Simon Denny: Secret Power, ex. cat. (Berlin: Mousse Publishing, 2015).
In 1964, Marshall McLuhan came up with a big idea: ‘the medium is the message’.1 Culture is shaped more by the media people use to communicate than by the content of their communications. Media structure and frame our thoughts, defining our connections with the world and other people, our ways of life. McLuhan saw that times were changing, that new electronic media were linking people and places with greater speed and immediacy, turning the globe into a global village.
Although he would go on to be celebrated as ‘the first seer of cyberspace’, McLuhan was alert to the downside. In 1967, he wrote: ‘Electrical information devices for universal, tyrannical womb-to-tomb surveillance are causing a very serious dilemma between our claim to privacy and the community’s need to know. The older, traditional ideas of private, isolated thoughts and actions—the patterns of mechanistic technologies—are very seriously threatened by new methods of instantaneous electric information retrieval, by the electrically computerized dossier bank—that one big gossip column that is unforgiving, unforgetful and from which there is no redemption …’2
Despite such warnings, we have perfected a rather Pollyannaish view of electronic media. Living online, it is easy to imagine ourselves as part of a network of disembodied, dislocated free spirits engaged in immediate, unmediated communication—heart to heart, mind to mind. As technology becomes faster, smaller, cheaper, and ubiquitous, it also becomes transparent to us. Whimsically, we think of the Internet as a cloud, as ethereal and nowhere in particular, so, when whistleblower Edward Snowden began to leak top-secret NSA documents to the world media in June 2013, it was a rude awakening. We discovered that our intelligence agencies have developed draconian mass-surveillance capabilities, enabling them to snoop on anyone and anything. Snowden’s leaks reminded us that our beloved Internet is a creature of the military, technocrats, and capitalists, and overseen by spooks. It exists firmly on the ground, in particular jurisdictions, in data centres the size of football fields drawing down more electricity than some countries.3 The cloud has a big footprint.
Simon Denny has been called a post-Internet artist. He grew up with the Internet and several of his recent works address, directly and indirectly, its logics and aesthetics, its politics and its personnel (those who produce it and those who police it). McLuhan prompted us to look beyond the content of communications to their delivery systems but also warned us that we could not necessarily understand media from within. He used to say, ‘We don’t know who discovered water, but we know it wasn’t the fish.’ Perhaps this is why Denny uses so many other media in pursuing his inquiry into the Internet.
Denny’s All You Need Is Data—The DLD 2012 Conference REDUX (2013) is a portrait of the Silicon Valley set, based on a tech conference. The Digital-Life-Design conference (DLD) happens every year in Munich. For three days, elite thinkers in technology, science, politics, design, art, and the media from around the globe gather to gaze into their crystal balls and prognosticate.4 From eighty hours of HD video of the 2012 conference, Denny grabbed images and transcribed quotes to provide the basis for ninety inkjet-printed canvases representing each conference session. Uniform in size and format, the canvases combined DLD’s aspirational alpinist design style with the look of iOS5, the then-ubiquitous iPhone operating system, an extreme example of Apple’s skeuomorphic interface design.
Skeuomorphs are familiar features from older forms carried over into new ones, where they have no functional value. Apple used them to make personal computing ‘user friendly’. It started with working on a ‘desktop’ and putting documents into ‘folders’, and evolved into ebooks with pages that turn and shutterless cameras that go click.5 But, long after people had made the transition to the new technology, skeuomorphic interface design persisted. With increased processing power and screen resolution, Apple went to absurd lengths with iOS5 and 6, featuring nostalgic gimmicks (Cover Flow suggesting record covers flipping in 3-D space) and real-world textures (green baize in Game Center and wooden bookcases in Newsstand).
