Simon Denny on the history of selfie sticks and collaboration between artists and startups
Here at RUKI, we’re continuing our series of interviews with people who are changing the hardware industry and have strong opinions on how to shape its future.
Recently, we spoke with Simon Denny, an artist who recently created a modern copy of the first selfie stick (these devices were invented in the early 1980s). While working on this project, he traveled to Shenzhen, China to explore how the world of consumer electronics works. Denny told us how he fell in love with industrial Chinese cities, what can be found in the archives of Samsung and why startups need contemporary art to succeed.
Simon Denny is a contemporary artist originally from New Zealand. He explores the interaction between technology, society and politics. Among his recent works is an installation called “New Management”, dedicated to Chairman Lee Kun-hee 1993 proposal for a new management style for the company. It was a watershed moment that eventually made Samsung one of the world’s leading corporations. Another of Denny’s works analyzes cutting-edge technologies and their intersections with the government. This project, called “Secret Power” is dedicated to the NSA and the documents leaked by Edward Snowden. “Secret Power” was exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 2015. During his visit to the Italian city, Denny noticed the proliferation of selfie-sticks, mainly among tourists. In further research, he found that the evolution of the selfie stick can be traced back to a product made by Minolta in collaboration with Courrèges in 1984. Denny reproduced this object for his project: SI X SD Legacy Selfie Stick Luxury Tech Reissue.
When did you begin your research in the field of consumer electronics, and what sparked that interest?
I got interested in electronics when I moved from my home country New Zealand to Frankfurt am Main in Germany to go to graduate school. Suddenly my laptop became the most important thing in my life. I used it to keep in touch with friends and family, learn stuff at school, watch and read in my leisure time and receive news. As a young sculptor really interested in form and space as well as the impact of objects on our life, I wanted to know more about this object. So I looked at the history of artists dealing with screens and tech in general and I guess my interest grew from there. I got attracted pretty quickly to looking at the systems and people that are in charge of designing and making computers and tech and then started reading tech press, going to conferences, etc. So I started analyzing this industry much earlier than I started the Samsung project — I guess, my interest goes back to 2008–2009.
How are your projects related to the world of electronics different from your other works? For example, from Secret Power?
To me, the projects are related. Secret Power was about the so-called “Five Eyes” western intelligence alliance between US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand and the insight that Snowden’s leaks gave the world into the culture of those state organizations. The leaks also showed the deep connections between Silicon Valley and the US government, and how much consumer tech was (intentionally or not) enabling state surveillance. So one can’t isolate a part of the global tech ecosystem — into state and private, national and super-national etc. This was a project that looked at another subset of that same wider community of people as other projects of mine that look at private tech firms. It’s still about who defines what the culture of global tech is and what it can be, but more from the governmental viewpoint in Secret Power.
What was your first impression of Shenzhen? What surprised you the most?
In Europe, the States and Australia — where I mostly work — one tends to read about the undesirable conditions of workers in the vast tech factories in Shenzhen, maybe before anything else about that city. That was certainly my under-informed, first association with Shenzhen before I started more serious research. This is not just a Chinese issue obviously as underpaid labor with difficult conditions for workers benefits tech companies around the world who produce in Shenzhen — including western giants like Apple — in terms of lowering production costs and is part of wider global trade and supply chain inequities. So a basic concern for that problematic issue was part of my initial associations. One also has an idea of fake products being made there.
When I started my research, I read a great Wired issue on China tech and innovation and learned more about companies like Tencent and Weibo, Xiaomi and the other giants of the vast Chinese market — which is another side of what is relevant there. I read some scholarly and market research around this, too, and started to form an alternate impression. I understood that the “knock-off” or so called “copy-culture” in Chinese tech was a path to innovation rather than a negative feature of an under-regulated production environment. I was hearing that people called Shenzhen a global Silicon Valley of hardware and the factories there an “open source” ecosystem of hardware production. So that was a discovery for me.
When I arrived what I didn’t really know was how much Shenzhen is also a domestic Chinese tourist destination and has an identity as a city of national immigrants. The city was founded relatively recently, and it was the first special economic zone and had an important role in the opening of trade into international markets from within China. All these factors really inform the culture there.
It’s a place of domestic immigrants, where people go to work. I liked that attitude and that feeling, similar to what I have experienced. I felt that notion of moving somewhere to work when I was in Shenzhen.
