Important temporal transitions, such as the shift from one century to another, tend to have a transformative impact on cultural production. Long-held artistic values fall under heavy scrutiny and even attack, while firmly entrenched styles and methodologies are suddenly consigned to the outer limits of usefulness. Today, in part because of the approaching millennial leap, we are experiencing early but unmistakable signs of the most comprehensive set of challenges to the art world's values since the 60s. One indicator of this transformation is the extent to which the most interesting artists of the moment have banished considerations of style, genre and nationality from their work in favour of as unfettered an engagement with content as possible. Artists today seem less concerned than their predecessors with whether or not art can be confused with other areas of human endeavour and are pushing music, film, video, writing, performance and direct social engagement to the forefront of their activity. The ubiquitous nature of the digital universe, with its interwoven strata of communication, work and leisure, seems to be pointing to a society of instant access, which will in turn place greater emphasis on human interaction and less on the production of masterpieces that convey an exalted but ultimately distanced exchange. Conceptual art may yet have its rebirth as the democratized tool of the masses, an adaptable system for expressing ideas and concerns across a vast obstacle course of cultural and linguistic hurdles.
These tendencies have no doubt been brought on by the shared awareness that there are many things about the waning 20th century that are beginning to feel more like unwieldy baggage from a distant, clumsy land than the radical innovations they represented in their time. Certain factors - the art system's sharply etched class structure, its manipulation of art through institutional and civic posturing, its parroting of commodity values based on the mythological figure of the artist as a lone, over-specialized genius, and, especially, its conflicting sense of its own relation to the rest of the world - seem to be irrelevant and purposeless in the face of a public that can exchange ideas with lightning speed. In political terms, it is becoming increasingly difficult to justify an area of cultural production, such as art, that can embrace change within its borders but appears unwilling to break down the barriers that divide it from the rest of society.
This line of conjecture seems especially pertinent in the case of SUPERFLEX, a collaborative team from Denmark whose work has drawn considerable international attention since August 1997. At that time they successfully launched a prototype of their Biogas project in a small village in Tanzania. Although the three members of SUPERFLEX began their collective efforts a few years ago at the Copenhagen Art Academy, the group has focused the greater share of their attention and energies on this particular project. In its interdisciplinary structure, its collaborative basis, and especially its direct applicability to an ecological problem, the Biogas project is perhaps the quintessential SUPERFLEX undertaking.
The idea behind the Biogas project is disarmingly simple. In many parts of rural Africa, the lack of affordable energy sources has stymied economic development by preventing easy access to heating and lighting. Most residents use firewood for cooking, but such methods are not sustainable due to the ecological damage caused by burning fossil fuels, the heavy burden placed on those individuals (mostly women) who gather the wood and the health hazard represented by smoke inhalation. The mostly foreign scientists, economists and health professionals who have been carrying out research and programmes to fight poverty in these regions had considered enlisting biological waste and solar heat as weapons in their campaign - but the idea has never been seriously implemented. After familiarizing themselves with data and information from the field, SUPERFLEX became convinced that they should begin working with professionals in these areas to develop a system that might work.
Through their cohesiveness and integration of high art principles with social ideals, SUPERFLEX have breathed new life into a utopian dynamic that was probably last witnessed in the flurry of ecologically-based art created in the early 1970s. From the urban gardens of Alan Sonfist to the environmental investigations of Helen and Newton Meyer Harrison, ecological art was in many ways an extension of Robert Smithson 'non-site' principles into the real world, but with a social dimension conspicuously lacking in the more visible Earthworks of the same period. For reasons too complex to delve into here, much of the impetus for this work had dissipated by the late 70s, opening the way for a wave of critically-based, politically-oriented art that is still very present in current art-making practices. While attempts to graft this newfound political awareness to existing social structures were few and far between, a line can certainly be traced from Brazilian artist Helio Oiticica's public actions of the late '60s, incorporating residents of Rio de Janeiro's favelas, to Tim Rollins and K.O.S.' efforts in the late 80s to transform children's experiences in the South Bronx into advanced art practices. Even so, the artificial gulf separating critical awareness from applied aesthetics seems to have been perpetuated by the booming art market of the 1980s, which kept innumerable artists working in their studios and galleries, and comfortably off the streets.
Direct social engagement, when it has taken place in the activities of artists over the past two decades, has generally taken the form of critical inquiry and even protest. Particularly in the area of public art, artists are justifiably believed to be creating work that primarily engages their own communities, so that the hierarchy of the local comes to bear even on work that attempts to extend itself past social frameworks to which the artists belong. When faraway cultural groups, especially those in the so-called third world, are represented at all, it is generally in a form that emphasizes the distance, both geographic and cultural, that needs to be traversed between here and there. This proposes another intriguing aspect to the Biogas undertaking - SUPERFLEX' resistance to placing the mechanism of representation at the foreground of their work. On the one hand, it is easy to infer from this decision that they tend to see the West's preoccupation with representation as indicative of an unacknowledged yet pervasive obsession with the self. Granted that Western societies suffer from a cultural narcissism that can sometimes be ameliorated by having one's attention drawn to it. But does identifying and challenging this collective awareness really go far enough to address the conditions of poverty and poor health that beset vast sectors of the world's populations?
On the other hand, SUPERFLEX radiate an earnestness about their projects and ideas that suggests they have been over this discursive territory many times before. They have accepted, for the time being, the fact that their very presence within a discipline and culture so different from their own represents a contradiction that will not resolve itself overnight. In the documentary video, one can see that the members of the group are not yet entirely at home in their newfound Tanzanian environment; their matching khaki uniforms serve to underline their resemblance to genteel adventurers on an eco-holiday. This slightly awkward earnestness can nevertheless be thought of as a welcome alternative to the grim determination that often accompanies television footage of African countries being helped out by their counterparts in the industrialized world. Indeed, in their quest to provide what most of us would consider the staples of life to a rural African population, SUPERFLEX approach each step of their process with the methodical care that one might associate with post-graduate art students preparing for their dissertation review. Viewed in this light, one might even go so far as to suggest that the only truly incongruous aspect of the Biogas project stems from our gradual realization that the standards SUPERFLEX have adopted for evaluating their work completely transcend the rewards to which most artists aspire. Since most of their contemporaries, given the choice between fighting world poverty and getting a positive review in an art magazine, would most likely choose the latter, perhaps SUPERFLEX' most meaningful contribution to date has been to demonstrate to the international art community that our responsibility as world citizens does not leave off where our careers begin.
New Museum of Contemporary Art New York