Texts/Radical Democracy, Acknowledge the Complexities and Contingencies
Barbara Steiner, 1999
NU: The Nordic Art Review, No.2
Radical Democracy, Acknowledge the Complexities and Contingencies
Cover from NU


For some time, the Danish artist group SUPERFLEX has been deeply involved in a biogas project in Africa, developing a kind of energy producing device based on biogas. My first question when I met SUPERFLEX in January 1998 – Rasmus Nielsen, Jakob Fenger and Bjørnstjerne Christiansen – was: "Why Africa? Why would white, Danish artists become involved in Tanzania?" The response began to arouse my interest: "Because helping others means helping Africa in Denmark. That is the understanding that we grew up with."

At the start of SUPERFLEX's biogas project, there were ideas of images: help=help for Africa; an orange balloon, whose color and form correspond to the biogas device, flies to Africa; Africa and its people; the artists’ role on site. This was followed by the confrontation with the other people involved in the project and their ideas: the engineer, Jan Mallan, who developed the biogas reactor and made it work; Freddy Bruzelius who developed the prototype; SURUDE (Sustainable Rural Development), an organization in Tanzania, and the farmers who were supposed to purchase the product. This confrontation demonstrates a clear difference between the objectives of the SUPERFLEX project and development aid: a functional product is offered for which an actual need has been identified and available resources (dung) are used. The argument here is not a social one, but rather an issue of economics: "The biogas system is expected to cost around $250 US. If the buying households used charcoal as their main energy source beforehand, the repayment period will be approximately 10-20 months (depending on the price of charcoal in the area) using the economic means now saved. Calculations have found that an average household spends 200-300 man days a year collecting firewood when not buying charcoal. If the same people were engaged in a full-time job, the repayment period will be around 7 months with the minimum salary." SUPERFLEX thus distances itself from the traditional donor/recipient relation in which the latter becomes passively dependent on contributions, stifling creativity and initiative.

The language and images on which the ideas of the ‘other’ are based influence socio-political activities – a phenomenon that particularly affects the relations between east-west and north-south – between prosperous countries and so-called ‘developing countries’. In this sense, Edward Saïd, for instance, has demonstrated that the "Orient of the Europeans" is a product of myriad influences and reflects power relations, domination and a striving for hegemony: "...the Orient is an idea that has a history and a tradition of thought, imagery, and vocabulary that have given it reality and presence in and for the West." Yet this is a case of constructions that adhere to real situations, not just lies and myths. The imaginative examination of the Orient is not developed merely from general ideas about the Orient, but is rather accompanied by wishes and projections. "Orientalism is – and does not simply represent – a considerable dimension of modern political-intellectual culture, and as such, has less to do with the Orient than it does with our world."

Saïd's observation can also be applied to Africa. SUPERFLEX operates on the basis of this experience. But they do not regard their ideas, wishes and projections – their images – as absolutes in the sense of hegemonic intentions. Rather, they arrange their work from the start in such a way that other people can introduce their images into it too. Their African clothing, for example, was based on the idea of combining the look of an engineer, a practical social worker, and the kind of uniforms preferred by imperialist armies. Although SUPERFLEX initiated the image of a balloon for Africa, the engineer, Jan Mallan, was also inspired by an image related to the function and appearance of the biogas reactor: while still thinking about possibilities for the construction of the reactor, he looked out the window one morning and saw a hot air balloon, a sight that led to the first technical breakthrough. SURUDE developed strategies for making biogas appeal to the people of their own country. Picture stories were drawn to explain the advantages of biogas (not having to go a long way to gather firewood, among others) and allay the farmers' prejudices (about the use of human and animal excrement, for instance). In addition, the farmers had certain notions of their own about their role and the role of the white ‘helpers’. And finally, the decision-makers in the art institutions that are interested in "Biogas" also base their ideas on a specific image of art. All these images enter into a productive confrontation with each other and are continuously changed or shifted by the people involved.

Over the past two years, more and more people have become involved in the biogas project. In addition to SUPERFLEX, there is the engineer, the craftspeople, SURUDE, and the farmers. Two investors have also entered the scene. In addition to the Institute for Technology and Innovation A/S and a business consultant, Peter Eriksen, contacts were made with NGOs in Vietnam, Surinam, Nepal and India. In June 1998, the four initiators of the project (SUPERFLEX and Jan Mallan) registered two Danish patents: "Plants for anaerobic processing of organic waste" and "Automatic pressure equalisation system for processing gasses from pressure chambers." Supergas A/S was registered as the company title and Peter Eriksen joined as the fifth shareholder. The company focuses on "development", "patenting", "production", and "sale of biogas containers and concomitant technology."

