Edward Snowden, Art Object

Simon Denny takes mass surveillance to the Venice Biennale…
by Gordon Campbell

In order to reveal the full extent of US global surveillance, the former NSA analyst Edward Snowden put everything in his life on the line : his job, his freedom and his ability to have regular contact with friends and family. Probably, the last thing on Snowden’s mind would have been that his actions might one day inspire some bright young thing to come along and treat his revelations as the basis for a semiological art work. The fashionable young person in question happens to be the New Zealand artist Simon Denny, whose installation work Secret Power has been chosen to represent New Zealand at the prestigious Venice Biennale in May.

A description of Secret Power can be found in the January 15 CNZ press release available here.

No doubt, Denny’s decision to treat the global surveillance network as an exercise in (a) language (b) design and (c) as an evocation of the NSA mindset will annoy some people who might have been hoping for something a bit more politically pointed. Other art aficionados will be annoyed that the New Zealand government has funded a work about mass surveillance, and helped put it on display at one of the world’s top showcases for contemporary art.

As for a third lot of consumers …art for art’s sake (aka trust the artist) will always be a knockdown argument. It is a hard position to query. Yet IMO, it is possible to maintain that some subjects call for more than a purely aesthetic response. Picasso for instance, made it pretty clear where he stood when he painted Guernica, and that was still pretty good, right? According to Robert Leonard (who was Denny’s curator for the Biennale work) the political ethics of the subject matter has been treated very diffusely indeed by Denny, if at all. Note in the interview below how carefully Leonard tiptoes around whether Denny can even be said to have ‘critiqued’ the means and ends of mass surveillance. Evidently, some post-modern art feels itself to be above such concerns – at least when its playing in the big leagues, at Venice.

Come early May, the audiences (and critics) will be able to judge whether Denny has done justice to his very topical subject matter. As a marketplace for creative works and artistic reputations, the Venice Biennale itself has its critics. In the mid-2000s, the British art academic John Byrne published an interesting piece about the way that biennales are helping to homogenise the political, cultural and geographic specifics of art.

All too often, Byrne argued, biennales end up promoting a kind of ‘airport art’ that, despite its surface differences, is all very much the same underneath. (Visitors to Womad will have noticed the same homogenising effect that the Womad festival has had upon world music.) As Byrne says, the attempts by curators to accentuate the cultural specifics of a work can create a perverse alternative that is almost as bad : as he puts it, such efforts often result in a kind of ‘parachute documentary art’ practised by those willing and able “to make lightning-fast responses to the possibility of a financially rewarding brief…”

In Denny’s case, the work makes full use of the history and locations of Venice, in both the modern and the medieval city. That’s one reason why the word “ geography” is invoked in the CNZ press release, which promises that Denny will be addressing “ the intersection of knowledge and geography in the post-Snowden world.” This task will also – apparently – entail the investigation of “new and obsolete languages for describing geo-political space, focusing on the roles played by technology and design.”

He may have his work cut out. As artistic fodder for graphic novels, video games and music videos, mass surveillance as an art trope has already fallen prey to any number of clichés, and is commonly depicted as being (a) sleekly or clunkily technological (b) goofily human regardless (c) oppressively de-humanising and/or (d) all of the above. Is there any truly new perspective left on it? Last year, Art Forum’s verdict on Denny’s contribution to a joint art show dealing with surveillance culture is not very promising on that point.

In May, the audiences (and critics) at Venice will finally get to deliver their own verdicts. In the meantime, curator Robert Leonard was willing to discuss a few of the above issues with Werewolf editor Gordon Campbell. An edited version of their conversation follows, beginning with an attempt to clarify Leonard’s usual job as a curator.

Campbell : You’re a curator. Which a bit like a film producer, in that no-one really seems to know what it is exactly that you do. Are you a channel for the artist’s vision, are you there to contextualise the work, to guide the consumer’s response – or what?

Leonard : I’m a curator – so I guess I’m an exhibition-maker. That means different things on different occasions. Sometimes the dominant voice in the show is the curator. Sometimes, the dominant voice is the artist. And with something like the Venice Biennale pavilions, they’re artist projects. They’re new work, and very much artist-led. With Venice…[curators] are a sounding board for the artist, a liaison, and an insulation for them, as well.

