Critical Trolling

by Simon Denny And Matt Goerzen


Through the use of data gathered online, by now the unthinkable is possible, such as the production of an entire ad campaign aimed at convincing just one (unknowing) person, the target for a product developed to suit his specific interests. An artwork invented by Matt Goerzen that also introduces an interesting overview of the concept and function of “critical trolling.” This topic, together with others closely linked to the potential of the web and the most flagrant political timeliness, are discussed with Simon Denny, whose work for the New Zealand pavilion at the Venice Biennale will immerse the viewer in the post-Snowden world and investigative journalism.


SIMON DENNY: I’m a fan of some journalists, and I understand you worked as a journalist before you were an artist, right?

MATT GOERZEN: I studied journalism and worked as a newspaper reporter for a moment and then got really jaded with the thing; the sorts of institutional constraints in place made it very difficult to capture the aspects of stories that I usually found most important.

SD: And what was the pull of journalism for you?

MG: I started studying with the intention of returning to my hometown and engaging in the discourse surrounding the blatant racial inequalities between the European majority and the First Nations minority. When I started working I found that even though this was clearly the most significant social issue at work in the city, and one that affected me greatly growing up, any direct discussion of the issue was largely impossible due to an emphasis on event-driven reporting.

SD: And therefore not very helpful to the readership.

MG: Yes, not very helpful to the readership—it was like presenting data without actually contextualizing it in a way that it was actionable or even really informational. The significant things that were really going on were hardly talked about, because they couldn’t be hinged to an event. But anyway, one silver lining of me putting all this time into studying and doing journalism was that five years later, around 2009, I got a random email from Matt Goerzen, a Mennonite guy from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.

SD: And you’re from a Mennonite background?

MG: Yeah, but from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. Anyway, so this guy sends me an email out of nowhere to thank me because he just got a job at a newspaper, and apparently when he applied for the job they Googled him and found everything I’d written, and some of the stories appeared in some well-known Canadian papers.

SD: And he got the job, off the back of that.

MG: Yeah, so suddenly I felt like all those years weren’t for nothing.

SD: Service, it was a service gesture.

MG: [laughs] Yeah, and that was funny too because that email came at the time when I was starting to focus in on anonymity and identity online, as my main area of interest as an artist, and also as a tool.

SD: Right.

MG: And then, out of nowhere this guy essentially coopts my identity, and that portion of my history becomes anonymous in relation to him occupying it in the present.

SD: So it was also an exit strategy for you, or the beginning of it?

MG: Yeah, well it more firmly clarified a new direction for me, having made a gift of that identity to someone else, I was freed to pursue another timeline.

SD: It feels a little bit like target marketing to Shaq, as well. The first thing I encountered by you, in terms of art, was something where you had focused on a form of online identity… you took the public information about the basketball player and art collector Shaquille O’Neal in order to know him as a dataset and then turn him into a customer.

MG: Yeah. That flowed directly from a project where some friends and I established this strange trollish online commercial art gallery, populated by fake gallerists and collectors, that attempted to market digital art with seemingly sincere but progressively more absurd business strategies, and ultimately culminated in my friend Julian Garcia and I trying to market a propositional sculpture, a 3D model really, to Shaquille O’Neal by using datamining and Google adsense in very atypical, narrowly directed ways. Essentially, instead of generating a list of key words that would advertise a product to a broad demographic of Google searchers, we instead made a product only he could love, attached to a list of keywords that would likely only be searched by Shaq himself, making for an exceptionally efficient and singularly-targeted online advertising campaign. It was basically designed to fail, but to fail in an interesting way, and to offer a touchstone for thinking about identity and privacy and surveillance in relation to datasets and marketing. We gave a TED-talk style ad campaign pitch at DHC/Art in Montreal. And also, the trollish weirdness of the ad functioned effectively as a sort of ad in itself, with media outlets like Gawker furthering the project’s reach.

