Summary of Superflex
The Danish artist collective Superflex are product designers, artists, community organizers, and project coordinators, working across interdisciplinary boundaries to critique capitalism and commodification of modern life through participation and engagement. Their work is open, collaborative, and strains against the notions of ownership and copyright, operating as a movement of makers and activists as much as a conventional artist collective.
They call their projects 'tools', encouraging people to use them to effect change in the world around them. Often these tools are based on or subvert existing systems, whether models of commercial exchange or exploitation, and are designed to have tangible rather than purely aesthetic outcomes. They provide an early example of and remain a leading group of practitioners within the field of socially engaged art, or art that seeks to change society outside of museum and gallery walls.
Key Ideas & Accomplishments
- Superflex's work tackles social issues and economic inequality by allowing users of their 'tools' to wean themselves off their reliance on corporate entities. This is pursued as a project of 'empowerment', and includes, for example, the creation of their own internet TV channel, allowing community users to be producers of their own content.
- The collective is committed to mixing "the playful and the political" in new and unexpected ways. They draw on their branding and design savviness to foster communication and interactions with a wider audience, creating a practice that is serious in its content but playful in its implementation. This includes projects which encourage active and public interaction (such as a public park) and the development of innovative ways for collectors, galleries and institutions to engage with an artwork that do not reproduce inequality and elitism.
- Making use of their art world base (including the media exposure, networks and funding this affords them access to), Superflex pushes at the boundary of what art is capable of. In many instances, the effects of their projects are more reminiscent of the work of NGOs or charities, providing resources or programmes to people living in poverty across the globe. Often this is achieved in ways that the NGO sector would struggle to replicate, thanks to the more nimble approach allowed by their art world status.
- Superflex's work centers and emphasizes the conditions of its production and reception, prefiguring the work of many contemporary artists who incorporate the ecological, social and practical effects of their artistic production into the content of their work.
- Superflex maintain their status as a collective rigorously, prioritizing collaboration and group activity rather than privileging a single artistic vision. One of their guiding principles is that once an idea is voiced by a member or collaborator it no longer belongs to them but to the group, directly confronting capitalist notions of ownership and intellectual property that are often the target of Superflex's critique.
Overview of Superflex
Superflex jolts audiences into re-considering the status quo in contemporary life. One of their recurrent subjects is the critique of corporate intellectual property. Free Beer Factory not only serves to draw visitors in for a good time, but also demonstrates the principle of open-source creative commons: the beer recipe as well as the brand identity can be taken up by anyone.
Artworks and Artists of Superflex
Biogas in Africa
In this work Superflex created a simple and inexpensive biogas unit for the lighting and cooking needs of a family in a remote area. Developed in collaboration with a biogas engineer, each unit makes use of cow dung to generate power (the dung of 2-3 cows produce 3-4 cubic meters of gas per day, or enough energy for a family of 8-10). The shift to biogas helped reduce the environmental impact of wood burning, a widely practiced method of energy generation in many parts of the world. With a functioning biogas unit, the family would also have more time for other pursuits beyond gathering firewood, creating "an opportunity for productivity".
In keeping with their ethos, Superflex started small, with one biogas unit for one family in Tanzania and then expanded the project through cooperation with investors to increase production capacity. "The Biogas project, as presented in an art institution, offers a practical example of what we are doing in Africa," they said, "we can use the presentation to create a debate on our attitude toward Africa and the third world." Their design has since been installed in various locations including in Thailand, Cambodia, Zanzibar, and Mexico. They also presented it in art world contexts, such as at the influential Documenta X in Kassel, in 1998.
One of the earliest projects, Biogas speaks to Superflex's desire to make useful art. "If you could take an artwork on an island," they asked, "what would you take?" A painting, they explained, can be burned, but you'd get fire only for one night. The piece anticipates Olafur Eliasson's Little Sun (2012), in which the artist worked with an engineer to make portable solar LED units at an affordable price for off-grid communities in Africa.
Guaraná is a high-caffeine plant native to the Amazon basin that is used to make a popular energy drink. The market for the drink, however, was monopolized by a handful of corporations, who furthermore allegedly conspired to keep guaraná seed price down by as much as 80%. With the goal of supporting community self-organization, Superflex engaged in a dialogue with a guaraná farmers' cooperative in the Brazillian Amazon. They together came to a decision to undercut the monopoly of corporate multinationals by setting up and marketing their own energy drink brand called Guaraná Power. To do so, Superflex worked with locals and provided expertise in branding, design, and marketing. In a nod to their root in satire branding, Superflex's design for Guaraná Power's logo, uses the design of the major corporate brand "Guaraná Anarctica" with the sign Guaraná Power pasted on top, with the text "for energy and empowerment" wrapping around the bottle neck. They also worked on the design of booths and posters advertising for the product in different locales, including the 50th Venice Biennale: "The work moves across media," they explain, "to contribute to conversations about brand value as a multinational political force, commodification, and the ownership of resources."
