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Under the hammer

Under the hammer

On Saturday 12 November at 7.30pm, a multidisciplinary activist-artists collective called Under the Hammer will be setting up shop and having a ‘pre-launch’ at 158 Sydney road, Coburg. The pre-launch will include performances by comedian Toby Halligan, spoken word artist Khepa Markhno and 3oB DJ set as well as visual art by Van Rudd. Overland’s Rjurik Davidson spoke to organiser James Crafti.

So you’re starting up a radical cultural space called Under The Hammer. The name comes from a quote from Mayakovsky (sometimes also attributed to Brecht), which reads, ‘Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it’. Can you briefly describe the aim of the space?

Sure. The aim of Under the Hammer is to create a space for left wing political art to be presented/performed/engaged with. Such a space is important for several reasons. One of the key reasons is that art that challenges the status quo is frequently censored. Van Rudd, who is part of Under the Hammer, has frequently had his artwork thrown out or rejected from exhibitions. Recently a Pro-Palestine artwork of Rudd’s was rejected from a ‘Human Rights’ exhibition because it was critical of an Israeli corporation that was paying rent in the same building as the exhibition. More broadly, I think Occupy Melbourne (and other Occupations internationally) shows that there is a real need for broad left cultural spaces that aren’t subject to ongoing repression.

I also think there is a need for art that is explicitly art, in the sense that Mayakovsky meant it – as work to encourage social change. Given the cultural hegemony that the ruling class has, alternative ideas tend to be pushed to the fringes and are difficult to find or easy to ignore. There is a lot of progressive artwork out there – some lefties scrawl through film festival guides and theatre programs trying to find it but on the whole it gets lost among the apolitical or reactionary content that reinforces our society. We hope to create a space where there is always some form of activist art, where art can be seen to be less about form (as we want to support as many forms as possibly) and more about content.

Some criticise the idea of political art, suggesting it’s a contradiction in terms: arts is not politics, the argument goes. It’s certainly a debate that Overland magazine has been engaged in recently. How do you conceive of political art and how will that affect the kinds of projects that Under The Hammer will undertake?

I remember as a Cinema studies student watching the film Mulholland Drive. I finished watching the film thinking ‘What the hell was that all about?’ Confused and somewhat disappointed, I borrowed the DVD and went to the extras section. There was footage of a Q & A with the cast and crew of the film. The first critique said something along the lines of ‘That was a fantastic film Mr. Lynch, I am not sure what it is about but that is my failing not yours.’ I am fairly sure the failing was Lynch’s: apart from generally objectifying women in his film, the film failed to communicate any idea what so ever and while many have speculated on the ‘hidden meaning’, I am not particularly impressed by such an obfuscation of ideas as art. If Mulholland Drive had great concepts behind it, why make it impossible to follow?

I am not saying that art needs to be didactic, ideologically pure or that members of Under the Hammer collective will agree will agree with everything we present in our space. What I am saying is that we have the chance to communicate, debate and otherwise engage with actual ideas through various mediums that actually impact on the world around us. Politics need to be part of mass consciousness and art is vital in that process. I think with the de-reification of art over the 20th century in particular, more of us can now stand up and express ourselves in an artistic manner and we can all engage with what is being expressed.

I have had a few artist friends say that they would like to perform at Under the Hammer but they aren’t doing political work. My response is to ask them, why not? If you are telling a love story, why wouldn’t you think about gender relations given it is a central prism to view the distortions of human relationships? If the characters in your song, poem, film, play or sculpture are alienated, why wouldn’t you actually seek ways to discuss the reasons economic or otherwise for their alienation? One doesn’t have to be economically reductionist to see that there are societal roots to most human conditions and ideas. That is what we want to get to the heart of. What are people’s ideas about the issues facing the world and how can we address them? This is I believe the goal of art and the goal of Under the Hammer.

Can you give us an idea of what people can expect from Under the Hammer? What are the first plans?

Under the Hammer is having its pre-launch on 12 November, but we won’t be opening our doors for regular activity until February 2012 (we are renovating the space). Apart from creating a physical space, we will be simultaneously building and broadening the collective and generating a more cohesive schedule of activity. As more people get involved we are expecting more events and exhibitions will be proposed which will in turn excite more people to get involved.

We have a few events we can reveal though. We will be having a Tamil art exhibition early in the New Year, which will be accompanied by a Tamil cultural night with poetry reading and some music. There will also be an exhibition with Artists of the 17th Parallel as part of the Agent Orange justice campaign. We are currently in discussion with satirical band Man Bites God and the Reggae/Latin/funk/hip-hop group known as The Conch to perform. We are in discussion with local lefty comedians about a regular comedy night. We also have tentative support from Platform Theatre to hold a couple of play readings there, early in the new year and Anthony Snowden who films many of Melbourne’s left events is going to be running a workshop for people interested in filming rallies.

So those are some of the initial projects people can get behind but there is scope to do a lot more really. We have 365 days of the year to fill and it would be great if we could fill as many of them as possible with activist-artist events. If you have a campaign, we can have a fundraiser; if you would like to organise a spoken word night we can tie it in – the possibilities are endless.

How is the collective going to be organised? Who is involved so far and how can people get involved?

Under the Hammer will operate primarily as an open, democratic, collective. We will set up sub-committees around various types of events, artistic mediums etc. We already have several people interested in performing comedy; I think they should form a working group and we can see if they can organise regular comedy event. We want to ensure that the strength of Under the Hammer is its ability to bring various progressive communities together, so there will also need to be a lot of interaction between our various sub-groups. Some more details will be revealed at our launch on the 12th.

