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Sit Down! Mimersgade, Copenhagen


Artists: publik (project lead) Jeppe Hein, J & K, Kenneth A. Balfelt, Parfyme, Sonja Lillebæk Christensen and Superflex


Sit Down! was a public art project which took place in 2006 in Mimersgade, a multicultural working-class district of Copenhagen undergoing extensive neighbourhood renewal.

The project was delivered by publik, an artist-focused organisation producing arts projects for public spaces, and was curated by publik founder member Christian Skovbjerg Jensen based on his original project idea. Sit Down! was substantially funded by the urban renewal programme, and also secured additional funding from the Danish Arts Council and various private sponsors.

Sit Down! comprised six linked artist projects culminating in a month-long public art exhibition in Autumn 2006, incorporating guided tours by participating artists and artist groups, educational activities for local schools and businesses, and a debate on the role that contemporary art can play and what it offers in the urban regeneration context.

The public exhibition’s six elements were a customised local shuttle bus, ten modified benches, a hilly landscape, a neon sign pointing in the direction of the Mjølnerparken residential area, a video installation and a project involving young students and a local café bar.

Featured Projects

Café Heimdal

One of the most successful projects was Café Heimdal, a contribution by Danish artist Kenneth A. Balfelt.

Heimdalsgade stretches back from the busy Nørrebrogade thoroughfare to the Mjølnerparken housing estate. On the corner of Heimdalsgade and Mimersgade is one of the city’s most historic traditional ‘bodega-style’ bars, Café Heimdal. With net curtains hung across cloudy windows and a well-worn interior, Café Heimdal is light years away from Copenhagen’s trendy new cafes and bars, enjoying an older yet loyal clientele, mainly Danish natives.

By way of contrast, the glass-fronted Heimsdals Overbygningsskole nearby is a local school established in 2001 as an educational experiment, with 70% of the students coming from a non-Danish background. Although standing just a stone’s throw apart, Café Heimdal and Heimsdals Overbygningsskole represented communities from strikingly different eras and cultural backgrounds. The aim of the Café Heimdal project was to bring these divided communities together by creating something that would transform the café’s tired façade.

Over two months, Balfelt and six teenage boys from the school worked with the café’s owner and customers on the design, production and installation of a new mahogany sign for the outside of the establishment. The boys first interviewed customers about what they would like to see changed, and consulted with the owner over how the exterior could be improved.

In November 2006, the boys finally hung the finished sign on the Café Heimdal’s façade as their small contribution to improving the image of a neighbourhood rarely depicted in a positive light. The putting up of the new sign was marked by a reception in the café for anyone interested in stopping by, and Café Heimdal’s owner and customers were delighted with their new sign.

For the artist, the most important outcome of the project was improving relationships between two groups through the common goal of improving the café’s façade. Balfelt comments that the two groups could “easily be stigmatised as alcoholics and immigrant teenage boys with no future”, but through the project “the owners and customers and boys have all developed a personal relationship. They live so close to each other, they’ll certainly greet each other in the street and perhaps the boys will even pop their head in the door from time to time”.


This project by the artist group Parfyme involved the creation of a temporary hilly landscape in a public space in Mimersgade. The artists and local people worked together six days a week for three weeks to see what could be accomplished in a short time to transform a drab public space.

The wood and Astroturf constructions provided new environments and platforms which local children and their parents then animated through play and other social activities. This included building climbing hills and BMX cycle ramps, a football field, signs and refuse recycling bins.

An important motivation for Parfyme was speed. They wanted to tackle and comment on a key flaw of the urban planning process, the fact that most neighbourhood improvements take three years or more from concept to realisation. As well as aiming “to draw attention to the weakness of this procedure and point to a way of improving it” they purposefully drew on the restless energy of local children and channelled it into creative and socially beneficial ends.

