Take This Hammer: Art + Media Activism from the Bay Area

Review

Take This Hammer: Art + Media Activism from the Bay Area

By Emily K. Holmes April 19, 2016

The command within the exhibition title Take This Hammer: Art + Media Activism from the Bay Area, on view at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) through August 14, 2016, is an incendiary offering. It is a suggestion filled with implicit actions that could go in any direction, or perhaps multiple directions at the same time: smash, build, repair. Curated by Christian L. Frock, the exhibition itself evokes a similarly complicated empowerment—a sort of optimism fueled by grief, anger, and the fear that change will not occur fast enough. Derived from the title of a documentary (on view in the lobby) featuring James Baldwin on the topic of Black life in San Francisco in the 1960s, Take This Hammer as a phrase and exhibition directs viewers to implicate themselves in contemporary social issues.

Take This Hammer: Art + Media Activism from the Bay Area, 2016; installation view, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Courtesy of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco. Photo: Charlie Villyard.

The exhibition provides a wide sampling of work by eighteen Bay Area–based artists and activists who work individually or collectively. Like the region itself, it’s a diverse grouping—both in terms of points of view and strategies of political intervention. Seeing some of the pieces or documents in a museum context raises questions about whether they would be better served being wheat-pasted onto walls or held up high while marching through the streets. Other works more clearly feel as though they “belong” in a gallery site, like the video pieces and paintings. Others initially or continuously exist online, their inclusion here a remove from that already-expansive viewing context of the internet. Regardless of the context each piece apparently belongs to, Take This Hammer uses its institutional and educational frame to create a comprehensive experience of political work being produced today. Indeed, YBCA—with its current marketing campaign that includes phrases like “the center for the art of doing something about it,” as proudly asserted by banners outside the building—lays claim to the idea that museums should foster political awareness in the community.

But the site of the museum, as an institution, is still up for critique by the artists featured. For example, the Guantanamo Bay Museum of Art and History creates a holistic installation mimicking institutional presentation strategies. The piece uses dual video feeds and posters (available to take home) to manifest a conceptual fictional institution that creates a past that could have been if Guantanamo had closed four years ago. Footage of President Obama is interspersed with descriptions of fictive archives and resources available on the site of the “now closed” prison. The imagination in this work acts as a stringent critique of the administration’s failed attempts to shut down the prison, and flares up with heightened relevancy with President Obama’s latest announcement. At the same time, the piece ironically raises the query of whether such a museum’s existence would be enough to compensate for the past violations of human rights that took place there.

Other works also use fictional institutions to critique existing ones. Leslie Dreyer’s Gmuni: Free Luxury Free Market Free for All (2014) originally took the form of a performative direct-action piece in April 2014 that famously halted a Google employee shuttle bus at 24th and Valencia Streets. The performance group introduced an imaginary public program started by the company, one that proposed new ways to use the funds Google saves while diverting laws, fines, and taxes—such as then-illegally using public bus zones for private transportation.

Jeremy Mende. Immersive Data From The Liberator Cycle, 2016; installation view, Take This Hammer: Art + Media Activism from the Bay Area, 2016. Courtesy of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco. Photo: Charlie Villyard.

Gentrification, one of the most pressing issues in the Bay Area today, pops up repeatedly throughout Take This Hammer. Works by the 3.9 Art Collective, the graphic arts project Dignidad Rebelde (Jesus Barraza and Melanie Cervantes), the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, and the collaboration between drag queen PERSIA and musical group Daddie$ Pla$tik all speak to the consequences of the changing economies of class, race, and culture that have affected San Francisco along with many other urban spaces. Standing out in particular for its use of data visualization—a timely strategy using available technology, one that repeats throughout the exhibition—the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project charts Ellis Act Evictions since 1997, including interactive maps that feature narratives of the displaced. This human-centered quality stands in contrast to the other data visualization projects on view in Take This Hammer, which lean toward visual sterility. Jeremy Mende’s Immersive Data from the Liberator Cycle (2016) crafts a wall mural from abstracted red and black lines, which represent visualizations of a 3D-printable handgun algorithmically distorted in proportion to a given country’s handgun homicide rates. The stylistic, abstract renderings of Mende’s piece take his source data to new visual means, while still providing hard information.

Although there is crossover between works, particularly in regard to the social issues they address, violence is perhaps the single thread running through all of Take This Hammer. Violence here, as in real life, is horrifyingly pervasive. It takes many forms, but the exhibition particularly exposes systemic inequities and state-sanctioned uses of lethal force, in the global (military) uses as well as the local (police). Many pieces address police brutality against people of color. There’s a one-woman monologue by Cat Brooks with Black Lives Matter and the Anti-Police Terror Project, a series of posters by Oree Originol, a video installation by Indira Allegra, the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project (its narratives of the displaced includes features on police-related deaths in the Bay Area), and in several of the prints produced by Dignidad Rebelde. The repetition both reflects the persistence of this particular form of violence and redresses the frequency with which its occurrence remains largely unremarked.

Take This Hammer: Art + Media Activism from the Bay Area, installation view, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Left: Oree Originol. Justice for Our Lives, 2014-ongoing. Right: Cat Brooks with Black Lives Matter. Anti Police-Terror Project, ‘Tasha,’ 2015. Courtesy of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco. Photo: Charlie Villyard.

 Viewed together, these particular works speak powerfully to the pervasiveness and impact of police violence and the urgency necessary to curb it, something underscored by the exhibition layout. In the same corner of Take This Hammer, viewers can watch documentation of Brooks’ performative reenactment of the last moments of the life of Natasha McKenna’s, a Black woman who was murdered in police custody in 2015 from excessive use of stun-gun force while completely physically restrained; then, in the gallery, viewers make a turn to the left to witness McKenna’s portrait by Originol to consider how her death was one of many attributed to police brutality. Originol’s posters exist in multiple forms, including being widely shared online and printed out for demonstrations and protests. In the gallery, the colorful array of prints—simple outline drawings that each include the phrase “Justice for” the depicted individual—illustrates the ways in which these portraits have been shared and dispersed, while the visual impact of their cumulative display points to the high number of deaths.

Continuing the theme of responding to violence, Allegra’s Blackout (2015) is a multimedia piece the artist refers to as a “digital weaving installation” that includes six video monitors looping text behind slow-moving graphics. The black-and-white patterned graphics, in shapes of squares, diamonds, and triangles, are derived from close-up studies of the fabric of police officer’s uniforms. The texts that weave behind, through, and around the textile imagery are narratives related to the deaths of people of color resulting from police violence. In this piece, the narratives of the murdered, the wronged, and the victimized are nearly obscured by the officers’ uniforms, yet remain visible enough to startle and shock viewers—a chilling metaphor for systemic repression of citizens’ narratives about the police.

Indira Allegra. Blackout, 2015; installation view, Take This Hammer: Art + Media Activism from the Bay Area, 2016. Courtesy of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco. Photo: Charlie Villyard.

Yet the narratives won’t be silenced completely and can’t be overshadowed in full. Blackout, like the other works in Take This Hammer, refuses to see any injustice as only a one-time occurrence, but rather as part of a larger systemic issue. Likewise, each piece in the exhibition—whether conceived for a museum’s walls or a march in the streets, generated online or printed on paper, shared via social media or passed out in person—is part of a larger response to injustice, be it smashing, building, or repairing. Whatever form the art takes, whatever its position, there is resilience here.

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Take This Hammer: Art + Media Activism from the Bay Area is on view at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, in San Francisco, through August 14, 2016.

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