by NICOLA HOMER
The Danish art collective Superflex was founded in 1993 by Jakob Fenger (b1968), Rasmus Nielsen (b1969) and Bjørnstjerne Christiansen (b1969). The group, which is based in Copenhagen, describes its projects as “tools”, which people can use and modify. Since its inception, Superflex has worked not only with museums, but also with local communities, from making a biogas lamp with farmers in Thailand to building a public park in Copenhagen. In its ever-evolving practice, it has even entered the marketplace with Guaraná Power, a soft drink that tells a story about farmers in the Amazon. Last year, it held a major retrospective at the Kunsthal Charlottenborg in Copenhagen, and it is now participating in a group show at the Jerwood Space in London. The artists are currently working on a film about the island of Mayotte in the Indian Ocean, a French overseas territory, which, in January 2014, became the most recent member, as what is known as an “outermost region”, of the European Union. Nielsen spoke to Studio International about the group’s work.
Nicola Homer: How and why did you form the art collective Superflex?
Rasmus Nielsen: In art school, there is this idea that, as an artist, you are supposed to be a hidden genius. After half a year of working in the studio, you come up with something and show it in a gallery. That seemed a bit boring to us. When we were at art school together, we crystallised the idea for the collective. It appeared to be more interesting to work in a dynamic organisation, where you can pop up in different contexts. We wanted to be involved in that. We did not want to leave the artistic field of galleries and museums, but to have other outlets, too. At the beginning, people said: “You have to choose. Are you an engineer or an artist? Are you a soft drink salesperson or a sculptor?” Our answer was: “We are all those things.”
NH: Your work appears to cover art, design and activism. You sometimes call your projects “tools”, which look at economic production. Why do you call them tools?
RN: Well, artists would call what they do a “piece” or a “work”. But if you were starting with a biogas system or a soft drink – as we do in our practice – that would be an odd thing to say. It would not cover everything and so the idea of a “tool” became a way of describing it. The minute that someone picks it up and does something with it, that is the point where meaning is created in any given context.
NH: That calls to mind the idea of design, which is often centred on activity. I read about your work with a hospital in Gaza, and Superkilen, the public park in Copenhagen that you designed with architects Bjarke Ingels Group and the landscape architectural practice Topotek1. Do you think that your work approaches the condition of design as well as art?
RN: Yes, we are interested in design. Many of our processes are similar to how designers would approach things. We are inspired by how designers can mass-produce complex ideas in an aesthetic form. As visual artists, we are envious of the outreach that designers have, in their ability to place something in somebody’s home.
NH: Could you give me an example that connects with this notion of design?
RN: I would say the biogas PH5 lamp, where we took a copy of a modernist Danish designer lamp, which is almost 60 years old and hangs in many homes in Denmark, and remade it with biogas. The original PH5 lamp’s designer was Poul Henningsen, a socialist who believed that industrialisation would enable the mass-production of quality designs, so he would refer to this as “the lamp for everybody”. Later, of course, it became more of a middle-class commodity. But we took that idea of “everybody” very seriously. We thought that it could include farmers in Cambodia or Thailand, and that would take the idea into a globalised setting, which not only middle- and working-class people in the west were talking about, but also other people in other economic situations. So, in that sense, that designer was inspired in his vision of what industrialisation might be able to do for the world.
NH: It sounds inspiring. There appears to be a utopian edge to this and you seem to be thinking in a globalised mode of production.
NH: You have made works looking at the notion of an ideal society, such as Utopia Station at the 50th Venice Biennale in 2003, which was a group exhibition that you participated in with the Guaraná Power project. But your film work Flooded McDonald’s (2009) calls to mind a dystopia – which suggests not only the power of consumerist society, but also its susceptibility to climate change. I wonder if you could tell me about how you position your work in relation to ideas on utopia and dystopia?
RN: Today, it seems as if we navigate the world through products. We thought that if that is how people are influenced, we should talk through products. So we had a period when we would try to enter the marketplace with things. We tried to use a product to tell a story about a specific situation of farmers in the Amazon, and their position in the global economy. Of course, that story could have been told in an editorial piece in a serious newspaper or through a documentary film. But we thought it would be interesting to put it into the format of a soft drink, sold in 7-Eleven and other shops, to distribute a political critique. We tried to take the market as a field where ideas are being exchanged, not through political speeches or artworks, but through things you can buy. This is a very complex area to enter. It’s different from working with museums and galleries. But in that sense, we have tried different outlets, mediums and distribution channels. It depends on the situation.
NH: Yes. I can imagine. So, on the one hand, you have entered the market with these innovative products, such as a soft drink that looks at energy production, while working with local communities in South America, but on the other hand, you have exhibited at some amazing international institutions. I wonder how you have situated your work in museums. Could you tell me about any significant exhibitions that you feel speak for your practice and its representation?