SD: That resonates with me because people have interpreted my work at times as troll-like. The “New Management” exhibition at Portikus about Samsung’s corporate philosophy has been seen this way, and my TedXVaduz project with Daniel Keller.

MG: Yeah, you sort of trolled both TED and Lichtenstein with that one.

SD: That’s one way of seeing that project. And I’m lucky that I’m talking to you, because I know you really know what a troll is. Because I only half knew what a troll was, actually. And what helped me understand trolling was reading this book by Gabriella Coleman, with whom you work in Montreal at McGill University, where she discusses how a troll could be defined and seen as significant within contemporary anthropology.

MG: Yeah, um, I’ve described the project that produced the Shaq-targeted sculpture I was just talking about as “critical trolling”, but the term in itself is really a sort of troll. I also had an older project where I designed websites for businesses I liked that didn’t have websites and uploaded them, effectively doing them a kind service and simultaneously hijacking their identity, making choices they might not have made, but also choices that I, as a loving client, believed to be correct.

SD: To draw on the terminology of Coleman’s book, that might be considered a “moralfag” thing to do right?

MG: Yeah yeah yeah, um yeah. So a “moralfag,” in the parlance of 4chan is someone who is happily anonymous and participates in the culture surrounding being anonymous and being able to say and act however you want, and yet remains guided by some sort of normative ethical principles. And so on 4chan—where almost every activity could be considered a troll, and the suffix “-fag” is gleefully affixed to almost everything—it became a major term of derision, but also in some instances was claimed by so-called “hacktivist” groups like Anonymous who have deep and sincere ethical and political commitments but are also invested in maintaining the cultural shibboleths and sensibilities of the communities they somehow emerged from. And yet a surprising number of these activists identify as gay or transgendered themselves, and are committed as much to identity politics as they are to freedom of speech.

SD: Right.

MG: But yeah, to get back to the relationship between art and trolling, which I think is an interesting question…

SD: And one could retroactively read that into historical practices also, right?

MG: Yeah, I think in some ways Hans Haacke could be thought of as the original critical troll. In the trolling tradition more generally, Socrates is often identified as the original troll.

SD: Really.

MG: Yeah, so I guess a troll is someone who attempts to elicit some sort of response.

SD: Right.

MG: Often of a sort that the respondent would not otherwise really want to give. Sometimes this is purely for “lulz”, as they call them, for schadenfreude, but it is also sometimes a prompt towards learning and reflection. Like, maybe, just now when you introduced the term “moralfag” and forced me to explain the use of a term that is in many ways quite awful and indefensible, but also illustrative of a certain cultural sensibility regarding speech and provocation.

SD: Right.

MG: Which I think maybe in some ways is a goal of a lot of artists, in terms of shaping norms or questioning them, or nominating things for scrutiny or new ways of seeing or whatever.

SD: This reminds me of studying the supposed “avant-garde” in university.

MG: Yeah, I think definitely, there are even iterative historical phases of trolling that one can find documented in an almost art historical manner on sites like Encyclopaedia Dramatica, which is essentially the Wikipedia of trolling culture and is of course riddled with lies and memes but also presents a kernel of truth. And an academic named Whitney Philips just released an ethnographic book on the subject; in a seminar I was in last year we read an early chapter and people were very, very polarized about whether studying and reproducing the cultural products of such a group, even anthropologically, was a morally alright activity.

SD: Do you find academia as you experience it a place guided by normative ethics?

MG: Yeah, definitely. It’s interesting because academia is supposed to be, at least as I understood it going in, a place where people share ideas and scrutinize them in a safe, friendly, scholarly environment. And yet a culture of a sort of political correctness can exist where certain things shouldn’t be discussed because they don’t perform the ideology of political correctness. So in many ways I feel like portions of the university are devoted to very rigid normative agendas that set a certain tone for what can and cannot be scholarly engaged with. It’s complicated to me, because my values typically align with these normative agendas, and I believe in being respectful, yet I also believe that controversial positions need to be aired, if only to be understood and more effectively argued against—maybe even in a way that resonates and shifts the thinking of the people holding those positions. Finding a balance is a problem, a very hard problem, and I find myself agreeing with both perspectives.

