Vancouver-based artist Althea Thauberger is tough to pin down. Her varied research-centric projects have taken her around the world – from a military base in Kandahar to a remote community in Kashmir, an apartment building in Victoria to a psychiatric hospital in Prague. The results of her most recent project, filmed in an abandoned factory complex in Rejika, Croatia is currently on view as her solo exhibition, ‘Preuzmimo Benčić (Take Back Benčić)’ at Susan Hobbs Gallery. The film and accompanying installation furthers her previous investigations into social, political, and institutional power relations through documented acts of co-creative process.
In 2013, Thauberger began working in the port city of Rijeka. Backdropped by the former worker-managed Rikard Benčić factory complex, the experimental documentary film is the result of a seven week occupation of the site by Thauberger, her co-directors, crew, and sixty-seven local child performers aged six to thirteen. Over a decade since its shutting down and the expulsion of its workers, the city has rezoned the factory complex for redevelopment as a site for cultural industries, with plans for it to house the city’s museum and library, a contemporary art museum, ‘creative start-ups’ and hotels. Accusations of mismanaged project funding have left the future of the complex in limbo, held up by lawsuits, while the site slides into further ruin.
Set against the highly complicated political and economic context of the former Yugoslavian state, the resulting documentation is a socially engaged and layered film that offers an diosyncratic approach to the investigation of the complexities of expressing labour (particularly the politically charged nature of artistic labour), the revelation of boundaries and social class, and the exploration of alternative models of governance. ‘Preuzmimo Benčić (Take Back Benčić)’ sees children divided into the roles of “artists” or former workers who have been permitted to temporarily re-occupy the complex, and “mayors” who discuss their own plans for its regeneration. Both groups resolve to “make it better again and breathe new life into it”, yet the ensuing role play results in a fierce debate regarding the “artists” occupation, ending in a frustrating state of uncertainty similar to that of the complex’s future. Through the engagement of a method that sees no division between actors and audience, the film’s content is collaboratively developed through the children’s work, which includes gestures, improvisations, music/sound, dance, and videomaking, capturing their poignant revelations through assorted performances that directly and indirectly recount the stories of the former Benčić workers.
While the film will be screened at several locations (an earlier edit was presented at Musagetes, in Guelph, Ontario, and it is currently on view as part of La Biennale de Montréal), Thauberger’s installation at Susan Hobbs Gallery provides a cursory glimpse into the artist’s deep investment in collaborative process.
The fifty-seven minute film (which repeats on the hour) occupies the main floor of the gallery, while the second level presents selected notes and documents from Thauberger’s exhaustive research and filmmaking process carefully laid out on the walls – an archive comprising of historical reports, email correspondence, participants’ drawings, and images of elaborate costumes assembled by the children themselves. At the centre of the space is a table topped with piles of 4 x 6 photographs from the occupation, inviting viewers (now turned participants) to browse through and piece together their own stories from the Benčić complex.
Doubling as a platform for further engagement and as an extension of Thauberger’s co-creative practice, the second floor of gallery has also played host to a cast of cultural figures (including Darren O’Donnell, Srebrenka Zeskoski, Bojana Videkanic, cheyanne turions, Kim Simon, and Emily Vey Duke) for a series of Saturday discussions and workshops throughout the exhibition.
By using children as her cast, Thauberger is able to conjure an inviting illusion of play whilst still encouraging scrutiny of the larger issues underlying the project and the potential socioeconomic failures related to creative regeneration. The film itself might be best considered as analogous to the ruin it is captured in: simultaneously set in the past and the present (whilst considering the future), it suggests a unique temporality which, alongside the nature of collaborative and social practice used in the creative process itself, directly reflects the ‘in-flux’ reality of the Benčić complex. Ultimately, ‘Preuzmimo Benčić (Take Back Benčić)’ and the resulting installation at Susan Hobbs Gallery achieves a collaborative form of critical thought that is both compelling in its visual draw and intellectually challenging in its multi-layered contexts.