Sylvielin's Blog

Interview with Jacob Fenger from Superflex

Posted in about Art, Interviews with Artists by sylvielin on August 1, 2010


"The Financial Crisis"(2009),film by Superflex. Courtesy Superflex.

“For me the idea of a tool is like a river without borders – it makes new possibilities but has an element of danger too. What may seems like an answer to other people isn’t always an answer for me. Even when we talk about the term ‘tools’ (…) these tools may not be a solution either. It may be a solution to something, but at the same time we want to see the tools as questions.”

—- Jakob Fenger, member of Superflex (extract from the interview)   

(Questions by Amy Cheng. Interview realized by Sylvie Lin. October 16, 2009, London. Chinese version included in Art and Society: Introducing Seven Contemporary Artists, published by the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, 2009. 

Q First I’d like to start with your latest film. Filmmaking isn’t a main part of your practice until very recently, with Flooded McDonald (2009) and your latest film The Financial Crisis(2009).

A We always worked with films, but earlier on it was more in a documentary kind of way. We did this project called the Guaraná Power, probably four, five years ago ; for that we also did some films. They are advertisements, small fictional stories. Indeed, in the last couple of years, we have become more interested in making more films.

Q Why this interest in this medium? Why use films ?
A With the way that we’ve been working, we have never been stuck in a specific medium. It’s always changing, depending on what we are doing. Sometimes it’s soft drinks, sometimes it’s beer, sometimes it’s biogas. There’ll be different kinds of media that you use for talking about something specific. In this case with the film, it might be a little bit different because it looks more like traditional films. This may be what you’re talking about. Actually, for me it’s not a big change. You could say that the main change of this film is that it starts and ends. It’s not like the kind of long-term projects that go on and on, which we also do, like the case of  the Guaraná Power, the Free Beer or the biogas. This kind of projects somehow keep moving on, whereas our latest film has the sort of a start and an end.

Q Why the idea of treating the theme of the financial crisis with the hypnotism ?
A Concerning the idea of The Financial Crisis, first of all, what we claim here is that it’s a psychological problem. Of course it becomes factual because people are losing jobs and  money in different ways. But on a very large level, it’s a psychological crisis. Somehow we try to treat this in an old-fashioned way of therapy where you go into different aspects of a disaster, look into the fear, see the fear, and learn to live with the fear.

The hypnosis part somehow deals also with the reason why we all start to think about the financial crisis and the hypnotic events. Because it’s also something that is created through media ; people start to think about it before they can actually feel it. And they can feel it because they talk about it. Then it’s a kind of hysteria. So there is also a very hypnotic part within the society.

Q A very emotional effect.
A Yes. The way that the media operates the issue. It’s true that the media keeps talking about the crisis, and people start to feel the crisis more and more, so it has a hypnotic effect. It’s the same with all kinds of fear, like the fear of terrorists, etc. You started to talk about something and it becomes reality after. It’s like a kind of hypnotic stage. So this is like a kind of treatment to a disease. Besides, our ways to react to things today are very hypnotic. Everybody’s been hypnotized to believe in the capitalism, in the fear of terrorists, this kind of things.

Q In your artistic concept, we often see a tendency to foreground the principles hidden behind all kinds of capitalist economic activities, or the ways they operate. You use all kinds of forms and tools to transform, express and translate these usually invisible aspects into diverse processes or actions. What do you think to be the most difficult part in carrying out these projects ? Do you expect certain result out of such process, or just keep it open ?
A It’s the same with the question of the medium : we never know what medium we’ll work with next. It’s not a given thing. It depends on where we go. But we go somewhere without knowing where it’s going to end or where we’re going. If we knew all the answers, there’s no reason for making questions. Maybe it’s easier to see in the larger projects like the Guaraná Power. We started out on a very basic level. We meet some farmers in brazil, they told us about the power game going on between a big beverage company and the farmers. The farmers feel misused by the company. Then we started to discuss the situation with them and out of this conversation came Guaraná Power. This was a beginning of a long still not ended journey where everything is being reinvented and re-contextualised. And we do not know the answer. Also, there is no answer in the film on the financial crisis. It’s four different hypnotic sessions which kind of put you in a situation where you see something terrible and disastrous. But we don’t know what would come out of that. Of course, at the same time it’s a criticism toward the way we organize ourselves as humans and take the system for granted. When I grew up there was a socialist world and a capitalist world – there was a opposition. At least there was a game and its two sides, but today it’s no longer the reality. So what is there to believe in when the system collapse? Can we say that this is one of the motivations of your practice : to make alternative, not to say overt opposition ?

