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Simon Denny: The Innovator’s Dilemma at MoMA PS1

Startup culture is ripe for satire. The tech industry’s social and economic dominance makes it a necessary target, and its penchant for jargon-heavy, wildly inflated rhetoric makes it an easy one. Mike Judge’s HBO sitcom, Silicon Valley, deftly picks the low-hanging fruit, but it hardly needs to. The elevator pitches of most weak-to-average startups on the venture-capital trail, quixotically ascribing revolutionary potential to the most banal of products, all but ridicule themselves (at least to people outside of the industry). This raises the question: Given an industry that already trades in hyperbole, is satire still an effective strategy for cutting through ideology?

Simon Denny. All You Need is Data: The DLD 2012 Conference REDUX Rerun, 2013; installation view, Petzel Gallery, New York. Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art.

Simon Denny. All You Need is Data: The DLD 2012 Conference REDUX Rerun, 2013; installation view, Petzel Gallery, New York. Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art.

The art world allows for more nuanced and challenging modalities of representation than mainstream media outlets like HBO do. The artist Li Liao, for example, took a job at the notoriously exploitative Foxconn factory in China, which produces parts for Apple products, and then exhibited his uniform, ID card, labor contract, and an iPad—the object of his labor—as a work titled Consumption (2012). While not offering much to look at, Li’s work succeeds in concretizing an experience on the production side of the technology industry, images of which can be hard to believe. Taking another perspective, Simon Denny’s exhibition The Innovator’s Dilemma, now at MoMA PS1, trains its gaze on the rhetoric of startup culture, which the artist shows to be itself one of the industry’s most important products, albeit an ethereal one. Denny’s work could easily register as satire, but it is not. It holds up a mirror, the effect and purpose of which are not easy to ascertain.

Simon Denny. Berlin Startup Case Mod: Rocket Internet, 2014; custom computer case, packaging, heavy-duty computer hardware, digital prints on Plexiglas, custom Plexiglas components, metal fittings, Samsung UE40F6500 SS, video on USB stick, and custom spider computer case; 42-1/8 x 36-5/8 x 21-5/8 in, 30-11/16 x 31-1/2 x 12-3/16 in. Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art.

Simon Denny. Berlin Startup Case Mod: Rocket Internet, 2014; custom computer case, packaging, heavy-duty computer hardware, digital prints on Plexiglas, custom Plexiglas components, metal fittings, Samsung UE40F6500 SS, video on USB stick, and custom spider computer case; 42 1/8 by 36 5/8 by 21 5/8 in., 30 11/16 by 31 1/2 by 12-3/16 in. Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art.

The Innovator’s Dilemma includes four installations, each made to look like a trade-show platform—an appropriate type for representing the international echo chamber of startup discourse. All You Need Is Data (2013) arrays several dozen canvas posters representing events from the 2012 Digital Life Design (DLD) conference, an event held annually in Munich. Capturing the skeuomorphic aesthetic of Apple’s then-current operating system, iOS 5 (since replaced by the iconographically flatter iOS 7 and iOS 8), the posters pair photographs of leading industry personalities with associated pull quotes (“We are hard-wired to share,” says Brian Chesky, the founder of Airbnb). In Disruptive Berlin (2014), Denny creates modest monuments to that city’s top ten startups (as named by Wired UK in 2013). His sculptures consist of tricked-out desktop computers placed atop horizontal flat-screen monitors looping promotional videos from the associated companies, accompanied in some cases by spastic dubstep music. The Personal Effects of Kimdotcom (2013), meanwhile, re-creates a number of the assets seized by the U.S. government after its arrest of Kim Schmitz, the founder of the streaming sites Megavideo and Megaupload, including a server stack, a life-size model of the creature from the Predator films, and an artistic monument to Schmitz’s skills in the Call of Duty video game.

Simon Denny. New Management, 2014; installation view, Portikus, Frankfurt. Photo: Helena Schlichting. Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art.

Simon Denny. New Management, 2014; installation view, Portikus, Frankfurt. Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Helena Schlichting.

These works leave the viewer at something of a loss regarding Denny’s stance, aesthetic or political, regarding the material he displays. The quotations in All You Need Is Data may register below the hagiographic pitch typically adopted toward industry gurus at conferences like DLD, but not so much that they read as snide or ridiculing. Rather, they seem a more or less accurate distillation of what the actual events entailed; they could even pass for DLD promotional stock. Likewise, while the “monuments” in Disruptive Berlin have a touch of silliness, they could conceivably function as the trophies they purport to be, thus calling into question what would appear to be their irony. The Kimdotcom platform, for its part, strictly avoids passing judgment on its figure. What, then, are we to make of this rather noisy, banal trade-show environment, transferred to the context of an art museum? What is its raison d’être?

A potential answer comes in the form of Denny’s fourth platform, New Management (2014), which selectively re-creates the Frankfurt hotel room where, in 1993, the former Samsung chairman Lee Kun-hee famously declared a set of new management principles intended to make his company a more internationally competitive player. The enactment of these principles proved an enormous success, but the hyperbolic, revolutionary cadence of Lee’s speech—often recalling the platitudes of a self-help guru (“Change everything but your wife and kids” is the most famous maxim to come out of it)—is what most anticipated startup culture, which was then still several years away. Denny’s installation highlights the discrepancy between the grandiosity of Lee’s rhetoric and the cheap accoutrements of the room in which he presented it, gesturing to the fact that the speech rings hollow only to outsiders. For the audience to whom it was directed, it was and indeed remains gospel.

New Management suggests that Denny intends to work in a historical mode. Indeed, while the other three installations concern subjects nearer to the present time, they all present artworks as though they were artifacts or archival material, with what I read as a kind of devious quasi-objectivity. They reveal that, just as the tech industry must constantly renew its product lines, so it must renew its discourse and image, with the result that these ethereal attributes often escalate to ever loftier, often laughable heights. Indeed, if there is one thing that The Innovator’s Dilemma makes apparent, it is how much the look of tech has changed even since 2013. Just two years later, the skeuomorphic graphics, the dubstep, and the unimpeachable popularity of Call of Duty all read as distinctly, terminally passé. Evidently for Denny, to present these phenomena in all their brash irrationality is itself a worthwhile artistic gesture, and to take an explicitly defined stance, whether critical or satirizing, would be superfluous.

The Innovator’s Dilemma is on view at MoMA PS1 through September 7, 2015.

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