Against a black background eight young men are shown from the waist up as they pantomime various actions of labour. These are the Zivildienstleistender of Althea Thauberger’s project Zivildienst ? Kunstprojekt (Social Service ? Art Project), young German men in their late teens and early twenties who opt for mandatory civil service in various social institutions as an alternative to an obligatory term of military service. Unified by the blackness into which they almost disappear, the young men seem to embody the workings of a machine, the human corpus of the German social state, the duties of which they fulfill in menial jobs and physical caretaking in nursing homes, hospitals and kindergartens.
The image, the invitation card for the first public presentation of the project, came to life in the former chapel of a 19th century hospital, now a gallery in Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin. In a forty-minute performance played out within the symbolically flexible architecture of construction scaffolding (set up within the vaulted space) the young men assumed poses for periods of a few minutes. Group compositions that alternately suggested emotionally charged conflict and communal resolution were punctuated by positions in which the participants’ bodies defined the architecture. By literally establishing a framework for collective expression that suggested the creative potential of shared experimentation, the choreography also highlighted the tensions of the individual vs. the group and moments of subjective self-determination that are often felt in young adulthood.
From the photograph on the card one might be tempted to recall the teeming mass of bodies that make up the sovereign giant of the title page of Hobbes’ Leviathan-a seminal image of the ancient and persistent idea of the body politic. However, Thauberger’s collaborative work with this group touches on a complex of issues beyond the subjugation and control of the individuals by and for the benefit of the state…. (and) through a lengthy process of deepening communication between the artist and the young men, the project seemed to unfold as an exploration of the productive potential within Zivildienst. Important in this context is the history of mandatory social service as an institution of post-war Germany and its role as a rallying point in the protest movements of the 1968 generation–in addition to recent strategic shifts in the make-up of the German military…
Reflected in the writings of the project collaborators… a significant element of the so-called Zivi experience is a sense of isolation from one’s peers, although it is often a period of heightened cross-generational communication, in which young adults come into contact with young children and the elderly.
Thauberger has shown a consistent interest in contemporary coming of age rituals, the potential of micro-societies and collective creativity. She began this project by approaching the national Zivildienst authority to discuss an official co-operation, and the participants were subsequently authorized to take part in the artwork as a component of their civil service. From the first meetings, the artist and the young men have been engaged in a highly collaborative process. Beginning with group discussions and photo shoots, they worked together to develop the physical and visual language of the project, imagining themselves in an isolated society. What resulted was a public performance and a performative video shot in the same location. Thauberger also asked each civil service draftee to write a fictional autobiography and worked with the group to find settings for photographic portraits of each Zivi in character.
While both the performance and video create a tableau vivant effect so plastic that it easily evokes Beuysian notions of the social sculpture, but encouraging the young men to develop a projection of themselves speaks to a more individualized notion of creativity which evidences the influences of mass culture. There is also a certain dichotomy between the sharp, clear aesthetic of Thauberger’s high-resolution images–along with the frozen staging of the poses–and the involvement of amateurs within the open-ended process of the project’s development. These elements seem to be at the core of some of the questions that surface in Thauberger’s work. What is the creative potential within the given structures of a social institution? To what extent is it possible to expand these structures within the context of art? How can individuals begin to define themselves through potentially restrictive collective frameworks?
From the collaborators in this project is it clear that there is no lack of political consciousness in Germany’s burgeoning citizenry. While Hobbes’ robust regent Leviathan may have transformed into the skeletal structure of an abandoned municipal building, a different political body is alive and well, although, as Thauberger work suggests, it is still exploring the potential of these giant shells it has inherited.