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Can freedom become a burden? Simon Denny: Products for Organising


Simon Denny (born 1982 in Auckland, New Zealand) is an artist whose work challenges ideas rooted in our globalised world of technology, consumerism and the dissemination of information. He draws upon organisational structures and strategies as both the subject matter and methodology of his work. Denny’s installations employ content from the tech industry, commercial companies and government bodies. They translate the often problematic histories and events associated with management and governance into visual form.

Formalised Org Chart/Architectural Model: GCHQ 3 Agile/Holacracy Workspace, 2015; Mixed media including: Plexiglas, UV print on Revostage platform, book Why Work Sucks And How To Fix It, book The Happy Manifesto, book Peopleware; 200 x 210 x 100 cm; Photo: Nick Ash; Courtesy Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne

Simon Denny’s exhibition ‘Products for Organising’ at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery (25 November 2015 - 14 February 2016) divides the Gallery into two sections labelled ‘Products for Emergent Organisations’ and ‘Products for Formalised Organisations’. In the former, a series of vitrines display information and materials mapping organisational logic used by today’s computer-hacker communities. The narrative that emerges through this installation presents a timeline of events selected from the history of hacking. ‘Products for Formalised Organisations’ elucidates the managerial models used by commercial companies such as Zappos and Apple as well as governmental organisations such as Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) – the British intelligence and security organisation. Zappos, Apple and GCHQ use Holacracy and Agile as their internal ways of operating and structuring. Holacracy is a system for redistributing authority throughout the organisation. Agile is a highly flexible methodology that grew out of software-development methods, emphasising collaborations between teams by prompting them to constantly reassess themselves. Denny’s exhibition makes visible the ways in which different models can result in equally effective organisational strategies, scrutinising their impact on daily life.

Simon Denny, Formalised Org Chart/Architectural Model: Holacracy, 2015; Mixed media including: Plexiglas, UV print on Revostage platform, book The Ghost in the Machine, book Getting Things Done, book Holacracy; 200 x 205 x 100 cm; Photo: Nick Ash; Courtesy Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne

The combination of top-down managerial practices with bottom-up responsibility and decision making could allow an organisation to maintain a powerful, strategic ignorance: “Do not let the left hand know what the right hand is doing.” For instance, intelligence agencies that utilise holacracy could draw upon it to escape public scrutiny along multiple lines. First, by preventing the need for bureaucratic, chain of command documentation and sign-offs that could be leaked. Second, by enabling mission creep where publicly elected officials can claim a lack of knowledge about the decisions made by their underlings, simultaneously condemning their actions while allowing such actions to continue, as a course embedded in the very structure of the organisational system. In other words, to refer to Hannah Arendt’s notion of the banality of evil, if no one has direct responsibility for a decision then a structure, society, ideology, or, in this case managerial philosophy must itself be held responsible.

In the case of organisational forms like hackathon and holacracy, the worker is made to feel autonomous or agential due to their vestment with decision-making capability. Ultimately, however, their activities are always framed by the organisation: ready to be harvested when they grow. If their decisions end up delivering a positive result the company takes the reward. Similarly, if they deliver a negative result the individual is liable. This could be analogised to the designed reward schedule of algorithmic casino gambling: just chaotic enough to deliver an experience of true chance and freedom, but really, and in fact, carefully designed by computer programmers to ensure that the house wins. This could be seen as a particularly hardened form of neoliberalism, where even employed workers are kept in a state of constant precarity. Of course, it could also be seen as quite the opposite if one were to imagine that being autonomous and independent in a workplace that emphasises happiness and the joy of creation is a worthy end in itself.

Within this framework, can we consider freedom a burden? Should responsibility and liability lie with the individual, particularly when dealing with governmental organisations who have a responsibility towards the public? How should freedom and responsibility be balanced in light of the ‘greater good’ or in light of utilised managerial models that emphasise productivity and efficiency?

Thursday 28 January 2016, 6.30PM
Royal College of Art Battersea, London
Culturehacking: A Panel with Simon Denny, Heba Amin, Ryan Gallagher and Brett Scott, in conversation with Charlotte Higgins

Lead image: Simon Denny: Products for Organising installation view, Serpentine Sackler Gallery; 25 November 2015 – 14 February 2016; Photograph © 2015


I think the belief that waged workers can ever be genuinely “autonomous and independent,” or that wage labor can ever really deliver “the joy of creation,” are dangerous illusions that make us easier to exploit. The interests of employers and employees are structurally and ineluctably opposed under capitalism, so any attempt on the part of managers to increase the autonomy and independence of their subordinates is just a strategy to intensify exploitation. In the workplace, the illusion of freedom only obscures a deeper level of control.


