Since my opening statement included comments by Jakob Fenger of
Superflex on the topic of artists as inventors, I thought I would post
a text-only version of my brief piece about their patent inventions
(which I was researching at the start of the month and just
completed). I am not sure that this post advances our discussion on
the topic at hand; however, it does place Superflex's newer work,
which is a challenge to the intellectual property laws that surround
art and inventions (a subject that we have discussed), into context. I
also thought this post might also be useful in the future for the
archive of this discussion. There are URLs to press photos at the end.
(Please excuse characters and formating that might shift when this
hits the list.)
I would appreciate any comments on the text. Thank you.
Superflex: From Patent Protection to "If Value, Then Copy"
Bjørnstjerne Christiansen, Jakob Fenger, and Rasmus Nielsen work as
Superflex, a self-described "artists' group"  with a diverse
constellation of projects, tools, companies, and affiliations [2,3].
Christiansen has stated, "The work of Superflex is about
social-economic practice. Unlike many visual artists, we don't offer
criticisms or critiques, we propose real solutions to real problems
." In 1998, following conventional strategies of establishing
authorship and securing and protecting their intellectual property,
Superflex filed patents for two inventions conceived with Jan Mallan
under the auspices of a company named Supergas. The inventions form
elements of a biogas project that endeavors deliberately to join art
with social empowerment, technology, and economic systems [5,6]. Each
orange portable single-family biogas unit or plant is able to produce
biogas (methane) from organic waste, including human and animal feces,
to be used for cooking and lighting , with the aim of improving the
lives of those who purchase the system [8,9]. The product and its
initial target customer are described on Superflex's Web site as
The system has been adapted to meet the efficiency and style demands
of a modern
African consumer. It is intended to match the needs and economic resources that
we believe exist in small-scale economies. . . . For a modest sum, an
will be able to buy such a biogas system and achieve self-sufficiency
in energy .
According to Fenger, the two Danish patents, which were joined into
one when registered with the World Intellectual Property Organization
(WIPO) in order to reduce expenses , were not an integral part of
Superflex's initial intention; the purpose of the group's patents was
to engage investors in the project, because at the time investors were
demanding an intellectual property position . Fenger describes the
situation and references a related shift in the group's newer work,
which engages intellectual property from a significantly different
vantage point: "If we were to start out developing the biogas system
today, we would work quite differently ('copy-shop,' 'free beer,'
'copy right,' etc.) [13,14]." He also points to the recent exhibition
entitled If Value, Then Copy to show the sea change from patents to an
open-source approach. To underscore his point about the patent
position, Fenger notes that Superflex does not see any pattern of
people copying the biogas system . Finally, he says, "We still
work with the biogas system but believe that open-source hardware is
the way to go. One year ago we installed 2 biogas systems on Zanzibar
and there are 6 more to come within the next months ." Superflex's
fall 2008 exhibition "If Value, Then Copy" at Artspace, Auckland, New
Zealand, underscores their new engagement with intellectual property.
In the exhibition-related text, Christiansen states, "Our fundamental
premise is that there is too much ownership in terms of intellectual
property, trademark and copyright laws, and this excess of power needs
to be challenged ."
References and Notes
1. This characterization is taken from a conversation with Jakob
Fenger in a telecommunication via the Internet on 12 February 2009.
2. See Superflex's comprehensive Web site, Superflex, http://www.superflex.net.
3. To learn more about Superflex's intentions, see "An Exchange
Between Asa Nacking and Superflex," 1998. "Texts," "Articles,"
4. Superflex, If Value, Then Copy, "Exhibitions," Artspace,
5. Jan Mallan, Bjørn Bjørnstjerne Reuter Christiansen, Mikael Rasmus
Nielsen, Jakob Fenger, Danish patent no. 88798, "Plants for anaerobic
processing of organic waste," filed 23 June 1998, granted 24 December
1999, the European Patent Office,
and Jan Mallan, Bjørn Bjørnstjerne Reuter Christiansen, Mikael Rasmus
Nielsen, Jakob Fenger, Danish patent no. 88898, "Automatic pressure
equalisation system for processing gasses from pressure chambers,"
filed 23 June 1998, granted 24 December 1999, the EPO,
The complete Danish patents are available online at the Danish Patent
and Trademark Office, http://int.dkpto.dk. For additional information,
see note 11.
