September 2017

The Nation Reviewed

A beautiful chaos

By Jaye Kranz
The Artful Dodgers Studios is a haven for young artists and musicians

Inside Melbourne’s Artful Dodgers Studios (ADS) the Megaphone Lunch is underway. About 40 of the studio’s participants have turned up for the monthly musical event – and the free lunch. Proceedings begin with a handful of musicians performing “fresh sounds” from the stage – a truck-loading bay – to the crowd assembled in the laneway below. The MC keeps the spirit inclusive: “Yo! If anyone is listening in a factory or an office nearby, come down here!” Focus soon shifts to the buffet (Indonesian-style barbecue chicken, gado gado, fried tofu), and then the long dining tables are cleared and restored to their usual purpose: art making.

“If you’re going to come here, you have to make art,” explains the studios’ co-ordinator, Marianna Codognotto, whose office doubles as a corridor. Staff track through every few minutes. Codognotto’s pens stand in a faded Three Bean Mix tin. Her desk mug proffers the general diagnosis: “We’re all losing our shit.”

The ADS is an art and music space for disadvantaged and at-risk youth, a block downhill from Collingwood’s cafe and fashion strip. A program of the Jesuit Social Services, it has had to reduce its open-studio days from five to three. The funding situation is vertiginous, but as the ADS rounds its 20th year, the place remains lively and, as one attendee describes, “often crowded, which I like”. On a regular drop-in day, participants position themselves around the various spaces, bent over projects.

In the music studio, Jalmar, a 20-year-old rapper wearing a red beanie and with music notes tattooed behind his ear, is mixing his song ‘Sonder’ with Jesse Sullivan, the in-house engineer. Jalmar isn’t sure the word “sonder” exists, “but I saw it online and it said it meant the realisation that every person has just as vivid and complex a life as yours”.

Jalmar, whose background is Chilean, raps over a beat with Latin stylings. “But it always just made Mum aggravate / and it showed how the gov’ment can easily take / and break fams up like a piece a cake / for a piece a cake / that’s what we live for / I even see my mum throw a knife at the door.” He wants to add voices arguing in Spanish around the two-minute mark.

“What, YouTube Spanish people arguing?” Sullivan asks. He suggests it might be difficult to source, unless they grab something from a Pedro Almodóvar film. “It’s not Chilean, but there’s some intense stuff going on.”

They scrap the idea and move on to Jalmar’s next request: a siren under the verse in which police evict him and his family from their home. They audition sirens. “That’ll do,” Jalmar says. “Though ’round my area it’s more like the woop-woop.” He performs a manual police “chirp” siren.

In the vocal booth next door, a flute lesson is winding up. Msar, an Iraqi refugee – “there was not time to learn this stuff over there” – emerges with his teacher Daniel, who says he’d seen an ad for a volunteer flute teacher, “so I came in”.

ADS participants range in age from 15 to 28 and face a host of challenges, including mental-health issues, substance abuse, homelessness, underemployment, intergenerational trauma and family violence. “But you’re more than your diagnosis,” says Codognotto. “We all have a lot of layers.” The ADS takes a deliberately informal approach to allow those layers to unfold. The result is a place that is sometimes chaotic, but, as Codognotto explains, “it’s a beautiful chaos”.

Out in the main space, a group of young people from a nearby rehab clinic file through on a tour. When they’ve done the rounds, Forest, an ADS worker, invites them to make jewellery. She presents two trays of lobster clasps, spring rings, hooks and eyes, pendants, peg bails and beads. “Someone turned up with a bootload of this stuff one day,” she says. “Rummage around.”

Sitting at a computer station, Riak – 26 years old, gold-tone watch, camouflage hoodie and braids – toggles between video clips by Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent and 2Pac while editing his own clip for a rap song he tracked here. Riak and his brother arrived in Australia from southern Sudan 13 years ago. He’d like to return some day to play music and see his mother. “Sometimes I need my mum, you know? But I’m not going like that. Everybody got guns. Maybe thinking I’m a Dinka or a Nuer or some shit like that. They’ll blow your head up for a misunderstanding, you know?”

Meanwhile, Jalmar has changed into white trainers and an outsized parka for a photo shoot to promote his new single. Working the camera is Augustine, a budding photographer whose preferred subject is “people doing things”. Kate, an ADS worker, gives green-screen pro tips from the side, while Jalmar poses with a boom box. Kate suggests he put it on his shoulder. Jalmar tries. “Nah, it looks like a toaster.”

At the tables, Jenny, who has been coming here every drop-in day since she discovered the studio, is turning her hands to an enigmatic bulge of papier-mâché. “This is Buckbeak,” she reveals, “the mythical creature from Harry Potter. I’m going to Wizardfest later.” Jenny plans to both wear and ride Buckbeak. While pasting primary feathers she invites Regina, who is busy drawing a manga-inspired figure in a suit of stars, to come along to the Potter-themed event.

Regina, 21, lives in the nearby housing-commission flats. The ADS is the first place she’s found where “I can just be me and not be afraid of people telling me I’m weird,” she says. “I had some rough times in school being bullied. A lot. It made it really difficult for me to open up and show people who I am.” She tells one of the workers that she’s always wanted to go to a party with friends. Wizardfest will be her first.

But Regina has nothing Potter-esque to wear. There’s an upswell of activity. One of the workers forages for fabric and returns with two-way gold stretch lycra, a miscellany of reds, a mask, spangles. The sewing machine drones. They’ve decided, collectively, that Regina should go as Dumbledore’s phoenix, Fawkes. In two hours, Regina has burnished wings, a lavish crest, red plumage. Transformed, she unfurls her wings for a photo with Jenny and Buckbeak, who are now joined, literally, at the hip.

They leave in a chaos of feathers: the hippogriff and the phoenix.

Jaye Kranz

Jaye Kranz is a Melbourne-based writer, documentary radio producer and musician. 

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