Further initiatives were developed in 1999: Karlskrona2 and Superchannel. Karlskrona2 involves a proposal for a virtual city presented on a large-screen monitor in the actual city of Karlskrona, Sweden. SUPERFLEX investigates the effects of the virtual city on the real city and explores the question of the extent to which the virtual and the real communities are able to influence one another. In addition to live video/sound and text/chat rooms, Superchannel – a joint project with programmer Sean Treadway – provides an opportunity to show stills or animations. The specially equipped studio at Art Space 1% functions as a kind of laboratory where the consequences resulting from the participation of various persons can be played out. Superchannel was open to anyone interested, although certain people from various disciplines were specifically invited to take part. Broadcasting time could be booked directly in the studio or via the Internet. All the activities were assembled in a virtual archive in order to be able to follow the development of the project.

Like Biogas, both Karlskrona2 and Superchannel will be continued: international partners can take over the concept, amend it, continue it with different a emphasis and broadcast from other places. Depending on needs and situations, depending on the interest expressed in a project from the outside, different people with other motivations will be involved. For a business consultant, the challenge might be found primarily in the enthusiasm for an unfamiliar field – art. A financial backer might be motivated by the idea of investing in an innovative product and developing new business sectors. An engineer could be interested in the technical challenge. For the farmers in Tanzania, it might be the practical value of biogas. For SUPERFLEX, it might be the desire to introduce real economic relations into art and conduct concrete social interventions. For the art institutions, it could be the relation between the aesthetic appearance and the social foundation of the artistic work.

The collision of diverse ideological discourses becomes most evident with Karlskrona2 and Superchannel: platforms are created in a condensed form that demonstrate the contention between diverse attitudes, understandings and ideas. What does a city look like? What could it look like? The exact digital copy of Karlskrona was accessible to the citizens of the city via the Internet. Anyone without private access to the Internet could dial in from libraries, cafes or universities or use a terminal near the large-screen monitor to move through the city as an avatar (a digital representation of oneself), starting initiatives, doing business or making architectural changes. The avatars could not be assigned a gender or an ethnic identity, but through their expressions and actions they could assume any role and then leave it again. Since a giant screen was set up in ‘Karlskrona1’, it was possible to watch the daily changes in Karlskrona2, whereby the virtual space and the real space became interlocked. Karlskrona2 became a space for experiments in which political, economic and social rules and behavioral norms could be redefined. Each of the prospective participants brought their own view of urban life and their fantasies, yearnings and utopian notions which were confronted there with the ideas of others. In this way, it was possible for traditional communal patterns from ‘Karlskrona1’ to appear in Karlskrona2. At the same time, it was also possible for individual or collective fantasies to produce changes in‘Karlskrona1’.

Radical democracy

The same applies to Superchannel: different messages - texts and images - were formulated with varying intentions ranging from mental notes, gags and small talk, all the way to longer thematic discussions. The users decide how meaningful these are, could be. In its projects, SUPERFLEX provides tools that are based on their specific interest in social commitment. The set-up is developed in cooperation with quite diverse experts who in turn add their own specific interests. It can then be taken over and put into operation – by whoever wants to do so. The resulting scenarios, a constantly changing succession of possibilities, are then continued as long as the interest remains alive. SUPERFLEX investigates communicative processes in which power, hegemony, assertion and oppression, and the gain and loss of terrain become evident. Various parties – individuals or groups – enter the scene with specific interests and fight to assert them. The point is not merely to define a cultural expression, but to secure and specify its relation to reality (in the sense of representation) in order to legitimize one's own concerns. SUPERFLEX's projects might not only lead to a greater sensibility for the existence of ideological discourses, they mirror contradictions and contentions and show that an individual entering this field has always already been defined through other discourses and practices. Ideological battles are themselves inscribed and articulated in a field of economic, cultural and political discourses. SUPERFLEX's projects show a changed understanding of artistic praxis. Their starting point is a heterogeneous, complex society. When they assemble not only the project and development team, but also the users, they take into account the specific interests of individual groups, their different opportunities for articulation, their interests and projections. Here, the art institutions and their representatives are not assigned an outstanding role, they simply represent potential partners in cooperation with their own specific interests.

The political philosophers Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe have outlined the necessity for a "radical" democracy: "Radical democracy demands that we acknowledge difference – the particular, the multiple, the heterogeneous – in effect, everything that has been excluded by the concept of Man in the abstract." "Radical democracy" demands "the creation of new subject-positions that would allow the common articulation, for example, of anti-racism, anti-sexism, and anti-capitalism. These struggles do not spontaneously converge. In order to establish democratic equivalences, a new ‘common sense’ is necessary; one which would transform the identity of different groups so that the demands of each group could be articulated with those of others according to the principle of democratic equivalence. For it is not a matter of establishing a mere alliance between given interests, but of actually modifying the very identity of these forces." Taken in this sense, artistic praxis means a cultural intervention that mediates between different interests or at least, makes them visible. The notion of a sovereign, self-identical subject must be relinquished in favour of a contingent subject that cannot count on any kind of evidence or universals and which must move in a field of power relationships that continuously reconstitute it. In their projects, SUPERFLEX attempts to create conditions for the production of new ways of thinking, acting, speaking and imagining. To this end, they make as much use of their aesthetic proficiency as of their social commitment. Seen in this light, SUPERFLEX's work is not utopian but emancipatory in the sense of "radical democracy."


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