But you’re not like the Pope – in that you don‘t have a hotline to God, or in this case to Simon Denny – where your view of this work is the only true and infallible one, right?

No, no. The term ’curator” has become very hip of late. People are said to curate all sorts of things. Bookstores. And parties. All sorts of stuff are said to be curated. I actually quite like the idea of a curator as being a sort of party liaison, because it is about bringing artists and audiences together. I like the event focus and the showbiz basis of that…The way that curators work is quite different from the way artists work. Artists have very, very focussed practices…Artists construct this consistent space, but audiences can go from one artist’s work to another.

They’re not a captive audience.

No, they’re not captive. So…artists have this very heavy commitment to this focus and to their particular vision, while audiences can graze. And I’m in-between that process. I work with artists, and I work with audiences.

That’s why I asked at the outset whether your role is to guide the audience response –

A lot of the time I try and pick things that people want to see, or that they should see. A lot of it has to do with the nuts and bolts of making the exhibition happen, and the craft of staging them.

Right. And as you say, you select what gets to be exhibited. Did you have any hand in the choice of this Simon Denny work for the Biennale?

The work didn’t exist before I was selected as curator. Simon and I pitched a very broad idea to…..I suppose it was to Creative New Zealand. A whole lot of other artist/curator teams pitched ideas, and ours was selected. But the work didn’t exist [ at that point] and the idea has changed and evolved since the original proposal that we wrote. As it always does.

But this isn’t like Mick Jagger and Keith Richards though, is it? You weren’t co-creators, were you?

Ummm, it is Simon’s work. And it is artist driven….I’m a sounding board. I’m working on all sorts of things with the show, with the publication. I’ve written an essay about the work. There’s a whole team of people involved. Its quite a big production.

What has Nicky Hager’s role been in this project?

Oh, he’s an adviser. Its because the show addresses facets of the visual culture of intelligence agencies. [Hager] was the person who in 1996 wrote the book Secret Power so he was suggested to us as the person who could help and advise us on content questions…I mean, Simon is an artist and I’m an art person, and this is an area of very specific content. We didn’t want to look foolish by not having our facts right.

I want to be clear whether this work is an artistic commentary on Nicky Hager’s own work. It sounds more like it was Hager’s expertise in this field with respect to Edward Snowden – and the field in general – that led to him being drawn upon.

A couple of things. One, the Secret Power book is a reference point for the show. That’s why that’s the title of the show. That’s one thing. Another thing is, we needed someone to give us advice.

And arguably, Hager’s involvement is historically appropriate, in that it was through his 1996 book that New Zealanders – and everyone, everywhere else –– first learned about the global structure of this surveillance stuff.

I guess he was the best and only person to give us advice on this material. His has been a very small, and very backroom role on the project. He just gives us advice when we need it on questions of content.

This is a contemporary work on a contemporary issue. Meaning there’s no historical or critical sediment built up over time. Does that make your job of curating it easier or harder?

Well, its an artist project, so the artist is making the work. In the end, I’m not curating it the way I would curate a show made up out of existing work…

So what’s your role with respect to art whose content is as relatively novel as this is?

I think it is typical [of the art] at Venice pavilions. And its typical of artist-led projects. I worked for eight years at the BMA [in Brisbane] and a lot of things I curated there would have been artist-driven.

Sure…. What I’m getting is that in the likes of the [Denny] case, there is no consensus even on the political events at the core of this work. Does this makes it harder – or easier – to judge the worth of the art that’s based on them?

I can’t tell you what is in the show. But I think if you knew what is the show, you wouldn’t ask that question. Because I don’t think that’s the form that it has taken. You’re making assumptions about what it is addressing.

So what, in your opinion, is this work about?

I can send you an outline of the show.

I’ve got other peoples’ descriptions. I want your description.

The show has a lot to do with graphic design. (Long pause.)

You said before that the show addresses the visual culture of intelligence agencies. What did you mean by that?

When the Snowden releases occurred, people were very surprised by the graphic language of the slides. These intelligence agencies are incredibly well funded major organisations, but the graphic language of the slides was crazy clip art – all sorts of fonts, everything mixed up together. Very kind of, unprofessional. We’re used to dealing with the public documents of government through a very consistent tone and style. These slides had a completely different quality. A lot of the show is an investigation into that language, and where it comes from. So there’s an aspect of research, and inquiry into that visual culture.

