The Trouble with Occupying Others: Althea Thauberger Confronts the Violence of the Archive

Althea Thauberger, "Green Screen," 2018. Image courtesy of Susan Hobbs Gallery.
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Gazing out from a large photograph on the second floor of Susan Hobbs Gallery in Toronto, Althea Thauberger wears a yellow dress, pearl earrings, and the look of someone who’s just committed the prank of the century. The Vancouver-based artist is known for her collaborations with niche communities, prompting and documenting revelatory performances by, say, military wives in San Diego, or the residents of a psychiatric hospital in Prague. With her latest exhibition, Althea Lorraine, Thauberger has entered the frame herself, to jolting effect.

In a series of self-portraits, we find Thauberger role-playing the character of Lorraine Monk, the former director of the National Film Board of Canada’s Still Photography Division. Monk presided over two major national identity projects (read: state propaganda) on the occasion of the country’s centennial anniversary in 1967. One was Expo 67’s People Tree and the other was the publication of the coffee-table books Call Them Canadians and Ces Visages Qui Sont Un Pays, comprising many meticulously-curated images of Canadians from the NFB’s archives. The centennial marked a transitional moment when Canada sought to redefine itself as a nation of multiculturalism, and Monk was in a unique position to decide what that looked like, and what it didn’t.

Monk was a complex figure. An influential woman in Canada’s culture sector at a time of mostly unfettered male domination, she possessed a genius for overcoming sexist bureaucracy to pull off ambitious, innovative projects, according to Carol Payne, a historian of the Still Photography Division. Monk made space for more creative approaches to photography and used her clout and resources to nurture a generation of artist-photographers. But she was also responsible for crafting a national branding exercise that, under the guise of inclusion, helped reinforce the white, middle-class center of Canada’s unacknowledged colonial regime.

Thauberger’s investigation of Monk as a character began with a commission by Montreal’s Musée d’art contemporain (MAC) to create a video work for last year’s exhibition In Search of Expo 67. “I was curious and compelled by her as a figure really early on in the research,” Thauberger told me over the phone. She began studying photographs of Monk from the archive, poring over old memos and notes she’d written, listening to recordings, and interviewing former colleagues and friends. (Monk is now 92 and lives in Toronto.) Thauberger found herself captivated by the personality that emerged: Monk was funny, candid, articulate, and “very in possession of her image and her legacy.”

Althea Thauberger, “Althea, Lorraine, Index, Card,” 2018. Image courtesy of Susan Hobbs Gallery.

As she encountered Monk’s presence in archive, Thauberger began to feel an odd kinship with her, almost like discovering a twin. She found that they shared an unusual first name — Monk was Althea before she traded it for her middle name, Lorraine. “Althea is a very rare name. I’ve never met another one,” Thauberger told me. Then there was the uncanny fact of their shared likeness. Though the two women project starkly different images – Thauberger jokingly describes herself as “shaggy” and “badly groomed,” while Monk was always poised, in the style of a society woman of that era – they bear a surprising resemblance. Thauberger laughs it off, quipping that “we’re both gangly white women with big noses.” But her embodiment of Monk is more profound than that. I confess that it took me far too long to grasp that the portraits in the Althea Lorraine exhibition aren’t actual archival photos of Lorraine Monk.

The artist’s identification also occurred on a deeper level. Thauberger’s subjects have often been identifiable by some fairly granular category of human experience or ambition: women soldiers, aspiring singer-songwriters, German conscientious objectors. Like those, Monk and Thauberger share a distinct niche with two chief features — that is, they are influential women in the artworld, and they exercise control over the images of others.

Because her art frequently involves non-artists, amateurs, and people in difficult situations, writers describe Thauberger’s work as controversial. Criticism typically tracks along one of two opposing lines: exploitation or complicity. The access she gets can be remarkable, causing some to question her willingness to mediate performances by people whose experiences are alien to hers. For example, in “Who is that can tell me who I am?” (2012), she collaborated with a traditional Kashmiri street-theater troupe. In Chelsea Girls (2008), she worked with residents of a low-income apartment building in Victoria, B.C.. Alternately, her staged portraits of Canadian soldiers, such as The Art of Seeing Without Being Seen (2008) and Kandahar International Airport (2009), suggested to some that she had implicated herself uncritically in a system of violence and oppression abroad.

Audiences are right to wonder how Thauberger exercises power in these relationships. That’s the sort of question she would ask. Thauberger habitually uses her position as an internationally reputable artist – and the opportunities her status affords – to scrutinize foreign power dynamics. Or perhaps it’s better to say that she invites her subjects to perform the scrutiny themselves, from within their own circumstances and institutions. And so, having discovered in Monk a cipher for her own work, she seized the chance to make art from within the troubled nexus of power that she herself occupies. (The same nexus of power, it’s worth noting, that other influential producers, directors, journalists, and artists working in the field of relational aesthetics also occupy.) She could finally do unto herself what she’s done unto others.

So it was a natural step for Thauberger to present herself as a stand-in for Monk, first in L’arbe est dans ses feuilles, a video work for the MAC exhibition, and also in the Althea Lorraine show at Susan Hobbs Gallery. But Thauberger travels a good many steps beyond acting as a proxy. Through ingenious imitation, she physically occupies the memory of Monk – invades her, reclaims her – and from that perilous position, attempts to rewrite the script of history.

