Texts/Working within Contradictions
Barbara Steiner, 2003
Superflex Tools book
Working within Contradictions
• In 1998 Bjørnstjerne Christiansen, Jakob Fenger, Rasmus Nielsen (SUPERFLEX) and Jan Mallan applied for two Danish patents: “Plants for anaerobic processing of organic waste” and “Automatic pressure equalisation system for process gases from pressure chambers”. 

These form the basis of a biogas device initially developed for Tanzania. This can be manufactured in smaller units for a small number of users, such as a (farming) family. In November 1998 SUPERFLEX registered “Supergas A/S” with the Danish Chamber of Commerce; the financial advisor Peter Eriksen was the fifth shareholder – after SUPERFLEX and Jan Mallan. The main focus of the company (A/S = Shareholder Company) is on “development”, “patenting”, “production” and the “sale of biogas containers and the associated technology”. Investors such as the “Teknologisk Institut” and the “Teknologisk Innovation A/S” provided financial support for the first two years of the project’s existence.

‘SUPERFLEX’ was registered in 1999, ‘SUPERCHANNEL’, an interactive internet transmitter was registered in 2000 as a limited company (anpartselskab). In 2000 the group appointed Kenneth Jensen as its studio manager. In March 2000, discussions were held with students from the Economics Department at Bard College in New York on share issues as well as on how biogas could be distributed and put on a firm socio-economic footing. In summer 2000 SUPERFLEX entered into negotiations with Swedish Telecom on the financing of their plans to create Karlskrona2, a virtual city. These negotiations came to nothing. Nor did Wolfsburg2 get beyond the planning stages and a pilot project. In 2000 and 2001 SUPERCHANNEL sold a number of licences to diverse users. Negotiations regarding a large-scale production plan for biogas in Thailand and Vietnam are taking unduly long, despite interest in the project on the part of government officials. Now in 2001 the companies SUPERFLEX and SUPERCHANNEL are experiencing serious financial difficulties.