“This was a task demanding teaching skills alongside the job of construction. After school-time kids were everywhere, well, of course, it’s their hood. Kids who, in one way seem addicted to the chaos and excitement of being in a gang used to problems and conflicts, but at the same time were bringing their own genuine energy and speed. Right now this energy is fuelling one of the most radical forces for change in our society”.

The project was so successful and popular with residents that the structures stayed for an extra two months beyond the planned four weeks. Parfyme continue to carry out similar projects in the public realm focused around their interest in using art as a tool for practical research and activism ‘without too much planning (at least compared to how architects and politicians, among others, plan and work!)”.


One of the most controversial arts projects involved a neon sign depicting an arrow with the word ‘Mjølnerparken’ erected directly opposite the residential area of that name. Mjølnerparken had been the subject of much negative attention in the media, with a reputation for crime and other social problems. Various initiatives, such as CCTV surveillance and neighbourhood watch, had been introduced in order to improve the area. The neon sign was created by the artists’ group Superflex, in order to change residents and outsiders’ perceptions about Mjølnerparken and its characterisation as a ghetto.

Since its inception in the early 1990s, Superflex has developed a complex practice that brings together art, design, and commerce to challenge economic structures of dependency. Working both within and outside the physical location of the gallery space, Superflex reinterprets the role of artists in contemporary society through professional collaborations and unusual types of interaction with audiences. At the core of their practice is the development of what they call ‘tools’ – techniques of collaborative working which engage people actively and productively around a particular project or task, and encourage better communication and access.

In their own words, Superflex believe that:

“Tools are framed by and shaped in specific social and local situations and generate their meanings out of this specific context. Through these tools SUPERFLEX attempts to create conditions for the production of new ways of thinking, acting, speaking and imagining.”

Many of Mjølnerparken’s residents welcomed the sign and felt it added something luxurious and cool to their neighbourhood. However, the residents’ committee ultimately decided to reject the artists’ offer of the sign as a permanent legacy, arguing that it unnecessarily spotlighted the area. Superflex stated that their intention was not to highlight Mjølnerparken as a bad place, but to question the public’s stereotypical views and the area’s poor reputation. Nevertheless the committee felt that the artwork signified something negative, and asked for the sign to be removed at the end of the project.

Babylon Shuttle Bus

In another project, by J & K, a community transport scheme provided both a useful local service and a context for intercultural dialogue.

The artists describe Babylon Shuttle Bus as ‘an action based mobile sculpture’, designed for insertion into everyday life. The bus also functions as a public service vehicle and platform for communication. The customised design of Babylon Shuttle Bus combines different visual and verbal references alluding to the Babylon theme. In the context of Mimersgade, one of the most multicultural areas of Copenhagen, the metaphor of Babylon points to linguistic confusion. Beyond this, it makes reference to the history of Western civilization and its relation to The Middle East, and the contemporary political situation at local and global level. Under the banner ‘This is the Making of Confusion’ J & K invited people from various cultural backgrounds to give speeches from the top of the bus around the theme of Babylon, exploring different perspectives on the subject.

Based in Berlin and Copenhagen, Janne Schäfer and Kristine Agergaard have collaborated as J&K since 1999. J&K’s performative works ‘playfully address systems of belief such as religions, utopias, or pseudoscience as well as prevalent role models and stereotypes, often with the artists themselves in the starring roles’.


Overall, Sit Down! cost 372,000 kroner (around £40,000) to deliver. The project attracted 300,000 kroner (£32,300) support from the Partnership’s Områdefornyelsen Mimersgadekvarteret programme, 50,000 (£5,400) for communication/mediation from the Danish Arts Council and 21,000 (£2,200) from The Cultural Department of the City of Copenhagen.

