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PRINT April 2014

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Superflex

Superflex, The Campaign (detail), 1994, billboard, offset print on paper, vitrine with orange bag, dimensions variable. Photo: Anders Sune Berg.

“A GESTURE WISES YOU UP,” Brian O’Doherty notes in his famous critique Inside the White Cube (1976). “If it teaches, it is by irony and epigram, by cunning and shock.” Gestures in O’Doherty’s sense—as metaworks, détournements, game changers—seem central to the practice of the Danish collective Superflex, whose globe‑ trotting interventions were surveyed in a recent retrospective at Copenhagen’s Kunsthal Charlottenborg. Hovering at the limits of art, Superflex’s projects—referred to as “tools” by the group—oscillate between activism and a cunning, if not necessarily shocking, flippancy. In the former category, one could cite Supergas, 1996, which explored alternative fuels, or Copylight Factory, 2005, with its copyleft polemics; in the latter, one might point to, say, the exhibition tours for which visitors are urged to don cockroach costumes. But if Superflex often skillfully deploys the kind of witty, oblique didacticism to which O’Doherty alludes, the group seems less able to wise itself up, i.e., to use its critical faculties on itself. This, at least, was the impression conveyed by the show, which inadvertently highlighted some blind spots in Superflex’s practice and, more generally, in practices that bring the logic of the gesture to bear beyond the white cube, in contexts of social or political engagement.

Covering Superflex’s work since the early 1990s, when then–art school students Bjørnstjerne Christiansen, Jakob Fenger, and Rasmus Nielsen started collaborating, the show was in fact an amalgam of eight parallel curatorial takes by Yuko Hasegawa, Eungie Joo, Toke Lykkeberg, the duo Daniel McClean and Lisa Rosendahl, Adriano Pedrosa, Agustín Pérez Rubio, Hilde Teerlinck, and Rirkrit Tiravanija, all of whom had been invited by the artists. Complementing Superflex’s liberal use of appropriation (I COPY THEREFORE I AM, proclaims a 2009 print), the curators performed their own involutions of authorship. For instance, McLean and Rosendahl contributed a reprise of Superflex’s Contract with Danish Royal Theater. This 2007 work took the form of an agreement stipulating that the theater company would refrain from using essential words (like ticket) in its publicity materials for a set period of time; for the 2014 update, the pair transposed this prohibition to the word Superflex, which was conspicuously absent from exhibition press releases and the like.

But the dispersal and erasure of authorial prerogative was not as thorough as it seemed, and here again O’Doherty’s thinking seems salient. To O’Doherty, another feature of the gesture is that it “can only be done once,” insofar as it loses meaning when it ceases to surprise. By that logic, the manifold retrospective is a gesture that now belongs to Superflex. In other words, myths of originality and of unitary subjectivity still linger in the supposedly radical group’s instinct for upending expectations. And certainly, the rows of xs or black bars that cropped up wherever Superflex’s name might normally appear paradoxically made it impossible to forget who was really in the driver’s seat, because the letters and bars actually invoked the priority of the 2007 work. You could say that rather than ceding curatorial duties, the artists curated their own show through an abundance of intermediaries. Like those attention-grabbing xs, the group’s authorship bending, it can be argued, is a way of making the collective’s strategies—power tools?—visible as unique gestures.

Indeed, at times we seemed to be dealing with a kind of hypervisibility, or what might even be called moral exhibitionism—as, for example, in the antixenophobia poster Foreigners, Please Don’t Leave Us Alone with the Danes!, 2002, or in the group’s spectacular “solutions” to social problems. Anthropologist Christian Groes-Green has taken Superflex to task for failing to reflect self-critically on their 2003 project Guaraná Power, for which they worked with poor Brazilian farmers to develop a sustainable soft drink. Per Groes-Green, these farmers underpay their workers, members of the Sateré-Mawé tribe, while ignoring their demand to be recognized as inventors of the drink. Superflex thus risks contributing to the tribe’s marginalization. In this light, the group’s feel-good, can-do attitude appears an ironic glossing-over of the seriousness and complexity of social conflicts.

Because of its perfectly corporate, opaque ubiquity and flexibility, Superflex conforms to the Deleuzian definition of control as “a spirit, a gas.” As managers, activists, pranksters, and (meta)curators, its members collectively exceed any traditional understanding of institutions—and the modernist strategies for rebelling against them—via a surfeit of administrative interventions whose prestige inevitably reverts to the Superflex signature. Whether in Ramallah or Pyongyang, Superflex gets away with it. Less a critique of authorship than a display of virtuosity, the group’s gestures are value transfers that their brand performs on itself.

Enlarged as wallpaper, photo documentation from The Campaign, 1994, showed Superflex consulting with slightly mystified corporate representatives and marketing experts on how to launch an unknown product that the trio carried with them in a sealed orange bag. Here the artwork is anything but a tool—it is, instead, a black (or orange) box divorced from ethics, a riddle hovering in an ambiguous space between art and the realities dreamed up by institutions, corporations, and social groups. If you aspire to be the artist’s group that sold the world, no grander gesture is required.

Lars Bang Larsen is a researcher at the University of Copenhagen and a visiting professor at the Haute École d’Art et de Design in Geneva.