Products for Organising by Simon Denny @ the Serpentine Sackler Gallery

This is really up-to-the-minute art. Simon Denny is a youthful 32-year-old New Zealander and arrives in Hyde Park hotfoot from an acclaimed installation at this year’s Venice Biennale, with a show designed specifically for the symmetrical space of the Serpentine Sackler Gallery and titled Products for Organising.

This is Denny’s first solo exhibition in London and it presents a number of challenges:

  • It tackles one of the major issues of our time, one which nobody in fact fully understands – the worldwide explosion of digital technologies, the role of hackers understood in the broadest sense, and their impact on large organisations.
  • It addresses this complex and multi-faceted subject in a visually and intellectually demanding way – not in tidy 2-D paintings but via scaffolding, vitrines, display cases and architects’ models, which are themselves stuffed with texts, notes, labels, TVs showing historic footage as well as countless objects, from cooling fans to the cuddly toys which IT dudes like throwing at each other in the office, magazines, corporate logos, books of management theory, T-shirts and trivia, all these and much more are stuck, glued, appended, inserted, stuffed into and dangle from Denny’s packed and hectic installations.

Whereas Transiencethe exhibition of paintings by Michael Craig-Martin up the road at the main Serpentine Gallery, deals with the surface, the look and design of modern digital products – smart phones, laptops, electronic door passes – Denny’s installation looks at how digital technologies are changing the way organisations are conceived and managed, and interrogates – ie displays for our wonder and dismay – the rhetorics of corporate language. Products for Organising digs beneath the surfaces Craig-Martin so lovingly depicts, goes behind the scenes of modern technologies. So it’s entirely appropriate that it’s made out of behind-the-scenes materials – scaffolding, computer racks, abandoned hardware. All the wrack and paraphernalia of the Big Data revolution.

Take Modded Server Rack Display: Adapting Hacking (2015) – basically the frame for a stack of computer components which has been adapted to incorporate a spiral train track on which runs a model train (a Roco steam locomotive BE 23.10, in case you wondered). Painted up the front is a snakes and ladders-style ladder listing key moments in this history of computer hacking.

The information on the base says the whole thing refers to technicians and engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who, just after World War II, set up the ‘Tech Model Railway Club’, to experiment with ways of circumventing and altering official computer programs, experiments which later led, among many other things, to the first attempts to illicitly tap phone calls, so-called ‘phreaking’, in the 1950s.

They called this and other ways of getting round official technology, ‘hacking’ – and thus the word – and an attitude and a whole area of human activity – was born.

Simon Denny introduces Modded Server Rack Display: Adapting Hacking (2015) at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery. Photo: Simon Port

Simon Denny introduces Modded Server Rack Display: Adapting Hacking (2015) at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery. Photo: Simon Port

Modded Server Rack Display: Adapting Hacking is a snapshot of history, explaining the origins of ‘hacking’ via the detailed information label, but also dramatising it in the form of an object taken from the milieu being described and then repurposed, with a large dollop of humour (the train, the ladders), as… as a what? A 3-D embodiment of the moment, of the movement? An art work in itself? A museum exhibit? A teaching device?

Products for Emergent Organisations

The space at the Sackler gallery is made up of four equal-sized corridors forming a square around a pair of rectangular central rooms. Denny’s installation is divided into two distinct parts, each with its own title – Products for Emergent Organisations and Products for Formalised Organisations.

On the left as you go in is Products for Emergent Organisations, dominated by a scaffold which you climb in shallow steps, next to which are a further series of computer racks modified to explain various moments in the history of hacking. They display old-fashioned payphones, computer screens and keyboards from the 1980s. The top one (visible in this photo) contains a carefully assembled pile of Red Bull energy drinks – classic fuel for the all-night ‘hackthons’ which the rack refers to.

Installation view of Products for Organising by Simon Denny at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery. Photo: Simon Port

Installation view of Products for Emergent Organisations by Simon Denny at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery. Photo: Simon Port

Continuing round the corner you come across more displays showing how information and objects, computer parts, motherboards and fans and keyboards and screens, embody the interpenetration of hacking activity and organisational logic, the spread of acronyms and attitudes from ‘breakout spaces’ to buttoned-up bureaucracies. It is a potentially overwhelming amount of stuff, but one which is maybe appropriate to the information overload of the subject matter…

So is hacking good or bad, I asked him? Too simplistic a question. The press and media and movies have given the word bad connotations – especially in light of the illegal hacking of celebrities’ phones by our bestselling newspapers – but it refers to a very diverse set of people and activities, the bad, the ugly but also the very good.

Many members of the far-flung and diverse hacking community are committed to liberal causes like keeping the internet accessible for all, developing free open-source software, exposing bad corporate practice and revealing illicit government surveillance.

Many large technology-based corporations employ computer whizz-kids solely to try and breach their security defences, to be constantly testing and probing their data protection. Many organisations have, over the past decades, encouraged off-the-wall and radical rethinking of their products, their marketing, their entire approaches to doing business.

Hacking as a concept, goes much wider than eavesdropping other peoples’ calls.

Products for Formalised Organisations

Which brings us to the other half of the installation, Products for Formalised Organisations. The objects in this second section show how management techniques, organisational structures, corporate governance, bureaucratic procedure and so on have, over recent decades, been penetrated and transformed by the looser, more ‘creative’, less structured approach pioneered among the software development community, by the hackers. So this section addresses a different, a more ‘formal’, application of the same movement of thought.

