Thomas Hirschhorn’s Precious and Precarious Bronx

While memorials can take many forms, from spontaneous vigils to objects or environments like coins, plaques, or parks, monuments are typically characterized by their formal grandeur and permanence on the landscape. Swiss-born, Paris-based artist Thomas Hirschhorn has defied both of these characteristics in his Gramsci Monument, a sprawling, interactive, and ephemeral environment intended to commemorate Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci, whose writings contributed to the development of Western Marxism by theorizing the role of culture (in addition to the means of production and administration) in maintaining the hegemony of the ruling class. In other words, taking over the factories and the state isn’t enough to make the revolution stick, you also have to reinvent the aesthetics and social mores that pervade society’s everyday consciousness. Hirschhorn’s means of memorializing and reactivating Gramsci’s thought, however, goes beyond the theoretical; it’s a physical, inhabitable space made of accessible, lo-fi materials installed in Forest Houses, a New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) complex located in Morrisania, Bronx.

Over the past few weeks, writer Steven Thomson and photographer Cameron Blaylock have been visiting this intricate, living artwork, speaking with the artist, some of the project’s organizers, and the residents who have participated in its construction and ongoing live programming (which includes lectures, classes, field trips, a radio station, and even a daily newspaper). The depth and scale of this collaboration, Thomson argues, contributes to the piece’s ultimate meaning as an active exercise in engaging a participatory audience far removed — geographically and too often culturally as well — from the formal public spaces of traditional monuments or the typical centers of artistic production and consumption. Visit the Gramsci Monument before it is deinstalled on September 15th, but first, read on for insights into and images of how this ambitious project challenges some basic assumptions about commemoration, public art, public space, and community engagement.

C.S. 

Gramsci Monument | Photo © Cameron Blaylock

It’s a ten-minute walk from the Prospect Ave. subway station to Forest Houses, an almost 20-acre complex of New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) buildings. As you make this walk, traversing the broad South Bronx boulevards in order to experience artist Thomas Hirschhorn’s participatory Gramsci Monument, it’s wise to revoke any preconception of what form a monument should take. There will be no marble entablature, no triumphal arch before a reflecting pool. Think of an ad hoc treehouse sprawling on the ground, constructed primarily of plywood and brown shipping tape, around which Hirschhorn, residents, and art spectators congregate to learn, share ideas, and make art.

The joyful collaboration at first seems surprising for either a conceptual sculpture or a public housing art program, yet the combination of the two environments generates an atmosphere that transcends any expectations of monumental commemoration. After multiple afternoons rambling through the monument in conversation with its participants, I find Hirschhorn’s effort a successful intervention. By activating a community’s grassroots sensibility and introducing new modes of learning, both a foreigner and acclaimed contemporary artist can brilliantly engage a specific and often overlooked community as both audience and collaborators in creating the piece’s ultimate meaning and collective experience.

Gramsci Monument | Photo © Cameron Blaylock

The monument makes its presence known at the first glimpse of wooden beams jutting out in all directions, projecting in sharp contrast to the strict 90-degree geometry of the surrounding high-rise housing structures: the Forest Houses complex is punctuated by 15 mostly cruciform residential buildings, varying between 9, 10, and 14-stories high. The 1,349 units house approximately 3,400 residents. And this summer, Thomas Hirschhorn is among them, living in one of the apartments for the 77 days that Gramsci Monument is on display.

At first, Forest Houses does not stand out from the multiple surrounding social infrastructure and public housing developments in the Morrisania section of the southeast Bronx. You will likely pass Dunbar Playground, Basil Behagen Playground, the Southeast Bronx Neighborhood Center Blondell Joyner Day Care, and several optimistically named public schools: Success Academy, School for Excellence High School, and Jane Adams High School For Academic Careers. Immediately to the south of Forest Houses is the Mitchell-Lama subsidized development Woodstock Terrace, abutting the five 16-story rectangular towers of NYCHA’s McKinley Houses. All dating from the same five-year span in the late 1950s and early ’60s, the three developments appear seamless for their consistent deployment of brown brick. They embody the towers-in-the-park typology that characterizes much public housing in the Bronx, a legacy of Le Corbusier’s high modernism in which multistory, multifamily buildings are set off from the street grid and placed amid open green space. This type of open space, frequently perceived as either desolate or dangerous, is often maligned in contemporary urban thought, yet Hirschhorn has seized this grassy terrain to construct his temporary, interactive monument to the ideas of early 20th-century Marxist philosopher, Antonio Gramsci.

