In conversation with Althea Thauberger

Althea Thauberger, Zivildienst ≠ Kunstprojekt, 2007. Production still. Courtesy of the artist and MACM © Althea Thauberger

Vancouver based artist Althea Thauberger‘s video “Zivildienst ≠ Kunstprojekt (Social Service ≠ Art Project)” has recently been showed at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Montreal, an eighteen-minutes black and white film produced with the collaboration of eight young Germans who devoted part of their civil service to this project. Prior to Zivildienst ≠ Kunstprojekt, Thauberger has been working together with varied and often enclaved groups of people or communities such as young Canadian female singer/songwriters, U.S. military wives, Canadian tree planters and Vancouver-based reserve soldiers. Through diverse media such as performances, films, video, audio recordings and photography, and within the process of the production, Thauberger and her amateur performers co-develop and co-create the narratives through their spontaneous and imaginative self-expression. The resulting works consistently pose pointed questions about self-identification and social belonging.

M-KOS [MKOS]: “Zivildienst ≠ Kunstprojekt” was made in 2007. Have you shown this work in different places before?

Althea Thauberger [AT]: Yes. I’ve shown this work in a number of places prior to Montreal. It was first shown in Berlin where it was made and the production of the video was actually presented as a public exhibition. So the public was more or less able to come and observe the filming of the work and as well participate in the discussions that we were having, in terms of the development of the work. And then the first time the video was shown in its entirety was in Utrecht in the Netherlands in early 2007. Since then this work has been shown in New York, Vancouver, London and Guangzhou in China.

MKOS: So, is this work a result of your residency in Berlin?

AT: Yes. It’s a result of a yearlong residency. It’s the one probably many Canadians [artists] know about because it’s one many Canadians have done since it started in maybe 2004. It’s run through the Canada Council and also through Künstlerhaus Bethanien, an international residency organization and art space in Berlin.

MKOS: Do you want to talk about the issues you went through in making this particular piece?

AT: This work came about through an agreement with a German state organization, Zivildienst, which translates to civilian service or civil service. It is a wing of German military through which young men who were drafted for obligatory military service can claim conscientious objection and then do social work in the social institutions of the country rather than military service. At the time I was in Berlin it was a mandatory period of nine months and young men would work in hospitals, half-way houses, nursing homes, these kinds of institutions. And they were more or less a sort of subsidy, in a way very cheap labour towards the German welfare state, let’s put it that way, through the military.

MKOS: Was the contribution to your project part of the social service?

AT: It was actually. So they were participating in the art project as a part of their mandatory service.

MKOS: That’s very interesting… You’ve done this in Germany and already showed in many places worldwide. So would this work be the one that made you cross-over to international recognition?

AT: I don’t know if it would be this one… perhaps a couple of earlier works would probably done that for me. Two earlier works, one was made in 2002 called “Songstress” and the other made in 2004 called “A Memory Lasts Forever” traveled a little bit more widely outside of Canada, USA and Europe.

Althea Thauberger, A Memory Lasts Forever, 2004. Production still. Courtesy of the artist. © Althea Thauberger

MKOS: Zivildienst ≠ Kunstprojekt is in continuation to these earlier works?

AT: In a way, those earlier works were featuring young women and were somewhat collaborative. I know there was an interest in working with Zivildienst because they are highly gendered organization, it’s only for young men. So that kind of genderness was built into the institution itself. And working with the institution meant I was working with only young men, and I had to deal with the gender in someway. So that was something that already interested me.

MKOS: You are originally from Saskatoon and now based in Vancouver. Now you work internationally and enjoy an international exposure, but how do you feel as a Canadian to be part of the international community? Your work involves collaboration with local groups or communities, enclaves in different social and political background that deal with issues of identity, collective as well as personal identities…

AT: I will take this question to be one about the nation state, and coming from Canada I have this particular kind of affection to this kind of interrogation that comes from being raised in the 70s and 80s, when Canada was a nation that perpetuated an image of a kind of benevolent nationalism, which I would associate with the Trudeau period, the CBC and the idea of multiculturalism. But inevitably you become aware of the underside which it evolved from. And when as a young person, a particular political awareness began to emerge in my life, realizing we have to acknowledge that we live in a nation whose foundations stand on a brutal history, and colonialism that continues. My relationship to Canada, and how that affects working in a social and political way in other places, maybe affects my desire to work through aspects of cultures that could reflect contradictory aspects of power relations.

MKOS: Are you currently working on a new project?

AT: I’m on my way to Prague to make a new film. It will be a multi-faceted project. I’m working with an experimental theatre company there who will be staging a play in a psychiatric hospital in Prague. I’m working together with the production team of the play as well as on the production of a documentary about the staging of this play in the hospital, in where residents patients and doctors, all have their roles.

Interviewed by Oli Sorenson

Althea Thauberger, Zivildienst ≠ Kunstprojekt, 2007. Production still. Courtesy of the artist. © Althea Thauberger. Image via archives from John Connelly Presents, NY

Althea Thauberger (b.1970 Saskatoon) is an artist based in Vancouver. She completed BFA in Photography at Concordia University in Montreal and MFA in Visual Arts at University of Victoria, BC. She has showed (both solo and group) at numerous museums and galleries in Canada, USA, and Europe. Her work was also presented at the 17th Biennale of Sydney, Guangzhou Triennial in China and Manifesta 7 in Italy. Thauberger was awarded for the VIVA Awards in 2011.

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