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 readsreads.info