Althea Thauberer’s work is like the Internet, and the Internet is the greatest human achievement since the discovery of fire. It’s better than the printing press. It’s better than the telephone. It’s way, way better than TV.
Neither the Internet nor Thauberger’s art projects speak the avant-garde language of experimentalism. The Internet has rendered that tradition obsolete. It has disrupted the connection between narrative/aesthetic convention and capitalism/totalitarianism decried by the modernist avant-garde. I’ve never seen myself as a technological utopian, but things have changed so much—in both the developed and the developing world–since the advent of the internet and “intertwingled” commu-tainment devices like PDAs, cell phones and iPods. Perhaps most notably, a global audience is no longer the prize it once was. Narrative conventions are no longer the property of the big television networks and film studios. Now they’re in the hands of the little millions, a vast number of people (many of them teenagers) who are re-writing them every day—often badly, but always according to their own needs.
Before the advent of ubiquitous computing, the mode of popular rhetorical dissemination was best described as one-to-many. Now it’s best described as peer-to-peer. This radically changes what we need from experimentalism. It’s no longer about creating a critique of forms of representation because the forms are no longer controlled absolutely from the top down.
It’s like the Situationists said about walking: a path (be it neurological, aesthetic or geographical) is created through use and is always subject to alteration through use. That’s what’s happening to narrative and aesthetic convention every day, on you-tube, in blogs, on Google Video. There are currently seventy million blogs online. That’s seventy million individual voices, each of them reaching some kind of audience.
In her projects The Murphy Canyon Choir, Songstress and A Memory Lasts Forever, Althea Thauberger is working in the mode of certain genres now flourishing on the Internet.
The Murphy Canyon Choir was a community collaboration work commissioned by inSite, a San Diego/Tijuana based art organization. Every several years, they put together a series of commissioned artists’ projects in response to the political, social and economic particularities of the border area. Thauberger chose to work with the military community in San Diego, the urban centre with the largest population of active-duty military personnel in the world. She advertised that she was starting a choir for military wives within the community, then had the women who joined compose and arrange their own songs (with the help of a contemporary choral arranger and a composer) and then perform them for a group of people from the contemporary art world and from within the military community—perhaps two of the most ideologically opposed audiences she could gather together in a single room, “…yet [Thauberger writes] for a moment there was a mutual identification.”
The women of The Murphy Canyon Choir wrote the songs they wanted to sing–the performance opened with a piece called “Wife of a Hero”. Some of the art people were in Althea’s words, “seemingly appalled.” Others wept openly.
To make Songstress, Thauberger placed an ad in a Victoria weekly newspaper seeking young female singer-songwriters to collaborate with her on an “art film.” She selected eight girls from the respondents and began working with them toward the audio and film recording that would become Songstress. Each of the participants chose a song she had written, recorded it in a sound studio, and then lip-synched it in a single take, in a location of Thauberger’s choosing—almost obscenely picturesque natural settings in beautiful British Columbia. The resulting work is incredibly poignant. The girls are not flawlessly beautiful, and each is responsible for her personal look, so they aren’t immaculately styled. They are shown in their touching, idiosyncratic awkwardness, singing their patently unexceptional songs in their tremulous, moody, unexceptional voices.
For the video installation A Memory Lasts Forever, exhibited across Canada as part of the Sobey Art Award Tour, Thauberger collaborated with four young women to create an adolescent opera in which each girl tells her own version of the same alarming story from Thauberger’s own adolescence (in which a young, drunk Althea found the family dog dead in the swimming pool). The teenaged performers developed their characters through a lengthy process of improvisation, and like with Murphy Canyon Choir and Songstress, each performed a song she’d composed with a degree of professional assistance.
Radically Conventional; Conventionally Radical She worked with the three groups of girls and women described above to grant them access first to the means of narrative production and second to audience (the same things to which the Internet grants access), but she let them deploy convention to whatever extent they wished. As it turned out, they wished to deploy it quite a lot.
The Internet has a hallmark of greatness that television totally lacks: it can be used in ways its inventors never imagined. The phone is a bit like this. Not only can people telephone one another to announce an imminent invasion by infidels, but drug dealers can use it to organize drug deals. Neurotics can use it to call their analysts while they’re on vacation. Thauberger’s work, likewise, is constructed specifically so that those who use it (both her subjects and her audience) can take from it what they want according to their needs.
As non-art-initiated makers, the women in The Murphy Canyon Choir didn’t have any stake in the experimental strategies of the Avant-Garde—but those strategies are not without usefulness. Humans need to see things expressed in new ways. The composer and arranger who worked with them encouraged the singers to work outside the familiar, to explore minimalism and unconventional tonal ranges. This was valuable for both the performers and the military audience because it allowed them to broaden their notion of the beautiful. It was radical for them in the same way that the use of lyrical and tonal convention was radical for the art audience.
