Danish artists’ group SUPERFLEX was formed in 1993 by friends Bjørnstjerne Christiansen (b. 1969), Jakob Fenger (b. 1968) and Rasmus Nielsen (b. 1969). They describe their artworks as “tools,” defining a tool as “a model or proposal that can actively be used and further utilized and modified by the user.” Their projects often combine experimental engineering, science, and technology with an intention to effect social change by developing solutions to common problems, or imagining environmentally and economically viable technologies.
SUPERFLEX work as a trio, but also frequently collaborate with experts and communities around the world. Their visionary projects include Superchannel (1999), which provided studios for local groups to produce programs for internet television, long before YouTube; and Supergas (1996), a system that runs on organic materials such as human and animal stools to produce biogas, which can be used for cooking and lighting in rural areas.
SUPERFLEX’s works often critique contemporary capitalism and consumer society; their memorable video Flooded McDonald’s (2009), produced by The Propeller Group, features a life-size replica of a McDonald’s restaurant that gradually fills with water, an allegory of impending economic and ecological catastrophe.
In 2011, SUPERFLEX created and executed the artistic concept for Superkilen, a vast urban park created with the collaboration of local residents from more than fifty countries, who were invited to chose an item of street furniture from their home or a place they had travelled through, which would then be installed in the park. Among the many objects that local rsidents introduced to Superkilen were rubbish bins from the UK, benches from Brazil, Cuba, Iran and Iraq, and a dentist sign from Doha.
SUPERFLEX’s studio is located in a lively and diverse area of Copenhagen. The street-facing window of their office is plastered with posters and mementos from some of their projects, including one for Foreigners, Please Don’t Leave Us Alone With The Danes (2002), which was made in response to Denmark’s increasingly tough stance on issues of immigration and integration, and which remains relevant today. On the day I interviewed them, two of SUPERFLEX’s members were away working on upcoming projects: Christiansen in the Comoro Islands, and Fenger in rural Denmark, so Nielsen spoke on behalf of the group in a conversation that touched on the collective’s origins in the early 1990s, Danish Situationism and radical children’s television programs produced by the Danish state in the 1970s.
This interview is excerpted from Phaidon's Co-Art: Artists on Creative Collaboration, published in 2017, and edited by Ellen Mara De Wachter.
How did you all meet?
Rasmus Nielsen: I went to high school with Bjørnstjerne in the countryside in Denmark, so we kind of new each other. I met Jakob in the 1980s, in Siberia in he Soviet Union. We were both part of a youth exchange program, a ‘kids from the Est meet kids from the West and peace will prevail’ kind of thing, arranged by the Young Communist Pary of Denmark and the Young Communists of the Soviet Union. You didn’t hae to be a member of the Party to take part. It was part of the Soviet doctrine that in the autumn the intellectuals would go and meet the farmers and help with the potato harvest, and I was sent out to be part of that tradtion, but it was more like an exchange program. This was during the Cold War—we are actually that old, I have to confess. Jakob was playing in a rock band, and I think there hadn’t been any Western bands there before so they were treated like The Beatles, and I was just digging potatoes. I thought I must be in the wrong job.
A couple of years later, I was in documentary photography school and so were Bjørnstjerne and Jakob. We aspired to the romance of the documentary photographer, which is a different tradition to the lone genius, but it’s related. Photographers like Robert Capa or William Eggleston, walking around like lone wolves or alienated tourists in the world. Our school promoted that style of photography, so in a sense that is the root of our collaboration. We worked with that tradition for a few years; we went quite deep into it. Then there was a moment when we realized the extent of construction in that tradition, and we suddenly discovered how easy it is to construct these kindsof narrative and imagery, and so it kind of fell apart for us—it suddenly felt phony.
