Art

Combining sculpture, installation and augmented reality, Simon Denny: Mine is a thought-provoking exhibition that challenges our relationship to technology and the environment. By Lisa Radford.

Simon Denny: Mine

Installation view from Simon Denny: Mine at MONA.
Credit: Jesse Hunniford

It is hard to ignore the set-up.

The game arrives a week before I am to fly to Hobart. It is wrapped in plastic and the playful type on the box reads “EXTRACTOR” – with a strange flourish on the capital Rs. The image, at first glance, resembles a scene from Once Upon a Time in the West, but on closer examination the “cowboy” holds a touch tablet, and the dusty “landscape” is dominated by mining equipment. This game is the catalogue for the exhibition Mine, a commissioned project by Berlin-based New Zealand artist Simon Denny at MONA in Hobart. I’m hesitant to call it a solo exhibition, but it is billed as such. In truth Denny’s Mine, curated by Jarrod Rawlins and Emma Pike, is open source.

One of my students, having already seen the show, recognises the game. We lift the lid to the box to find a book of instructions – “Rules for Extractor” – featuring essays on Mine by Tony Birch, Boaz Levin and Vera Tollmann, among others. Beneath it are the components of the game: two dice, six player tokens that are miniature versions of the Nam June Paik work Lincoln (1990), two packets of “Foundational Data Sets”, BUY/SELL Data Cards, Virtual Assistant Cards, Chief Data Scientist Cards, play money – the list goes on.

My student walks away, saying she is not smart enough to play the game. I know what she means. She is far from stupid, but the game is so visually complex it’s overwhelming. Her hesitancy seems symptomatic of the very apparent gender disparity in both the mining – be it data or minerals – and technology industries.

The arrival of this game in the post marks my entrance into the exhibition. When I arrive at MONA, the underground cavity-cum-gallery reminds me of a bunker, not unlike the ones that store state archives, servers, secret data and selected examples of art, culture and science – all deemed worthy of saving for the civilisation that might survive an impending doom. I think about David Walsh, and the facts or fictions about the funding of his gallery; perhaps this, too, is part of the game.

Sitting parallel to the vinyl lettering designating the start of Mine is a giant diagram, or missing map, our first encounter. Anatomy of an AI System was charted by Professor Kate Crawford of New York University and Professor Vladan Joler of the SHARE Foundation, an organisation that examines algorithmic transparency and digital labour.

This diagram attempts to visualise the processes that make an Amazon Echo, from the extraction of material resources to data-mining and the cost of human labour. An income distribution column, running down the left side of the chart, demarcates workers’ monthly salaries: the chief executive earns $US16,200, which is $US4100 more than the cloud engineer, $US5000 more than the sales manager – and almost $US16,200 more than the underground miner in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The lowest-paid United States worker in this list is the Amazon warehouse worker, who earns $US2100 a month.

The exhibition’s first room is almost empty. As always, the gallery’s love-them-or-hate-them handheld “O” devices serve as the exhibition’s didactic panels, and your exhibition experience at MONA is recorded and saved. The depth with which you experience the exhibition relies on your willingness to engage with the digital interface: the devices also have an app to scan the hieroglyph-like QR codes around the exhibition. The QR code in this room generates a King Island thornbill on my phone screen, a digital pop-up book for an augmented-reality bird. AR can be a strange, infantilising experience – it’s as if, with all the information we deal with, we need a new medium in order to truly take notice.

This large, ominous room contains the data sheets for a US patent, layered with images of these critically endangered birds. The data sheets soon reveal themselves to be the 2016 patent for an Amazon invention: a worker’s “cage” that is part prison, part cyborg. Denny has rendered this contraption – designed, Amazon says, to stop workers being harmed by robots in their factories – in three dimensions, with diagrammatic annotations materially intact. There is the sound of birds in the distance, coming from the only known recording of the King Island thornbill.

The bird sounds are emitted from the speakers of whatever device the audience member is using, creating an abject melancholy in the exhibition – if you are alone in the gallery, the bird seems on the verge of extinction; otherwise, there are a dozen of them in this absent forest. This speaks to the calculated way we are engineering our own demise, without any awareness, or with candid disregard, of what other beings we have caused to disappear. The pattern continues as visitors, transfixed by the rendering of this virtually extinct bird on their devices, continually hit the Amazon cage by accident, to the point where it must be repaired daily.

In the second room, the data sheets and cool conceptual rendering of culture and nature fall away. This time, the sparse exhibition space is filled with large cardboard cutouts of rock boomers, drill rig simulators and drone docking stations, all doubling as points of sale for the board game Extractor. We are also standing on a life-size board for Squatter, an Australian-made game launched at the Royal Melbourne Show in 1962. Squatter looks a little like Monopoly, and Extractor looks a lot like Squatter. The aim of Squatter is for players to improve and irrigate their land in order to populate it with livestock. It’s a game of man versus nature, and man versus man – dealing with drought, fire or livestock exchange prices – and luck. There is little about the impact of history or colonisation – the name is like a concession to circumstance or a guilty symptom.

There is an audience gridlock on the starting square. Twenty people congregating, implicating themselves in the game. All the phones in the room are talking at once at different people, all at different stages of the game. Here, the QR codes capture people’s faces and activate fictional advertisements, which are altered so the official voice selling the snake oil is echoed – as if in a void, perpetually on spatial repeat.

The audience is wedded to information boards scattered around the space, forgetting that the “O” device allows for the adverts to travel with us. The product is the game is the product is the critique. The video I am watching is trying to sell me the “Cat Smart Band”, something like a Fitbit for tracking worker fatigue. The advert ends with the words “this is your mine”, along with my surprised face on the screen.

The final room of Mine feels like the metadata of MONA come to life. Simon Denny’s QR codes appear beneath platforms hosting Linda Marrinon sculptures dancing on the structure of a theatre in demise. The last thing I see is the shadow of Michael Parekowhai’s Kapa Haka (Pakaka), a fibreglass model of a forbidding security guard. Kapa haka is a term for Māori performing arts, composed of the words for “group” (kapa) and “dance” (haka). The game we are playing is not just the one that arrived in the mail. The group has been individuated, we as pieces always oscillating between perceptions of being pawn or king.

This exhibition is no easy ride. It is sparse and yet dense with information. The work we experience sits somewhere between what the art world might call an “immersive installation” and what the corporate world would recognise as a trade show. For the rest, perhaps, it plays as a set to some absurd theatre. People walk around, attached to their devices. Some will complain about too much technology, its excess interference et cetera. But the visibility of technology is precisely what Denny, I assume, wants to reveal – that what exists out there has been filtered, contained and reframed, isolated by the museum from the network it is usually hidden within, so that we can actually see it.

I remember reading somewhere that neoliberalism is characterised by its inability to be characterised, making it harder to kill and critique. The beauty in this work is in our relation to it – in the fact that we might not even recognise it as art. At a booth selling Extractor in the exhibition, a sales rep said to me: “I don’t understand the data-mining world at all, but I know I want to win.” I go back to my Airbnb and notice the 1980s board game Save the World on a shelf. Having never heard of this game before, I wonder if there is anything to win at all.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 28, 2019 as "Mine craft". Subscribe here.

Lisa Radford
is an artist who writes and teaches. She currently lectures in painting at the VCA, University of Melbourne.