Key Issues

Political and cultural sensitivity

Neighbourhood renewal programmes, particularly in ethnically diverse and economically deprived areas, require a high degree of sensitivity to residents’ needs and aspirations. With a 34% immigrant population, and the stigma of being perceived as a high crime area, any effort to improve the Mimersgade neighbourhood is bound to receive suspicion and scepticism from certain sections of the community. Issues of local democracy and power play out in such contexts, and a competitive situation involving differing interests and ideological standpoints militates against a unified and coherent approach to planning and decision-making.

Community consultation (and involvement) provides the key to resolving differences and achieving a unified vision for neighbourhood improvement. Prior to the project, the Partnership’s approach to regenerating Mimersgade and the Outer Nørrebro district had attracted criticism from some quarters and they had been accused of adopting a somewhat tokenistic approach to community consultation. In July 2006, Finn Thybo Andersen, a visual artist and member of art group YNKB, commented:

“Time and again the city has arranged hearings, but it seems as if the decisions are already made somewhere else, outside the range of democratic visibility, in the dark labyrinths of power. And except for a bench here and there, or a potted plant or tree (which are of course all fine ways to give the neighbourhood a lift), the views of the citizens are completely ignored.”

A resident of Mimersgade, Christian Skovbjerg Jensen was acutely aware of these criticisms, and as a curator he sought to tackle them through public art projects that opened up new ideas and public debate around the neighbourhood’s renewal and the potential for change, rather than offering fixed solutions to the needs of people living there.

Art and artists as ‘mediators’

In line with publik’s ethos and approach, the artists chosen to work on Sit Down! were known for pioneering and innovative projects that address the social, spatial and economic context of the public realm. Although working in different media, these artists all share practices which revolve around critical and reflexive debate about society and the role that art plays in the process of people imagining and realising a common future.

From Christian’s perspective, the success or failure of the project hinged on the ‘mediating’ role public art can play, in terms of enabling residents to be brought into meaningful dialogue with those who make decisions that have an impact on their social and political condition. He feels that through the project:

“Something changed in the minds of people, but it is hard to track its impact. Sit Down! certainly triggered a level of community activism in what had previously been a dead neighbourhood. You could see by the enthusiastic way local people got involved in the projects and interacted with the benches, hills and shuttle bus that it really made a difference.”

However, the short-term nature of the projects limited the amount of consultation and mediation that was able to take place in the months prior to and after their realisation. This was a particular issue with the Mjølnerparken project, for the community ultimately rejected the artwork, despite many young people liking it. Christian feels that with more time and community mediation work, the outcome may well have been different.

Integration and sustainability

A key aim of Sit Down! was to have a longer-term impact on the neighbourhood improvement programme, through the ideas and processes represented by the artist projects. Christian feels that in this regard less has been achieved than was hoped for:

“the project hasn’t been integrated into wider urban renewal planning and delivery, and the dialogue that was opened with residents hasn’t continued. For a few months there was new life on the streets of Mimersgade, but now things seem to have returned to what they were before.”

An important lesson learnt through the project is that public art interventions in this context should be ambitious and challenging, but extensive planning and follow-up is necessary for their impact to be sustainable. Constrained by limited time and funding, Sit Down! was unable to realise the full potential of the artist projects as a stimulus for debate and community involvement in urban regeneration.

However, it could equally be argued that as a series of temporary projects, Sit Down! had more impact on local people’s awareness and understanding of neighbourhood renewal processes than permanent artworks would have done. Over time, permanent artworks all too often blend into the background and their impact and significance fades, at least in the minds of local residents.

Regardless of its long-term consequences, Sit Down! was undoubtedly a bold and ambitious intervention. There are particular challenges facing anybody undertaking public art work in what is a culturally diverse, and socially and economically disadvantaged, area of Copenhagen in the midst of extensive neighbourhood renewal.

The project was self-evidently successful in engaging local people, especially children and young people with few places to go, in the process of change and transformation. Above all, Sit Down! offered people a glimpse of a potential new future for Mimersgade, one transcending community divisions and the negative preconceptions that have existed in relation to the area.

© Copyright David Drake, 2008