PRINT November 2013

Glenn Ligon

New York City Housing Authority rendering, ca. 1960.  Center: McKinley Houses (formerly Forest South Houses). Top left: Forest Houses.

AT A CONFERENCE ON MULTICULTURALISM a long time ago and far, far away, the critic bell hooks declared, “Love will take you places you might not ordinarily go,” and, indeed, it was Love that propelled Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn to locate his Gramsci Monument, 2013—the fourth and final iteration of a series of artworks dedicated to major writers and philosophers—at the Forest Houses in the South Bronx, a New York City Housing Authority complex of fifteen high-rise buildings encircling a vast, albeit ill-maintained, green space. It was not love of the projects per se, however, that led Hirschhorn to get down uptown, but his love for what he has called the “non-exclusive audience,” one that might be encountered in urban areas outside the confines of galleries and museums, such as those operated by the Dia Art Foundation, which sponsored his installation. Perched atop a large platform, the Gramsci Monument consisted of a cluster of shack-like plywood pavilions that contained a radio broadcast station, a library, an exhibition space, an art workshop, a café, and an Internet room, as well as a stage for lectures and performances. The compound operated seven days a week under the full-time supervision of the artist and curator Yasmil Raymond (as Dia’s “ambassador”) until mid-September, when it was dismantled and its parts given away by lottery. I visited a few times before then, but it was admittedly hard to just “visit” the Monument the way one might visit, say, Dia:Beacon, for the site brought home the fact that we live within radically unequal zones of privilege and access in relationship to art. While Hirschhorn must have situated the Monument outside the art centers of Manhattan in part to make precisely this point, I hoped that he had come correct to the Forest Houses. I hoped, that is, that the Gramsci Monument was not just one more example of an art project, exhibition, or biennial trading on the frisson, if not the love, of encountering the “Other” in a troubled urban space.

If I felt uneasy about Hirschhorn’s choice of site, it was because it was almost too perfect. Located in the poorest congressional district in the nation and devastated by high unemployment rates, drugs, arson, and failed urban policies, the South Bronx in the 1970s and ’80s became a global symbol of inner-city decay, visited by no fewer than three US presidents looking for a suitable backdrop to express their concern for the plight of poor and working-class people. Although the neighborhood’s fortunes have changed somewhat since those grim days, the area continues to struggle with the challenges brought on by poverty, pollution, high rates of incarceration, and the ongoing effects of the AIDS crisis. And although the residents of the Forest Houses would certainly be able to tell if someone was pissing on them and calling it rain (to borrow Reverend Al Sharpton’s memorable phrase), I could not help but think that the more utopian aspects of Hirschhorn’s project were directly colored by considerations that went largely unnoted in the press release and manifestos I found on the Monument’s website. Hirschhorn’s desire to “encounter the Other through an Idea”—to use art as a catalyst for interaction and cooperation—was certainly made all the more vivid by his choice of the setting in which that encounter occurred.

“But does the community even want this?” a friend asked when I told him about the Gramsci Monument. Based on the fact that Hirschhorn had been invited to build it in their midst, my answer had to be yes—especially given that the artist had met with the residents of dozens of other housing projects before he received an invitation from Erik Farmer, a long-term tenant of the Forest Houses and president of its residents’ association. In Farmer, Hirschhorn found a charismatic, engaged, and respected community figure, one willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. “Thomas is a trip,” Farmer replied with obvious affection and amusement when asked about his first impressions of the artist. It was Farmer’s embrace of Hirschhorn’s evangelical zeal and his own curiosity about Gramsci’s life and writings that led to the decisive offer to host the project. Along with two leaders from the Southeast Bronx Neighborhood Centers (headquartered at the Forest Houses)—Clyde Thompson, director of community affairs, training, and employment, and Diane Herbert, executive director—Farmer helped secure the Housing Authority’s approval for the artwork and encouraged the residents to work with Hirschhorn, despite the fact that most of them had never heard of the artist, or of Gramsci, for that matter.