And what’s revelatory about this?

I don’t want to do a spoiler. Simon has taken material from these slides and related material and reproduced it as two dimensional graphic elements – and he’s also reproduced the graphic elements as sculptures. So he’s turned the letters into sculptural representations and he’s installed them in a massive server room which consists of these nine server racks and also a kind of work station at one end. That’s what’s in the Marciana Library. Inside these server racks there is also functioning computer equipment.

I guess the idea is that this represents a kind of notion about online knowledge. But its also kind of disorienting – its like a Wunderkammer [a medieval cabinet of knowledge and curiosities, both real and imaginary].

From what you’re saying it depicts this impersonal form of state power, which has been clunkily expressed in design terms. Is that clunkiness meant to indicate anything about the reliability of the information?

It is also because these documents were never intended to be seen, by anyone outside. They’re not designed as the public face of these agencies.

Sure. It’s a bit like the “Dear Diary” of intelligence work.


So is it fair to attach a significance – artistic or otherwise – to the clunky design?

Well, yes…. I think what’s interesting is that its not just about the clunkiness of the graphic design but it is where the elements come from, and the nature of that language. There’s a kind of archeology going on, almost a slightly forensic aspect. What interests me about the show is that OK, you’ve got this server room with this stuff – and that’s presented in the Marciana Library, which is a Renaissance period library in Venice, from a particular moment of its greatness. So it’s a contemporary image of power/knowledge nested or framed within and by an obsolete historical one.

And you can make analogies between the library, and the server racks, the wunderkammer. The Marciana is itself an allegory of power and knowledge. So its got paintings by Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese.. Look, one of the interesting things about the project is that Simon puts the viewer in the position of the intelligence agencies. So, you’re working your way through all this kind of like.. appropriated material that no-one is supposed to know about and you – as the viewer – are involved in a process of making connections, a profile…So you’re involved in a whole process that’s very similar to what the NSA is doing. It too, maps and organises information. It has a whole lot of data and it tries to make connections between things…You might think that you go into the exhibition with this individual –oppressed-by-the-state [attitude] but you will have the experience of being engaged in a way that’s analogous to the way that intelligence agencies work. It becomes a bigger statement about interpretation.

If that’s the framework –

The NSA is bewildered, you know? It is trying to collect all this information together but it is suffering from this incredible kind of information overload in trying to process it all.

Why is this work split between two locations?

Yes, there are two venues. There is the Marciana Library – a Renaissance period library in the centre of Venice, in the Piazza San Marco…And then there’s another space that’s a total counterpoint : the arrival lounge at Marco Polo airport. It’s a modern airport, built after September 11. Its not in the heart of Venice, its right on the outskirts. I don’t think its ever been used before as a [Biennale] pavilion building. I don’t think people even think of it as being in Venice. I think of people think of it as a space to get through to get to the historical city. The spaces are in counterpoint but there are links between them. The airport is named after the great Venetian traveller, the Marciana Library contains Marco Polo’s will, it contains the Fra Mauro world map ….

Are they discrete, or do they cross-reference each other?

No, they cross-reference… What is happening at the airport is that he is taking an image of the Marciana Library and projecting it at two points : a one to one scale photograph of the interior of the Marciana Library and projecting it across the schengen and non-schengen [ EU and non-EU) spaces in the arrival lounge.

What’s culturally specific to New Zealand about this work?

I can’t go into much detail, but I’d say quite a lot. There’s a lot of New Zealand reference points in it. Partly because New Zealand does have a place within this intelligence alliance.

Yes, we’re part of the process that this work critiques – or is that not what you mean?

I wouldn’t put it like that. When you talk about it as “ critique” that makes it very clear-cut. When actually what it is doing is more complicated. What its doing….its actually a very disorienting work.

If its not ‘critiquing’ then what stance – if any – does it have to its subject matter? Demonstrating? Illustrating? Replicating?

It is a whole process of framing that occurs. So that you look at something and you understand it in itself, and then you see it in relation to its frame. There’s a whole process –

Kind of like Russian dolls?

