SUPERFLEX describe their artistic projects as tools.
They see their work as something to be put to use. Thus the artists become tool-makers; they take note of the way the tools are used and have a partial say in their use. At the same time they also avail themselves of certain tools found in social and artistic praxis. It is the intention here to turn SUPERFLEX’s notion of a tool back on itself: to shed light on the conditions of production, the influences, areas of discourse and strategies – the tools that is – that SUPERFLEX use in their own artistic praxis. And to ask, what discourse informs their work, what methods do they use, how do they fit into an art-historical context? In doing so it will only be possible to touch on wider themes since their function here is simply to encourage a multi-faceted approach to the work of SUPERFLEX. Let us begin by glancing into the SUPERFLEX tool box, to glean an insight into the discourse that applies to their work.
Rhizomatic Work Patterns
Firstly, on the construction of the group SUPERFLEX: it is structured as a network whose members work in a “rhizomatic” manner. There is no linear, hierarchically planned procedure, rather an interchange of knowledge and conditions. Thus Deleuze and Guattari explain that “The rhizome operates by variation, expansion, conquest, capture, offshoots. … the rhizome pertains to a map that must be produced, constructed, a map that is always detachable, connectable, reversible, modifiable and has multiple entryways and exits and its own lines of flight..” 1 SUPERFLEX describe their own work configurations in similar terms: To quote Rasmus Nielsen: “You put your questions in and you try to change something. This you can do through the construction which is called SUPERFLEX… SUPERFLEX offers me the possibility to work with different things. It’s like a frame or a tool. We have different interests, we are three different people and we all can use this frame or tool to work with.” Or Bjørnstjerne Christiansen: “I also gain a lot of new input through the involvement of the others. The way we work is always that one of us comes up with an idea. And then we correct each other, come up with new input and then we end up with something like the biogas project… So, there is constant correction, but also constant input… I think the quality of SUPERFLEX is that we need those other inputs. We cannot only rely on SUPERFLEX. I am interested in getting new know-ledge constantly… So most of our things are connected to meeting and discussing and letting other people contribute. If we know that a person has some special knowledge that we could learn from, we invite him/her to a meeting.” 2 The configuration of the group should itself be seen as a tool that is subject to constant change. Thus, just like the projects, it is and was always developing and being changed, corrected or taken a stage further.
Collective Work Methods
The authorship of an artistic work cannot be separated from social developments. In the 1930s it was already clear to Walter Benjamin that the producer of a work of art has a particular relationship to society. In ‘What is an Author?’ Michel Foucault analysed the function of the author. For Foucault the individuality of the author is just as problematic as the term ‘work’ and the concomitant notion of a finished entity or of closure. Thus the name of an author need not be that of a single person but can also be used by a group of individuals. “It [the name of the author] indicates the status of this discourse within a society and a culture. It has no legal status, nor is it located in the fiction of the work; rather, it is located in the break that founds a certain discursive construct and its very particular mode of being.” 3, 4 Foucault makes a plea that interest should no longer centre on authenticity and originality but on the existential conditions of discourses. Collaborative authorship as the stamp of collective work practices has become a heated to pic of debate since spread of the internet. 5 It is no longer always possible to identify one original, individual author. This phenomenon also has an effect on social practices. Through the formation of collectives, in the internet for one, alternative public groupings can form which can then establish an oppositional network within the structures that rule that society. Thus, for instance, in Austria in 1999, before the new government was formed by the right-wing FPÖ, a group of Austrian artists and activists set up the internet platform “gettoattack”, as an information forum with the latest news and commentaries on their homepage; in addition it put out calls to demonstrate against the formation of a right-wing government and itself launched a number of political actions. SUPERCHANNEL, devised by SUPERFLEX, functions along similar lines: different groups and institutions without access to the public media channels (as in the case of HAT, the Housing Association Trust, in Liverpool) are given the chance on one hand to discuss certain themes and, on the other, to include other internet communities in their discussions, who can contribute statements of their own in a chat room.
