Simon Denny Takeover 2/3

Talking with the fellow artist and collaborator, Simon Denny keeps on exploring neoliberalism, the different guises of entrepreneurial culture, and the derivative forms of innovation.

 

Mario Pfeifer   Simon, what was your motivation for producing a documentary video as part of your exhibition at OCAT? How do you imagine the video interacting with the other objects in the installation?

I’ve made a series of projects over the last five or so years that focus on the culture of entrepreneurship in tech-related business practices. In 2017, at a time when globalism is being called into question by strong right-wing voices across the world (among existing questions posed for a long time by voices from the Left), to look at how entrepreneurship is framed in China seems urgent. Shenzhen in particular is at the center of global tech manufacturing and product development. From big companies like Foxconn producing iPhones to large Chinese social platform companies like Tencent (who make WeChat) to the budding hardware accelerator/maker scene, Shenzhen is increasingly important. But of course, it’s not so easy to enter a context where the culture and language is so different from my own, and make a project that can be a relevant reflection of what is going on there. Even where I live and work, I am not really part of the „tech industry“ proper—I’m more like an outsider who tries to document its ideas and relevant forms. There’s always a gap between my understanding of each context I make projects about and the actual lived reality of those who directly participate in them—but with Shenzhen, it’s even harder to access, simply because the language and cultural logic of China are so different. I relied a lot on collaborators, primarily the curator Venus Lau, who invited me to attempt the project. She and her exceptional team at OCAT, including Muxi Zhou and Leming Zhong, were my primary source of access; the work and research I’ve done was only possible because of them. The museum context itself helped me frame the exhibition, allowing me to find a voice that suited a visiting artist and outsider. Furthermore, the team identified and set up interviews with key people, and negotiated with the artists who worked on the sculptures. This was also enabled by OCT, OCAT’s state-enterprise parent company, who allowed us to access their vast theme parks and facilitated contact with the sculptors that make objects for those settings. The parks showed me a language of object-making and installation production that is used for framing „foreign“ perspectives. Window of the World in particular, with its depictions of well-known sites from foreign countries as miniature replicas (which are sometimes very accurate and sometimes—as in the New Zealand exhibit—seem very far from reality) demonstrated how an outside impression of Shenzhen’s tech scene could be materialized. A theme park framework provides space for misunderstandings, as what one experiences is an abstraction, a fictionalized „impression“ from a particular perspective. As a visitor to Window of the World, you get a sense that the exhibits often say more about the (collective) authors of the replicas than the places they claim to depict. This research process was also concurrent to and a part of filming the video. The interviews with different voices in the Shenzhen tech ecosystem informed my decisions and, in the end, helped me to focus sculpturally on Huaqiangbei and the figure of the „maker.“ The filming process, the research process and the planning of the sculptures were all kind of symbiotic. Your involvement in bringing structure to the material we filmed is in turn part of situating the sculptures, of making sense of these stand-ins for entrepreneurial bodies on display. In the exhibition, the film talks to these heterogeneous forms in the room. It will introduce the key ideas that form my understanding of these important figures in the ecosystem: the Mass Entrepreneur, the maker, the hardware accelerator participant and the factory worker. I think that as viewers sit among the sculptures, digesting the content of the film, they will have a theme-park-like experience—but it will be a park themed around the idea of all people becoming entrepreneurs, and what that goal looks and feels like in Shenzhen right now, as shown through the glimpses we’ve had into the lives of people that live and work there.

 

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Looking at the vast amount of material recorded on-site in different labs, HQs, workshops and amusement parks, what I find remarkable is your role as a moderator, talking to different players, makers and entrepreneurs in the „Shenzhen scene.“ You seem to have won over these diverse players with an open-minded, trustworthy approach. As they speak, they reveal a diversity of experience, opinions that range from enthusiastic to self-critical. They each reflect on their positions in a complex, global market that reaches from counterfeit products to innovative object designs. Can you describe your experience on-site, particularly in contrast to what you’ve seen months later in the process of editing the footage?