SD: I think that places where competing normative forces are in play are places that we’re both interested in exploring, though.

MG: Absolutely. For me norms and the possibility of influencing, redirecting them—which I think is something that often occurs merely by identifying and making them visible—is probably the most exciting arena not only of culture generally but also of politics. And maybe, in many ways, that is one of the most interesting things that was very concretely put on display by many of the NSA slides leaked by Edward Snowden, where you have these inventories of modalities for deception that depend on normative claims-making within communities that do not recognize that they have even been infiltrated in such a way. These were ideas I worked through with a project called “Normal Power”, and I was particularly interested in the way that this political reading interfaced in the art context with the effects of K-Hole’s normcore report.

SD: If normalcy is where power is located, then it means it’s going to be that much harder to work against it if that’s what you’re interested in doing. It’s like in the Treasure Map slide: “Good guys are everywhere, bad guys are somewhere,” right? Nicky [Hager] described this sort of language as “jocular” which I thought that was a great term. One of my favorite moments of research recently has been the time we spent together exploring the norms and sometimes-jocular rhetoric around the Berlin startup culture in late 2013. I found our inquiry into the social conventions of that community a huge learning opportunity for me about contemporary culture in general.

MG: Yeah, I found in many ways that experience framed many of my interests today. Particularly just for the stark understanding it provided into the culture at work in these startups, where at times things that seem propositional are treated as sure things or rigidified universals. One of my favorite ideas to contemplate lately is the way technology seems neutral and yet it is always necessarily performing a sort of politics. It’s either intentionally doing so by design, embedded with the politics of the person who coded it, but also sometimes unintentionally—in a way that might be completely contrary or even merely incidental to what the developer had in mind.

SD: When we sat in, or intended to sit in, and ended up participating in the DT Evernote hackathon; that was one of the times I felt like I was being schooled.

MG: Yeah, I mean it was funny because the app we trollishly proposed for development—and somehow managed to find a team of technically skilled people willing to pull it off with us…

SD: Whom I later found out were relatively prominent members of the startup community here…

MG: …Right. So it was interesting because we essentially proposed the most antisocial app we could think of.

SD: Right.

MG: Where…

SD: Wasn’t it originally called kick-me note? As in Evernote but with kick-me in it?

MG: I think that was one of the—one of many proposed names. Among shit talker, rumormonger, frenemy, rumor mill, spill, grapevine…

SD: But we were given several rounds of strong advice, right?

MG: Yeah, yeah, so that was the point. We developed this app concept that would enable people to anonymously write comments about any person or subject, without them knowing who had done so. As the hackathon dragged on the people running it started to pay visits to us.

SD: Advice-giving visits at our workspace.

MG: Yeah, and the name of the app slowly changed from things like shit talker to spill, everbetter, and, ultimately, The rhetoric changed along with it. What had been an app for cyberbullying and gossip became a tool…

SD: For self-improvement.

MG: …Yeah, for your friends to tell you the things they always felt too intimidated to tell you to your face but felt you should know, not to make you feel bad, but to help make you a stronger, better version of yourself. Yet the technical functioning of the app itself never changed.

SD: Yeah. I have a fond memory of seeing you do our final pitch at the end of the hackathon where you introduced as a product. From memory, the jury member from Deutsche Telekom suggested that if we were serious about taking this up to market, there would be several issues we had to address: to the tune of facing legal responsibilities for teenage suicides.

MG: Yeah, I think I managed to spin some of that in a positive way but, really…

SD: I was impressed with your rebuttal.

MG: …But really, you know, at the end of the day, the points they made were plainly undeniable, and very well reasoned. It was encouraging to hear, really.

