Review of Songstress, a film by Althea Thauberger, 2002

Artspeak, October 19 to November 23, 2002

Female Victoria filmmaker seeks female singer/songwriters ages approximately 17-25 to be featured in art film. No experience necessary.

This was an ad that Althea Thauberger placed in an entertainment weekly a year or so ago. The result was Songstress , a film (transferred to DVD) representing eight young women performing their own songs within a number of lush natural settings in the Victoria area. While homogeneous in content, mood, and delivery (earthy love songs), the songs did vary somewhat in genre, from folk-ballad to quasi-grunge to new age pop.

For some time now the music industry seems to have finally caught up with the other half of the consuming/producing population, the women. For the longest time the pop music industry was, with a few exceptions, the domain of boys and men. The sixties changed that situation somewhat, but as in the art world, the Joni Mitchells and Buffy Saint Maries were token talents within a male-dominated culture industry. The post-punk scene signaled a rise in female visibility but it was in the nineties, with the explosion of indie labels and the likes of Lillith Fair, that the music industry most markedly shifted for women. Althea Thauberger seems interested in how young women are inspired by, and made marketable within, the pop music industry. There has been a propensity for lauding the anorexic diva vocalist and the dread-locked female folk singer. This is somewhat consistent with tradition. Also consistent is the hackneyed vision that places "woman" in close proximity to nature, those unbridled forces that are equated with tumultuous emotions.

Working in both photography and film, Thauberger's main focus has been the grand myth of nature, the return or retreat to nature. Whether in terms of "roughing it" in the bush, avidly pursuing the West coast outdoor thing, or just performing for the camera in a natural setting, Thauberger's work has consistently investigated this constructed relationship that humans have with the outdoors. With Thauberger, nature becomes the sublime backdrop against which humans dramatize the human condition, made slightly ridiculous by self-importance and privilege.

What gives this work its "edge" is the fact that these young women willingly participated in this film without any knowledge of the art audience. Hers is a demotic gesture that borders on being patronizing (by the sheer vulnerability of these women). The way they are filmed, one continuous take, no zooms or edits, helps demythologize the packaging of popular music within music videos. As a result one is inclined to sympathize with these women, to their misguided hopes and ambitions, despite talent. However, I am inclined to assume that most viewers would be overwhelmed by a sense of pity and embarrassment for these women. One senses a sincerity of delivery before an unforgiving technical and theoretical eye. One cannot help but feel awkward, these women so obviously manipulated by the artist's choice of setting, the use of unedited footage, and offering itself up to be scrutinized by a culture-savvy art audience.

This exploitative quality is what is most interesting about the film. The work contrasts the notion of a marketable "look" against all the unrecognized talent that is powerless. However heartfelt their intentions, few of these women are "promising" in any marketable sense, and the homogeneity of the songs and their dress also points to the homogeneity of the industry. One gets a sense that they have put themselves in an awkward position in order to make themselves known, and yet they have no control over how they are being portrayed. In placing these eight women within an art venue, Thauberger proffers a subtle critique of the culture industry.   The songs, their image and body language, make one uncomfortable, even irritated, but also make one thankful that someone has had the guts to make these women into something approaching an unwitting clown or fool. The fool as artful messenger of social criticism.

(First published in Canadian Art Magazine Spring 2003)