What looks like a classical start-up enterprise is also – primarily – an artistic project, initiated by three people who studied at the Academy for Visual Arts in Copenhagen and have a classical training in art behind them. By founding companies that develop various ‘tools’, administer them and offer them for public use, SUPERFLEX are implementing a notion of art that is based on concrete intervention in society and social structures and which incorporates economic factors from the outset. There may be a yearning for social effectiveness here as well as a desire to be (financially) independent of the art market and its constraints. At the same time, also being part of the art business has advantages; on one hand the artists can turn to the grants and awards available in the art world (in addition to the customary financial support for start-up enterprises); on the other hand the institution of art functions as a discursive arena that can be used for reflective scrutiny of one’s own position. Unlike the situation that prevailed during Modernism, art and economics are no longer conceived of dialectically whereby the former, in the bourgeois mind of the 18th and 19th centuries, was taken to be free of economic considerations; it was there to provide aesthe-tic edification and education, to promote the “natural development” of the human being towards a higher ideal. In the first instance this notion applied to “inner development” since the “organisation of this world by means of the capitalist labour process … has turned the development of the individual over to economic competition and has left it up to the commercial market to meet the individual’s needs” (Marcuse, 1965, 76). The soul, which has no “exchange value” is pitted against economic values, non-alienation against alienation. And in the process art is elevated into an “ideal place”, an (unredeemable) promise to put an end to the alienation of the human being. Nowadays it is ever harder to see oneself as somehow outwith economics. 1 The museum, once conceived as a centre of resistance against capitalist appropriation, has long been infiltrated by economic interests, as is readily evident from the outside: art institutions are increasingly under pressure to organise themselves as commercially viable enterprises, to market themselves and their ‘goods’. This has to do with the way society has developed in recent decades, the fundamental changes in the nature and conditions of work (including artistic work): ‘factory regime’ and ‘factory discipline’ have left the factory in the narrow sense of the word and have permeated the whole of society which now, for its part, obeys the “specific rules of capi-talist conditions of production” (Negri & Hardt, 1997, 14). The lines of demarcation between social, economic, legal, political AND cultural issues are becoming increasingly blurred, with the result that we now have a “subordination of society to capital”: “Capital, subsuming society, no longer simply determines the players in the orchestra, but in fact appears, like the self-glorifying composer, on the stage of social production” (Negri & Hardt, 1997, 21). 2 This has a major effect on the active individual: subjectivity no longer counts as detrimental, but has become a condition of the work process. (Unlike the time when conveyor belts dominated factory work, and – as we can see from workers’ protests and tough negotiations – subjectivity was perceived by some as disruptive while others were determined to reclaim it for themselves.) Today the individual is recognised for his or her creative subjectivity: personal commitment, a willingness to work round the clock, individual creativity and risk-taking, flexibility and mobility count as virtues in the new world of work. Leading the way in these developments (involuntarily) then as now are artists, for whom a steady income is the exception rather than the rule. They move through times when they are earning and not earning, just as they shift from one activity to another. The result is pressure to increasingly realise the financial potential of one’s own skills and achievements at work. Their whole life takes on something of a ‘corporate’ air. More and more the artist’s income pattern is regarded as a social model worth copying; according to Andrew Ross “the ‘mentality’ of artistic work is increasingly sought after” (Ross, 2000, 270). At times this even goes so far that the “job markets for art and publicists” are discussed as “models for a future world of work”, as suggested for instance in a report from the Berlin Centre for Social Research in 1999. Boris Groys even sees the institution of culture per se – by virtue of its inherently innovative dynamic, where values are constantly being re-evaluated – as a “prototype of economic logic” (Groys, 1999, 15). In view of this it is only natural that contemporary artists should not simply be aware of their implication in economic circumstances but specifically want to ‘reallocate’ existing roles and ways of functioning and to operate where economic matters are settled: in (their own) business.

Back to SUPERFLEX: in light of the scenario outlined above it seems only logical that artists are interested in economic processes and take these as their theme. Can they prevent themselves involuntarily signing up to a capitalist logic of commercialisation, can they stop their critique and innovative skills bolstering a system that they actually want to change? Is it at all possible any more to make a different mark by taking a dissident stance? And if so, if the different mark hits home as different-ness, is it not simply fulfilling the very demands of a commercial system based on difference?

Biogas: SUPERFLEX develop a viable project, that takes local and cultural specifications into account right from the outset. For this purpose SUPERFLEX engaged in research during the preparatory phase along with SURUDE (Sustainable Rural Development), a local NGO, founded by two university professors and two farmers: the aim was to determine whether and in what form a product of this kind might be needed and whether it would be culturally acceptable in view of the taboo that generally attaches to human and animal excrement. Advice was also sought from anthropologists. In addition SUPERFLEX also worked with the local NGOs to devise different methods of handling credit and distribution. From the very beginning disparate views, working methods and cultural backgrounds were incorporated in the development of their biogas system.

Karlskrona2/Wolfsburg2: In this project for a virtual town the residents of Karlskrona and Wolfsburg are given the chance to participate directly in the processes of municipal decision making. They alone can access the virtual scenario and change the town, everyone else is classed as a tourist. The range of possible interventions goes from online discussions to real changes in the fabric of the town. Political, economic and social laws and behavioural norms are under constant review in this project. With this project SUPERFLEX want to explore, amongst other things, the effect of the ‘virtual’ town on the ‘real’ one and of the ‘real’ one on the ‘virtual’ one: to what extent do virtual decision making processes influence the urban space, that is to say, what consequences does this project have for the residents, to what extent do everyday experiences and reports in the press and media shape the thinking of the users? SUPERFLEX are aiming at the direct involvement of the residents in Karlskrona and Wolfsburg so that suggested changes could also be directed against the economic and political interests of the municipal administration.

