Simon Denny: An Innovators Dilemma

Date: January 8, 2017 Category: ,

Written for Exhibition Display of Art & Material Culture, NYU Steinhardt, 2016
Taught by Andrew Weiner, Assistant Professor of Art Theroy and Criticism, NYU Steinhardt.

In his first major museum solo exhibition at MoMA PS1, Berlin-based artist Simon Denny presents multiple installations that replicate a literal interpretation of a digital technology trade show. Denny focuses specifically on a readymade corporate aesthetic: plexiglass information labels, sweeping banners, and defunct LED screens. Similar to a TEDx conference, Denny’s work transforms the gallery into a convention center; set on raised platforms that mimic industry displays, viewers can browse three of his strongest installations, All You Need Is Data (2013), The Personal Effects of Kim Dotcom (2013), and New Management (2014), as if they were experimenting with a new product or service for the first time. However, a major distinction should be noted: visitors face an inability to directly touch or interact with his objects, unlike at a trade show, in which the consumer has full access and mobility. This calls attention to the intangibility of digital space and the growing control data-driven technology companies have over consumer freedoms, inscribing gallery visitors as within the authoritative traditions of the institution despite a contemporary focus on interactivity. This essay will assess each of Denny’s three major installations as they relate to the larger, intrinsic concepts of post-internet theory, vernacular criticism, and the potential for visitor-focused digital technologies, factors that highlight the antagonism of design and intent as aesthetics become intermixed across physical and virtual realities.

Denny recognizes that a convention center transforms from a bland and standardized design to a hyperbole of corporate logos and free roaming patrons. Fundamentally, a convention center has no distinguishable qualities apart from its basic framework, needing only an exhibitor to provide it with a sense of identity: a sort of interchangeable brand that reigns momentarily until being replaced by another concept. Denny’s decision to highlight digital technology entrepreneurship specifically is important, as the artist positions his literal representations as a parallel to the unseen affects of virtuality that his work tries to uncover. The exhibition suggests that convention centers, and by proxy, museum displays, are systematically homogenized, an idea that can be compared to curator Alfred Barr’s modernist “white cube,” recently reprised by artist Brad Troemel, who posits the computer screen and the website as a new sort of uniformity for the dissemination of visual art. Throughout the show, Denny continues to replicate the precise moment in which nothing becomes activated by something else, capturing a visitor’s disorientation as an environment’s original intent is disrupted by the unforeseeable conditions that enter it—a fitting analogy for the new gallery space in an era of display multiplicity.

The exhibition and its title are a direct nod to entrepreneur Clayton M. Christensen’s 1997 Harvard Business Review ethos “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” which states that a corporation’s rejection of change and a reluctance to assume risk only restricts its ability to cultivate new markets; this ultimately causes new ideas to squander potential and the corporation to fall behind. According to Christensen, the innovator’s dilemma describes companies whose capabilities and successes can actually become obstacles in the face of changing markets and technologies. Christensen continues to lay the groundwork for the much coveted term “disruptive innovation,” the solution for this predicament—and a staple terminology of neoliberal capitalism that now saturates the current economic dialogue. In essence, disruption represents a corporation’s ability to manipulate markets before they fully form, creating new markets entirely, and thus producing consumer dependency: the corporation will anticipate the consumer’s needs before they even realize they have them. This idea of corporate dictatorship is the pervasive notion that fuels Denny’s practice, who notes the ambiguity and boundlessness of market language—specifically surrounding trends in disruptive innovation—also creates a psychological condition in which consumers feel a constant pressure to update and conform.

Innovators attend trade shows to discuss opportunities to alter markets through data science and cloud computing, and Denny materializes this incorporeal “cloud” by bringing its methodology into tangible space. Even as the artist employs an obvious, verbatim mirroring of a trade show design, Denny subtly transforms the trade show’s intent through possession. The artist claims the innovators’ objects as fine art objects of his own, to be manipulated by his perception of neoliberal foreboding. An entrepreneur may see technological innovation as a paradise for growth and profit, yet Denny senses the development of a dystopian marketplace, leading only to a loss of individuality and ultimate consumer resistance. The viewer’s understanding of Denny’s concerns become a byproduct of their own manipulation, a feeling that Denny consistently attempts to exemplify.

