“The memory came faint and cold of the story I might have told, a story in the likeness of my life, I mean without the courage to end or the strength to go on.” So reads the last sentence of The End (1954), one of Samuel Beckett’s novellas. After being expelled from a remote charitable institution where he stayed for a long while, the sole protagonist wanders around a city and settles down at the seashore to meet his end. The story is narrated in the first person and in a monotonous and intermittently futile tone— recognizable as classically “Beckettian.” The vulnerability of life is captured in a portrait that is neither dramatic nor tragic. No distinct line is drawn between life and death, yet we are able to follow the protagonist’s gradual road to committing suicide. One could say that death was inherent in the core of his life, filled with stasis, inertia, and a fundamental sense of being indifferent and alien not only to society but also to himself. Is the life described here worthlessly nihilistic?
Yes and No. Yes, if one takes the content of the story at face value. No, if we manage to understand its subversive elements. Nietzsche once said that we shall talk our hope secretly in a language that others cannot understand, and in the darkness that others cannot see. Perhaps this language is that of “unkillability,” a state which Terry Eagleton considers characteristic of Beckettian figures. Unkillable life seems almost useless and empty, but nevertheless it cannot be terminated; this leaves room for the possibility of avoiding being touched by controlling systems of power, be they bureaucratic (governmental) or economic (capitalist). When the social system exerts the authority to determine, judge, and value your life, a kind of regression close to self-alienation seems to be called for. Similar to the wise man in an old children’s story who saved his life by pretending to be dead when facing a lethal attack from a bear, we’d better face the “state of exception” or death ourselves before being put under sentence of death by powers beyond our control. Thus, this tactic of unkillability cannot be separated from the persistence to go on living, which is of course premised on being together, on cohabitation, on coexistence.
Artist Althea Thauberger also seems to see this paradoxical potential. At first glance, Thauberger’s works do not share much with Beckettian tactics. Her collaborative performance-based video and photographic works are often crowded with people or a community. They entail a direct collaborative working process, involving a group in the production of (audio-)visual works in which participants contribute to both the composition of the narrative and the performance itself. Here the values of engagement and collaboration are indeed overtly and highly prized. However, it also becomes clear through the entire process of collaboration that Thauberger’s practice relentlessly exposes the vulnerability and alienation of the performers in their being together and apart and in the exaggerated theatrical way that they interact with each other, which borders simultaneously on the pathetic and sympathetic. In other words, a state of seemingly permanent adolescence and isolation, in which “togetherness” is constantly dismantled by “external” constraints, is characteristic of many of the “communities” that Thauberger collaborates with. The communal situations in which they participate are never completely fulfilling or accepting either for themselves or for the viewers—instead terms like “low farce” or “black carnivalesque” (as in Beckett) are rather more apropos. But the remarkable turn in Thauberger’s work is that the experience of this condition raises a hopeful and determined consciousness of and commitment to living together. In other words, the negativity “creates sense” here as in Beckett.
Zivildienst ? Kunstprojekt (2006–2007) could be considered the most explicit example of this artistic methodology. The project is the result of Thauberger’s collaboration with a group of young German males in their late teens and early twenties who are performing mandatory civil service largely in charity organizations. This service exempts them from military duty. Instead, these youths are expected to engage in a kind of manual and mechanical “performance of labor,” which supplements the social welfare system. Considering the particularity of this arrangement, Thauberger made an official agreement with the Zivildienst authority to allow these young civil servants to “serve” in the context of an art project. The tasks assigned to them, relatively more flexible and creative than the ones generally performed, vary from attending a series of meetings to discuss issues such as the Zivildienst system or military service, national identity, and work ethics as well as their “personal” concerns, to writing a fictitious biography, and to working on the realization of a performance to simulate an alienated community (possibly their own).
The outcome of this process can be seen in two ways. The fictional biographies written by the participants appear alongside individual portraits, depicting the slippage between imagination and real life. In this way, the youths’ forced “social service” appears to be transformed into a kind of engagement. This engagement, however, does not serve to clarify identity but rather discloses the uncertainty and pain associated with social life, where one is neither completely alone nor completely together. This fragility or vulnerability is manifested in a choreographic and collaborative performance, which mimics individual and collective gestures. Recorded in pious blackand- white film, the performance is orchestrated in slow and grand gestures in the midst of an imposing architectural setting of construction scaffolding. The constant interchange between the performers’ physical movements—which are malleable and at the same time robust—gradually reveals the disparate aspects of living in a community where all different individuals’ desires and conditions intersect and collide. Conflict, unfamiliarity, trauma, negotiation, discipline, deviation, and the threat of betrayal are all part of this “web of singularities.” They are far removed from the mode of “helping people in an equal and democratic process to make society better” so often found both in the sector of “social service” and in many community-based projects. What the performance engraves in our minds is the inherent difficulties of dealing with individual posturing and collective demands.
