Simon Denny: New Zealand’s Prodigal Art Son

INDEX editor-in-chief Adam Bryce interviews artist Simon Denny.

interview adam bryce
photography Jesse Hunniford, Paolo Monello, Nick Ash
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simon denny

ABOVE
Artist portrait in Secret Power installation, Marco Polo Airport, Venice, 2015.
Courtesy of the artist; Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne/New York;
Michael Lett, Auckland, New Zealand; Petzel Gallery, New York; T293, Rome.

Tell me about your childhood growing up in New Zealand?

I grew up in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland. I get on really well with my parents and sister and, while I was growing up with them, they were very supportive and encouraging. My parents met through their love of music, so there was a lot of music in our house. I also learned to play musical instruments with their encouragement.

My mother taught migrants English at AUT, and my father was a primary school teacher when I was a young child and, then, as I got older, he dedicated his time to printing, publishing and bookbinding, working with many artists and poets in Auckland, including (with relevance for me later) the conceptual artist Julian Dashper. He has an imprint called Puriri Press named after a giant puriri tree in front of their house. I met many wonderful people through him and my mother. I went to school at Auckland Grammar. I had all the opportunities in the world. I am a very lucky person.

How did you first become interested in art?

My parents emphasised the importance of culture when I was a child and we visited museums and galleries often. I also had very encouraging art teachers at Auckland Grammar where I went to high school. As I mentioned, I came into contact with Julian Dashper through my father during high school, as well. It was great to have the advice and perspective of one of the people working in the tradition of art that I would go on to pursue. Julian was very generous and encouraging. I remember my father making many of Julian’s record covers and small publications in his workshops. Conversations with Julian and some encouraging high school art teachers led me to the Elam School of Fine Arts at the University of Auckland. I met and learned from many excellent professors there, including Michael Parekōwhai who had a profound influence on my understanding of art and culture in Aotearoa New Zealand.

You have a unique view on how you create art and a particular subject matter you work with — often connected to technology and social issues stemming from technology. What informed this pathway for you?

I think it was the time I grew up, and moving through the Stäedelschule (Art School) in Frankfurt when I did. I met artists my age there in my mid-20s, in 2007, the year the iPhone was released, and just as Facebook was accelerating. I was always on a device keeping in touch with friends and family back in New Zealand.

The objects I was using communication became a kind of obsession — I asked questions about what they actually were, who designed and promoted them, and started reading a lot more about the industries around these objects. The artists I became friends with were all totally mesmerised by the expansion of web2.0 and mobile, and that energy and their work focused my own interest on technology and politics. Combined with the more materials-based sculptural research I’d been doing until then, started me out on the path to making work the way I do now. I started to go to tech conferences and read tech journalism as well as visiting museums and speaking to craftspeople in workshops.

Moving to Germany to study art, did you expect that Germany would end up your home? How do you compare Germany and New Zealand?

I didn’t, no. I came to Frankfurt by chance — because I met the curator Nicolaus Schafhausen, who was on a lecture tour speaking about his curating of the Venice Biennale Pavilion for Isa Genzken, a hero of mine then and now. This was organised by the curator Tobias Berger, who was director of Artspace while I was at Elam. He met me and saw my work on show at the Govett-Brewster in Ngāmotu New Plymouth, and offered me a slot in an exhibition he was organising in Cologne, and then an introduction to the artist Willem de Rooij, who was teaching in Frankfurt. I ended up staying on in Germany as a student in Willem’s class.

Through the school, I got really involved in conversations with artists, gallerists and curators based in Berlin and moved there. So I never really intended to stay in Germany, but one thing led to another and I am very happy working from here.

simon denny

ABOVE
Installation View, Secret Power, Marco Polo Airport, Venice, 2015.
Photography by Paolo Monello. Courtesy of the artist; Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne/New York;
Michael Lett, Auckland, New Zealand; Petzel Gallery, New York; T293, Rome.

simon denny

ABOVE
Installation view, Secret Power, Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, Venice, 2015. Photography by Nick Ash.
Courtesy of the artist; Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne/New York; Michael Lett, Auckland, New Zealand;
Petzel Gallery, New York; T293, Rome.

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simon denny

ABOVE
Simon Denny, Amazon worker cage patent drawing as virtual King Island Brown Thornbill cage (US 9,280,157 B2:
“System and method for transporting personnel within an active workspace”, 2016) 2019. Powder coated metal, MDF, plastic,
digital print on cardboard, iOS augmented reality interface, 293 x 222 x 253 cm. Photography by Jesse Hunniford/Mona.
Courtesy of the artist; Petzel Gallery; Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne/New York. Commissioned for Simon Denny Mine
(8 June 2019 – 17 March 2020) by Mona, Hobart, Australia.

