PRINT May 2015



THE TED TALK, the Meetup, the tech convention, the encrypted network: Alongside the emergence of new technology in the public sphere, we find the proliferation of novel spaces and cultures that facilitate that technology’s production and distribution. In recent years, these nebulous, venture-capital-saturated zones have been the focus of Simon Denny’s art. Such an emphasis marks a shift from the New Zealand–born artist’s earlier work, which tended to zero in on changes in technology itself, as in his early exhibitions that reflected on the evolution of television and video. Denny’s new, more anthropological direction was most clearly evident in his 2012 exhibition “All You Need is Data—The DLD 2012 Conference REDUX” at the Kunstverein Munich, for which the artist highlighted the eponymous annual media conference held in the city. Begun in 2005, DLD (Digital-Life-Design) styles itself not as a trade show but as a loftier platform for the exchange of ideas regarding innovation and technological development between the tech sector and the fields of business, science, art, and culture. For Denny, technology itself is less important or interesting than the discursive situations it engenders and the images, values, and (sometimes hyperbolic, always optimistic) rhetoric through which that discourse is conveyed. This became even more clear in last year’s exhibitions “Disruptive Berlin” at Galerie Buchholz, where Denny profiled the emerging and much-hyped tech start-up scene in the German capital, creating sculptural “portraits” of ten up-and-coming firms; and “New Management,” at Portikus in Frankfurt, which explored the corporate culture and management philosophy of the South Korean multinational corporation Samsung, an ideology credited with transforming the company from a second-tier television brand into one of the world’s most powerful electronics manufacturers. Together, these recent industry-focused projects form the core of Denny’s current survey at New York’s MoMA PS1.

Here and elsewhere, Denny translates cultural systems into material objects, documenting previously unexcavated histories and lending tangible form to what are often ephemeral events. He tends to approach his subjects with a mixture of anthropological curiosity and journalistic detachment, and serendipitous discoveries and painstaking research often lead to one another in equal measure. In Secret Power, which opens this month as New Zealand’s national pavilion at the Fifty-Sixth Venice Biennale, Denny focuses on the visual culture of the contemporary intelligence community. Drawing on both National Security Agency PowerPoint slides leaked by Edward Snowden and other publicly available materials discovered through his own online research, Denny examines the visual organization and self-fashioning of these agencies, a world in which diagrams and flowcharts detailing top-secret surveillance programs exist alongside (or share server space with) anthropomorphic cartoon animals more at home on breakfast-cereal boxes than at spy agencies.

Jacob Proctor

NEW ZEALAND doesn’t have a fixed venue for the pavilion—which meant I could choose the location myself. I selected two sites: the arrivals hall of Venice Marco Polo Airport and the Monumental Rooms of Venice’s historical library at San Marco, the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana.

The library—which was designed by Jacopo Sansovino in the early years of the Renaissance and mostly completed by 1560—was meant to be the “first true public library of modern times.” Prominent artists adorned the interior with paintings depicting the value of wisdom, philosophy, and other areas of knowledge, and the rich iconography of classical mythology celebrates the “divine destinies and the civil and military duties of man.” The library is also famous for its artifacts of geographic history: Fra Mauro’s world map and Vincenzo Coronelli’s globes describe the geopolitical knowledge available to the Republic of Venice when it was at its most powerful.

When my project is installed, visitors will encounter a kind of makeshift display room/server room in the library’s Monumental Hall. I have modified, or “modded,” customizable server rack systems into glass-fronted, fully labeled, LED-lit display cases that sit below and between portraits of philosophers painted by Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese. The modding of the racks takes its visual and structural cues from existing cabinetry in the library—particularly the case displaying the Fra Mauro map—and viewers will be able to walk around the hall taking in both the library’s existing imagery and the imagery I present in various customized viewing stations.

Secret Power will look at examples of how the world is mapped and imagined today, at a time when wide-ranging surveillance of global information exchange is normal. One of my starting points is Edward Snowden’s NSA leak. These releases, which began in 2013, detailed the activities of the Five Eyes alliance, composed of the national intelligence agencies of the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. They are a unique resource for many reasons. I wanted to put into a larger cultural perspective the way that complex intelligence-gathering systems are represented by graphics, logos, images, and diagrams, both public facing and internal.

The server rack displays will be separated into two sections. The first presents a selection of images from Snowden-leaked slides and expands on their likely sources and visual context. As one discovers, there are different kinds of language—both pictorial and textual—for different levels of publicness. Top-secret logos and icons are often jocular in tone and include provocative iconography. The NSA’s Treasure Map program, for example, which aims to “map the entire Internet—any device, anywhere, all the time,” is represented by a skull resembling that of the T-800 endoskeleton from the Terminator science-fiction-film franchise, ringed by sixteen radiating blades, evocative of the cardinal and ordinal points of a compass. As The Intercept notes, “It evokes a kind of Google Earth for global data traffic, a bird’s eye view of the planet’s digital arteries.” Public-facing material, by contrast—such as images and exhibits in museums and memorials, and those found in the NSA’s own PR and external communications—often uses the language of service and pride alongside cartoons designed to make the agencies’ clandestine activities appear accessible and even benign. The NSA’s amazing National Cryptologic Museum at their headquarters in Fort George G. Meade, Maryland, contains many rich and beautiful examples of this.

A second section of the exhibition is a case study of one individual: an artist who, according to his CV, was a top-level creative director and designer at one of the Five Eyes agencies. Today he works as a freelance illustrator, and I was able to access his work on a platform used by professional designers to share creative portfolios. Many of those publicly available pieces are reimagined or re-rendered in two or three dimensions for the exhibition. Original work commissioned from the artist will also be on view.

AS FOR THE AIRPORT, the terminal that is being used today opened in 2002, just after the events of 9/11 prompted many airport practices to change. Marco Polo was the first Italian airport to have full-color, high-resolution digital-video surveillance, and the first to use facial recognition for security access to restricted areas. The airport has many parts—restricted spaces, surveillance spaces, and interrogation spaces—that together make up a contemporary city gate.

In a kind of physical “drag-and-drop” maneuver, large-scale, high-definition photographic imagery from the library will be printed on adhesive vinyl and transplanted onto corresponding surfaces in the airport. For example, a reproduction of the library’s ceiling will be transposed onto the airport’s floor, allowing arriving visitors to walk on top of the “divine destinies and the civil and military duties of man.” I am working with advertising multinational Clear Channel to execute the wrapping and to shape the interaction of the two environments. It could read like a giant advertisement, spotlighting the cartographic treasures in the library’s collection.

One of my installations at the airport extends across the international border, so that the allegories for knowledge and power from the library literally span restricted and unrestricted space. Half is in international space (before you clear customs) and the other half is in Italy (where you pick up your baggage); each half is visible from the other. The calculated staging of opacity and transparency is crucial to the way airport architecture operates everywhere, and for me, this resonates with how online communication works. Like the Internet, airport architecture distills two seemingly irreconcilable political and economic realities of our moment: the neoliberal policies that encourage movement and circulation, and the security apparatus of the nation-state that seeks to control and track that movement.

By necessity, my exhibition has been produced at a distance from its subject matter. A selection of leaked slides and excerpts from an accidentally encountered online profile can offer only a starting point for understanding the cultural space in which this imagery is produced. Compiled exclusively from publicly accessible online sources, it may contain inaccuracies; illustrations necessarily appear out of context and without full explanation. It is possible that their meaning has been distorted by changes in format, proximity, and context; connections that seem real may in fact be circumstantial. The map, that is to say, may not be the territory.