Last summer, the art world flocked up to a Bronx housing project to see what Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn had made. Over the course of a year and a half, the artist had employed residents of Forest Houses to build a Lost Boys-style wooden clubhouse with several rooms connected by a network of gangways and porches. Conceived of as a monument to Antonio Gramsci, the center housed a library filled with texts by Gramsci, Marx, and Civil Rights Movement-thinkers. It also employed residents at $12/hour to run children’s art classes, a local newspaper, a radio station, a library, a computer lab, and a grill. But when fall arrived, the monument came down, the temp jobs vanished, the radio station and newspaper shut down, and computers and equipment were raffled away. The art world went back to our Manhattan galleries with our photo-ops, taking with us a glimpse of resources that the Forest Houses lack.
Public opinion of the project was divided. Residents of Forest Houses expressed gratitude for the much-needed (however temporary) creative outlet for their kids, not to mention, a noticeable drop in shootings. Mostly, the art world cried colonialism. Ken Johnson dismissed the whole structure as a carpetbagging monument to the artist’s “monumental ego.” Howard Halle viewed it as a guilt-cleansing exercise. “Why don’t [the rich] take some of their money out of the bank, or wherever they have it laying around, and put it where it might do some actual good,” Halle wrote in the comments section of our blog, “instead of continuously skimming the fat off of global markets and then tossing a little pocket change at the ‘community’ to make themselves feel good.” His comment echoed composer Peter Buffett’s op-ed on top-tier philanthropy, which he summarily termed “‘conscience laundering’ — feeling better about accumulating more than any one person could possibly need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity.”
To that, I replied that if the Dia Art Foundation (the project’s funder) gave a damn, maybe it would keep the project going for longer than a few months. “Well, they don’t and it won’t,” Halle replied.
They didn’t, and it’s hard not to feel uneasy about that. Dia, whose mission statement revolves around long-term and visionary projects, had passively opted to move on. They have found no educational partners who would help this project survive and have not mentioned a search to do so.
In the end, I wondered, was this a productive collaboration? Or an ultimate reminder of what the Forest Houses lack? I went back a year later to find out whether residents still felt the same. After having the conversations below, it’s still impossible to separate the mechanics of arts philanthropy from the project itself; the one-time nature of projects like these reinforce the idea that sympathies and political ideals can be compartmentalized and laundered only through an art project as a hypothetical, single-authored proposition. As is the case in so many recent large-scale public artworks, it comes down to a question not of how to implement a better system, but how to make the ethical compromise for art.
Decades ago, critic John Berger defined art’s purpose as to “help or encourage men to know and claim their social rights.” By those standards, the piece is a success; I thought of Forest Houses Tenants Association President, Erik Farmer, who looked over the empty lawn where the monument had been, and told me that it “let [the kids] know that there’s more to the world than this.” And the writings of Gramsci seem to resonate with every part of the monument, its reception, and how it was made: the concept that “all men are intellectuals,” though society doesn’t allow for all men to assume intellectual roles; that a greater variance of schools and resources are required to grow intellectualism organically in any society; that landlessness breeds a psychology of political powerlessness and isolation; that pessimism can be a self-fulfilling prophecy; and that the intellectual must take “active participation in practical life as constructor, organizer, ‘permanent persuader’ and not just a simple orator.” Gramsci’s most significant contribution of all was the idea that cultural hegemony is imposed upon all people by the dominant social strata. That principle is clear in Chelsea and the Bronx alike.
Note: All interviews have been edited for length.
Erik Farmer, Tenants Association President and a key facilitator of the “Gramsci Monument.” He’s sitting in front of a sparsely populated kids’ water fountain overlooking the empty lawns where “Gramsci Monument” had been.
Well I thought [the reactions] would be a little more mixed, but mostly, everyone misses it. They wish it was back. Everyone keeps asking me Is it going to come back this year, is it going to come back…I had to tell them, nope, that was it, not again this year. So there’s nothing for the kids to do now, they’re really bored. You can see how nobody’s out here, when the monument was here last year, it was full of people outside.
So is anybody talking about some way to get funding to bring it back?
Yeah, that’s what people are asking, is it possible. The money that was spent…it’s going to be really hard to find somebody to fund that. It was really expensive.
Do you know how much?
I’m sure it was over $300,000. Because building, the wood itself, all the computers that they put in, printers, hiring forty-some people at $12 an hour…that’s hefty. It’s really hard to do that. I wish we could find someone to fund it. That would be incredible. Maybe not that magnitude, but something similar.
Would you want something permanent, maybe?
Yeah, something permanent for every summer—I would like that. Maybe not forty-something employees, even just ten employees. They can have the kids doing art and crafts, running a newspaper, stuff like that.
So it’s mostly, keeping the kids busy, that was the best part [of the project].
Yes. And giving them another outlook on things. They like art now. I’m going to take them to a trip to [Dia] Beacon in October. I’m trying to keep their minds off of all this. Let them know that there’s more to the world than this. Just keep their minds open a little bit.
Have you kept in contact with Dia?
Yeah, I talk to them all the time. We have a really nice rapport. They’re good people. They didn’t just come here and leave and ignore us after this. They’re a really good company, good staff, that’s a good company. I can understand once people leave, it’s out of sight, out of mind. But they didn’t treat us that way.
Actually, the book should be coming out in September, October…the Gramsci Monument book. And the documentary will be coming out in October, November. The guys from Switzerland who shot it came about a month ago, and we edited it. They’ll be back October, November, and we’re going to have a big showing in the center so everyone can come and see it.
So there’s still a lot going on. And I can say that several people who were working for the Dia Foundation, they helped with the manpower, got a couple of them jobs that they’re still working today. So that’s a good thing.
Dia Curator Yasmil Raymond, who was traveling and answered questions via email.
Time Out’s Howard Halle called this an example of wealthy art patrons “tossing a little pocket change at the ‘community’ to make themselves feel good.” Chicago critic Pedro Velez tweeted “when colonialism is still an accepted form of art and entertainment #GramsciMonument”. Were concerns like these discussed in the planning stages? And one year later, do you think the longterm impact of projects like these justify themselves?
I refuse to believe that art can only exist in the private sphere of museums, galleries, or homes. Gramsci Monument posed a serious challenge to the neoliberal politics of exclusion and segregation, opening up the possibility of a work of art in a public space without fences, pedestals and security cameras, a possibility of free access to poets, philosophers and scholars, it formulated a new form of monument, of public commemoration and mourning, and perhaps more importantly, it drew together a joyful spectatorship that included peoples from all parts of New York as well as hundreds of guests from abroad, who traveled to experience the work and remember Antonio Gramsci, his life and writings. I can’t estimate the “impact” it has had on people’s life. I can only tell you in all honesty that it impacted my life.
The reception of this project was drastically different for the art world and Forest Houses; for the people who built and lived with the monument, it seemed to give them a glimpse of a creative outlet that isn’t being offered currently by NYCHA. Do you think that Dia might continue to address some of the issues raised by this work?
We learn a great deal from every project, and this was no exception. Dia’s mission is to follow extraordinary artists and help them realize ambitious works that expand our definition of art. We need to wait and see how these issues surface again.
(A few days later) I just have one follow-up question: You write that we must “wait and see how these issues surface again”. But for many at Forest Houses, these issues—a lack of educational resources, and basic creative outlets, especially for children—are an inescapable factor of everyday life. People seemed only increasingly aware of how unfulfilling their complex has become again now that the monument’s gone. Do you really think that Dia needs an artist to prompt that conversation anew, in order to address the issues again? Why does the conversation end with the art project?
Gramsci Monument most certainly demonstrated the potential of art. Unfortunately, like many non-profit institutions, our resources are limited. But the door in my office is open to any philanthropists, foundation or governmental agency interested in supporting Dia’s programs.
Anonymous Teenager Who Worked on the Monument
Susie Farmer, Erik’s mother, tells me the boy had worked on the monument from the beginning, but he only agrees to talk to me after I beg, and tell him it can be anonymous. Answers are all “yes” and “no”; had you ever built anything before? No. Did Thomas teach you? Yes. Do you think it was a good thing? Yes.
He kept looking off into the distance, and I could tell I was making him very uncomfortable.
A row of Hispanic guys a few benches down. Some whistle, others agree to talk.
How have things changed since the monument was here last year?
Joe Riveria: Not too many visitors like you that come by. Before there was a lot of visitors, they’d take pictures, stay around. There’s not much of that no more.
Is anybody trying to get it back?
Joe Riveria: No, I don’t think so. I don’t know nobody that be doing a petition or signing papers to bring it back.
But if somebody did…
Joe Riveria: Maybe, yeah. Maybe it could be.