6. For a discussion of the biogas project in the art-historical
context of waste-related art practices, see Will Bradley, "Biogas in
Africa," at "Text," "Articles," Superflex,
7. The system does not produce electricity. E-mail by Fenger to the
author, 8 March 2009.
8. For a larger discussion of the social dimensions of the project,
see Barbara Steiner, "Radical Democracy, Acknowledging the
Complexities and Contingencies," August 1999 at "Text," "Articles,"
9. "Superflex has collaborated with Danish and African engineers to
construct a simple, portable biogas unit that can produce sufficient
gas for the cooking and lighting needs of an African family. The
system has been adapted to meet the efficiency and style demands of a
modern African consumer." The unit or plant is described as follows:
"Produces approx. 4 cubic metres of gas per day from the dung from 2-3
cattle. This is enough for a family of 8-10 members for cooking
purposes and to run one gas lamp in the evening." Quote in text and
this endnote: "Supergas," "Tools," Superflex,
11. Johannes Jacobus Mallan, Jakob Fenger, Bjørn Bjørnstjerne Reuter
Christiansen, Mikael Rasmus Nielsen, World Intellectual Property
Organization patent no. WO9967176, "System for anaerobic treatment of
fluid organic material," filed 23 June 1999, granted 29 December 1999,
World Intellectual Property Organization,
12. Fenger . In the same conversation, Fenger elaborated on this
topic: "We never really believed in the patent concept." While the
patents did attract investors, who provided about half of the
financing that was needed, Fenger said that it was never really worth
it; the patent was the main point of interest for investors, who, he
hopes, are "more clever" today.
13. E-mail by Fenger to the author, 3 February 2009. It is useful to
consider a slightly different dimension of the cross-disciplinary
aspect of the project and the patent process as Fenger has described
it: "We engaged other worlds, such as agriculture, and other
interactions, such as seminars and workshops." When asked about the
differences in language in the various fields, he said that the art
field has a specific language and agriculture has a specific language.
However, he emphasized that it is the technical aspect rather than the
general language that is significantly different. He added, "The
biogas project was very creative and we followed the same process as
in art-making." For instance, he said that the invention took a long
time to create and required making many experiments, and that the
experience was close to that of organizing a complex exhibition.
Lastly, Fenger said, "The precision of patents was very interesting
and also time-consuming." Fenger .
14. Fenger does not set much store by the idea of originality,
especially as it relates to patent protection. In fact, he says, "Even
if you have a patent, it doesn't really secure originality," and "if
one does something original, usually the original aspect is something
very simple," citing two examples: the traditional interpretation of
Marcel Duchamp's idea of the ready-made and Muhammed Yunus's concept
of microcredit, which was first used by Grameen Bank in Bangladesh.
15. Fenger .
17. Superflex, .
Superflex, Biogas in Africa. Superflex installed the first test of a
biogas system in Tanzania, 1997. (Photo courtesy of Superflex).
Superflex, Biogas PH5 Lamp, 2002, metal, paint, gas container, glass,
cardboard box, 40 x 50 x 50 cm, Bangkok, Thailand. The PH5 lamp
designed in 1958 by Poul Henningsen has been modified into a biogas
lamp, to be used by people living in areas with no access to
electricity. (Photo courtesy of Superflex).
On 3/7/09, firstname.lastname@example.org <email@example.com> wrote:
> Dear Derek and Yasminers,
> I think the second question in number 4 is actually the same question.
> The second question was a suggested improvement to my first first
> question by a discussant, making it more expansive, which it seems to
> have accomplished.
> How is an art-related invention different from an invention that is
> not tied to the conventions of art? How is an art-related invention
> different from invention in other fields?
> You have already hit upon one way to think about the questions that I
> think is extremely important. One's intention could be the most
> important factor at work in terms of contextualizing the difference
> between and art-related invention and an invention in other fields.
> As you and others have noted, certainly utility is important because
> the use value can transcend original intentions. However, intentions
> could rule in terms of how one ultimately frames the invention. For
> instance, it might be incidental that an art-related invention is
> useful in another area to the person who conceived the invention.
> We have also seen a kind of reversal of this in which Buckminster
> Fuller (who has been mentioned in previous posts) has transformed his
> primarily utilitarian inventions into deliberate visual forms and
> exhibited them as artworks.