As much as this spirit of openness and cooperation was a response to Hirschhorn’s passion, it also had to do with the character of the neighborhood. Although the South Bronx was brought to the brink of destruction during the late ’70s and early ’80s, a strong tradition of community pride and cultural innovation exists there, one that made the residents of the Forest Houses willing to go on this “trip” with Hirschhorn. My uncle Tossy remembers seeing Billie Holiday and Thelonious Monk perform in nightclubs in the neighborhood in the ’40s and ’50s. The rapper Fat Joe, who grew up in the Forest Houses, recalls watching Grandmaster Flash, one of the pioneers of hip-hop, doing DJ sets in the parking lot across the street from his building in the mid-’70s. Besides the musical genius, the neighborhood has produced a MacArthur Fellow, a former four-star general and secretary of state, and a current Supreme Court justice. When Hirschhorn stepped into the projects, he tapped directly into the estimable cultural, emotional, and intellectual resources—vastly underutilized ones, I might add—that the community already possessed.

Thomas Hirschhorn, Gramsci Monument, 2013, Forest Houses, Bronx, New York. Photo: Chandra Glick. All works by Thomas Hirschhorn © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

He also—let’s be real—tapped into a “want” closer to the one my friend had asked me about, a want that had little to do with art. “No romance without finance” is the chorus of Gwen Guthrie’s 1986 hit “Ain’t Nothin’ Goin’ On but the Rent,” and the Forest Houses residents’ calculation to welcome Hirschhorn was inevitably based in part on concrete considerations that were just as important as the intangible benefits of having the Gramsci Monument located in the hood. One of those was the jobs (albeit temporary ones) that the Monument would bring to a neighborhood with an unemployment rate of 21 percent and an overall poverty rate of 43 percent. Other factors included free Internet access (the projects aren’t wired), increased maintenance of public spaces (“they mowed the grass for the art,” one resident told me), heightened security (in the form of guards hired by Dia), and the promise of children’s workshops and field trips that would keep local kids from running the streets. So, in addition to offering a library and an exhibition devoted to a communist philosopher, the Gramsci Monument also delivered considerable financial and institutional resources that the residents strategically used to their advantage. That these benefits were attached to an artwork was likely immaterial to their recipients, but they certainly spoke to the complicated ways in which they saw Hirschhorn as having more to offer than passionate words to make the art happen.

Reflecting on my friend’s question, I cannot help but think that as an artist of color I was expected to be particularly in touch with the community’s needs, just as most would expect Hirschhorn to be ignorant of them. And the fact is that I was positioned differently in relation to the questions that the Gramsci Monument posed about audience and agency. At our first meeting, Farmer had asked if I would give a lecture on one of the days when the residents programmed the Monument’s activities, explaining that because I am a black artist, my words would be important for the residents to hear. While I was flattered to be asked and accepted the invitation (noting that there were, at the time, no other visual artists listed on the impressive roster of scholars and poets scheduled on the Monument’s website), doing so implicated me in Hirschhorn’s project in a way that I had not expected, and I was unsure how to navigate this transition from audience member to participant. In fact, the invitation to write about the Monument for this magazine had already complicated my relationship to it, provoking in me some notion of journalistic rigor at odds with the desire to just hang out. But, in truth, I was implicated long before either of those entanglements arose, and this is likely what prompted my friend’s question about the community members and occasioned Farmer’s invitation for me to address them: I’d grown up in the Forest Houses.

“WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?” asked a white artist best known for the painted plaster body casts of black and brown residents of the South Bronx that he affixes to exterior walls in the neighborhood. “I’m here because Thomas asked me to come see the Monument,” I replied. “Also, I grew up in the Forest Houses.” “Well,” he said, glancing disdainfully at my white shirt and designer shoes, “you don’t dress like you’re from here.” Setting aside his essentialist and mildly racist notions of what colored people from the South Bronx do and do not look like, I realized he was asking a question I had certainly asked myself: What am I doing here, back on the block for the first time in more than three decades?

Although I spent my formative years in the Forest Houses—my family moved there in 1959, the year before I was born—we relocated to a smaller, less chaotic housing project in the northeast Bronx in the mid-’70s, returning to the neighborhood only occasionally, to visit elderly relatives or to attend a funeral. But even when I lived in the Forest Houses, I was often elsewhere. After a kindergarten teacher at the public school across the street told my mother, “Your child might be smart here, but at a real school he’d probably just be average,” my mother promptly found a private school on the Upper West Side of Manhattan that was willing to give me a scholarship, concluding that a three-hour commute was a small price to pay for a future not bounded by such low expectations. Like many poor and working-class parents of her generation, she believed that education was the ladder to a better life, even while worrying about what I might leave behind on that upward journey. She was anxious that sending me to a predominantly white school might cause me to lose my connection to the black community, a community that had shaped and nurtured her. It’s not that she feared I would forget that I was black; she feared I would forget that white people weren’t everything. It was an act of love to send me off every morning, her concern for my psychic well-being balanced by her faith that my teachers wouldn’t steer me too far off course and her trust in my ability to differentiate piss from rain.

