SUPERFLEX art collective, opening Tuesday (September 28) and running to November 21 at the Power Plant (231 Queens Quay West). $2-$4. Also giving a free artists' talk October 2 at 4 pm. 416-973-4000. And taking part in the Toronto International Art Fair, running September 30 to October 4 at the Metro Convention Centre. www.tiafair.com.
Superdanish A citywide cultural exposition of contemporary Danish culture, presented by Harbourfront Centre, September 28 to December, various locales, times and prices. 416-973-4000, www.harbourfrontcentre.com.
Denmark's artistic legacy used to be stark modern furniture, a melancholy prince and the Little Mermaid. No longer. Over the next three months, groups like the art activist group SUPERFLEX and other great Danes are set to transform Toronto's cultural landscape.
Copenhagen - I'm drinking a beer in downtown Copenhagen, and somewhere in the Amazon a farmer is smiling.
You see, the beer - a mellow orangey brew - has guaraná in it, and that guaraná is grown by farmers in Brazil. The beer is an offshoot of Guaraná Power, an energy drink you can readily buy in Brazil and one of the artistic calling cards created by the young Danish art collective SUPERFLEX.
"It's the beer of the month here," says Bjornstjerne Christiansen with pride. It's hard to tell if he's being ironic. He nods to the tables of after-work types swilling the stuff in tall glasses.
At first glance, you wouldn't know that Christiansen and his colleague Rasmus Nielsen (the third, Jakob Fenger, is in L.A. as I talk to them) are part of one of the most innovative art activist groups in the world.
The trio helps kick off the three-month-long SUPERDANISH cultural fest that's taking over Toronto beginning next week.
Dressed in T-shirts and jeans, the shaggy 30-somethings look like they just woke up on their girlfriends' futons. When I first see them coming toward me, I think: Waiters? Busboys?
Their art isn't something you can hold or grasp. But it's not esoteric either. It affects people all over the world by empowering them with tools - a SUPERFLEX catchword - to promote self-sufficiency. And it makes the audience aware of the global and corporate interests involved in producing something as simple as a bottle of soda or as complicated as an energy source.
Guaraná Power's label, with a touch of SUPERFLEX's signature orange in it, is a send-up of the label of Antarctica, arguably the biggest soft drink in South America. Early on in their 10-year career, the trio spent time in Bangkok studying copying strategies.
"Copying is a big part of the Thai economy," explains Nielsen, who's a bit more polished than the gruff and deadpan Christiansen.
"Usually you copy something from the West or Japan. What's cool is that you can take something, change it a little bit and then put it right back out there into the global market. It's an economic strategy, but it's also about identity."
Creating Guaraná Power with a farming cooperative in Maues, Brazil, is in one way a big Fuck You! to the multinational companies that seize and exploit a country's raw materials.
"We wanted to create a concept that could enable the farmers to benefit from the next level of the capitalization of their material," says Nielsen, who, like his partners, trained at the Danish Royal Academy of Fine Arts before pursuing a more non-traditional career.
Another project, called SUPERGAS, came about when the trio received a commission in Tanzania. After researching relations between north and south, they devised - with European and African engineers - an ecologically sustainable energy source for poor farming families based on human and animal waste. A group of 10 people with two cows can produce enough methane gas for cooking and some light. No firewood is needed, and much of the waste bacteria is killed in the process. The gas is collected in a bright orange plastic balloon that goes up or down depending on the pressure.
"This kind of system is usually built underground, from steel and concrete," says Nielsen. "We wanted the system to be very visible - so you can follow the production of gas. We like the fact that although these are basically shit containers, there's an aesthetic element. It can be low-scale cheap technology, but it doesn't have to look like shit."
Yes, they have a sense of humour - that's one of the things that attracted Power Plant curator Reid Shier.
"Their approach isn't heavy-handed," says Shier, who caught their Guaraná Power exhibit last year at the Venice Biennale.
"That sets them apart from a lot of activist work. They engage with very real situations and try to effect change, however small. But they're not didactic. They're looking to engage the public, to be critical but not moralistic. And their projects rely on a beautiful and elegant display sensibility."
Unfortunately, sometimes the SUPERFLEX displays piss off powerful people. At the Biennale, a restaurant that had bought the rights to sell all food and drinks prevented them from selling Guaraná Power, even though that was part of their art. The group hopes the same thing won't happen here when they bring the display to the Toronto International Art Fair.
The group designs each new piece for a specific context. A show about Danish culture a couple of years ago coincided with the shift to a new government that had campaigned on a strategy of fear of immigrants, particularly Arabs. SUPERFLEX responded with a poster campaign that read: "Foreigners, please don't leave us alone with the Danes!" They were accused by many Danes of being racist themselves.
"Us racist?" exclaims Christiansen. "Under the current immigration policy, if I were to marry a Canadian woman, it would be impossible to bring her to live here in Denmark."
For the SUPERDANISH festival, which the group sees as a smorgasbord export of Danish culture, they'll likely be just as critical.
They're creating a mural inspired by a pro-war American mural in the town of Twentynine Palms, California. They plan on replacing some American soldiers with Danish ones, since Denmark was one countries in the "coalition of the willing."
"The decision to go to war, together with the immigration issues, marked the end of our country's innocence," states Nielsen.
"Did you see what Denmark sent to the war?" he continues. "A submarine, and it arrived three weeks late. This old submarine sails into the gulf, and can't sail back. So it's put on top of a ship that carried them back. When they come back into our harbour, it's plopped back in the water and the sailors who were flown back business class put on their navy uniforms and get on the submarine, with all of official Denmark standing there - a military orchestra, the whole works.
"The thing is, how can artists subvert something like that?"