Let’s talk about SI X SD Legacy Selfie Stick Luxury Tech Reissue. Who worked on it? Did you hire hardware professionals? Tell us about the manufacturing process and the lessons you’ve learned about the hardware industry during this process.
I produced this in close collaboration with the Swiss Institute in New York. To make the cases, they worked with a craftsperson in L.A. and the production was actually quite handmade — almost the opposite of the Shenzhen way. I was in touch with him relatively closely through the Swiss Institute and it was a lot of back and forth on what was possible and what made sense at the scale we wanted. It was also about adapting existing products, working with tech that already existed and essentially giving these objects the desired patina that had meaning for the project. In its hand-made feel it was very luxury and artisanal, but also very knock-off. We wanted the selfie sticks to fulfill an odd hybrid status as very limited edition, ultra small-run luxury artworks but also hinting at this legacy of mixing mass tech and lifestyle — which the first selfie sticks, the ones issued by Minolta and Courrèges, pioneered in such a beautiful and prescient way. So my part in the process was about prioritizing and highlighting what was important in the idea of the work. It was about problem-solving and communication.
As you started researching for the project about selfie sticks, did you discover other interesting stories about the history of consumer electronics?
I am sure that there is a rich history, but for this project I really just focused on the one story as much as possible — we were even given some access to the Courrèges archives from the time. We went quite deep into that one product, more its reception than its production really. I would definitely love to learn more about more exceptional stories like this — one I remember from another project is when I was doing this work about Samsung’s 1993 change in management strategy, I looked into their corporate archives in Frankfurt a bit. There was this one amazing story of how in an attempt to change the quality of the production line, Samsung’s Chairman Lee Kun-hee actually ordered a kind of rally amongst his factory staff where they literally burned a particular line of mobile phone they were producing that had a very high fault rate in production as a kind of ritualistic vow to be more vigilant in quality control. I saw a video from this event in some of their corporate culture training material — and it was amazing, like it really looked like a political rally with protest banners and high emotions. I would love to do a more focused piece that expanded on that particular model of phone. I am sure it would be very hard to find this model now.
What do you think about the current obsession with “smart” devices: smart home thermostats, smart wristbands and so on?
I think the internet of things is clearly inevitable. A world of sensor-rich devices talking to each other and paying each other on some kind of blockchain-enabled mega-network will be a very different place as it emerges. I can see why people are interested in the future of major economic growth in tech and next-gen devices are heavily invested in connected hardware. I look forward to more “Pokemon Go” and Tesla moments, where something like the ubiquity of this tech means you suddenly get a very different kind of user platform with different qualities becoming central. Obviously an actionable, data-rich world that is a part of the increase in these objects brings changes both good and bad, and things that I hope the clever minds in charge of building these products will be very aware of as they define the future.
Your work is often connected with commercial organizations and you explore subjects like labor market, supply chains, innovation and so on. What do you think: can companies blend their current approach with the artistic approach?
I think art and commerce already have a complex and nuanced relationship. Many large companies I visited — Samsung included — use some kind of art or principals from it as a kind of inspirational mascot. The Deutsche Bank towers in Frankfurt have meeting rooms throughout the floors named after contemporary artists — you can actually have a meeting in the Francis Alys or the Wolfgang Tillmans room there. In Samsung’s training facilities in Yongin they name and theme their floors and interior design after historical artists. There is a Magritte floor where everything is decorated as if it’s upside down.
Also younger and smaller companies attempt some kind of integration of art into what they do. For example, Jack Dorsey recommended a book by an art teacher — “The Art Spirit” — at a Y-Combinator talk he gave in 2013. I think what would be the most interesting is to focus on artists in conversation with founders and doing integrated residencies inside companies. Obviously one would need to be careful with the pairing so the meetings would be relevant and worth each party’s time — but there is a great historical precedent for this. For example, a 1970s project by John Latham and Barbara Steveni called Artist Placement Group and other contemporary works. I like what Sean Raspet has done with Soylent. Also, Trevor Paglin recently told me he gave a talk at an investment fund. My friend Emily Segal from K-HOLE worked at Genius in New York and rebranded the company. Her presence there felt to me (and I think sometimes to her) very much like an art experience. She certainly brought a lasting kind of thinking that I associate with artists to the company in a really impactful way — which is so beautiful.
RUKI is a hardware incubator, based in Shenzhen, Moscow and San Francisco.
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