The Danish artists’ group Superflex celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, and on Thursday Kunsthal Charlottenborg opens a retrospective that perfectly reflects the Superflex spirit as it challenges the group’s own work, the art institution, and the very concept of a retrospective: Superflex has curated a group of eight international curators, each of whom have curated a unique Superflex retrospective. These eight exhibitions are all presented simultaneously at Charlottenborg. On the opening day the venue will host a seminar where several of the curators involved present their projects and discuss them with past and present partners of the artists’ group, including Per Arnoldi, Martin Von Haller, and Nikolaj Heltoft.
The three members of the group – Jakob Fenger, Rasmus Nielsen, and Bjørnstjerne Christiansen – began their artistic collaboration in 1993. Since then they have created hundreds of works – or “tools”, as they call them; tools which apply an open source strategy to challenge existing economic power structures and production conditions, or which show us how to do so ourselves. Through the years the trio’s tools have manifested themselves in myriad forms, including a flooded McDonald’s restaurant, a biogas project for developing countries, cockroach costumes for museum visitors, several online TV channels, replicas of the UN Security Council’s toilets, an opera about the inception of the Maersk-funded Opera in Copenhagen, a soft drink, a burning car, a free beer, and a therapeutic approach to the credit crunch – the total list of works comes to more than 400 tools.
Regardless of the exact visual idiom employed, Superflex design their tools on the basis of an analysis of the power structures in a given social, cultural, and economic context – and here, where that context happens to be a Superflex-retrospective-at-Kunsthal-Charlottenborg, this has prompted them to leave their 20 years of work into the hands of eight widely different curatorial profiles.
The curators invited – Yuko Hasegawa (JP), Eungie Joo (US), Toke Lykkeberg (DK), Daniel McClean & Lisa Rosendahl (UK/SE), Adriano Pedrosa (BR), Agustin Perez Rubio (ES), Hilde Teerlinck (NL), and Rirkrit Tiravanija (TH/USA) – have created eight very different exhibitions. For example, Agustin Perez Rubio’s exhibition shows Superflex’s collaborative projects, Rirkrit Tiravanija focuses on the group’s unrealised or censored projects, and Eungie Joo presents a potential future project.
You will find many different takes on a Superflex retrospective here – but you won’t get either Charlottenborg or the artists themselves to say that. Not in those exact words anyway. Kunstkritikk has met Bjørnstjerne Christiansen, who explains how the exhibition has not only given rise to a recent journey to North Korea, but also to an injunction that means that the group members are not allowed to use the word Superflex for the next two months – and what the consequences will be when he accidentally mentions the word anyway in this interview…
What will we see at the exhibition?
It is a retrospective exhibition about the practice of our artists’ group. The exhibition should endeavour to show the diversity and complexity in how we work, and so we have chosen to challenge the entire retrospective format, the visitors, and ourselves by applying a rather alternative approach to the classic retrospective. Instead of choosing one curator to compile a single exhibition to encapsulate our work we have curated a group exhibition for curators where eight widely different curators each create their own retrospective about the artists’ group. This all means that we get hit square in the face by the same challenges we have offered others, but we think that is absolutely essential. We are very keen to look and point ahead, challenging our own way of working. It often works best when we get others to bash us about a bit.
So what was your curatorial approach to the curators? What conditions governed their work?
At first the eight curators were issued with some simple rules. We sent them an overview of all the works we have ever created – more than 400 – and based on that body of work they would each create a retrospective, supplying an exhibition title, a selection of works, a proposal for an exhibition plan, and finally a curatorial text. So we set up a predefined, delimited framework for the curators. We have also taken such a delimiting approach in many of our previous works in order to focus on content in relation to e.g. quantity and mass. Setting up certain limits can help sharpen one’s focus, and for us it has turned out to be a useful practice.
Did any of the curators choose the same artwork?
Yes, several of them did that! For example, Flooded McDonald’s, Burning Car and the chair work Copy Right are featured in several of the exhibitions, but we couldn’t really know in advance whether that would be the case. We hoped so because our “tools” are used in so many different ways – by us, too – and because sharing, recycling, and the open source philosophy is a fundamental part of our practice. Our works can be understood and used at different levels. They might be addressed at an art theoretical level, or used at a purely practical level. For example, you can treat a soft drink from a philosophical, theoretical, or economic perspective, as an idea – or you can simply drink it. That is another reason why it makes sense for our works to be used in different ways in our exhibitions here.