 A Maybe even not making an alternative but more to criticize the system or make obstacles.  Again if you look at the Guaraná Power project, it works with the capitalism while also offering different positions within that. It uses the mechanism of the system to do something different.

Q To encourage certain reflection, consciousness ?

A Again it’s more than that. It’s also about taking action and doing things. Like the farmers in Brazil, they knew the problem, their limitations, everything. But they didn’t really take it to the next level, like saying : fuck them, let’s do it, let’s make this soft drink and move on. In a project like that, we go for actions.

Q In your practice, we also see a very strong activist character. Can we say that ?

A Certainly in our practice there’s an activist aspect, in the sense that it actually moves out to other fields. It is pro-active, not just hanging on and waiting for things to happen in the future. It is also going into a direct situation and making an action. But again it is a very dangerous term because it is mixed with the traditional political games and I don’t think that is what we are doing.  I guess one of the big differences lies in that the political activists seems to know the answers ; there is a specific political goal. We are searching. We don’t know what we want and even though it may looks like we have got answers, it’s still a question. So when defining something to have an “activist character” one has to be aware that we are not doing mainstream politics.

Q In the New Orleans Biennial, Prospect .1 New Orleans, you did the project When The Levees Broke, We Bought Our House. In a way you propose a different kind of economic exchange. What’s the result of that project ? Are the works sold eventually ?

A The idea of that work was that the photograph would be sold and in exchange for that, there would be a pile of free building materials in the L9 area in New Orleans. The price of the photo was equal to what the family in Denmark saved on their house because of Katrina. There has been interest in the work but I think partly because of the financial crisis we did not sell the photograph yet but it is still for sale and if sold there will be free building materials.

Q So it was affected by something unexpected, by the reality that came afterwards.

A Yes there was yet another reality hitting New Orleans. And when the financial crisis hit, people did not dare to spend. They don’t just give out money like that. So we’ll have to wait.

Q We’ve been talking about this kind of projects that you carry out everywhere in different contexts, with different people. Has it ever happened to you that in the course of a certain project, you encountered contradictions, difficulties, or anything beyond your expectations, given the particular circumstances of each context ?
A Yes….Of course each context can be very different. And the different contexts where we work is very important and specific to the work. But when talking about different contexts it also seems that everything is becoming more and more leveled out – not in the term of equal right or equal economic situation (this is getting worse) but because of “globalization” : we see the same kind of TV, we use the same internet, we buy the same products, so on some levels, we know more and more about each other.

But to answer your question… we do have difficulties sometimes, but very often that end up being the drive in the work – there is a discussion and that is creative.

Q In May this year, you did the project Today We Don’t Use the Word Dollars in a bank in New Zealand. There you asked the staff of a bank not to say the word ‘dollar’ for a day. How did you achieve at making the staff play this game ? What happened ?

A A lot of things happened. First of all, it’s very difficult to make a bank in New Zealand not to say the word ‘dollars’ for a day. It took a lot of negotiating – it was very hard for them. The way it worked was that we made a contract with the bank saying you cannot use that word “DOLLAR”; if you do, you’ll have to pay a penalty. In this case they had to pay money to a social fund.

Again it’s like questioning a very known and used structure. The economic system is a structure that influences everything in our society : the way we communicate, the way we navigate, when you go to a city… There’re all kinds of different layers to it that we don’t really question. We just spend the money… But the moment when you stop that process, even just by not being able to say that word, something new happens. You have to find out what other words to use, like “bananas” or “bugs”. And then it gives you a chance to reflect on what the bank is and what money means to you. It created a lot of debate between the staff and the costumers. Some tried to make the staff actually say the word.

We did this other work, Free Shop where things are for free, yet you wouldn’t know until you go to the cashier, the clerk presses the number zero on the receipt, and you go out of the store without having to pay. Those kinds of small tests to the system are like a way of intervening in a situation where people start to make questions about the system, about how the system actually works. Also, imagine if we didn’t have money, what would we do then?

Also, with the word like ‘dollar’ in a bank, it’s something loaded with expectation : we believe so much in that idea of dollar or of money. Also if you commit an economical crime, you get the highest penalty. It’s interesting because actually money is just a fiction and it is very fragile. And in the case with the bank, of course they had to find out other ways of saying ‘dollar’ that they came up with. Instead they said ‘banana’ or different kinds of slang for the word ‘dollar’. It also questions the positioning of the bank. What if in a nice and decent bank, the staff all say ‘banana’ or other slang completely related to another culture, not to the bank culture? So, by doing that, you question the structure of the bank and that of the money. In a way, since the staff couldn’t say the “Dollar” word, they rehearsed themselves for a situation without money.

