Simon Denny

New York

at Petzel


Although still relatively young, New Zealand-born, Berlin-based Simon Denny has already attracted considerable attention for his work, which is largely concerned with information technologies and the flow of data in the digital age. For his contribution to last year’s group exhibition “Remote Control” at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, for example, he exhibited one of Channel Four’s enormous analog transmitters, now defunct after the UK’s switchover to digital broadcasting. For a solo show currently on view at MUMOK in Vienna, he made sculptures representing each of the objects seized from the home of Kim Dotcom, the creator of the file-sharing site, by New Zealand police following his arrest for copyright infringement.

For this, his second show at Petzel, Denny presented a brilliant and disturbing overview of the 2012 iteration of Digital Life Design, an invitation-only media and technology conference held annually in Munich. The exhibition, “All you need is data: the DLD 2012 Conference REDUX rerun,” consisted of 89 easel-size inkjet prints on canvas, each a digital collage of photographs, quotes and graphics from the conference.

In an installation that mimicked the tape-and-stanchion mazes at airport security checkpoints, the paintings were displayed on a low railing made of metal pipe that steered the viewer through a chronological tour of the three-day conference, from registration, breaks and evening entertainment to panel discussions and presentations. Speakers at the DLD12 were overwhelmingly A-list entrepreneurs such as Twitter’s Jack Dorsey and Tumblr’s David Karp. But there was also a smattering of scientists, policy wonks and art world denizens, including media adepts like curator Hans Ulrich Obrist and artist Yoko Ono.

As selected by Denny, buzz-phrase titles of the various events and the statements by the participants—which range from embarrassing banalities (“I have a deep belief that we are in the middle of a deep change in media and society”) to fuzzy new-age pronouncements (“We are magical beings”) and bald expressions of greed (“If you’re not started by 22, funded by 23, and able to retire by 24-25 then you’ve failed”)—suggest a pervasive insularity and elitism. Although privacy issues are contemplated in two panel discussions, only passing allusions are made to, say, the problems of growing economic inequalities and environmental damage. One of the few exceptions to the rule is a chilling statement by artist Daniel Keller of AIDS-3D: “Your animated GIFs run on burnt coal and your computers—they’re made by slaves.”

A subject never touched on, however, is that of the long-range effects of Web 2.0’s current business models, in which millions of users unintentionally provide vast amounts of information to corporations without being compensated. As pioneering computer scientist Jaron Lanier puts it in his 2013 book Who Owns the Future?, “Ordinary people ‘share,’ while elite network presences generate unprecedented fortunes.” According to Lanier, the principles of the current information economy enrich a few “while moving the value created by the many off the books,” a shift that will ultimately have a catastrophic effect on economic growth.

From beginning to end, the conference’s emphasis was on the future. But exiting the installation by the same circuitous route, one was faced with the blank backs of the paintings, underscoring the nearly instantaneous obsolescence of today’s digital technologies as well as the ideas disseminated at the conference. As Lanier’s book makes plain, awareness is the first step to creating a more humanitarian and sustainable information economy. This exhibition, by highlighting the shortsightedness of big Web businesses, was a start.