Originally published in Arthur No. 14 (January 2005)
A DRINK WITH A TWIST
How art collective/company SUPERFLEX is changing the world, one soda pop at a time.
Text by Jay Babcock, photography by W.T. Nelson.
Openings at art galleries always offer beverages, but this is taking the concept to the extreme: here, at downtown Los Angeles’ Roy and Edna Disney/Cal Arts Theatre (REDCAT) gallery one night this past spring, the drink—which is being bottled and sold in the gallery itself—is the art.
The drink on offer is a berry-flavored energy soda called Guarana Power, jointly developed in the last year by two cooperatives: a three-man Copenhagen-based art collective called Superflex and COIMA, a guarana berry farming collective based in Maues, Brazil. For the next month, REDCAT will be transformed into an in-house Guarana Power bottler and an instructional workshop in a strategy as delicious and inspiring as the drink itself: the exploitation of powerful transnational corporations by an alliance of self-organizing third-world farmers.
Intrigued by the underlying concept, the accompanying literature and the simply unbelievable documentary films being screened in the gallery, I contacted Superflex’s Rasmus Nielsen, in town with fellow Superflexer Jakob Fenger as visiting faculty at CalArts for a semester, for an interview.
ARTHUR: How did the Guarana Power drink come about?
Rasmus Nielsen: We were invited by the Amazon Government to a residency in Brazil. We were contacted by this cooperative of guarana farmers, who wanted to present themselves and wanted to talk about their organization, because we had said we were interested in how various people locally have organized themselves They came to us and explained to us why they had formed this organization.
Guarana is a berry, it looks like an eye, it grows on these bushes, it’s a very old Indian tradition that you dry it and then you pound it and then you mix it with water or juice and then you drink it. It has caffeine and other kinds of energetic elements—it’s like an energy drink, and it’s used in sodas. The biggest soda in South America, bigger than Coca Cola, is a guarana-based soda called Antarctica Guarana.
What had happened was these small breweries had merged and founded their own big company which was called the American Beverage Company, AMBEV. Pepsico was a part of that also, that major fusion. It was kind of a classical trend that comes with globalization, you have these big fusions, which then begin to monopolize the purchase of the raw commodities.
Because they are basically one big group, they can dictate the price they purchase the berries at…
And there’s nothing illegal in that, they’re not committing any kind of crime or anything. But what happened was prices fell 80% in just a couple of years! That affected this area a lot, because selling their guarana is their area’s main income. So these guys had formed this cooperative to try and deal with that situation. They didn’t want to have to sell their guarana to AMBEV at these low prices—but then they didn’t who else to sell it to.
So we agreed on making a workshop. The whole cooperative came and we showed them some ideas we had seen in other places and situations, the main idea being, What if you twist the situation? The way these big multinationals work is they use the raw material coming from farmers. What if the farmers used the raw materials that the company is producing, which is their identity, their brand, their logo, all this kind of stuff?
That was one part of it. We also agreed that unless you have to have some part in the next phase of the commodification of the guarana. If you don’t, you are fucked, basically. This is case for most of the Third World farmers; this is the logic of the present global economic structure. If you are a sugar or coffee producer or whatever, if you’re only a producer of raw materials, then you are screwed. The raw material producers be part of the commodification, or own elements of the chain, that’s the key.
And it’s not gonna be sold as a high-end soda, or a “fair price” soda. A lot of the alternatives to big global market structures try to talk to your moral sense, like “Be ethical. Buy this coffee that costs ten dollars more per kilo.” We don’t wanna go that way. We wanna totally appropriate the rules of the basic soda. This is not gonna be pushed as a fair-price thing, but as a soda, where you like it. Of course you like the idea, but you don’t buy it necessarily because of your moral point of view. Cuz I think those attempts have failed, somehow. Not totally, but it will always only be a small portion of the people. Like, how often do you buy “fair price” coffee? It’s really hard to find! So we try to not make something special, but just do the same thing as the normal sodas, same price as normal sodas. Same level, somehow. But it’s owned by the producers, rather than multinationals.
How did you come up with this idea?
For a long time we’ve worked in Thailand, where copying as an economic strategy. You copy a Rolex watch or a shirt or something and sell it. It’s an economic strategy. But then there’s another element to it, which is the interesting part: you copy something, and you TWIST it a little bit, and then you send it back. Maybe you change the name a little bit. Maybe you add your local flavor.
So we showed the guarana collective a couple examples of this, one of them being an example from France, where some French Tunisian second-generation guys have launched a product called Mecca Cola. They use the Coca Cola imagery with red and white and cursive but then substitute the word “Mecca,” which is the city in Saudi Arabia of great importance. Mecca Cola has succeeded in making politics in the framework of the market, basically: the surplus of the Mecca Cola goes to so-called humanitarian issues in Palestine. I don’t know exactly what that means [laughs] but anyway it makes a policy using Coca Cola as a medium, somehow. That strategy we found interesting.