While in the long run the project could not compete with global corporate interest, it served as a conceptual pivot that highlighted a DIY ethos that could stand up to outside powers through local community and cooperation. The project also came under criticism, however, with one anthropologist condemning the group for seeming to abet the farmers in exploiting indigenous people in a region where natural resources continue to face intense pressure from encroaching agricultural practice. In 2006 the president of the foundation supporting the São Paulo Biennial censored the work. With their trademark irrelevant attitude, Superflex exhibited censored images of the drink, showing only the bottle's profile in black.
Energy drink brand
Free Beer Factory
Free Beer is one Superflex's most successful and recognizable projects, taking place in breweries, kitchens, independent venues and community spaces worldwide with and without Superflex's direct engagement or permission. The artists explain that the title Free Beer "is free as in "free speech," not in the sense of "free beer".
The project is an application of open-source methods to an ancient product (beer). To this end, the recipe and branding of the beer is open to use by anyone, and able to be reproduced, shared, changed, or modified according to the requirements of the user. These components are published under a formal 'Creative Commons' license and is, according to Superflex, an attempt to create "a counter-system to copyright, which is a regulative system of law and metaphorical rights". The branding, and objects emblazoned with the Free Beer logo, are regularly exhibited as artworks in Superflex's gallery shows and festival appearances, sometimes often accompanied by a 'brewing station' where audiences can participate in the project directly.
Originally created in collaboration with Copenhagen IT University and titled Vores Øl (Our Beer), the first recipe produced included guarana, providing a link to the collective's earlier project Guaraná Power. Free Beer has now been brewed in Taipei, Sao Paolo, Los Angeles, Munich, Knoxville, Lausanne, Cornwall, Bolzano, Auckland and many other cities. New recipes derived from the Free Beer concept are continually emerging in support of new causes, such as a 2022 collaboration between breweries designed to help Berryland Cidery in Ukraine restore their brewery following its destruction in the Russian invasion.
This short film opens with the ubiquitous image of a McDonald's storefront, marked with instantly recognizable branding that can be seen and recognized all over the world. The fast-food outlet is completely empty, however, with no signs of human life. As the film progresses, slowly and ominously water pours in, flooding the space, which is in actuality a life-size replica of a McDonald's commissioned by Superflex. As the floodwater rises, the viewer sees debris rising along with the water: the cups and packaging that are familiar as trash on the streets of nearly every city and town in the world. The fiberglass sculpture of Ronald McDonald falls down, with his high-five right hand and smiling clown face turning towards the ceiling as he begins to float. Art writer Finn Blythe describes the scene as "a Genesis-esque apocalyptic breakdown." Uncanny yet realistic, clips of the film circulated online and were even mistaken for actual footage in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
Although Superflex is better known for projects or tools that make practical intervention in the world, their practice also encompasses films like Flooded McDonald's that showcase their flair in creating striking images and strongly political conceptual media art. The film encompasses some of the recurrent themes that they explore in other works, including the power of corporate multinationals, the impact of globalized capitalism on local communities, and environmental issues stemming from the use of plastics and fossil fuels.
I Copy Therefore I Am
I Copy Therefore I Am references Untitled (I Shop therefore I Am), 1987, the iconic work by feminist artist Barbara Kruger. For her artwork, Kruger had used a found image of a hand, on which she'd overlayed a text box, driving home a message about consumerism and identity in the modern era. Superflex in turn used Kruger's artwork but changed "shop" to "copy." It is therefore a copy of a copy, updating the anti-consumerist message of Kruger's original for the conditions of the 21st century.
The work is a sly nod to Appropriation Art, which "appropriates" images from popular visual culture, especially advertising but also images of auratic artworks (those that are created to communicate a distinctive quality or essence), to make a commentary about the power of images and the interests behind their ownership and the control of their circulation. As demonstrated by this image, Superflex shares a similar concern with Appropriation artists but is more focused on the issue of intellectual property than a critique of mass culture. Intellectual property, as critics have argued, have benefited the corporate owners of rights more than the artists, innovators, and designers whom the law had supposedly been created for. The enforcement of intellectual property by global businesses, furthermore, can be seen to limit free speech, stifle debate and critique, and dampen the creativity of artists looking to satirize, parody and make other creative changes to the existing visual culture.
