Texts/An Exchange Between Åsa Nacking and SUPERFLEX
Author:
Åsa Nacking, Louisiana Museum, Denmark, 1998
Source:
Afterall 1998, Issue 0
An Exchange Between Åsa Nacking and SUPERFLEX

Åsa Nacking: You are working with social interaction in your creative practice. I would like to ask why have you chosen to locate this work within the realm of art?


SUPERFLEX: To be specific, we have chosen to refer to our artistic activity as socio-economic integration. The reason we work within art is because of the possibilities it offers - a space in which to experiment, free from the bonds of convention.


Åsa Nacking: It seems to me that you are not only posing questions or using art metaphorically, rather you really believe that art can make a difference.


SUPERFLEX: Basically, it is a question of what art is capable of doing. Art is able to focus on various topics and discourses, and our way of doing it is to go beyond mere problematizing. We want our art to have clear social relevance, and we are assuming full responsibility for the consequences. We are engaged in an operation which we hope will be concretely relevant to an individual or a group of people. The Biogas project is an example of precisely this.


Åsa Nacking: Last year, you successfully installed a Biogas system into a one-family home in Tanzania. Do you think that the project should be integrated more broadly into African society in order for it to be considered successful or is a single intervention sufficient?


SUPERFLEX: The biogas project has several aspects that may be more or less successful. Discussion is an important part - the fact that we have an opportunity to enter into a dialogue with people from a variety of divergent positions. In this situation negative feedback can become an important part of the way the project develops. In that sense, the project may already be termed a success, since it is now part of the public debate.


Åsa Nacking: As you mentioned, the project operates at different levels at the same time and many of its characteristics are rooted in this multiplicity of readings. I imagine that the vast complexity of the project and the different ways in which people may encounter it could give rise to misinterpretations. It must place great pedagogical demands on how it is transmitted.


SUPERFLEX: The complexity of the project is designed to avoid the claim that something is simple. The viewer takes in the specific aspects that speak directly to him. An engineer is likely to fasten on to a technical detail, thereby missing a large part of the information. Somebody else may focus on political questions, which is again something very specific.


Åsa Nacking: I am still interested in the fact that you have chosen to work within the institution of art. What do you think that brings to a piece like Biogas or do you find that the art world has its limitations?


SUPERFLEX: The biogas project as presented in an art institution offers a practical example of what we are doing in Africa. We can use the presentation to create a debate on our attitude toward Africa and the Third World. Art exhibited at an institution becomes a type of of advertisement or exhibition booth - perhaps more for our specific way of thinking than anything else. We not only present a product, we also offer ideas on social and aesthetic function. As yet, however, we have not launched the product strategically, though we would obviously be stupid not to avail ourselves of any opportunities for advertising.


Åsa Nacking: Who do you see as your audience and how do you gather and follow up possible reactions? Do you participate in a public discussion or do you go in for some other form of public interaction?


SUPERFLEX: Our audience is whoever shows interest. What we get from the exhibition in concrete terms are the contacts we make, those who make the effort to get in touch with us once their interested is aroused. We do not establish a direct dialogue with the audience of the art institutions, however, as it usually does not work. In our experience, it has to take place outside the institution. In a few cases we have tested alternative strategies, such as a meeting organized in conjunction with an exhibition in Chicago that was intended to create a dialogue about the Biogas system within that specific art environment. Our idea was that the audience would feel that they would want to take the project further and try out new paths.


Åsa Nacking: You have also organised two seminars as a means of helping you define your own practice of art. In these, colleagues gathered to discuss these highly topical issues.


SUPERFLEX: It is important to raise the standard of the general debate. The seminars were called Social Plastic, 1995 which was coordinated in collaboration with Dean Inkster and Henrik Plenge Jakobsen) and Remarks on Interventive Tendencies, 1998 in collaboration with Henrik Plenge Jakobsen and Lars Bang Larsen.


Åsa Nacking: You have chosen to form a company to ensure that your activity is supported in the best possible way. Are you able to give us some concrete examples of the advantages of going down this route?


SUPERFLEX: It has proved the most efficient form or method for us. Unlike artists who see themselves in opposition to society or who want to be alternative, we are working within the social structure. By using this method we improve our chances of being socially and economically relevant.


Åsa Nacking: What have been the reactions in the art world. Has it created confusions in labeling your work as an artistic practice?


SUPERFLEX: Art is thought to be untainted, and business carries with it associations of power and exclusively financial considerations. Many see art as opposed to commercialism, and if you adopt a commercial form it creates anxiety. However, we have chosen to incorporate ourselves as a company purely as a practical solution.


Åsa Nacking: You have some collaborators, or advisers, within different occupations and disciplines all over the world. How do you create trust in what you are doing among your Danish and African partners, and how far-reaching is your collaboration? Do they see it a strange kind of enterprise or do they really believe in the project?


SUPERFLEX: The African organisations have a very real reason to be interested in the project because there is a genuine need for the product. Furthermore, they are interested because we come from a different vantage point. We don't want to help the way an aid organization does. Instead we offer a functional product that they are able to use on their own terms. Another aspect is the fact that we have a Danish investor who has become involved because he estimates that in time it will make financial sense - even though he also has an ideological sympathy for the idea.


Åsa Nacking: What is your relationship to aid organizations, development assistance workers and global charitable or ideological organizations such as the Danish DANIDA, US-AID, Volunteers Overseas, CARE etc.?


