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Throughout town, amongst handbills and flyers promoting upcoming concerts and performances, a bright orange poster grabs the attention of passers-by.
“Foreigners, please don’t leave us alone with the Danes!” it says in large block letters.
It’s a message that’s bound to draw the eyes of Copenhagen’s sizable international community, as well as make Danes wonder what the message says about themselves and their culture.
“It’s intended to bring out the question of what it means to be Danish and what it means to be a foreigner,” Jakob Fenger of the Danish artists’ group Superflex, who are behind the signs, said.
Superflex, which was formed in 1993 by Fenger and two other partners, focuses most of its efforts on creating what Fenger described as “artworks as tools”, such as a biogas system known as Supergas, and an energy drink called Guarana Power developed with farmers in the Amazon.
While peppering Copenhagen with posters may seem a departure for the group, Fenger said that the ‘Foreigners’ sign also serves as a tool.
“The signs can function as a tool for different people in different contexts,” he said. “For some it might be a political tool, for others a philosophical tool.”
The political function is perhaps the more overt. Superflex first debuted the ‘Foreigners’ sign in 2002 as a reaction to the increased political debate surrounding foreigners in Denmark.
“The main question in the 2001 election was the issue of foreigners,” Fenger explained. “So when Denmark hosted the EU summit the following year, we put up the signs to draw attention to Denmark’s attitudes.”
Now nearly a decade later, the country is on the verge of another election and the signs have found their way back onto Copenhagen’s streets. The timing is no coincidence.
“Unfortunately, immigration is still a main issue in Danish politics today,” Fenger said. “If you look at the politics of the last ten years, nothing has changed. In fact, things have actually got worse.”
Fenger pointed to the recent release of figures estimating that immigration costs Denmark some 16 billion kroner as a sign of how foreigners can be made to feel uncomfortable, or even unwelcome, in Denmark.
“Stories like that point out foreigners as a problem. If you look at the costs of the recent Amagerbanken crash and various banking bailout packages, you’ll see there are many things that are costing the Danish state money. I think it’s disgusting to put a price on people like that.”
According to Fenger, Denmark’s attitude towards foreigners stems from an outdated model that has the potential to create severe problems for the country.
“The notion of a nation-state is an old idea,” Fenger said. “There is a need for foreigners no matter where you are. Denmark needs to be more open. If the country starts to close itself, it’s going to collapse.”
Beyond the political debate of immigration, Fenger points to a more philosophical debate raging about what exactly it means to be Danish. While some may look to language, cultural attitudes, or even food as areas that can define what it means for one to ‘be Danish’, the entire notion is muddied at its core by genealogy.
“Generations back, many Danes were actually Germans or Swedes,” Fenger said. “So what does it really mean to say someone is – or is not – Danish?”
Likewise, the artist group hopes to spur reflection on what it means to be a foreigner. The feeling of being in a different land and culture is one the three Danes behind Superflex are familiar with.
“We do most of our work outside of Denmark, so most of the time we are foreigners,” Fenger said.
“So, if you look at the sign, it brings up three questions: who are the ‘foreigners’, who are the ‘us’, and who are ‘the Danes’?”
That these questions are difficult to answer is precisely the point. It’s also why Superflex chose street art as a mode to spur discussion.
“Normally you talk with people you agree with,” Fenger said. “When you put it up in the street, it’s more public and you get different reactions.”
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