Denny’s All You Need Is Data canvases echo that look. Their proportions suggest an iPhone screen while the two background options refer to the conference’s stage sets: one based on abstracted alps (standing for the future), the other on an alpine wood-cabin interior. Speakers are identified by ID tags on lanyards and their images are presented as Polaroids, casually pinned, taped, and paper-clipped at jaunty angles. Although the canvases look like pictures, you feel that you could click on anything. By the time Denny unveils All You Need Is Data at Kunstverein Munich—as a contribution to the 2013 DLD conference—skeuomorphism’s days are numbered. Apple is preparing to launch iOS7, which jettisons skeuomorphic funkiness in favour of chic flat design. Captured in Denny’s canvases, last year’s view of the future already looks outdated.6
Denny has said, ‘I’m an acceptor of the world as it is. I’m not out to change the world, I’m out to figure out what it is.’7 But one can see a critical dimension to All You Need Is Data. It’s a textbook example of what American artist Dan Graham called an ‘anti-aphrodisiac’.8 Capitalism is a culture of perpetual newness, which paradoxically makes newness the status quo. Graham advocated throwing spanners into the works by foregrounding the repressed ‘just past’—that which is no longer novel, but not yet retro—lest we forget.
All You Need Is Data is a group portrait. It presents representatives of the digital creative sector, exposing their beliefs, values, and aspirations: some participants want to make another million, others to save the world, some both. In his TV documentary, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, Adam Curtis accuses Silicon Valley of scrambling psychedelia with cybernetics, Gaia with technological determinism, and communes with The Fountainhead (dropout with startup), effectively collapsing the traditional political poles of left wing and right. Thus, Silicon Valley and its associates admit no place, no outside, from which critique might come—they have everything covered.9 Denny’s installation makes this presumption palpable.
For All You Need Is Data, Denny creates a passageway using metal railings, recalling the queuing stanchions used in banks, passport offices, and Disneyland. Hanging his canvases on the walls and rails, he makes you view them in a prescribed order. Although the work suggests a website expanded into the real world, its structure is hardly interactive, more a book on walls, a dense book on walls. You leave feeling overwhelmed by the quantity of content, the unrelenting blue-sky rhetoric and candy colours, the snappy soundbites. It’s easy to suspect that you are not processing the work, but being processed by it. This compressed, claustrophobic exhibition design—which reminded New York Times reviewer Roberta Smith of a slaughterhouse10—puts paid to DLD’s sublime alpinist livery.
Denny’s other big 2013 project, The Personal Effects of Kim Dotcom, is another portrait. Kim Dotcom is the German-Finnish founder of Megaupload, a Hong Kong–based file-sharing service that enabled users to swap big files anonymously, to Hollywood’s chagrin. Since 2010, he has been living in exile in New Zealand. In 2012, local police raided his auckland mansion, arrested him, and seized property on behalf of the FBI, who wanted him extradited to face copyright infringement and money laundering charges. Dotcom’s US Government Indictment included a list of 110 confiscated items, which sounds like something out of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. There are bank accounts, millions of dollars, a fleet of luxury cars (Mercedes, Cadillacs, a Maserati, a Lamborghini, and a Rolls-Royce Phantom), a Harley-Davidson, a Sea-Doo jetski, enormous TVs, a Hästens horsehair bed, a Devon chronometer, a life-size Predator sculpture, and numerous other art works expressing gamer taste.11 Wondering how we might understand Dotcom’s situation through his stuff, Denny decided to exhibit the spoils.
Denny knows he can never gather genuine examples of everything on the list, so he makes do with parts, fakes, and stand-ins. Stacks of cash are replaced with shredded notes and a massive flatscreen is mocked up. Cars are represented by wheels, engines, remade vanity plates, and models. For the bank accounts and companies, Denny documents his own thwarted attempts to make similar financial and legal arrangements. Denny calls his exhibits high-res and low-res copies, suggesting the way Megaupload users themselves trafficked in unauthorised copies of dubious quality. Each time Personal Effects is shown, the exhibits are different, depending on what Denny can access. The project is an exercise in substitution and synecdoche. The exhibition feels like a showroom, an evidence room, or Charles Foster Kane’s crates store. Viewers wander around, trying to match objects to their entries on the list. The work is at once about what Dotcom owned and about Denny’s attempt to represent it.
