In his works, encompassing installations, sculpture, print and video, Simon Denny deals with the social and political implications of the technology industry. He combines technological elements like blockchain with a deep reflection on our digitalized world in general and on climate change in particular. His explorative search for moments of change is very much akin to our thinking about transformation. His current exhibition, "Mine", at Gallery Petzel, New York is on display until the 15th of May 2021.
What do you think about these days?
I am quite fascinated by the NFT phenomenon. NFT means non-fungible token. It is a new form of crypto art, based on the blockchain, and it has been getting a lot of market share and attention. I am trying to adapt part of my show in New York to make sure that I can include NFTs.
If I have a Picasso and you have a Picasso, it’s very different which one we have and it matters a lot in terms of the value.
The NFT “Everydays: The First 5000 Years” just fetched a staggering 69 million dollars at a Christie’s auction. Can you explain the logic – and the technology – behind this phenomenon?
Most cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum are based on a money type system, each token is interchangeable. It’s like if I have a dollar note and you have a dollar note, it doesn’t matter which one we have. But in the last couple of years there has been an innovation on the Ethereum platform. You now can make a unique collectible thing, which can go up and down in value within the token itself. It’s more like an artwork. If I have a Picasso and you have a Picasso, it’s very different which one we have and it matters a lot in terms of the value.
What is the idea then?
Art was always about displaying affiliation with something and showing that you like it – showing that you like it so much, that you also own it, that you have the economic power to do so. You are that person who’s smart enough to signal that that’s the important artwork to have. All of this is magnified by the NFTs – now you can see all the time who it belongs to.
Some people have interpreted my position as a little bit ambiguous. And I think that’s potentially right.
You were one of the earliest artists to experiment with blockchain. Do you feel reality is catching up and even overtaking you?
Definitely, especially in the cryptocurrency conversation. At the beginning, I literally had to make explainer videos for people to tell them what was so amazing about this emerging phenomenon. But now, I can mention even a slightly technical acronym, like NFTs, which are from deep within the crypto universe in my experience. I think people realize that in the future, we’re looking at a much more monetizable Internet experience. And if you put your Marxist hat on, it looks like enclosure coming to a new kind of open space.
In this work, Simon Denny explores the way technology shifts our notion of what a nation is – Ethereum is one of the main cryptocurrencies, it was conceived by Vitalik Buterin, shown here on a stamp in the style of a Socialist hero, mixing a historic representation of power with its new reality.
What is the politics in your work?
I think about myself as a witness, an observer who takes these experiences to distill some feeling of what is going on in the present and particularly in technology and business. I have my own personal opinions on how these things are developing. But I also want to present people with artworks where they can find their own place and these experiences don’t have a strong editorial tag. Some people have interpreted my position as a little bit ambiguous. And I think that’s potentially right.
Art is an incredible vehicle for learning and understanding the world as a whole, as a system.
What is the theme of your New York exhibition?
I am presenting an extension of a project I’ve been working on for a couple of years which looks at the deep interrelations between the extraction of data and data economies and the physical world, let’s say mineral extraction. Data mining versus actual mining – and how things that are often framed as very ephemeral are actually very physical. There is climate in there, there is the way humans are organized and put their energies into things, there is also a new augmented reality piece, which is derived from patents that Amazon filed recently for a delivery drone replacing delivery people. It has a really interesting, innovative hot air balloon as a part of its design.
What is it that you are looking for?
Art is an incredible vehicle for learning and understanding the world as a whole, as a system. The way that I’m able to meet people in other fields, learn from them and understand and work out new aesthetic versions of the things that are emerging is hugely exciting to me.
When you talk about technology: What is just technology and what is part of a technological political economy?
A good distinction. This is something that I ask myself a lot. The claim to technology and who gets to decide what is technological is really political and very important. I will ask this question at an exhibition that I am curating for the Hamburger Kunstverein this summer. We sometimes assume that technology means iPhones – but actually there are a lot of other ways to think about what technology is. From social technology to different cultural versions of technology to thinking about technology from a decolonial perspective. The important question is: Who is defining what technology is and what that is doing as cultural work?
The cryptokitty Simon Denny is referencing is produced via a blockchain, a distributed transaction database technology: a digital collectable that turned into some sort of currency – one cryptokitty was sold for 148,000 Dollars at Christie’s in 2018.