Participatory Projects and the Question of Responsibility
In participatory projects the viewers become the co-producers of an artistic work. Connections are thus created on various different levels. “Art that realizes its purpose through relationship – that collaborates consciously with the audience and is concerned with how we connect with others – can actually create a sense of community.” 6 Suzi Gablik describes this as a participatory aesthetic, which in her view consist of a mixture of aesthetic and social issues that have generally been regarded as opposites in the modern era. “A central aspect of new paradigm thinking involves a significant shift from objects to relationships… Then meaning is no longer in the observer, nor in the observed, but in the relationship between the two. Interaction is the key that moves art beyond the aesthetic mode.” 7 Through interaction between the artists and their collaborative partners the decisions needing to be taken during the production process are up to a number of different individuals. Hence the responsibility for the success of an artistic work no longer exclusively falls to the artists but is shared by their collaborators. Different notions of a successful work come up against each other, since the participants (the artists, the collaborators, the institutions etc.) have their own different expectations and projections. These various expectations mostly only come to light during the course of the project and can even be the downfall of a project. The position taken by SUPERFLEX is usually geared towards de-veloping new ways of changing social structures (for instance the participation of a large proportion of the population of a town in planning decisions, as in Karlskrona2/Wolfsburg2, or measures to set up auto-nomous energy production processes for single families, as in the biogas project). But real, functioning changes demand different infrastructures for their implementation than those that, e.g., art institutions or the artists themselves can offer. And as such, art institutions are also up for discussion in projects like Karlskrona2 or Wolfsburg2 – more of which later. On the other hand, participatory projects can also be used, or bought, by political groupings as a means to improve social structures, giving marginalised groups a voice that they would otherwise not have.
If participatory praxis is combined with discourse from the realm of site specific art, the results can lead to projects that work with a whole community. Here the main focus of attention is on the social situation of a particular group and on the type of collaboration. But even well-intentioned projects can elicit harsh criticism: appropriation by the artists and the art business or the “colonialisation of difference” (Miwon Kwon) is one accusation heard in the context of collaboration between artists and marginalised groups “which become the object and the co-producers of their own self-appropriation”. 8 Miwon Kwon pointedly outlines the dependencies, complex entanglements and power political dangers of community-based art projects in her article ‘Ortung und Entortung der Community’: “In the context of community-based art, the interaction between the artists and existing groups is not based on a linear relationship but is inscribed in a complex web of motivations, expectations and projections on the part of the various participants.” 9 A community comes together for the purposes of a specific project in order to discuss particular social questions and/ or to actively pursue change within the parameters under discussion. In doing so, alternative procedures may be developed within that specific context. As part of the Wolfsburg2 project, the Kunstverein Wolfsburg in cooperation with SUPERFLEX put on a series of workshops (for school groups right through to the town planners). The aim was to find a way of setting up this project/tool on a community level 10 and to establish it as an online forum where the politics of urban change could be discussed. However, it was impossible for Wolfsburg2 to reach certain groups of the residents of Wolfsburg and thereby become an ‘independent’ platform for citizens’ views. The plan was to put in place a permanent group with representatives from the town who would meet at intervals and confer on strategies for implementing the project. But it never came to that, since on one hand there were insufficient funds available and on the other no-one (neither amongst the artists nor the citizens) took, or was able to take, the matter determinedly enough in hand. For various reasons this project received too little attention at a local government level and never progressed beyond stimulating discussion and playful fantasising about possible buildings. Wolfsburg2 does still exist in the internet as a platform for urban development but has been mothballed for the moment due to miscalculations as to the input needed locally. The reasons for this lie in the differing notions and projections that various parties had of the project. The best case scenario for the project (how it should function, be disseminated and used) as SUPERFLEX proposed it did not match the actual status which was, however, crucial to the mediation and credibility of the project outside the art institution. The planned technical possibilities could only ever be partially realised, which in turn made communication with potentially interested parties difficult. Presentations of the project could thus only ever be backed up by hypothetical evidence since it could only be fully realised once a certain level of funding was in place. A vicious circle in fact. On this level the idea of the project and the reality of its state of development were on a collision course and caused immense problems in communicating the concept. Thus the tool on offer, still requiring further development, never managed to leap over the wall of the art world.
It is becoming increasingly common for artists to use labels rather than group names; these are not only used in the field of art but also find their way into the world of trade and commerce. Some artists and/ or groups put their label on a professional footing by founding a firm in order to make better commercial sense of their various activities. SUPERFLEX, for instance, have founded two firms, one for the biogas project and one for SUPERCHANNEL. Since SUPERFLEX projects involve few aesthetic objects that could find a place in the art market as works of art, SUPERFLEX – like other artists who work in community-based art – are mainly supported by a variety of organisations (award-giving bodies, sponsors). Some artists’ groups (like, for instance, Critical Art Ensemble) prefer not to accept this kind of support because they fear that there would then be no chance of taking autonomous action. Yet, this immediately raises the question as to whether there is any such thing as room for autonomous manoeuvre and whether it would be desirable? For any work involves transaction and action to realise a particular intention. SUPERFLEX make this process visible. They take numerous photo-graphs of their business meetings, be they in Denmark or Tanzania or Vietnam. The photographs are shown in an art context where they serve both to document the group’s working methods and to highlight structural changes in what artists do. In other areas art practice has long since shifted closer towards the commercial world, one need only call to mind the work patterns of artists who work round the clock. The demands of the so-called New Economy allow, or rather, require its workers to keep flexible hours which de facto often leads to them working 24/7 (24 hours/7 days). Workers in the culture industry have long lived like this, although it is never seen as such, since self-motivated work can also be fun and is therefore not regarded as work. The separation of work and leisure time becomes blurred as the two areas merge into each other. Phenomena that are seen in the commercial world as new and futuristic (but also as alarming) have long been an everyday part of the artist’s life.
