This week me and Danielle Child (also from MMU Art History) attended a lecture by the Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn at the Royal College of Art on the subject of his Gramsci Monument project in the Bronx (New York) in 2013.
Gramsci was an Italian communist and thinker who was imprisoned by Mussolini in 1926 (he was released on health grounds in 1934 and died in 1937 at the age of 46). At his trial the prosecutor stated: ‘For twenty years we must stop this brain from functioning.’ Clearly the authoritarian Italian state viewed Gramsci’s ideas were a threat, something that attests to the power of communist thought. These ideas were a threat in part because Gramsci was enthused by the idea of equality. Consequently, on the subject of thinking itself and the idea of the intellectual, Gramsci declared that ‘Every human being is an intellectual’. Such a declaration is premised on a belief in the equality of human intelligence irrespective of background or education, role or rank. For Gramsci, everybody can and usually does reflect upon their place within the world and limitations that are placed upon their lived experience by social structures and hierarchies. One of my favorite things from Gramsci’s famous Prison Notebooks is his observation that ‘The starting-point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is, and is “knowing thyself” as a product of the historical process to date which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory.’ In a sense, what Gramsci is saying here is that to critically know ourselves we have to make such an inventory, one that is not just about personal autobiographical details, but about our place within a social and relational history which is implicated in such things as class and gender.
Hirschhorn’s Gramsci Monument was constructed in and with the help of residents of the Forest Houses public housing site in the Bronx and lasted for eleven weeks. During this time there occurred certain daily events – that included the production of a daily photocopied newspaper, a children’s art class, and a lecture – and certain weekly events – including a play, a poetry lecture, a field trip, an art school, and open mike session. The weekly art school was organised under the heading ‘Energy yes, quality no’ and involved people coming together to show and assess things they had made in terms of whether or not, in Hirschhorn’s words, ‘it own [sic] energy’. The monument site, constructed out of Hirschhorn’s standard materials of wood, cardboard, tape, and other items, involved a Gramsci archive of texts and books where residents and visitors could learn about Gramsci, an exhibition space that displayed photographs and personal belongings linked to Gramsci, an internet corner, a radio-station controlled by local radio people and DJs, and a Gramsci bar organised by locals, where one could drink, eat, and meet people. There were also banners displaying slogan’s from Gramsci’s writings, including the ‘Every human being is an intellectual’ slogan.
Hirschhorn’s ambition for the project was to create an experience with the residents of Forest Houses that would exist as art and also at the same time and as part of that experience, introduce people to Gramsci’s ideas. But this was not political art in the sense that the artist was there to teach the local people or somehow liberate them. Rather Hirschhorn was concerned to sustain the integrity of the work as art, while also learning about Gramsci alongside the residents through the lectures and other events. The spirit of Gramsci was also there in the way that the project enabled local people to be co-producers of the work, though within the general limits set by Hirschhorn as the designer and ‘guardian’ of the work. This meant that a sense of equality between the participants existed alongside and was framed by Hirschhorn’s role as the artist who was concerned with producing a work in line with his established practice. This focus on the artist making his art was both a limitation and something that allowed for a set of relatively equal interactions to occur. Though this was also enabled by the ethos of the residents as people who worked as a community and helped each other. It was this kind of ethos that has attracted Hirschhorn to work in places like Forest Houses.
I like Hirschhorn’s approach and the Gramsci Monument very much. I also liked his straightforward presentation style and the talk he gave.
See what you think by watching the video of his talk.