The Products for Formalised Organisations installations are on the right-hand side of the gallery as you go in, and – in contrast to the rectangular racks and scaffolding which convey something of the hand-made, individually constructed and therefore deconstructible nature of what Denny has broadly defined as hacking – over here on the right, in the world of corporations, it is all circles.

Simon Denny introduces Formalised Org Chart/Architectural Model: GCHQ 2 Agile (2015) at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery. Photo: Simon Port

Simon Denny explains Formalised Org Chart/Architectural Model: GCHQ 2 Agile (2015) at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery. Photo: Simon Port

Thus, in the main right-hand corridor are lined up four large circular installations. The first one sets the tone (and physical pattern) by being a two-metre tall model of the building housing GCHQ, the UK Government Communications Headquarters, a hollow circle in shape and fondly known as ‘the Doughnut’. At the other the end of the row is a model of the proposed new Apple headquarters in California, ‘Campus 2’, already nicknamed ‘the Spaceship’, and next to it another architects’ model of the headquarters of Zappos, the online shoe and clothing retailer.

Agile as art

The installation in the photo above, pictured with the artist explaining, is titled Formalised Org Chart / Architectural Model: GCHQ 2 Agile (2015).

As the capitalised green sign AGILE suggests, this work refers to / draws from / demonstrates / explains the newish approach to project management known as Agile methodology. In old-fashioned project management you created detailed plans to be implemented over a year or more and stuck rigidly to them, come what may. Hence (its critics claim) the notorious overspend and calamities in (especially) large government procurement projects – the NHS database, Ministry of Defence aircraft carriers etc.

Agile takes the opposite approach: larger goals are broken up into small units which can be delivered quickly in so-called ‘sprints’, often run over as little as a week. If they’re completed earlier than planned, there is a backlog or ‘locker’ of similar sized components which can be incorporated into that sprint and completed ahead of schedule. Members of the team or stakeholders are invited to judge and assess the results of each sprint, so that the entire project’s goals can be re-evaluated, new learnings incorporated etc, on an ongoing basis. It is short-turnaround, iterable, flexible. You don’t have to wait two years and then have a ta-da! moment when the developers unveil the product and everyone looks at each other and says, No, that isn’t what we wanted.

The yellow post-it notes in a spiral in the centre of the piece explain the Agile methodology. The white shapes on the right-hand side contrast an old fashioned static layout of desks and tables with a modern agile or hot-desking approach, the desks arranged to encourage informal communication and debate. Various circular logos stuck elsewhere on the frame convey the importance of Agile being a process of continuous improvement, relentlessly seeking perfection.

I happen to work in government IT and so am very familiar both with Agile in theory and the problems large organisations face in implementing it in practice. I totally agree that these new ways of thinking and working ought to be registered in art somewhere, art which – after all – generally ignores the vast world of work which the majority of us inhabit for most of our day.

Reflections

But is this the right way to do it? Does it shed light, explain, clarify these issues? Is it even intended to? Or is the subject a pretext for making things, making objects with their own value and aesthetic, making artworks out of the bric-a-brac of these big social, technological and organisational ideas? Hard to decide…

It’s certainly a way to do it, to communicate these topics, but it requires quite a lot of commitment on the part of the strolling visitor, commitment to read the labels for each piece – and it assumes a fair amount of background knowledge to relate what they see to their own lives and work practices. Only around that point, maybe, when you’ve done the preliminary study, can you start to ask whether this is art as we know it. Or a new type of art? Or management theory masquerading as art? Or the only way this kind of complexity could be captured and conveyed? Carefully contrived to appear spontaneous and slapdash? Is it agile theory turned into art, quick and effective rather than perfect, encouraging stakeholder criticism, do it again, do it better? Continuously improving art.

Holacracy

In one of the two central rooms, where the brick of the building has been left raw and unplastered, is a further series of circular installations. Here Denny explained some of the thoughts / issues / ideas related to or arising out of the concept of HOLACRACY. This is, apparently, ‘a system for redistributing authority throughout the organisation’. As well as the bunny-bright, hand-made wording stuck all over it (see the photo below) there are attached to the steel circle more detailed texts explaining the theory of holacracy, as well as books with titles like Why Work Sucks And How To Fix It and The Happy Manifesto and Peopleware. Hacker mentality, hipster thinking, coming to your workplace, any day now…

Simon Denny introduces Products for Organising at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery. Photo: Simon Port

Simon Denny explains Formalised Org Chart/Model: GCHQ 3 Agile/Holacracy Workspace (2015) at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery. Photo: Simon Port

Despite the larky presentation, the handmade signs and the cuddly toys (see the toy alligator bottom left in the photo above – there are plenty more hacker-related toys elsewhere) I don’t know how accessible, how assimilable, how comprehensible this arresting and challenging show will be to visitors without a background in computers or big organisations.

There’s no doubt it addresses head-on massive issues and ideas – the relatively unexplored history of hacking and the way new, looser ways of thinking about all manner of social relations have passed into the practice of big and influential organisations and are percolating everywhere.

It puts into quirky, striking and unexpectedly physical form some of the difficult and quite abstract concepts which underpin the ongoing social, organisational and technological transformations which are affecting all of us. If you make the effort to read and study everything displayed for your attention, then it raises all manner of thoughts and implications to take away and ponder.

Not an easy show to visit, though. Not easy at all.

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