Simon Denny, “NFT Mine Offset: Ethereum Kryptowährung Mining-Rig,” 2021
“Tethering portraiture and concept, artwork and artifact, the NFT is the latest dynamo to propel it along, stitching together various cultures as it goes.”
View “NFT Mine Offset: Ethereum Kryptowährung Mining-Rig” in the K21 gallery here →
Early anthropologists transmuted artworks into artifacts. They extracted objects from ritual and routine in favor of dusty shelves and desk drawers, turning them into evidence of otherness, fodder for theory. Plucked from their native contexts, they were brought near in order to further exoticize: specimens stripped of their power, they told hollow tales of far-off lands for audiences without the experience to counter them. Simon Denny does much the opposite.
A native of New Zealand — a Pākehā, the offspring of settlers — who relocated back to his ancestral Europe, Denny seems to have internalized the anthropologist’s affinity for observation. But like the postmodern strain, his observational obsessions were closer to home. The cult of technology captured his curiosity.
He infiltrated their fora, learned their ways, deciphered their codes. Yet rather than depicting his observations, illustrating the scene — mere analysis — or assembling their trinkets — mere collecting — he created new artifacts and fed them back into his host cultures: innovations for innovators. His artworks not only reflect the aesthetic and behavioral economies of his subjects but also carry them to their logical conclusions. They price in the future.
Denny provided everything a fellow millennial needed to come of age in the technopagan Newer Age. A DLD conference program, a TEDx stage, an electronic lanyard: cosmogony, sacred space, tribal marking. He laid it all bare; rendered it all bizarre. His early work distilled the language, the archetypes, the rituals, and garb of the followers of the doctrine of disruption.
As the neoliberal story evolves, so does his work. For the New Zealand pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennale, he poked at his home country’s role in the Five Eyes surveillance dragnet, placing a server farm in a vitrine with NSA documents in a Renaissance library and relocating a copy of the frescoes of said library to the airport, forming a bridge across the border, making explicit the porous edges of obsolete notions of jurisdiction. For the Berlin Biennale the following year, he brought a blockchain trade fair to a management school housed in a former East German state council building. Between cardboard cutouts of Vitalik Buterin and Blythe Masters, a two-dimensional Bilaji Sreenivasan stands, shoulders slumped and smiling, in his standard- issue Silicon Valley hoodie, microphone in hand. The prophet of “ultimate exit,” the Silicon Valley drop-out-and-do-it-yourself ethos applied at the scale of the nation state, is caged in a booth of his own aphorisms, standing atop a puzzle of protocols for building the world anew from the ground up. A crypto crash course for the art world in a single setting.
While Denny’s artworks engage their host cultures, the artist himself remains independent. He is a “down the line artist,” as he tells us below, not a technologist. His early engagement with the blockchain was no exception. While a few other artists were already tinkering with the technology itself, intertwining their work with the medium, Denny’s audience was more human than machine, his media more old than new. It was only later that he got next to the metal.
As part of Sotheby’s 2021 “Natively Digital” auction, Denny resurrected a piece originally displayed in Berlin. Working with Billy Rennekamp, the originator of the concept of the RFT, or “refungible token,” Denny swapped his 2016 block of postage stamps featuring the face of Vitalik Buterin into the payload of a 2018 NFT. Forever poking at the frail narratives that stitch techno cultures together, Denny invented the “backdated NFT.” A counterexample to the immutability of the blockchain and its modernist notion of linear time — the lot date reads “2016–2018–2021” — like all potent conceptual art, Denny’s backdated NFT undermines the assumptions upon which a vast edifice is built, the very edifice it occupies as a fugitive that rejects custom.
NFT Mine Offset: Ethereum Kryptowährung Mining-Rig is not Denny’s earliest NFT, but it was made to be his first. Created for his 2021 exhibition at Petzel Gallery in New York, Mine, it continues the thread of conceptual portraiture in the context of his current focus on extraction. In this case the subject is an Ethereum mining rig that Denny picked up on eBay and hired a digital illustrator to depict.