SUPERFLEX: They are fairly easy to criticize because they deal with highly important but difficult issues that are necessarily problematic. The goal of the "donors" in the classical aid-giving scenario is to raise the quality of life among the "recipients" by providing a road, a school or some other amenity. Quality of life is, however, measured by Western or European values and norms and does not always work in a new context. The curious thing is that the actual gratification of the recipients’ needs - the very heart of the act - has a tendency to diminish in importance or disappear altogether once industry becomes involved. Many Africans talk about wanting to kick out all aid organizations, saying that they make their society passively dependent on the "helper's" contributions. They undermine creativity and initiative and thereby create victimized people.


Åsa Nacking: How come the aid does not cease if it has had such a negative impact?


SUPERFLEX: Their methods may be problematic, but on a basic level the organizations are working for fundamental humanistic ideals that are hard to argue against. Ideals that expose the image of what the dominant cultures, the "aid-givers", want the world to look like.


Åsa Nacking: Implied in the biogas project is an interest in alternative economic models In a recent text1 you refer to the Grameen Bank? Is this a possible model for you?


SUPERFLEX: It is an example of something that works well. Muhammed Yunus is a former professor of economics at the University of Chittagong, who is today the director of the Grameen Bank (The Bank of the Villages) in Bangladesh. He was so frustrated that his economic theories did not result in concrete change for the acute problems in his immediate surroundings that he took matters into his own hands. He founded a bank that initiated a financial system that practically enabled poor people to borrow money to start a small-scale business or buy a cow. Today, the bank has two million customers. The idea behind the Grameen Bank was to establish a system that is in tune with actually existing local conditions rather than imposing an untried idea from elsewhere. The idea is to work within a small-scale economy, focusing on a few, specially selected products in a local situation. These considerations are also very important in our work where we use the individual as a point of departure from which to exert influence on a broader scale.


Åsa Nacking: Are you suggesting a future economic model that starts to operate like a virus in society - that is, as something that enters the system and adapts itself to existing mechanisms before developing and eventually taking over?


SUPERFLEX: In the Grameen Bank example given, the virus method has proved efficient. Yunus takes existing conditions into account when he provides the tools to enable a poor person to change his conditions. It is a practical strategy. However, If you imagined substituting share certificates for the cattle or tools, the picture would become quite different. It is interesting to imagine what would happen if large groups from the Third World had access to the same tools that we have - it is hard to imagine the consequences. All humans are potential entrepreneurs.


Åsa Nacking: You are talking about future economic change.


SUPERFLEX: Economics is growing ever more abstract, and that means that ideas are gaining in importance. In the future there will be a need to redefine some of our fundamental economic laws.


Åsa Nacking: Our own time is characterized by failed utopias. Even so, we want to retain faith in the future and find new ways to develop. Your project is positive proof of this. Is it possible to describe your project as a do-it-yourself utopia on a small scale, a utopia which is available to the individual, rather than an ambition to save everybody?


SUPERFLEX: Yes, the project may be seen as a utopia for a specific group of users, namely the African family. We do not wish to impose a prevailing ideology on people - the families are perfectly free to choose. Nor is the biogas project a gift. We might compare it to a western family buying a car, they will usually only do so if they need one and if their finances allow. We are interested in the opportunity that the Biogas system presents for the individual families. They now have more time to do something else but gather firewood. Inherent in it is an opportunity for productivity, even if we have no definite proof that this will follow.


Åsa Nacking: In an magazine article the Spanish critic Octavio Zaya says that he has a vision that your orange balloons will be seen all over the African landscape within the not too distant a future. How optimistic are you about the large-scale realization of the project?


SUPERFLEX: If we manage to start up production, we will have the potential for reaching a large number of sites. We are totally convinced about its strong market potential.


Åsa Nacking: How do you design a product adapted for a market in such a different context as Africa?


SUPERFLEX: We wanted to create a product that we found attractive as well as something we beleived would have aesthetic value in Africa. We chose the colour because we found it pleasing, and many perceive orange as a color imbued with energy. Naturally, there is a postulate in that very choice. Normally, it is mainly the function of the product that is expected to attract the user. Something they need to improve their everyday life.


Åsa Nacking: In what way are you different from a product designer?


SUPERFLEX: The difference is not that great. We are also interested in the aesthetic value - something which actually is rather rare in this type of product. It would be theoretically possible for a designer to carry out a project such as this, but the difference is partly that we are able to and interested in posing questions - things not normally associated with a designers intentions. Our biogas system is only one of several aspects of our artwork - although an important one. We have produced a functioning portable sauna for nature lovers. It comes in a set with a simple user’s manual. We also work with music and the production of CDs. We have, for example, created “tool” CDs and developed concepts for musicians and Djs. Among others a CD with random animal sound for DJs to use as a component in their work. SUPERFLEX Music functions actually as a platform for different people to work with sound and music. For all these different projects, we have gathered economically significant skills and a network of contacts that are designed to realise our specific ambitions.


Åsa Nacking: How do you evaluate and follow up the Biogas project?


SUPERFLEX: The project is progressing. As we said, we already have an investor and have sought to patent the product. We are in touch with an agricultural research institute in Vietnam who is interested in establishing a test facility there. The continued existence of the project is highly dependent on finding partners. It is obvious that we are not able to become installation engineers, so we have to focus on supervision and management.


Åsa Nacking: Do you have a strategy in place for coping with this eventual growth?


SUPERFLEX: No, it is an ongoing process. The Biogas project will continue in parallel with some new initiatives we are developing. These include an ongoing project, Karlskrona2, which is a proposal for a virtual city. The virtual city (Karlskrona2) is going to be visualised on a large screen in a public space in a small town (Karlskrona) in Sweden. In this project we are interested in the consequences in dealing with a virtual city, meaning how will two communities, the fictive and the real, effect each others.


 

Tagged: avatar, biogas, text

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