Superflex made I Copy Therefore I Am as a print series following their establishment of Copyshop, an actual physical shop in which they sold items explicitly marked as copies. Beyond the fun they poked at the regime of corporate intellectual property, their work speaks to their belief in the fluidity of "originality" and "copies" that actual fuel creativity: "Created, appropriated and redistributed by different hands and minds, objects and ideas are always in the process of becoming new originals," they note.
Other related works include Copy Light Factory (2008), in which visitors can make copy images of famous lamp designs, and If Value, Then Copy (2017), a series of text paintings that simply state the title of the work.
A neon sign from Doha, a fountain from Morocco, a trash can from Liverpool, a Thai boxing ring from Bangkok - these are some of the community-sourced objects that make up Superkilen, a park in Copenhagen designed by Superflex in collaboration with B.I.G. architects. At a moment of fraught political discussions on the subject of immigration, xenophobia, and Islamophobia in Western countries, the project makes (literally) concrete a vision of a pluralistic society that reflects the actual diversity of the city's population. Half a mile long, it runs through some of the most diverse neighborhoods of Copenhagen. To source materials for the park, Superflex traveled with participants to their localities to learn about their cultural background and to bring their chosen objects to Superkilen. They referred to this outreach and engagement as "participation extreme". Instead of drawing audiences into interaction, as would be more usual in established models of participation art, Superflex took themselves to the communities they wished to work with.
Although by definition "public," spaces such as parks in many cities around the world cannot escape from the social and cultural divisions in society at large that stem from class, race, ethnicity. By directly involving communities and letting them have a say in their representation, the project encourages a sense of "co-ownership" of the work, as the art critic and curator Toke Lykkeberg notes. Through consultation with locals, the team also took care to embed the park within the transport network and infrastructure of the city, enhancing accessibility and mobility across class lines.
Deep Sea Minding
Deep Sea Minding began as a search for a new construction material that would respond to the pressing threat of rising sea levels due to climate change. Understanding that such a threat and related environmental issues have stemmed largely from human action, the project gestures toward making amends by imagining inter-species co-habitation. The idea is to create a building material that would also benefit marine life after its use by humans, that is to say, after it has become submerged and unreachable by humans. Mixing concrete with specific amino acids (which give the material a pink color), the material the team experimented with could, they hoped, serve as a fish habitat once discarded.
More than the creation of an end product, however, the project serves as a framework for collaborative gathering, allowing oceanographers, material scientists, marine biologists, and other experts, to come together and exchange ideas. There is, in fact, a PhD program associated with the project, which Superflex helped design. Drawing expertise from the fields of architecture, conservation policy, art, and science, the program is situated within the International Max Planck Research School and seeks to study "the way the social lives of marine fish are mediated by the physical structures they inhabit."
The project aligns with critical discussions and artistic practices in recent years that have turned toward the theorization of non-human agency, interspecies ecology, and the more-than-human world, such as in the work of the Finnish artist Terike Haapoja. In 2022, Superflex also unveiled a new project that built on their earlier direction: Interspecies Campus, 2022. The project "reimagines the Roskilde University campus [in Denmark] as a space for interspecies living, which involves acknowledging the agency and voices of all species and constructing human infrastructure with other species in mind [in this case especially sea creatures],"
Ongoing research project
Beginnings of Superflex
Bjørnstjerne Reuter Christiansen and Rasmus Rosengren Nielsen met as students in the late 1980s, having both originally come from the same part of Denmark. Nielsen then met Jakob Fenger, the third founder of Superflex, in Soviet Russia whilst both were involved in a Danish work exchange youth project in the Eastern Bloc. During this exchange project Nielsen worked in a farm and Fenger traveled on a music tour as part of a rock band.
Back in Copenhagen, all three happened to enroll in the same photography course and became housemates during their overlapping time in the city. The trio's friendship was cemented by a shared interest in exploring new possibilities for documentary photography as well as a similar sense of humor (one of their first collaborative projects was a video inspired by Monty Python). They later enrolled at the Royal Danish Academic of Fine Arts, but felt out of place there due to other students' focus on fine art, which contrasted against their broader interests in drawing on their experiences, including their separate travels and time spent abroad (Christiansen in Indonesia and Nielsen in Malaysia as well as Polynesia, where he grew up). The Academy allowed them to make works as they wished as long as the works were formally presented for discussion. In 1993 they formed Superflex while at the Academy (the name came from a trip they took together to Sweden, where they found a ferry called "SUPER-FLEX"). From the start they decided to pursue a group identity, at first even keeping their individual identities hidden. "There's some loss of individuality," Nielson said about forming a collective, "But what you get back from the collective is bigger. You get the freedom of not having to be yourself."