The meetings I had in Shenzhen were profound for me. At the time we were filming, it was the week after Trump’s election. Being in China at that moment, talking with various people close to manufacturing and to China’s global positioning in tech, was very moving. My way of interacting with these various people was informed by the practice I’ve developed in my work over the past few years, where I’ve needed to be open-minded to try and understand the cultural logic of different tech communities from Berlin to Munich to Auckland, New York to Silicon Valley. Being at conferences and meet-ups with these people, I really had to learn a lot fast, understanding what motivated them, what their goals were and what they saw as valuable. I had to learn to set my own expectations aside and to put myself as much as possible in the position of the people I was trying to learn from. That was good training for being in China, where there was even less in the way of familiar contexts. Figuring out who these people were and how they all related to each other—that was only really clear after the fact. Editing means looking over the footage, extracting relevant parts and building a tangible story. It’s about following your editing instincts, formed by your experience in filmmaking in different cultural contexts and knowledge systems that are not your own. But contact with your process also helped me make sense of mine. Your ability to take this vast bank of material and frame it meaningfully, to extract the parts that focus on what seems urgent and yet also highlights the structural tensions of the ecosystem in Shenzhen, pulling out some of the contrasts and complexities within this situation, has been a remarkable thing to be part of. 

What potential do you see in this particular video in terms of education or information distribution? Given that you’ve predominantly worked with what could be called „informative objects,“ how does this video elaborate on your previous animation works, which projected more into a tech-future than what we’ve done with the Shenzhen material, which might be described as a more straightforward reality check?

In the past, most of my work in unpacking tech has been about trying to distill the ideology and rhetoric of important people and companies and make it legible. My craft has been primarily focused on condensing a lot of material into dense objects and videos that people can read as a kind of reflection of the dreams and narratives of the people in power—those who design the „digital“ world, who create the parameters and boundaries of how we communicate and therefore think today. Of course, part of choosing a medium like this is the fact that viewers can really only experience the full sense of work by visiting my exhibitions in person. Your practice is different in that you make complete experiences that exist within a video frame—it’s more concise and more portable, the output more contained. I guess my hope in working with you was that some of the things I saw in Shenzhen would be accessible to a wider variety of outputs. I didn’t want the content to be something that could only be transmitted in the form of a complex exhibition.
You described this project as more of a „reality check“ than previous works. I think this is in recognition of our having entered a new era politically. In an era when a figure like Trump is POTUS, I felt the work had to foreground the more problematic aspects of the tech community, making its contradictions explicit instead of allowing them to remain implied. It’s a moment when rhetoric is hard to distinguish from a realistic attempt at narrative. There are so many competing fictions that seem to place very little value on facts. In the past, it made sense for me to explore logic that was not my own, to give voice to stories that I thought were important for art audiences to confront. I felt that the best way to do that was to put them „on stage“ in all their complexities, so art-interested viewers could have the tools to unpack the rhetoric and decide for themselves whether it was something they agreed with or not. With this exhibition, in this moment, it’s more useful to be clearer with a critical voice, to find a tone that is respectful of the people I’ve included in the project, but also to present a fuller picture that contains more context and interpretation than I might have offered in the past. I hope this is a generative approach that acknowledges the particularities of the present. It’s an experiment, like all my shows are.
But I, too, have some questions. You have made many projects that try to unpack and document cultures that are very different from your own. It’s a skill you’ve been developing for close to ten years, maybe longer. As you began working with the footage from Shenzhen, the value of this experience—of working with other cultural logics, treating foreign settings as you would familiar ones—became very clear to me. Can you say something about how you’ve built up this skillset?

