Falsely Modest Criticism

The Superflex retrospective at Charlottenborg in Copenhagen offers a great opportunity to revisit familiar treatments of global injustices. However, the main work of the exhibition is the dazzling display of foreign contacts.

Foreigners, Please Don't Leave Us Alone with the Danes!, 2002. Opsat som plakater i byrummet i København og Malmö 2002.
Foreigners, Please Don’t Leave Us Alone with the Danes!, 2002. Installed as posters in the urban spaces of Copenhagen and Malmö in 2002. Photo: Anders Sune Berg.

Between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, the cultural critic Rune Lykkeberg wrote an editorial in the Danish newspaper Politiken in which he declared that Superflex’s campaign from 2002, Foreigners, Please Don’t Leave Us Alone with the Danes! was a monument to the failure of the Left Wing. Earlier in December Mikkel Bolt, a university lecturer and firm critic of capitalism, gave an interview in Kunstkritikk that also ended up as a left-wing cop-out, albeit a less involuntary one. Like so often before, Bolt was asked why he had not yet formulated a real alternative to capitalism (the underlying question being why he did not translate his anti-capitalism into practice, but left the revolution as a duty assigned to the amassed ranks of starvelings from the realm of culture with all its artists, activists, and freelancers). The reply was quite surprising for a man who is not otherwise given to clichés: “As a white, heterosexual, middle-class male it is not up to me to draw up any visions in the current historical situation. Rather, it is my task to help abolish all the models created by the Western enlightenment project; models that prevent others from being visionary.”

In other words Bolt chose to cower behind the great strawman of discourse critique: the straight white male, thereby deftly allowing himself to be excused from the revolution. In a similar move Lykkeberg pointed out how Superflex had also opted out of “dialogue” with their campaign and its criticism of Denmark. Not because they regarded their gender, colour, social status, and sexual orientation as a limitation to others. Rather, they had replaced “the racism of others with a racism of their own”, said Lykkeberg. In so doing they demonstrated a certain sense of powerlessness and resignation “where, instead of shaping and participating the discussion, you opt out of the dialogue based on the assumption that the others are just stupid anyway.”

Superflex, Number of Visitors, 2005 opsat ved indgangen til Kunsthal Charlottenborg. Det digitale tælleapparat er forbundet til institutionens billetsalg og viser løbende antallet af besøgende på kunsthallen. Foto: Anders Sune Berg.
Superflex, Number of Visitors, 2005 installed at the entrance of Kunsthal Charlottenborg. The digital counter is connected to the institution’s ticket desk and shows the accumulated number of visitors to the venue. Photo: Anders Sune Berg.

It seems that these years, taking a critical position is about eradicating oneself rhetorically in order to make room for … well, “someone”. Perhaps the critique of false consciousness has been replaced by a critique expressed as false modesty. We can certainly say that self-criticism, self-effacement, only serves to accentuate the self-aggrandisement of both Bolt and Superflex.

This is very specifically illustrated at Superflex’s – regrettably brief – retrospective at Charlottenborg. It offers a very welcome revisit of super-familiar, super-critical treatments of subjects such as copyright, the artist’s role, brands, microeconomics and macroeconomics, the credit crunch, fear of globalisation, and Danish design. The exhibition had Superflex themselves as its chief curator, for the idea of letting eight curators offer individual takes on a retrospective Superflex exhibition is basically theirs.

The individual exhibitions have been compiled on the basis of a shared, total inventory of more than 400 works or tools, as Superflex calls them. This is to say that some works appear several times, a fact which may be this retrospective’s greatest stroke of genius. Certainly as an idea. However, when you leave this intelligent, witty, brilliantly curated exhibition the thing you remember most of all is this: the extremely visible invisibility – the black out – of Superflex’s name on all printed materials and signs. 

Crossing out the name Superflex everywhere is not the “’flexes’” own idea; it was conceived by the curators Lisa Rosendahl & Daniel McClean. The two curators – one of whom is the former director of Iaspis, the other a solicitor – form part of a real power line-up of seven international super-curators and one Dane, all of them specially invited by Superflex: Yuko Hasegawa, chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo; Eungie Joo, cultural director of Instituto Inhotim in Brumandinho; Adriano Pedrosa, freelance curator from São Paulo; Agustín Peréz Rubio, freelance curator based in New York; Hilde Teerlinck, museum director at FRAC Calais; Rirkrit Tiravanija, world-famous artist; and Toke Lykkeberg, a respected critic and freelance curator from Copenhagen.

Yuko Hasegawa har til sin Superflex-udstilling Metatool udvalgt et stort antal af Superflex' Bankrupt Banks - en igangværende serie, der portrætterer finanskrisen i skikkelse af logoer fra banker og finansielle institutioner som siden 2008 er blevet erklæret bankerot.
Yuko Hasegawa har til sin Superflex-udstilling Metatool Yuko Hasegawa chose a large number of pieces from Superflex’s Bankrupt Banks – a work in progress that portrays the credit crunch in the form of logos of banks and financial institutions that have been declared bankrupt since 2008. Kunsthal Charlottenborg, 2013. Photo: Anders Sune Berg.