The decision to impersonate Monk echoes with another work of Thauberger’s, Preuzmimo Benčić (Take Back Benčić) (2014). In it, she directs 67 child actors from Rijeka, Croatia to occupy a former worker-managed factory building that was closed during a period of privatization in the 1990s. The children improvise past conflicts with bosses and propose futures for themselves as artist-workers. The resulting hour-long video offers a powerful, imaginative vision of the sort of creative political action that is implied by the contemporary Left’s use of the term “occupy.” Watching Preuzmimo Benčić feels like attending the birth of a new form of activist intervention; history doesn’t allow do-overs, but maybe it’s worth pretending? Maybe we can occupy the past?

Then again, maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to invoke occupation. The Occupy movement acclimatized many of us to the term, though as a rallying cry it can ring a cruel note of obliviousness for those who experience colonial occupation daily. The photos in the NFB archives are carefully labeled according to the subjects’ gender, location, occupation, and ethnicity. Within that rubric, Indigenous people are tagged by what nation they are members of, and then relegated to the sidelines of the collection: a cautiously acceptable minority and no threat to the legitimacy of the settler state. Monk’s curating seem designed to reassure white viewers that Indigenous people are all securely ensconced in remote locations, living separate realities.

Speaking of the intrinsic violence of this propaganda exercise, Thauberger says, “Indigenous people are identified as a segment of the [nation-building] project, as opposed to what they rightfully are, which is the people who are dispossessed through this project – people who have a very different idea of what this land is and what this nation is.” In a sense, Monk and the NFB were using photography to occupy Indigenous life and reframe it as a minor feature of Canadian national identity.

Of course, Monk and her collaborators didn’t consciously set out to promote racism. Quite the opposite: they believed they were actualizing a utopian dream of Canadian togetherness. In Call Them Canadians, Monk excised all labels and captions from the photographs, to create the feeling that “we’re all one and there are no divisions here,” says Thauberger.

Having reclaimed Monk’s curatorial project through role-play, Thauberger makes one decisive move to disrupt its propaganda-effect: she puts the labels back, out in the open for viewers to see.  In three large portraits on the main floor of Susan Hobbs Gallery, we see Thauberger playing the character of Monk as she sifts through piles of black-and-white reproductions from the original negatives, spread out on the desk in front of her.  Arranged in the space around her head and torso are the missing labels, forming chilly clouds of categorization. Here we find the voice of settled power, blunt and self-assured.

Elsewhere on the main floor of the small gallery hang more portraits of Thauberger experimenting with Monk-like poses. Framed contact sheets show the artist performing minuscule adjustments to get the posturing and facial expressions just right. From these we catch a glimpse of the artist in her process, fine-tuning her portrayal. But we also intuit the suggestion that Monk was a master of projection, or at least a perfectionist in her self-presentation. The images make an absorbing study, like watching someone look at themselves in a mirror.

Althea Thauberger, “1337,” 2018. Image courtesy of Susan Hobbs Gallery.

But an ominous question casts a streaky shadow over these otherwise playful images: why is Monk trying so hard? Why must she exert so much control over her image? Despite Thauberger’s critical stance in this exhibition, she’s not making Monk her villain. Although the former NFB curator participated in a system of oppression, she also waged a heroic personal war against that system, with grace and poise. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and Thauberger clearly wants to celebrate her predecessor.

Climbing to the second floor the gallery, visitors encounter a final, head-turning image of the artist pretending to be curator. In this transfixing self-portrait titled Green Screen (2018), Thauberger has draped herself backwards across the desk, hanging her head so she can fix the camera with an alert grin. There’s so much mischievous satisfaction radiating from Thauberger’s expression, it takes a minute for the other elements of the photograph to click into view. A lime-colored green-screen gleams in the background, cementing the sixties palette of the scene while thrusting us into the non-space of the studio. The top of Thauberger’s head and one outstretched arm rest on stacks of black-and-white photographs from the archive, as if to pin them in place. Adding to the droll precariousness of the composition, the image is flipped vertically, leaving her to hang in space like Wile E. Coyote after walking off a cliff.

Having invested so much care in her representation of Monk, Green Screen flips that effort in a different direction, toward transformation. In our conversation, Thauberger pointed out that Monk would have never allowed herself to be pictured like that. The figure in the photo has moved out of Monk’s world. “There’s a sense of limbo,” Thauberger observed. “The limbo that’s between myself and her, between the past and the present, between real space and artificial space, between life and death.” The expression on Thauberger’s face suggests she’s discovered a delicious secret out there in that in-between space: our images of each other aren’t fixed. We can change them.

4 Comments

  • A thoughtful, inspiring review, Mark. Thank you!

    When I look at Althea’s Green Screen (2018), particularly in light of other elements at work in her practice, her exhibition and what you have brought to them, I see the subject as a variety of devices might see her — from the arm of a paper cutter to an editing block to a guillotine blade.

    Green Screen is a picture both comic and horrific, and that juxtaposition — in addition to what you have brought to it –accounts for some of its power.

  • kathryn says:

    Thank you for this thought-provoking piece.

  • Grahame Ware says:

    The artist as a comedic impressionist clone. A little twang here and there and an appropriated chuckle facilitating art as entertainment. NEXT!
    It would seem that a serious attempt at divining the differences between Monk and Thauberger would be much duller (read an art journal article) but would accomplish much more without the art party ballyhoo. Performance withdrawal anxiety rears its ugly head festooned with the mandatory silly party hat. This is the problem I believe with this project.
    Sorry to be a party poop.

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