The Supergas of Superflex
June 27, 2016
by Derek Hockenbrough
At 1301 PE, a contemporary art gallery in Los Angeles, Bjørnstjerne Christiansen of international art group SUPERFLEX sits on the stone floor of the upper room, glowing in the projected image of the group’s film “Modern Times Forever.” The black and white projection of real-time building corrosion casts harsh shadows across his face, like moonlight cutting through a canyon. The silent film and meditative presence of Bjørnstjerne creates an eerie energy in the air. It felt like I was stepping into the black void of an interstellar existential temple. As I sat down across from the artist, I wondered if this was somehow a taste of what it would be like to enter the mind of SUPERFLEX.
SUPERFLEX was created in 1993 when three Danish photography students decided to forgo their solo careers and band together. Jakob Fenger, Rasmus Nielsen and Bjørnstjerne Christiansen became SUPERFLEX and entered into the modern art world with their own brand of critical questioning. While their art does not solely center on any particular issues, they often create projects that question economic structures, political systems and environmental concerns. They work within a contemporary art context, providing fresh and confounding viewpoints through activities such as flooding a McDonald’s or re-producing Louis Vuitton handbags with SUPERCOPY printed across. I break the tense hum of the projector to ask Bjørnstjerne about the group and their alternative energy project, SUPERGAS.
CREATING AS A GROUP
Derek Hockenbrough: What was SUPERFLEX’s evolution from being photography students to working together as a group?
Bjørnstjerne Christiansen: We, quite fast, skipped our own artistic practices to group related activity because we found it more challenging, more rewarding. But also, we were able more to enter into context, make proposals that were more confronting. We could kick a little more ass than being a single artist. But, most importantly, as a single artist you have this great idea, then you meet your critics or you are questioned when you present your final work. In a group, you meet that daily. If you have an idea, you are being confronted. Just as a conversation works, you have an idea and it bounces off the others then you move on. Either the concept stays as the original idea or it changes, because it is confronted with other ways of thinking.
DH: The conflict you mentioned, do you feel it is always constructive?
BC: Conflict is always constructive, because it makes you have to re-think. And maybe you go a long way with the discussion, and maybe you end up at the same point. But, you have gone through the steps. And that is the dynamic that I appreciate and what I love about working with the two other guys, and other professionals, because you are being asked as to what you are proposing in the early stages. Not just after you finally present a fantastic tool or whatever it might be, and it turns out that it did not really fulfill what it should. There is a social dynamic, and that is how society also works; there is not one individual that decides what goes on. He can make a proposal, but then it is altered, manipulated, copied, whatever.
DH: Have you ever done any solo work?
BC: No. Since we formed, it was always SUPERFLEX. We found a dynamic that makes your mind continually develop. … We are all quite social people. We don’t necessarily like to work alone. We don’t find much comfort or passion for being alone in a box. Also, we found that our proposals can be much stronger. When we have three minds working, we can approach an idea from different angles.
DH: Is there a specific process while creating within the group?\
BC: Since we do not have fixed roles within the group, it often means that quite different projects pop up because we are not streamlined and we do not work with a manifesto.
DH: So there is no decree when creating within SUPERFLEX?
BC: The only thing that we decided at an early point was … after five or six years we decided that we had to have a way of describing what we do to other people and within the group. We looked back on six years of work and we looked for [a common] approach, and we found that all of them had to somehow be activated. … So we decided to call most of our activities “tools.” Instead of a project or artwork, it’s a tool.He holds up his Styrofoam coffee cup.BC: For instance, there were many hours spent on how to design this. You can look at it as a cup, but you could also put liquid into it, then you could take it and smash it into another person’s head. So there are many levels to a tool. You can look at it with an aesthetic approach, like many things in the art world, “Ok, it looks pretty good … What is it about?” When you call it a tool, you invite the viewer or user into considering how it can be used. And also, here comes the important part, the context that you place [the tool] in. For us, [using the term tool] has proven to be very dynamic and it also gives many an understanding of how we are thinking, and that it’s dangerous to be passive. By making a tool, you engage into a setting where you can be criticized. You allow others to reflect upon what you do and you embrace that. So, it develops your own ideas … we choose the setting. Then if [the tool] is used by someone else or in another setting, it invites us to think in another direction.
DH: Back in 1996, you guys did a project called “SUPERGAS.” Can you tell me the genesis of it?
