Expensive cars and custom-made motorcycles. Pieces of futuristic contemporary sculpture. Giant flat-screen television sets. Stacks of computer servers. And, above all, bank accounts, dozens of them: at Citibank (Hong Kong) Ltd, The Development Bank of Singapore, Rabobank Nederland, Westpac, even Kiwibank, with funds totalling the astronomical, possibly apocryphal figure of $175 million. These are the seized personal effects of Kim Dotcom, as reproduced and assembled by artist Simon Denney, first in Vienna, then in Colchester and now at the Adam Art gallery in Wellington.
It is an unusual, caustic installation, punctuated hypnotically by the droning repetition of the Megaupload song featuring Macy Gray, Kanye West, Will.i.am. It would have been provocative enough for its audiences in Austria and England – what did they make of all these virtual and material riches spilling like guts on the exhibition floor? – but to us it’s likely to mean something quite different and altogether more dense.
Kim Dotcom has been, was, one of us. Perhaps it’s already in the past and he’s a prisoner of circumstance, destined to leave either to face trial in the United States or before the ink has had time to dry on the court order that sets him free. Or perhaps he will stay, although that’s harder to envisage after years of intense, quasi-political persecution. Then there is the other side of him, which Denney clinically captured in his survey of his forfeited property: obscene levels of self-perpetuating wealth that New Zealand can scarcely accommodate.
David Fisher’s excellent book on Dotcom includes the following, candid account of the plight of the super-rich:
If you are used to money and you are used to a good lifestyle, New Zealand doesn’t really have much to offer in terms of lifestyle, accommodation, or the top restaurants. If you go into the centre of Auckland, there are exactly two top fashion brand stores, which is Louis Vuitton and Prada, and that is it. That is all you have in the whole country. There is not one good nightclub here where you go out and have a nice disco night. It is all kind of mediocre.To get away from it all, the Dotcoms travelled to Europe taking ‘12 cars, golf buggies and jet skis, the furniture and 18 staff to manage the logistics’, for a trip that would include shooting a short vanity feature at the Nürburgring Nordschleife in which he and associate Finn Batato outraced Formula One driver Kimi Raikkonen.
This was life for Dotcom before the 2012 raid, and his determination to not only prove his innocence but also restore that fortune and recapture the lifestyle that went with it is always in the foreground of his conversation with Fisher. This is the central paradox of his eventual alliance with Mana, that marriage of the dispossessed with the extravagantly possessed: the ‘movement of the people’ on one side and, on the other, a stateless entrepreneur living in the country’s most expensive mansion and shouting a fireworks display costing half a million dollars to the entire city of Auckland as a way of making his own fun.
It was a bad idea. I mean, of course it was, but for reasons that are more complicated than those that are being peddled to us.
David Cunliffe started attacking Dotcom as soon as the results were in, fulminating against his ‘reprehensible’ foray into national politics and the damage it inflicted upon the Left. This, from the party that at the last election, long before Dotcom, declared that it wouldn’t work with Hone Harawira, the dangerous radical who wants to feed your kids.
Less predictable and far more dispiriting was Russel Norman’s tirade last week on Radio Waatea, in which the Green co-leader blamed it all on Internet Mana in terms that bear quoting at length:
The main problem was Intermana, I mean in terms of a change of government… They basically spent $3 million to try to convince potential Green Party voters to vote for Intermana… They were unsuccessful at that, but in the process they tainted Labour because a lot people went 'God, I’m not going to vote for Labour because I’m going to get Harré and Dotcom'… and then for us it was a problem because they occupied so much airtime with their nonsense… It just made it incredibly difficult to change the government.
Intermana was a guided missile attacking the Left… We had enough trouble with John Key standing up there telling all his nonsense about us, and then on the other hand we had to deal with these crazies… Having them on the radio and TV all the time talking their nonsense was like ‘Oh, God…’ It made it incredibly difficult to change the government at that point.
Imagine selling list place number two for $3 million…
It was a stupid idea… As I said from the beginning, when I went and met Dotcom, whatever you do, don’t go ahead with this stupid idea. I’m on the public record, right from the get-go I said ‘Don’t go and do this stupid thing’. Anyway, they went ahead and did it, and then they made it stupider by doing the Intermana thing, and so poor old Hone got dragged into the mess as well. How do you think this thing is going to end when you go down this kind of path?
And so on, for upwards of 13 minutes and including the use of the noxious phrase ‘middle New Zealand’ to describe the throngs of voters supposedly terrorised by the 'fuck John Key' chant at an Internet Mana event.
What jumps out from Norman’s deeply unpleasant speech is that it reproduces rhetorically the attacks and post-election recriminations aimed by Labour members at the Greens back when they were the ‘crazies’ tainting the rest of the Left, they the ones making things difficult, they the party striving to get votes they weren’t entitled to. It’s a bitterly ironic path for Norman to tread.
Last time I wrote about the Internet Party, when it still looked like it might run by itself, I suggested – based on overseas precursors and on Beppe Grillo’s 5 Star Movement in particular – that its result would be a test of the strength of our political institutions. Without a swelling protest vote, without a robust enough anti-political sentiment and, crucially, without a charismatic leader able to exploit them, it’s hard for parties of this kind to gain traction. Dotcom, by his own forthright admission, turned out to be the opposite of that charismatic leader, for reasons that were partly sound – yes, outrageous wealth is a problem and yes, so were some of his consumer choices – and partly troubling, in terms of our ability to deal with outsiders and what is strange and foreign. There is also the matter of his continuing persecution, investing issues which in the end were too big for the narrow parameters of a national political campaign, and remain to be dealt with in the coming months.
This past election was nothing if not an affirmation that most voters buy into the existing political contract. It was almost vote for vote the same result as three years ago, leaving no room for Dotcom’s party or his ideas. Yet to blame him for the failure of the Left – not just to win the election, but also to make crucial issues concerning the exercise of state power matter – is absurd and inexcusable. This is on the rest of us.
Simon Denny’s The Personal Effects of Kim Dotcom is showing at the Adam Art Gallery at Victoria University until 19 December. Free entry.
David Fisher’s The Secret Life of Kim Dotcom is available here.
My column for the Spring Issue of Overland, 'On the right of Oblivion' is now up on the site.
On 3 December I’ll take part in a symposium entitled Placing the Personal Essay at Massey University. Registration is free but places are running out.
Also: my partner’s latest exhibition – 1260, Mapping the suffrage petition in Wellington – is on at Toi Poneke, 61 Abel Smith Street until October 18. More free entry goodness.