The customer really is king at Superland

The customer really is king at Superland

The only supermarket where you don’t buy groceries, but contribute ideas
Superland. The biggest non-existent supermarket in the Netherlands. No offers, savings promotions or products. So, what does it have on its shelves? Ideas. About how things can be done differently within the food chain. “The food industryis a market based on demand and supply. But, as a consumer, I am not being asked anything, only offered. That has to change,” according to the Brabant-based artist Matthijs Bosman, also CEO, spokesperson, shelf filler and cashier for the supermarket. A two-way conversation with the artist on the one hand and the supermarket director on the other.

What: Superland | takes the food chain to task
Who: Matthijs Bosman, artist
Why: Because there must be principles to how our food ends up in the shops
How: By engaging anyone interested in conversation

Sustainable Development Goal: 12. Responsible consumption and production

Superland started out as a study commissioned by the province of Overijssel, Agri meets Design, Kunstenlab Deventer and Platform Natuurlijke Veehouderij (Platform for Natural Livestock Farming). “I was asked to help to open up thinking about the food chain,” artist Matthijs Bosman, explains. The study started with the farmer, on the assumption that the food industry, as it now stands, makes it difficult for farmers to really innovate. “We have around 65,000 farmers and horticulturists in the Netherlands. Part of what they produce is exported. The rest reaches more than 17 million Dutch people via 6,000 supermarkets, 6,500 manufacturers and 1,500 suppliers. The purchasing is done through large purchasing syndicates. There are five of these and they determine the prices. That doesn’t seem right. I have spoken to many farmers and have seen that they have their backs against the wall. Some have little freedom, high levels of debt and often find it difficult to comply with environmental legislation. And no-one dares say anything about it. The food industry is a closed world and I want to help open up that world through Superland.”

‘You don’t need to have the solution  to say that something isn’t right’

Getting people thinking
In the meantime, Superland has developed into a socially engaged, conceptual work of art, through which Bosman wants to get visitors thinking. With a 36 m² aluminium structure, he toured the country in June with the only department that matters to Superland: customer service. Searching for answers to questions like: Why do supermarkets think that we always want to pay less? Should there be a Fair Trade label in the Netherlands for the agricultural sector? Do consumers choose the easiest path too often or are there no genuine, practical alternatives as yet? “We are the only customer service that has questions instead of answers,” saysBosman, the director of the supermarket. “I’m not sure exactly how things should be done differently within the food chain. But you don’t need to have the solution to say that something isn’t right.”

‘The non-existent is a recurring theme in my work’

Well-constructed illusion
The artist Bosman freely admits that he found the road trip ‘terrifying’. “It was all about the interaction. I had to keep convincing myself beforehand that I didn’t need to have the answers. Precisely by engaging in dialogue with the visitors, you get a picture of their views and ideas. I expected them to be tired of talking about yet another public responsibility. But that didn’t turn out to be the case. Many visitors were honest about their purchasing behaviour and the level of awareness with which they make their choices. And they had some good ideas: one Superland customer suggested that packaging should indicate what proportion of the cost price goes to the producer. I was also pleasantly surprised by the number of people who said they would be willing to commit by contract to a transparent, honest supermarket for a number of years.”      

In fact, as a non-existent supermarket, Superland is an illusion, Bosman agrees. “But you can make a valuable contribution to a social debate with a well-constructed illusion.” He has already proven this with concepts such as ‘The café that no longer existed’, ‘The vanished farm’ and ‘The disappeared sculpture route’. “My work always has a social context. I simply have no talent for irrelevant aesthetics,” says Bosman. “Everything I make must be grounded in society. And the non-existent is a recurring theme in this. I like to get across my stories and concepts by means of something that is no longer there or doesn’t yet exist. In this way, my subjects become a promise or gain the value of a meaningful memory. I also notice this in my personal life: something or someone non-existent or no longer there sometimes has more of a presence than everything around us in reality.”

‘’What matters is that food should make its way to the shops in a principled way’

Price war
With his latest creation, the artist Bosman mainly wants to tell the world why it doesn’t exist. “Superland doesn’t want to be the next supermarket chain to contribute to the price war from which no-one benefits . The purchasing syndicates invariably claim that they will stop selling bulk bargains when consumers no longer buy them. According to them, it is all down to consumers. Complete nonsense. It is not a consumer demand, but a choice that is offered. What matters is that food should make its way to the shops in a principled way. Then people say: ‘Yes, but then it will be more expensive and I won’t be able to afford it.’ If that’s the case, then something else is going on; their other expenses are too high. That would mean that we’d be trying to restore economic balance in the Netherlands through the pig farm. That’s simply not possible.”

Supermarket director Bosman adds that: “When we talk about a demand and supply market, Superland wants to engage with others to find out what the best demand actually is and whether we should demand that of ourselves, as supermarkets, or from farmers or consumers. When you ask the right question to the right party, the right offer should follow automatically. That’s the idea. Of course, as anon-existent supermarket, it’s easy for Superland to talk. But that’s exactly the point. Talking easily and thinking freely in order to progress. Glass, transparent slaughterhouses, for example, would seem to me to be a fantastic link between the food chain and consumers. And as far as I’m concerned, there will also be a sixth purchasing syndicate consisting of consumers.”

‘With Superland, I hope to make consumers pioneers too’

The power of creativity
According to the artist Bosman, what power does creativity hold in relation to social issues? “If you work on something that wasn’t there before, you are pioneering. By bringing that pioneering attitude to existing worlds you also offer others small opportunities to do better based on progressive insight. In the case of Superland, I also hope to make consumers pioneers, by approaching the food industry in an unusual way and actively involving them in it.” What’s the biggest obstacle he faces? “Public opinion,” he states firmly. “People are used to those in the public eye having expertise and answers. With this in mind, the art for me is to allow my ignorance and insecurity to exist.”

As supermarket director, Bosman also hopes that, through Superland, he will get to sit around the table with influential decision-makers. “I hope to find out who they are along the way. Politicians? Consumers? The Foundation for Research on Multinational Enterprises? The purchasing syndicates? It is time that the power of doing business with integrity was valued and appreciated. So, stop supplying and start asking questions. That’s Superland. And much more than that; I’m gradually noticing that the concept is increasingly about life. About all aspects over which we don’t take sufficient care. To be continued, therefore.”

Meet Matthijs @CWF2019!

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