Althea Thauberger – The Consternation Effect

By Rosemary Heather

If the Heisenberg principle describes the effect observation has on the thing observed, the consternation effect is more specific. It refers to the feeling one gets when watching video works by Vancouver artist, Althea Thauberger.

What to make of them? And are you changed by the experience? These are high claims for art, which usually settles for less ambitious goals.

Thauberger’s work is capable is provoking the extreme discomfort of the sophisticated when confronted with the naïve. This is especially true of “Songstress” (2001-02) the work that first brought the artist attention. “Songstress” has the all the hallmarks of Thauberger’s oeuvre: which consists of creating portraits of social groups by initiating some form of collaboration with them. A work on video, “Songstress” began with an advertisement in a Victoria newspaper, looking for young female singer songwriters. Much has been written about the mawkish work that resulted. Against a backdrop of the rugged BC landscape, each girl sings her own original composition. Shown in succession, each performance is framed differently, but the similarity of the sentiment expressed means that each time the spectacular setting gets reduced to a kind of sappy mise en scene of each girl’s not particularly original Lillith Fair-like ambitions. And this is only the least malicious of tricks Thauberger precipitated on the girls, the worst of which was to allow them to perform in the first place.

The charges of exploitation, the sheer consternation occasioned by Songstress, suggested that Thauberger had hit on fertile ground for the making of artworks.

Reid Shier, an early curator of the artist’s work, now newly appointed Director of Vancouver’s Presentation House Gallery, notes that few artists can polarize opinion like Thauberger. She demonstrates a consistent talent for being on the wrong side of the art viewer’s ability to identifying with what they are looking at. Thauberger disrupts her audience’s viewer’s child-like desire to be at one with the world, and the expectation that artworks should be a surrogate for this wish. 

Subsequent projects by the artist have a similar effect. In the video, “A Memory Lasts Forever,” (2004)  four young girls in their late teens or early 20s, all aspiring thespians, enact four different versions of a story based on an experience from Thauberger’s youth. Without wanting to give the plot away, the scenario focuses on the death of a dog, a drama well suited to the expression of overwrought emotions. The story repeats four times, each girl in turn assuming the duites of dramaturge, librettist, and of course, starring role. Although it has the polished look that its professional crew brought to the production, the video suffers, like “Songstress” from the hard-to-stomach amateurism of its performances. Again this leads to the assumption, as Thauberger comments, that the subjects of her work “are meant to look somehow foolish.” Or as the Toronto writer Terence Dick suggests, discomfort arises when looking at Thauberger’s from the suspicion that the girls “do not know how they appear.”

Even amongst art consumers – professionals in the analysis of representation – the desire is for artworks to be pleasing, or at the least to challenge us in ways that we already understand. In Thuberger’s work, these expectations are confusingly undermined.

The best developments in art are those motivated by a personal need that somehow connects to wider cultural developments. An obvious frame of reference for Thauberger’s work is the now ubiquitous genre of reality televsion. Reality TV is an industry predicated on the exploitation of its willing participants, and this is probably where the assumption comes from that Thauberger has similarly dishonorable intentions.

To dismiss her work on these terms, however, is to perpetuate the wish that when it comes to self-representation the distinction between professional and amateur – and indeed between high and low art – should be maintained. Look beyond the surface of these works and the narratives that inform the popular imagination become apparent. These include not only aspirations for stardom, but also which occasions permit the expression of true emotion and which sentiments are appropriate.

Thauberger’s project, “Murphy Canyon Choir” (2005) is especially revealing in this respect. Commissioned by INSITE, a biennial event that asks artists to make works about border-relations between the wealthy city of San Diego and Tiajuana its impoverished Mexican counterpart. Thauberger made the unpopular choice of proposing to work with families from San Diego’s huge military community. Because the population south of the US border is generally considered more sympathetic, and because as now, in 2005 the Iraq War was showing no signs of abating, the artist’s proposal initially met with, as she says, “ambivalent reaction.” Murphy Canyon is the largest military housing complex in the world. Despite this, as Thauberger notes, the San Diego’s military population “remains invisible… especially to the educated and the affluent.”