I don’t think I could have said it better myself!

The central paradox of Holacracy, one that its founder Brian Robertson acknowledges, is that it produces autonomy only through an even more stringent set of networked rules. “A different type of hierarchy,” he asserts. The central motivation behind Holacracy are an organizations “tensions.” Holacracy is sold as a nimble, responsive way to reduce them by a consistent set of governance principles. The darker secret of Holacracy, and this is naturally speculative since the management method is in its infancy, is that a tension is just another word for a cost center, and the biggest cost center of all are employees, who are naturally the source of all tensions. As one ominous HR manager recently noted in a self-published essay on medium, “The perfect business is a computer plugged into the internet.”. Hiring is always an acknowledgement of failure.

Holacracy is interesting because it uses clever illusions to achieve what every business has always been after: return on investment. Managers know this, but Holacracy makes a larger appeal to the workers. In Holacracy, everyone is liberated under the mantle of becoming their own entrepreneur. The concept of individual freedom is being stretched quite a bit here. This is a freedom determined by the founder and CEO—it’s the specter of the management that was supposed to no longer exist.

In its current implementation at Zappos, enthusiasm about Holacracy seems to cleave along class lines. For a sought-after, highly-skilled technology worker, lack of structure seems liberating. The ones with the least to lose are often the ones at the forefront of the quirky startup “culture.” Most people don’t care for the ping-pong; they’re here for a job. Holacracy glazes over those at the bottom of the food-chain: the unskilled, elderly, or employees from any traditionally marginalized groups.

Chris Coy, a former employee of Zappos, captured this when he spoke to The New Republic about how the entry-level staff were having trouble adjusting to the sudden company-wide conversion to Holacracy

They’re at the bottom of the totem pole and, like most people who seek corporate jobs, they’re looking for security and stability. They tend to be risk averse… He described one manager who said the people who don’t like the new state of affairs can always get another job. But entry-level jobs aren’t that easy to come by in Las Vegas (or anywhere), Coy responded, and for people who live paycheck-to-paycheck, a job that’s always in flux can be pretty terrifying.

I remain skeptical of the “casual” “democratic” air that is being exported from Silicon Valley to older forms of corporate America. There is certainly much to emulate, but only after careful inspection. For one, hierarchy and clear management roles can also be safeguards from exploitation, overwork, and non-compensated cognitive labor. I also fail to see how distributed hierarchy of Holacracy prevents the same sort of power brokering and cliquish rule that it aims to get rid of. I agree with the following point in the above prompt:

If their decisions end up delivering a positive result the company takes the reward. Similarly, if they deliver a negative result the individual is liable.

Holacracy is not a two way street. When something goes wrong, due to either a lack of organization or personal fault, the “autonomous” individual has “nowhere to hide.” Yet when the sum of their correct actions create wealth, their actions are subsumed into the whole. Holacracy is noticeably silent on revenue or equity sharing, despite its “flat” rhetoric about responsibilities. Its position on compensation is also odd: at Zappos, employees were reportedly asked to name their own compensation. Alas, Utopia!

I think there is much to explore in Holacracy. It does have some legitimately innovative and bright ideas. However, too often, Silicon Valley “thinkers”, if we could call them that, tend to see the world through rose colored glasses; they think that simply because they have achieved success in one endeavor that these simplistic rubrics apply to more complex situations, management tasks, or society at large. The initial hiccups in Holacracy at Zappos, I think, point to this initial realization that what works in a quirky startup environment may not scale to more complex organizations. Needless to say, this will be an interesting space to watch.

For my extended thoughts on Brian Robertson’s Holacracy: The New Management System for a Rapidly Changing World, see my text in Dis Magazine, commissioned as part of the exhibition Office Space at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.


I don’t think that freedom should ever be considered a burden. It is a core human value intrinsic to our intellectual development as individuals and to our collective evolution as a society. Freedom of expression, freedom of movement, freedom of assembly – these are basic rights, not burdens. Of course, nothing is without limits and freedom is no exception. Our freedom is relative to the moral norms, bureaucratic systems, and laws under which we live; if we cross certain red lines, break certain laws, our freedom can be taken away from us as punitive sanction, and we accept that. But the maintenance of a free society is not just about the individual taking responsibility for his own actions. It also hinges critically on ensuring that governmental organisations vested with the power to restrict the freedom of others do not abuse their authority. Governments must always be transparent about how they exercise their powers and be subjected to strong democratic oversight and accountability. Otherwise they become more tyrannical and totalitarian in how they function – and individual freedoms are gradually eroded or snuffed out entirely.