At that time, around 1991, we were living in a shared house together: it was the three of us plus three women. We started being more interested in doing things in the house—arranging events, parties, putting stuff up around the house. We realized we werent’ going to work with documentary photography. Then Bjørnstjerne went to work in television, I went to study Tibetology at the university and Jakob went to art school. Everybody went their different ways but we were still living together in this house in the city center of Copenhagen—we had rented it for three years—so a lot of people would come by. Bjørnstjerne was in this mass media world, I was in this curious academic Tibetan setting and Jokob was in the arts. We were already doing things together, quite a bit of which was sort of private, jjust in the house. In a sense it was our forum, the whole house was like an odd installation—there were things everywhere, inside, outside—but we didn’t think of it in any way as work.
Slowly the things we wnated to do took up more and more of our time. There was a discussion between us: ‘If we were to do this more professionally, what category would we choose to work within’? One opetion was mass media, where Bjørnstjerne was, which was also hugely fun. The drug that is mass media was fascinationg; it’s a fix somehow. I was in a weird academic field, which was also interesting because I could spend long periods of time focused on narrow subects like Middle Age Tibetan literature. We were all in our twenties, figuring out where to apply our interests. At art school, Jakob felt alienated from much of the art thing because he came from photography. I remember the discussions we had about where we might belong. We picked on art as the arena with the fewest expecations. You could kind of do whatever you wanted to do at that point in time, at least that’s how it seemed. So Bjørnstjerne and I enrolled at the art academy too. Sometimes I wonder if we made the right choice.
How did you settle on the name ‘SUPERFLEX’?
While we were trying to figure out what to do, we went to Sweden for a week and stayed in a hut, and while we were there we decided that we were going to do this art thing in a more focused way. On the way back, we travelled on a ferry called SUPERFLEX Bravo. The crew were wearing organge jumpsuits, and they looked like they were in a Kraftwerk ideo. We though: ‘This looks good.’ But then the ‘Bravo’ sounded a little too 1990s ironic, so we took that out.
Later we made a film about a new piece of highway that fascinated us. We’d followed 26 kilometers of the highway, capturing the aesthetics of this road through the Danish countryside. The film came back from the processing lab and they had accidentally swapped it with another film of some wedding anniversary in the countryside. We desperatly tried to get our film back but we never succeeded. It was a huge disappointment, so we asked ourselves: ‘What can we do now? We can’t make a ilm about the highway, so let’s just say we made the highway.’ So we said that SUPERFLEX had made this piece of landscape art—26 kilometers of highway—as a modern monument. We made it clear that there were not supposed to be any cars on the highway and that it was like a modern pyramid, etc. We created orange suits to wear and we went to the inauguration of the highway. If you see the picutres of that event, I’m the guy rolling out the red tape in front of the minister, and Bjørnstjerne was conducting the orchestra.
Did people think this was real?
Yes. We realized how easily you can navigate through and reconstruct reality. We took photos and published a brochure, and then we were contacted by major newspapers that published the story on the front page, and it said: “This is art…” We were these art school kids in our early twenties, learning about the media and what you could do with it. It started with a failure, like so many other things. Maybe that sparked our interest in having another identity. The people on the highway thought we were a constuction company, they were just not sure which one. We realized we could pop up in idfferent contexts and say: “I work here,” be a pirate, anonymous.
When you present people with a construct such as SUPERFLEX or any other group-related work within the visual art context, the implication is very often that there is some kind of left-wing Maoist ideology underlying it, protesting against individuality, against egoism. Well, knowing ourselves and other groups, I wouldn’t say that we are in any way egoless, or non-narcissistic, or any of these things that we might apply to the construct of the ego. Rather the opposite, and I think that in an art collective context you can play with volumes in terms of ego—it just happens a little bit faster because the group is also the audience. I can wake up in the morning and see something on my way to the studio and immediately present to the others, and so can they. It’s a very immediate response, whereas the more monastic model of the individual who goes into his studio for six months: that must be fucking lonely. The group doesn’t necessarily mean complete demolition of the ego. In music you know this Lennon and McCartney had big egos, but with artist groups, people seem to assume you haven’t.
Within the corporate world, many people work within a pyramid structure with a figurehead at the top. Art groups, in contrast, often seem to have a more horizontal structure. Does that apply to you, or is there some kind of hierarchy in SUPERFLEX?