SUPERCHANNEL: an internet platform devised for people and/or institutions who want their contributions to help to bring about change in political, economic, social or cultural attitudes. Users range from a group of psychologists (e.g. Situflex) to musicians (e.g. supah mikes) and artists (Rirkrit Tiravanija), political interest groups, the British ‘Housing Association Trust’ and diverse art institutions (Galerie für zeitgenössi-sche Kunst in Leipzig); the programmes deal with politically sensitive themes and can help to establish the identity of a particular region. They can be used to promote art (Joachim Hamou) and music projects or to set up a different form of distribution. Potentially interested parties have to outline their motivation, which is then publicised. All the programmes are collected in a virtual archive, so that it will also later be possible to gain an insight into the different motivations and interests of the users. SUPERCHANNEL provides a mouthpiece for small, even tiny, groups in the internet which would otherwise have little or no chance of mounting a large-scale public presentation of their concerns. The ‘tools’ listed here – Biogas, Karlskrona2/Wolfsburg2, and SUPERCHANNEL – were developed in collaboration with various partners, tested out in a pilot phase and then offered for sale. The takings from sales are then invested in developing new or existing projects. The tools can and should be used by groups with a whole variety of interests. Both in the development and in the implementation phase the different political, economic, cultural and social notions of the various participants collide and have to be negotiated. At this point SUPERFLEX take on the role of a partner whose role is to coordinate and act as a moderator. The art institutions function primarily as places for discursive debate, where the projects are not only presented and discussed, but the various uses of the tools can be investigated by others – as for instance in the exhibition by SUPERFLEX in the Kunstverein Wolfsburg in late 1999/early 2000. The anthropologists Klaus Høyer and Birgitte Feiring, the graphic artist Mgumia, the psychologists who make up the group Situflex, the architect Rune Nielsen, the communications expert Troels Degn Johansson, the musicians of supah mikes and the Housing Association Trust (“HAT”) were invited to present their various uses of SUPERFLEX’s tools. Different cultural notions inscribed into presentation and representation came just as vividly to light as did the different expectations, longings and values that the users attached to their use of the tools.

In the exhibitions it also became clear that SUPERFLEX primarily see artistic praxis as a form of cultural intervention that mediates between different interests or perhaps brings these to light in the first place. This necessarily means that concrete socio-political activities are interlocked with discursive discussion, and that the two are mutually influential.

SUPERFLEX’s commercial praxis can aptly be described in the words of Jakob Fenger: “Small scale economy is big scale economy.” And he goes on: “Normally companies make products for people who have a lot of money and who are already part of their market. In this sense we would like that other companies look differently at the econo-my of African families as something that is powerful as well. But they do not look at African families as powerful people.” This outlook is largely in keeping with the views of Yunus and his Grammeen Bank in Bangladesh: here a system of micro-credits provides financial support for even the smallest enterprises. 3 This practise is based on the idea that anyone with a valid business idea, however small-scale it may be, can play a part in the commercial world and benefit from economic success. At first sight this seems a promising notion. It would seem that everyone is able to have a stake in an economic system, even those who were previously excluded due to their inability to invest in their own business. This means that every human idea is potentially open to commercial exploitation, and it also means that commercial premises are recognised from the outset, even required. SUPERFLEX confirm this when they say: “We have this capitalistic system and it is controlled mainly from Europe or America” (Interview with Jakob Fenger in this volume). SUPERFLEX are interested in changing economic structures based on Western capitalist thinking, which has to be accepted as a basis in order to be changed at all: “Not everybody can be on our level of economy, it does not make sense. But if the people in Africa start to be a part of our economic system then maybe our economic system has to change. This is like a far-out dream. But this might change the all-over economic structure” (Interview with Jakob Fenger in this volume). Different (economic) systems and the expectations and longings they produce are intentionally confronted with one another: ‘large’ global economy comes up against small ‘local’ needs, Western values encounter the so-called ‘Third World’. Differing notions of efficiency compete and refuse to be reduced to a common denominator, individual interests oppose supra-individual business interests, local and global specifics intertwine only to unravel again a moment later.