One of my favourite recent works of yours is the Amazon Worker Cage. Treatment of Amazon workers has been something under a lot of debate in the news of late. Do you consider yourself an activist?

I’m primarily an artist and that work is sculpture. But, of course, part of why it is interesting as a sculpture, is because of the conversations around labour, machines, automation, hierarchies, ownership, etc., that the form resonates with. I came across the amazon.com patent and drawing that inspired that artwork through reading an essay by Kate Crawford and Vladan Joler.

Kate is a thinker I have been following for a while. She co-founded an institute at NYU, called the A.I. Now Institute, which looks at the ethics of A.I. and tries to foreground good infor.m.ation about what A.I. systems are. It has a visibility within communities developing and implementing A.I., as well as more general media and art interested publics.

Your work started a movement of technology mixing with art. How do you see the art world changing in recent times and, perhaps, in the near future?

So many artists I admire have been working with and through technology in amazing ways. There are also so many art worlds — but, in the conversations that I am part of, I sense a lot of questioning around the legitimacy and focus of institutions — from schools to museums. Who is celebrated and highlighted in which context is something that is debated and discussed passionately.

In terms of how technology mediates museums and gallery experiences, there seems to be a focus to deliver content over the internet in a more meaningful way for visitors that may not be able to see art in person. There’s a lot more editorial content, exploration of formats like VR and much more interpretive material and video content across websites and social.

I recently made an exhibition at Mona, a private museum in Tasmania. They have a platform there which tracks viewers through their exhibitions, that gives viewers options to give feedback to their experiences there, through a device they carry with them. This also tracks viewers and gives information to the museum about how viewers behave and respond to exhibitions. I think data collection in museum experiences like this is also likely to increase — which will quantify experience and potentially influence what kinds of experiences and authors museums commit to.

Coming into anything with a new approach or outlook often makes it hard for traditionalists to accept your work. What makes your work understood and appreciated by an art world renown for its traditionalism?

I am lucky to experience a lot of interest in what I do, so I feel like I have actually had a relatively easy time with people coming to be open to my work. I try to focus on topical, poignant material that is often overlapping with what a lot of people are thinking and talking about. I focus on figures and examples of objects that are under cultural scrutiny already — and I think that helps to make the projects interesting for people.

Technology and the internet, in particular, have become an even more integral part of everyday life since the pandemic. How do you see the increase in technology in people’s lives impacting society? Are there risks or just benefits to come from this?

The use of the internet for more and more parts of our lives has risks built into it, even as it enables connections and conveniences across great distances. Low barriers to publishing and communicating opens up possibilities for exploitation by actors of all sorts of political motivations and goals, some of which will be adversarial.

That is one side of things that has both great benefits and costs. Beyond that, the internet is also a military tool by design — it was developed to map data, to capture, and model communications. Because of this, those who are able to own and administer this data have an incredible amount of power. So the use of the internet by more and more of us for more of our activities necessarily informs an elite few about the macro patterns of our lives, and leaves us vulnerable to manipulation.

These states and companies that are on the beneficial side of this asymmetrical information relationship have a lot of responsibility. I worry about powerful people at the apex of these systems who have a track record of doing a lot of harm.

Back in 2015, your Venice Biennale exhibition addressed Aotearoa New Zealand’s role in the United States surveillance programme — something under much criticism at the time. Have you thought much about Aotearoa New Zealand’s relationship with the United States during this somewhat troublesome current administration?

Yes I have, and I guess that is implied in my previous answer. I have worked in the States a lot also, and have many American friends and colleagues. The US is central to some of the art worlds I feel close to. I can’t imagine the complexities of the relationship Aotearoa New Zealand has with the US. I would like to know more but, again, I think the power asymmetry between the US and New Zealand is something to be very aware of as the current administration becomes more aggressive.

What are your thoughts on Aotearoa New Zealand art and the future of Aotearoa New Zealand art? Are there young artists you’re aware of who are creating interesting works?

I’m very excited about New Zealand’s next Venice pavilion by Yuki Kihara. She is, of course, in a very well-established position but I find her work very compelling. I have family history that intersects with New Zealand’s occupation of Samoa and an interest in legal and technical systems that have been a part of that history. Also, the project she curated with Katerina Teaiwa about the histories of phosphate mining (Project Banaba), is really exciting. I hope I get to see that somewhere.