Denny is drawn to topical subject matter, making the context for interpretation volatile. As Personal Effects was presented in successive venues, the plot thickened. Before the raid, Dotcom had lived large, cultivating his image as a wide boy, pirate, gangster, party animal, and playboy—a Dr. Evil type. After his arrest, he became more a family man, DJ, and civil liberties watchdog—a man of the people. Still fighting extradition, Dotcom went on to create a New Zealand political party, the Internet Party, advocating for less surveillance, copyright reform, and cheap Internet. It merged with Mana, an existing Maori-oriented party, to contest the 2014 election. Despite well-funded campaign hooplah, Internet Mana tanked, and Mana’s only MP lost his seat. The electorate was confused. Was Dotcom a self-interested one percenter or a freedom fighter? It seems he wanted to be both, Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham. Here again, the idea of Silicon Valley’s left-right collapse makes sense.
Two weeks after the election, as Dotcom is licking his wounds, Personal Effects opens at Wellington’s Adam Art Gallery (its third outing). On this occasion, Denny includes a life-size sculpture of a Maori security guard by Michael Parekowhai. It stands in for an item listed vaguely on the seizure inventory as ‘fibreglass sculpture’. The suggestion that Dotcom has engaged a Maori security guard to protect his stuff implies he coopted Mana for ‘protection’. For Denny, who is always at pains to cultivate the appearance of documentarian neutrality, it is a rare moment of editorialising.
New Zealanders were surprised when their government was found to have illegally spied on Dotcom before the raid. The Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) was in cahoots with the Americans. The GCSB would come under increased public scrutiny from June 2013, following the Snowden leaks.
Those leaks included sets of PowerPoint slides for internal training presentations about mass surveillance data-mining programmes, including PRISM and XKEYSCORE. The slides are intriguing both for what they show and how they show it. Never intended to be seen by outsiders, they lack the cautious tone and graphic consistency we expect from government communications. Peppered with acronyms, codenames, jokes, motivational slogans, mission crests, and collaborators’ logos, the Snowden slides have an amateurish clip-art aesthetic. NSA projects may involve billions of dollars and a high-tech infrastructure, but their slides recall the giddy days of DIY desktop publishing. Looking through them, you feel like a spy or a voyeur yourself.
On TV, Stephen Colbert joked about it, saying, ‘Snowden leaked a top-secret PowerPoint presentation that details how the government gathers massive amounts of information on everything but graphic design.’12 Concerned less by the slides’ political implications than by their inferior design, presentation designer Emiland De Cubber published his improved versions, offering the police state a free lesson in style.13 Denny joined in, redesigning two XKEYSCORE slides in the new iOS7 flat style as a pagework for the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine.14
People asked: Doesn’t the NSA employ designers, and, if it does, what do they do there? Seeking answers, the designer David Bennewith, who often works with Denny, discovered the Behance online profile of graphic designer David Darchicourt.15 NSA’s Creative Director of Defense Intel from 2001 to 2012, Darchicourt was now pitching for freelance work. His profile made no bones about his former life and concentrated on his facility as an illustrator. Exhibition designs for the NSA’s National Cryptologic Museum, at Fort Meade, Maryland, were included along with graphics headed ‘Counterintelligence Awareness’ and ‘Security’. Through Darchicourt, Denny could put a face to the faceless NSA.
Denny’s Venice show, Secret Power, presents itself as a case study of the visual culture of the NSA. Its central conceit is to compare Darchicourt’s work to a selection of Snowden slides that Denny feels resonates with it. The installation itself takes the form of a server room: an ensemble of nine server racks and a workstation. Pictorial and sculptural treatments of Snowden-slide images and Darchicourt images (some NSA-related, some not) are integrated into the racks and workstation, along with functioning LED-flashing computer equipment containing information we can’t access. Some of Denny’s ‘server-vitrines’ focus on Darchicourt’s work, others on Snowden’s slides.
In creating these displays, Denny made great use of current commercial-printing and prototyping techniques. The aesthetic is garish, vulgar, more trade fair than art gallery. The ensemble suggests a phalanx of wunderkammern—an ethnographic-museum display mapping intelligence-agency culture, whose iconography is grounded in geek-gamer culture and mired in its tropes, myths, and memes. However, it is hard to ascertain if Denny’s bewildering display is supposed to be coherent or confusing, and whether it offers an emic (insider) take on its subject, or an etic (outsider) one—casting the intelligence agencies as an exotic other.