Louis Soto: No, you know what, I’m going to tell you why—because last time, when they started this, they hired only the black people, no Puerto Rican or Mexicans.
Guy further down the bench: They needed more salsa!
I heard about that last year. I think I talked to you about it, actually.
[Note: All of the security guards and grill staff I’d seen working at the monument had been black; this had created some heated resentment from the sidelines. It remains a sticking point and was brought up multiple times after this].
But you do think the project was a good thing, overall?
Louis Soto: Oh yeah it was a good thing, but there was nobody like us involved. They must have thought we was dumb or something. You know, like we couldn’t handle things.
Joe Riveria: If it had stayed up a couple more months, it could have caused some problems.
You think maybe people just got their friends work?
Louis Soto: Yeah, now you got it!
So do you see kids still doing art and getting involved in the same activities?
Joe Riveria: They always love art, so they find a way to do it in a different place. Just not around here.
But kids with talent—there’s always kids with talent around here who do art. They just do a different type of art. They do graffiti or whatever. They express themselves in a lot of different ways.
I wonder if somebody donated all the materials and supplies…you have enough people who know how to build here, right? Do you think that the community could do it [on its own]?
Joe Riveria: Oh, yeah, most definitely. That would help out a lot. A lot of people, like you say, they’ve got different talents.
Louis hands me the keys to his garden around the corner. It’s a modest but well-maintained enclave of trees with oriental rugs, a cooler, and seating areas inside
Thomas Hirschhorn, who could only answer questions via email. [Note: This interview has been edited.]
Everybody I spoke with seemed to want the monument back. But when I asked people whether there were efforts to try and get something like this back, people said “no.” Nobody felt equipped to deal with the city bureaucracy, to ask for money, or to make their own architectural plans. There are over 3,000 residents at Forest Houses, and yet, nobody seemed to feel empowered to do this again without an artist figure coming in and directing them. What’s missing there, in your opinion?
First of all, I am happy to learn that residents want the Monument back, because this means that the project was not a failure. But I had been, since the very beginning, clear to everybody that the “Gramsci Monument” is a new kind of Monument, and it’s a new form of art—concerning its dedication, its location, its output and its duration. It is time-limited. It’s not a Monument which understands eternity as a question of time; it’s a Monument which understands eternity as ‘here’ and as ‘now’.
Instead of just asking what is missing at ‘Forest Houses’—forgetting that the engaged members of the community have been doing fantastic work, for years—I want to respond [by telling] you what I discovered through the “Gramsci Monument”: I discovered a beautiful sense of dignity. During the year and a half of my research in NYCHA projects, I was overwhelmed by the dignity of the residents. I learned all my work at Forest Houses that ‘dignity’ is another notion which stands for simplicity, generosity, lucidity, solidarity and openness towards the other. ‘Dignity’ is also another word for the ability to see the world as it is, while also seeing the non-necessity of the world as it is.
Last year, photographer Chris Arnade wrote a memorable review of the monument; he’s a white man who’s spent three years photographing mainly sex workers, drug addicts, and drug dealers in the South Bronx. He felt that the monument’s philosophy was out of step with the realities of life in the Bronx. What can you say to that? Do any of the reviews matter to you?
I do not read reviews, because I have to make my artwork first, and I cannot analyze it when I am doing it. Also, I have to keep my ‘headlessness’ in making my work of art. I do know exactly what I want, I do know exactly what I am doing and I do know exactly where is my position, so I do not learn [from] commentary on my work. Through the “Gramsci Monument”, I learned that, when creating an artwork, there is a limit to [how much good can be achieved through] criticism. On the contrary, I learn a lot from confronting my work to the ‘Non-exclusive Audience’, such as the residents of Forest Houses.
In general, when onsite at the “Gramsci Monument”, I heard a lot of visitors comments begin with the words: “In the beginning I was skeptical . . . “ or “I had doubts…” It astounded mehow the right attitude today is to be critical, to ‘have doubts’ and ‘be skeptical’. No one wants to confront an experience with an uncertain outcome, openly, with sovereignty and confidence. Or an affirmation without the shield and self-protection of a critical attitude.
This [skepticism], opposed to those who have no choice, is an exclusive and luxurious attitude. To remain ‘unconvinced’ is luxurious because finally it is a justification given by those unwilling to change, who don’t want to be touched by reality and don’t want to experience reality. I want to be critical, too, and ask myself, “How am I in this world? What kind of position do I want to take in this world? What kind of work am I doing in this World? And what Form can I give to answer these questions?”
