Kiwi artist’s Venice installation uses Snowden leaks as a springboard for witty observation.
The Terminator stands guard over New Zealand artist Simon Denny's visually complex, creepy and witty Venice Biennale installation Secret Power, which opened in the Monumental Halls of the 15th century Marciana Library on Piazzetta San Marco on Tuesday night.
Based on imagery and information prevalent within the Five Eyes alliance revealed in documents leaked by NSA contractor Edward Snowden since 2013, Secret Power includes a cabinet detailing NSA Treasuremap slides.
Treasuremap was spook-talk for a system which aimed to "map the entire internet - any device, anywhere, all the time".
To underscore the message, childish and chest-thumping as it may seem, the T-800 Endoskeleton from The Terminator was Treasuremap's internal logo, complete with skeletal teeth and glowing eyes.
Secret Power has its own logo, taken from Nicky Hager's 1996 watershed book of the same name exposing the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB): a map showing New Zealand at the centre of the world it was helping to scrutinise as junior partner in the Five Eyes network.
Secret Power is set in two grand rooms upstairs in the library containing art treasures and maps from Venice's heyday as a great power. Those were the days of Titian and Tintoretto, when information was entwined with visual beauty and whose works adorn the ceilings and walls of the library.
Now we have the Terminator, hot desks, representing the workplaces of NSA surveillance contractors, and a room humming with the sound of hard-drive fanbelts. But, to Denny, it's still a source of rich imagery.
"The Snowden documents made a huge impression on me," says the Berlin-based artist. "When the Snowden leaks came out in 2013, I thought, 'Wow, this is one of the most amazing things I've seen,' and I was immediately drawn to the visual language of these things.
"I was really interested in the way images and icons were used, and design layouts right from the beginning of those documents.
"That was the starting point for what I wanted to do for this project: look at what information is given and the way images are used, how they are deployed within those agencies. "
While a core of countries at the Biennale have permanent pavilions, New Zealand has to hire premises. For Denny, who applied to exhibit at this year's event, that's a plus. "One of the cool things about being the New Zealand representative is that we don't have a permanent venue. That to me was a very positive thing because it meant I could package the material in exactly the right container.
"This library stood out for me as something that would be perfect for a conversation about visual languages within intelligence communities because it's a library, a state-produced house for knowledge."
The entry point for the installation is a model of a computer room, complete with data storage racks and specific HP servers identified in Der Spiegel newspaper in 2013 as the NSA-endorsed Ironchef hardware back doors which allowed intelligence gatherers to access information from an organisation or government.
"These had become hacked and that's a hardware metaphor within the context of how we feel after the Snowden revelations. We realised that what we were doing online before, which we assumed was private, was actually much more public."
Aside from the presence of T-800, a figure of fantasy, a real-life character looms large in the show: American designer David Darchicourt.
"According to his online LinkedIn and Behance profiles, which are online CVs, he was creative director of defence intelligence with the National Security Agency from 2001-12," says Denny. "As part of this project I have commissioned him, or the designer I have worked with, David Bennewith, has commissioned a couple of pieces and I have also interpreted a number of other things he has put publicly online on his profile."
One piece is an upside-down, cartoonish map of New Zealand in which Prince William and his wife, Catherine, are shown quaffing red wine from the Marlborough district, right next to the Waihopai Valley spy network collection point, alongside images from The Lord of the Rings and cyber-surfers flying with their iPads.
Another cabinet contains Darchicourt designs for the National Cryptologic Museum run by the NSA in Maryland. This is the jolly ra-ra face of the NSA.
"Darchicourt is a very playful image-maker," says Denny. "He makes cartoon-based imagery to summarise things that are very complicated or boring and make them more attractive to people working within that institution.
"I did that without him fully knowing how the material was going to be used so he knew he was getting paid for a job and he knew this material was being used for some kind of conversation with New Zealand history ...
"That's very important as a performance as a part of a project to highlight exactly those issues - how do we feel when we put material online, when our imagery and our material is used for purposes and we have no idea what that is.
"Here we are putting him as a kind of framework in conversation with what I now regard as historical masterpieces.
"The seriousness of that, the way we look at a Titian describing wisdom, and then we look at David Darchicourt pieces describing the work of the NSA, looking at something as serious as people who have lost their lives working for the NSA."
The Marciana Library's Monumental Room houses two massive globes, created by Franciscan monk and cartographer Vincenzo Coronelli in 1688: one of the Earth, Globo terrestre, and one of the heavens, Globo celeste.
A Denny cabinet, titled the NSA Mystic FoxAcid archives, includes a large balloon depicting the world, constrained by ropes gripped by the talons of an American eagle.
How lovely that the exhibition opened on Tuesday, the day a spokesperson for our Prime Minister, who has always held the stance that Snowden's documents were "fabrication", now says that that position has "no factual basis". Now you can just look up things like the absurdly titled Mystic FoxAcid archives on the internet.
If you are flying into Venice, Denny also has related works on show in the arrival and departure zones, a first for the Biennale, which runs until November 22.
For more information see nzatvenice.com
• Born Auckland 1982 and studied at Elam School of Fine Arts and Stadelschule, Frankfurt
• Won Baloise Art Prize, Basel, 2012
• His work is held in Te Papa, Auckland Art Gallery, Christchurch Art Gallery, Dunedin Public Art Gallery
• Shortlisted for the Walters Prize in NZ in 2012 and 2014
• MoMA PS1 in New York is showing a survey of his recent projects in The Innovator's Dilemma until August
Linda Herrick travelled to the Biennale with assistance from Creative New Zealand.