Tax-wise, I think one of us is formally the leader and we are a registered company. Each of us is an equal partner in the company. Of course there are hierarchies, and they change over time, but there’s no official ‘lead singer.; We work with a model in which the person who insists the most gets what they want. We don’t vote on decisions. Persistence is a strong factor, and we take turns all the time. There is a process of arguing, fighting and then suddenly you feel that there is an answer in the air, and everybody knows, “Okay, here it is.” It’s not spiritual inspiration, it’s more like trench warfare, and suddenly the front line is somewhere else. It happens all the time, and people change positions in discussions. You also know that the minute you say something, you don’t own it any more—it’s no longer just yours. Nobody ever says, “My idea was….” We have to negotiate around the idea that we have a collective brain that we are each in a way schizophrenic with multiple personalities, and all these personalities can come to the table. I also enjoy coming to the table because if I have five characters in me, maybe one or two of them I don’t really like, but in working with the others in this way, I don’t have to deal with all of them.
You foreground the one you choose to belive in?
Yes. It’s an applied schizophrenic production process in a way. You have to be ready for that kind of play and when it works, it’s magic. It’s also very functional. You all acknowledge that you could not do this on your own, and in that sense, the collective speeds things up. It’s like a swarm of computers: you connect them and they can process faster.
When you work on projects with additional people, do they become part of SUPERFLEX for a while?
Usually we got to them to find knowledge, expertise and thinking that we don’t have. It can be a technical, conceptual, or aesthetic one. These people plug into our way of thinking and our ways of doing stuff, which is different from how an engineer might work within rather limited company structures, whereby they are a small brick in a huge organization. We work with them and they are allowed to think in a slightly different way within this space, so they are energized by that, and we are energized by their knowledge. Sometimes, in between, things happen. They have their own practices, so it’s not like they become part of the empire. We meet somewhere in the middle of a period of time, during which they are as much a part of the decision-making process as we are—the more the better, actually.
In terms of hierarchies, there is also the question of participation, which is a buzzword in our generation, and there are always two sides to that. I am absolutely for participatory processes in any kind of democratic decision-making proces; it usually makes things more fun, people are part of it. But one should also be aware—and this is one part of growing up amid the 1990s participatory art trend_that particiation can also be a way of exercising power. An analogy would be the World Trado Organization: the previous director said that the WTO is a participatory organization, and in theor it is, int he sense that Nigeria can boycott and veto the USA’s import tax on steel or corn. So it’s very participatory, and everybody has to agree before a decision can be made. Of course, if Nigeria does that, they know that consequences will come, maybe not an invasion of Nigeria, but there are other consequences. So in that sense participation can also blur actual hierarchies, and in such circumstances it has two sides. Countires can sit around the table and pretend that they are equal, but that doesn’t hide the fact that power stille xists, which is why politicians pick up on this and companies as well. Now we are all equal and we can all make decisions together, but on a structural level nothing has changed, it’s just a new way of exercising power. Maybe that’s a lesson coming out of the 1990s: when we think about participation, it doesn’t make power disappear, it just works in different ways. With the external partners we’ve worked with the question has also come up: “Who is making the decisions here?” We have done it quite a few times, and each case is separate, but usually, for very practicle reasons, we have been happy for partners to be decisive because that makes it easier for us to negotiate.
What about the people who use your tools—for example, the Tansanian family who had the first Supergas (1996) biogas unit installed? Are they just ‘users’ or is that a form of collaboration?
For lack of better wording, in the mid-1990s, we were thinking about: ‘What do we call what we do?’ We couldn’t come up with a clear way of describing it. We like to think of things that we did as projects that worked on different levels at once. When we started at art school we became totally fascinated with the idea of making a system that makes energy out of shit. We approached it from different angles: we anted to make this device that would turn people into energy producers. In the mid-1990s, this was pre-Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth and all that; there was a sense that if you could develop such a device and people could become independent energy producers, fossil fuels would lose their power over the world and this would have huge political implications. It would be like the invention of the Gutenberg press or something—political power would be completely distributed and so would the power to make gas and light. But we were also interested in making this device as a way of going into deeper critique of North/South relations, the idea of development aid. We had multiple interests, it wasn’t just about the tech part. We wanted to use it a a medium of critique, including of ourselves in the process of doing it.