> Here, I think Derek's emphasis on discovery is very important because
> invention can be the recognition and/or perception of novelty.
> In terms of both intention and discovery it might be useful to revisit
> Marcel Duchamp's conception of the ready-made. The traditional concept
> of the ready-made has become complicated by scholarship led by Rhonda
> Roland Shearer (director of the Art Science Research Laboratory:
> http://www.asrlab.org) that ruptures the accepted doctrine of
> orthodoxy, which holds that the ready-made is an artist-chosen
> manufactured object that becomes redefined as art when deliberately
> placed into an art context, by asserting that all of Duchamp's
> "original" ready-mades were in fact custom or handmade objects
> ultimately intended by Duchamp to call into question the mechanisms of
> the creative process and human perception, especially citing the
> influence of the mathematician and scientist Henri Poincaré on
> Duchamp's conception and expression of ready-mades as they relate to
> methods of discovery. For an extensive discussion of this topic, see
> Tout-fait: The Marcel Duchamp Studies Online Journal,
> While it is true that Duchamp intentionally obscured this aspect of
> the work and "delayed" its reception (the original so-called
> ready-mades were lost [what we currently see exhibited are replicas])
> and that he did modify or "assist" many of the ready-mades (this
> actually supports the theory), it is clear from reading some of the
> posts on our topic and a very good section of _Artists as Inventors /
> Inventors as Artists_ by Simon Penny entitled "Bridging Two Cultures:
> Toward an Interdisciplinary History of the Artist-Inventor and the
> Machine-Artwork," that the traditional view of the ready-made is still
> firmly in place, despite the fact that this scholarship, dating from
> the late 1990s, positions Duchamp's ready-made firmly in relationship
> to the limitations of human perception and to methods of discovery.
> (What a fitting and amusing message he left for us to find.)
> Yes, I would like to learn more about examples of what you have
> described as "radical novelty" as well. Thank you!
> On 3/6/09, derek hales <firstname.lastname@example.org> wrote:
>> Dear Yasminers,
>> Thank you to Roger for inviting me to contribute and to Robert for
>> moderating this lively discussion! My interest in Artists as Inventors
>> from an engagement with art, technology and interdisciplinary creative
>> practices . I am going to limit my opening post if I can, to our
>> introduction point #4:
>> How is an art-related invention different from an invention that is not
>> tied to the conventions of art? How is an art-related invention
>> different from invention in other fields?
>> I'm going to illustrate my response to this first week of discussion and
>> subsequent short posts I make with reference to my work with artists at
>> Digital Research Unit where I can. I will also try to respond to comments
>> connect with some of the postings this week where this is possible,
>> I am not responding to any individual post directly here – more the
>> sense I am trying to make of this currently.
>> before moving on and to contextualise things a little here are some
>> on my experience of our time working with the (Free/Libre/Open Source
>> Software) artists organisation GOTO10 http://goto10.org/about/ and our
>> support of their Pure Dyne artists tools project. I also heartily
>> the Floss+Art publication http://goto10.org/flossart/ edited by GOTO10's
>> Aymeric Mansoux and Marloes de Valk, which we were also lucky enough to
>> able to support with OpenMute and the Willem de Kooning Academie. I
>> argue – almost contradicting what I will go on to say shortly that
>> invention could be seen to be entirely tied to the conventions of art –
>> perhaps better to a *GOTO10 convention* of art that they are collectively
>> involved with inventing.
>> Put simply GOTO10 can be described as an artist collective who produce
>> artists tools for other artists – as well as making art with these tools
>> themselves – it is difficult, perhaps even meaningless to separate out
>> processes involved in the invention of the *tools* here from the process
>> art making – is it even desirable to distinguish between the network
>> operation of GOTO10 as an organisational form from the temporary
>> they are involved in, engaged with and create, from the art-worlds
>> with the software tools they produce as artists?
>> Perhaps there is something else here about the approaches to the autonomy
>> otherwise of tool-making or art-making and complicity of their *effects*
>> that can perhaps help us look at the autonomy of invention itself in
>> of its field of operation – to can we 'un-tie' invention, let it loose
>> its mooring to any specific set of practices? Perhaps this is a way to
>> approach this pair of questions:
>> How is an art-related invention different from an invention that is not
>> tied to the conventions of art?
