Texts/SUPERFLEX: Art and Biogas
Lars Bang Larsen, 1997
Siksi, The Nordic Art Review
SUPERFLEX: Art and Biogas

Jürgen Habermas has written about the project of modernity that it is one with that of enlightenment: Developing the spheres of science, morals, and art "in harmony with their inner logic" [1]. This "program" was still effective in postmodernist art in post war time, weighting as a whole the purity of each school of art and the autonomy of culture. 



Not withstanding the riches of this disciplinary project, it did in fact refine culture, reifying its forms, to a degree provoking a counter-project assuming the form of an anarchist avantgarde, including particularly dadaism and surrealism. This is the modernism counter-poised by Habermas to the "project of modernity". This surrealist revolt returned in postmodernist art - though it was ousted by postmodernism - relaunching criticism of the forms of representation. For one postmodernism mandate was, or is, that of "change the [art] object itself". Rosalind Krauss, for instance, writes on postmodernist practice: "[It] is not defined in relation to a given medium ... but rather in relation to the logical operations on a set of cultural terms" [2]. 



If in this manner post-modernism is understood as an attempt to deconstruct modernism, opposing the status quo - i.e. a postmodernism actually wanting to make a cultural difference, not merely running a manic mourning job for moder-nity and modernism,- some of the effects of recent art history and of the history of ideas have been outlined, constituting a basic part of the discourse field for art group SUPERFLEX' biogas project. The three academy students in question, Bjørnstjerne Christiansen, Jakob Fenger, and Rasmus Nielsen, represent themselves through the company identity of SUPERFLEX, a coordinating body between a number of cultural fields of work, such as the visual arts, music, and design. (For one thing, SUPERFLEX has recently established their own record company, SUPERFLEX Music, pro-ducing CD's in smallish issues). For more than one year, SUPERFLEX has further organized their own brand of development aid, by way of an ambitious project concluding in aiming to establish an own biogas plant of the artist company, developed especially with a view to targeting users in Central Africa. 



Dealing with a work of art which is not only a physical entity but first and foremost runs in time, intervening with its surroundings in a radical way, taking a view of the scope of its influence, duration, and "effectiveness" is hard. It is in fact difficult to consider when it comes into force as a work of art. At its current stage, the SUPERFLEX biogas project is a cross-disciplinary concept, confronting, based on artistic economy, problem complexes of a financial, technical, administrative, and political nature. 



SUPERFLEX started from scratch. They allied themselves with an engineer, a plastic manufacturer, founding, with Tanzanian agricultural organization SURUDE (Foundation for Sustainable Rural Development) a sister organization - SUPERRUDE (Super Rural Development) - to handle the future of the biogas project. Aiming at making a user friendly biogas unit, in plastic, and with a low maintenance requirement, which can be mass produced and sold at low cost. The product will probably not appeal to the poorest but to the middle class holding country estates. Here, it will be working within an ecologically sustainable system of integrated household and agriculture, aiming to improve the level of hygiene and the indoor climate, and ideally also reducing the cutting of forest for fuel purposes. SUPERFLEX spent the summers of '96 and '97 in Tanzania researching and coordinating the project with local bodies and potential users, and testing the now finished prototype of the biogas plant which will, when put into production, be a sophisticated job in the artist group signature colour - that of gaudy orange. When the plant has been installed, the top of one of the tanks will be above ground level, showing the SUPERFLEX logo, a high profile S. 



In order not to become involved in existing (power) structures in Danish govt. controlled development aid, SUPERFLEX is working to have their biogas project funded by companies and private and public foundations and funds. SUPERFLEX is thus accelerating a situation dramatically and effectively being a complex combination of art activism, "ethical" capitalism, and new development of ecological technology. Any company sponsor of the biogas project will, for instance, not be a patron of the arts in the traditional sense of the word but rather an investor in a joint venture with an equal, working company. 