SD: I made a sculpture recently about the app Secret. Since that period of research I produced a number of case mods that are homages to outstanding companies. And Secret was a recent one. That was a very similar kind of company as the one we pitched at the DT hackathon, right?

MG: Yeah, as near as I can tell the business model was pretty exact. The difference was that they somehow decided to actually take it to market. And it was hugely popular for a while, some people say precisely because of the media attention that things like teen suicide warnings and cyberbullying bizarrely drew to it. And apparently before the company entirely bombed late in 2014 the founders managed to cash out several million dollars from a funding round.

SD: I want to be clear though. I think what’s also common to both our approaches to making work about communities that we’re interested in, is that while we want to find ways to enter these kind of communities, and while we are literate in contemporary strategies of entry into communities of which trolling is one, I’m often not looking to troll, and specifically looking for a journalistic entry point into art making that has ideals of respectful representation in there somewhere.

MG: Definitely. I find my work often has trollish elements in it somewhere, but they’re always relativistic—which is to say they might appear trollish to some and not to others. My hope is that the people who can even recognize them as such also understand that the trolling is being done in their own interest, which is to say, I believe in an antagonistic form of politics where—to borrow a classic phrase from the golden era of journalism—one’s intention or highest purpose as someone negotiating information in the public domain is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”.

SD: I’ve been called a left-wing activist sympathizer and a sellout neoliberal on the same day in public.

MG: At the same event.

SD: Not at the same event.

MG: [laughs].

SD: Nicky Hager was hired as one of the advisors to my Venice pavilion; he is a kind of Glenn Greenwald-esque figure in New Zealand in the fact that he’s an independent journalist who is strongly committed to informing the public and sympathizes with, or is perceived to sympathize with the left by some popular voices in New Zealand politics.

MG: So how does he inform the public here, like by insisting on transparency?

SD: Right, Nicky might believe in something that Twitter-founder Jack Dorsey said at DLD once: “I’m a believer that if you give people information, if you give them rich data that allow them to make good decisions, they will make good decisions, because they can potentially see all angles.” And he believes that the public isn’t receiving good info in New Zealand politics, so he takes it upon himself to inform the public independently.

MG: Interesting, so this is kind of like this emergent role of the “fifth estate” where the “fourth estate” of journalism, which was supposed to perform a function of holding power accountable, is now itself being held accountable.

SD: Yes. He became one of my advisors because he was the first person to discuss the involvement of New Zealand in a multinational surveillance alliance, and for me that was ultimately a very culturally significant event.

MG: Right, and it’s interesting maybe too because other similar figures, like Julian Assange for example, have been very explicitly nominated as cultural figures by, you know, Hollywood, really…

SD: Yes, and very successfully in the fantastic interview with Obrist.

MG: Which Assange recalls quite favorably in When Google Met WikiLeaks.

SD: Hager being an advisor on my project was hugely controversial in the mainstream media in New Zealand, and during that period I was also part of a national award ceremony where my DLD timeline work was diagnosed as a “loudspeaker” for neoconservative politics.

MG: See, for me that is just so bizarre, because it seems obvious to me looking at that project that what you’re doing is tacitly displaying and questioning the rhetoric of this techno-optimist, techno-determinist Californian ideology where, to quote one slide if I can remember it correctly, “Access—how does it go?”

SD: “—is more powerful than ownership.”

MG: To me that’s just such a blatantly preposterous notion that merely by writing it into words, so that it can be perused two or more times, reveals the potential absurdity of the logic lurking behind a lot of this rhetoric.

SD: See, to me—and that’s a Brian Chesky quote by the way, co-founder of Airbnb and poster child of the sharing economy—to me, that’s aspirational.

MG: For the businessman maybe, but certainly not for the client in anything but the most utopian post-scarcity society. Access can’t be more powerful than ownership! Equally, maybe. One day. Which isn’t to say that I don’t believe such a society is possible, because I do, but it’s not quite the moment yet where we can say these sorts of things, when people are literally dying because those who own property deny access to things like generic drugs.