Secret Power riffs off maps as tools and products of the territorial power delivered by systems of knowledge. One vitrine is devoted to documenting maps in the snowden slides. Another features a New Zealand centred world map that Denny and Bennewith commissioned from Darchicourt. Although based on an illustration in Nicky Hager’s book Secret Power, the 1996 exposé of New Zealand’s complicity in US spy work, Darchicourt’s version looks like something from a souvenir shop. Spruiking New Zealand as a tourist destination, it features feel-good national images, including a hobbit. However, there is one particularly telling inclusion—Waihopai Valley, which is in fact the site of a top-secret spy station. Perhaps this map is only masquerading as a tool for tourists. In other vitrines, there are more map references. Images of Positive Press (Darchicourt’s map-like kid’s educational boardgame) resonate with images from NSA slides for the TREASUREMAP program.16 In this company, you can’t help but wonder if Positive Press is as innocent as it looks. Tellingly, Denny devotes another vitrine to material from Britain’s GCHQ’s training slides for ‘The Art of Deception’, which include images of famous magicians. Might Denny himself be misdirecting us, or is he showing his hand? Denny makes us suspicious.
And then there are the animals. Secret Power features a lot of animal imagery. Inspired by a translucent lizard in Darchicourt’s ‘Security’ poster, Denny commissioned him to create a graphic identity for a tuatara character for what was described as a New Zealand history project.17 Denny showcases treatments of the creature (cyborg and humanoid) alongside Darchicourt’s cute CryptoKids humanimal characters, made for the National Cryptologic Museum to engage children as would-be future code makers and code breakers. Denny also introduces more biting animal images. One vitrine features a crude rendering of a fox being dissolved in a barrel of acid. It comes from a leaked slide for FOXACID, an NSA malware system used to destroy opponents’ reputations and careers. Here we see a direct contrast between Disneyesque presentations for external audiences (saturated with feel-good ideology) and brutal, sadistic ones for insiders (lacking any such pretence).
Secret Power is also about art. Denny’s projects make analogies between the visual language and design protocols of art exhibitions and those of other kinds of display—PowerPoint presentations, websites, conferences, showrooms, trade fairs, evidence rooms, even cakes.18 In Secret Power, Denny’s high-spec vitrines frame their contents with fetishistic delight, compartmentalising and integrating different orders of representation. The units are dense with information, with materials displayed inside them and upon them. Nodding to Ashley Bickerton’s work of the late 1980s, the vitrines compete with their contents for our attention.
Denny absents himself to focus on Darchicourt. One vitrine features a life-size image of Darchicourt at his workstation presiding over the show, quite the artist in his studio. This big-headed, wide-eyed caricature was enlarged from a self portrait on Darchicourt’s profile and is accompanied by details from his LinkedIn page. another vitrine is crowned by the David Darchicourt Design logo and his contact details, as if he were in Venice pitching for work (aren’t we all?). Do we take Darchicourt-the-artist as a stand-in for Denny-the-artist? Is Denny identifying with him or distancing himself? Is he presenting Darchicourt as an agent or a fall guy? And what does it mean to single out one former employee to exemplify the visual culture of the NSA (which employs an estimated 40,000 people)?
Denny’s installation frames Darchicourt’s commercial art practice (illustration, largely) within his own contemporary art one (grounded in pop, minimalism, and conceptualism). To some, including Darchicourt perhaps, Denny’s art language may itself bristle with NSA-like occult significance.