This particular suspicion is strong in Denny’s All You Need Is Data, which is the first major work that frames the central exhibition space at PS1. The installation consists of multiple inkjet paintings, each labeled with a particular buzzword that archetypes disruptive innovation: phrases like “Sharing Economy,” representing a new market for consumers to profit from equity they own, “Digital Policies,” uniting private corporations with political interest, and “The Digital Consumer,” which discusses the integration of brand identity onto consumer identity via social media. Each buzzword includes ironic, transcribed “quotes” from entrepreneurs, artists, and cultural producers who speak to each as an expert. The appearance of the posters themselves is unappealing, stripping away any trace of an artist’s aesthetic particularization to replicate the kind of style one might see in a generic corporate keynote presentation. While each poster is uniform in size, color, and font, their general lack of a relationship to contemporary design position the works as an antithesis to visual branding and advertising; the language monotony becomes a brand itself, attempting to sell consumers on the idea of innovation as opposed to the unique aesthetics of any particular economy highlighted. It is most interesting here that, while in other iterations of this work, particularly the 2013 installment at New York’s Pretzel Gallery, a visitor could walk through the installation, whereas in the PS1installation, viewers were unable to see the works up close.

The posters in All You Need is Data propose a real world manifestation of tech utopia from the viewpoint of corporations looking to innovate, while PS1’s installation suggests a claustrophobic, palpable restriction that contradicts the ostensible openness of networked culture. Just as a convention center is stagnant until activated, the work expresses a continued opposition between design and intent that reflects upon a larger issue, in which curators often need to reposition a work’s objective in order for its concepts to translate though both physical and virtual modes of consumption.

In particular, All You Need Is Data generates a friction that signifies the plurality curators face when establishing the best way to present an exhibition, as now, viewers have several points of entrance and artists, diverse realities in which to create. In an a 2012 panel discussion for Internet Week, Curator of New Media Arts at The Whitney Museum, Christiane Paul, whose responsibilities also include maintenance of the Whitney’s virtual gallery ArtPort, made an important distinction between virtual documentation and physical display: “It’s a question of materiality. If you would go to a Picasso show at MoMA, and what you saw was photographs of Picasso paintings, you would ask for a refund. Documenting, for example, a show of paintings online in a digital gallery is not showing work that is native to the medium.” It can now be said that displays of physical works are being consumed in physical spaces in addition to virtual spaces, and displays of virtual works are being consumed in virtual spaces in addition to physical spaces. Artists are creating physical works and exhibiting them in solely virtual spaces, just as they are creating virtual works and bringing them into a gallery. For virtual space specifically, it is up to the curator to distinguish how to best present works in a way that merits its original intent, whether it is photographic documentation of physical works or screen-based internet art being presented on institutional websites.

Troemel—whose work has heavily theorized and built upon what artist Marisa Olson first defined as “post-internet”—, wrote an essay for The New Inquiry called “The Accidental Audience” that depicted internet users as unintentional purveyors of visual art based on constant connectivity and rapid sharing, often using visual art documentation as a means to identify themselves as tastemakers within a new creative class. Troemel defines two types of consumers, an image fundamentalist and an image neoliberal, whose dual approaches to art viewing that create an opposition in terms of display technology: “For the image fundamentalist, art’s meaning is inseparably tied to its place of origin through historic or religious significance; to remove this art from its home is to sever its ties with the context that grants the work its aura. For the image neoliberal, art is a universal cultural product that should be free to travel wherever the market or museums take it; meaning is created through a work’s ability to reach the widest audience and not through any particular location at which it’s viewed.”

