Cheap Date

Claire Bishop on “Supershow”


Left: The first room in “Supershow.” Middle: A ticket and the two CHF payment. Right: Bjørnsterne Christiansen.

Continuing my season of badly timed research trips, I showed up in Basel two weeks before the art fair. My lure was the soon-to-close “Supershow” at the Kunsthalle, produced by the Danish trio Superflex (Rasmus Nielsen, Jakob Fenger, and Bjørnsterne Christiansen). The gimmick was simple: Everyone gets paid two Swiss francs to enter the gallery.

It’s a token amount by anyone’s standards ($2), and buys you very little, particularly in Switzerland. (A cotton bag bearing the slogan “I was paid to go there,” costs six CHF.) Even so, I wanted to find out if this payoff would make a difference to the Kunsthalle’s regular clientele—and whether the cash would skew my critical judgment. The cashier dutifully handed over my two francs, sellotaped to the ticket, along with a pamphlet heaving with facts about the Kunsthalle.

The first room was empty except for some blue lettering on the wall that gave the dimensions of the space, its network facilities, person capacity, etc.—in other words, the specifications given to help an artist plan a show there. The next room was empty except for some blue lettering on the wall with more specifications. So was the third, the fourth, and the fifth. Oh God. It was Yves Klein meets Michael Asher in a Rirkrit Tiravanija installation. Without noodles. We viewers were clearly being activated, once again.

In the midst of this existential queasiness I recalled the rumor that some of the visitors to this show were not actually visitors but an “embedded audience” masquerading as ordinary wide-eyed Kunsthalle wanderers. Primed by my recent brushes with this tendency in conceptual performance work by Tino Sehgal and Roman Ondak, I scanned the room and braced myself for interaction.

Having passed two sets of hip nattering couples en route, I sidled over to the second pair, who were sitting on the floor bathed in beautiful light. They had come to see the show several times, and by coincidence had met each other there twice (or so they said); they didn’t know anything about Superflex, but really enjoyed the emptiness of the gallery spaces. It all seemed a bit fishy. The guy had wanted to take advantage of the light by taking some pictures of a nude woman, but they had been stopped by Kunsthalle staff. Some teenagers playing frisbee had fared better.

Left: Jakob Fenger. Middle and right: “Supershow” visitors.

Moving upstairs, I encountered an older guy taking notes. He too said he had been back to the show several times. He too seemed to know nothing about Superflex. He found the space enchanting, calm, full of possibility. A young woman, enthusiastic about the performative potential of the empty space, joined us. So did another bloke, who seemed to bear a Marxist grudge against the work. Now I was really suspicious: Nobody these days—least of all in Basel—rants openly about art’s complicity with the capitalist machine.

This subtle “embedded audience” are the unannounced but definite feature of “Supershow.” Jakob and Bjørn explain that each “avatar” ideally prods visitors into thinking about different types of surplus value (economic, aesthetic, social). They’re also a safety net, guaranteeing that some interaction will happen for all visitors. And I suspect that they also serve to put a friendly face on the work’s aspirations to soft institutional critique: The brochure contains a Haacke-style questionnaire amusingly geared towards the Basel context (eg. “How much is your art collection worth?”).

“Supershow” is a grand gesture, and in keeping with the group’s interest in economics, but I found it hard to be enthusiastic about paid entry plus Kunsthalle statistics plus a conversational encounter dependent on (rather than emerging from) the gallery frame. The sum all added up, and very smartly, but the show was ultimately a supercool affair that left me with no surplus value. Adam Szymczyk, the Kunsthalle’s astute young director, emailed me the next day with a reminder that Superflex aim to produce “tools” for specific situations (here: Basel’s passive and superconservative audience). So who knows what the long-term effects will be. Those of you going to the art fair, watch out for spontaneous acts of nude frisbee.