"Anything that contains information can be interesting -- and this contains a lot of information." New Zealand artist Simon Denny points to a sheet of printed A4 paper among the hundreds attached to the walls of his studio in Berlin. All of the walls. There are even pieces of paper stuck to the windows.
This particular piece is special, Denny says, because printed upon it is the logo that represents Prism, the mass surveillance system used by the United States' National Security Agency, or NSA. "And I think that is beautiful."
Not everyone would agree with that, whether they were talking aesthetics or symbolism. But there's a good reason for Denny's preoccupation with the Prism logo, and others like it.
The 31-year-old artist will represent New Zealand at the 56th Venice Biennale next year and around the time he was thinking up a proposal for New Zealand's contribution, there were numerous stories in the global media about the NSA and its Prism system.
Creative New Zealand called for proposals last July; a month before that, former CIA systems administrator Edward Snowden made international headlines, leaking the first of NSA material on mass surveillance systems like Prism.
It all fitted together nicely -- Denny has long been interested in how interfaces between information and people have developed and he has often worked with headline-making harbingers of the zeitgeist.
Simon Denny will stage an exhibition called Secret Power, with Nicky Hager working as his adviser. Photo / Calla Henckel and Max Pitegoft
His exhibitions have focused on everything from the history of broadcasting to pivotal business conferences to a just-opened show at Wellington's Adam Art Gallery recreating the personal possessions of German multimillionaire, Kim Dotcom.
As Berlin-based art writer Pablo Larios, who has also written for Denny's catalogues, explained in a 2012 issue of the Spike Art Quarterly: "[Denny's] videos and often sprawling installations seem to ask: what does data do to us as communal entities? What price do we pay, as we increasingly are ourselves monetary units, both objects and subjects of data overload?"
"I was really interested in how the slides looked," Denny continues, referring to the training presentations that Snowden leaked. "There was a disconnect between the message they were unveiling and the system they represented. They looked like clip-art from a different time. I was also excited by the language they used, which was more casual than I thought it would be. Yet it was informing something so culturally impactful."
Next May, the artist's initial interest will be translated into an exhibition called Secret Power, that will be housed in a Renaissance-era library, the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, sitting directly on Venice's famous St Mark's Square; the historic building is home to thousands of priceless illuminated manuscripts among other things.
"[The library] was designed as an allegory for knowledge acquisition," Denny explains. In many ways, he suggests, the Venetians had similar motivations to the NSA -- just during a vastly different era.
After securing the venue, Denny says his Venice offering really began to take shape. "It became about more than just the specifics of the [NSA] story. It started to become more universal -- like, what is knowledge? What is geography? And what does that mean in a national pavilion at Venice?"
Along the way, Denny also picked up an expert adviser. While researching New Zealand's experience of surveillance technology, Denny read the 1996 book, Secret Power, by Nicky Hager, who made headlines before this year's general election with his new tome, Dirty Politics.
"As you can see, it's complicated," Denny says, gesturing at the papers on the walls. Some feature other logos, others are instructional diagrams, still others reference media coverage; by the time Denny shows he will have accumulated 18 months' worth of information. "And I am not an expert so I thought I should consult one. Nicky Hager was presented to me by the team as a good option at the time because he wasn't associated with any political parties, was independent and had a massive international reputation."
By "the team" Denny is referring to his colleagues at Creative New Zealand, who also get a say in how New Zealand is represented at what has been described as "the Olympics of the art world". The Biennale runs for six months and attracts more than 450,000 curators, critics, collectors and visitors. CNZ is investing about $700,000 in the project and there is additional financial support from donors such as Te Papa and private patrons to the tune of around $300,000.
Given Hager's Dirty Politics and the Kim Dotcom-funded "Moment of Truth" on alleged New Zealand government spying, Creative NZ's choices have begun to look a little odd. The National Party-led
What is knowledge? What is geography?
Government now appears to be funding a project that focuses on its own activities. Is Denny worried about that?
"The way I see it, I am working with information that has entered the public domain. There's nothing I am working with that is not available to everyone on the planet with an internet connection," says Denny. "I think there are cultural issues that have been less discussed and less digested that will prove interesting and relevant, regardless of one's political views. And part of my job as an artist is to look at that -- visually and conceptually -- and see what the impact is.
"I think it's a testament to New Zealand that the arts -- including those receiving direct support from the Government -- are editorially independent, and that the processes of selecting artists for official commissions like the Venice Pavilion is done through independent panels of respected professionals.
"My impression is also that this is seen by all people, regardless of their political persuasion, as a good and necessary thing."
Although Denny trained in sculpture at Elam at the University of Auckland and at the prestigious Staedelschule in Frankfurt, his art has always been about ideas. He has also been associated with a group of artists called "post-internet", meaning he works in an era when the internet has become ubiquitous and we take our daily digital interaction for granted.
From what Denny has revealed of his plans so far -- geography, maps, knowledge, information-is-power -- it seems his show will have a uniquely New Zealand perspective on questions around mass surveillance and information gathering.
There is no doubt he has the chops to make an impact at one of the world's most intense art events. He has exhibited in some of the world's leading institutions -- including the Institute of Contemporary Arts, or ICA, in London, the Centre Pompidou in Paris and, next year, MoMA PS1 in New York. He has been championed by some of the art world's most important insiders and dealer galleries and been written about and reviewed in leading publications. He was also the first New Zealand artist to have been selected to show in the group exhibition at the last Venice Biennale, in 2013.
Denny isn't a risky prospect. But what about the work he's going to produce? Will that take risks, the way the most interesting art should? Right now, he isn't giving away too much. It won't look like his paper-covered studio, though, he says. And it will be beautiful, he adds.
"That's the hardest thing, there's no recipe. You gain more knowledge every time you make a show. Then again, Venice is a totally different beast. It's one of the most popular and busy exhibitions on the planet."
What he will disclose is this: "There are going to be lots of different formats. So some will be sculpture and some will be more image-based -- 2D -- and there will be this amazing contrast [with the surroundings]."
Most of all, though, he wants viewers to enjoy the show.
"I want people to walk in and have a really interesting exhibition experience. And by that, I mean interesting things to think about and interesting things to look at, maybe to learn something you didn't know before.
"Basically, I am trying to make the presentation I am doing the best experience I can."