We also know, because we have communicated with these Mecca Cola people, that the guy who started it was a radio journalist.
They had no experience in making sodas, but they were able to do it.
Right. So people started thinking and then coming up with ideas and what came out of the workshop was, We should make a soda. That’s the most obvious thing. Then we discussed how this would look and things like that. We made a prototype of this soda which we showed in the Venice Biennial in Italy last year. Now we’re showing it here in L.A. The next step is there are some people who want to put money into it. The final goal of course is to get in to a market situation and then make a foundation that owns the recipe and takes care of it. This cannot develop into a copy of the structure that these multinational corporations represent, but something that has a different character, that is owned by the people who are producing the guarana and the idea.
You had to figure out the recipe. Reverse-engineering.
We took one of these big sodas that we were somehow copying, that we wanted to modify, and took it to a chemist. He deciphered it, and came up with a recipe, which is probably pretty close to the original one. Exactly. But then we added a lot more of guarana to it. We modified it. But taste-wise, it follows close to the original one.
Of course this is slightly dangerous. Copyright-wise, you can get into trouble. But that’s consciously built into our strategy. We thought, Well if these people come after us, that also highlights the problem that they are causing.
Have you got in trouble yet?
Not yet. We have with other projects. We made a modified Danish lamp that we had copied in Bangkok, and we made it so it would work with biogas instead of electricity. But that lamp is illegal. I can’t show you a picture of it. It would be illegal! Copyright law is stretching out to more and more areas of society, and of course that’s usually serving the guys on top.
You’re taking the “open source” idea from software development—Linux, etc.—and taking it to things much more fundamental: what we drink, how we light our homes…
Yeah. We did a project in Italy where we had art students copying things from 7-11, like Mars Bars and toothpaste. Copying them, changing them maybe a little bit, and then selling them at a market. When I was a kid, we used to have this soda fountain machine, where you could make your own soda at home. It felt as a kid so empowering. You could make your own soda! Of course it was a soda company selling it to you anyway but that idea of reverse-engineering–I think it’s very interesting. Imagine if you started making your own Mars Bars! It’s a very small political act but if a lot of people would do that it would change fundamental economic structures.
Copying is a strategy of economics, but it’s also a strategy of some kind of counter-identity strategy. The potential empowerment in doing that, taking apart, reverse engineering these brands, this specific capitalist cultural power that comes from these brands, taking it a part bit by bit somehow… It’s about being on top of things you put in your mouth, things you buy, things you wear.
For Guarana Power, it looks like you stamped your new logo literally on top of the “Antarctica Guarana” logo.
Yeah. Actually in the beginning we modified the original logo just a little bit. We were showing it in the National Gallery in Finland, and their lawyer was afraid that they would sued by Pepsico or Ambev or something. Which is interesting that even before you do something in a museum , there’s a lawyer’s copyright checking you! It shows you how far the copyright law stretches out into contemporary culture. We were sitting and talking with her and we said, “Well okay what about if we self-censor it? Just put a black box in front of it.” But she was like, “Yeah but you can still see it in the back.” Then we were like, “Okay we will make it a little bit bigger.” She’s a lawyer, knowing about these things, and then at the end she says, “Okay now it’s big enough, now you can do it.” We ended up kind of liking it, that it was sort of censored but you could still… In South America, you will recognize it. It’s like if you used the red color with a Coke with a black color, then it’s Coca Cola. And Coca Cola tried to copyright those two things together, the color red and Coke, which they failed in. That’s like copyrighting a car, or shoes, or something.
You come from Denmark. How did you become interested in people in the plight of third world farmers?
Basically just being there. We were in a residency in the Amazon, and we were just listening to what they were telling us. Of course they are living in a totally different situation then us—I come from a Northern European, very rich country—but somehow we are part of the same economic structure, and we are both faced with economic and cultural pressure coming from this contemporary capitalist culture. They are the producers of the stuff we drink. Even Coca-Cola takes caffeine out of guarana and puts it in Coke! It’s all very linked. In that way, it’s natural to be interested in where things come from.
I’m trying to think really hard about how did I get interested. I wouldn’t say it’s just ethics: ‘I’m trying to be a good moral person and therefore I should do something good.’ That’s not the issue. Their situation is so typical. You don’t need to be an economist to figure this out. Things get produced in the Third World, gets commodified and branded by the First World, and sold and the profit gets made. That’s why things are so cheap here. That’s kind of how it works. I feel if I could change that just a little bit, that makes my day somehow.
