by Misha Lepetic
When all is finished, the people say, “We did it ourselves.”
~ Tao Te Ching, Verse 17
What does philosophy in action look like? Casual thoughts about the discipline may be united by the cliché of the philosopher as a loner. From Archimedes berating a Roman soldier to not “disturb my circles” (which subsequently cost him his head), to Kant's famous provinciality, to Wittgenstein's plunging into the Norwegian winter to work on the Logik, the term “armchair philosopher” might seem to be a tautology. But philosophy – or at least the parts that occupy the intersection of the interesting and the accessible – still concerns itself with the world at large, and our place in it.
New Yorkers got to see a particularly odd example of philosophy in action over the summer when artist Thomas Hirschhorn installed his Gramsci Monument in the central courtyard of a Bronx public housing complex known as Forest Houses. I won't dwell much on Antonio Gramsci himself (see here for a start), but suffice to say he was a man of the people, who died in prison after founding the Italian Communist Party. What is more interesting is how Hirschhorn used Gramsci as a jumping-off point, and where he chose to do it. Completed in 1956, Forest Houses is part and parcel of what anyone would recognize as “the projects” – a scattering of 15 buildings in a towers-in-the-park configuration, populated by nearly 3400 residents, most of whom are minorities and low-income. However, Hirschhorn didn't so much choose the site as it chose him – after visiting 47 public housing projects in the city, Forest Houses was the only one that expressed any interest in his proposal.
The arrival of Hirschhorn and his motley architectural assemblage, which seemed to be made mostly of plywood and duct tape, was met with perplexity by both residents and art critics. As far as the critics go – and hey, someone's got to play the straw man to kick things off, right? – at least one was mightily displeased. Writing in the New York Times, Ken Johnson pooh-poohed Hirschhorn as a “canny conceptualist operator” and opined that the installation would ultimately “be preserved in memory mainly by the high-end art world as just a work by Mr. Hirschhorn, another monument to his monumental ego.”
It's difficult for me to comprehend that Johnson and I visited the same place. The first thing to note is the inappropriateness of the term “installation.” The Gramsci Monument is much more of an intervention. Of course, architects and urbanists are not immune to the charms of this term, either – any bland pop-up café seems to constitute an “intervention” of the street, the urban fabric or what have you, with “dramatic” being the accompanying adjective of choice. But what made Hirschhorn's work really an intervention was its sheer physicality, its uncompromising presence in the courtyard. The towers-in-the-park paradigm, one of the baleful legacies of modernism, was introduced to the US in large measure by Le Corbusier, whose reputation is currently the subject of a risible attempt at rehabilitation by MoMA. The result is an environment of hard vertical and horizontal masonry lines, scrawny trees and threadbare lawns. As a pedestrian, you walk among 12-story brick sentinels, and the absence of any place that can provide a moment of semi-privacy, one of the key signifiers of successful public space, is palpable. The point – which was much in keeping with Le Corbusier's design ideals – was to get you to where you were going, and as efficiently as possible. “No Loitering,” as the signs say.
In other words, it's a space just begging to be broken up, and that's what Hirschhorn did, by designing a series of elevated, single-story bungalows reachable by ramps and stairs, wrapped around the sidewalks of the project's central space. Most importantly, it was ugly. In addition to all the plywood and duct tape (and the utter absence of paint), white bedsheets spray-painted with choice Gramscisms such as “Every Human Being Is An Intellectual” fluttered in the breeze. Tacked all over the plywood were photocopied issues of the Gramsci Monument Newspaper, a broadsheet featuring stories about current residents, visiting notables and deceased philosophers.
This was a real thing, and it invited you in. You could have a vodka tonic or a hot dog at the bar, visit the newspaper or radio station, browse the library or attend a lecture. The experience was not dissimilar to visiting a coral reef – when you swim away from the reef and find yourself looking at a sandy seafloor, it is inevitably barren of life, but come up to another outcropping of coral and there will always be fish swimming around it, almost no matter how small the outcropping. And the amount of life swimming around the Gramsci Monument was rich and vital. Indeed, one felt that one had explicitly been given a license to loiter.
But here is the really important bit, and likely what was lost on Johnson and other dour critics: Hirschhorn had no desire to create a unified, curated experience. For the Monument was replete with contradictions that Hirschhorn, who himself lived in Forest Houses for the duration of the project, seemed either to encourage or just plain ignore. For example, the library, well stocked with Gramsci's writings as well as those of his contemporaries, also had several tables of glossy magazines, implying that there was no judgment about which one you chose to pick up. The computer center next door provided free Internet, and was always filled with children playing video games, not, as Johnson writes, “as far I as could tell, reading up on Gramscian theory.” Well, Mr. Critic, maybe when you were ten you were reading Gramsci.