Gramsci Monument is the final iteration of a series of four temporary monuments to Hirschhorn’s favorite thinkers. The first, dedicated to Baruch Spinoza, appeared in Amsterdam in 1999; Hirschhorn constructed another, for Gilles Deleuze, in Avignon, France, in 2000; in 2002, he built a third, examining Georges Bataille, in Kassel, Germany, as part of documenta 11. Each monument was erected in nontraditional public spaces (in Amsterdam’s red light district, and in suburban immigrant social housing in Avignon and Kassel), and all four thinkers share two cornerstones of the four “force fields” that Hirschhorn aims to interrogate: love, philosophy, politics, and aesthetics. “There are artists who work with nature, some with gender, others with the human body. I work with these force fields,” he explains, arguing that Gramsci connects politics and love.

Gramsci Monument | Photo © Cameron Blaylock

Gramsci was an inclusionary theorist who believed that “every human is an intellectual.” He analyzed recent history – the unification of Italy, the First World War, the proliferation of systematized labor – through a Marxist lens. And his leftist politics, centered on self-education among the proletariat and the need to challenge the cultural hegemony maintained by a rarefied set of institutions, led to his imprisonment under Mussolini.

Hirschhorn was committed to creating this final monument near public housing, so, armed with his deep love of Gramsci, a commission from the Dia Art Foundation, and a map of New York City Housing Authority developments in all five boroughs, he visited 47 communities before narrowing the future monument’s destination to the Bronx. We frequently consider public art projects in low-income communities as limited to murals or embellished fences. Hirschhorn’s piece differs radically from this assumption. Banners and posters, scrawled with quotations from the philosopher’s published works and prison notebooks, hang throughout the adjacent towers’ exteriors and the labyrinthine monument. With its odd-angled architecture of thin plywood walls and taped plexiglass windows, the monument’s seemingly haphazard volumes and aesthetic of makeshift encampment bring to mind something in between Dadaist Swiss artist Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau and a campus of the Occupy movement.

Gramsci Monument | Photo © Cameron Blaylock

Construction began in March, when Hirschhorn enlisted 42 residents, paid $12 an hour, to help him to build the monument. The structure, sprawling the approximate footprint of a single family home, is raised several feet high on a wooden platform centered in a 200-foot-wide green space between a cluster of Forest Houses towers. It is composed of two distinct areas accessible by four ramps and two staircases on each side, so there is no official entry or façade. Uncovered wooden paths connect functional rooms with open-air spaces, signaling that this is a monument to be entered and experienced rather than simply viewed. In the southern section, which Hirschhorn terms “the diamond,” specific, single bedroom-sized pavilions house a computer room, local radio station, daily newspaper print room, and an office for the onsite “ambassador” (an approachable curator, Yasmil Raymond of the commissioning Dia Art Foundation). There’s also a library where hands-on display cases and encyclopedic references to Gramsci’s avant-garde thought are placed side by side with sofas coated in packing tape and a table of Us Weekly issues. By leveling the field between intellectual inquiry and pop culture fandom, this juxtaposition intimates both inquiring enlightenment and delight in the everyday.

A bridge connects the diamond to “green grass,” where a refreshment kiosk, provisional splash pool, and art workshop surround a seating area and stage utilized for all manner of public events, including daily lectures by visiting scholars, open-mic nights, dancing, and poetry readings. From the back of the audience area, populated with white plastic lawn chairs, large plywood steps drop down a yard into an open space surrounded by Forest Houses highrises. These painted, oversized stairs are perhaps the most overtly monumental form in the sculpture’s design, clearly signaling an invitation to residents in the towers above to engage with what Hirschhorn calls his “platform of production.”

Gramsci Monument | Photo © Cameron Blaylock

Gramsci Monument | Photo © Cameron Blaylock

Erik Farmer, president of the Forest Houses residents’ association

For Hirschhorn, the definition of a monument is four-fold: location, duration, dedication, and production. Regarding location, the artist prefers a liminal space rather than the typical placement of a monument in a city center. “Forest Houses is not Park Avenue, or the High Line; it’s not Rockefeller Center,” says the artist, adding, “The monument must be where people are living.” Rather than a nondescript, harried civic plaza, the exclusively residential quality of Forest Houses’ environs would provide an atmosphere for both producing a sprawling sculpture and engaging a distinctly available audience. Notably, Hirschhorn himself chooses to live in Paris’ closest analogue to the Bronx’s public housing landscape: the immigrant-heavy banlieues. With an intermediate identity between vertically urban and leafily suburban, Forest Houses and Hirschhorn’s chosen banlieue of Aubervilliers are what the artist envisions as a potential future hotbed of creativity.