As for who is involved so far, Under the Hammer is an initiative being launched by members of the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) such as myself, Melanie Mayze and Van Rudd. It is great that the RSP is supporting this initiative, however we are also clear that we want this space to be one that involves a wide variety of left wing artists and activists, not only those in the RSP. We are interested in building a politically inclusive space.

There is a debate in Occupy Melbourne at the moment with some more conservative individuals arguing that different groups should leave their ‘politics’ and their ‘isms’ at the door. I think the reverse is true. I want everyone to bring their ideologies, their thoughts and feelings and share them. We want to build a culture of engagement not disengagement.

People should come along on the 12th if they can. Otherwise people can send us an email if you want to submit a proposal to us in terms of an event/exhibition. If you email us, we can also put you on our e-list.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Rjurik Davidson is a writer, editor and speaker. Rjurik’s novel, The Stars Askew was released in 2016. Rjurik is a former associate editor of Overland magazine. He can be found at rjurik.com and tweets as @rjurikdavidson.

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  1. Mayakovsky is a poet who wrote in his play Vladimir Mayakovsky, a tragedy, “I’ll lie down, / radiant, / clothed in laziness, / on a soft couch of genuine dreck; / and quietly, / kissing the knees of the crossties, / the wheel of a locomotive will embrace my neck.” What does that mean? This doesn’t sound like engagement, but there are lots of ideas being acted on here. Does he intend to be a St John the Baptist of the Bolsheviks? Sounds awfully renunciatory. And yet, I believe you might enjoy some enlightenment by considering that wonderful quote of Mayakovsky’s once again: “art is a hammer with which to shape [reality]” This means art might be more significant as hammer, and not mirror. In the realm of politics, one assumes then, to use basic J.L. Austinian terms, language is performative, as in act-ive, and not simply constative. Your thinking above seems rather representative and constative, of political discourse, than evental. Mayakovsky is saying that art can act politically, rather than simply speaking politically, and to act politically might mean speaking in a foreign language, like the singular symbology of Mulholland Drive. Moreover, to change reality, perhaps art must act in a way unknown to politics so far, with politics following its lead. This is not to say your engagement/disengagement comparison is not meaningful, but there is not one method ‘to engage’. I say, do what you’re doing, I look forward to a more established leftist space, but heed your titular guide more closely regarding art, the cloud, not the politician, in trousers.

  2. An art “less about form and more about content”? If so, why did Mayakovsky torture himself in the name of art?

    It is asking a lot of any art form to effect social change, particularly when form (whether as expression or substance) is often invisible to non-practicioners, its meaning eluded and word not perceived as word. I am not saying this futurist abyss coupled with a caving in of the psychic present lead to Mayakovsky’s suicide (political assassination?); however, taking up Corey’s quotation, “kissing the knees of the crossties, the wheel of a locomotive will embrace my neck” does suggest a Christ-like complex, Mayakovsky seeing himself as a dying god hammering out art forms, the rhythms of his body embracing the revolutionary and bloody impulses of the times and his mind confronting the dead weight of unchanging history on his neck (tragedy). In short, Mayakovsky was “under the hammer” of form: the very same difficulty and and problematic that confronts this current resurrection should it wish to engage and alter social realities through art.

    If it’s more about the content, it probably won’t be art. Simply one more ride on the agitprop train.

  3. I think our difference can be summed up in your sentence “It is asking a lot of any art form to effect social change, particularly when form (whether as expression or substance) is often invisible to non-practitioners, its meaning eluded and word not perceived as word.” I am sorry but what is the point of art that no one gets (or only an inner circle of practitioners)? This is absolutely elitist nonsense that divorces art from having any meaning or politics what so ever. If a tree falls in the woods and no-one is there to hear it, it doesn’t make a sound in the sense that it is entirely pointless for humanity.

  4. Yeah, good points made, James. You rightly accuse me of elitism, and although not a lover of elitism myself, my only defence is that I have seen and read some dreadful leftist, content driven stuff, with its heart in the right place, masquerading as art. (As Mayakovski was used as the standard bearer for your activist-artists collective project, Soviet (state capitalist) driven \art\ provides other examples of what content driven propaganda can produce)). I know Corey was a lot more generous in his cautioning of your approach- which I was mindful of when I wrote my comment- but I went ahead anyway. I’m sorry if what I wrote sounded unhelpful, and let me say this: if I lived in Melbourne I’d come along to your performances regardless of the content trumping form approach. I’ll be in Melbourne this summer and will look you up if Under the Hammer is performing then, to see for myself and be proven wrong.

  5. I agree there is certainly bad political art out there. Political art like anything else isn’t automatically good. I think political art is like any type of art, it takes a while to get established and part of the problem it is not a recognised genre to build on. If you read comic books from the 1950’s and 60’s and compare them to today, both their art and stories are absolutely shit (in general). But artistic styles evolve over time and with refinement of craft. There was more great political music in the late 1960’s and the 1970’s because there was a culture of it that was more established then it is today.

    Artists need to learn off each other and build awareness of what they are doing and refine their craft. I think some of the artwork we will show at first will probably be limited in its artistic merit. This isn’t due to design but because this is a fairly underdeveloped area. With a real community behind us hopefully we can change that.

    At this stage we are still under renovations so we may not be open till February or so but if you are in town feel free to say hello.

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