RN: Last year, we had a retrospective exhibition at the Kunsthal Charlottenborg in Copenhagen. Usually, this format implies a close collaboration with a curator and a more or less successful attempt to form a logical narrative. In this show, we tried to make that story more diverse by inviting eight curators to create several retrospectives within the same museum. The curators were not allowed to communicate with each other in the process of making their exhibition. We communicated with them individually. So imagine this large institution, where eight exhibitions, all retrospectives of Superflex, were held at the same time and place.
NH: That brings to mind the idea of multiple narratives.
RN: Yes, that is exactly the word I was looking for.
NH: Can the idea of multiple narratives be read into your practice?
RN: Yes, absolutely. The name Superflex hints at a certain level of flexibility in the choice of format, setting, distribution channels and identity. In that sense, we wanted to create an orientation for our work that doesn’t have a fixed identity and is not linked to our personal histories. We can talk about that with our friends, but it is not part of our focus in the organisation; rather, we wanted to have an anonymous construct that could pop up in different ways, almost from day to day. When people get an email from something called Superflex, it could be pretty much anything.
NH: Following the retrospective last year in Copenhagen, you are now participating in a group show in London. Could you tell me about your work in the exhibition Common Property at Jerwood Visual Arts, a chair entitled Copy Right (2006)?
RN: We have worked with copyright for 10 years. Our interest started when we took the PH5 lamp and remade it to be used with a biogas system. It was inspired by the South Asian copy culture. When we showed this lamp in Sweden, we got a letter from the company that owned the rights to the original PH5 lamp, and it wanted to close the exhibition. We were quite surprised, in the sense that the company took it very seriously. The chair in the exhibition is modelled on a Danish design icon, an Arne Jacobsen chair from 1952, which has mutated over the years. Now you can buy versions in department stores all over the world. So we took some of these cheap versions and cut them back to the original form. That is what we mean by “copy right” – basically taking it back to its original and, on the way, hopefully, hinting at the mysterious connection between the copy and the original.
NH: Copying is one of the ways in which we learn, isn’t it?
RN: Yes, it is. I think any human idea is usually copied from many sources, but we have a dilemma now, because so much value is concentrated in intellectual property that we think that where there is value, there should be rights. The regime of copyright has gone crazy in the past 50 years. Copyright and patents were something that was meant to protect an idea, and then the idea was intended to become common property at a certain point. At present, this point is being stretched endlessly. The exhibition title is a reference to what Sol LeWitt once said: “I believe that ideas once expressed, become the common property of all.” Now the issue of copyright is a fundamental issue for the economy and thinking, ranging from the protection of academic ideas to design ownership. The chair is a commentary on that complex issue.
NH: What are you working on at the moment?
RN: We have just finished a film that deals with the story of the island of Mayotte in the Indian Ocean. The island was once a French colony. Although it is geographically part of the Comoros Islands, its people have voted to become fully French again. On 1 January 2014, the island became an outermost region of the European Union. So we made a film about the migration issues that this has created in the heart of the Indian Ocean, because now there is a little Europe on a small island between Mozambique and Madagascar. We were invited to do a public commission in a hospital there. We had never worked in that region. Yet it led to other things happening, and this film was an outcome of that process.
NH: It’s inspiring that you are reaching out to different places across the world, when Denmark is reported as being strict on the migration issue. Have you any thoughts on that matter?
RN: Our politicians are going for the lowest denominator in politics with this law that would strip refugees of their jewellery. I think in Denmark at present, there are 150,000 empty buildings. We have a lot of empty houses, but still they insist that the refugees who come here should live in tents, which they are now doing. The tents need to be heated, making it a pretty absurd and expensive installation. There is snow here now. But it is a politics of symbolism, as if Donald Trump were running the country – rightwing “jackass” politics. Of course, the refugee issue is part of a wider European problem … The border between Denmark and Sweden, which for a long time you were able to travel across without a passport, now has passport control. So the Schengen agreement has effectively broken down within Scandinavia.
NH: I have read that you are sometimes known as the “do-gooders” of the Danish art scene. Would you agree with that description?
RN: I would not call us “do-gooders”, but maybe “doers”.
NH: What are your hopes for the future?
RN: As Scandinavians, we believe that the world is coming to an end at any moment. In fact, it might already have ended and we are presently living in the future. Seen from the future, it looks as if we should have approached things differently in the past. Less thinking of universal doctrines waiting to be implemented on a planetary scale as so many ideas coming out of the 20th century tried to. Probably stopping the ongoing misuse of fossil fuels, which has the character of an out-of-control party, would have been good, too. A Danish boyband tried desperately to argue for making energy from a renewable source instead. That might have worked, as did so many other ideas that seemed dated back then. To sum it up: think thrice.
• Superflex is part of the group show Jerwood Encounters: Common Property, at Jerwood Visual Arts, London, until 21 February.