Q There’s often this playfulness in your projects where you design games to engage people to play. How do you keep at the boundary where it doesn’t become too playful to the point that it loses its significance or becomes not serious at all ?

A For me it’s very serious. You can say it’s a very serious joke. But it’s much more than a joke to me. But I like the way when things get playful, somehow they are easier to adapt or to understand. But in the case of Free Shops, some people think it’s not playful at all. They think it was a nightmare to experience that things cost nothing. For example, in Tokyo, mainly men in their fifties would freak out completely and become very aggressive. Some of them would put the money on the desk and say : ‘You’re not going to do this with me, I have the right to buy ; I have the money ; I have the power ; this is my game, not your game’. It’s like making fun about money with people in a casino, to some that would not be funny either. On the other hand, other people can be very happy for getting things for free. So it’s certainly very serious, but just it’s being understood on different levels.

Q The project Today We Don’t Use the Word Dollars makes us think of some examples of ‘culture jamming’, like Buy nothing day, TV turnoff week. Do you think your projects are similar to that ? What distinguishes your projects from that ?

A What relates some of our projects to cultural jamming might be that we have this very playful aspect. However, to make the bank sign a contract with us to not to say the word dollars for a day is quite difficult. Also, it is important that it affects people that are not supposed to be affected. It’s kind of similar to the question about activism. Political activism is for people who have very specific goal and specific direction that they want to go for. They would attract other people who have the same ideas to go together, then they get stronger and go toward their goal, and maybe one day they get something through. But in what we do, there is no such known goal. It’s more like putting a question to a bank – why they can’t say ‘dollar’, what happens if you don’t say that, and will people coming to the bank stop having trust in the bank if they started to use the word ‘banana’ instead. So it’s more intervening into a situation that makes the main difference. So event if there seems to be similar structures within our practice and activities like Buy nothing day, etc., they have a different background and very specific reason. And I see intervening more as a questions than a solution.

Q Your role as artists differs quite a lot from traditional or academically trained artists. You are more bringing out the questions and proposing new possible ‘solutions’ sometimes in a symbolic way. In this way, you consider art as a “tool”. Can you explain more about the concept of “tools” ? How do you operate the tools in your practice ?

A For me the idea of a tool is like a river without borders – it makes new possibilities but has an element of danger too. What may seems like an answer to other people isn’t always an answer for me. Even when we talk about the term ‘tools’ – it’s something which we’ve been working a lot with, we consider what we do as tools – but these tools may not be a solution either. It may be a solution to something, but at the same time we want to see the tools as questions.

That’s also what we like as being artists: we put ourselves in a situation where we risk something. Like the Supergas project, way back maybe more than ten years ago, it’d be very easy for us to criticize the relations between the North and the South, between Europe and Africa that’s been going on for years and there were many problems. You could treat it from an analytical point of view. But we’re not interested in that. Like making a small note on the wall saying that Everything’s wrong, This is a problem…it’s very simplified.

In this case we decided to make a Tool – a biogas system, that potentially could make a huge difference on a daily basis for African families. This biogas system makes energy for cooking and light, which we believe would change the situation. But at the same time, we’re very aware that by doing so, we put ourselves in the shooting line for various criticism. But when working that directly you also creates discussions in other fields than the artfield. We have been attending various seminars within agricultural, aid, engineering etc.  And today people are still setting up the system we proposed.

In this case you could say, that the main difference is, that we actually go into a situation and take it very seriously and the criticism and discussion in all the different fields of knowledge then becomes a part of the work.

Q Artists like you do something that borders between social movements and artistic practice. From this point of view, can we say that you have a different definition of art? Or for you it’s not a very relevant question, that you don’t really distinguish between what’s art and what’s not ?

A You’ve got that right. Obviously, when we do a project like the Guaraná Power, we know that some people would just drink the soft drink for the sake of the taste and that is fine. We are not trying to make other people think that softdriks are art but on the other hand if they think so we would not stop them from that belief.

What differs our groups’ practice from the social movements is that we don’t know the answer. We don’t have a manifest or written statements about what we want to achieve. If we knew the answer, it would not be interesting to us.

Q Your projects often require enormous knowledge accumulation and data collecting through a sociology and scientific research in different places. How do you three people collaborate with one another? How do you collaborate with people outside the group?

A We meet everyday in our office when we are not travelling then we work and talk. Then on various projects we collaborate with other people, it can be professionals within another field of knowledge or artist.

In the case of the biogas, we worked with technicians from Holland and Tanzania who knew about biogas.