Used to secure a proof of work blockchain, a mining rig is the techno-alchemist’s oven: a high- energy apparatus for transmuting base metals into digital gold. Specifically, rare earths, the increasingly rare elements that underpin the global semiconductor industry. The acquisition of Denny’s NFT for the K21 Collection liberated the miner from its role on the blockchain gang as the sale of the artwork requires the artist to upcycle it to serve another cause: climate modeling. Rendered rotating in a looping video, the rig’s backdrop chronicles a nonlinear journey backward and forward in time — Web 2.0 marketplace, cog of climate prediction, marbled ball of raw minerals — the path of an object that, in the very long run, will end as it began. Tethering portraiture and concept, artwork and artifact, the NFT is the latest dynamo to propel it along, stitching together various cultures as it goes.
We discuss this and more in the interview below.
Has portraiture been a core part of your work from the beginning?
It has been, but it hasn’t felt explicit as I came to it backwards. I got interested in technology objects and products as sculptural things, as is common in the history of media art and the way artists deal with technology. From there it turned into portraiture because I got interested in the people making those things. I started to go to conferences with tech people and the first show I made about technologists was of various people speaking at a very prominent tech conference in Germany. My first piece about blockchain-based stuff was also really portraiture, of the people and their companies and the things they say.
Your work is so woven into the cultures you depict, I’ve often imagined you as having done a PhD in sociology or anthropology and then crab-walked your way into art. Were you trained classically as an artist?
I would love that origin story to be true, but I went to art school straight out of high school in New Zealand and then to another art school in Germany. I was educated in an art school system and now I teach at an art school and run an art mentoring program. I’m so down-the-line art, of a very particular canon as well. I’m very naturalized into that world. That world is so much about social information. I have learned to receive information through people, through getting to know people and respecting who they are. Right from the start of my art education, a model of learning for me was to get to know other artists’ practices very well and getting to know them very well. So I feel like I learned to be an artist sociologically, or anthropologically, or ethnographically, and that eventually translated into my practice.
Can you pinpoint when you developed this approach?
Being conscious of this as an approach came later. When I was a young student in my late teens, I realized intuitively that getting to know people was my way of learning and a very effective way for what is a very social field. I more actively translated that into my artwork in Frankfurt while studying at the Städelschule, my second art education, in a very different context — Frankfurt is very different from Auckland — and then I actively recognized that it was serving my life building, world building, self building. I realized it might be more effective if I used that muscle in my art making explicitly. I had been very interested in objects and materials and really learning the craft of installation design, and then I got interested in applying that use of social knowledge across the board, translating it into exhibition making.
Do you identify with being an artist from New Zealand?
I would narrow it down even further. My New Zealand experience is quite culturally specific: I’m a Pākehā, a white New Zealander, who has a really strong cultural tie to the colonial lineage. It’s something I was brought up in — my mother’s side was quite involved in legal histories of New Zealand. Kids growing up in my demographic have a different experience today than I did then. I grew up looking toward what was framed as “the center.” For better or for worse, I informed myself fanatically about places that were not where I was living. Looking back, that seems a bit naive and a bit of a shame, honestly, because there are a lot of wonderful and interesting forms of culture that I missed because I looked to canons from other places, which I followed with my physical movement, having moved to Europe quite early. I’m very ambivalent about that now. Friends and colleagues that stayed, I have a great respect for the ways that they have built practices that have a very interesting engagement with a very interesting place that has been quite forward-thinking about dialogues between Indigenous knowledge and colonial systems. Not without conflict, not without atrocity, but it’s been a very active conversation. I was very uninformed about these dialogues when I left; I wasn’t listening properly.
Is it possible you’ve internalized some perspective of this regardless?
One of my main professors was an incredibly prominent Maori artist, Michael Parekowhai, who left an extremely strong impression on me. I still hear his voice in my head, like you do with those early pedagogical experiences. He was very focused on products and the commercial as a part of his work, and his way of dealing with history was really sophisticated, with unbelievably clear insights in relation to the New Zealand context. I do identify as a New Zealander, long story short, and my worldview is informed from that history, a weird global history due to the firm colonial grounding of it, and I’m always learning new aspects of it as I get older.
Did coming from a far-off place give you an advantage when you moved to the center? Did it give you a sensitivity for absurdities that had been normalized?