In the beginning, we thought this might be our exit from the art world, doing this tech stuff and maybe making films about it for TV. During the process, there were suddenly various art institutions interested, which, in the beginning was very surprising. Later, we learnt that this is the logic of the art world: the more you try to get out of it, the more you’re in it, but you don’t know this kind of stuff when you are a young art student. Our intention with this device was that it should be able to work on different levels: as an installation in an art context, but also as a device that makes gas in a Tanzanian context, and so on. Then this word ‘tool’ came up as a way of describing it: it has a use in the art context and as a means of discussing relations between North and South, but it also has a use in the context of a Tanzanian family because they can make energy with it. So the ‘tool’ logic came out of trying to describe things. That was twenty years ago. Words have their periods of usefulness and today I am also critical about the utilitarian meaning of that term because we know that when you expect some sort of ultilitarian use of anything, it is also limiting its potential uses. It becomes this kind of new public management thing: I do this and then this happens and if that doesn’t happen, then this is wrong.
It doesn’t allow for fragmented feedback, it just has one application.
Yes, and you also know from the experience of working in this way for such a long time that you do not really know what changes the world. It can be a very technical idea but it can also be something else, and usually the world doesn’t change in the way you expect it to. So, we still use the term ‘too’—but maybe not to the same degree as before.
Have you seen a shift in the role of collaboration in the past two decades?
I think the collaborative element for us was done on a very intuitive level. There wasn’t a moment when we sat down and made up this conceptual, ecological boy band against the individualization of the role of the artist. It wasn’t a conscious choice as such. What fuelled the choice, I can see now, were other elements in society engaging in the same ways of thinking. The internet was coming about: one big swarm of brains hooked together. We talked about the human genome projfect, too, which is this hugely radical scientific project that doesn’t have a leader as such. I don’t know any of the names of the people involved in it, there’s no Crick and Watson, or Einstein. It was a moemnt in which we realized the power of collective working, but in an unconscious way. Form an institutional point of view, you could pick up on relational aesthetics and participatory art, and all these social things came about. I wouldn’t just think of it as a reaction to the 1980s and individualization, but of course that was probably part of it as well.
What about the economic conditions at the time? Were they conducive to collectivity in a way that today’s conditions might be?
We are formed by the circumstances in which we exist, and for us, there was no art market at the time. We are very happ that we were brought up in that period because the commodification of our work was never even an option. It happened along the way, of course, but in the early 1990s, at least in the Scandinavian context, nobody thought about selling art. A lot of the galleries here were artist-run project spaces. We were never tempted in any way by the market, it was not an issue as such. It was there but it wasn’t visible. It was for dead artists.
You could see certain trends emerging at tht time in the 1990s in which colaborative practice and participatory elements became instrumentalized. At such moments, one has to reinvent. It doesn’t necessarily mean there is anything wrong with the particular way of thinking but when such instrumentalization happens, you need to reconsider your position.
When you were starting out, were there other artists whose strategies inspired you?
In the Scandinavian, Danish context, there is a tradition of collaborative working from the 1960s and ‘70s, from the Fluxus movement, which was very strong here, and the Situationists. But the main reference would be Danish children’s television in the 1970s, which went on to inform a whole generation of artists. It was so radical—it was like video art for kids. Everyone from my generation remembers the highlights. To give you an example: one program was called Reversed City, and in this city everything was upside down. So to view the program you had to stand with your head between your legs or get your parents to turn the TV upside down. There was only one TV channel at the time so they could do things like that. Theree was a switch that turned on the sun and I remember one episode in which they couldn’t find the switch, so for twenty-five minutes the screen was black, with 1.5 million Danish children sitting and watching a black screen for 25 minutes.