Last year, you’d told me that it wasn’t so important whether people read Gramsci or not—more that his ideas were just one of the monument’s offerings, and that Gramsci himself empowered you to feel that you could do this project. Isn’t there something to be said for keeping those ideas alive, though, in a permanent way in the community?
Indeed, Antonio Gramsci’s ideas empowered me, in, for example, his beautiful statement: “Every human being is an intellectual”. I am convinced that ideas are alive forever – even without the “Gramsci Monument” – which is the reason why I wanted to create a work of art dedicated to him. Therefore, I wanted to realize the “Gramsci Monument” in and with a entire and intact conviction of Equality.
Art calls for equality, and it is the weapon to build equality. There is no other mission. The amount of factual inequalities is immense, I am aware of it; but I won’t limit myself to the status of commentator or observer. Equality is not a fact, it needs to be fought for, and I have tools or weapons; I can give form.
I thought that many of Hirschhorn’s responses seem to echo Gramsci’s writings, so I included a few excerpts below.
From “The Formation of Intellectuals”:“All men are intellectuals, one could therefore say: but not all men have in society the function of intellectuals.”
From “Against Pessimism”: “[Pessimism] may in fact be the greatest danger we face at present, given that its consequences are political passivity, intellectual slumber, scepticism about the future.”
From “The Formation of Intellectuals”: “[T]he new intellectual can no longer consist in eloquence, which is an exterior and momentary mover of feelings and passions, but in active participation in practical life, as constructor, organizer, “permanent persuader” and not just a simple orator…”
Susie Farmer, Erik’s mother, sitting on a bench nearby. I interviewed her last year about the monument. She had been sitting just a few benches away.
Have you kept in contact with people who were involved with the project?
Oh, I got letters from Lexie [the Monument’s resident art teacher]. Thomas came back about six months ago. We had a nice time. We had dinner for him. It was nice.
[One of the best parts about Gramsci Monument] was the experience, and all the people I met who were all the way from France…it was just interesting, listening to some of the things they did that were different from what we do here.
Do you think you’ll keep in touch with Thomas after this?
Yes, we all will.
[During the project], Thomas rented an apartment nearby so that he could walk over in the morning. His son was going to the daycare here, he got to know all the children and the teachers. So he picked up a lot [more English].
So is there any talk of trying to get something going again?
No, unless someone comes with a proposal to bring something like that here. But, no.
Do you think maybe people can look for a grant, or ask the city for money to do the same thing?
Um…I don’t think so. Somebody had to help [Thomas], so he could do this. So I don’t think so. And if he does it, he would do it somewhere else. He wouldn’t come to the same area.
And nobody has the knowledge to build that [structure] the way that Thomas did, in the time that he had to do it. Nobody was going to do it, unless they had someone here with them who knows how to do construction work like that. I really don’t think so. I mean, we have a lot of people who know construction work, but it’s not building [from scratch].
But you had a lot of people who built it last year, right?
So they couldn’t maybe…maybe if Thomas came and gave a…
Maybe if they had a diagram, they would be able to do it. But the funding…and how long [city] housing would let us keep it on the ground…you have to consider all of that because we’re on their property. And they were kind enough to let us do it this time. And they may do it again because they saw how much the community was involved in it. So they may say “yes.” I don’t know.
I remember the last time I talked to you, you were telling me about kids who were getting really inspired by the art there. Have you seen that [enthusiasm] grow at all over the year? [Note: Last year, Susie had told me a story about a little boy who’d been particularly inspired by the monument, and had been thinking about going into an art program because of it.]
No. And one little boy who we particularly thought would be very good [with art], I don’t even know if he’s going to school now like we’d encouraged him to do.
But they enjoyed it. And most of all, Lexie, the children loved her.
I remember you also said something about how the garden looked a lot better last year…
Yes, Thomas [made] that garden. If it hadn’t been for Thomas, that garden wouldn’t look like that. That woman didn’t hardly take care of it. Thomas started her [working on it]. It looks much better than before we had the Monument here. You can see she’s started putting all that junk in there again that doesn’t belong in there. Thomas had had all that stuff out.
The children are asking every day if it’s going to come back. No, they’re not going to come back. It was a one-time thing. Every day they had something to look forward to. They would get up early and come to the monument. It was something they never had in their area before, and they may never have it again.