Exactly. The thing that I hate is “about-ism” in art, when something is seen to be interesting because of what it is about. As if something that pre-existed the work is what makes it interesting. Whereas I think what Simon doing is taking this material and doing something interesting with it. He’s making a process of framing, and that’s where the value and the power of the project is.

Isn’t that a longwinded way of saying that it’s a new work? Shouldn’t we be able to take it for granted that he’s come up with his own perspective on this subject?

I think that a lot of Simon’s projects are heavily based on research. He does a whole lot of research into some question or area of moment. People can approach them as if they are social history, like a social history museum. But I don’t think that’s a good way to approach them. They can approach them that way to get factual content. I think what Simon brings is a whole…self commentary.

And from what you’re saying, the show requires you to immerse yourself in it?

It will be very compelling. It will be very confusing and people will come in, they will engage with images and objects and try and work their way through this installation to make some sense of it. He creates a certain experience for a viewer that’s above and beyond the nature of the subject matter. There’s a cross reference to the subject matter – and the subject matter is important because of that cross referencing.

You’ve also said that components of it are, for various reasons, culturally specific to New Zealand. The word ‘geography’ is in the preamble. The reason I’m asking about this is that some people see art as a promotional device. Its value, and the main reason the taxpayer puts money into it, is seen to be because it functions as a billboard for this country. It boosts tourism, it fosters a positive awareness of this country offshore. But from what you’re saying, good New Zealand art doesn’t need to be culturally specific in that way?

Does it need to promote New Zealand tourism? I don‘t think that’s something that makes it good New Zealand art.

Isn’t it more the case that the art aims to be so darn good that people will say : I want to go visit the place that makes such interesting stuff?

Well, of course. The art is a thing in itself.

The question I’m asking is whether the downstream value is, or should be, a rationale for the art that gets funded.

I don’t know what ‘downstream value’ is.

Take the Lord of the Rings film as an example. There’s the thing, and there’s the downstream benefits to the country that accrue in all sorts of ways. We give it tax breaks to get the films made and then people offshore go : hey, what a great film, what a guy, what an interesting place New Zealand must be.

If you’re asking whether Creative New Zealand should fund the Venice Biennale you need to ask them.

Why do you think it should?

I’m interested in promoting New Zealand art. I’m not interested in advancing New Zealand art to advance something else. I’m interested in advancing New Zealand art, to advance New Zealand art.

OK There’s also widespread belief that good art endures, it exists for the ages etc Do you think that’s always the case? Can art be good, yet still be entirely transient?

Yes. I think so. And its interesting that things that are perceived as important in different historical periods, also change, too.

The point I’m getting at is – ultimately, does it matter very much whether this Simon Denny work is of enduring worth?

Does it matter? I think it matters. It matters to the people for whom it endures.

Yet if art is going to be of its time maybe the response if also merely of its time – and maybe that’s enough?

I can’t really answer that question. I think Simon’s work is very timely. Its very alert to the current moment. But I don’t think that’s a reason why it wouldn’t endure. I think that’s a reason why its more likely that it would endure.

As a kind of time capsule?

No, in the sense that I think that he’s onto something. I think he’s onto a number of very interesting questions before other people.

Obviously, this Venice Biennale matters a lot to the artists who get selected for it –

It’s hugely significant.

But in your opinion – and this is the Eleanor Catton question – why should New Zealanders as a whole think that whether Simon Denny is at the Venice Biennale or not, matters all that much?

Being at Venice enables us to be part of the international art scene. We’re operating in a much more global art world now. New Zealand artists are showing overseas, and they’re living overseas and working overseas more than they have ever been in the past. We’re really in a post-national situation with our art. I always call it ‘the end of New Zealand art.’ Because 20 or 30 years ago New Zealand art was the art made and shown to New Zealanders in New Zealand, by New Zealand artists living in New Zealand and written about in New Zealand magazines, and purchased by New Zealand collectors. That is what has changed. We are now more a part of an international thing. The art world has changed, and our relationship to the art world has changed. Being in Venice and having New Zealand artist residencies [offshore] was a key element of that change.

So in your opinion, New Zealanders as whole should be proud of this work – and proud that it occupies such a prominent place at the Biennale?

I think it’s amazing that Simon doing this project and is doing it on such a scale. He’s an incredibly successful artist. There is so much interest in his work internationally, and it’s a really a great time to be taking it to Venice.