The contradiction inherent in supporting and advancing capitalist structures with their own praxis at the same time as undermining them is an intrinsic aspect of the work of SUPERFLEX. When they argue their case on the basis of critical mass – a large body of individuals with little money can constitute an interesting group in economic terms – then this perfectly meets the expectations and thinking of potential investors who can thus penetrate a new market without having to make any fundamental changes to their usual capitalist procedures. At the same time, this leads to quantifiable shifts in economic structures: the poverty of the inhabitants of Tanzania, Thailand or Vietnam, to name but three, may at last be alleviated because they are taken seriously as players in the economic field. For the first time they can start to walk away from the one-sided economic dependency they have suffered so long. Hitherto not regarded as financially viable customers, they were only ever the ‘objects’ of profitable businesses, never the beneficiaries. Now, with their biogas system, SUPERFLEX are helping to change notions of development aid by shifting the argument from social issues to economics. Moreover, by virtue of the fact that people in Tanzania, Thailand and Vietnam buy biogas plants, a product for which there is a real need and that uses readily available resources, SUPERFLEX also manage to distance themselves from the traditional benefactor/beneficiary relationship which has formed the basis of development aid for decades. More recent projects in the field of development aid, similarly seeking to avoid dependency relationships, have sought to promote individual creativity and initiatives in the local area and as such share the same thinking as SUPERFLEX. 4 If, for instance, a farming family is interested in biogas, ways and means are worked out with the local NGOs to facilitate the investment, at the same time incurring as small a financial burden for the family as possible. The local farmers become customers and potential clients, casting aside their role as supplicants. One problem remains: criticism expressed during the projects either directly or indirectly – whether of existing economic conditions or traditional development aid – is always welcome and can readily be integrated into the capitalist practice of review and assessment. Constant adjustment and correction of one’s own position and that of others is the only way to expose the weaknesses in any system, so that measures can be taken to modify outdated structures and hence to remain viable. When SUPERFLEX claim that one obvious difference between themselves and larger concerns lies in their capacity for self-criticism, then they may well be right at present: “We include the discussion, whereas they (e.g. Siemens, Volkswagen etc.) try to be on top of the discussion all the time. They do not try to work on the parameters for a discussion and see what influence it can have on themselves. They try to avoid real discussions because this would mean that they have to give up their position from time to time.” (Interview with Jakob Fenger in this volume) Nevertheless businesses can learn: it is thus perfectly possible to imagine a situation where companies cease to dominate the discussion in order not to inhibit the productivity and creativity of the participants. Admittedly not in the spirit of individual emancipation.

SUPERFLEX’s practice of taking existing, presumably stable economic structures as their starting point and then dismantling these, step by step, not only sheds light on the way these function but also lays the foundations for possible change and the construction of new conditions. It brings to mind thoughts of the mode of ‘deconstruction’ described and practised by Jacques Derrida. SUPERFLEX’s methods can also be compared to a deconstructive act, in the spirit of Derrida’s “mighty shaking of a building” – in this case the institution of a basically capitalist economic system. 5 Derrida saw ‘deconstruction’ as a method to shake structures without destroying them, simply laying bare their existing weak points and gaps. He directed his own efforts primarily against the edifice of metaphysics that is built on instability even when it claims to be stable. For it stands on brittle rock: “The territory is elusive and changeable, mined and undermined. The ground is largely an underground.” (Derrida, 1988, 34, as cited in Wigley 1994, 47). 6 For Derrida ‘deconstruction’ is “analytical work”, “determining a position within the political and institutional structures that facilitate and govern our praxis, our competencies and our activities.” Yet it should not be separated from “political and institutional problems”, instead “it should undertake a new search for responsibility, question anew the ethical and political codes handed down to us from the past.” (Derrida, 1984, 41) With his method of ‘deconstruction’ Derrida not only changes the “edifice” called philosophy, but also the one that it describes. SUPERFLEX take a similar approach to the ‘edifice of economy’. They investigate structures/institutions – in effect institutional authority – until any structural weaknesses have been identified and breaking point has been reached. In this process both the structure and its limitations are similarly uncovered. To a certain extent SUPERFLEX study the tricks by which an edifice gains authority – in this case the capitalist economy as an institution – so that they can then drive a wedge into that authority. Thus they do not destroy traditional structures but – wholly in keeping with Derrida’s deconstructive method – they pinpoint the contradictions on which the structures are founded. Yet this in itself does not dispel those contradictions – they are still both visible and palpable. In that sense SUPERFLEX both describe and demonstrate what it is to be caught up in an economic system. Notwithstanding: the structures themselves are stable and instable in one, and therein lies our chance.

