by VERONICA SIMPSON
In creating truly participatory artworks for people who don’t usually enter art galleries or museums, few have gone further than Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn (b1957), who has been consistently committed to creating work for what he calls a “non-exclusive public” since he first emerged on the scene. Since 1999, he has created several “altars” and “monuments” developing his practice in what he calls “Presence and Production” (being on site throughout the work’s construction, programming and performance). Usually unorthodox in their siting, and taking inclusivity to new levels, these include his Gramsci Monument in the Bronx, New York (2013), Flamme Éternelle at Palais de Tokyo, Paris (2014), the Bijlmer Spinoza Festival, Amsterdam (2009), and, most recently, SPERR at Wiesbaden Biennale (2016).
This interview elaborates on a talk Hirschhorn gave about the Gramsci Monument at the Oslo Pilot Symposium in November 2016. Curated by Per Gunnar Eeg-Tverbakk and Eva González-Sancho, the symposium marked the culmination of their two years of research under the Oslo Pilot banner, which will inform the programming of a new public art biennial in Oslo. Each of the four works examined at the symposium (which included Mette Edvardsen’s Time has fallen asleep in the afternoon sunshine, as well as a work by Dora García of Spain and one by Rahraw Omarzad of Afghanistan) explores new approaches to collaboration and authorship, and original participants from each work were on hand to share experiences and outcomes. As Eeg-Tverbakk said at the time: “There is no point in making just another biennial. We see this as an opportunity to create another way of thinking about what art in public space can be … to allow different ownerships, different structures that go beyond the typical biennial comings and goings, which never really connect to the city.”
Hirschhorn represented Switzerland at the Venice Biennale (2011) and has had numerous solo exhibitions, including at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, the Museu d’Art Contemporani, Barcelona, the Kunsthaus Zürich, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Vienna Secession, the South London Gallery and, just recently, Aarhus, Denmark.
His work has been shown worldwide in exhibitions including Venice Biennale (1999 and 2015), Documenta11 (2002), 27th Sao Paolo Biennale (2006), 55th Carnegie International, Pittsburg (2008), La Triennale at Palais de Tokyo, Paris (2012), 9th Shanghai Biennale (2012), Gladstone Gallery New York (2012), Manifesta 10 in Saint-Petersburg (2014) and Atopolis Mons (2015).
Hirschhorn also has a selection of published writings, including Critical Laboratory: The Writings of Thomas Hirschhorn (MIT Press, 2013), Une volonté de faire, Thomas Hirschhorn (Macula, 2015), and Gramsci Monument (Dia Art Foundation and Koenig Books, 2015).
Veronica Simpson: The Oslo Pilot curators, Per Gunnar Eeg-Tverbakk and Eva González-Sancho, chose you as one of the four artists whose work will inform their new Oslo biennial for many reasons, not least your long-term commitment to the idea of truly public art, placing art outside the usual gallery space – be it in the street or the park.
Thomas Hirschhorn: I have been interested in art in public space since the beginning. The four monuments [the Spinoza, Deleuze, Bataille and Gramsci] show my interest in working in public space since 1999, when I made the first of them, the Spinoza Monument [in Amsterdam]. So far, I have produced 66 works in public space, eight of which followed the guidelines of Presence and Production.
VS: Why reinvent the monument?
TH: Because with each work of art, with each monument, the artist interrogates the existing works of art, the existing history of art, the existing history, the existing monuments. My Monument series, dedicated to my four beloved philosophers, Spinoza, Deleuze, Bataille and Gramsci, was a project that spanned more than a decade, embedded with other works of art, in galleries, art spaces or in public space. From monument to monument, I integrated experiences and new ambitions. This led me to define my position about sculpture point by point and more precisely. My first monument, the Spinoza, was the smallest, most compact, involving only one person in the surrounding infrastructure. The second monument, dedicated to Gilles Deleuze (2000, Avignon), was my first experience with residents. It was divided into four architectonically separate parts: a library, a sculpture of Deleuze, an integrated altar to Deleuze’s memory and a philosophical stone. I chose the location on the outskirts of Avignon and built the work together with local residents. But – and this was my failure – I didn’t stay on location during the exhibition, and I learned that, when working with residents, presence is a necessity. It is necessary because the monument has to be rebuilt anew every moment – literally – but also as a mission. Therefore, after the Deleuze Monument experience, I invented my Presence and Production guidelines. Consequently, the Bataille Monument (2002, Kassel) was the first work I made with those guidelines. It was conclusive – my full-time presence during the exhibition gave more availability for production on location. And 11 years later, with the Gramsci Monument, I planned daily and weekly events during the six weeks of the monument. I wanted to focus on production in over-density and over-charge, and offer implication and over-implication, complexity and over-complexity with a programme, with over-programming.
VS: Your choice of location is usually focused on poorer neighbourhoods, where people don’t have access to free art. For New York, you chose public housing, which entailed a huge amount of research even before you started work. How did you end up choosing Forest Houses?
TH: Decisions about location can be taken only after a long process of fieldwork: it’s an artistic decision and cannot be taken by an institution or an administration. There are 200 housing projects in New York City’s five boroughs – the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island and Manhattan. It took one and a half years of fieldwork with nine visits to New York.
I visited public housing sites all around the city: 46 projects in the five boroughs, reduced to 15 sites in three boroughs. I met with residents to find out if a co-operation might be possible. The decision to do the Gramsci Monument at Forest Houses was taken in common by Erik Farmer, president of the residents association of Forest Houses, and me. He was the one inviting me to do the Gramsci Monument at Forest Houses, together with his neighbours, with the spirit of co-existence and co-operation. I love to do fieldwork. I love doing it alone. I love doing it through a mission I give myself. Fieldwork means questioning the universality and autonomy of art in a direct gesture. Fieldwork is always about asking for help, because a Presence and Production project in public space cannot be done alone. My proposal is: can we do it together in co-operation and co-existence? With this in mind, it is clear that I’m not the one who selected or found the location for the Gramsci Monument. The fieldwork is the most difficult, but also one of the most beautiful parts of the work. It’s the moment when, alone with my idea, I am meeting the Other. It’s the moment of grace when I understand – again – that there is a possibility to talk about art with each and every Other. Without these encounters, no decision regarding a possible location can be taken.
VS: The whole purpose of this project was to be truly participatory. So how did you find your team from within the community?
TH: The first thing I did was ask for help. It is crucial to ask for help. It is not me, the artist, who can help, or me, the artist who has the pretension to help. It’s me, the artist, who needs help. As the artist, I said: “I want to do a monument. Will you help me do it? If nobody helps me, I cannot do the work.”
VS: You talked at the Oslo Pilot about the authority in your approach to the work coming from your love for these philosophers. But how do you motivate or galvanise people to engage with a work about a philosopher they will most likely not have heard of, never mind feel love for.
TH: It’s about giving. It’s about affirmation. It’s about doing something you think must be done, and it’s about asking for help to have it done. It’s not about motivation. It’s about meeting the Other, and facing him, one to one. I wanted to put my work in the force field of love, philosophy, politics and aesthetics. Therefore, I wanted to do the Gramsci Monument. Why Gramsci? Because he stands for the love of politics, the pure art of politics. I love Antonio Gramsci – I love his life, his sacrifice and also his work. His idea that every human being is an intellectual was a standpoint. The Gramsci Monument accomplished a new way to remember the thinking of an important philosopher and project it into the future. The Gramsci Monument was not a success, nor a failure – art in public space, or art, never is. The Gramsci Monument is a contribution to think and rethink art in public space as an experience that can lead to a transformation. This is an affirmation, a non-accountable affirmation. It is the strong and the fragile, the beautiful and the conflictual, and the enlightening and problematic affirmation of a form. A precarious form of friendship, and as every friendship, it is something beyond argumentation, beyond proof, beyond guarantee. Friendship is one of the most valuable things we can gain in this world; thus, the essence of friendship is loyalty. I can’t assure anyone that Gramsci’s ideas took root at Forest Houses, but I can reassure everyone that the residents of Forest Houses offered their loyalty to the thinking of Gramsci. The Gramsci Monument is a monument built in, and with, friendship, and if you ask me what is left of it, I can answer for sure: friendship!
VS: How did you assemble your team, and then structure and manage the construction?
TH: Construction took place for six weeks with 15 residents, who were paid for their work. The construction team was formed by Erik. No special skills were necessary to be a constructor – one only had to be resident. Every day, we met in the morning and in the evening for a briefing. Hiring people from the neighbourhood was vital to help spread the news and belief that something would happen there, but also to reinforce that we were working together. The 15 members of the team were the only ones who knew and measured how fragile, uncertain, complicated, complex, beautiful – and also how fun – those 35 days of construction were. Working with them was an incredible experience and an incommensurable challenge. Everyone in the team was important, everybody was equally necessary and everybody’s work was equally important – contrary to common social, economic or cultural habits. The construction phase is always crucial because it’s the first contact with reality on the field, it’s a confrontation with the Other, it’s the “in-fight” with everyday life – here and now – at Forest Houses. Constructing doesn’t only mean building something to be used, constructing means belief: belief in art, belief in co-operation, belief in confronting a vision, belief in a dream, belief in one’s own capacities and competence, belief in making a work, belief in making a work of art. I want to give a form to the love of working, to the love of the work done.
VS: How did you design and programme the structure?
TH: I developed the structure around two platforms linked by a bridge. Another element was the staircases and ramps to access the platform. The pavilions hosted the different activities: exhibition space, a library, an internet corner with all-day internet access, a workshop, a bar run by the residents, and a radio station. We ran a low-power radio station, which extended for just a mile and a half. Two local DJs got involved. They had discussions, interviews, music, productions of friends and residents. The library had books that belonged to the Italian-American society at City University of New York, an existing archive of 500 books. The exhibition space presented items that belonged to Gramsci, which were on loan from the Casa Museo Antonio Gramsci in Italy. Then, as already mentioned, we organised daily and weekly events.
VS: In Oslo, you introduced the notion of precarity – a word that means “precarious existence, lacking in predictability, job security”. There is also a social class of people defined by this condition, who are known as the precariat. Why is this important to you?
TH: I love the term precarity, because it’s about being here and now, about being awake; to experience the rare moments of grace and enlightenment in being there, here and now. It’s not about eternity. If it is, it’s about the eternity of the moment. My Monument projects were all time-limited projects, non-object related, made with the same will or utopia to create an eternity within the intensity of the moment. Time-limited projects offer unlimited ideas. Time limitations offer us Presence and Production. My love for the precarious comes from my understanding of every human activity as precarious, from my belief in doing things instead of considering their unavoidable incommensurable precarity. My love of precarity comes from the strength and courage that is necessary to create something, despite its precarity, despite the precarity of all things and despite the precarity of life. The logic of the precarious is an absolute necessity and complete emergency – contrary to an ephemeral logic related to death, since “ephemeral” implies from nature. I use the term “precarious” because its logic is life, survival but life. The notion of precarious comes from human, it is human-made. I understand the precarious not as a concept, but as a condition. And I have the ambition in doing my work to intervene – through the notion of precarity – in the field of art. The precarious must be affirmed, and it is necessary to enter the camp of the precarious. The change, the new and the revolutionary lie in this affirmation – this is the political. The future consists in the affirmation of this precarious. This precarious, which is also the non-assured, the non-guaranteed, the non-stabilised and the non-established. It will be the future because the precarious is always creative, because the precarious is always inventive, because the precarious is in motion, because the precarious leads to new forms, because the precarious shapes a new geography, because the precarious starts with a new exchange between human beings and because the precarious creates new values. My question is: “Would it be possible that, instead of wanting to shield ourselves from the precarious, instead of wanting to deny the precarious and instead of turning away from the precarious, could the opposite – its affirmation – be the universal? Could justice, equality and truth, which are constitutive of the Precarious – the precarious shared by so many today – be the universal?”
VS: What were the other vital elements in your Gramsci Monument programme? You talked, for example, about having an “ambassador”.
TH: We had an ambassador: Yasmil Raymond [a curator from MoMA], who met people from the neighbourhood, answered all kinds of questions, helped residents with paperwork or problems, and wrote a daily column in our newspaper. The ambassador wasn’t there to explain the Gramsci Monument, but to take care of any issues that came up. Every day we had daily lectures by Marcus Steinweg, a philosopher friend from Berlin. His lectures were not about Gramsci, but about important questions that everyone can ask himself. There was also a children’s workshop run by Lex Brown, with the help of Susie Shaw who had lived in Forest Houses for 50 years. There was the Gramsci Monument Newspaper, which came out daily with the text of Marcus Steinweg’s daily lecture, a contribution by a resident and a text by Gramsci. The last page was dedicated to “the resident of the day”. There was a website updated every day with new content.