Over a period of six months, Thauberger, a local choir director and a choral composer based in New Hampshire, worked with 8 military spouses to compose an original repertoire of songs they then performed in a school auditorium in Murphy canyon. In the production period for the work, many of the women, all of whom are in their twenties, confided in Thauberger, describing the difficulty of being left to raise children alone, while their husbands were deployed overseas, often to the uncertain circumstances of combat in Iraq. Despite these problems, the women authored songs that were sentimental and patriotic. Titles such as ‘I am the Wife of a Hero’, ‘Waiting’ and ‘The Story of Love’ giving some indication of the group’s collective view of their circumstances, as well as their ideas about how their feelings about it should be properly expressed. By bussing in an art audience from San Diego for the performance, Thauberger brought two for the most part, ideologically opposed, worlds together, creating a dynamic and emotionally charged situation. The idea that artworks can push boundaries is a commonplace – if not a cliché – of the business, but in Thauberger’s insistence on reexamining assumptions about which communities are the appropriate to work with tangible boundaries were breeched, a realm of possibility being correspondingly expanded. Joe Bloggs, director of the event called the Murphy Canyon Choir, “the most audacious project INSITE has yet produced.

Thauberger has commented that she sees her work as creating “a situation of witness to something.” It is a curious ambition, even when considering that community collaboration is acknowledged as a leading edge of contemporary art practice. Thauberger’s work has much in common with this trend, which includes among its most well known exponents, the British artists Jeremy Deller and Gillian Wearing, although their respective practices are quite different.

Writing about the phenomenon of social collaboration in Artforum, Claire Bishop characterizes it as an avant-garde practice that carries on the modernist call “to blur art and life.”[1] This provides a poor description of Thauberger’s work. If what she does shares something with this trend, it is because it derives from her desire to find a wider relevance for art. But for the Vancouver artist, her interest is not in the blurring of boundaries so much as it is in the directing of a focus of attention. Thauberger’s concern is not to aestheticize a social relationship, or to use the social sphere – real people – as the material for art, both typical explanations the artistic enterprise generally known as “relational aesthetics.”

Rather, Thauberger would seem to have a preoccupation with using the entire apparatus of art as avenue to direct experience. It says something about the complexity of the contemporary world that this directness–reality as it were– might be found by employing popular genre and the mechanisms of its representation, but doing this on terms that ensure basic aspects of its conventions will not be met.

Real people do not look or act the way that “real people” are portrayed on TV and in the cinema. Maybe this is the true subject of Thauberger’s art: failure to meet the conventions of the real as representation makes it difficult to recognize. In Thauberger’s terms, wishing that the real looked otherwise betrays one’s “complicity with popular forms of representation.”

However, considering the care that Thauberger takes when initiating a project to use industry professionals with those groups she collaborates with, this stance is somewhat disingenuous. As Reid Shier notes, “the performances do not meet the standards that the production values augur.” He argues that making works to industry standard is a mark of the artist’s sincerity, conveying a measure of respect for the performers intentions. Still, giving her works a professional gloss sets up an expectation in the viewer that her novice performers will inevitably disappoint.

Thauberger says that she hopes her work sets up the conditions for empathy or identification. She is working to open doors that the art world tends to prefer closed. Halfway through a year-long artist residency in Berlin, for her next project Thauberger will work with young men in the city who opt for a civil service fulfillment of their obligation to undertake nine months of military duty. A rather shopworn institution in Germany at this point, the authorities at the Zivildienst, were happy to approve Thauberger’s proposal as an official project, for those enlistees who have performing ambitions.

Thauberger estimates she will work with eight young men to produce one or a series of short musical films of their own devising. Thauberger proposes to shoot the production in the same place where the films will be shown, the chapel of the Kunstlerhaus Bethanian, home to the international artist residency of which she is a participant. In this way, she will further open up to the public the conditions under which film productions are made. It’s a logical step in the artist’s project to use the mechanisms of representation as a means of its own demystification.

[1] Bishop, Claire, “The Social Turn: Collaboration and its Discontents” Artforum, February 2006, p. 179.

This text originally published in Canadian Art Fall 2010.

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