SD: Yeah but… I think we need to have a Sullivan’s Travels.

MG: Sullivan’s travels?

SD: It’s a film. And note that there’s a degree of show business to the whole Silicon Valley affair and that that show business is truly inspirational.

MG: Yeah, yeah…

SD: For me that was part of the nuance of the project, since I think Silicon Valley, as a cultural producer, has generated some of the most positive myths—I really mean that those myths propel lives today. I just listened to the recent Drake release and he said something along the lines of, “if I wasn’t dropping hot shit,” or something like that, “me and Future probably be out in Silicon trying to get our billions on.” And I believe the mindset of Silicon Valley has been a defining cultural landscape of the last five years.

MG: Yeah, and due to the inherent entertainment aspect of this rhetoric, or this hyperbole…

SD: And entertainment is not trivial.

MG: …I agree, because it is a powerful medium for delivering and advocating norms, for normative change—and as I was saying, I think it’s valuable culturally, and yet at the same time any new rhetoric demands some sort of scrutiny and reflection.

SD: Exactly.

MG: Which isn’t to say these rhetorics should be dismissed, not at all. It’s just to say it’s important to understand them from different angles so you can take the pieces you like, and make them better, and reject the ones you don’t like. And this has to happen in the moment, as these things unroll in front of our eyes, in addition to in retrospect. What’s interesting in particular about your method is that you’re historicizing the contemporary in real time in a way that has rarely, at least to my knowledge, been done before. Like in the Dotcom show where you’re historicizing an always-changing selection of objects that stand in for a list made at a certain time, but the objects themselves have the potential to always remain new. Which is itself a comment on changing technological conditions. Yet of course we have to be careful not to let the people performing the show run away with the stage.

This is one of the fundamental tensions I find so interesting in the tech community, where different rhetorics can feed similar concerns for very different reasons. Like the struggles to technologically secure privacy or anonymity, for example, where you have libertarians who want it to shield their assets, community-minded liberals who want to shelter subject formation, Marxists who want autonomy to build a new society, anarchists who want to keep the government from imposing norms on their communities, and so on.

SD: Kim Dotcom could be thought of as an interesting case study in that kind of situation. People read his starting of an Internet Party and close collaboration with the Mana Maori Party as a similar kind of mix of interests behind a supposedly unified political banner. New Zealanders received his gestures, including flying in Greenwald and videoconferencing Snowden and Assange in to speak to causes aligning with his interests as inappropriate. And lack of voting for the Internet Mana Party reflected that, in the recent election. He essentially, it’s been speculated, lost a seat in parliament for an Indigenous voice because of his, I would say, aesthetic choices, actually. His situation became very complicated in that context.

MG: Right, well I think regardless, Dotcom is a fascinating character.

SD: And that’s likely part of why he was targeted by the US in the first place, in the shutdown of Megaupload and seizure of his assets. Because he made a great villain.

MG: Right, and often good versus bad, or clashes of civilizations, make not only for entertainment but also for an ease of comprehension and clarity that can stand in for understanding. And this makes me think of an aspect of your practice that I find most interesting, and which I am also interested in, where things are nominated for this strange sort of scrutiny. Right now I’m working on a project that visually imagines morale badges and combat equipment that individuals from a diverse and maybe surprising alignment of groups, groups with very different and antagonistic politics within the West, might wear if they were to fly to Syria and fight together against ISIS. Suddenly groups with very conflicting politics—groups that hate each other—might be seen to align in surprising ways on certain issues. A former ACT-UP activist, who was a lifelong pacifist, recently told me that the only way to respond to an organization like ISIS was to crush them, and every day now newspapers are profiling the strange characters, like the Florida surfing grandfather, flying over to join up with the Kurdish peshmerga. Seeing things at a macro level reveals new relationships. And the opposite can also be true. With your Venice project for instance, Secret Power, as viewers we gain a human sort of insight into the workings of a very complex system through the case study of a single figure. The NSA leaks were received by the media as a bombshell and then very quickly normalized into a reconfigured media status quo of sorts—with new power players perhaps, but still very much normalized. And with your approach, suddenly we’re given a fresh vector of access into a culture of power that is almost unintelligible—it’s algorithmic and sublime—and yet must be made intelligible somehow, at least internally to the organization possessing these powerful capabilities.