Art Activism. Interventions and the Effects Thereof, in Social Issues
“Cultural activism might be defined simply as the use of cultural means to try to effect social change. Related to activist programs initiated by artist, musicians, writers, and other cultural producers, such activism signals the interrelatedness of cultural criticism and political engagement.” 11 The inter-relationship that Brian Wallis is referring to here does not always manifest itself in the same way. Hans Haacke has aptly summed up the mutual influence of the two: “As naive as it is to imagine the ‘revolution’ would start in the art world, if we would only behave like good little revolutionaries (which we of course do not do), then it seems to me that the view that what happens in the art world can have no external consequences is just as naive.” 12 It is unrealistic to expect immediate political change to ensue from artistic work. But this in itself leads many critics to dismiss activist projects as well-intentioned or utopian. Thus expectations determine people’s assessment of the results. Very much aware of this, Group Material, for instance, wanted to set off a chain reaction with their projects which in the best case would lead to a change in social and societal deficiencies. In this sense the actual potential of activist project may be seen in their catalytic effect, as an incitement to change. In the best case the suggestions are so appealing that an independent interest group, of citizens perhaps, would come together and would implement those same suggestions by engaging in the real-life political situation in that place. The effect on those from outside the art world is, however, dependent on the chosen places and media. A shop in a residential area or an internet chat room generally reaches a different public to an established art institution. The question of the local and medial dissemination of the work plays an important part with regard to the possible, real consequences of activist projects. The successes of these projects are, however, not normally measured against the same standards as apply in the art world, commercial world, or as in social improvement etc. An indirect but no less important part can be played by suggested alternative strategies that could have a stimulating effect on socio-political decision-making processes. Indeed “all SUPERFLEX’s works intervene in real terms in social conditions” 13 and endeavour to suggest at least one alternative to the existing situation. This in itself brings to mind the invitation sent out by Group Material: “We invite everyone to question the entire culture we have taken for granted.” 14 Even if they no longer exist as a group, their exhortation should be taken seriously, now as then.
1 Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus. Capitalism and Schizophrenia, transl. with an introduction by Brian Massumi, London, 1988, p. 21
2 Doris Berger, ‘Tools’, Infosite no. 5, Kunstverein Wolfsburg 1999, pp. 17f.
3 Michel Foucault, ‘What is an author?’, in: Power, ed. by James D. Faubion, transl. by Robert Hurley, London 2002, pp. 205–22 (after a lecture held at the French Society for Philosophy on 22.2.69).
4 Michel Foucault, ibid., p. 211.
5 One can make use of documents and even develop certain programmes further as in the case of Linux, a software programme developed collaboratively and available to anyone.
6 Suzi Gablik, The Reenchantment of Art, New York 1991, pp. 157 f.
7 Suzi Gablik, ibid., pp. 7 and 151.
8 Miwon Kwon, ‘Ortung und Entortung der Community’, in: Christian Meyer, Mathias Poledna (eds.), Sharawadgi, Cologne, 1999, p. 202.
9 Miwon Kwon, ibid., p. 203.
10 That would have meant the town or different citizens’ groups putting out advertising for it in a number of media, making terminals available to the general public (which happened to a certain extent) and erecting a large screen in the real town of Wolfsburg so that the virtual discussions could be disseminated in the real town.
11 Brian Wallis, ‘Democracy and Cultural Activism’, in: Brian Wallis (ed.), DEMOCRACY – a project by Group Material, Dia Art Foundation no. 5, 1990, p. 8.
12 ‘Der Haacke-Effekt, Hans Haacke im Gespräch mit Peter Friedl/Georg Schöllhammer’, in: springer, vol. III, part 3, 1997, p. 35.
13 Barbara Steiner, ‘Anthropologie in Aktion’, in: Kunstforum, vol. 152, Oct.–Dec. 2000, p. 216.
14 Group Material Statement in a press release issued in 1989, Archive of the Museum of Modern Art.