When Piero Manzoni canned his own shit in 1961, he was simultaneously asserting and satirising the recently-won freedom of the avant-garde artist to claim anything as art. Fascinated by the power of his own signature to apparently transform anything into a valuable and desirable artwork - the Tate, the Pompidou and the New York MOMA, among many other museums, have examples of the Merda d'artista – Manzoni remained too caught up in the endgame of Modernist authenticity to see the real possibilities that this strategy of negation opened up, but within a decade the entire art-making paradigm had shifted. Waste disposal, along with a thousand other areas of human life, had become not only a legitimate art process but a whole field of art-action with a host of social, political, ecological and economic implications.
In 1969 Mierle Laderman Ukeles wrote the 'Manifesto for Maintenence Art', proposing an exhibition, entitled 'CARE', that would involve polluted earth, air and water being treated, purified and recycled within the art museum itself, and her idea of maintenance art was formulated as a direct response to the ego-driven practice of the previous generation:
'[Jackson] Pollock appeared autonomous, didn't need anybody, hardly needed gravity itself. It wasn't living in the world, on a planet that has finite resources, where we need to stay alive, in connection with other people. It was a total phony thing. It had an evil underside of autonomy, only the "I "; not acknowledging who holds you up, and who supports you, and who's providing the food, and the raw materials, and who are the people who are taking them out of the earth, and what are their working conditions, and what are the pollution costs of moving materials all around the world, who's paying for what, and any fact of human life.'
(: Mierle Laderman Ukeles on Maintenance and Sanitation Art
Finkelpearl, Tom : Dialogues in Public Art
MIT Press, Cambridge, MA., London 2001)
In parallel to Ukeles other artists began working with similar processes and relationships, employing methods that were less concerned with authentication or validation in an art context and more with processes and relationships that began and ended outside the gallery. In particular, Hans Haacke's Rhinewater Purification Plant (1972) - piping the poorly-treated, filthy outfall of the Krefeld Sewage Plant into the exhibition space of the Museum Haus Lange to publicly undergo additional filtration - founded an entire genre of artists' water-purification projects, though while many of these are vast in scope they have had relatively little profile in the formal art world.
All of these projects can be seen as the artworld ancestors of Biogas in Africa, but SUPERFLEX have moved their practice about as far beyond the modernist conception of the artwork as it is currently possible to go without leaving the field entirely. Biogas in Africa involves the development of a better biogas plant for farmers in small rural communities without a highly developed infrastructure, and the presentation here documents the installation of a prototype unit on a small farm in Tanzania in 1997, in partnership with the SURUDE Foundation for Sustainable Rural Development. The biogas principle is simple. Shit, human or animal (buffalo, apparently, is best of all), is mixed 50-50 with water and fermented for sever al days in a warm, airtight container called a 'digester'. The action of bacteria (the active strains found in cattle dung include Ruminococcus flavefaciens, Eubacterium cellulosolvens, Clostridium cellulosolvens, Clostridium cellulovorans, Clostridium thermocellum, Bacteroides cellulosolvens and Acetivibrio cellulolyticus) breaks down the waste and, in these anaerobic conditions, produces biogas which is around 65% methane. After fermentation, almost all of the pathogenic bacteria and viruses in the waste have been killed, along with most of the harmful parasites, and the resulting slurry makes a good, nitrogen-rich fertiliser. The SUPERFLEX prototype uses a flexible plastic balloon as the digester, the African sun keeps the temperature favourable, partial burial makes for excellent insulation, and the balloon inflates as gas is produced.
The fact that the biogas plant was a shiny, brightly coloured and modern-looking prototype, even the sound of the words 'prototype' and 'biogas' themselves seem to imply that the technology is at the heart of the matter, but this is misleading. Small-scale, relatively low-cost biogas generation apparatus has been in use in rural Africa for years (there was, predictably, a 1970s fad for biogas among Western development agencies and Jan Mallan, one of the principal engineers who worked with SUPERFLEX on the system, has been developing the technology for nearly two decades) and, although the SUPERFLEX implementation represents a useful refinement and has even led to a patent application for a two-chamber system that uses the pressure of the biogas itself to stir the fermenting slurry, it is still primarily the result of tuning and retro-application of well-known procedures.
So, although the technology is more innovative than that employed in, for example, Haacke's filtration unit, it is neither the motivation for SUPERFLEX's experiments nor the justification for the project overall. But if SUPERFLEX are not technologists, though they work with technology, and if they reject the model of the artist-as-auteur, though they often exhibit aspects of their work in galleries and museums, then what exactly are they trying to achieve?