What did it feel like to revisit your 20 years of work through the gazes of eight different curators?
It’s been really exciting and very challenging. These are eight very different exhibitions, and each of them has challenged us in a distinct way. Some of them we really did not see coming! Several are inspired by our own practices, turning them on ourselves, which means that we have had to adapt and act in accordance with rules and constraints defined and imposed by others.
Could you provide an example of how an exhibition has turned your practice against you?
In various ways they all did, but one of the more obvious examples is that we have just returned from North Korea because Eungie Joo’s approach meant that we were going on a research trip to North Korea to begin work on a potential future project. Going to North Korea with Joo is an idea that dates back 12 years – a “retro idea” – but for various reasons the trip never happened. Not until this exhibition was staged, prompting us to revisit the idea while looking ahead. Because the journey leaves no physical manifestations and the project will take place in the future, no actual product can be displayed at Charlottenborg. The exhibition consists of photographs documenting various meetings and visits made during our journey.
On numerous occasions you have worked with contracts, constraints, and with setting up rules for yourselves and for actors involved in your projects. In this retrospective you have had to let go, surrendering yourselves and your works to the frameworks established by others. How did this rather more passive role feel to you?
It was a really positive experience. Exciting and challenging. It also had very specific, tangible consequences in the form of one of the elements of Lisa Rosendahl and Daniel McClean’s exhibition A Value-escalating Machine. Their exhibition takes its point of departure in some of those works that address issues concerning copyright, authorship, value, and institution. One such work is Contract with The Royal Danish Theatre from 2007, which saw us entering into a contract with The Royal Danish Theatre, a contract that limited their freedom of speech and stipulated that for the duration of one month, none of the theatre’s hundreds of employees were allowed to use ten specific works that are important for the theatre – words such as “ticket”, “play”, “stage”, and “theatre”. Breach of contract might result in bailiff injunctions and demands for compensation.
Lisa Rosendahl and Daniel McClean have turned this device on us in the form of a contract between them, us, and Kunsthal Charlottenborg. The contract means that no-one from the artists’ group, none of the curators, and no employees at Charlottenborg are allowed to use our artists’ group’s name throughout the exhibition period. In fact the contract is already in force – from 2 December until the end of the exhibition run on 2 February. The question is what this means? Does the prohibition create value? One thing is certain anyway: it creates a lot of trouble – but we love that, you know!
What happens if any of the parties accidentally say or write Superflex, thereby breaching the contract?
There are serious consequences! So it would be great to challenge us and the institution a bit during the exhibition period! If an employee at Charlottenborg is in breach of contract, 10% of that day’s turnover will go to the Academy Students’ Council. Value is shifted and displaced, and the Academy students gain influence on how Charlottenborg’s funds should be used. This also gets people to think about the fact that the Academy is in fact part of Charlottenborg now. Can the students gain influence on Charlottenborg? Would that create a different kind of involvement and commitment? For the students? – for all kinds of people?
If one of us from the artists’ group contravenes the contract the consequences are slightly different. Each time we are in breach we must publish the work that holds the least value for us; the piece from our body of work that we think is the poorest. This forces us to take a look at our practice from the last 20 years, reassessing every project. Undoubtedly this is an extremely healthy process, but it is also embarrassing and toe-curling!
What has happened to your way of working over the course of the last 20 years? What developments have occurred in your practice and products?
Actually, the things we do are very much about the same sort of thing, but of course we have accumulated a lot of knowledge over the years, gained greater gravitas and won new scope for action. Our earliest things were very much about defining ourselves as a group, and we did so in very specific, tangible ways by branding us via our name, the colour orange, the clothes, etc. We were constantly relating to society around us, and our practice was very concerned with explorations, e.g. of how the art space could be expanded by bashing it about. We try to break down barriers, but at the same time we try to remain faithful to our concepts and to carry them out stringently. You need consistency to achieve the right output and overall expression.
20 years is a long time to work together?
Yes, it is a long time for three people to work together. But we have known each other for even longer than that. Rasmus and I met in the 10th form, so we had known each other for six or seven years before we became Superflex.
You just said Superflex, so what happens now …?
Oh, so I did. That’s right. Ohhh. I’m glad you have that on tape. Yes … that’s hard. You have hard evidence now. Lisa and Daniel will be pleased.