Revolutionary thought is not widely subscribed to these days, in fact it barely rates a mention, except in marginal forums. This is hardly surprising given the preponderance of tainted historical uprisings lodged in the collective memory. While most people may not believe in the idea of revolution as a viable option for voicing dissatisfaction with the status quo, dissent of various sorts is still evident in contemporary forms of culture jamming.
In an era of aestheticisation of convergent media, the DAMP collectives interactive project allows people to be participants rather than voyeurs in art projects of all descriptions. Through their happenings and performative displays, the DAMP cooperative reveals subversive tendencies that rate as significant cultural interventions, even though they are played out on a micro rather than macro level.
Their media-savvy, knowing approach is leavened by a commitment to upholding the redemptive value of art. Like other passionate revolutionaries from the past, the members of the DAMP collective find it necessary to engage their emotions and their intellects in order to act. To the casual observer, DAMPs well-documented public pranks might seem like the mindless behaviour of a bunch of exhibitionists. However, upon closer investigation their project is essentially more thoughtful and generous than it may initially appear. Devoid of cynicism, they sincerely wish to directly involve the public in their activities, usually by eccentric means.
Most revolutions can be read in oedipal terms, as an inevitable process, with one generation consciously casting off the influence of the previous one. Choosing not to oppose their predecessors in such an overt manner, DAMP has evolved its own system that allows for a different quality of contact between artists. Instead of relying on the more competitive individual model of art production in a small and overcrowded scene, they choose to band together and work in a communal mode. In this way, their unusual practice gradually evolves through intercommunication rather than by solitary effort.
In terms of their relationship to the broader art community, DAMP must maintain a precarious balance between participating and resisting influence at the same time. They pride themselves on being true to their principles, concentrating mainly on ideas which they themselves value rather than those that they are expected to consider important. Nevertheless, the individuals involved recognise that they themselves do not own the group or its output - essentially it belongs to the community from which it has arisen and merely reflects ideas which are already in the ether.
By working in a group, they try to get away from the cult of personality pervading the art world. This may be a more convivial process, but it also requires a high degree of organisation and guided communication in order to avoid chaos. Consequently, they put a great deal of emphasis on the internal group work they do in order to gauge their shared intentions before revealing their ideas to the public.
DAMP allows the individual artists involved to take risks and experiment in ways they might not contemplate in their own practice. The group environment provides a safe situation for working through and discussing ideas at length. For them, this kind of conversation is the most important aspect of their activities. Hanging out and talking is an end in itself, before they even consider external projects.
A recognisable thread that runs through many of their activities is a commitment to the theatrical. Repeatedly, in many contexts, they have employed stagey devices designed to provoke response, whether positive or negative. Their video re-enactment of a scene from One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest required members to act out parts of inmates in a mental hospital, revealing a group dynamic comparable to their own, taken to laughable extremes. Performed in a spirit of celebration and parody, their amateurish version of this classic film appropriates and renovates the screenplay, transforming it into a movie they would like to see on screen. In this context, their deliberate lack of theatricality - indicated by their wooden delivery of lines from scripts - lays bare the artifice of film acting and gives the text a comic dimension.
This practice of altering known texts and making them their own is one of DAMPs trademark gestures. They employed similar devices at the Centre for Contemporary Photography, when they asked all the people at their opening to wear DAMP Audience t-shirts, so there was no obvious demarcation between members of DAMP and the gallery visitors. This creative confusion allowed people to feel like they were allied with DAMP even if they had no idea what to expect from the event. Eventually, the real members revealed themselves when they broke into a scattered rendition of Yoko Onos song about community Were All Waterfrom Different Rivers, encouraging others to sing along.
In an active sense, DAMP aims to produce and commentate on all their productions, rendering outside criticism unnecessary in some ways. One of their goals is to break down the binary opposition of artist and audience by showing that artists can also be mobilised as audiences. They proved this with their contribution to The Bridge: Construction in Process back in 1998. Recognising that many participating artists were being neglected, working in far-flung sites without the support of audiences, DAMP organised bus tours aimed at boosting morale. Describing their mobile project, the collective voice sounds good-natured and deceptively naive:
"We wanted to be together, so we hired a bus and hung out. We wanted to be welcomed, so we provided our own food and drink for the artists and volunteers. We wanted to be seen, so we printed bright red T-shirts with our name on them. We also wanted others to join in, so we invited lots of people along and gave out extra T-shirts for people to wear. And we had to practice, because we didnt want to act like an audience - we just wanted to be one."
