Arts
A conversation about The Founder's Paradox

Tech billionaire Peter Thiel is arguably New Zealand's most influential citizen. Now he's the subject of a compelling exhibition by Simon Denny. Bernard Hickey and arts columnist Hamish Coney crossed into each others' worlds to discuss the exhibition they visited just before it closed.

Bernard Hickey: I know a bit about economics and technology and politics, but nothing about art. Can you explain to someone from another planet like mine how big Simon Denny is in the international art world and why?

Hamish Coney: Denny’s recent exhibition history is impressive, taking in solo shows at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (The Innovator’s Dilemma – 2015), The Serpentine Sackler in London (Products for Organising – 2015/16), The Venice Biennale (Secret Power – 2015), Munich (All You Need is… Data?, Kunstverein, Munich – 2014) and recently Shenzen (Real Mass Entrepreneurship – 2017) as well as solo and group shows in Brussels, Sydney, Los Angeles and Rome this year alone.

Denny's art addresses today's major digital issues such as crypto-currency, big data and internet surveillance, along with the biggest players in this area such as Peter Thiel, Kim Dotcom and Jeff Bezos, as well as the founders and inventors of new digital currencies such as Bitcoin and Ethereum. As the battle rages for control of information flows and data in cyberspace, Denny’s location in the artspace highlights the importance of free speech and speaking truth to power when these freedoms appear to be under siege. This makes Denny’s position risky, exciting and much like that of an investigative journalist. For me this makes Denny important as his art practice takes place on the front line of ‘real world’ issues art is frequently accused of ignoring or avoiding. The new battlefront is data capture and control. Are these issues on the radar of business in New Zealand?

Bernard Hickey: Bigger and more internationally connected businesses are waking up to the data capture, control and privacy issues, particularly the newer technology ones. But smaller businesses and the wider public are blissfully unaware and still drunkly, share-happy. All this sharing and liking (and all the myriad ways to react) are delivering lots of juicy dopamine hits to keep us coming back to our news feeds and instagram feeds and twitter feeds and Linkined In feeds. We’re well fed and it all seems magical. All this utility and no cost…it seems.

But of course there is cost and there is value being created whenever we sign up for these ‘free’ services and hand over all this deeply personal data to Facebook and Google in particular. We are not buying the product. We are the product in this transaction and every digital player with any ambition is digging their own data mines and employing miners to create algorythms to understand and sell those insights. The likes of Xero, Spark, Vend, Stuff, TradeMe and Netflix will be building collections billions of data points on New Zealanders as we write, without the users’ knowledge (although probably with their unthinking consent).

And it has only just begun. Banks and all sorts of service providers are only just starting to understand how to use the now ubiquitous and powerful devices we all have in our hands to track, prompt, transact with and analyse everything we do. New Zealand’s banking, health, energy, education and real estate sectors are all set to be transformed. The smart money is that global giants will be the transformers, rather than locals. Brands we grew up with and trusted and may even have owned will blasted away by the big guns from Silicon Valley with their thousands of engineers sporting PHDs and a nice line in tech-driven utopianism.

These apps and services will be beautiful, probably free, easy and deliver plenty of dopamine straight to the bits of the brain that make us do what we think we want. They will be innovative, cut costs, add service and slice fat out of powerful and profitable companies here in New Zealand. Not too many will shed tears for the local victims when it means services are cheaper and easier.

But there is a price. Those global behemoths won’t be accountable here, won’t pay taxes here and will ruthlessly crush local start-ups, not to mention open up our labour market to the lowest possible ‘global’ wage. The Internet is designed to create global network monopolies. Facebook, Google, Uber and Airbnb are but the first of many. These platforms are designed to open up closed local markets for labour and services to much lower cost options elsewhere, and they’re working.

