“New Life Copenhagen”

Various venues

Joseph Beuys famously began planting seven thousand oaks for Kassel during Documenta 7 in 1982. Last December, the art collective Wooloo provided three thousand beds in Copenhagen for visitors to the UN climate summit. The project, “New Life Copenhagen,” housed, among others, a French hunger striker, Chinese youth activists, and the Peruvian shaman Angelica, who performed a healing ritual for the dying Mother Earth in the home of the CEO of a Danish insurance company. Finding free accommodation for activists, NGO employees, and delegates may sound like little more than a couch-surfing experiment for the Facebook generation, but it raises questions about ecology, citizenship, and public art: Is it art, or activism disguised as art, when two artists enable thousands of global citizens to take part in what many consider the most important global summit to date? These questions run parallel to Beuys’s urban plantings twenty-seven years earlier—all of them expressed in “New Life”’s motto: “Because if we can’t share our sofa, how the hell can we share this planet?”

For my own “New Life” experiment, I stayed with Mikkel, twenty-two, a student, aspiring author, and member of the “New Life Copenhagen” team. His place was in Nørrebro, a neighborhood considered dangerous by some but nevertheless packed with expensive bicycles with ridiculously small locks. I seldom saw Mikkel as I spent my days in the Bella Conference Center, covering youth activists who have built mass movements around the globe. Yet we both filled the questionnaire provided in the guest book by performance duo Signa, which had been mailed to all participants. Questions ranged from “What is the most dangerous thing in your house?” to “Most beautiful person alive?” (I smiled at Mikkel’s answer to the latter: Katrine, a third-semester psychology student at the University of Copenhagen.)

The guest books were critical for documenting the project—as usual, an important issue in a participatory work with no object but the experiences of some six thousand people. The artists behind “New Life” are actually Mikkel’s older brother Martin Rosengaard and Sixten Kai Nielsen. The two had founded, their own social network for artists, in 2002, long before Charles Saatchi conceived of his. The artists are experienced in documenting their global social sculptures: They built, a social network for five hundred thousand European asylum seekers, in 2005. In 2006, they held AsylumNYC, for which they locked up ten artists for one week in the city’s White Box Gallery and had them compete for a three-year O-1 artist visa to live in the US. As part of “Defending Denmark,” 2005–2006, they smuggled Danish beer and cartoons into Morocco during the height of the Mohammed-cartoon controversy; they then sparked the second cartoon crisis by shooting videos of Danish right-wing youth impersonating the Prophet and releasing the footage to television stations. Themes of crossing borders, xenophobia, and legal versus illegal immigration are important in those earlier works.

“We work in the medium of hospitality,” Rosengaard says. The “New Life” project created the possibility for strangers to share their homes and experiences, to thus collaborate under the broad goal of addressing climate change in a global conference and treaty. All participants created the work together, unlike public art projects in which artists serve as teachers for a lay public. Individual acts of hospitality create hope in the face of planetary ecological crisis; strangers can agree and cooperate. But our heads of state did not follow suit; they failed to usher in an age of global cooperation at the summit. “New Life” walked the line between art and activism in a new way, updating tactics pioneered by Beuys, Gran Fury, and the Russian Constructivists: Times have changed, and the problems have only become more urgent.

Daniel Boese