SIMON DENNY: THE INNOVATOR’S DILEMMA
Simon Denny’s installations, which defamiliarize the crass imagery of the revolution in technologically mediated “disruption,” serve as a catalyst for debates about how forms of critique and complicity have changed with power and influence entangled in a new algorithmic regime.
His dramatic transfers of the vernacular of tech-bro aesthetics into institutional contexts have been met with consternation and applause. On the one hand, Denny’s installations—sometimes readymades, sometimes absurd modifications of corporate identities—celebrate emblems of the entrepreneurial vanguard. At PS1 much of the presentation reads as just this sort of bait, seemingly algorithmically optimized for a young moneyed Silicon Valley collector. On the other hand, his romper-room expositions of corporate clichés are complex strategies of reversal. Denny’s investigation of new networked capital flows mock the canned leftist tactics of the art world as much as they do the over-caffeinated utopian machismo of the short history of tech. It is in this tension that the near-visceral thrill of his work resides.
If nothing else, it’s an elaborate troll. But, while he is acutely sensitive to the contemporary significance of the troll, Denny sees his work more as journalistic. For him the mythologizing of tech startups is “fraught with difficulties” and makes “compelling material to work with in a cultural context.” Instead of dancing around the subject through craft, alterity, or conceptual critique, Denny goes straight for gaudy caricature.
In TEDxVaduz (2014) Denny installs objects from the eponymous conference event held in the tiny European nation of Liechtenstein, a known tax haven. With artist Daniel Keller, he uses this stage to reexamine the rhetoric deployed in the talks with a tag cloud of its hackneyed terms. At PS1, the landlocked host nation is depicted as an island (“offshoring”) surrounded by works inspired by TED’s peculiar muddling of international business and utopian social vision. In the main gallery Denny restages four recent projects, all in the spectacular and pornographic manner of the technology tradeshow. Disruptive Berlin (2014) contains several server-cum-totem sculptures fabricated using the brand identities of prominent Berlin-based tech startups. These candy-coated bombastic fanboy relics are physical instantiations of the new status of massively scalable applications. New Management (2014) reconstructs the hotel where, in 1993, Lee Kun-hee, chairman of Samsung Group, launched the business “philosophy” that propelled its subsequent domination of the electronics market. The Personal Effects of Kim Dotcom (2014) collects property seized from the New Zealand internet content pirate behind Megaupload. All You Need is Data (2013) presents placards with images and pull quotes from the absurd optimism and mythmaking of speakers at the elite Munich tech gathering known as DLD (Digital Life Design).
Some viewers fail to grasp that, in their native tech environs, these props and platitudes are presented as natural, logical developments. The quasi-academic post-conceptual apparatus of institutional art exhibitions carries the same self-evident stance, albeit with starkly different heuristics for success. Denny merges these values systems.
Art world opposition to Silicon Valley logic—which appears here in a not uncritical light—arrives just as art has run out of myths to propagate, other than the warmed-over axioms emerging from the Svengali orbit of neo-Marxist theory. The ideas that move society indeed hatch out of bean bag chairs, standing desks, and Munich hotel lobbies, lounges where globally mobile executives edit pitch decks and consultants fine tune network diagrams. Denny enables his audience to scrutinize these new specious forms of hypercapitalism. “The Innovator’s Dilemma” reminds us that these are our era’s gangsters, monopolists, and robber barons: circulating them into visibility outside of their comfort zones provides an opportunity to confront their ideas in new ways. Today, power is hidden in sticky buttons and a smooth UX, behind End User License Agreements and Mutual Non-Disclosure Agreements—but the calcified art intelligentsia isn’t likely to know what those terms even mean, let alone think through how to resist them. Applied to these installations, the cat and mouse game of leftist refusal only underscores how Denny’s work makes an uncomfortable challenge for art audiences wedded to oppositional critique.