Simon’s installation sparked my imagination and pushed some uneasy buttons deep in my limbic system about what these changes mean for people in New Zealand. Thiel and his story are a lightening rod for us to question the way we have become drunk on dopamine. Or is it Soma? The moment it hit me hardest was seeing a delicate picture of a passport swamped among all these global symbols and games.

Thiel’s story works so well because he is both deeply local and global for us. His Lord of the Rings passion seems almost patriotic and his money did play a major role in building what could be our own home-brewed champion of the age of cloud computing – Xero. This is a truly Kiwi company that has spawned a local ecosystem of plugins that aim to ride on Rod Drury’s coat-tails to glory in global markets. Those birds that are riding on the elephant’s back include the likes of Vend and Timely.

Yet Thiel is also everything deeply unsettling about the new breed of libertarian god kings that create and profit from the apps we spend hours a day on. Thiel was personally a key player in the Facebook story (just watch the excellent Social Network to understand) and is behind Palantir, the data mining company that is tool of choice by the Five Eyes intelligence partnership that we are a part of. I regularly see Palantir lanyards around the necks of bright young Kiwis out buying their coffees around the security services precinct near Parliament.

He also became the poster child for being above the usual rules of gaining citizenship. The apparent contempt it showed for mere laws and the contempt it showed our own politicians held mere citizens in was barely believable. Yet we would have known nothing about it for an accidental discovery by a mere journalist. The spicy post-script to that story was that the same journalist, Matt Nippert, reported on Thiel’s cheeky visit to the exhibition this month. The passports used in Simon’s work resonated for me. They are things we carry with us. They identify us and give us something in common as New Zealanders. Now Thiel has one too, but he has little in common with most of us, and much that is actively opposed to our interests.

Do you think Simon consciously used Thiel’s story to tap into these deep fears about technology and the rise of stateless and rootless demi-gods with this exhibition?

Hamish Coney: The intersection of the global tech individual and their ‘outlaw’ status has long been a subject of inquiry for Denny.  Witness his Five Eyes presentation at the Venice Biennale and his landmark show the Personal Effects of Kim Dotcom.

My analysis of Denny’s work sees three key areas of concern and opportunity. First, that a new order of tech demi-gods is not satisfied with staying in their tech ‘lane’ but have pretensions to in effect rule the world.

Witness Google’s plans to create an urban living laboratory in Toronto, a prototype for a so-called ‘smart city’. Second, that many of these larger than life characters see New Zealand as at best a haven, escape or bolthole, and at worst easy prey, and thirdly and this is where the art connection comes in. The livery and language of these figures and their marketing carries either explicit or embedded meaning.

Their use of design is not neutral, but loaded and coded, and that is where Denny feels right on the front line of the zeitgeist.

Denny is an exemplar of post-contemporary art in the same way that the term post-capitalism is used to describe the stateless global roaming of the mega tech players.

I thought it was fascinating that this idea that neo-liberalism and current practice capitalism was outed in last year's election by figures as disparate as Jim Bolger and Winston Peters.

Do you get a sense that this conversation is starting to get some play in business circles?

Bernard Hickey: This debate about the influence of the technology giants and their ability to avoid or transcend the sovereign boundaries of tax jurisdictions and competition regulars is the now the dominant conversation for Governments and every big business, including the technology companies themselves. It is bubbling up every day.

I'd recommend everyone with an interest in the future of New Zealand, its business environment and wider society go to Denny's exhibition if they get the chance. It will make you smile and think and realise that not only is this technology revolution we're in the biggest thing in the world right now, New Zealand is at least as close to the centre of it as any others -- and often closer.

This is evident in the status of Peter Thiel as arguably the most influential New Zealander alive, even if his visits are only fleeting and his interest in us is waning.

It's fascinating that one reason he flew in his corporate jet with friends to visit Auckland just before Christmas was to see the Denny exhibition about Thiel himself.

* Hamish Coney and Bernard Hickey visited The Founder's Paradox exhibition at Michael Lett's gallery just before Christmas, and just days after Thiel visited.