BC: We have many exhibitions, and some are ongoing. There are maybe five or six of the tools that are ongoing, in continuous development. … The SUPERGAS idea came from our interest and research in East Africa, and how aid organizations would work. How their activities are being presented and portrayed back in their native country. For example, in Scandinavia, the whole industry of post-colonial [aid] activities … we offer a lot of tools and gifts to East Africa or poor countries, and then the way that we represent that activity back in Denmark. Another example, in America, there is a lot of donating of boxes of food and so on to poor areas in Africa. And then, the image that you see back in America is of a poor African thanking the white man. And that is quite a problematic image, because it creates a dependency that the poor African is only receiving and you are the one who gives. Therefore, you are in the stronger position, always, because the other person has no ability of giving. We were very interested in this concept. Back in Scandinavia, there was a lot of giving of technological tools, trucks, tractors and so on that they would give to Africa. You would start all these farming projects and then you would leave again. Then half a year later, the machines would break down and the whole project is dead. So, you have all of these machines just standing around in a little village in Africa. What have you created? A lot of expectations, a lot of hopes.He pauses for a moment and smiles. His eyes gleam of blunt seriousness. BC: But, it’s very easy to criticize. To say, “What the hell is going on? You should think differently.” In our natural way of working, we have to have a tool, a project, to work with in order to be critical. We were very interested in biogas, which is basically the production of methane gas, because in East Africa there is a lot of organic material to work with. There is a lot of waste and that is a very obvious source [to use for] becoming independent. As a family, you can make your own energy source, both for light and for cooking. So, you don’t have to buy charcoal or petrol anymore for the home. We thought it would be interesting to create a biogas system that would work for the conditions set for an African family; how they live, how they work. While using technology that would work with their source and how they function, something that was cheap and very easy to install. Something that was family based, because those are the ones they are closest to and who they think about the most.
DH: Because that is their bubble.
BC: Right. … And the conditions for creating methane are very natural in East Africa because you have a certain temperature level. Methane bacteria is most active at a constant level. So we had an idea that it should be a balloon because, in most of our research [of similar machines], you had to have bricks. So, then you had to make bricks, and then build a structure that had to be completely air-tight. That is extremely difficult. We were lucky to find an engineer that had worked with biogas for many years and was very depressed about the distribution of biogas because it should be for the poor. It is completely natural. We would have to find a way to, um …
DH: Harness it.
BC: Yeah. And he found our ideas interesting, but kind of mad [laughs]. But, he helped us develop a new system and we presented the idea in magazines in the art world. Then the big museum in Denmark called the Louisiana, they wanted to show our work. We said to them that they could only show our work if they paid for the first prototype and the implementation of it in Tanzania. And they agreed. So, what is interesting is that the first solution for this problem was and is still funded by the arts. And it worked quite well. But as the development of prototypes can be, it is very expensive. We went to all types of investment funds, but no one was interested because people think that there is no kind of economy in Africa, that no one wants to buy anything. … But we found a guy that had won the Nobel Peace Prize, for the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, Muhammad Yunus. … He developed a system, micro-financing, where you would give someone a loan of $200 or so for them to buy, for instance, a sewing machine. We wanted to bring our system into that structure but we didn’t know how. And no one wanted to invest in us. They didn’t think artists could come up with something that actually functions.
DH: Because you don’t call yourselves scientists.
BC: They thought it was a joke. But we did it. And our funding for the prototype came from all the exhibitions of our work around the world of the “SUPERGAS.” Still, investing in the final product development is another issue, because you need hardcore business money.
DH: And no one wanted …
BC: No one wanted to. Even though we had the best devices. We said, “that’s fine then, that’s how it is. We will just continue working on it as we can.” And since then, we have made other prototypes. … So, the status now is that there is a Mexican art collector, who then has chosen to invest into the final development of the project. … We have developed a final model with Mexican engineers and project designers, all paid by this art collector. They have just been installed three months ago just outside of Mexico City.
DH: That’s the final product?
BC: It’s a final prototype that we know will work, but it needs to be tested over one or two years.
DH: Let’s say everything is peachy, it runs perfectly after two years. Would you then approach a large corporation to mass-produce them?
BC: There is a company developed in Mexico that will then run the project … the company of the project designers, because they have skills that we do not have. We know everything about biogas, because we have been working with it for many years but they have engineering skills that we do not have. … It is an economic project, first of all. A family can invest in this to change their life conditions, because they want them to be [changed]. So, it is not a gift. We don’t impose on them, that “this is what you should take.”
DH: Right, it’s a product.
BC: That’s why it is also quite unique or strange for an artist group to say that you should think product here and not just ideological approach or humanitarian ideas. Humanitarian ideas are important, but you have to differentiate the dependency factor that is very dangerous.
DH: Do you see this fitting into more urban centers?
BC: In Africa, the urban communities are enormous. In Mozambique, there are cities that … 10 or 15 million people live in them. … If it is countryside, you take it from the cows. … If it is human stool, you take it directly form the toilet. It is shit, it is dirty. But it creates powerful gas. It is sustaining and it is something that we have so much of. Some people call it the “nuclear waste of the Third World,” because you have so much material in the bigger cities. Because the sanitation conditions are so bad, they create so many health problems. So, you have to treat that. And that you can do by making these biogas plants.
Contemporary Art Biogas
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About The Author: Jacqueline Romano