Superflex set out to tackle the art world with mischievous irreverence, operating as a conceptual project that satirized the notion of brand identity. Building on their art school experience, where many students shared a left-leaning critical attitude towards politics and the larger workings of capitalism, their early work mimicked and slyly mocked corporate visual culture. This in itself was a subtle critique of their peers, as many art and design graduates ended up contributing to this visual culture despite the prevailing anti-corporate sentiment amongst the student body. Superflex's first project as a collective was to hire a graphic designer to design their logo. The logo, one of the most ubiquitous signs of corporate capitalism, became just that: a sign, an empty signifier. "Having nothing behind it allowed the logo to function as anti-capitalist critique even while it engaged in capitalism's habits," notes art writer Lisa Abend. The group also saw the act as a way to counter the "myth of the artist as solitary genius", one that underpins the art market in the modern era.
Not long after this project they incorporated Superflex as a company for practical reasons. "Art is thought to be untainted, and business carries with it associations of power and exclusively financial considerations," they reflected. Instead of shying away from the overlap between art and business, they embraced it, becoming an entity that could interface with organizations and businesses "on an equal level." "We weren't interested in being an alternative society," they stated, "we wanted to be part of some social structure." In this they differed from a more "traditional" avant-garde position of opposition from the margins.
Concepts and Styles
A thread running through Superflex's mature work is the aim to "challenge the [art] object" by creating artworks that are not static objects to be displayed in galleries but instead do something in the world. Their attempt to override the hold of the art object can be understood within the longer tradition in modern art of a prankish yet deeply reverberating critical act starting with Marcel Duchamp and the readymade. This is most famously illustrated by Duchamp's presentation of industrially produced objects as art, such as the upside-down urinal of Fountain (1917). The readymade shifted the artistic act to the artist's decision rather than the creation of the object or the skill involved in its production. It also threw traditional aesthetic criteria into question. Similarly, Superflex's works are never framed as beautiful objects for aesthetic consumption, even as they derive their visual impact from the group's knowledge of graphic design.
Walter Benjamin's theory of the aura is helpful in unpacking this move away from the unique art object: the idea that artworks gain "auratic" value without any actual tangible basis by circulating within an economy of prestige propped up by high art institutions such as museums. For Benjamin, reproducible mediums such as photography held the promise of moving beyond aura. For Superflex, the answer comes from making social interventions that get presented as art. And whilst traditionally the art object's value might have been tied up with the uniqueness of the objects production or the purpose behind it, Superflex has made clear that their work can only happen through collaborations with experts, locals, and other stakeholders.
More broadly, Superflex sees their work as a tool not only to achieve the immediate objective of each project, but as a "way of distributing ideas" that respond to contemporary economic and ecological conditions (in this there's an echo of the influential theorist Jacques Ranciére's view on the aesthetic as the arena for the "distribution of the sensible"). Superflex recognizes the limits of their real-world interventions, but emphasizes, as in much political art, their parallel impact at the imaginative level. Their interventions allow viewers to imagine new possibilities for the world. For this reason, as they have stated, discussions and debates that arise from each project are as important as the 'tools' they produce.
Since their beginning, Superflex has always demonstrated awareness of the importance of branding and advertising in contemporary culture. The trend of artists' cultivation of their "brands" - and, relatedly, what critics and scholars have referred to as their "self-fashioning" - has been around since the rise of modern art, with a key example being Gustave Courbet in the nineteenth century. But since the 1960s these qualities of personal branding and self-fashioning have become especially pronounced in how artists operate and receive exposure. The most notable figure in this shift is Andy Warhol, who recognized the potential of constructing a deliberate brand around his personality, celebrity, and the images he created, making artworks that commented on society's predominant brands (such as Campbell's Soup and Coca-Cola). Throughout his career, Warhol openly meshed art and business, even going so far as to name his studio a (or the) 'Factory' and industrializing his artistic process. Just as Warhol responded to his mid 20th century context, Superflex respond to their own conditions. This context is often referred to by cultural critics as "late capitalism", featuring a turn toward immaterial labor and service economies in the Global North that leaves an outsize role for branding in controlling consumers' imaginations and desires.
