SUPERFLEX pretty much always talk about their projects as 'tools'. They're happy to present the tools they've come up with in art galleries or museums and they enjoy the opportunity to get their work looked at critically and for its meaning to be assessed in the language of art. But more important is that the tools find users, that the projects find participants as well as audiences. The SUPERFLEX philosophy is one in which art itself is a tool, not just for contemplation or aesthetic experiment, but for direct social empowerment. They use the freedom that the art world offers - the freedom to work with ideas in their raw state - as a starting point. They use the financial resources, the locations, the collaborators that the art world gives them access to in order to develop these ideas into projects which then take on a life of their own, in the hands of others. One of their first operations, Biogas in Africa, was a pilot project for the production of cheap power in a rural village in Tanzania. The biogas system ñ an eyecatching, orange plastic dome which transforms human and animal waste into enough methane gas to supply cooking and light for an average family ñ was a new spin on an old idea. SUPERFLEX's contribution was to see a possibility and work with designers and engineers to produce a system that was not only effective but also mass produceable and cheap enough to be a genuinely economic option for the local farmers, not just a charity gesture. The system has been shown in galleries around Europe, along with videos and information about its Tanzanian test run, but beyond that SUPERFLEX have formed a company, Supergas, to commercialise the idea. It's now been taken up by a Thai company who plan to manufacture and sell it, taking the whole project almost completely out of the normal sphere of contemporary art. It's this kind of openness to the wider possibilities that mark out SUPERFLEX's method as different to that of other contemporary groups who might seem to be working in the same area. SUPERFLEX want their projects to succeed metaphorically and aesthetically, to operate in a gallery environment as a starting point for a thought process, but they're also prepared to push things much further ñ until the projects reach people and places completely outside the art world.
Superchannel is a company started by SUPERFLEX in collaboration with programmer Sean Treadway. In its simplest terms it offers live internet TV, using cheap, existing technology and software. Two things make it different to the thousands of other net broadcasters. The first is that every show has its own live online chatroom where viewers can discuss the programme or even talk directly to the broadcasters themselves. The second is that Superchannel has been designed to be used by anyone with access to an ordinary computer, a video camera and an internet connection. Anyone who wants to start up their own channel can email a proposal. If it's accepted, the channel will be hosted on the Superchannel web server in Copenhagen where Treadway's software makes it easy for somebody with the most basic computer know-how to produce, broadcast and archive their own shows wherever they happen to be. The channel is then advertised and accessed through the Superchannel website.
The first Superchannel was broadcast from Artspace 1% in Copenhagen in the summer of 1999. An open access studio with a big window onto the street, it hosted a variety of debates and discussion, as well as live music and a regular dub reggae show. Since then a wide variety of other channels have started up, as far afield as Japan and Thailand. At the Kunsthalle Wien, the Europa? channel looks at 'current political and democratic developments in Europe'. In the Coronation Court tower block in Liverpool there's a channel run by the tenants, with a weekly sport show that generates a great discussion in the chatroom, bringing in football fans from around Europe. Back in Copenhagen now, there's the Situflex channel, SUPERFLEX's own channel which they describe as 'an experimental platform for developing the concept of internet TV broadcasting'. Three days a week there's an open studio for anyone wanting to make their own show, but the Situflex channel also gives users the opportunity to develop long-term projects that find new uses for the technology and this is the key to what Superchannel is all about.
Superchannel is a tool in the early stages of its development but, like all of SUPERFLEX's projects, it's designed to be able to grow as far and as fast as the conditions allow. Internet bandwidth is constantly increasing, as are the number of people who use the world wide web as their primary source of information and entertainment. Most major broadcasters and telecommunications companies are lining up their own internet TV channels, and though there's plenty of debate over how soon the internet's basic infrastructure will be ready for the transition from webcams to mass broadband transmission, there's no doubt that it'll be here in the next few years.
Superchannel represents another future for internet TV. Against the passive consumption of corporate programming it offers plenty of other possibilities: two-way communication, shows made by people whose motivation isn't necessarily money, the internet used as a local, community network, a new tool for activists of all kinds and, last and best, the chance for all the mavericks and crazy people whose home pages make surfing the web worthwhile to get into television. With the Superchannel concept and software currently being developed as a commercial proposition, the hope is that others will take up the idea and replicate it. It's a neat idea that maybe the future of TV might not be just as something everybody watches, but something everybody does.