Denny not only places the Darchicourt and Snowden materials in counterpoint with each other, he also places them, together, in counterpoint with the installation’s venue, its frame, the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, in Piazzetta San Marco. Like the Snowden slides, the Library represents an era of expansionist confidence, globalisation, and empire, but from a very different time. It was built during the Renaissance, when Venice was a major world player. It is home to precious historical manuscripts and books, globes and maps—including Fra Mauro’s iconic world map. The Library’s architecture and decor were conceived as an allegory celebrating knowledge. Walls and ceilings feature paintings by prominent artists, including Titian (depicting wisdom) and Tintoretto (depicting a philosopher). So here, Denny nests a current representation of power-knowledge within a redundant historical one, inviting us to compare and contrast. It’s one inner sanctum within another.19
Denny prompts us to find links between the Renaissance iconography of the Library’s painted decorations and the contemporary images in his vitrines. Although separated by centuries, they rhyme. Both levels feature representations of bearded wise men, soldiers, weapons, and battles. Ideas about strategy, territory, and conquest, power and knowledge, and social hierarchy and civic duty ricochet between them. For the contemporary images, these affinities owe much to gamer culture, with its love of historical fantasy and power games. (This culture must be alive and well in the nsa, at least among those tasked to make its slides and other graphics.) Implying links between militarism, computers, and gaming, Secret Power nods to game theorist John von Neumann and to Alan Turing, and even, perhaps, to Ronald Reagan—whose Strategic Defense Initiative was nicknamed ‘Star Wars’).20 And of course, the Marciana Library’s decor was itself always already an historical fantasy, cloaking its contemporary Realpolitik with classical mythology.
If all that isn’t complex enough, Secret Power has another twist—a second venue. If the Library is an historical space in the heart of Venice, the other venue is modern and on the edge of town—it’s the arrivals lounge at Marco Polo airport. Denny is the first Venice Biennale artist to use it. While it is not exactly a public space—access is restricted—it’s popular, with millions passing through it each year. In the lounge, passengers transition from Non-Schengen space (subject to international law) into Schengen space (subject to European law). While, in the Marciana Library, the contents of Denny’s vitrines picture the way the globe is policed, his airport installation straddles a literal border, where actual people—his viewers—are actually being processed.
For the work, Denny ‘drags-and-drops’ two 1:1 high-resolution photographic reproductions of the Library’s decorated walls and ceiling across the floor and walls of the lounge. The image is inverted: the Library’s painted ceiling ends up on the lounge’s floor—the gods are brought down to earth. These huge images incorporate inset plaques, reproducing masterpieces of historical cartography from the Library’s collection. The plaques look like notices for what’s on at the Library, so the Airport installation doubles as promotion, directing people to the Library (and Denny’s show), while creating false expectations about the secrets to be uncovered there.
In Secret Power, Denny explores the Library, the Airport, and the Biennale as frames. He presents a contemporary computer server room within a very historic library (completed 1588), within a fairly historic Biennale premised on a now anachronistic model of national representation (established 1895). Then, he re-presents the very historic library within a modern Airport terminal, completed soon after 9/11, at the beginning of a new era of global insecurity. Everything is nested in something else, everything is conditional. The now in the then, the then in the now. Global imperatives from different historical moments link these spaces, and distinguish them.
In calling it a case study exploring NSA visual culture, Denny deftly casts Secret Power as a research project, where we might reasonably put two and two together. But it’s not really a case study. Although there’s a vast amount of information, there’s no clear methodology for how to deal with it. Denny doesn’t define what he means by visual culture, he simply asserts that the NSA has one. His juxtapositions are speculative, impressionistic, and circumstantial. The vitrines include evidence Denny has found, but also evidence he has commissioned. Indeed, nothing is unprocessed. Denny has treated almost every item, determining scale, sheen, and placement, translating from it from one medium into another. He even makes images—like TREASUREMAP’s skull logo and the NSA Special Source Operations eagle-and-globe logo—into sculptures (prompting us to take their metaphors literally).
In Secret Power, we can see dots, but don’t know how to join them. We don’t know whether to take things at face value or to drill down for subtext. The work presents speculative conspiracy-theorist connections alongside clearly causal ones (for instance, where Denny tracks down an image from the NSA’s QUANTUMTHEORY slide set to its source, the role-player card game Shadowfist). In this exercise of visual Snap, it’s often hard to know whether things are already connected or whether Denny and we are making up connections. Presenting consequential information alongside trivia, corrupting media and mixing metaphors, piling on the complications and frames, Denny makes interpretation never ending. But why?
