surveillance in the five eyes

Simon Denny’s Secret Power explores surveillance, militarised AI and the Five Eyes international intelligence alliance.

Simon Denny’s exploration of western surveillance at the Biennale Arte 2015, included works at both the Marciana Library in Piazzetta San Marco, and the Marco Polo Airport on the outskirts of Venice. Spanning two sites and filling each setting with an abundance of artifacts reflected the pervasive and ubiquitous nature of surveillance culture. Secret Power was a response to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s leaks of classified US telecommunication and surveillance programs. As a New Zealander, Denny was interested in the role that his country played in the intelligence network, and particularly their role in the US-led Five Eyes Alliance. In particular, he has concerns over the dangers of militarised AI – a theme which is explored in various ways across the exhibition. The main installation in the Marciana Library mimicked a server room, with nine server racks and a workstation. On display in the vitrines, however, was an array of artifacts, from NSA icongraphy to LED-flashing computer equipment:

simon-denny-secret-power
Simon Denny 2015, display cabinet from Secret Power, Biennale Arte, Venice 2015

The designs of former Creator Director of Defence Intelligence David Darchicourt were also on display, including his map-like educational boardgame for children called Positive Press. However, the boardgame took on a more sinister tone when coupled with the NSA’s slides for the Treasuremap program. The Treasuremap is the NSA’s  sophisticated geopolitical mapping program that seeks to map the entire internet, and not just large traffic channels, such as telecommunications cables, but any device which our data flows across [1]:

simon-denny-treasure-map
Simon Denny 2015, David Darchincourt’s boardgames Positive Press in Secret Power, Biennale Arte, Venice, 2015

Woven in and amongst Darchincourt’s designs are Snowden’s leaked slides and tourist souvenirs from New Zealand, producing a loose network of connections that confuse and overwhelm the viewer. The overabundance of artifacts on display in Denny’s cabinets and their garish appearance make the aesthetic ‘more trade fair than art gallery’ [2]. Indeed, the strange juxtapositions presented in Secret Power create a general sense of unease in the viewer, mainly due to the fact that the banal is rendered in a more menacing light.

Denny’s work exploits the ‘white cube’ of the gallery to decontextualise surveillance culture as a set of ‘artifacts’ from the contemporary era. As he explains, the museum space and the use of the vitrines makes these ideas more accessible and intelligible. However, when decoupled from the discourses of terrorism, safety and security, the documents, tools, processes and outcomes of surveillance appear strange and fetishistic. This effect is exaggerated in Simon Denny’s work, as the glass cabinets connote some kind of future museum, which is not looking at a past culture, but rather the contemporary one. Seen through this lens surveillance culture appears an inexplicable anomaly, rather than integral to safety and security, as the dominant discourse would have us believe.

Secret Power is on exhibition at the TePapa museum in Auckland, New Zealand until 26 February 2017.

[1] TREASUREMAP is the name give to the NSA’s plan to map the entire internet. See: http://venturebeat.com/2014/09/14/the-nsa-has-a-plan-to-map-the-entire-internet-its-called-treasure-map/

[2] Leonard, R. (2015). Simon Denny: Too much information. Available at: http://robertleonard.org/simon-denny-too-much-information/

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