As in Paul’s statement on materiality, Troemel is claiming that institutions exist as image fundamentalists, in which meticulous documentation of a work’s history and placement within a larger cultural timeline is seen as the appropriate contextualization. This differs from the neoliberal environment art viewers recognize on the internet, as mostly everything we consume online exists akin to capitalist information chains, specifically content-driven advertisements and the commodification of our personal data. Troemel warns that even as sharing artwork on the internet can democratize what has long been known as inaccessible “high art,” promoting culture within a viral architecture such as the internet will actually decontextualize an artist’s intent and create further confusion as to an artwork’s ownership. Many artists who identify with the post-internet label understand this prediction, and deem it irrelevant, or perhaps even see it a challenge to reinvent their work specifically for this parallel reality. In a recent essay by Brian Droitcour for Art in America, the critic argues that the cold minimalism of post-internet installation photography juxtaposes the cleanness of the browser with the luxurious appeal of the art market economy, allowing the work itself to appear much more valuable than it ever could in physical space. The very fact that these images exist within an already capitalist system that boasts democratic accessibility indicates what Droitcour, in an essay for The New Inquiry, defines as “vernacular criticism”: anyone with ready access to the internet can now participate in the critique and contextualization of art.

These themes are further explored by Denny in The Personal Effects of Kim Dotcom, an homage to entrepreneur and founder of the file-sharing site Megaupload, who is currently facing indictment on copyright infringement, money laundering, and racketeering since his sudden arrest by the New Zealand Police in 2012. Kim Dotcom includes two sections: one, stretched canvases depicting screenshots of stolen assets related to personal online banking services like PayPal and HSBC, and another, structural objects assembled to represent the millionaire’s seized possessions. The objects themselves are bizarre, meant to reflect Dotcom’s eccentric personality, including a life sized Predator sculpture and an oversize mask of a futuristic cyborg woman hanging alone on a wall. According to New Zealand’s Adam Art Gallery, who exhibited the installation in 2014, Denny, “sets out to question the nature of property, seeking to engage what he calls, ‘the most important legal discussions of the moment,’ which concern the relationships between intellectual property and creative copyright, consumer products and consumers’ rights, access to information and the individual’s right to privacy.”

Megaupload itself can be seen as a user-driven, ad-supported version of Amazon, which allows the average person to view, purchase, rank, and store information relating to products. As Amazon acts as a distributor for virtually anything, Megaupload acted as a distributor of files, primarily for the illegal streaming of film, television, and pornography. The demand for instant entertainment viewing is an industry that Amazon has later capitalized on through it’s “one-click” streaming services, a legal revenue model in which the user pays for the content instead of the website offering content for free though advertising income. As users provided the content on Megaupload, users now provide most of the written content on Amazon, pointing other consumers to Amazon’s inventory based on personalized reviews, a subtle nod to the controversy that surrounds information accessibility that Denny’s installation depicts.

Casual criticism of galleries and institutions on the location-based customer review platform Yelp has since been Driotcour’s major focus. While Droitcour has written for many reputable sources, he is most interested in the directness of reviews on Yelp; they exist in a structure that lays outside of the art ecosystem, and seldom contains overtly academic language. In an essay on vernacular criticism for Rhizome, which also includes an interview with Droitcour, Orit Gat poses a question: “Could Yelp be the answer for some of the stylistic issues with criticism? It’s hard to ignore the prevailing tone in Yelp reviews. As they refer largely to experiences, they are highly subjective; every other sentence begins with
‘I,’ and they include a lot of storytelling and little information.” The subjectivity Gat refers to is evident in Kim Dotcom; by taking a personal stance on privacy, Denny challenges existing structures of information sharing and resource awareness.

