SUPERFLEX is a Danish collaboration of three artists and an engineer, working at the global/ecological coal-face. They assemble information about energy needs, propose solutions, and design new technology for poor peasant farmers. They have constructed and patented a simple, portable biogas unit producing cooking gas and lighting, and have installed pilot units in poor Tanzanian villages. SUPERFLEX have a web site-www.superflex.dk-and slickly earnest, full-color brochures about their project. They also print seriously stodgy pamphlets about "Biogas Basics," "Microbiology," and the "Global Environmental Benefits of Biogas Technology." Like a mini-Peace Corps, they collaborate with Western and African engineers-and, on the ground, with a small African organisation, SURUDE-to create "appropriate technologies." The patented bio-gas plant satisfies several design criteria. It is efficient, cheap, user-friendly, and it appeals to local farmers' pride. Better still, it looks like a large, glossy, orange balloon-or even an enormous over-inflated 1960's waterbed. On the concrete floor of a white art space, it is also a perfectly acceptable simulacrum of an early 1990s Bad Girls toy. On the walls, didactic texts and diagrams trace the cycle of human waste to useful fuel.
SUPERFLEX sounds like another fictional construct-like General Idea's Miss General Idea contest, Res Ingold's Ingold Airlines or the Dutch collective's Seymour Likely. After all, the allegorical implications of human and animal shit transformed into useful hot gas are irresistible. All the evidence is, though, that SUPERFLEX are genuine. Given this, it's clear they aren't concerned with signature style as an index of authenticity at all, and even less (as Dan Cameron points out in an essay on their work) with preserving the dividing line between art, industrial design and engineering. Why, then, do they show in an art gallery? There's a long tradition of useful art that spills outside and beyond Earthworks-Helen and Newton Mayer Harrison, for example-that sees art as a framing device. Then, of course, there's the essayistic tradition in video: Jean-Luc Godard's work after the 1970s, for example, which leapt forwards from his double-edged aphorism that now is the time for reflection. The similarity between SUPERFLEX and the Earth Art tradition from which they emerge would seem to lie in shared attitudes towards real-time intervention and its consequences, and therefore to genuine action according to a profoundly humanist ethical and social perspective. The difference, visually at least, is that SUPERFLEX are a collective very much in tune with the 1990s. They understand, therefore, that extreme demands on the viewer's patience and time can't be compensated for by the production of a museological spectacle, for there isn't the attention span. They calculate that the impatient viewer's boredom will be incorporated into the work of art as a gate-keeping device. Their sophisticated and important artistic "work" is emblematic of wider shifts in which the author of a work of art is not necessarily its maker and, finally, in which the limits of representation and categorisation indicate the limits of a postmodern perspective.
Dr. Charles Green
School of Art History and Theory, College of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales.