“Another monument to his monumental ego,” Ken Johnson recently labelled Thomas Hirschhorn’s Gramsci Monument, a big wooden community center which looks like a set from Peter Pan, and occupies the Bronx’s Forest Housing Projects through September. Rather than a towering chrome figurehead, the monument is an intellectual playground, a drastic improvement to the quality of life at Forest, and an overwhelmingly loving event.
Johnson’s right to call out the mindset that an MFA qualifies a person to hand out life lessons to poor communities, usually provided there’s a photo-op involved. (Artforum’s use of the “incongruously green” Forest Houses as the backdrop for Scene and Herd portraits of Barbara Gladstone, Sheena Wagstaff, and Dia Director Philippe Vergne stinks of phoniness.) That reasonable skepticism, though, seems to have an awfully pessimistic effect on Ken Johnson: When Johnson sees a dozen people listening to a Latin band, he reports on the “ugly white plastic chairs” they’re sitting on; When he discovers one person inside the library of social theory texts, he wishes there were two; When he sees children playing games in the makeshift computer lab, he complains that they’re not researching the work of early 20th century Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci.
All that pessimism misses the point of both Gramsci and the monument. The purpose of combining a computer room, art studio, radio station, newspaper room, philosophy library, kiddie pool, snack bar, and an open mic stage, is to validate any group cultural experience. Copies of People magazine sit across from a bookshelf of Marxist literature. A photo wall titled “Every book is important” shows kids holding up their favorite books, from textbooks to chick lit. It’s a living embodiment of Gramsci’s desire for proletariat liberation from cultural hegemony, and his credo: “Every human being is an intellectual.”
That’s a powerful statement when used by Hirschhorn, in that it plainly acknowledges that our culture is built around the opposite attitude. It’s silently reinforced, every other day of the year, simply through the absence of spaces like this one.
So Gramsci’s success really depends on how the residents of Forest felt about it. Here’s what I heard from a handful of people there last Sunday:
A young Latino man in his twenties doesn’t want me to give his name, but tells me he grew up in the Bronx, works a cleaning job at the monument, and loves it. While we were talking, he was doodling on a piece of paper towel.
What’s your favorite memory so far?
Oh … [Laughs] That’s kinda personal.
[Laughs] Okay, then second favorite …
The kids, basically. That’s about it. Everybody’s having fun.
Do you think any of these kinds of activities with the kids will continue after the monument goes down?
Honestly, from living in the Bronx almost all my life, I don’t think it’s gonna happen. Kids get occupied too fast, they get into something. I don’t think it’s gonna last. Maybe if they did it all year long to keep it a fresh memory of what they’re doing. When this is gone … it ain’t gonna be the same, though.
Phil Beder works the radio station. He’s a white dude, in a wheelchair, and a longtime friend of Hirschhorn. He’s from Brooklyn. Hirschhorn asked him to run Gramsci radio since he has a background in working for the extremely left-wing station WBAI.
I’ve heard some backlash on Twitter about the monument– people who haven’t been here have been saying that it’s condescending, this is some successful white artist trying to impart his philosophy on people … How do you think people feel about this as a community?
Well, I’ll tell you this: five years ago, Thomas did a presentation at Queensboro Community College where he was thinking of collaborating with an art professor over there. During his presentation, he showed the Spinoza Festival, which was very much like this. He went into a public housing in Amsterdam and did the Spinoza Monument, very much the same format. This teacher in the audience pokes this kid and says “You were gonna ask him a question.” And the kid goes “No, that’s okay.” And she goes “C’mon, c’mon you were gonna ask him a question.” And so he gets up a does this spiel. A black kid. He said how can you come into a neighborhood and talk down to people, and Thomas says, no, I was invited in.
This went on, and Thomas was sort of frustrated. Basically, all Thomas should have said was “You had to be there.” There was no resistance from the community. If you weren’t there, and you had that point of view… you had to be there. It wasn’t what you think.
This time, he went to about fifty projects, and basically, he chose the right place. Erik Farmer, the head of the Tenant’s Association said “Yeah, who was Gramsci, why should I be interested in this?” and stuck his nose into it. The people who are [criticizing this project from] far away need to talk to the people in the community. Does everybody here get Gramsci? I don’t know. Does everybody here get the concept that this is not a social project? No, probably not. Some people view it as a program for their kids. So like any artwork—for me, art is something you look at, and you take what you want from it. That, to me, is what this project is. I’m not a connoisseur of contemporary art, but this is art. It is ugly. The roof leaks, god damn it. But it works as a concept, as a thing.
Janet, a middle-aged African American woman and Forest resident, is working the burger and hot dog counter. She built the monument with thirteen men, all Forest residents.
How do you think the community’s reacted to this over the course of the–
It’s beautiful. The community loves it. They don’t even want it to leave.
Do you think they’ll try to set up more programs for kids after this is gone?
They already have programs for kids, the South Bronx Community Center, right down the block.
Do you think they’ll try to keep doing something like this, though?
If somebody else comes to do another project, and they allowed them to do it here. Since everybody got along with this one.
Some people who aren’t from Forest are a little more suspicious about the intentions with this project. People are saying ‘Who is this artist to bring this into the community, who does he think he is …’
[Her face drops]. Who does he think he is? He probably wanted to try something new and see how it works for the community. I think it was a beautiful idea for him to do something like that, I think it’s terrific. Anybody who has a mind like that, who goes around the world and does something for people … I think it’s beautiful. It’s something somebody is doing for us, making us feel better within ourselves. Making everybody in the community happy, I think it’s wonderful.
Shirl Moody is selling jewelry on a table off to the side of the monument. She lived in Forest for twenty-four years.
Can I ask you a few questions?
If you promise to take a look at my jewelry.
Sure. What do you think of the monument?
I think this is a great thing that he did. He opened up a lot of doors, he gave a lot of jobs and opportunities. And I think this is one of the best things that has ever happened within Forest and for Forest.
So you don’t think there’s any criticism within the community?
None. There can’t be, he came with opportunity, he didn’t come asking for anything. He came giving. He gave back to the South Bronx, and thank God for him … It’s just so overwhelming—each part just says ‘love’ to the neighborhood. [Hirschhorn categorizes Gramsci’s philosophy as the intersection of “Love” and “Politics,” which he’s painted on two basketball hoops, each nailed to converging branches of the same tree.]
I’d hope that he wouldn’t take it down. I can’t understand why they would stop it. I wish they had a way they could run a program through the winter. I’m hoping they get a petition and have it signed. This is a great getaway, keeps a lot of violence from over here, there hasn’t been that much shooting … So my guns go up to him for this. It’s a great thing.
Cash, middle-aged African American guy, I think he’s a father, is watching singer/songwriter Miss Iry, Shirl’s sister, do open mic. She’s promoting her new album.
How do people feel about this?
The kids love it. They came out here, did something positive for the kids, it keeps them out of trouble. Instead of just going out to a regular park, in summertime, they have something they can really look forward to. And they really look forward to coming out here. And the [restaurant]—the prices are so sweet. Can’t really get better than that. [Two dollar burgers and hot dogs]. The open mic … everybody has a chance to do something. I like it. I like it.
So you don’t think there’s any backlash from the community? Nobody had hard feelings?
The way I see it is they provided fifty jobs to the community, for one. For two, everybody looks forward to coming here. If it were up to me, I would have this every year.
Off to the side, an older Hispanic man sits on a bench next to a young 20s Hispanic woman. Both prefer to remain anonymous.
How do you feel about this?
Man: Well it’s only going to be up for a little while, so what’s the point. It’s going to come down, soon … now, it’s gonna be gone forever, it’s gonna be memories. So it doesn’t make no sense at all.
So you think overall it’s a good thing and it should come back?
Oh, yes, it should come back because it’s not bad. But then again, you should hire more Puerto Ricans and Cubans [Laughs].
I heard about that.
[Hispanics were upset that African Americans got almost all the jobs at the monument, supposedly due to the fact that the head of the Tenant’s Association is African American. But that was straightened out.]
Woman: It should be something that’s kept all year long. It keeps the kids busy. There’s a cycle that keeps going on in here, in this area, in South Bronx. Violence, violence … if you teach kids other things besides violence, they’ll get into other things, their mind will open up. As long as you keep them inside the box, it will never change. This would be a good distraction.
Do you think that the violence has gone down this summer?
Together: Yes, yes, it has.
Girl: It kept people busy, people out of trouble. And focused on something positive instead of negative. You could tell there was a change.
An early 20s African American guy is playing cards with his friends near the restaurant. He seems reluctant to talk. He’s a security guard for the monument, and watches it at night.
Are there ever problems?
No, never any problems.
Do you think this is a good project for the community?
Yeah, it’s kept a lot of people from acting crazy, it’s stopped a lot of trouble. They had something for the kids to do, instead of being out here early morning doing nothing.
Like violence, drugs …
Yeah. They got somewhere to come play, eat, have fun, they get to do shows, put on their own shows. There’s a lot of activity.
Do you know when they proposed the project, was anybody suspicious of this?
A lot of people thought it wasn’t gonna last, or it wasn’t going to be finished.
Oh, it wasn’t going to be built?
But the idea for the project—were people opposed to it?
Nah—some people were, some people were really enthusiastic about it. They really wanted to see what the outcome would be.
Thomas Hirschhorn’s in the art room making a new “Resident of the Day” sign out of cardboard and duct tape. He speaks with a heavy Swiss accent.
Have you had any struggle with the community, getting this project built?
No. No struggle. No, no.
When you started this, were people suspicious of the project at all …
No, not suspicious. Perhaps skeptical, doubting … passive. But you know, you cannot do this kind of project without the agreement of the people here. That’s why the field trips are so important—I was here ten times before trying to meet people. That’s how I met Erik Farmer, the resident president who invited me to do it here. That’s why it is here, actually.