Austrian art critic Georg Schöllhammer ponders, in the Springer art magazine, some of the artistic and social parameters hit by the biogas project: It has gradually become a critical general idea that development aid is above all a cover-up for the activities of national institutions and of the World Bank and belongs to the strategic means designed by them to cover up economic hegemonies. Africa is among the unambiguous losers in this process. The recently aroused interest taken by the Western art world in the marginalized continent would thus seem all the more paradoxical. The debate on representation of African contemporary art is conducted under the discourse file of "postcolonialism". Would it then not be rather predictable that the socialactivistic party of the Western art world, looking for new spheres of work, would rediscover the old ethics of development aid? Danish artist group SUPERFLEX works in this extended area of "social services". Their project, a biogas plant for civil war rocked Central Africa, shows right down to the representation of power on the spot, the almost model-like difficulties of any such task.' 



We need to delve further into Schöllhammer's last remarks in order for them to be properly understood. Last summer when SUPERFLEX was in Africa, they appeared in their own tropical uniforms, sporting khaki shorts and light green shirts. Hardly the most neutral outfit if you want to get on in a civil war devastated country such as Mozambique; but at the end of the day the three young men probably looked rather like a three men Gay Pride Parade than evil neo-colonialist exploiters. But the gesture illustrates the apories of the project emphasized by Schöllhammer; By virtue of a visual, performance-like touch, SUPERFLEX meets the guilt of European colonialism over the brutalized continent, thus indicating the problematic potential conditions for the biogas project. When artists are no longer designing for the sake of design but involve the world of real life, the art of work will appear in an approximately 1:1 ratio to reality, and will thus have to act particularly within a politically sensitive field (such as development aid). Part of the biogas project is evidently redundant in relation to the functional, business-like, technical, "real" part of it; the redundant part is art, the part left as artistic contempla-tion, as simulation. Meaning, for example, that even if the project were discontinued now, thus failing as a "social service", it would probably still be a success as an artistic experience. 



French theorist, Jacques Attali, has observed that whenever a multinational corporation moves from a state of purely financial entity to being a political unit, it will have to develop a language no longer just on profit but rather based on a clearly defined and publicly promoted set of social, moral, and ethical values. Thus describing a process of interaction in relation to the artistic practice of SUPERFLEX: As multinational corporations move into a sphere which may be defined broadly as a olitical/humanitarian value system, artist move tentatively into a like-wise political sphere of integrated consumerism, and a potentially commercial use of the conceptual framework around the institution of art and the cycle of art. 



It is important to keep in mind that this brand of political art is political art by implication rather than by way of objectives. SUPERFLEX has no plan they are working to: As a committed, artistic practice it is politics without a model. It is up to the SUPERFLEX firm of artists to see that the biogas project remain a challenge to existing social, cultural, and economic/financial hierarchies. In continuation of Attali's deliberations, the SUPERFLEX poential of doing this is one of the social, moral, and ethical values of the biogas project not being, unike the promotion run by multinational cororations of these, instrumentalized and pragmatized values forming part of considerations on smarter, updated marketing. On the contrary, these values with SUPERFLEX belong to the artistic, "redundant" part of the entire process, the critical surplus which will be generated by the biogas project in the way of artistic debate. 



In relation to the two positions within the modernist sphere outlined by Habermas, it may be said that SUPERFLEX is in a third position. Though art-historically their biogas project can probably be made to form part of a dadaistic genealogy, it is not bound up with an artistic reaction or revolt. It is rather a matter of simulating some social structures to the point of the simulation becoming reality, aiming to stretch the concept of art and explode the object d'art so that overall, cultural discussions may be involved and reflected in the sphere of art. 



[1] Modernity - An Incomplete Project. In: The Anti-Aesthetic. Essays on Postmodern Culture. Ed. Hal Foster. Seattle 1995.


[2] Sculpture In The Expanded Field. Op.cit.

Tagged: biogas, text

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