Until he arrived at Forest Houses, Hirschhorn’s pitch was rebuked by every skeptical NYCHA community board he visited in the Bronx. But the Gramsci Monument proposal resonated with Diana Herbert and Clyde Thompson, who work at the Forest Houses Community Center, and Erik Farmer, the president of the development’s residents’ association. “I tried to hear him out because no one at the other projects would for some reason,” says Farmer, 44, who has resided at Forest Houses since he was one year old. Indeed, Hirschhorn recounts how several NYCHA leaders viewed public programming as a results-based system and were not as receptive to the idea as leaders from Forest Houses were. Recalling his first meeting with Hirschhorn, in which the artist laid out a map of the proposed monument across an entire office floor along with a detailed construction timeline, Farmer remarks, “You didn’t have to be a rocket scientist to know this was big. I had an open mind about it, and see what we got — something real, something huge.”

Gramsci Monument | Photo © Cameron Blaylock

Thomas Hirschhorn

From its inception, Gramsci Monument has been informed by its ephemerality. The artwork will stand for 77 days before being dismantled by the original construction crew in September. This schedule brings to mind the second element of Hirschhorn’s definition of a monument: duration. While the installation is on view, Hirschhorn lives in a Forest Houses apartment, suggesting that the exchange of experiences with the community is not meant to be pedagogical, but reciprocal. He emphasizes that the short duration underscores the temporal project’s “precious and precarious” quality. An eternal monument in a formal park can be dismissed as mere ornament and can serve to foster apathy towards a lionized figure. Yet, when confronted with a complex and temporary environment for understanding a complex philosophical thinker, the challenge of pursuing meaningful interpretation becomes unexpectedly alluring.

Gramsci Monument | Photo © Cameron Blaylock

Critics and theorists concerned with participatory, community-based work, such as Hal Foster and Claire Bishop, group Hirschhorn in the category of “relational aesthetics,” alongside artists like Suzanne Lacy or Mark Dion, both of whom have made artwork out of organizing groups of citizens to discuss issues of concern. For The Roof on Fire, Lacy organized 220 public high school students in 100 cars parked on a rooftop garage in Oakland, California, to discuss family, sexuality, drugs, and their futures while spectators and camera crews wandered through, listening. For Tate Thames Dig, which preceded the opening of the Tate Modern in the former Bankside Power Station in London, Mark Dion led local residents in archaeological digs of their surrounding neighborhood. Hirschhorn’s monument differs from this type of artwork in a significant way. While these artists entered an alien community with the intention of infusing its residents with a sense of its past or present-day self-worth,[1] Hirschhorn aims to do quite the opposite, leaving participants responsible for building, experiencing, and collaboratively contributing to the monument. Furthermore, Hirschhorn is not superimposing presumed relationships among pre-existing social, physical, or historical characteristics; he’s foisting a personal hero of his onto his audience in order to create a platform for reactions. In interviews and in the monument’s daily newspaper, Hirschhorn persists in directing the programmed discussions, radio broadcast, and library offerings around the figure of Gramsci rather than, say, ruminating on public housing stereotypes or attempting to creative a community archive with the pretense of empowering the residents of Forest Houses.

“I have to create the context,” he says. “It’s not a social work, or a research work, or an anthropological work.” Rather than an artist-as-scholar, he explains that he is a “fan” of Gramsci’s philosophical position that daily human experience can be transformed through new conceptions of self-education and creative collaboration.

Gramsci Monument | Photo © Cameron Blaylock

The use of quotidian materials of tape and plywood indicates the ways in which Hirschhorn valorizes the forgotten, offering residents a physical alternative to the surrounding architecture’s anonymity. Resembling an analog social media of sorts, in which abstract bonds and crowd-sourced affirmations become visible, the sculpture’s grassroots mentality serves as kind of foil to a monumental memorial on the opposite side of New York City: the National September 11 Memorial and Museum. With its overpowering security apparatus, the stone memorial contrasts sharply with the bottom-up Gramsci Monument, where Hirschhorn’s design allows entrance from multiple angles. Rather than a literal chasm, it is uplifting, possessed of utopian possibility.