Also, Dr Karamia Müller, Pacific scholar and architectural theorist, has just published a project, Violent Legalities.Space, with Fraser Crichton, Lachlan Kermode, Bhaveeka Madagammana, Mariachiara Ficarelli and Davide Mangano, using open source software developed by Forensic Architecture at Goldsmiths in London that I am really impressed by. That project is on show right now at the Adam Art Gallery at Victoria University in Wellington. I follow Kara’s work closely and am really excited about her work in the future.

Younger positions are something I am not as in touch with as I used to be unfortunately — I have not been able to be in New Zealand as often as I would have liked to in the past few years. But New Zealand has so many amazing art education programmes and spaces supporting younger practices — I am sure there are a lot of exciting things happening I am yet to hear about.

What are you working on at the moment and what will we see next from you?

I am working on an exhibition Mine, that is about to open at the K21 Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen (21st Century Museum of the North Rhine-Westphalia Art Collection) in Düsseldorf, Germany at the beginning of September. This will bring together some artworks that I exhibited in Tasmania at Mona, including the Amazon Worker Cage you mentioned earlier.

Also travelling from Mona are some other works that look at the parallels between the ways different industries are structured similarly — from mining to agriculture, to the online platforms and software companies that we all interact with as a part of our daily lives. The show has a board game as its catalogue and a kind of centrepiece, which reinterprets the Australian classic Squatter — which sort of models the dynamics of sheep farming — and adapts it to reflect a data business.

Those are housed in sculptures which are based on both retail display shelves for the games, and depictions of machines used for mining in Australia. Mining machinery is becoming more automated — with some mines running with no personnel on site. This is a big deal for both distribution of wealth (if nobody needs to work in mines, then all the benefits from mining goes to shareholders only), and the ease with which companies can extract value from minerals (which accelerates the negative environmental impacts associated with mining).

So for this exhibition, I’ve also commissioned some speculative courtroom drawings from a courtroom sketch artist based in Brisbane, as if the people who designed and profit from the mining machines featured in the exhibition were on trial. The courts have often propped up the interests of mining companies in Australia at the expense of indigenous relationships to land, environmental concerns, and labour concerns. These speculative drawings imagine scenarios where these parties would be held to account in a different way.

I am also working with an artist who has made artworks inside the game Minecraft to produce a Minecraft version of the exhibition. Inside Minecraft, we can install the exhibition as if the museum was actually under the ground, inside a historical mineshaft near to the site of the museum. The district where the museum is in, Westphalia, is historically a place where minerals were mined. A lot of the wealth associated with that district can be traced back to metal production and manufacturing, and is connected to the history of mining. So the show will be on show physically at the K21, but also installed virtually, on Minecraft, down the historical shafts of what was the biggest coal mine in the world at one point; the Zollverein in Essen.

I am also working on research for a larger curatorial project in 2022 in Auckland — which I am also
really excited about, among many other projects.

Will you ever move back to New Zealand?

I would love to be both there and elsewhere. I miss living in Aotearoa New Zealand a lot, but I am also involved in projects in lots of different places, and my set-up in Germany has become a really important infrastructure for how I work. I run a mentoring programme in Berlin, called Berlin Program for Artists, I am a professor at the University of Fine Arts (HFBK) in Hamburg.

This activity and the people I have built relationships and conversations with here would be hard to move away from. So I think I will have to be a Pākehā New Zealander living and working in and out of Aotearoa New Zealand for now; like many other people who feel connected to Aotearoa New Zealand, but live elsewhere most of the time. Having said that, working and living in Aotearoa New Zealand for a period is definitely something I would love to make happen at some point — so never say never in this case.

simon denny

ABOVE
Installation view, Mine, Mona, Tasmania. June 2019 – April 2020.
Photography by Jesse Hunniford/Mona. Courtesy of the artist; Petzel Gallery
and Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne/New York; Commissioned for Simon Denny
Mine
(8 June 2019 – 17 March 2020) by Mona, Hobart, Australia.

simon denny

ABOVE
Installation view, Mine, Mona, Tasmania. June 2019 – April 2020.
Photography by Jesse Hunniford/Mona. Courtesy of the artist; Petzel Gallery
and Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne/New York; Commissioned for Simon Denny
Mine
(8 June 2019 – 17 March 2020) by Mona, Hobart, Australia.

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