Superflex were well placed to respond to these conditions as their group was conceived as a business entity along the neoliberal lines of modern companies. Their artistic practice was also flexible enough to encompass any activity or product, giving them the agility to respond to shifts in global markets and trends. Their projects are presented within the art world in a manner that does not centre their aesthetic or artistic merits, but as an output of their brand, one that is rooted in a mission of social improvement. In this regard, Superflex are not unlike global businesses, despite their critical aims and the scale of the projects they pursue. Like a modern corporation, their strong brand recognition and loyal following allow them the freedom to expand into different product and project niches with ease.
Superflex's focus on projects that operate in the 'real world' rather than a purely artistic one raises age-old questions about what art is or can be. For some, it is unclear whether their "tools" count as art, and what use their designation "art" serves. This is a complex debate and remains an ongoing conversation around the collective, tying into a broader current of contemporary artists dissatisfied with the museum/gallery system and so seeking to broaden or shift the scope of their practice. This questioning of art institutions has roots in a classic avant-garde critique of the notion of "high art" that has in, more recent decades, coalesced into Institutional Critique, with artists such as Hans Haacke and Andrea Fraser using art to highlight the power interests behind museums by asking questions such as who's making the donations and where their money comes from.
Shifting the gears of viewers' attention to function, Superflex's presence in art museums may itself be seen as subversive. Where the collective's relationship to Institutional Critique is less apparent is in the fact that their works do not explicitly critique art institutions and how they operate, but instead use the platform the art world provides to accomplish their wider social objectives. In other words, they might be said to be co-opting art institutions in order to make them work for them, taking advantage of the creative freedom that contemporary art provides. This is a position supported by statements the members of the collective have made, as when they declared that "We have chosen to refer to our artistic activity as socio-economic integration. The reason we work within art is because of the possibilities it offers - a space in which to experiment, free from the bonds of convention,", noting that "Art exhibited at an institution becomes a type of advertisement or exhibition booth - perhaps more for our specific way of thinking than anything else."
A good example of Superflex's use of art world infrastructure is their design and sourcing of equipment for a medical operating suite to be used in conflict areas such as Gaza and Syria (Hospital Equipment, 2014). They first showed the design in an art context, describing the project, with a nod to Duchamp, as "readymade upside-down." The purchase of the work by collectors then helped fund the transport and set-up of equipment for actual use, thus channeling art world money into a global humanitarian cause. (Drawing on precedents set by Conceptual Art, they issued the collectors photographic documentation and a certificate of authenticity for the work). "We want to challenge collecting itself," they said. "Do you have to have the object, or can it be just as valuable to you that it be activated somewhere else?"
Superflex's practice can be usefully connected to the concept of Relational Aesthetics, a term coined by French art curator Nicolas Bourriaud in the 1990s to describe artworks that foster social interaction between viewers. Some critics have taken Bourriaud to task for this framework of understanding artistic practice, however. Most prominently art historian Claire Bishop points out that participation in and of itself does not mean a work is good or successful. It may be questioned, she adds further, whether the often-benign interactions carefully choreographed within a gallery space lead to any actual progress in social and political conversations (as museums sometimes claim).
Taking into account Bishop's critique, the work of Superflex outside museums serves to differentiate them from Relational Aesthetics since they, in fact, seek ways to make concrete change, or at least spark "antagonism," a term from political theory used by Bishop. This draws on the notion that true democracy arises from open debates and acknowledgement of conflicts. Superflex promote antagonism through their relentless but subtle corporate and anti-capitalist critique, such as when, for example, they butt heads with corporate interests or through debates and the negotiation of stakeholders' different interests in each project.
Later Developments - After Superflex
With recognition at the international level, Superflex started getting commissions from established art institutions and municipal and state bodies. This included the city of Copenhagen, which asked them to design a park and a subway station. Some critics viewed these commissions as "selling out", at odds with their commitment to meaningful change within societal structures. Projects such as the large-scale swing installation created for the Turbine Hall at London's Tate Modern were described as "banal", and inferior to their earlier, more targeted and conceptually ambitious work. Superflex maintains, however, that their work can have a bigger impact this way, standing by their central ethos of working within the context they find themselves in. As a major artist collective, these opportunities are available to them, and they embrace the potential of social critique and change within them.
Useful Resources on Superflex
- Superflex: ToolsOur PickBy Superflex and Barbara Steiner
- Hyundai Commission: Superflex: One, Two, Three, SwingBy Donald Hyslop, Isabella Magnoni and Valentina Ravaglia
- The One and the Many: Contemporary Collaborative Art in a Global ContextBy Grant H. Kester
- Living as Form: Socially Engaged Art from 1991-2011By Nato Thompson