Jeniece Jenkins (far left) and Lex Brown (far right) leading an art class in the workshop at Thomas Hirschhorn’s Gramsci Monument, 2013, Forest Houses, Bronx, New York, August 14, 2013. Photo: Romain Lopez. All works by Thomas Hirschhorn © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

From a very early age I was shy and bookish and knew that the life I wanted might exist elsewhere. Books became a means of travel. Later I turned to making art. Although my mother didn’t fully understand my artistic ambitions, she encouraged them by sending me to pottery classes in Greenwich Village and drawing classes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She imagined that knowledge of art might make me a well-rounded citizen if not necessarily a living. Only well into my twenties did I “come out” as an artist, leaving my job as a proofreader at a midtown law firm for the uncertainty of a full-time studio practice. And only later still did I recognize the ways that the books my mother brought by the boxful to our apartment in the Forest Houses had laid the foundation of an artistic career filled with so much text.

Given my childhood history and my long absence from the neighborhood, what was it, exactly, that compelled me to come to the projects again after all these years, when nostalgia, a sense of obligation, or a desire to “show the projects love” had not? It was art that brought me back to the Forest Houses—not my own but Hirschhorn’s. This irony was not lost on me as I took the subway north from Manhattan to see the Gramsci Monument one oppressively hot, overcast afternoon in July.

“I LEARN[ED] that you can make anything out of art,” proclaimed a handwritten note by Malika S., penned after a field trip to Dia:Beacon and reproduced in the July 7 issue of the Gramsci Monument Newspaper. Given her exposure to the work of Fred Sandback, Robert Smithson, and Dan Flavin, I suspect that Malika meant to say that you can make art out of anything, but nevertheless the point is well taken: The multivalent, porous, and ambiguous nature of Hirschhorn’s project produced numerous points of entry and trajectories that did not lead to predetermined outcomes. To address a “‘non-exclusive’ audience,” Hirschhorn has written, “means to face reality, failure, unsuccessfulness, the cruelty of disinterest, and the incommensurability of a complex situation.” Indeed, it was this openness and unpredictability, and even the risk of failure, that gave the Gramsci Monument its vitality. Anything could be made out of it. While that has become a cliché that many artists use to mask a lack of rigor in their thinking, in Hirschhorn’s case, this mutability was directly linked to his conception of art’s function in the world.

Besides all that brown plastic packing tape, what held the Gramsci Monument together were human encounters. And, to be sure, Hirschhorn gives good encounter. These interchanges were the catalyst that led to the invitation to work with the residents, and it was my interactions with them that made each trip to the Forest Houses worthwhile. “It is a platform for their yearning to share,” one artist friend said of the Monument, and it was clear to me when talking to Farmer; Saquan Scott, a coeditor of the newspaper; DJ Baby Dee, the project’s MC; or Marcella Paradise, the aptly named project librarian, that the residents of the Forest Houses thought of the Monument as an opportunity to share their skills, lives, and experiences with others. Were such interactions, in fact, the art? Not clear. That said, probably the most interesting thing about Hirschhorn’s project was its continual renegotiation and deconstruction of the ever-supple line between art and non-art. In the end, however, it was art that somehow always won out, and this at times left a bitter taste in my mouth.

“I have always seen my mission,” Hirschhorn has written, “as taking over responsibility. Responsibility for everything touching my work, but also responsibility for what I am not responsible for.” That’s a tall order—a standard to which no one should be held—and yet it proves unexpectedly revealing, pointing to the inevitable chasm between the expectations such ambitious work engenders and the more modest reality of what it could deliver. To be sure, Hirschhorn did take responsibility for many things touching his work, as his full-time presence at the Monument attested. However, it was in small interactions where missed opportunities continually cropped up. Hirschhorn may have thought such exchanges fell outside the realm of what he was ultimately responsible for, but they showed where his priorities were at odds with what could have been—and needed to be—done.