The daily events were scheduled each day of the week: On Monday, the Gramsci Theater, a play written by Marcus Steinweg, which I directed myself, was performed by 11 residents. On Tuesday, we had a poetry lecture and workshop. Wednesday was “funning events” with music or dance performances, acting or discussions, proposed by the residents. On Thursday, we had field trips – for example, a visit to the New York Times offices to see how other newspapers are produced, and visits to an organic farm, a post office and museums. On Friday, there was art school. I did the art school. It was open to everyone, visitors and local residents. Everyone had to bring a work, which was discussed and judged on the criteria: “Does this work have Energy?” On Saturday, we had the Gramsci seminar with 11 Gramsci scholars invited to give talks. On Sunday, there was the open microphone: anyone could take the microphone to talk or sing.
VS: I know that one of the things that excited Per Gunnar and Eva about your work was the concept of authorship – there is your unquestioned authorship, but also the possibility of multiple authorships.
TH: I am often confronted with the question of authorship. Therefore, I propose a new kind, a new vision, a utopia: I’m the author 100%, but I believe that someone else can say, I, too, am the author; I, too, take 100% authorship, and believe it. It is progressive, exponential, it can be 1,000, or 200,000%. It is stupid and old school to think in terms of a 100% common ground to share. Consequently, I propose a new kind of authorship: the unshared authorship. This means that I, the artist, am the author of the Gramsci Monument, I am entirely and completely the author, regarding everything about my work. As author – in unshared authorship – I don’t share the responsibility of my work, nor my own understanding of it, hence the term “unshared”. But I am not the only author. Because the Other, the one taking the responsibility of the work also, is – equally – author. The Other can be author, completely and entirely, in his/her understanding of the work and regarding everything about the work. That’s why again, the term “unshared”. Unshared authorship is a statement, it’s an assertion, it’s offensive and it’s a “hard” term in opposition to “soft”-term collaboration. Unshared stands for clearness, for a decision, for the non-exclusive, for the opening towards co-existence. Unshared means saying yes to complexity, and implies multiplication, not division. Unshared authorship – we could also say unshared responsibility – allows us to take the responsibility for what I am not responsible for. Furthermore, unshared authorship allows being author even when I am not the author: this is the essential; this is the new.
VS: Were there forces antagonistic to this project in New York? In the UK, we sometimes have a difficult situation with public art projects: they can be seen as a token gesture, an empty PR initiative, in areas where deprivation is so huge, and where the cynical might feel that money could be better spent improving basic facilities.
TH: It is always decisive to act as artist – which means with confidence in art, in what art can do and what art must do. I must act with confidence, with the real strength and real forces of art. I am not acting as politician or as social worker. My mission is to do an artwork because this is my only competence. This excludes any cynicism, because to do a work of art in public space requires humility, total engagement and belief in the constitutive power of art. I heard comments from visitors at Forest Houses starting with: “In the beginning, I was sceptical …” Being critical or sceptical sounds good. No one wants to confront openly … an experience with an uncertain outcome. Such criticism is a testimony of today’s tendency to protect ourselves, because nobody wants to be the dumb one … the one who just has faith. This reveals the fear of confronting something new at our own risk. Making art is a risky and necessarily affirmative practice that excludes self-scepticism. A sceptical attitude is a kind of cynicism, the cynicism of those who don’t believe in the power of art to transform each human being in contact with it. The sceptic’s attitude is also an expression of those who can still maintain a wait-and-see position, waiting to be convinced, and opposed to those who have no choice: it is an exclusive and luxurious argumentation. To remain unconvinced is luxurious because it serves as justification to those unwilling to change, who don’t want to be touched by reality and don’t want to experience it. One cannot be disappointed, since there is, and can be, no control facing reality. In accepting the no-control of reality – something the residents of Forest Houses confront daily – the first step towards non-disappointment is performed. Being disappointed is a narcissistic gesture to avoid the real disappointment, the disappointment in myself – in case I am not giving everything I should – which is the risk when confronting reality.
VS: And how did you mark the ending of the Monument?
TH: The Monument did not end, it never “ends”. The Gramsci Monument, as all monuments, is made for eternity. The Gramsci Monument had to be transformed from its status of being “also an object” to its status of only memory – “without an object”. Therefore, on the last day, we had a party. We took the monument down in 12 days and organised a free raffle where all the objects that had constituted the monument were given away to the residents of Forest Houses.