Fillip 1 — Summer 2005

As the Hammer Strikes
Marina Roy

A picture is conjured up which seems to fix the sense unambiguously. The actual use, compared with that suggested by the picture, seems like something muddied… In the actual use of expressions we make detours, we go by side-roads. We see the straight highway before us, but of course we cannot use it, because it is permanently closed. ‘While I was speaking to him I did not know what was going on in his head.’ In saying this, one is not thinking of brain-processes, but of thought-processes. The picture should be taken seriously. We should really like to see into his head… we have a vivid picture—and that use, apparently contradicting the picture, which expresses the psychical. —Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations 1

The title of John Massey’s three-part film As the Hammer Strikes is puzzling. 2 It has something of an historical avant-garde ring to it. But upon viewing the film a couple of times, one begins to decipher the metaphorical use of the tool as it relates to the building of a common language, and to the way events, things, and words leave their stamp on memory. Stylistically and narratively, the film seems to operate through a theory of language laid out by Ludwig Wittgenstein in his Philosophical Investigations.

According to Wittgenstein, language is always practical. It is intended to do something. Language is a social convention and the meaning of words are determined by their use in language, hence the constantly shifting nature of the meaning of words as such. For Wittgenstein language is like a box full of tools: language is the use; it is something that we share in common; it is what we use to convey information as it relates to public life and the external world. According to Wittgenstein, there is not much sense in the idea of a “private language.” Anything that is to be known as a language must be applicable to the external world and to individual experiences as it relates to a life in common: “An ‘inner process’ stands in need of outward criteria.” 3 Language originates and exists in a social context. Memory and past experience may be particular to each individual but we are able to communicate in the way we do, despite cultural and physical differences, because of our common capacity for memory, feeling, and linguistic acquisition, and our inherently social nature.

According to Wittgenstein we simply cannot get inside another person’s mind, and thus we can never demonstrate that person’s intent. The important thing to consider is not the ability to see into someone, but rather the capacity to see what is public. Both seeing into someone as well as seeing what is public is a fantasy that John Massey realizes visually in As the Hammer Strikes. In attempting to represent what might be going on in another’s mind, Massey’s film comes close to some of Wittgenstein’s ideas about language as something inherently public. Another important aspect of Massey’s work is its relation to documentary practices—to the fictional reconstruction of meaning via the recording of real-life events.

Like taking a photograph of someone in the street without her/his consent, there is something invasive about the activity of furtively capturing someone unawares on audiotape. The subject of the recording/photograph is too often made into something “other” and their image/words are vulnerable to a distortion of meaning. The one recording is in a position of power, and hence can reconstruct the event as s/he desires. Initially, As the Hammer Strikes might seem guilty of just such a power imbalance. But rather than the expected “objective” reconstruction of events, an overtly fictional reconstruction of memory and thought is presented by Massey. The whole meaning of the film pivots structurally around the appearance of the tape recorder within the van, and the viewer’s secret knowledge of the surreptitious recording of the conversation [perhaps] that forms the work’s narrative.

John Massey’s As the Hammer Strikes is a filmed re-enactment of an original audio recording of a conversation between the artist, John Massey, and a hitchhiker, Charles—a conversation which unfolds from the moment the hitchhiker enters the vehicle until he is dropped off in Orangeville, Ontario, a journey of about a half hour. From the very start, the tape recorder is a central point of focus for both the driver and passenger, placed on a heap of fatras lying between them in the front of the van. A few minutes into the film, the hitchhiker notices the presence of the recorder, picks it up, opens it, and informs Massey: “it’s still goin’; it’s on.” In danger of being found out, Massey turns the recorder off for a few seconds (the screens goes black) in order to make Charles believe that it was left on by mistake, and then surreptitiously turns it back on. From the very start, the fictional nature of the film is made evident by the presence of this recorder (the screens obey the signals within the audio recording).

The nature of communication is at the very heart of As the Hammer Strikes and drives the film’s three-part structure. The central screen reveals a single, continuous shot of the backs of two men and the road/landscape ahead, shot in colour from the back of a van. The screens to the left and right depict the driver’s and the passenger’s visual thoughts and/or point of view, and are shot in black and white. When language and visual thought break down during the conversation, the road ahead or the image of the other person flashes up on each screen. In supplementing the central screen, the film attempts to illustrate in a playful manner the nature of linguistic communication and the primacy of visual/pictorial thought. The artist himself fictionally posits the visual and mental points of view of the hitchhiker Charles. While some viewers might consider this imposition of fictional perspective offensive, especially since Charles also happens to have a noticeable speech impediment, the presented similarities between the way Massey and Charlie think only serve to highlight the actual commonalities within human communication, thought, and memory. Throughout the film, very similar images flash up on both the left and right screens, highlighting how much each character’s thought process resembles the other’s. The differences in their backgrounds, John Massey being more privileged and Charles seeming to be more working class, are revealed more in the stories recounted during the conversation than through the level of language use. However, at times, Massey’s preconceptions regarding Charles’ character does tend to colour the film: while Massey might imagine a stripper from the neck down, he pictures Charles’ memory of strippers as more idealized. Yet despite the occasional artistic license on Massey’s part, the very nature of linguistic expression and thought process is represented as a shared, rather than private, tool of communication.

Charles’ voice dominates the conversation, filling in the awkward silences between the two strangers, while Massey tends to be more voyeuristic, limiting his verbal interventions to trying to understand some of the disjointed ramblings coming from Charles. Strip clubs are discussed at great length, as are highlights from the TV program That’s Incredible. The speech impediment often causes Massey to misunderstand what Charles is saying, causing a humourous sequence of the wrong images, or wrong text, to flash up on the screen. Oftentimes a generic image will appear until either Charles or Massey describes the situation with greater clarity. Other problems of communication appear to be more a product of each partaking in different language games: Charles is a factory worker for A.R.C. Industries, while John Massey is an artist. The limitations of language and experience are played out visually. When Massey tells Charles he is an artist, Charles’ preconceptions about what makes a successful artist come immediately to his mind: “do you make a lot of money” and “do you paint stuff like houses” are accompanied by images of wallets full of bills and a kitschy painting of a house in the landscape. Massey’s response to these questions is a verbal illustration of the reasoning behind the visual supplements of the film: “It’s quite difficult to explain. I’m interested in how my mind works.” Here, Charles’ attempt at a visual representation of such an artistic practice fails him, and all that flashes up on screen is the open road.

Massey’s film defies art historical categories, a combination of structuralist, conceptual, and allegorical tendencies, and plays itself out in a rebus-like manner: a vision of intersubjectivity conceptualized in real (audio) and reconstructed (visual) time. While language is shared, it is uncertain how the “real” Charles would react to viewing the film’s particular language/pictorial game. In the end one wonders how much this vision remains an instance of self-expression, a kind of self portrait of the artist who is interested in the way his own mind works, or if there is any willful theorization of the Wittgensteinian notion that everyone has the capacity to understand one another given the right tools, or the correct method of using those tools. While Massey’s film demonstrates a faith in film as a democratic medium, it also reveals the artist’s power in shaping such a vision of a shared language.

  1. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), sections 426-427.
  2. As the Hammer Strikes, Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver; May 6, 2005 to June 19, 2005.
  3. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, section 580.

Image: John Massey, As the Hammer Strikes (1982), 3 channel video projection

About the Author

Marina Roy is a Vancouver-based artist and writer whose work explores the intersection between language and visual art. Her work has investigated contemporary art’s discursive relationship to art history, popular culture, and psychoanalytic theory.

You Might Also Enjoy
BecomeA Member