The power of The Murphy Canyon Choir, Songstress and A Memory Lasts Forever comes from the way those works are meaningful for both kinds of audience (art-initiated and non-art-initiated), but bring something new to both audiences as well. Art audiences can dismiss the form as clichéd, but they are still left with the gut-wrenching empathy they feel for the performers. For non-art audiences, familiar forms and tropes are presented alongside sophisticated, challenging ones. Like the Internet, the work is built to shift.
A Brief History of Empathy in Art
We look at artworks in order to see ourselves reflected, to feel not alone, and to identify with a speaking, empowered subject. This practice has grown exponentially with the increased use of the Internet. There have come, over the past twenty years, to be billions of instances of author/viewer relationship per day, and unlike in the worlds of high art and mass-culture, those relationships are peer-to-peer. In this way the Internet is drastically changing the way we experience identification with a cultural producer.
For the past century and a half—say, since Impressionism, but reaching a fever pitch with Abstract Expressionism—we’ve looked to the artist rather than the subject of a painting to identify with a work. Our identification doesn’t stop with the picture plane, but goes beyond it, to the maker.
This makes sense for us as artists or academics, as art professionals. We understand the terms artists’ use, the ways they code personal anxieties and ambivalences through form and sensibility. For people outside the art-world, it’s much harder to find a way in.
The thing that I return to again and again about Thauberger’s work– and those artists’ working in a similar vein, like Phil Collins or Jeremy Deller – is my feeling that it’s transformative for the art world, that it’s “challenging and advancing the discourse”, to use the language of Modernism. But at the same time, the work is transformative for viewers without any investment in the art-world—and therein lays its revolutionary nature. Contemporary art has been largely stymied since the advent of Post-Modernism, stuck in endless reiteration of the same Duchampian question:
“Is it art?”
“What about now?”
“What if it’s shittily made?”
“Yes.” “What if normal people don’t get it?” “Yes.”
“What if I don’t get it even though I made it?”
“Yes, that’s no problem.”
Thauberger’s work neatly bypasses this and goes directly and explicitly to empathy with her subjects. She does this by revisiting a largely abandoned tradition in the visual arts: she uses characters as a vehicle of emotional identification.
With the introduction of abstraction in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, narrative was pushed out of the visual arts. The basic evidence or symptom of this is the impossibility of identification with the subjects in the picture planes of the canonical images of this era. One does not, for instance, feel a sense of personal kinship with the figures in Les Demoiselles D’Avignon, or with the nude in Nude Descending Staircase—and those works are figurative. It’s even less of an option with total abstraction like Pollock’s drip paintings, Mondrian’s grids or Rothko’s colour fields. But the human impulse to empathize is irrepressible. We just relocate our empathy from the protagonist to the author.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this shift. Many artists (Sadie Benning, Sophie Calle and Tracy Emin, for instance) position themselves explicitly as protagonist, thereby acknowledging the reciprocity of the author/audience relationship. The thing that has always frustrated me about artists like Pollock, Rothko, DeKooning, Picasso et al is their seeming is their insistence on having it both ways. They require that the viewer empathize with them as really the only point of entry into their oeuvres, but they do so by claiming to be concerned only with the formal aspects of art-making. This means that they deny the interpersonal nature of what they are doing.
By claiming to be concerned only with the formal aspects of art making, they deny the innately interpersonal nature of what they are doing. They deny the gratification that comes from being seen as protagonists or heroes in the narrative of art history—rather they insist that the expression of their vision or perception is of interest in some empirical way. This has always struck me as stingy, a kind of emotional cowardice.
Throughout the period I’ve delineated, however, there’s always been a small contingent of artists working outside this paradigm—artists who use characters in their work as a point of identification, including John Currin, Alex Bag, Colin Campbell, Lisa Steele and Daniel Barrow.
Gillian Wearing’s photographic work Signs that Say What You Want Them To Say and Not Signs that Say What Someone Else Wants You To Say is a terrific example of this. Like Wearing, and the Internet, Althea Thauberger does something of great interest in her use of characters. She doesn’t author them per se—she facilitates their self-authorship.
And In Conclusion
Ubiquitous computing and communications technologies have reconstituted us as subjects and will continue to do so. As artists, it behooves us to notice how this affects authors and viewers. Peoples’ needs change. It’s crucial that we allow ourselves to let go of critical methodologies when they become outmoded. It’s time to consider what we as makers get from using the tactics of an avant-garde nearly 100 years old, but more importantly, we must consider what our audiences are getting out of those tactics.
I think we can take Althea Thauberger’s work as a model in this regard. She speaks in a language that makes her projects accessible to a range of audiences, but at the same time challenges their expectations. Although the works interrogate the conventions of contemporary art, that interrogation isn’t her only intention. Rather, they are about empathy—about the ways it’s generated, about the power dynamics intrinsic to it, and most basically, about feeling it. In all the works I’ve described here, the viewer gains access through identification with Thauberger’s characters or subjects. But these girls and women are not fearsomely glamorous or talented. They do not intimidate. They are ordinary. They are like us, and yet they are speaking subjects, empowered to tell what they have to tell. If we can empathize with them, if we can be moved, we must acknowledge that we, too, have the power to move.