In 1964—the year McLuhan came up with ‘the medium is the message’—the American social scientist, Bertram Gross, described ‘information overload’: ‘Information overload occurs when the amount of input to a system exceeds its processing capacity. Decision makers have fairly limited cognitive processing capacity. Consequently, when information overload occurs, it is likely that a reduction in decision quality will occur.’21
So, information can be too much information. Even the NSA feels the strain. It is struggling to manage the volume of today’s telecommunication, especially with so many new encryption techniques to decode. In 2013, it asked for almost $US50 million to research ‘coping with information overload’.22 As much as it wants to ‘collect it all’ (hoovering up every scrap of our telecommunications), it constantly needs more capacity to ‘process it all’. The NSA does not like complexity. It needs to defeat information overload in order to distill complexity into simplicity, into goodies and baddies, us and them. Denny, by contrast, revels in information overload for the uncertainty it brings. He uses it to exercise us, to stretch us, to make us more suspicious, self-conscious.
The real irony is that—in Secret Power and elsewhere—Denny places himself and us (as artist and viewers) in positions oddly analogous to the NSA’s. We also trawl through data and metadata, engaging in analytics, pattern recognition, and profiling. We also make examples of others—be they DLD conferees, Dotcom, or Darchicourt. With Secret Power, the ultimate risk—for Denny and for us—is being seduced by this contemporary war-machine mindset, by its fascinating semiotic richness, intricacy, and intrigue.
- Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1964), 7.
- Marshall McLuhan, The Medium Is the Massage (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967), 12.
- See Mark Mills, ‘The Cloud Begins with Coal: Big Data, Big Networks, Big Infrastructure, and Big Power’ (2013). www.tech-pundit.com/wp-content/ uploads/2013/07/Cloud_Begins_With_Coal.pdf?c761ac. retrieved 10 February 2015. see also Metahaven, ‘Captives of the Cloud’ (2012–13) Parts I-III. www.e-flux.com/journal/captives-of-the-cloud-part-i/. retrieved 10 February 2015.
- 2012’s roster of star speakers included Chris Poole (who created 4chan, the website which spawned the hacktivist group anonymous), Andrew Mason (founder of Groupon, then the fastest growing US company), Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook CEO), and Yoko Ono (artist).
- A perfect illustration of skeuomorphic excess is found in the 1994 film Disclosure. Michael Douglas dons VR glasses and gloves, so he can trudge through a virtual historical building to retrieve a virtual piece of paper from a virtual filing cabinet.
- Denny’s show opened on 19 January 2013. Apple would not announce iOS7 until 10 June 2013, but we assume it was in the air.
- Henry Oliver, ‘The Art of Success’, Metro, November 2014: 64.
- Dan Graham, in Discussions in Contemporary Culture: Volume 1 (Seattle: Bay Press, 1987), 88-91.
- BBC, 2011. Curtis drew on Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron’s party-pooping critique of neo-con digital hypsterism, ‘The Californian Ideology’. It was first published in Mute (vol. 1, no. 3, 1995) and revised for Science as Culture (vol. 6, no. 1, 1996). See also The Whole Earth: California and the Disappearance of the Outside, ed. Diedrich Diederichsen and Anselm Franke (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2013).
- Roberta Smith, ‘Digital Dogma, Deconstructed’, New York Times, 11 July 2013.
- Dotcom’s art collection reflected a gamer aesthetic and included works unlikely to be seen otherwise in the art museums where Personal Effects was shown.
- Design guru, Edward Tufte tweeted: ‘The real NSA scandal? The horrible slides.’ and Oliver Wainwright wrote: ‘a car crash of clip art and bubble diagrams, drop-shadows and gradients, they look like the work of a drunken toddler, high on the potentials of AutoShapes and Wordart. There are bevelled boxes in shades of tangerine and mint, yellow blobs floating on meaningless green arrows, and that all-pervasive header choked with a congested scatter of company logos.’ ‘Prism: The PowerPoint Presentation so Ugly It was Meant to Stay Secret’, 12 June 2013, www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/architecture- design-blog/2013/jun/12/prism-nsa-powerpoint-graphic- design. Retrieved 10 February 2015.
- ‘Dear NSA, You can do whatever with my data. But not with my eyes. Those slides are hideous.’ www.slideshare.net/EmilandDC/dear-nsa-let-me-take- care-ou. Retrieved 10 February 2015.