 

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Over the past few years, I have lived in different places and got to know a bit about their respective cultures. Quite early on, while in Mumbai, editing an „experimental film“ for two Indian filmmakers, I found myself interacting with material and surroundings I felt estranged from and intrigued by at the same time. When I returned to Germany, I’d produced a 35mm film that explored my position as an outsider while traveling abroad. I thought of it as a formal investigation—a lot of it was about form and color and visual things, at least at first. But there was also an inherent subtext about class, gentrification, environmental care, tradition and innovation. It was a visual experiment that taught me that my presence can allow access to other places in a complex system, that there can be ways to represent my experience of these places, and that in a best-case scenario, this kind of project can actually contribute to a local understanding as well. For me, this exchange of experience and perspective usually comes through the craft of making videos—specific framing, color grading and sound design. I feel like this can help to generate discourse that would be impossible for „insiders“ to generate solely from their own perspective.To learn through a place over time—I usually stay several months when producing films or videos—is key to my practice. In order to unpack people’s activities and visualize a different socio-political momentum for an audience that is both local and global, I take my cues from having shared experiences with the group of people, which then become part of the project. The situations vary each time, since encountering people’s emotions and thinking is extremely fragile—especially if you come from a different culture or place. To access another community’s point of view, there is no clear path to follow. At the end of the day, it’s a human interaction in which I negotiate common ground, exploring both differences and commonalities. For me, this process becomes interesting when one is asked to work with a community—when the invitation comes from the people themselves, when they want something specifically from you.  Before taking footage that attempted to capture something of the life of descendants of the indigenous tribe of the Yaghans in Southern Chile, for instance, I spent time with the community and became some kind of resource for them. The trust I built over time, exchanging ideas and perspectives, allowed me to experience some of the most intimate and harsh environments they live with, access which other outsiders would have not been granted. In a different situation, working with the rappers Flatbush ZOMBiES in Brooklyn meant creating a meaningful music video alongside a contextual conversation piece that would serve a larger political message for them, something to mark their first vinyl EP being pressed in Berlin. We spent months hanging out and talking, creating a visual concept for a track they were producing independently. What interested me was that even though the recording wasn’t any kind of official collaboration with me, the lyrics they wrote referenced many of our conversations. These two very different experiences indicate my idea of what it is to work with people within their culture, rather than doing something „about“ them, „about“ their culture. I try to understand an activity, whether it’s a physical, emotional or intellectual one, through the people that become my protagonists, my collaborators. I aim to have them guide me through their complex system. In that sense, I remain an outsider but somehow become part of their lives for the duration of the project. That situation for me ends when I begin to edit the material, reflecting on the footage and sounds in my own ecosystem. Then it is more about how these situations can make sense to me from my vantage point, my background and my craft of editing. The genre of a „montage“ becomes a key tool in sculpting an experience of filming into a meaningful sequence that allows the participation of a broad audience of viewers, foregrounding local topics that I feel need to be engaged with on a more global scale, presented in a form that is somehow accessible. Nevertheless, I always show my projects in the area where I filmed. I usually find the most critical audience is amongst the people with whom I shared time during the filming process. I assume you will have a similar experience when your show opens in Shenzhen.

What has your experience of (and reflection on) Shenzhen been as seen through this material as you put together the video? I know working with the footage has been an intense experience for you—you mentioned to me having dreams of the various speakers’ lived experiences throughout the process. Can you expand on the process you went through—how you identified voices and images that carry meaning, and what it feels like to go through the process of ordering and framing these elements?

It’s been over ten years since I engaged with somebody else’s footage —a project that I was not involved in initiating or shooting—as deeply as with yours. After twenty-four hours, I felt like I was in Shenzhen myself. I literally looked at each capture, listened to hours of audio. It almost became an addiction. From an editing perspective, it is difficult footage bcause it’s so vast—it exists in many different formats and pixel ratios, some of which I’d never seen before. Some of the cameras and audio capturing devices you used are not devices one usually would use in making a video like this. But for me, the quality of the material lies in the immediate experience you and your team captured. It’s chaotic, noisy, quiet and touching on many levels, all at the same time. You feel the brutality of competition in the Huaqiangbei marketplace and can almost smell the soup people are eating next door. You listen to a chief designer whose life was turned around after he had an accident while serving the military, but his belief in the tech world seems to have ambiguous moments, since his ideas, in my point of view, neglect certain compromises in the production chain: the human factor, for example.
As somebody brought on to treat the material and give it a form, I feel it’s very pure, even though it’s super digital and with so many clips having quite crazy artifacts. It’s quite a powerful experience for me to see the distance fading away from material I didn’t know intimately. It’s the complete opposite of how I usually engage with footage, knowing every frame from the moment of its existence. Understanding your footage was like having lived through your experience in Shenzhen. That’s quite special.