For example, as much as I was touched by Malika’s and her friends’ conclusions about the nature of art in the Gramsci Monument Newspaper, when I finished reading them I thought to myself, “The word metal is spelled with a t, not a d.” While it didn’t surprise me that the children’s handwritten testimonies were offered as authentic, unmediated documents of a “non-exclusive” audience’s encounters with art, what did surprise me was that no one had helped them with their spelling and grammar. This might seem a trivial point to some, but in a neighborhood where fewer than 12 percent of the children at the public school I attended passed the state’s 2013 English Language Arts test, this disregard spoke to a privileging of the encounter with art—the children’s, Hirschhorn’s, my own—over the more mundane problems of literacy and writing skills, just as it spoke to what the British writer Alan Bennett has called the “gap between our social position and our social obligations.”

Lecture table at Thomas Hirschhorn’s Gramsci Monument, 2013, Forest Houses, Bronx, New York. Photo: Chandra Glick. All works by Thomas Hirschhorn © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

Hirschhorn is very clear that the Gramsci Monu­ment is art, not social work, and he resists the idea that he has an ongoing responsibility for what happens in the neighborhood after the Monument’s departure. Even so, I could not help feeling time and again during my visits that there was something admirable yet unsettling about the intellectual rigor with which theMonument was constructed—a rigor that seemed to provide an answer for every critique and seemed to disconnect the work on some fundamental level from the community in which it was located. As multivalent and porous as the Monument was and as stimulating as my interactions with the residents were, ultimately a trip there was a trip inside Hirschhorn’s mind. And fine mind though it may be, I felt a limit to the kinds of experiences one could have and struggled with moments when needs were ignored in favor of theories and positions. Just as my mother hoped that my teachers would take responsibility for me while I was in their care, I couldn’t help but wish that Malika and her friends—while symbolically if not physically in Hirschhorn’s care—would have had more of their needs engaged beyond the need to be exposed to art. They learned that “anything could be made of art,” but they didn’t learn that the proper expression of that idea was as important as the idea itself. In the context of the Monument, where the boundaries of art were constantly being challenged, couldn’t the simple act of an adult helping a child with her writing skills be considered art too?

What if instead of building the Gramsci Monument, Hirschhorn had proposed building the Gramsci Charter School? This school could contain a radio broadcast station, a library, an exhibition space, an art workshop, a café, and an Internet room, as well as a stage for lectures and performances by a stellar list of visiting academics and poets. Its motto, “Every human being is an intellectual,” would be emblazoned on a banner stretched over the front door of a building purchased and maintained in perpetuity by Dia, just as the institution oversees long-term installations like Dan Flavin’s in the Hamptons. Far-fetched, I know, but one of many possible projects that might have resulted in a deeper collaboration between Hirschhorn and the residents of the Forest Houses, one that would have implicated both the artist and the sponsoring institution in a vastly different dialogue around the nature of art. Perhaps this isn’t the dialogue Hirschhorn wished to engage in, but it is one his project inevitably suggests.

And while I am imagining the far-fetched, what if the Gramsci Monument had landed in the Forest Houses in 1973 instead of 2013? What would I as a child have made of this manifestation of a distant, largely segregated but not unfamiliar art world, one I was just beginning to learn about from books and magazines (for example, reading about the work of Gordon Matta-Clark, whose Bronx Floors, 1972–73, was cut out of a tenement building just blocks from my house)? Would I have sat through long scholarly lectures and poetry readings or lingered in the library, flipping through books published in Italian and German as well as English? Would I have participated in the Gramsci Theater or attended the art workshops, grateful they were free and located around the corner instead of miles away? When all was said and done, that is, would the Monument have seemed a blessing to me or merely a supplement to what was already present in the neighborhood, where outside my bedroom window DJs were on the brink of inventing a musical genre that would circle the globe and daily I rode graffiti-covered subway cars that would provide a model for the use of text as art? The monument would have certainly been quite something in 1973, but in the context of a neighborhood filled with such rich cultural innovation, it might not have been all that.

In fact, had this fanciful scenario actually transpired in 1973, I wonder whether today, in the distant year 2013, I would remember my encounters at the Gramsci Monument with fondness or indifference. Would my encounter with the work have fundamentally changed the way I thought about art or would it have been one more stop on a path I was already on? Not sure. But I do know that art is based on “a yearning to share,” and that that impassioned desire is at the ever-shifting center of Thomas Hirschhorn’s art.

Glenn Ligon is a New York–based artist.