Althea Thauberger


Songstresses Invent Selves

Alexander Varty
The Georgia Straight 36 No. 1820 | 2002

One after the other, young women materialize from nowhere, face the viewer, and appear to sing. We see them in hydrangea-lined gardens, on oceanfront rocks, above woodland lakes. Some stare calmly into the camera; others stumble before it, abashed. Some pour all their hopes and fears into their voices; others sound like they’re trying to remember something they’d heard on the radio the night before. The program lasts less than 30 minutes, eight times the three-minute length of a roll of 16 mm film. All the women come from the Victoria area. All, save for one, are Caucasian. None would look out of place shopping on Robson Street or sipping coffee on Commercial Drive. And yet Althea Thauberger’s Songstress, a video installation now showing at the Artspeak gallery, manages to be both banal and otherworldly; these faces could be anyone’s friend, daughter, classmate, or neighbour, but the way they see themselves is rarely so ordinary.

The project started when Thauberger placed a classified ad in Victoria’s Monday magazine, looking for young, female singer-songwriters to participate in a combined recording-session/video shoot. Of the dozens who applied, she selected the eight who appear in Songstress, arranged to have one tune from each of them professionally recorded, them filmed them lip-synching those songs, each in a different Vancouver island locale.

Thauberger’s role was primarily editorial; she chose the participants and the locations, but the young women where then free to express themselves in their music-and in their dress, movement, gestures, and general self-presentation. The results are fascinating, and not entirely predictable.

One expects a certain amount of self-possession from aspiring singer-songwriters; the idiom is by nature both confessional and performance-oriented. With a couple of exceptions, most Songstress participants have obviously thought quite a lot about how they want to present themselves. What’s surprising, though is how thoroughly they reject the highly sexualized images of femininity that dominate MuchMusic and other music industry outlets. If there are exposed navels here, its because it was warm during the shoot; the one dancer-performer, Song Hee Park-Talbot, does the classic bare-foot-hippie routine, spinning in a floaty summer dress, while most of the rest aspire to by forest nymphs, beachside naiads, or earthy eco-girls. Julia Skagfjord goes furthest in this quest: wearing little pagan horns and way too much blue eye shadow, she is truly, touchingly awkward, as if she’s just about to lose her balance.

It’s interesting that many of these performers cast themselves as magical beings, or at least the inhabitants of a magical land. But it’s unclear whether this stems from the lush and lovely setting Thauberger has chosen, from the singers’ resentment of a ‘real word’ in which they’re going to have to support themselves by waitressing while they polish their craft, or from some deeper identification with the powers of nature. I suspect the latter, but I also suspect that had Thauberger chosen urban locations for her shoots, she would have achieved entirely different results.

What she has come up with, however, is lovely to look at. By shooting on film then transferring to video, she’s made her landscapes glow with supersaturated greens and blues. Her old growth forest backdrop for Leah Abramson’s “Tomorrow”, in particular, is so beautifully lit it’s almost surreal.

Like any successful work of art, Songstress prompts more questions that it answers. How do young women form their identities? Where do they find the parts they piece together to make a persona? What role does their songwriting play in their construction of self? Are they acting in opposition to or in collusion with societal forces? Thauberger offers no conclusions, but it would be wonderful to see a 10-years-later follow-up with the project’s participants, to discover whether they’ve arrived at any of their own.