Superflex belong to a generation within Danish art where pursuing an international career did not only become possible, but also almost ideological in nature. Helped in no small degree by the welfare state and its systems of support, artists could engage in a generational revolt against a “provincial” Danish art scene and head out into the world. Now, talent and status in the art world was very much measured in terms of the extent of international contacts won. Hence, the splendid array of high-profile collaborative partners from abroad is the absolute highlight of the exhibition. And really, this is the point made by Rosendahl and McClean: they showcase how curating and institutionalisation of Superflex at biennials and international art venues constitutes a “value-escalating machine”.

The curating duo address this issue very pointedly in statistics and different analyses but also by showing two old works in new ways: One of these involved asking the group to recreate Transfer of Work for the present context. The result was Transfer of Work / Working Title: “A Retrospective Curated by XXXXXXXXX”, 2013, which consists of gilt copies of contracts and invoices from Superflex’s many partners and suppliers involved in the current exhibition. The other example is the black-outs, which in facts sees the curators carrying out their own détournement of one of Superflex’s own works: A few years ago Superflex put The Royal Danish Theatre under a contractual obligation that prohibited them from using range of words essential to the production of stage drama. Any breaches of the contract would entail a range of punishments and demands for compensation.

Pressemeddelelsen udsendt fra Charlottenborg i forbindelse med kunsthallens retrospektive udstilling med Superflex - jævnfør forbudet mod at anvende kunstnergruppens navn.
A press release issued by Charlottenborg in connection with the venue’s Superflex retrospective – the ban on using the artists’ group’s name is clearly evident here.

Now, in connection with the Charlottenborg exhibition, the artists’ group and all employees at Charlottenborg have been banned from saying the word “Superflex” or putting it in writing. Each time the contract is breached the group must suffer the tremendous pain of publicly displaying one of their own works that they themselves consider poor. A rather coy punishment, really, for when you play in the kind of league that Superflex now occupies such a move would hardly undermine your credibility. The inherent immunity is so great that poor works become important and valuable precisely because they are poor and of little value.  The greater the number of poor works you can get away with distributing, the greater the reaffirmation of your importance and status. You confess your sins because you are no longer vulnerable. Elementary art dynamics, really. Straight white male or no.

As has already been suggested, Rosendahl and McClean’s black outs insert themselves in and have a highly dominant and defining knock-on effect on the work done by all the other curators. It is a far more effective viral approach than Agustín Pérez Rubio’s attempt at an explicitly viral strategy where various works and interviews with Superflex’s artistic collaborators have been inserted into the other curators’ exhibitions. Here, it is worth noting that the interviews offer up another example of things being blackened out; an interesting if perhaps unintentional side effect of the project. For it is the absence of those colleagues that did not wish to participate and comment on their past collaboration with the group that piques one’s interest the most. Why did they not wish to take part in this artistic and curatorial display of power, something that only few would dare refuse an invitation to?

Hilde Teerlinck. Foto: Anders Sune Berg.
Superflex, Copy Light / Factory, 2008; Superflex, Free Beer Corner, 2007. Selected by Hilde Teerlinck, Free Copies & 2 Video Pieces. Kunsthal Charlottenborg, 2013. Photo: Anders Sune Berg.

Rosendal & McClean offer the flexes a certain amount of gratifying resistance, pointing to just one small sliver of the double standards that do, after all, ferment in the group’s many – and frequently controversial – double plays with art institutions, copyright activism, and NGO work. However, the other curators remain rather more faithful to the party line. None more so than Hilde Teerlinck and Rirkrit Tiravanija in their presentations of the classic copyright projects where the flexes have defaced patented or copyrighted products, thereby seeking to return ownership of the instruments of production to, well, …”someone”.  The projects are associated with the late 1990s movement copyleft, which strove to liberate ideas and instruments of production from the capital. But Superflex’s attacks are not just attacks aimed at the capitalist ideology about right of ownership. It is also a critique of the classic perception of the artist as the author and copyright owner of their own art, meaning that they must be paid to pass it on.

Even though the flexes believe themselves to be criticising the capitalist art market, raising themselves up to higher moral ground than their more conventional colleagues who make a living by selling works, they obviously remain part of the art economy themselves. They simply choose to instrumentalise their tools, works, by distributing them as seemingly anti-capitalist, subversive products. However, money must still be made, whether in large or small amounts, and there are, it seems, anthropologists who believe that Superflex’s activities with e.g. Guarana Power have not exactly helped, but rather harmed certain groups in the Amazonas, particularly the native peoples. A fact that supposedly meets only with a shrug of indifference from the flexes. In other words, hustling the realm of big business requires deep insight and a keen overview of the effects of your own actions if you wish to avoid ending up as just another set of neo-colonial profiteering supremacists within the global industry of good intentions.

