Studio Secrets with Simon Denny

May 10, 2023

Step inside Simon Denny’s studio, as we discover what the Berlin based artist can't live without, his rituals, and how technology impacts his practice…

What does a typical day in the studio look like for you?

When I’m in the earlier research stages of conceptualizing a new work, I look to various avenues to gather material: reading, listening to podcasts, having conversations, and attending venues like tech conferences, exhibitions, and art fairs. Then, once I get into the more physical “making” phase, there’s more tinkering and experimenting with, and eventually formalizing, fabrication processes. This is all generally interspersed with a ton of logistics, calls, and other work on the different areas of my practice, from teaching at HFBK in Hamburg to mentoring artists in the Berlin Program for Artists. These aspects all reciprocally nurture each other – so while my time tends to be quite dense, it's all interconnected. Lately, my ideal days in the studio have included big blocks of time spent painting, working on a new series called Metaverse Landscapes.

What are you working on at the moment?

Perpetually, a number of different projects – but I’m especially excited about Metaverse Landscapes. The paintings depict land parcels from different metaverse projects including Decentraland, Sandbox, and Somnium Space, and follow the visual conventions that each of those metaverses use for the NFTs of their land parcels on OpenSea, but are also in dialogue with the art-historical lineages of landscape painting and abstraction. Each painting comes with a dynamic “Title Deed” NFT, which tracks the ownership of the physical painting, as well as the owner of the metaverse land that the painting depicts, and is updated in real time if/when the painting and metaverse property each change hands. The paintings are oil paint and UV prints on canvas, and I’m currently experimenting with their scale and with methods for creating different surface effects. I’m also working on a major sculptural commission for the Auckland Art Gallery in New Zealand, as well as gallery shows in Europe, the US, Asia, and Oceania.

Do you have any rituals connected to your practice?

I’m always ambiently online shopping. I buy so much on eBay – especially vintage tech swag and paraphernalia related to the histories of the technology industry. I’m also constantly browsing estate sales, which is how I ended up with, for instance, Margaret Thatcher’s silk scarves, which I refashioned into outdoor apparel in my Resident works. I’m on the lookout for objects where certain histories and narratives are consolidated in physical form, which often become the inspiration for new work.

What can’t you live without in your studio?

The collectors’ items, ephemera, and other outcomes of my online purchasing compulsion are so central to me – I like to be surrounded by them while I think, as they often spawn ideas. The influence of my object-based research is really palpable in the outcome of my work: for example, I accumulated a vast array of board games while I was making Mine (including a seasteading-themed one, and an incredible “Snakes and Ladders” style game from Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” initiative).
I also, on a more practical level, couldn’t function without the collaboration of the people I work alongside in various capacities. I am one node in this network of creative production, and it takes a huge interconnected web to keep the machine running.

How has tech most shaped your practice?

Technological change – and the wider field that surrounds it, the industry and the businesses and personalities that make it up – is central to my subject matter, so it’s always shaped my practice in that sense. I’m interested in making art that unwinds the stories that technologies and the people who create them tell about the world. I also make an effort to engage with emerging technology at the level of form, actually using and toying with new mediums (like NFTs) as they come into existence – so the state of the field doesn’t just shape the content of the work, but the container I use for exploring these considerations, too.

How do you think Arcual can help shape the future of the art ecosystem?

Arcual’s value proposition is so promising because it will introduce a standardized backend for the art world – offering a reliable protocol for tracking information like sales and ownership data, among other crucial logistics. This will be a huge improvement in terms of efficiency for so many actors in the industry. It could also make short-term liquidity easier to access for galleries so their artists can receive regular payments, which would be a terrific step forward. In general, it’s exciting to witness the introduction of a new technology, led by major players in the industry, implementing standards that equally support the needs of artists, galleries, and collectors.

Which artist/s working today most inspires you?

I have a real affinity for so many practitioners working in the legacy art space – like Cameron Rowland, whose show I just saw at MMK Frankfurt, and Stephanie Dinkins, whose research structure and methodology always inspires me. At the moment, though, I’ve been really immersed in the new creative context of artists making work that engages with crypto, so I’d like to shout out a couple of examples from that world:
I’m really into Steve Pikelny’s Church of Subway Jesus Pamphlets, a metaverse-based showcase of NFTs he made based on pamphlets he accumulated during his daily commutes. It’s hosted in Voxels, one of the metaverses depicted in Metaverse Landscapes, and touches on the relationship between markets, art, finance, and faith. Mitchell F. Chan is another artist whose work brilliantly unpacks similar areas – I just had a conversation with him about art and crypto’s shared practice of “manufacturing belief” (a notion he borrows, in turn, from Andrea Fraser) for the second season of of Seed Phrase, a podcast I make with the New Institute in Hamburg.

I also recently spoke with Lee Tzu-Tung, an artist and political activist from Taiwan, for the second season of Seed Phrase. Tzu-Tung has a blockchain art piece called Forkonomy(), co-created with Winnie Soon, where workshop participants speculatively propose a decentralized ownership model for a milliliter of the South China Sea – a gesture that ingeniously stages a number of concerns around governance, cooperation, and territorial claims. Keep an eye out for those episodes, as well as conversations with two other contemporaries whose work I deeply appreciate, Penny Rafferty and terra0, soon.

Which Arcual feature do you think is most beneficial to your practice?

The efficiency of having a standardized set of technical tools and protocols, where norms across the industry can align, will definitely benefit me in my own practice. I currently build and maintain a lot of technical “backend”, and while it’s great to have this level of sovereignty over the systems I use for keeping track of all the data associated with making and selling art, it’s also a huge time commitment and demands a lot of laborious upkeep. A more universal and interoperable tool, and one that others around me are also using, would be hugely helpful – and this is what Arcual can offer, unlocking artists’ and galleries’ time and attentional resources so we (or they) can focus on what we do best.

Do you have a favourite art fair?

Not to sound basic, but obviously Art Basel in Basel. Its historic relationship to a particular mode of collecting, grounded in specialist interests, is so resonant for me. The scale is unparalleled, and the experience of seeing so much art (and so much business) in one place is energizing. The density of work, and ability to see it all in close proximity, can open up new connections between artworks and artists’ practices that might not have been noticeable before; trends and patterns really come to the fore in interesting ways. In that sense, it’s also an efficient forum for taking the temperature on the state of the field. And everyone’s all under one roof, brushing shoulders. It becomes something of a Schelling Point for so much rich exchange.

What would you be if you weren't an artist?

Working in a context where one is actively shaping the deployment of emerging technologies would be interesting. If I had to do something besides make art, I’d hope to do something that engages, on the ground, with the way that new tools are being made and rolled out. I’m interested in figures, like startup founders, who embody a certain kind of optimism – positing new ways of doing things and actively shaping new directions.

Image credit: Simon Denny photographed in his Berlin studio by Nick Ash.

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