>> How is an art-related invention different from invention in other fields?
>> I know that two is already too many questions but to start by answering
>> these with a third: Is it too simplistic of me to say that sometimes art
>> operate inside something else. Can we say this with respect to invention,
>> within the system of invention, its technical instruments of policy and
>> I want to talk very briefly about two relations between art and invention
>> experience in my work with artists and following on from comments made by
>> friend and colleague Andy Gracie – Andy used a term: *utility* which I
>> is appropriate – the first *utilitarian* relation I would describe is in
>> tool creation my comments on GOTO10 apply here. Another is in artists
>> invention of solutions for specific works – as Andy describes. This
>> inventiveness can manifest, perhaps less intentionally, as inventions for
>> others to use – to be clear here: I am not at all saying that artists
>> not share their inventions with others – far from it! or that the only
>> relation art has with invention is in some unintended or bespoke
>> utility. However
>> I am interested in the issues of motivation or the motives and forces at
>> work here - artists as inventors do not *need* to start with *utility*
>> the basis for their relation with invention (neither do designers for
>> matter but we can maybe come back to this later).
>> As it says on one of the links (I think from Roger Vidler) I've followed
>> from this discussion 'Since potentially everything exists, creating is
>> discovering and making visible or manifest what is latent'. This
>> force of discovery as creation is interesting here, as is the notion that
>> something can be found, perhaps by chance, out of nothing - the
>> discovery of the 'pure' invention as something then repeatable
>> replicable… What then is the intention of the artist who chooses to
>> as an inventor or lets say to act within the system of invention? Is the
>> sense of the accidental in this process of discovery perhaps closer to
>> foundation of the invention creating processes of art making, than that
>> found in other inventive fields or domains? Bronac and others have
>> provided some legal definitions of invention in relation to the novel -
>> creation of concepts and the relation of invention and novelty interests
>> greatly – in the sense of invention as creative novelty. Can the *artist
>> inventor* be evoked in terms of a *radical novelty*, the *radically
>> Is there to be found a *complete novelty* in relation to the technical
>> the social?
>> Derek Hales
>> 2009/3/1 <email@example.com>
>>> Dear Yasminers,
>>> I wish to thank Roger Malina for the opportunity to moderate the
>>> discussion on artists as inventors and our six accomplished
>>> discussants for their participation: Derek Hales, Sylvie Lacerte,
>>> Arantxa Mendiharat, Hideki Nakazawa, Barbara U. Schmidt, and Colette
>>> My interest in artists as inventors stems from my curiosity about the
>>> intersections between contemporary art and utility patents. I
>>> discovered through research that this seemingly narrow terrain was
>>> actually an expansive area, which could encompass a wide range of
>>> practices that went far beyond artists' patents. For instance, it
>>> could include elements as diverse as the novel achievements of an
>>> innovator whose self-patent works were reclassified as "visionary" or
>>> "outsider" art (William W. Adkins) and a patent institution that
>>> collects contemporary art and displays it in the workplace with the
>>> progressive idea of stimulating discussion, productivity, and
>>> integration (the European Patent Office).
>>> However, the topic of artists as inventors is focused on the
>>> relationship between the roles and practices that are conjured by the
>>> terms. To this end, I will share comments on the subject by the artist
>>> Jakob Fenger, who is a member of Superflex, which invented (with Jan
>>> Mallan) a biogas system. In a conversation via Skype on 12 February
>>> 2009, Fenger told me that "all good artists are inventors," adding
>>> that "a concept for a piece is like an invention," and that in his
>>> opinion there is "no difference between inventing and art-making,"
>>> referencing the creative process as the link between these two
>>> I look forward to a lively discussion on the topic of artists as
>>> inventors throughout March.
>>> Robert Thill
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HOW TO SUBSCRIBE: click on the link to the list you wish to subscribe to. In the page that will appear ("info page"), enter e-mail address, name, and password in the fields found further down the page.
HOW TO UNSUBSCRIBE: on the info page, scroll all the way down and enter your e-mail address in the last field. Enter password if asked. Click on the unsubscribe button on the page that will appear ("options page").
HOW TO ENABLE / DISABLE DIGEST MODE: in the options page, find the "Set Digest Mode" option and set it to either on or off.