Superflex, Copy Right (Black Version), 2013; Superflex, I Copy Therefore I am, 2009. Selected by Hilde Teerlinck for the section Free Copies & 2 Video Pieces, Kunsthal Charlottenborg, 2013. Photo: Anders Sune Berg.
Superflex, Copy Right (Black Version), 2013; Superflex, I Copy Therefore I am, 2009. Selected by Hilde Teerlinck for the section Free Copies & 2 Video Pieces, Kunsthal Charlottenborg, 2013. Photo: Anders Sune Berg.

Overall, the copyleft projects may not be very durable as anti-capitalist projects, but they are certainly effective iconoclastic actions. This is particularly true of the iconoclastic revolt against Danish design classics perpetrated by the increasingly globalist group for more than a decade now. If one ponders on these deconstructions of PH and Arne Jacobsen designs it is hardly as if the copyright owners – the lamp manufacturer Louis Poulsen and the furniture manufacturer Fritz Hansen – are obvious examples of capitalist dominance on the global market. The PH lamp and the Ant chair are mainly interesting as targets for attack and redistribution because they are iconic symbols of the smug welfare state. The greater the number of lawsuits and injunctions poured onto Superflex’s replicas by Danish companies, the greater the affirmation of Superflex’s criticism of Denmark and the Danish fear of losing anything, of sharing its privileges and security with the rest of the world. This criticism is reproduced rather unquestioningly by Teerlinck and Tiravanija as a uniquely heroic effort.

Adriano Pedrosa addresses a different perspective within this discussion: Superflex’ issue with Danish xenophobia as embodied in the Foreigner campaign and the work Re-branding Denmark. This, too, is mediated with relatively few nuances and with no adjustments apart from those made to the Foreigner poster itself, which has been blown up to such an extent that the indirect question is almost shouted in our faces: Are you with us or against us? It might have had more impact to retain the modest poster format on a giant wall instead of attempting to fill out all the space available. Eungie Joo has carried out a previously cancelled research trip with Superflex in North Korea, showing documentation from the journey. A very polite project, devoid of any major discussions.

Superflex, The Game, 1995; Superflex, The Campaign, 1994. Curated by Toke Lykkeberg, Branding as Branding – The Making of XXXXXXXX, Kunsthal Charlottenborg, 2013. Photo: Anders Sune Berg.
Superflex, The Game, 1995; Superflex, The Campaign, 1994. Curated by Toke Lykkeberg, Branding as Branding – The Making of XXXXXXXX, Kunsthal Charlottenborg, 2013. Photo: Anders Sune Berg.

Perhaps the curator with the most impartial approach is Toke Lykkeberg. He applies an art historical perspective, which means that one does not know whether he is a card-carrying member of the congregation or is simply discussing it. That works well. His contribution is a reflection on the beginning, the very invention of Superflex, on how the brand came before the product, on the logo font created by the grand seigneur of Danish graphic design, Per Arnoldi, and his first “S” against an orange background, on the extensive design strategy created by the 2000s’ talent Rasmus Koch, on the orange colour and the biogas project, which for once is neither criticised nor glorified in terms of ethics, but simply considered as a pure product and brand (in both the current abstract sense and in the original sense of the word). It might have been nice if the presentation had included a historical perspective on the local Danish context in which the story of Superflex truly begins. The company concept is not a stroke of genius that Superflex came up with of the blue. Rather, the idea is symptomatic, particularly for the young generation of artists of the 1990s and their general revolt against a rather closed-off art oligarchy where institutions, foundations, and galleries still regarded the artist as an outsider-auteur and the artwork as an existential mystery. The flirtatious ventures into making art corporate that emerged in the late 1980s and the 1990s sprang from a general and provocative insistence on the fact that being an artist is a profession one chooses in order to be part of the social economy, not to stand outside it. (It should be noted that Toke Lykkeberg has incorporated Aleksandra Mir’s book Corporate Mentality in the exhibition. A book that this reviewer had overlooked, but where the same perspectives are viewed in an international, historical context.).

Even though Toke Lykkeberg mainly contextualises Superflex in relation to the group itself, he nevertheless establishes a link, however tenuous, between the apparent eradication of the artist-subject originally inherent in the group’s concept of replacing the classic artist’s signature with a logo and a corporate identity and Rosendahl & McClean’s blackening out of the word “Superflex”. As Per Arnoldi said in a very astute, entertaining, even avuncular video interview screened at the seminar preceding the exhibition (which really ought to be available at the exhibition itself), the greatest thing a logo designer can achieve is for a logo to win absolute anonymity. When no-one remembers the origin or can identify the people behind the logo any more, but view it as a neutral and universal sign, this is the highest accolade possible. 

Presumably this was the flexes’ ultimate ambition when they first set out, but in retrospect we see that the identity as artists always ended up getting in the way. In fact the company identity was more effective before anyone was absolutely sure who was actually behind Superflex. Today, virtually no-one asks the question: Is this art – or isn’t it? And this is precisely why the self-effacing gesture that once constituted an effective act of resistance now seems like falsely modest criticism instead.

Free Beer Garden
Superflex, Free Beer Garden, 2005. Kunsthal Charlottenborg, 2013. Photo: Anders Sune Berg.