collaborate?
SD: Well, yes. I wanted to engage him but also keep him at a distance. I commissioned some new works from him but didn’t tell him why. I certainly didn’t tell him I was also reinterpreting a lot of material from his website. He accepted and was well paid for the job. But he was not fully informed. Then The Guardian stepped in, visiting the pavilion the day before the opening. They contacted him and told him the entire story. It was a nice circle of information. The newspaper that was so important for the Snowden leaks was then used as a reverse leaking device in my exhibition.
DAMN°: Your analysis of Darchicourt’s works feels more like an anthropological study of the imagery and philosophy of corporate culture than of aesthetics.
SD: It is kind of both. It’s more about information and communication than a matter of taste. David Darchicourt has made, in a way, some of the most powerful and recognisable images of the most relevant issues of today. He has made contemporary masterpieces of surveillance culture. That was the frame I wanted for my interpretation and juxtaposition with real masters like Veronese and Tintoretto, which made the library such a rich visual source regarding the Renaissance period. So you could see Darchicourt as our contemporary Titian.
DAMN°: Some of the designs are quite surprising.
One might expect dry, rigid work, but a lot of it is very playful, like the comic characters and the drawing on a corn flakes box...
SD: Well, this is the thing: NSA is a very complex organisation and many people don’t understand the technology behind it. There are vast levels of information they try to make accessible. You can do that by making fun, playful drawings. It might be surprising from a layman’s perspective, but if you see it from their point of view, it is quite logical.
DAMN°: You also show two architectural models in the shape of a circle, as used by both Apple and the British Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). It looks like official institutions are also adopting the typical lingo of transparency and the bottom-up spirit that originally stems from counterculture?
SD: It is more than that. One of things I look at in the exhibition is the influence of hacking culture that was so important to the history of technology that started at MIT. Take somebody like Steve Jobs, a classic example. Jobs stands for counterculture that turned into establishment. One of the key stories I tell is about the idea of the hacker coming into the official culture through management and organisation. That circular architectural form wants to em- brace sharing, teambuilding, and spontaneity. But at the same time, the transparency stands for security. The things I research are among the most important forms in our world. It is interesting to know who is building the aesthetics that shape our world.
DAMN°: You have a busy schedule ahead of you with, among others, the Berlin Biennale and Manifesta 11 to prepare for. What are you going to present?
SD: I’ve been working on my contribution for Berlin in parallel with the show at Wiels. It’s a new production based on the financial technology that became popular with Bitcoin, the alternative form of currency. The interesting thing that Bitcoin proves is that you don’t necessarily need the traditional form of trusted third parties anymore. You can verify that something happened through a transaction or an exchange without an overseeing, verifying figure like a bank or a state. There are lots of cool companies and young people envisaging a new world outside nationhood or traditional governance structures. I am looking at three examples of very different contexts from banking, a Silicon Valley company, and a kind of transnational hacker context. For Manifesta, I will tie into the financial terms of the Bitcoin people based in Zug, close to Zürich. [Zug is the first city in the world to accept Bitcoin as payment for government services]. It’s a very interesting place where you don’t pay many taxes. I am looking at a platform called Ethereum. It is one of the most exciting financial technology companies in the world.
Business Insider is at Wiels, Brussels, until 14 August.
9th Berlin Biennale runs until 18 September.
Manifesta 11 is in Zürich until 25 September.