Smart Devolutions: Simon Denny between current paranoia and progress
There’s nothing retro or outmoded about Simon Denny’s sculptures, videos, and installations. Like firmware or self-cleaning apparatuses they seem to refresh or auto-update with the most recent economic and technological dispatch. But if one were to find a thematic analogue to the artist’s works within literary history, it’d probably be in the sprawling capitalist-realist novel of the late 19th-century, »the age of newspapers and telegrams and photographs and interviewers« (to quote Henry James). That is, in dense networks of mediated power, where each protagonist is haunted by the price tag he wears on his head; where figures, as in Émile Zola, move with the programmed periodicity of cells in a petri dish, and where technological fancy, as in Jules Verne, preempts actual invention. An era of »TMI«, too much information, very much like our own.
Denny’s theme – his very medium, almost – is information itself: how does info travel, how does it look and feel, what does it make happen, and how much do you want for it? His videos and often sprawling installations seem to ask: what does data do to us as communal entities? What price do we pay, as we increasingly are ourselves monetary units, both objects and subjects of data overload? »When you have nothing to read, you can read your passport«, says a figure in the video Channel Document (2012), part of Denny’s installation at Art 43 Basel Statements that centered on the recent update of the New Zealand passport. The work – both a history and a serious parody – also touched on the disappearance of non-commercial television and the switchover from analog to digital broadcasting signals, all within the logic of the »update«: like the redesigned passport, each of these contains dubious narratives of communal betterment through technological advancement. The new passport, made to »capture New Zealanders’ adventurous spirit«, harbors in its imagery an unwitting colonial narrative about the »discovery« of New Zealand by Westerners, one that flattens and distorts historical fact. Also in the booth, lined up in a row, were upright vitrine-like sculptures overlaid with bureaucratic language, icons, and imagery from the non-commercial television network. The documentary video Denny commissioned from a journalist about the new passport took on fraught tones when juxtaposed with objects like a »Pirates of the Caribbean«-themed television – forming an invective critique of the assumptions of state bureaucrats and those in charge of national branding.
Denny, who was born in Auckland in 1982 but now lives in Berlin, was trained in sculpture at the Städelschule in Frankfurt, where he began working within a tradition influenced by Nam June Paik and others, that used the television as a sculptural object. Works like Deep Sea Vaudeo (2009) fuse that object-based tradition with the formal techniques of video art. The work is an installation of televisions, racks, and DVD players; the six televisions – beginning with a fat, 50 centimeter CRT-tube display, and progressing through today’s LED screens – all play underwater footage taken from a relaxation video. As a series of fat-to-thin consumer technology, the piece formally establishes a network of associations: from a pun on »sea«/»see« to a biting diagram of technological advancement and obsolescence, from obesity to anorexia, from the tradition of the TV as a »fishbowl space« (as Vito Acconci called it) to the supposedly numbing effect of massmedia on viewers’ criticality.
One motif from this period that recurs is the timeline format, where technological developments become unconsciously equated with a positivistic cultural and economic logic. One realizes, when observing Denny’s works, how deeply the everyday categories of consumer experience have impinged upon aesthetic criteria: how format (4:3, HD) has updated form, how the »media« usurped medium, and how presentation is linked to consumer displays (like those in department stores). Many of Denny’s pieces assert their mode of re-presentation – in their sleekness, in their formal schematics, in taking presentation itself as a theme – and yet simultaneously undermine it, as if each interface was a mere fleeting, or just -out-of-date, guise on one formless data stream. The series of printed canvases in Corporate Video Decisions (2011) collapse various media – sculpture, video, painting, print – into one hybridized form: a reappearing trick wherein Denny presents »videos« that are really sculptures that are really paintings, which are really digital prints on canvas. These formal collisions demonstrate Denny’s interests in not just the overblown, capitalist production of value per se, but in material processes in which value itself undergoes shifts or ruptures.
Recently, Denny has worked on research projects that excavate alternate organizational or corporate histories; for these, he enlisted journalists, media archaeologists, and other guns for hire, tweaking modes of display and formal hierarchies of information. These projects take on subjects such as the history of broadcasting (Negative Headroom: The Broadcast Signal Intrusion Incident, 2010), scripted capitalist environments like malls and cruise liners (Cruise Line, 2011), and the representation of labor reform (Envisaging Vocational Rehabilitation, 2012). Such projects are neither nostalgic, archival reclamations of the past (while indeed functioning as archives), nor do they fit into the hacker’s method of collapsing the machine by détournement. Instead, with a slightly mocking humor, they offer glimpses into paradoxical conditions where it’s impossible to step outside of one’s own media other than by bombarding it with yet more media.
The Proteus-like malleability of Denny’s theme – data’s propensity to different modes of visualization and representation and, likewise, our inability to acquire knowledge without these visualization techniques – often lends his works a certain austerity. Visualization was one theme in Envisaging Vocational Rehabilitation at the Westfälischer Kunstverein. Denny worked with occupational researcher Joanna Fadyl to create an extremely dense physical manual, based on the precepts of information designer Edward Tufte, depicting the history of »vocational rehabilitation« in New Zealand after its period of economic denationalization. Exemplary documents like leaflets, propaganda, and questionnaires were scanned and reproduced in a flip-up, extendable brochure that recalled the browsers and pop-up windows of the Internet (a twitter feed, a video, and a physical exhibition display were also included). Narrativizing the history of vocational rehabilitation by appropriating Facebook’s then-recent »timeline« feature, Denny reformatted it according to selective and revisionist memory: Facebook’s algorithms. Since these function by retrofitting one’s past based on one’s current preferences (»likes«) and social habits, they skew historical narratives by grounding them on the selective value of the present. Similar problems of information and agency recur in Full Participation (2012) at the Aspen Art Museum, a project exploring the early community access network Grass-Roots TV. Using restored archival video and self-consciously »distressed« imagery, Denny decontextualized the network’s history to show how proto-social networks – like our social media today – can alternately dole out power and strip it from those they involve.
It’s inaccurate to reduce Denny’s working practices – which inevitably involve collaboration and even collusion with numerous independent bodies – to mere classical »appropriation«. Appropriation rests on a concept of labor that upholds the cohesion and boundedness of individual agents. But labor practices have become fluid, and agency increasingly ethereal, encompassing collaborative technologies, economic outsourcing, crowdsourcing, and data-mining. Denny’s projects, in their fixation on gaps between networks, value and labor, show how appropriation as a category has become limited in scope. The works show how semiocapitalism has resulted not in new tastes but in new categories of flavor and form. The contradictory attitude, shared by internet trolls and those individuals locked within other agent-networks (corporations, Eurozones, art worlds), is that engagement comes with the shifting, updatable face of antagonism. Critique is indistinguishable from deprived amusement, topicality from a kind of trolling. Denny’s works take these fluxes and paradoxes and set them on display. Their sheen is sexy and commercial, but eerily bidirectional: we know we are not just viewing them, but that they too view us, rate us, and manipulate us all the while.
Pablo Larios is a writer and critic based in Berlin.
Simon Denny was born in 1982 in Auckland, New Zealand. He lives in Berlin.