Investigative journalist Nicky Hager is taking a break from writing about dirty politics and secret power in New Zealand. He is in Venice in his new temporary role as adviser and fact-checker for the NZ At Venice Biennale 2015 project which opens next Tuesday. It is called Secret Power.

The project, by Berlin-based Auckland artist Simon Denny, takes its title from Hager's 1996 book which exposed for the first time the machinations of New Zealand's Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) and its role in the Five Eyes security partnership.

An image from Secret Power, Simon Denny's installation for the New Zealand pavilion at this year's Venice Biennale.
An image from Secret Power, Simon Denny's installation for the New Zealand pavilion at this year's Venice Biennale.

Denny's installation, in Venice's Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana on San Marco Square and in Marco Polo Airport's arrival halls, is inspired by the material released from 2013 onwards by former National Security Agency (NSA, of America) contractor Edward Snowden, who is now exiled in Russia. Denny's Secret Power focuses on the way the world is represented in state-produced documents in the post-Snowden era and the relationship between knowledge and power.

"We've been communicating by Skype, email and in person, when Simon was over here, it's been a year now," said Hager, just before flying off to Europe last week. "He was on track with his own ideas before Creative New Zealand [CNZ] thought of asking me to work with him ... I have been through lots of stages of it, talking things over with him.

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"What they want me there for is because Simon is going to be facing international media and it's about a really specific topic. They wanted someone there so if he is challenged about some facts, he will have the support he needs."

The Marciana Library is home to a priceless collection of ancient maps and archives.

"The library is very much about how the world was when Venice was at the height of its power as a naval empire," said Hager. "That comparison is very much on Simon's mind."

Hager's appointment attracted some criticism by Biennale patrons such as Dame Jenny Gibbs, who diverted her funding, saying she did not support his involvement.

"My only worry was that I didn't want something to do with me distracting from Simon's work and I don't think it has," said Hager.

"The weird thing about my work is that I'm into trying to be as fair and factual as I can and so often when you do political things you are met with unreasonable personal attacks.

"I guess I have just got used to the way some people act."

NZ at Venice commissioner Heather Galbraith said Denny's project logo features a map from Hager's book, showing New Zealand at the centre of the Pacific Rim region watched by the GCSB.

"There are definitely key pieces of information from Nicky's book ... integrated within the project.

"Nicky is a specialist content adviser ... he has been helping Simon with information and reading at the very early stage and at the latter stage much more ... as a fact-checker.

"This subject matter is evolving all the time and Nicky has kept up with the play in terms of international trends and information.

"We don't want to enter this very public forum in a way that is ill-informed. It has been really important to provide Simon with the specialist advice he needs."

CNZ has put in $700,000 over two financial years to Secret Power, plus staff time and resources, with partners, sponsors and patrons donating at least $575,000. Hager gets $8000 plus flights and accommodation.