With its super-high-tech bugging devices, plugs hanging precariously from sockets, and wires trailing along teetering iron and wood scaffolds, Simon Denny’s latest show "Products for Organising" finds the artist rummaging under the hood of a post-Snowden communications industry.
The exhibition, at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery in West London through February 14, is a kind of museum of hacking—a particularly philosophical and analytical one, which explores the notions around the practice and its overt and covert uses by governments, security services, individuals, and those cuddly companies we entrust our data to because we can’t run our lives without them. It’s all in keeping with the New Zealand-born Denny’s practice of critiquing the information economy. (In last year's Venice Biennale show "Secret Power," at Marco Polo Airport, he imagined an artistic context for imagery used by the NSA and even enlisted the services of a former NSA illustrator.)
Split into two sections—"Products for Emergent Organizations" and "Products for Formalized Organizations"—the Serpentine show contrasts the top-down approach of big business with the flattened hierarchy of the hacking world. In particular, it highlights the meeting of these two managerial structures in entities such as Apple, Zappos, and the spy agency GCHQ, Britain’s most secretive organization and one that’s been accused of mass surveillance by Snowden.
Through a series of graphics, charts, videos, books, products, and hi- and lo-tech accessories punctuated by the characteristically chummy, upbeat-but-vacuous voice of the tech conference, Denny makes a number of interesting points about these entities’ modus operandi—for instance, that they tend to be housed in circular buildings and to pride themselves on the free circulation of ideas through this "infinite loop" architecture (which, not incidentally, gives them the power to track and control those ideas in perpetuity).
Technical "manuals," real or imagined, are exhibited alongside hardware and re-packaged as aspirational consumer products. There’s a version of the "Phone Phreak Blue Box" sold by the young Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak as a way of placing free long distance calls, here packaged in an Apple-style box. There’s even a "hacker legitimacy kit," whatever that is. The cumulative effect is of a brilliantly conceived back-room fantasy world of truth and fakery. The ultimate success of this show is that where one ends and the other begins will be different for every visitor.
Installation shots from "Simon Denny: Products for Organising," at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, London, November 25, 2015 - February 14, 2016. Courtesy of the Serpentine Galleries.