In this way they tried to support other peoples art production by providing feedback and yet they refused to give commentary to many bemused tourists who came along for the ride, facilitating their art viewing but ultimately leaving them to arrive at their own conclusions. Once again, they strove to naturalise their role as audience that was actually achieved by carefully rehearsed theatrical artifice.
One of their more overtly choreographed stunts involving an art audience was for their Punchline show at 200 Gertrude Street in 1999. For this event, the collective painted china plates and made polystyrene objects to display but these pieces were merely decoys. The real focus was the histrionic scene the DAMP artists caused by arguing, brawling and smashing their own work, much to the bewilderment of the assembled crowd. This project stands out in the DAMP oeuvre because of its fake aggressivity and showy violence. In the Punchline show they parodied and exaggerated the conflicts inherent in all group enterprises.
Through events such as the notorious Punchline, DAMP members like to parade their vulnerability as a co-operative, revealing that there is strength as well as weakness in numbers. Another visual metaphor for the ebb and flow of their creative process is provided by their video work Bacteria (1999) that was part of the Videosonic project screenedon the ALT TV screen in Melbournes city centre. Bacteria features a bunch of DAMP members playing a childrens game in which they chase each other, join up into a chain, break up and re-form. Their evident delight in the organic rhythm of these movements attests to the sense of play that is everywhere evident in their practice.
Most of their other activities have been community spirited enterprises, aimed at eliciting appreciative responses. Their photographic show Ideal Lives (1998) that was conducted in the small town of Morwell in country Victoria is a case in point. For this project, they approached townspeople and asked them to pose for photographs that were then to be shown in a gallery nearby. In return, the townspeople could purchase photos of themselves and see them exhibited in a gallery environment. While this was a simple idea, the execution of it was fairly confronting for the DAMP members who were unused to dealing so closely with country people who were wary of city slickers.
Similarly, Clothing Exchange (1997) at Grey Area, a local artist-run space, involved trade of another sort, with the participants gaining a piece of clothing in return for a photo of themselves wearing the new (old) item. These photos were then placed alongside little narratives the previous owners had written about their memories of the item, effectively transposing the history of the clothing onto its new owner through association. Being inner-city types rather than country folk, the browsers frequenting Grey Area were considerably different to the people DAMP worked with in Morwell, but there was still an element of chance that gave the project an exciting edge. One of the benefits of working directly with strangers in this way is that they bring an unexpected energy into the dynamic. In matters of exchange there are always factors which cannot be fully anticipated, as the DAMP team repeatedly discovered.
Naturally, after staging all these interactive events, DAMP is aware of the double-edged nature of choosing to involve the public in everyday activities. While it might bring art to the people, there is a danger that the people will not appreciate what they see, especially if the art is unrecognisable in a traditional sense. If the art is not familiar to the patrons, the chances of affecting them aesthetically are considerably lessened. DAMP concedes that there is a inherent danger of patronising or alienating the people you are attempting to communicate with - however, this is a risk they believe is worth taking.
The DAMP collective has come a long way since it began at Victorian College of the Arts six years ago. Nowadays they work outside of institutions without any tutelage or financial support, leaving them freer to experiment as they wish. With a few fluctuations, it has been composed of the same ten members since 1995, until recently when there was an influx of people to replace departures. These new recruits bring a freshness of approach with them but they are aware that they are contributing to a body that has been painstakingly built up by its members over the years.
Currently, their next project at Artspace in Sydney is still in the negotiating stages but they are definite about two points. No matter what, they are determined to get their shit together and to kick ass. How these resolutions are to be made manifest is yet to be revealed to them and to us. Without doubt, their forthcoming show is bound to be as surprising and potentially disturbing as all their previous escapades.
B.L. Magner is a writer based in Melbourne. DAMP has fifteen members so it might be awkward to name them all. Most of them are ex-VCA students - perhaps I this isnt emphasised enough or perhaps their individual identities are not that much of an an issue. One of the DAMP people used the term re-evolution to describe their project.