 

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Bluntly speaking—again, from the perspective of editing—the data management of the recordings was a mess. But this chaos allowed to me virtually live through the chaos I saw on screen, to bring some kind of working order into a world I didn’t know. After some „Shenzhen dreams,“ getting familiar with the interior and exterior settings of marketplaces, maker labs, convention centers and amusement parks, I analyzed your interviews. The way you conducted the conversations was quite interesting—the way you introduce yourself, the way you phrased questions, and how much liberty you allowed your conversation partners. They were pretty unconventional, and in that sense, very human and profound. You gave confidence to your speakers, even when two cameras were focused on them. Very private moments come to light, even as very „entrepreneurial“ phrases came out of their mouths.
Of course, over my intense viewing, I built my own relationships to these protagonists. I learned their voices, their facial reactions and behavior. Even with the distance I had from their ideologies, there is a basic understanding of how each argument plays within the Shenzhen world. My approach was to first represent each key protagonist as an integral voice, and to make sure that each argument was heard. In the second treatment, I would select moments where they escape their ideology, question it. Following these rough edits of the conversations, I would remember different locations of commerce, production, relaxation or training and weave these visual statements in with what was being said. Overall, there is a lot of passion—in how you engaged, how the various vendors handle their products, how customers experience a device, how entrepreneurs portray their country, how critical voices analyze the rise of international companies like Apple and compare it to what’s happening around them. I wanted to accentuate this passion, to emphasize the human aspects of the various makers and entrepreneurs as well as the factory workers. There is a lot going on, but I tried to maintain a number of the emotional yet also strategic arguments, as I believe this combination of reasons is in fact what drives entrepreneurs and makers in Shenzhen.
You and I discussed what it means to see and hear the same location as opposing sound and image layers in a video. The big challenge is to present the core ideas as accurately as possible. So from my point of view as an „editor to this project,“ I try to allow the protagonist to elaborate his or her ideology, but also make him or her somehow responsible for their opinions within the context of the other actors in the ecosystem. Mounting image sequences in opposition to what is being said—e.g., to listen to the values of „maker labs“ while watching factory workers on a never-ending chain production line, to hear about fragile employment situations while watching families having a fun time on a roller coaster—activates the viewer on how to correspond to these collages that are rather smoothly interwoven, as comforting as the feeling of holding one’s own private digital device in one’s hand. The music recordings you conceptually nailed down from the theme parks early on (a mixture of smooth jazz and ‘50s cowboy tunes) represent this very strategy: to comfort, challenge and reflect on highly complex ecosystems as found in Shenzhen, a mixture of what might seem like Western principals and reference points and the way they are framed other places in the world.
A visual memory is key to the editing process, especially if you literally have days of captured material. I believe this ability to use your visual memory to create densely layered sculptures, condensing complex information into an object, is a core skill you’ve built since adolescence. For me, moving sequences shape my understanding of complex scenarios, giving them a flow that keeps your eyes on screen. Discussing recent political statements from the East and the West, and keeping in mind the actuality of what is at stake for our global world order including the possible future conditions of trade, I believe the flow asks the audience to watch closely. The intro and outro try to introduce this situation where we have rhetoric that is seemingly contradictory or upside-down in the Trump era, a situation that clearly amplifies the dimension of your investigation in Shenzhen. I am more than curious to see the combination of moving image and sculptures as you described to me.
To answer the first part of your question: Shenzhen to me today feels like a pretty hardcore place. It feels like a dream factory whose nightmares are also present in the commercial architecture, the urban grid and the amusement park—all part of the soundtrack of life. The drone shots over Huaqiangbei appear surreal to me. The streets are not even paved yet, but everybody is already busy, shipping products from door to door. However, the interiors of the factory you shot in give me hope. The humanity you see there may one day become more prominent in the ecosystem. At the same time, the open windows of the factory recall media accounts I have read of workers’ suicides in the Foxconn facilities.
As I say all this, I’m also looking forward to visiting Shenzhen to re-calibrate my experience from the reality on screen to the reality on-site, knowing that there is no truth to be found.

