Christchurch Shooting Gives New Sense of Urgency to Simon Denny Show

Sam Gaskin
Mar 21, 2019 8:35PM

Simon Denny, Game of Life: Collective vs Individual Board Game Display Prototype (detail), 2017. Courtesy of Christchurch Art Gallery.

Prior to March 15th, New Zealand seemed remote from much of the world’s troubles. The South Island, in particular, became a backup destination for Silicon Valley elites, a Helm’s Deep to retreat into as the rest of the world descended into chaos.

Following the mass murder of 50 praying Muslims at two Christchurch mosques, New Zealand no longer seems so remote, and the strategy of retreating from global problems—to your basement, a South Pacific nation, Mars—seems less tenable. Douglas Coupland put it in Cold War–era terms in his 1991 novel Generation X, but his point remains relevant: “New Zealand Gets Nuked, Too.”

There’s a tension between the radical individualism of those readying to abandon ship and the communitarianism of the phrase “they are us,” which circulated after the massacre. And Simon Denny tackles that tension in his exhibition “The Founder’s Paradox,” now showing at Christchurch Art Gallery.

Simon Denny, Ascent Box Cover Projection, 2017. Courtesy of Christchurch Art Gallery.


Paypal co-founder and billionaire investor Peter Thiel stopped by an earlier exhibition of “The Founder’s Paradox” at Michael Lett Gallery in Auckland in December 2017. There, he saw himself depicted as Lord Tybalt, a green-faced, bow-wielding warrior in the board game-inspired work Ascent: Above the Nation State.

“It’s actually a work of phenomenal detail,” he told another gallery visitor, according to the New Zealand Herald. While Thiel loves fantasy—he named his companies Valar Ventures and Mithril Capital after Lord of the Rings lore—it’s a strangely zen response to a show that casts him, on the exhibition’s walls, as a “Contrarian Hero” fighting to undermine “Maladaptive Monsters” such as democracy, fair elections, and independent journalism.

The exhibition uses games to contrast winner-take-all and more communitarian ideologies. Head curator Lara Strongman said that this political dilemma has “particular resonance in the South Island of New Zealand, with many Silicon Valley founders buying up property here as boltholes, should society collapse over the other side of the world due to various technological depredations into the fabric of society.”

Simon Denny, Above the Nation State Board Game Display Prototype (detail), 2017. Courtesy of Christchurch Art Gallery.

Thiel has built his own bug-out bunker, complete with a panic room, in Wanaka, a picturesque South Island town of fewer than 10,000. After making donations and investments, and meeting with four senior members of the New Zealand government, including the prime minister, he acquired New Zealand citizenship. Thiel prevailed despite declaring that he had never lived in New Zealand, had no intention to, and had spent just 12 days in the country—facts that caused a scandal when they were exposed by New Zealand Herald journalist Matt Nippert in 2017. It typically takes 1,350 days in residence before a foreign national can acquire New Zealand citizenship.

Another work from Denny’s show elucidates the role New Zealand plays in tech-billionaires’ efforts to transcend single-country citizenship. An adaptation of the popular board game Settlers of Catan, “Founders” tasks players with hoovering up sufficient resources to escape decaying parts of the planet, move to relatively unspoiled New Zealand with the help of a Global Impact Visa, engage in Pacific Seasteading, and eventually establish a colony on either the Moon or Mars (the endgame for billionaire founders from Elon Musk to Jeff Bezos).

New Zealand’s independent justice system and low level of corruption are part of what make it so appealing to would-be “sovereign individuals.” They’ve allowed Kim Dotcom—founder of file sharing site Megauploads, once one of the most popular websites in the world—to repeatedly appeal New Zealand court decisions that would see him extradited to the United States to face criminal copyright charges. Dotcom now lives in Queenstown, an hour’s drive from Wanaka. (Denny made a show about Dotcom, too, “The Personal Effects of Kim Dotcom,” which first showed at Mumok, Vienna, in 2013.)

Simon Denny, Founders Board Game Display Prototype / Founders Rules (detail), 2017. Courtesy of Christchurch Art Gallery.

Aside from its “phenomenal detail,” what’s most brilliant about “The Founder’s Paradox” is that it highlights not the morality of the players—people like Thiel and Dotcom—but that of the social, political, and economic games we’ve agreed upon. In doing so, he succeeds where others before him have failed: The board game Monopoly was invented to demonstrate the evils of winner-take-all capitalism, but players are more likely to complain that a sibling cheated than question the ethics of the game itself.

Denny said our blindness to the cruelty of emerging systems “is exacerbated by the norms and dynamics encouraged in a world where large social networks, search engines, and other data platform businesses exist at the scale and level of societal penetration they currently do.”

He pointed to Thiel’s fondness for philosopher René Girard’s thesis that all our desire comes from what others have, but we resent them for having it. Applied to the internet age, Girard’s ideas suggest that social media such as Facebook and Instagram help quantify people’s value, increasing competition and conflict to the benefit of the owners. Thiel was the first outsider investor in Facebook, acquiring a 10.2-percent stake for $500,000 in 2004.

Simon Denny, Founders Board Game Box Cover Projection, 2017. Courtesy of Christchurch Art Gallery.

Denny does present New Zealand with an alternative to being a last resort for tech billionaires. Drawing on author Max Harris’s collectivist plan for the country, the artist created a version of Twister where the colorful circles represent policy options such as a universal basic income, a zero carbon act, and decarceration. Denny’s version of Jenga likewise allows players to join in creating a tower made of blocks printed with value statements such as “deep concern for the environment is a part of care.”

Both games require people to come together in order to play. Denny’s Jenga pieces, though, don’t stack on top of one another as you’d expect. They slot into pieces of plexiglass, making them seem precarious, built on nothing. Harris’s vision, the work implies, is not grounded in reality.

The conflict between collectivist idealism and individualist pragmatism has intensified in recent years in the United States with the likes of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pushing back against Wall Street and big tech. But it has its own distinct resonance in Christchurch, which is still recovering from a violent earthquake that did significant damage to the city in 2011. As residents, officials, businesses, and real-estate developers make competing claims on how to move forward, Strongman said “that tension in the city between forces of financial capital and the communitarian principle of grassroots rebuilding from the community, that has been very evident in the politics of the rebuild.”

In the wake of the Christchurch massacre, new debates are being held about gun rights, freedom of speech, and New Zealand’s refugee policy.

Sam Gaskin