- 1 September 2013.
- www.behance.net/ddarchicourt. Retrieved 10 February 2015.
- TREASUREMAP is the codename for an expansive electronic surveillance and data-mapping operation conducted by NSA and GCHQ.
- The tuatara is a native New Zealand lizard.
- When Denny and Daniel Keller got the green light to stage their own TEDx conference in 2013, Denny reproduced their accepted proposal on the icing of display cakes, as if asking how this medium might change the message.
- Secret Power begs comparison with the 2008 show Jeff Koons Versailles, where Koons’s big-ticket tchotchkes were installed in the opulent crib that symbolised the absolute monarchy of the ancien régime.
- In 1983, the year Reagan proposed ‘Star Wars’, Hollywood released the film WarGames. In it, a young hacker unwittingly accesses a US military supercomputer and runs a nuclear-war simulation, believing it to be a computer game, and nearly triggers World War III.
- Bertram M. Gross, The Managing of Organizations, Volume 1: The Administrative Struggle (Glencoe IL: Free Press, 1964), 856.
- Barton Gellman and Greg Miller, ‘“Black Budget” Summary Details US Spy Network’s Successes, Failures and Objectives’, Washington Post, 29 August 2013..
And the Secret Power brochure blurb …
In recent years, Simon Denny’s research-based art projects have explored aspects of technological evolution and obsolescence, corporate and neoliberal culture, national identity, tech-industry culture, and the Internet.
His Biennale Arte 2015 project, Secret Power, was partly prompted by the impact of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s leaks of PowerPoint slides outlining top-secret US telecommunications surveillance programmes to the world media, which began in 2013. These slides highlighted New Zealand’s role in US intelligence work, as a member of the US-led Five Eyes alliance. Now in the open, the slides have come to represent international surveillance work and its impact on individual privacy.
The New Zealand pavilion is split across two state buildings: the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana (Marciana Library), in Piazzetta San Marco, in the heart of the city, and the terminal at Marco Polo Airport, on the outskirts.
In the Library, Denny has installed a server room, with server racks and a workstation. In addition to holding computer equipment, the server racks and workstation double as vitrines, displaying a case study in NSA visual culture, consisting of sculptural and graphic elements based on the work of a former NSA designer and Creative Director of Defense Intelligence David Darchicourt and the Snowden slide archive, suggesting links in iconography and treatment. The server room resonates with the Library’s decorated Renaissance-period interior, with its maps and allegorical paintings—Denny’s inquiry into the current iconography of geopolitical power being framed within an obsolete one.
The Airport terminal—a busy hub for millions of travellers—incorporates restricted spaces, surveillance spaces, and interrogation spaces, and is equipped with high-tech security systems. Denny has ‘dragged-and-dropped’ two actual-size photographic reproductions of the Library’s decorated interior across the floor and walls of the arrivals lounge, traversing the border between Schengen and non-Schengen space. The installation incorporates plaques that reproduce examples of early maps from the Library’s collection, which could be mistaken for advertisements for what’s currently on show there.
Secret Power is site specific, exploring La Biennale Arte di Venezia, the Library, and the Airport as media. Denny hints at geopolitical imperatives that cross-reference and distinguish these frames. Completed in 1588, the Library represents the Republic of Venice as a wealthy world power during the Renaissance. Established in 1895, La Biennale is premised on a model of national representation that seems obsolete today, in a time of cosmopolitan global art. Completed soon after 9/11, the Airport represents a new era of global security.
Denny’s project is a complex puzzle. Each element is nested in and reframed by other elements in an expanding allegory, making interpretation potentially interminable. And yet, despite this, Denny gets us close to his ostensible subject—the visual language of western intelligence agencies. Paradoxically, he places himself and us (as artist and viewers) in positions oddly analogous to these agencies, as we trawl through data and metadata, engaging in analytics, pattern recognition, and profiling, trying to make sense of things.
Secret Power takes its title from investigative journalist Nicky Hager’s 1996 book, which first revealed New Zealand’s involvement in US intelligence gathering.