For her project Zivildienst ≠ Kunstprojekt (Social Service ≠ Art Project), 2006, Althea Thauberger collaborated with a group of young German men known as Zivis, participants in the titular program, which allows citizens to perform social work in lieu of stints in the military. This group investigation into issues such as mandatory service and national identity resulted in a series of connected works, including an eighteen-minute video. The latter features the eight young men pantomiming a series of social rituals and protocols – discussing, disagreeing, splitting into factions, reconciling, helping one another – that might be more precisely read as illustrating a progression from powerlessness adolescent to autonomous young adult. Like other of Thauberger’s works, which have often also incorporated contributions from different social groups and subcultures (female singer-songwriters, military spouses), the project’s overarching theme is the individual’s relationship to a group and the choices he or she make about self-presentation – the hallmarks, really, of coming of age.
The filmic component of Zivildienst is shot in a shadowy noir style and focuses on tableaux that depend on broad, hammy gestures (the furrowed brow and long stare of deep thought, for example). The action takes place within a rickety, clattering construction made of scaffolding assembled inside a church that also serves as a gallery, suggesting physical, social, and mental constraints, as well as alluding to the existence of a society that can be at once progressive and limiting. The performance is both heartfelt and hokey, approaching at times a kind of amateurish modern dance that is marked nonetheless by moments of real intensity.
Also included in the exhibition was a set of photographic portraits of the Zivis, in which the subjects themselves determined how they would be portrayed. Accompanying each is a brief fictitious autobiography, also conceived by the subject, that takes the form of a short printed text taped to the wall. Many of these make reference to entrapment, to life taking a bad turn, to various existential voids; the text of Jan, 2006, tells the story of a young man who longs to be a pilot, and ends rather abruptly: “He hopes that he can continue his career as planned but at the moment it doesn’t look like it, after he woke up one morning and found himself in the shit.”
One’s shifting reaction to such works echoes the very coming of age they portray: the discomfort of adolescence and young adulthood, recognition of the need for self-expression, and embarrassment at the theatricality and predictability of the tropes available for articulating rebellion and isolation. But Thauberger is all empathy, even if she is responsible for putting her participants at the border of an odd disconnect. The young women of her video Songstress, 2002, are both elevated by the gorgeous natural backdrops the artist chose for their musical performances as well as a bit shamed by them, and we feel the power of their own choices, however misguided. This slippage between what is freely chosen and what is imposed, between what is embarrassing and what is powerful, is what makes Thauberger’s work compelling rather than simply painful to watch.