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Simon Denny Turned the World’s Most Overused Tech Term into Art

How one artist is using startup culture to pull back the thin veil separating creativity and commerce.

Simon Denny. Installation view of New Management at Portikus, Frankfurt, 2014. Photo Helena Schlichting

To New Zealand artist Simon Denny, success doesn’t equal happiness. The 33-year-old, Berlin-based creative has achieved quite a bit of success—he just mounted a solo exhibition at Museum of Modern Art’s PS1, he is represented by one of New York’s most prestigious galleries, and, next month, he is New Zealand’s entrant in the Venice Biennale. “Success is a complicated thing,” he said over Skype from his studio in Berlin. “For me, it’s just work. It’s rewarding to get projects done that are worth doing. The myth of success is something else than achieving things I want to achieve.”

The suggestion that success is “just a narrative that doesn’t mean so much,” is an interesting segue into his latest exhibition, The Innovator’s Dilemma, on view until September 7 at PS1. “I set the whole thing up like a trade fair,” said Denny. “It’s a survey of a number of projects, and each project gets a booth.”

Simon Denny. Installation view of All You Need is Data - the DLD 2012 Conference REDUX rerun at Petzel Gallery, New York, 2013.

The show features six major installations by the artist, who is fascinated by tech culture, how startups takeoff, and the visual language of businesses. The pieces are meant to poke holes in the idea of “success,” and its flaws—to highlight that there is no definitive recipe to success, no matter how you package it at any given price point.

Denny borrows the exhibition title from a 1997 book by Harvard Business School professor Clayton M. Christensen, The Innovator’s Dilemma: The Revolutionary Book That Will Change the Way You Do Business. Based on the premise that “great companies can fail precisely because they do everything right,” Christensen focuses on how emerging technology could radically change corporate America. He also coined the infamous business jargon term “disruptive innovation”—the book is essentially a set of rules that explains the now widely acknowledged phenomenon and how it could create new market value, a.k.a. “success.”

Why is Denny bringing this to light now, 18 years later? “Tech culture has transcended into something popular,” he said. “Blockbuster movies and Silicon Valley TV shows are in [the] minds of people …[that culture] has grown into something people are very interested in—it’s the right time to highlight his book because its impact can be seen broadly.”

Simon Denny by Calla Henkel and Max Pitegoff

Christensen’s concept has implications for the idea of success in the art world, as well. To “disrupt,” for a newcomer contemporary artist, is to make their name in the gallery world game. “Disruption is an important idea, it’s an ideal,” said Denny. But is disruption just a career move? The book preaches that new businesses and products constantly aim to ‘disrupt’ their market, but it’s harder to sustain innovation—in fact, it might actually be impossible. Similarly, in the art market many newcomers don’t survive, or are unable to sustain themselves beyond the five-year “emerging artist” point. Such disruption ties into how artists brand themselves beyond the trademark of work that first gained them notice.

But hopeful artists holding both MFAs and a pile of debt may want to pause before looking to Denny for Christensen-like guidance in getting to the top of their game before age 35. Is the tone of all this business language stuff sarcastic? Denny thinks about it and pauses. In a previous interview he took a snarkier approach to answering the same question when he said “it’s not an attitude to wear on your branded shirt sleeve,” but here, he just shifts his tone. “You don’t want to make exhibitions boring,” he told me. “When you make a TED talk, you make a joke to keep people interested, but you want to inform and encourage people to think through the material.”

He also mentioned the low number of statistics around female startup founders – “it’s appalling and continues to be questioned,” he said.

“But I want to build some of those problems into the positives of the rhetoric and the mythology.”

Genius Annotation Panel courtesy of MoMA PS1 — photo by Margarida Malarkey

Coincidentally, the opening of Denny’s exhibition at PS1 opened this weekend with a performance with Genius, a website that archives song lyrics with alterable and editable annotations. The co-hosted “annotation battle” inside the dome was a live event with projections. “Since the show was being arranged like a trade fair, it would make the experience more authentic and interesting if there was a real product in New York, which I think is exciting,” Denny said.

Simon Denny. Berlin Startup Case Mod, Rocket Internet. 2014.

Part of Denny’s research was conducted at the Digital Life Design (DLD) in Munich, at 11 years old one of the oldest and most prestigious tech and startup conference events in Europe. Instead of a closed, industry-only event where the documentation is not really broadcasted to the outside world, Steffi Czerny, co-founder of DLD, includes young visual artists, “which is unusual,” according to Denny. That the famed Swiss curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist selects panels of art sessions makes the conference all the more appealing to Denny’s milieu. “Suddenly, some of my artist friends were speaking on the same panel as the Sheryl Sandbergs of the world and I thought ‘that’s an interesting space,’” Denny recalls. He took the conference’s footage and built it into a 3D timeline that summarized each segment with quotes and images that offered his perspective on its culture, which he says, “gives the sense of what was going on and the way it was being discussed.”

The Innovator’s Dilemma has obvious ties to last year’s Disruptive Berlin, an exhibition he held at Berlin’s Galerie Buchholz, where he created sculpture portraits of the top 10 Berlin startups from 2013. The work commented on the heady tech scene in the German capital, frothy with more than €133 million of venture capitalist funding that was funneled into Berlin startups in 2013. That’s been augmented by an annual Startup Camp, hubs like Betahaus, nerdy thing like the annual Tech Open Air, and a map locating over 700 startups in Berlin.

A scene from The Innovator’s Dilemma, courtesy of Ezra Glenn/ Genius.

To Denny the tech sector values can almost mirror those in the art world, in terms of risk taking and finding a creative approach. And the two camps may be more closely aligned in mindset than previous capitalists and creatives. “Young founders moved to Berlin for the same reasons as young artists have,” said Denny, who followed his fellow classmates to Berlin in 2009 after studying in Frankfurt.

But enough about dilemmas, for now. The Innovator’s Solution was Christensen’s sequel book written in 2003, which Denny has yet to tackle. He already has some ideas around it, having read its synopsis. “The solution didn’t have as much impact as the dilemma,” said Denny. “The dilemma is a productive dilemma, as the dilemma produced a solution.”

The Innovator’s Dilemma runs until September 7 at MoMA PS1 in New York and Secret Power opens at the Venice Biennale New Zealand pavilion on May 9.

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