SD: Right.

MG: Yet even the people claiming to exercise or have a rein or a leash on this power need a sort of abstracted, illustrative, representational, and reductionist visual and lingual…

SD: Lexicon.

MG: …Yeah, exactly, lexicon, to think about it or what they can do with it themselves.

SD: Yeah, I mean, for me with that project, like so many of my other projects: to unpack the visual has been the key to a kind of cultural processing of which I feel there is so much to be done. For me the Snowden slides, as for other artists I know, were a massive cultural event stemming from the visual and linguistic, and while journalism and sensation rightfully unpacked and processed facts garnered from snippets. What I still feel remains to be really done is to piece together the cultural context in which these decisions are produced, or something like that.

MG: Yeah, absolutely, I agree. I think you’re offering a take on this which is invaluable, and also in many ways unprecedented, because it doesn’t claim a correct way to see this stuff. I guess this actually brings us full circle, back to how we started this conversation. A medium like journalism needs to fit understandings into a set of language, constrained by a word count, and legitimated by a series of “legitimate authoritative sources”. Whereas with visual language, as you’re approaching it, on the one hand the possibilities of interpretation multiply, and on the other the viewer gets a sense—especially when guided through by a thoroughly humanized figure, like you’ve done—that this extremely significant phenomenon can be understood in a way that maybe defies our ability to set it out in a handful of words, and yet remains crucially important to our contemporary experience.



Simon Denny was born in 1982 in Auckland, New Zealand. He graduated from the Staatliche Hochschule für Bildende Künste (Städelschule) in Frankfurt and currently lives and works in Berlin. His practice is characterized by a fascination with technological advancement and developing modes of communication and production, reinterpreting in complex installations the icons of Postmodernism through constructions in precarious equilibrium whose physics are governed by proudly inadequate DYI methods and assemblages of objects. Denny’s work has been shown in some of the most important European and American institutions, including ICA, London; Kunsthaus Bregenz; KW Center for Contemporary Art, Berlin; Fridericianum, Kassel; and Centre Pompidou, Paris. In 2013, he presented All You Need Is Data: The DLD 2012 Conference Redux at Kunstverein Munich; Petzel Gallery, New York; and Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin (as one of four nominees for the 2013 Preis der Nationalgalerie für Junge Kunst). He exhibited The Personal Effects of Kim Dotcom, at MUMOK, Vienna, in 2013, and Firstsite, Colchester, and New Management at Portikus, Frankfurt in 2014. He just opened a new project, The Innovator’s Dilemma, at the MoMA PS1, New York and has been selected to represent New Zealand at the 2015 Venice Biennale.

Matt Goerzen?was born in 1984 and currently lives in Montreal, where he is completing a thesis on the expanding use of technological anonymity in political struggles and the attributive-forensic “doxing” techniques used to trace actions and objects back to verifiable identities. He is concerned with how non-powerful / “normal” Western individuals negotiate rapidly fluctuating norms of security as they trickle down from powerful technological actors. To date, his subjects have included the construction of algorithmic identities for both online marketing and intelligence gathering; a growing suite of complex (but sometimes useless) consumer-oriented anonymizing communication tools; the visual semiotics of hollow securitization as deployed in homes and workplaces; and, most recently, the growing trend of voluntarism in foreign conflicts, as facilitated by social networking and crowdfunding rather than participation in any formal state-sponsored military. Goerzen calls these latter engagements “popsec”, or “popular security”, in contrast to the professionalized security practices known as “opsec”.


Originally published on Mousse 48 (April–May 2015)

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