Installation view of SIMON DENNY’s “Mine,” at Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, 2019. All photos by Jesse Hunniford. All images courtesy Museum of Old and New Art.


Simon Denny

Museum of Old and New Art

Buried within the excavated depths of collector David Walsh’s Museum of Old and New Art (Mona) was Simon Denny’s largest and most political exhibition to date. Reflecting its underground surrounds, “Mine” examined the dirtiness of extraction in terms of physical mineral procurement and the more abstract and unexplored mining of data, arguably now the world’s most valuable resource. Through augmented reality (AR), installation, sculpture, and two-dimensional works, Denny highlighted how exploitive tendencies link to environmental degradation, data management, and the transformation of labor. 

The exhibition entrance featured a complex diagram from Amazon’s “Anatomy of an AI System” study, which raised eyebrows for its detailing of a patented cage for transporting workers around the warehouse. Foregrounding Denny’s interest in human relationships with the natural and machine worlds, the chart maps the mining of natural resources to realize the proposed cage, through to its manufacture and distribution. While Amazon scrapped its plans for the object, Denny installed a 3D-printed 1:1 replica within the first gallery. As visitors approached the sculpture, birdsong emanated from their O devices—Mona’s digital system for presenting artwork information and supporting this show’s AR component—suggesting that the cage encloses avian rather than human subjects. The birdcalls are of the King Island Brown Thornbill, a Tasmanian species on the brink of extinction due to habitat loss. One gallery wall featured a monochromatic grid of A4 sheets with information and diagrams pertaining to Amazon’s Worker Cage superimposed onto images of the bird. Visitors learn from O that researchers hoped to protect the Thornbill by determining behavioral patterns from recorded birdcalls. However, mining the raw materials needed to manufacture the data-gathering technology causes further environmental damage, creating a vicious cycle of human destruction. By revealing these realities, Denny provokes a re-addressing of the relationships between machines, humans, and the natural world.

Installation view of SIMON DENNY’s Amazon Worker Cage Patent Drawing as Virtual King Island Brown Thornibill Cage, 2019, metal, 126 × 126 × 255 cm, at “Mine,” Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, 2019.

In stark contrast to the sparse first room, the second was crowded with imposing cardboard cutouts of automated mineral mining machinery, emphasizing the increasing prevalence of technology in the labor market. Covering the floor was a brightly colored, oversized board game based on the Australian classic Squatter, in which players rear sheep for financial gain, drawing upon the persistence of colonization and land intervention as a commercial enterprise. Titled “Extractor,” Denny’s more contemporary version, which encourages players to grow tech companies through data mining and exploitative practices, also doubled as a purchasable game-meets-catalogue in the exhibition’s pop-up store. The artist emphasizes commodification through stacked displays of Extractor board games in the cutouts, while pop-up advertisements for the game and various invented technological enhancements for optimizing human labor appeared on O when one scanned codes throughout the space. Much of the exhibition’s content was reliant on visitors using this device, which in turn generates data for Mona. Denny implicates the museum itself in mining practices: scanning Thornbill images materializes computer-generated animations depicting raw minerals, including lithium and copper, used to build the hardware that houses O, while symbols toward the end of the exhibition pertinently reveal real-time data collected through O on visitor usage of the device. 

Installation view of SIMON DENNY’s “Mine,” at Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, 2019.
Installation view of SIMON DENNY’s “Mine,” at Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, 2019.

A final room filled with Mona-curated sculptures attempted to delve further into technology’s impact on labor, though the many new issues raised lacked cohesion with the rest of “Mine”. For instance, Julie Rrap’s Stepping Out (2012), two gold, life-size feet with bright red nail polish and stiletto-like protrusions from the heels, emphasized the normalization and commercialization of cosmetically altering women’s bodies. Also drawing on perceptions of marginalized bodies, Michael Parekowhai’s Kapa Haka (2003)—a full-scale fiberglass sculpture of a Māori security guard with nothing to protect—appeared jarringly out of place within a museum conceptualized and funded by a privileged white male. 

Denny’s ambitious exhibition innovatively promoted greater awareness of contemporary social and environmental threats surrounding different forms of mining. However, while designed to express the multitude of interconnected issues, “Mine” risked losing audiences with its overabundant physical, digital, and conceptual material. Apropos of today’s content oversaturation and short news cycles, the initial concern for the endangered Thornbill was all but forgotten by the end of the exhibition, leaving audiences with only dizzying visions of a data-overloaded reality. 

Simon Denny’s “Mine” is on view at the Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, until April 13, 2020.

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