It is when Thauberger’s projects frame the core of their narratives with singing and musical performance that this aspect becomes quite clear. Songs and singing often function as a way to communicate and create a spirit of cooperation, harmony, and reconciliation between people. However, the function of song is ironically taken to another level in Thauberger’s works at the same time. Invited to organize an art project on the border between San Diego and Tijuana by inSite, Thauberger produced Murphy Canyon Choir (2005) with a group of military spouses in San Diego in the largest military housing complex in the United States. They wrote a series of songs in collaboration with a professional composer and performed them in front of a military and art audience. One of the songs begins like this: “I am the wife of a hero/The pain I feel/You’ll never know/I am his wife/and I pray for his life/the wife of a hero.” What the performance poignantly exposes is not, as we might expect, their pain and loneliness in an isolated camp or their seemingly patriotic sacrifice of stoic heroism. Rather a very complex collision between the political, social, and individual elements around this community is revealed. What motivates them recite this eulogy? What do their husbands risk there lives for? What are their sources of solace and support? What relationship do we have with this community and with these modes of self-presentation? The choir’s song bombards us with all these conflicting questions, questions that cannot be answered during this affecting and almost embarrassingly confessional performance.
A virtually identical mechanism is found in the collaborative performance-based video work A Memory Lasts Forever (2004). In the video a group of four aspiring teenage actresses act out the story of the death of a dog by drowning in the middle of a drunken party. Around a swimming pool in a gated middleclass residential villa, each girl (some sporting bikinis) plays the protagonist in turn, presenting us with her own interpretation of and reaction to the traumatic accident. The same narrative is repeated four times, during which each girl performs a prayerful and pop/hymn-like song she has written and composed. These performances are filled with sincerity, and the repetition of difference suggests a kind of “social allegory” about the state of adolescence (or perhaps a more specifically North American version of youth culture) and the collective and individual (in)capacity to cope with trauma or loss. Willful gestures of mourning are rather hollow since they simply mimic the cultural codes that dictate how one should respond to such an event— that is, to be reflective and meek and seek solace in some higher power. Here singing turns out to be a tool for homogenizing and alienating the self. The camera shots, oscillating between MTV-like shift turn and rough documentary style, establish a tension between the individuality of the performers and the cultural codes that they (consciously or unconsciously) play out. In addition, the setting, which has the appearance of nature but is actually part of the highly artificial construction of suburbia, also suggests that the most natural of things is subject to the cultural codes that define behavior.
The tenuousness of a space upon which we can project individual dreams free from irony or cliché is also emphasized (in a somewhat brutal way) by Thauberger’s performancebased video work, Songstress (2002). The work presents eight young aspiring songstresses in self-styled costume, performing highly emotional and personal music of their own composition. These girls appear in turn in various natural landscapes, perform for the length of one song, and then disappear. Here the “natural landscape” has more in common the Romantic concept of nature as an idealized space where the true self emerges in solitude. However, the girls’ dancing and singing, though highly individualized, is also full of cliché and monotony. They seem to suggest that there is no pure locus or even an outlet for autonomy and freedom of the self, let alone the illusion of an intact and integrated community.
Again this disenchantment coincides with what Thauberger’s work Northern (2005) illuminates. The film is the result of the artist’s collaboration with a group of tree planters in Alberta, Canada, who spend several months in a remote and isolated camp, trying to revive a part of nature that has been erased by the logging industry. The film starts with gradually moving close-up shots in a muddy, barren wasteland of stumps and upturned roots, set against the backdrop of a vast natural forest in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. We see a group of youths dressed in filthy work clothes and boots crumpled on the ground, limbs askew, all of whom look asleep, drugged, or worse, dead. Soon the noise of a helicopter breaks the stillness (and silence) of the scene, lands, and a young woman steps out. She approaches the group and initiates a serial “waking” of the people one by one, by shaking their bodies and calling the person’s name. As each person is revived, they join the group in waking the others, moving together in a mass and tangle of bodies, which, by the end of the film, recalls the scene in Gericault’s famous 1819 painting, The Raft of the Medusa. But, again, man’s proximity to nature does not inspire tranquillity and awe; rather it leaves us with a void of meaning as we wonder what happened to these people, what they are doing, and what message or warning they might want to share with us.
What does Thauberger intend with this particular type of collaboration and presentation? What is our response to the contrasting sincerity and theatricality seen in her work? Viewers may indeed pose such questions, perplexed by the disclosure of the vulnerability of the individuals and their (in)competence as a communal or political entity in her works. Counterintuitive as it may seem, the political potential of Thauberger’s work arises from this negative dimension. The embarrassment or discomfort we may feel when viewing Thauberger’s works can be seen rather a call to consider the pervasive constraints on life imposed on us today, not only by the media or politics, but also by one another. Furthermore, this experience of uncertainty is not necessarily the end, as we may recall from Beckett. It can usher in a state of “unkillability,” that is to say, the state where our life is not ruled by others and where we seize responsibility for carving out and exerting a new form of engagement with “our” life. In this way, Althea Thauberger’s practice, which may be called “community-based art,” throws us back onto ourselves: we are alone again. However, through this process we may become committed to thinking and performing a life together—despite the uncertainty and vulnerability of such an undertaking.
Binna Choi wishes to thank Sven Lütticken, Althea Thauberger, and Jill Winder for their critical reading of this text.