Peering out to the Adriatic Sea over Kvarner Bay, Rijeka is a port city on the fringe of Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast. Croatians share the city with citizens from all its nearby borders: Slovenians, Bosnians, Serbians, and Italians. Since 1723 the city has operated as a free port, and up until recent years was a major industrial center producing various exports from paper to torpedos. Within the premises of what later became known as the Rikard Benčić factory complex, sugar and tobacco were processed, and armaments were stored. The factory remained in operation in its last iteration as a worker managed ship and machine parts plant up until the 1990s, during the war of independence, and the massive privatization of all Yugoslavian state industries. At that time the workers were let go in a process of attrition that is often described locally as having been ethnically organized. After remaining empty for over a decade the city of Rijeka designated the complex for redevelopment, namely as a new home for the city’s museum and library, contemporary art museum, “creative start-ups" and hotels. The project has been mired in politics: there are accusations that development funds have been mismanaged, and little progress has been made on actualizing architectural proposals.
On this backdrop Althea Thauberger filmed Preuzmimo Benčić (Take Back Benčić), (2014), an experimental documentary within the context of its redevelopment. For the film Thauberger and her co-directors and crew worked with 67 child performers, aged 6 to 13, for two months. During that period the children occupied the empty factory complex and collaboratively developed content for the film via improvisation, exploration, and play. The story of Preuzmimo Benčić is loosely framed: the fired workers are given an opportunity to occupy the factory as artists. They reskill in “intangible industries”: dancing, playing music, writing poetry, and making videos. Their activities and gestures loop around conversations about the value of artistic labour, the evolution of the site from industrial factory to artist commune, and alternative models of governance. At the same time the mayors are moving forward on their own plans for the factory site to benefit the city at large. Eventually conflict arises as the mayors arrive to evict the artists from their space in order to move forward with their plans.
The story around Rikard Benčić is not unique. Development in the name of “creative industries” is often a thinly veiled form of gentrification, where property is revalued almost anywhere artists are invited to settle: from Brooklyn to Queen Street to the Downtown Eastside. It also points to the symbolic revaluing of artistic labour (a “creative class”) but within constrained modes of production. But Thauberger makes no concrete positions here, and neither do her young collaborators. The childrens’ youth implies they are impartial—they are too young to understand—and yet they easily articulate the complexity of the situation through their embodiment of the factory’s major players. And it is perhaps not a coincidence that Thauberger chose to work with children, a group of constituents that are rarely given a say in how we shape our society despite that changes in policy are meant to be investments in their future.
Thauberger’s collaborators and co-conspirators are often chosen from various social or institutional fringes. Her aim is not visibility as much as it is giving her collaborators agency in the work they produce together. In her 2006 project Zivildienst ≠ Kunstprojekt (Social Service ≠ Art Project) Thauberger worked with a small group of German youths who opted out of compulsory military service as conscientious objectors to perform in a film they scripted together. Or for Murphy Canyon Choir (2005) Thauberger helped organize a choral performance with a group of wives stationed at a US military housing complex outside of San Diego, California (the women performed songs they had written themselves). Her approach, especially inPreuzmimo Benčić, is in the vein of 20th century forms of radical theatre, such as Bertolt Brecht’s Lehrstücke or techniques within Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed. In both forms, there is no division between the actors and the audience and play-acting is employed as an instructive (and empowering) process. InPreuzmimo Benčić, the children perform as workers, artists, and mayors interchangeably, generating a dialectic that brings to light each constituent’s stake in the factory and their respective abilities, even in real life, to enact change.
Please note that the film is just under 60 minutes in length. The gallery will therefore, during regular hours, screen the work at the top of the hour from 11 am until 4 pm every day.