SUPERFLEX often describe their projects, including this one, as 'tools'. Against the Modernist conception of the artwork as an intellectually or aesthetically rewarding exercise that is otherwise emphatically useless, and also in contrast to the 1970s idea of the eco-artwork that is functional but ultimately constitutes a closed situation directed and controlled by the artist's vision, SUPERFLEX aim to produce tools that can be taken up and used in ways that are independent of the circumstances of their creation. If art has traditionally aimed to reach an audience, SUPERFLEX's projects hope to find users. A tool, in this sense, can be an idea, a method, or a technology, combined with a framework within which it can be made available for general use.
Forming the idea of the artwork as a tool involves rethinking, or setting aside, much of the twentieth century debate around aesthetics. The role of the artist becomes more complex, collaborative and social, while at the same time control of the final outcome is surrendered. An artist can never control the reception of their work: there will be as many interpretations and responses as there are viewers. Here, however, every aspect of the production process becomes collaborative and harder to clearly define, until finally the tool is placed in the hands of the user and escapes entirely from the art context.
Of course the artworld has never been a magic realm set apart from society at large. It is a constituent part of our culture and its products have always been descriptive of that culture, embedded in social situations, and subject to the same power relations and economic pressures as the rest. SUPERFLEX's method changes the usual emphasis, making these aspects central, and rather than being a scene laid out for aesthetic contemplation the installation Biogas in Africa is a little like something you might see on a stand at a trade fair, a 3D marketing display extolling the benefits of the biogas unit. Here, the artworld itself is being used as a tool: as a space and a support structure for the development of new ideas, as a platform for public discussion and the dissemination of information, and as a machine for turning public interest in the develop ment process into what is effectively a kind of cultural venture capital.
At this point new questions and problems arise. Though the financial support of the vestigial state mechanisms in European cultural funding makes it possible (though not easy) to develop an idea this way, practical implementation can be more problematic. Outside the publicly-funded world of the state institution, market forces have the final word, and even with the kudos of artworld success and the backing of cultural institutions it's often difficult to make the economics work. This is where the few artists who explore this field of action usually retreat, happy to have created an image, a metaphorical effect, but SUPERFLEX push their projects further, into the heart of the contradictions of ethical capitalism.
Of course, the majority of successful artists are developing products for the international marketplace, and using the support of the institutions of art to do so. Those products are mostly high priced, one-off artefacts that compete for the attention of a relatively small number of specialised art buyers. A tool, in the SUPERFLEX sense, is something different. If a product is anything that can be made and sold, the tool brings with it an idea of empowerment. A product gets consumed, but a tool can itself be used to produce. With the right tools, it might be possible to move from a position of dependency to one of independence, to claim ownership of a small part of the means of production.
The importance of SUPERFLEX's approach lies in the creation of new, real-world models for this kind of activity. Rather than producing, or re-producing, rhetoric about the admittedly massive and manifold problems that attend our current mode of political and economic organisation, they are actively searching out possibilities and contradictions, gaps in the system where an alternative approach might still take root.
The ultimate aim of the biogas project itself is a production model that is cheaper to produce and easier to maintain than previous systems and genuinely viable for small farmers in developing countries even outside of the aid economy. To this end, a company has been formed, Supergas Ltd., that includes the engineers who have worked on the prototype as well as outside investors and further biogas tests have since taken place in Cambodia (in collaboration with the University of Tropical Agriculture there), and in Thailand (in collaboration with CMS Engineering).
Another project, the Superchannel, offers software and server space for independent groups to produce easy, cheap web TV, and their latest venture, GuaranaPower, is a collaboration with a Brazilian farmers' cooperative, COAIMA. The condition for Western aid – even for access to loans at market rates - to developing countries is inevitably that of opening their domestic market and resources to exploitation by international capital, and Brazil with its massive debt to the IMF is a sitting target. The COAIMA farmers grow guarana, a caffeine-rich berry used mostly as an ingredient in soft drinks, and the corporations that dominate the market for the crop have forced the price down to subsistence levels. GuaranaPower is an an experiment in using a different kind of tool, what SUPERFLEX describe as a 'counter-economic strategy': the farmers are working with SUPERFLEX and a Danish soft drink producer to make and distribute a product that not only bypasses the corporations' predatory cartel but also uses their own actions and their own brand identity against them.
The prototype biogas installation in Tanzania is still functioning and, though its efficiency has declined over the last seven years, it's still useful and still being used. That's seven years of heat and light in return for a little maintenance and a large amount of what is probably the world's cheapest raw material. It's a long way from Manzoni's showmanship, and it's a small victory on a very big planet, but it offers an opportunity to consider the interconnected social, political and economic facts of human life – along with their relationship to an artworld that still mostly prefers shit that can be canned, signed, and sold.