Sometimes technology features in your work in a sinister way.
Technology can be sinister – and it also can be really exciting. I look for poignant stories to tell, like this Amazon patent for a delivery drone, playful ways to think about form and ownership. On the one hand, I would like to see labor that can be potentially boring and not particularly rewarding replaced by a robot. There is an upside to that – but only if we find other ways to include more people in economies. Not if it means a concentration of profits.
If only Amazon will transfer ownership to the people, then we might have a perfect type of communism.
Technology is potentially emancipating – the ownership of technology is the problem?
It depends on what you define as technology. Karl Marx thought of capitalism as a way to produce a more ideal state. There is also the idea of Amazon being the perfect communist backstop to a centralized system of control. If only Amazon will transfer ownership to the people, then we might have a perfect type of communism. But one could question those assumptions as well.
This work of Simon Denny directly addresses central questions in the relationship between technology, the exploitation of nature and the power of corporations: A globe built from a rock from a mine of the Anglo-Australian company Rio Tinto is facing a drone conceived by Amazon – two forms of capitalism, both extractive, both in the field of mining, one mining stones, the other mining data.
You also explore the constructive potential of technology.
I am always amazed to see new things become possible. Like with NFTs and ownership and market mechanisms – changing what it means to have images online and also changing the economy for creators. People are now getting paid for their work, which would otherwise be quite hard to monetize. Labor offers new possibilities. But I am also aware that with all these changes come problems. There are a lot of conversations around the emancipatory potential of communities. But we also see the fallout of the last few years with the elections all over the world. The same technology can be blamed for bubbles and also skewing information, rather than providing truth. It's really fascinating to see how the dominant narratives shift both in the media and from the technology companies themselves. I guess there's more changes to come.
How did your fascination about technology start?
I grew up in New Zealand and moved to Germany to go to art school in Frankfurt in 2007. I was making complex installations that dealt with politics back then. But when I came to Frankfurt, there were these two objects, my laptop and my suitcase with clothes in it. This laptop, which I'd only just bought, became this incredibly important thing. I was talking to my family, I was learning my lessons through it. I was watching TV through it. And I asked myself: What is this thing? You know, as a sculptor I am interested in objects and in politics. I was curious: Who made this? Why did they make this? That's when I started to pay more attention to technology conversations and business people.
The material background of the Internet has only recently become more important, like energy consumption or extraction of raw materials. What is the role of specifically climate change in your work?
The Internet is replacing other forms of infrastructure, and this is very energy intensive. At the same time, climate effects are much more visible to us, in many parts of the world we are seeing more extreme weather, both hotter and colder. They are feeling the changes. And they are looking at all the infrastructure and question what their role is.
Extractivism is more than a metaphor. Extractivism of data and minerals contribute to both in different ways to the climate catastrophe.
That's the core of what I've been working on here in New York. The show is called „Mine“. One of the main elements is a board game. You can play your role in being an extractor and extracting from other parts of the world. I think there's exciting work to be done, making experiences to reflect this in art and discourse.
One last question. Can you complete this sentence: For me this is personal because –
– because I'm living in the world.
Simon Denny was born in New-Zealand and lives and works in Berlin.
Simon Denny, Amazon delivery drone patent drawing as virtual Rio Tinto mineral globe (US 10,246,186 Bl: UNMANNED AERIAL VEHICLE WITH INFLATABLE MEMBRANE, 2019), 2021. Powder coated aluminum, steel, fiberglass, resin, paint, iOS Augmented Reality interface, 170 x 150 x 180 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Petzel Gallery, Photo by Nick Ash
Simon Denny, Blockchain company postage stamp designs: Digital Asset, 21Inc, Ethereum [with Linda Kantchev], 2016. Custom designed postage stamp, 11 x 8 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Berlin Biennale, Photo by Nick Ash
Simon Denny, Cardboard CryptoKitty 127 Auction Display Replica, 2018. Installation view, Detail, Proof of Work, Schinkel Pavillon, 2018. Cardboard, UV print on cardboard, plexiglas, broken Crypto Kitty hardware wallet screen, 200 x 180 x 70 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Buchholz Berlin/Cologne/New York, Photo by Hans-Georg Gaul