Very often, these collaborations start out coincidentally. You meet somebody and you start to talk. Like with the farmers in Brazil – we met them while being in Brazil for other reasons. They started the conversation with us and told us about their difficulties. That was the starting point for Guaraná Power. It was not us figuring it all out, saying ‘Let’s go to Brazil to find some farmers who can participate in this project’ – it was very coincidental. We met some people, they talked about certain issues, and we discussed the issues with them. Then it started. It’s very different if you compare to political movements. There, people know what they’re aiming for when they start. But we don’t know. Things just happened.

QSelf-organization” is a very essential approach and strategy to your practice. What is it based on ? How do you conceive this idea to your projects and engage the viewers/participants for more spontaneous involvement?

A We do not think “self-organization” when we work. But it is true that it has become a very essential part of some of the projects we have been working with. When working with other people on these large scale project we always try to  think about how would it be possible for others to take over what we do and continue the work or even just copy it.

One example of this, is with the Biogas (SUPERGAS) project. We worked with it for many years and now there are groups on Zanzibar making this biogas system on their own. They asked if it would be ok and we helped them setting up the first systems and with drawings and technical advise but today it has nothing to do with us.

From a very practical level, this self-organizing aspect has to do also with the wish that other people would take over the process, interfere and eventually do it on their own. They’ll move on, change it, do their own version of it, copy it, etc.

Q Spontaneously, in their own way ?

A Yes. And we don’t wish to interfere into that. You can have conversation, discussion, but we don’t really want to stop people from moving on. We also did a book about self-organization, looking at different groups that archived things through self-organisation.

Q Do you think, today, ‘art’ can be a productive and creative way to realize radical democracy directly or indirectly ? Through ‘art making’, what would you like to achieve eventually ?

A I don’t really know what you mean by ‘radical democracy’. But I think art can be productive, and also art should be productive in relation to the society. If it’s not, it’s incredibly boring. I don’t think you can be productive in the way of coming up with solutions. It’s more about raising different kinds of questions and also about, as it is in our case, providing ways for other people to intervene, to take over and to go somewhere else.

Q What are your current or upcoming projects ?

A Right now we’re building a toilet facility in a small park outside a small town called Heerhugowaard in Holland. It’s a kind of recreational area with an artificial beach. We’re creating this small toilet facility for public use whose interior will be a copy of the security council toilets in the United Nations Headquarter in New York. It has this fifties-cooperate design : a lot of marble, yellow, brown tiles, American standard toilets. We call them the Power Toilets.

Q You see it as a symbol of institution and authority ?

A In a way it’s a bit similar to the project with the bank which questions the economic system. The Power Toilet is maybe questioning the power of the UN, or at least the power between something being public and not public at the same time. Also you can question their power today. At the same time while using the toilets in the park the history of the UN is brought to you – and you may think of Ban Ki Moon. These toilets made after the model of the UN toilets will be imbedded in the park and will be public toilets permanently. It’s an art commission.

Besides, we just did the TV series in Vietnam for a Dutch National Historical Museum. It’s a story, about a vase, that came to Holland from Vietnam (part of China at that time) in 1602. The original story is about the Dutch becoming very rich from importing porcelain in the early 1600. This very important part of Dutch history is then turned into a TV series for Vietnamese TV called The Porcelain Pirates.

Q You’ve been talking about Superchannel. Could you talk more about this project?

A Superchannel started in 2000. It was a network of local studios used by people and communities as discussion forums, presentation medium and a physical gathering place. It was a tool that enables people to produce internet TV directly engaging users in the creation and evolution of content. The first Superchannel started as an experiment in a gallery space in Copenhagen. The second studio was opened in a towerblock in Liverpool. Since then there has been opened more than 30 studios in very different locations. When superchannel started it was a new media. Today there are plenty of ways to broadcast on the internet so there is no need for artist to do this like that anymore.

Q The website seems unavailable now?

A The pensioners from Liverpool (Tenants Spin) was the last group to leave Superchannel. They still works as Tenantsspin but other places. Not so long ago they invited me to be part of their facebook group. Especially the Liverpool group of elderly people has been very successful. They have been using Superchannel to make pressure on local politicians, for getting free meals at restaurant and even for online bank. We had a long and very interesting collaboration with them. Reference :

Q Superflex has a very specific practice which extends to the social realm. Then how do you define your relation to the system, the art world ? How do you ‘survive’?

A Well sitting here freezing in Regent Park next to the Frieze Art Fair one source for survival is clear. But like our works being multi-layered, our survival is also depending on many different sources. The typical art market is not what makes Superflex meet in the office everyday.
(Note : the interview was made during the Frieze Art Fair outside of the venue of the fair.)
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