Gramsci Monument | Photo © Cameron Blaylock

“I didn’t know nothing about Antonio Gramsci until this monument came here,” explains resident emcee, DJ Baby Dee, following a Saturday seminar led by CUNY Graduate School professor Stanley Aronowitz on Gramsci’s theory of education, which attracted a mix of downtown intellectuals and a handful of Forest Houses residents. “And it’s true what that banner on my building says — every human being is an intellectual, if they know how to use their mind the right way. The talk today actually really makes you think about your life, where you want to go. It fulfilled me. It’s nourishment.” My conversations with other visitors to the monument echoed Baby Dee’s enthusiasm.

Gramsci Monument | Photo © Cameron Blaylock

Gramsci Monument | Photo © Cameron Blaylock

Lex Brown, art teacher

Such talks are a part of a robust set of public programs, both on and off the site, that include taking children from Forest Houses to places of mechanical and cultural production (like a taxi yard, the New York Times newsroom, independent bookshops and Dia:Beacon), or the constant presence of interlocutors like Ambassador Raymond who is at all times available to answer queries about what qualifies the monument as a valuable contemporary artwork in plain language: “Look around; this is great art!” Other examples of live programming include the lessons of children’s art workshop leader Lex Brown, who incorporates Gramsci’s egalitarianism by setting “inclusivity and flexibility” as the basis of projects that champion the “reckless energy of childhood and intentionality of art making,” such as wood block constructions, dioramas of cardboard cityscapes, ink drawings, and graffiti. At night, adults congregate around the Gramsci Bar for a convivial happy hour. Scholar Marcus Steinweg presents daily lectures that are rigorous while offering disarming, approachable titles such as “What is Art?,” “Knowledge is Nothing but Knowledge,” and “Romantic Shit.” In effect, the monument pays tribute to Gramsci by opening up participants to new intellectual realms.

The notion of personal dedication represents the third pillar of his definition of monument. “My goal is not to be the accountant of my own work,” clarifying that the artwork is the insertion of information about Gramsci into Forest Houses. “Nobody asked me to do a monument,” he says. “It’s only me and my love for Gramsci.” Perhaps Hirschhorn’s choice to honor the thinker through active conversation in a dedicated temporary environment can inspire both Forest Houses residents as well as the art establishment.

Gramsci Monument | Photo © Cameron Blaylock

Undoubtedly, Gramsci’s message resonates with some, and the monument’s uncanny aura impacts many. “We are going through the same things as what Gramsci saw,” says Forest Houses resident and retired public school teacher Marcella Paradise, citing the communities’ shared obstacles, from pruned pensions to relatives’ prolonged prison sentences. Social challenges can seem interminable in the South Bronx, where the mammoth NYCHA blocks, set apart from the ever-changing face of the city’s grid, project an uneasy permanence. In comparison, time is of the essence in Hirschhorn’s autonomous sculpture. Out of this dichotomy, we find the fourth element of Hirschhorn’s definition of monument: production. The monument’s ceaseless output of children’s art, newspapers, performances, structured philosophical conversations, and chance encounters have presented a window of opportunity among the community’s forest of towers. “It’s not temporary to us,” says Farmer. “When Hirschhorn’s gone, it’ll always be in our memory, and you can never take that away. The monument is more than the monument.”

 

Gramsci Monument is open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. until Sept. 15.

Steven Thomson is an urbanist focused on the intersection of art and architecture. He studied architecture and art history at Pratt, University of Houston, and Elisava, and recently completed a master’s degree in urban studies at University College London. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic Cities, The Phaidon World Atlas of Contemporary Architecture, Cite, and Architizer, where he is the social media manager.

All photos © Cameron Blaylock, an architecture, fine art and environmental portrait photographer based in Brooklyn. Cameron’s recent projects include Typecast, an investigation into the “towers-in-the-parks” typology that was first presented at 2013 IDEAS CITY StreetFest; Visions for Storefront for Art and Architecture, a collaboration with writer Dolan Morgan; and AirBnB Neighborhoods, a feature on AirBnB which offers pictorial and editorial perspectives on New York City neighborhoods. In 2010, Cameron received a European diploma in fine arts from Bauhaus University.

The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.


NOTES:

[1] See Hal Foster, “An Archival Impulse,” October 110 (Fall 2004): 3-22; Claire Bishop, “Art of the Encounter: Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,” Circa 114 (Winter 2005): 32–35.

 



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