Simon Denny: Mine

The new exhibition at Mona – Museum of Old and New Art is consistent with the ‘raison d’être’ of the dungeon-like space; that is, to leave pre-conceived ideas at the ticket desk. Leave your coat, bag, and judgements. This is a museum of doubt.

My experience of ‘Mine’ by Berlin-based, New Zealand-born artist, Simon Denny, conceptualised itself while I was in the gallery bathroom. With the ‘O’ device, and my bag on the side, I sat down to watch a film being projected on the ground from a little hole in the ceiling. I became acutely aware that the technology I had been using moments before to examine data and data collecting might be listening in on this moment.

Amazon Worker Cage Patent (US 9,280,157 B2: “System for transporting personal within an active workspace”, 2016) with King Island Brown Thornibill renders, 2019. Photograph: Mona/Jesse Hunniford. Courtesy the artist and Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Tasmania

The ‘O’ is an iPod that uses your location in the museum to tell you about the artworks around you. It’s also been collecting your entire experience, what you like, how long you’ve been there, and where you’ve been in the gallery since it opened in 2011. Denny and the curators of ‘Mine’, Emma Pike and Jarrod Rawlins, have put this consideration of data into the exhibition – while highlighting the world’s use of technology and the effects this has on the environment and labour. Data is a physical thing.

As such, we navigate an augmented reality to look at this data in the exhibition. Each art installation comes with its own data reader that makes your experience unique (and an asset). Therefore ‘Mine’ becomes a micro-experience of the real world, even when you don’t consciously enter data, every building you walk into, every purchase is being tracked. But I wouldn’t worry too much about this. As Pike and Denny explained, the museum has more data than it knows what to do with.

Another fun part of the exhibition, along with AR, and a gallery-room-sized board game, is when you take a selfie with the ‘O’ device. The ‘Mine’ app then tells you your emotion. I got ‘angry’ with my big grin. I’m sure this isn’t correct. Denny explained, ‘diagnosis is happening a lot, and more and more and automated systems that are actually based on old science is often taken from the 1940s and 50s, where they believed there were only seven emotional states that you can possibly be. And as you can see, they often get them wrong.’

Each element of the data and technology-heavy exhibition draws your attention back to the philosophical problems that come from our reliance on these fields. But, interestingly, the aesthetics seem to enhance and reject the digital.

Mine, 2019, installation view at Mona. Photograph: Mona/Jesse Hunniford. Courtesy the artist and Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Tasmania

The exhibition consists of a giant board game, with cardboard cutouts of mining equipment, based on the 1960s Australian board game ‘Squatter’; a simulation of a rare Tasmanian bird, King Island Brown Thornbill inside a human-sized Amazon worker cage; a visual de-packing of the digital elements of an Amazon Echo. In the final room, are a collection of artworks that explore ‘self’ and the body from artists like Tony Albert, Julie Rrap and Ronnie van Hout.

The audience are invited to consider data, mining, and your involvement in these processes. The critical takeaway is that we are all complicit. But, also, while it may be easier to be cynical, we are dependent and in cases, should be grateful for our obsession with data and technology. With the example of the King Island Brown Thornbill installation, the technology has been used to allow us to hear this rare bird on the brink of extinction.

The bird also represents the ‘canary in the coal mine.’ By tweeting out this rare birdcall, we’re reminded that the Anthropocene is upon us. Bush fires and extreme heatwaves are damaging the environment needed for these birds to survive.

The relationship to technology is complicated. As the exhibition catalogue (which comes in the form of a board game, ‘Extractor’) explains, the material used to make lithium-Ion batteries comes from the ground. Often drawn from The Salar in southeast Bolivia, the raw matter is mined, just like coal or oil. Your smartphone needs less than eight grams, a Tesla car, seven kilograms.

Denny shares, ‘I think the tension [from the digitalisation of the world] is one of the first assumptions is that it is a problematic way of seeing, and that’s philosophical as much as it is commercial.’

‘Mine’ expands on what a show in 2019 can look and act like. You have the formal elements of art, but you are also part of the exhibition. Every check-in, every ticket bought, makes you active in the game. Even visiting the website takes your data. However, the difference between this experience and everything else we share our data with, is we are being made aware – an apt flex of contemporary art.

Denny scoffed when I mentioned leaving the ‘O’ device outside while going to the bathroom – ‘like there is an outside,’ he said.

Emma-Kate Wilson is a Sydney-based art critic and writer.

Mona – Museum of Old and New Art
Until 13 April 2020