Nor is this to say that Hirschhorn was playing the haughty ironist, either. Refreshingly, the po-mo apotheosis of “high-brow is low-brow is high-brow” was not at all in evidence. This was clear in the library, where the message of collocating Us Weekly and Lenin wasn't a nudge and a wink, but a simple question of, Which would you prefer to read? Further mysteries abounded. Several display cases included period documents and notes in Gramsci's own hand. At first blush, one might think that this would be inadvisable – after all, we're in the projects! I mean, someone might steal a 1930s pamphlet and put it on eBay for a few bucks! But quickly one realizes that this is only the logical thing to do (putting the pamphlets on display, that is). On the one hand, it is redolent of Gramsci's own approach to humanity. On the other hand, it raises the important question of who has the right to be trusted with these items. Correction: it answers the question of who has the right to be trusted with such items.
Granted, it is not as dramatic of a gesture as bringing a Picasso to Ramallah, but even the modesty of the items works to the advantage of the inquiry. However, Hirschhorn pushes the conceit even further. Another series of flimsy Plexiglas display cases held some of Gramsci's prison possessions – a pair of house slippers, a comb, some wooden eating utensils, a wallet. Were these relics of the saint, or proof that he was a human being like the rest of us, who needed to eat, brush his hair, pad around his cell in slippers, and have a place to put spare change? Hirschhorn doesn't say. He doesn't have to – it's up to us.
But by far the most uncompromising feature of the Monument was the free lectures. For starters, itinerant philosopher Marcus Steinweg, with whom Hirschhorn has collaborated in the past, engaged in an act that could only be called “philosophy as performance art:” 77 lectures, delivered daily and without notes, at 5pm, rain or shine. Steinweg pulled no punches, and even granting my familiarity with critical theory and Western philosophical tradition, I certainly got a good workout (you can get a taste of his lecturing style here, although it's not from the Gramsci series). Now, since anyone was welcome to grab a white plastic lawn chair and sit in on the lecture, a natural question might be, Why? What does this “do” for people who might be residents of, umm, “the projects”? And did I already mention that those plastic chairs were ugly? And will someone please tell me to stop putting quotes around words already?
This is what the Gramsci Monument does to you: it makes you ask questions that, once you've gotten them out, seem immediately, hopelessly idiotic. The lectures were there for anyone who wanted to listen to them. If you wanted to ask a question, you could. If you wanted to leave, you could do that, too. But there was no dumbing-down for anyone. People showed up and did what they were good at, took their best shot, and maybe learned something for themselves or from one another. In brief, sentiments that are resonant of the most fervent aspirations we have for the undergraduates of today.
If you find this to be an acceptable proposition, it was only further tested by the Saturday seminar series, where a heavyweight academic would deliver a lecture relating to how Gramsci influenced his or her work. If Gayatri Spivak, Stanley Aronowitz or Simon Critchley are your jam, this was the place to be. The last seminar, which I attended, was delivered by Frank Wilderson. Wilderson is not just a professor, but was one of two African Americans who went to South Africa and fought with – and eventually against – the ANC during apartheid. He actually taught Gramsci to ANC members (now that's philosophy in action). Wilderson's lecture was incendiary in its own right, but what was particularly striking about the event was not so much the content but the audience: in the front row was Bill de Blasio, fresh off his Democratic primary win for the NYC mayor's race. I later got the back-story that it was his son who had heard about the Monument and had wanted to go. Here was someone who could have parlayed his win into a plush Saturday afternoon fundraiser, and instead chose to attend a lecture in the Bronx (although I suppose it's not that surprising). But what I really liked was the fact that de Blasio listened, took notes and never once pulled out a Blackberry or some such. He was just like anyone else. Afterwards we all mingled by the bar and generally had a low-key time.
So much for the celebrity artists, academics and politicians. What about the residents of Forest Houses? Ostensibly, they were Hirschhorn's primary audience. They were the ones who built the Monument, and dismantled it 80-odd days later. They worked the snack bar, staffed the radio and newspaper, and participated in the raffle that gave away the usable bits at the end. Aside from having to put up with a whole mess of mostly white hipsters and art tourists, and kick us out after we'd drank all the vodka at the bar, what did they think of it? Did they think it was worth it? In a word, yes and yes. Perhaps most striking was the way in which people just did their own thing around the installation. They hung out on benches, had arguments, sold jewelry, grilled burgers.
Most often, residents commented on how great it was that the kids could get on the net, or that they could just go downstairs and play without supervision. In fact, during the Wilderson lecture, a group of half a dozen rambunctious boys dragged out a clubhouse made of cardboard and process to completely wreck it. No one thought to shush them, and the sounds of their play provided the most eloquent counterpoint to Wilderson's narrative of slavery and alienation. Contemplating the juxtaposition of the two narratives through the dappled sunlight on a September afternoon, I realized that Hirschhorn had got it right: he was never presumptuous enough to think that The Artist would be the one to strike the balance between such a terrible past and tenuous present. In the wisdom of his “monumental ego,” he knew that if he set up the field of play just right, a glimpse of that balance might just manifest itself.