In making connections to vernacular criticism, Kim Dotcom also examines issues related to copyright; just because consumers can comment freely does not mean that they have the right to experience or manipulate intellectual property without consent. The potential for copyright infringement lawsuits based on secondary representations in online spaces poses a very powerful challenge for institutions hoping to digitize collections; many institutions do not have the right to reproduce their resources through images, and many institutional galleries do not allow visitor photography. In the same Internet Week panel, Piotr Adamczyk, Data Lead for Google Art Project, an initiative by the Google Cultural Institute to virtually document over 40 international museums, made a comment regarding the platform’s potential to universally unite museums’ most important holdings: “It helps [museums] document the spaces that they have, not only for the visitors, but also thinking about how works might be shown in that space. It’s an aggregation model, where you get a critical mass of individual objects from institutions that might only have one or two that they might want to put on a world scale, but with all of those museums together you start to see patterns showing up across those different objects.” Yet Google Art Project has since been cast off as inefficient; as the corporation did not have any exclusive rights to any of the work it photographed, many of the objects available on the live view mode of the platform are censored and blurred. Its intent of providing users with virtual tours has instead left viewers with ghostly renderings within a failed design.

Arguably Denny’s most poignant installation, New Management, tells a story regarding the history of the Samsung corporation. In 1993, Samsung Chairman Lee Kun-Hee announced to executives his plan to reform the company’s management structure to combine both Japanese and American business models, an effort that would eventually lead to the development of a global brand and many new technologies, including the mobile phones Samsung is most noted for. The installation replicates the hotel room that this announcement is alleged to have taken place in, including many decorative details such as a painting of a Venetian cityscape, an executive chair and table covered in a purple tablecloth, a heap of pink flowers, and two Samsung air purifiers, which are plugged in and lightly humming. Upon learning that Samsung had built a similar replica to commemorate the historic day for the company, viewable only to top executives, Denny imagined what the room looked like and made his own version. A timeline of Samsung cellphones from 1994-2014 is presented in a glass display case running alongside the installation, providing a snapshot of Samsung’s accomplishments by merging Samsung’s history with present-day elements.

In contrast to All You Need Is Data, Denny’s fascination with Samsung has little to do with his opinions of disruptive innovation: as an older company, Samsung wasn’t necessarily looking to eliminate existing markets by replacing dated ideas with new technology; rather, the company was looking to modify its brand to fit projected growth. Denny reflected upon Samsung’s cultural history to Artnet: “They [Samsung] have practices implemented that one could question but there is also an amazing achievement, an interesting momentum, and a definite culture force. Good or bad, these things have an impact on culture. You can’t choose your culture, it sort of chooses you.”

In highlighting the history of Samsung through both literal and figurative timelines, Denny is making distinctions between the role of the artist in society and the transformations of aesthetic display as museums continue to explore methods of preserving work online. Boris Groys, who is a major reference for Troemel’s essay, theorizes that the new avant-garde artist—a classification fit for Denny—is responsible for exhibiting everyday life. Through self-documentation and self-subjectivity on social media, referring back to Droitcour and Gat’s reflections on vernacular criticism, Groys situates the contemporary artist as a throwback to the avant-garde established in the 1960s. He states, “The everyday becomes a work of art—there is no more bare life, or, rather, bare life exhibits itself as artifact. Artistic activity is now something that the artist shares with his or her public on the most common level of everyday experience. The artist now shares art with the public just as he or she once shared it with religion or politics. To be an artist has already ceased to be an exclusive fate, becoming instead an everyday practice.”

However, as practitioners in early avant-garde circles traditionally attempted to democratize visual art, their work is also classified as being unpopular and anti-institutional; as contemporary artists now require participation within democratic platforms like social media, their work is still largely marginal when compared against the vast majority of users within these networks. Denny continues to tell Artnet that his work is associated with commerce since artists often identify as entrepreneurs. An arts institution may never receive a level of popularity equal to other entertainment or luxury industries, despite the commercial market’s efforts towards establishing visual art as an asset class. Additionally, it is still largely unclear as to whether or not commercial industries will find potential profit in the disruption of art viewing, even as new digital technologies are being prototyped in major institutions. It seems the curator’s dilemma similar to that of the innovator’s, in which, regardless of successes in providing information, education and preservation, an inability to adapt to new technologies and accrue wider audiences causes a disposition that may eventually render the institution obsolete.