Not all of the projects we do are Third World-based. They all deal somehow with elements of empowerment and self-organizing. It’s somehow a trend in contemporary capitalist logic to disable community structures: it could be family structures in America, it could be guarana farmers in Brazil – so we try to make these tools that empower people with creating their own TV stations, or energy systems, or soda, or whatever.
You come at this from an art angle, not an activist angle. You’re an art collectiove. How can you afford to do this?
We were trained in sculpture at the Denmark Royal Academy of Fine Arts. But the framework of the art world seemed too narrow, somehow. On the other hand, it was a space available that was not totally defined by the same parameters that you would find in business, where you basically have to make a surplus, or in academia where you somehow have to produce a specific kind of result, which is very often also based on some kind of economic thinking. So we found this area that was a white space where you could experiment with things and do things that failed. You could ask questions without necessarily having answers. You could make models, propose projects that may not be sound or economically viable. All these opportunities put together made us not totally leave the art world, while also having an activity that’s going on totally outside.
In a museum situation, like here at Redcat, it’s showing a model, it’s showing a prototype, it’s discussing a problem in a public forum. I guess you could do that somewhere else, also, but in this particular case, the context of art facilitates a project like that. We’re basically just pirating on that structure, and they don’t seem to mind!
Of course there’s potentially also a danger. You have to be aware when you use this strategy, it could also turn out, “Well this is kind of JUST art, therefore it’s not really serious, maybe doesn’t really mean anything.” There’s a certain element of repressive tolerance built in to that structure also. You just have to be aware of that when you work there, that this can happen, that it can be commodified as an art object. Everything can be turned into objects within this context. You just have to work with that, somehow.
And Superflex is a company as well as an artists’ collective.
Yes. If you want to achieve something today, what form can you choose that is most flexible in contemporary society? The role of the artist is definitely pretty limited. You do a project like the soda project or biogas and you go out to an investor, they wouldn’t take you seriously because you’re an artist. But as a corporation? Suddenly they listen. You just use the language that this world understands. It’s somehow about appropriating identities to make things happen.
The projects have different spaces that they operate in. One can be an artspace and one can be a farm in Africa. Sometimes they merge. Sometimes funding from one place goes to the other. Like this biogas project: it’s basically a system that makes energy out of shit. It makes gas in your kitchen, so you can make food on waste, basically. We made a small system that facilitates that. It’s an energy system that enables people to become self-sufficient in energy: you don’t have to buy energy, or firewood or charcoal, you don’t have to walk really far to the forest to get firewood, you can make your own energy from basically the shit that your household generates. It is not a new invention, we took some technology and scaled it down, so it’s basically on a family level for families in Cambodia or Thailand. For that project, there were investors who came and put money in the project as a kind of investment thing, totally outside the art context, and part of that money we have also used within the art context. And vice versa.
You just have to remember in the morning what hat to put on. It’s a little bit confusing sometimes. It’s like applied schizophrenia. You try somehow to avoid specialization, which is a global tendency also. Because, for example, if this project ONLY was an art project, I think it would have limits. It would probably be commodified and then some kind of art collector would buy it and it would end up in a corner in a … That kind of limit.
We think of our work as tools that can work on different levels at the same time, without that sort of opposing each other. Right now we teach at Cal Arts. We’ve also taught at an agriculture school in Cambodia. In that situation, our background as artists doesn’t have any importance at all. It’s not a secret… but in that situation we are agricultural consultants. Again, just remember what hat to wear.
When did Superflex start, and how big are you now?
We started working together in ’93 in art school. There was three when we started and there’s still three and it’s the same three. It’s similar to marriage! [laughs] We live in Denmark, and then depending on the project we go and stay a month here and a month there. Bjorn [Christiansen, the third Superflex] is in Germany now, doing this open-source Mars bar thing with some German students. Basically he’s making a market where you copy things from 7-11 and sell them, close to another 7-11.
For different projects, there’s usually specialists involved. For example with Guarana Power, we work with a chemist. Of course, these technicians we work with, we can’t pay them what they’re worth, but they think it’s interesting to maneuver in different spaces as well. For example this guy we are working with now, he’s making a whiskey for Saudi Arabia, without alcohol. He’s using some kind of chili pepper to fake the alcohol feeling. And he says people get drunk! So, he likes trying out things like that. He gets to play!
POSTSCRIPT: An update from Superflex, October 16, 2004:
“Guarana Power is now on the market in Denmark, mainly in cafes and small shops. It’s small-scale distribution, but it’s going well. We have also opened a Guarana Power Bar in our office that runs every weekend. More info at guaranapower.org“