These types of speculation always sound embarrassing. What I can say is that based on my identity, I have this access to the logic of industry and histories of capitalism, while also having this feeling of not being quite of the center. I have legibility and access in that world because of my education and socialization, but I’m not from London or New York. I always felt somewhat of an outsider in those places. I got used to larping familiarity with things that were not of me, developing an ability of sensing what codes work and articulating them for myself. I found some of those things interesting, complicated, fun, strange. That definitely informs my outlook and some of the artworks I’ve made.
You’ve developed an ability to dance with contested and controversial subjects without leading with your own identity or ideological project.
It’s quite intuitive. When I encounter something I find complicated and difficult, even troubling, I’m curious. I tend to want to model such situations with a degree of abstraction. When I make an installation about something, the goal is not to send a message — it never has been — it’s to best express the tensions inherent in a context, as I am able to access them. That often doesn’t involve coming down with a particular commitment to one aspect of the politics of that context. Of course, I do a lot of editorializing, but I tend to want to leave things a little open ended. It’s a cliché, but artwork or literature that is meaningful to different people often leaves questions open and asks them more than answers them.
How would you put NFT Mine Offset: Ethereum Kryptowährung Mining-Rig into the lineage of crypto-art that you’ve been creating for the last five or six years?
I came to the crypto world because I was fascinated with the cultures and stories around technology business products. In contrast to many artists I was aware of working in crypto at that time, I didn’t come to it looking to build an alternative infrastructure for art. That was not my draw. That also maybe puts me in a slightly different tradition from the people invested in, say, generative art, and those creating alternative platforms to the current hegemony. That was never my attraction to technology. What I found was people remixing claims about technology that I had been interested in from other contexts and presenting them as new in an interesting story about the world. This is partly why I was attracted to modeling them and their stories in “old media”: I literally made a postage stamp. It didn’t have a hologram, it was not software-based. There was a video but I got it produced by an advertising company. It was quite conservative media. I was most interested in the stories and the people presenting them.
Is the NFT world different from tech spheres you’ve previously worked with and about?
I’ve often tried to have a dialogue with the people that I’m interested in working with and making art about. Making work in the NFT format has allowed me to have more intensive conversations with technologists. Suddenly technologists from, let’s say, the Harvard Business School side of tech — the Web 2.0 types I had studied but connected with less in person — were more interested in crypto because of the killer app aspect of NFTs as art, and therefore also potentially more interested in talking to an artist. So it opened a door to continue to do my favorite thing, which is talking to people who are building these cultures and making new stories.
Is NFT Mine Offset: Ethereum Kryptowährung Mining-Rig a portrait of a mining rig?
It absolutely is. I’m glad you framed it in those terms. I literally commissioned a portrait from a graphic artist I respect a lot who works in gaming, from the art world that has been so attracted to minting NFTs. The thing that really attracts me about NFTs is that they’re a wonderful container for conceptual art. Making NFTs threw me back into historical reading about conceptual art and artists that worked with commerce in the 1960s. So, yes, it falls into the portraiture space, but it also falls into the space of a container for an idea as art, and that’s what I’m really excited about.
Is conceptual art something you’ll continue to pursue in your NFTs?
I’ve now had interactions with a few different contexts of the NFT art world, which still feels a bit separate from the art world I was schooled in. There was a moment earlier this year when I thought it might mix a bit more, but now it seems to be separating out again. The art-canon people seem to be turning away from NFTs and the crypto people are moving on on their own. It seems a moment for hybridization of interests was missed or suspended. I now appear in talks and on panels in dialogue with people who don’t come from the art traditions I was educated in and who want content for NFT platforms. I’ll present what I think is an amazing conceptual project, impeccably packaged and media reflected in their environment, and yet I’m not sure if that is what feels exciting to that community. They are seemingly uninterested in what I think is really moving. And people in the art world now seem to think NFTs are a little trashy, so they are hesitant to look in detail at what’s happening there, too. Interestingly, after a period of excitement, I’ve come down in the same space I’ve often felt that I’ve perhaps occupied, between two worlds but “of” neither.
So the dance continues?
Yeah, the dance continues.