 

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I know that respect for people and the way they speak, keeping to some kind of integrity in a reflection of the various voices involved, is very important for you. At the same time, character-driven narratives are so helpful to a viewer in accessing a relatable sense of a place and a situation. Can you take me through some of guidelines or impulses you follow in the editing process to make sure you keep a genuine sense of a person and a situation, even while bringing your own sense of what is going on?

First of all, I believe I would need to connect to the material. From my point of view, that’s a special circumstance that appeared when we met, the first time we looked at footage together. As I said, I have hardly treated other artists’ material in my career; I’d say it’s a gift when it happens, as I feel like I have a chance to learn from somebody else’s experience in a very pure form. I literally sit in the same room and I not only reflect on what your protagonists say, but also on you and how you orchestrated a situation, even if it’s unconsciously. In my perception, that’s only possible because we already have a relationship as friends and artists, and I therefore care about your experience. Your previous works and your current project are something I find very valuable—as an artist and a consumer, a traveler and a producer. Editing is simply about making decisions—on behalf of you and your protagonists, and maybe also on behalf of the audience. I feel a responsibility to negotiate between all parties; I have to maintain a distance from you, your protagonists and the audience while simultaneously being very close to each. I have to maintain the integrity of what is being articulated by the various speakers, finding the right balance, rhythm and flow, but also question statements when it feels appropriate, in a respectful way. This can be done with an image, a layer of sound, a smooth transition as opposed to a jump cut—the language and grammar of video. It’s important to me that an audience sees, feels and hears these cuts, since these are the tools one uses to challenge as well as to convey. I create patterns that re-appear, whether as titles, scores or drone shots; they help to maintain a focus and give an audience a structure to hold onto, an incentive to keep watching. The way I look at protagonists, whether in your footage or mine, is that I try to represent them as much as possible in the same way they seem to represent themselves. It’s important to be generous in providing information or arguments that help transmit more context. Nevertheless, a piece of art needs to argue a larger case, and has to free itself from simply being a promotional tool. It’s risky to splice up conversations so they fit a predetermined timeline, for example. One needs a level of confidence to decide what is important to show and what is not. It’s a case-by-case scenario. I follow my experience from having worked with different people in different cultural contexts, and there is one profound principle: if you can build a character and represent their vision and point of view accurately, it will help the audience to re-think their own position, their vision, their contribution to the discussion. The more honest you are in building the character, the more you allow the audience to make up their own minds. Images evoke different reactions for different people. I often speculate on reactions and emotions, but at the end of the day, it’s always a negotiation. I learned in a recent project that this could also mean to edit nothing at all. The installation On Fear and Education… finally lasted nine hours, which seemed the right format to represent the highly ambiguous and polarizing arguments in today’s politics. So, I could say it’s about defining and applying a strategy from inside the footage to guide you towards what constitutes the final edit.



Photography by Ilya Lipkin

Mario Pfeifer is an artist living and working in Berlin. His work explores representational structures and conventions in the medium of film, in locations ranging from Mumbai to California to the Western Sahara. Conceiving each project out of a specific cultural situation, he researches social-political backgrounds and weaves further cross-cultural art historical, filmic and political references into a richly layered practice. Pfeifer presented solo exhibitions at Museum of Contemporary Art GfZK, Leipzig; Fotomuseum Winterthur; Circa Projects, Newcastle; ACUD, Berlin; and Ludlow38, New York. His work was included in exhibitions at MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt am Main; 15th Seoul New Media Festival; and his films and videos screened at international film festivals worldwide.