Did he have the consensus of the whole community before it was built?
No, not the whole community. But first of all [he's] one person who has ‘street credit.’ I call it a person with street credit, but who is the key figure, who knows the people, who lives here, who can speak in the words of the residents. He is the resident President, so he was the one who agreed that I do it here with him, with the help of the residents– so there is no struggle.
Is it important to you that people learn about Gramsci when they’re here, or is that secondary to the whole project?
It’s not secondary, but it’s only one issue, or one problem, or one offer, or one of the lights, to know about Gramsci. The other is make encounters, to create events, and to establish a new meaning of the term ‘monument.’ To me, somebody who hangs around at the bar every day, or only once, is also enjoying the monument. It’s about Gramsci for me, because this gives me the power, thinking I can do it– for him, for the love of his work, for the love of his life, and the price he was ready to pay. So this gives me the power to do his work.
I’m not a missionary of Antonio Gramsci. By definition, as an artist. This is why to give the ideas of Gramsci is of course one the goals but not the main goal.
Uh…can I ask you what you’re doing?
Yeah, I mean [Laughs] I started doing the board of– how do you say it– the panel of the Residents of the Day. And uh…now the panels are all full and we have no more wood. It’s already full, so I have to make another sign.
Can I take a photo?
[Laughs, goofily] You want the artist-at-work, huh? Okay, here is the artist-at-work…
An excerpt of philosopher Marcus Steinweg, who’s now onstage giving a guest lecture
….Philosophy is the same. Philosophy is of course not the problem to avoid l’art pour l’art aestheticism, it’s not aestheticism, but it’s idealism. I would say what aestheticism is in art, is idealism in thinking. Now, the crucial point, of course, is not to stop here, with this, let’s say, critical gesture– critical concerning the established– but also to interrogate the established itself. Not simply jumping from a [knife?] concept of idealism, to a [knife?] concept of substituting, a [knife?] concept of idealism for a [knife?] concept of positivism…positivism, simply, this is a [Latin?] work…..
People keep telling me to talk to Susie, Erik Farmer’s mother, whom I gather is kind of a community matriarch. She’s smoking a cigarette with fellow Forest resident Christine Allen, across from a small, well-tended garden.
Susie: Sundays are my favorite days; listen to different people who come by, who wanna say something, they wanna dance, they just wanna express themselves. I enjoy it. Everybody else does. We make sure we’re out here on Sundays. I’m here every day, but I enjoy Sundays.
I enjoy some of the lectures, but some of them are so complicated, I can’t put it together. So sometimes I listen to him, and sometimes I get drowsy.
When people were concerned at first, what are some of the things they were saying?
What is that, that looks horrible—you know, little comments—but for the most part people are pleased with it.
I do not allow disrespect or obscene language, here, in particular. I am not gonna hear that from the little ones down, to the little ones up.
Do you think this could happen again?
No, unfortunately, I wish it could happen again. Thomas was planning this for maybe seven to ten years. He was coming back and forth for over seven years trying to find a place where he could do it.
Everybody says it was Erik’s doing, to see that we had it here. Because he said “Okay, let’s give it a try.” I’m sure that if they said no, they would have had to come up with something to explain to him. “Why can’t we have it here? What harm is it going to do?”
Christine: And he took good care of this garden– very nice.
The garden wasn’t here before?
Susie: It was here, but it wasn’t taken care of like it should be because the lady who has it can’t really do it like she needs to. So Thomas comes over, he cleaned it, he took care of it. Some of it was already there, but it was so high, nobody could enjoy it.
Christine: He did an excellent job. [Claps]
Susie: He said he would do it an hour every day, and first thing in the morning, every day, that’s what he does.
Have you heard from any other projects why they weren’t going to have it?
No, I didn’t talk to any of them about that; Erik just said they said “no” off the bat, they didn’t really listen to see what it was going to be about, so they didn’t know.
A lot of people up there have said they’re gonna cry when it’s down. I dunno if I’m gonna cry, but I’m gonna miss it a lot. The kids are gonna miss it because now they’re gonna have nothing to do during the summer.
Christine: Myself, I’m glad to be a tenant here, thankful to them for having this here for us. Especially Erik and Clyde. [Before the monument], I used to be sitting up there laying in my bed. Now I’m not laying in my bed…this is really, this is awesome. I really love this.
Susie: And this is art. I never realized that art…it really changed my idea of what art could be. Art could be anything. I never thought you could make a career out of this.
There’s a little boy who lives here, who saw this and said he wants to be an artist. I told him “let your parents know that this is what you want and see if they can get you into an art school.” You give him something to do, and he sits there, and he makes sure he does it. He’s not gonna stop until he’s finished. He takes his time, and he’s patient, and everything. And you can see in him that this is something at a young age that he really wants to do.