1 In fact the bourgeois museum was always permeated by economic interests, even when these may have been hidden: “The freedom of the soul was used to excuse the misery, martyrdom and servitude of the body. It served the ideological extradition of existence into the hands of the capitalist economy.” (Marcuse, 1965, 77) Andreas Spiegl neatly sums up the problem as follows: “not all questions of a social and political nature . . . can be reduced to economic problems, but the areas that are of social significance and are not involved in some form with distribution struggles are rare.” (Spiegl, 1997, 4)

2 Examples of the global positioning of capital are the introduction of production sites into the Third World, their relocation from north to south, the interdependence and permeability of markets and progressive interconnection of monetary movements.

3 SUPERFLEX, as artists, can also be counted amongst those with low incomes but with considerable potential for innovation. In that sense they are no different from any other blithely hopeful company founders.

4 This may explain why anthropologists and development workers are equally interested in SUPERFLEX. It was in this spirit that the anthropologist Klaus Høyer proposed developing “anthropology in action”.

5 Derrida’s notions can readily also be applied to other institutional discourses. He himself applies ‘deconstruction’ to philosophy and later to architecture too. Mark Wigley goes into the relationship between Derrida’s ‘deconstruction’ and architecture in his book The Architecture of Deconstruction: Derrida’s Haunt, (Wigley, 1994)

6 Here Derrida is in step with Martin Heidegger’s deliberations on ‘ground’. In his search for the grounds underlying the principle of laying out the ground, Heidegger comes full circle and discovers that the underlying principle of the ground has itself become groundless. (see Heidegger, Der Satz vom Grund, 1992, 21)

• Groys, Boris, Über das Neue. Versuch einer Kulturökonomie, Frankfurt a. M. 1999
• Derrida, Jacques, ‘Limited, inc., a,b,s...’, in: Limited Inc, Evanston 1988
• Haak, Carroll and Schmidt, Günther, ‘Arbeitsmärkte für Künstler und Publizisten – Modelle einer zukünftigen Arbeitswelt?’, WZB, Berlin 1999
• Heidegger, Martin, Der Satz vom Grund, (1955/56), 7th edition, 1992
• Marcuse, Herbert, Kultur und Gesellschaft 2, Frankfurt a. M. 1965
• Negri, Antonio/Hardt, Michael, Die Arbeit des Dionysos, Materialistische Staatskritik in der Postmoderne, Berlin 1997
• Ross, Andrew, ‘Jobs im Cyberspace’ in: Kursbuch Arbeit. Ausstieg aus der Jobholder-Gesellschaft-Start in eine neue Tätigkeitskultur?, Munich, 2000
• Spiegl, Andreas, x-squared, Kunst zwischen Arbeit und kollektiver Praxis (exh. cat.), Wiener Secession, Vienna 1997
• Wigley, Mark, The Architecture of Dekonstruction. Derrida’s Haunt, Cambridge, Mass./ London, 1994

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