I thank Lex for raising the issue of race regarding Gramsci Monument in her last response. I know I’ve tended to set it aside, in my writings on Hirschhorn, in favor of questions of social class. Sitting at the snack bar at the Gramsci Monument in September 2013, I listened to a few moments of a debate concerning “stop-and-frisk” measures on Gramsci Radio. Sitting at my computer in France, over a year later, I’ve just read about a group of thirteen men who have gone to court over racial profiling during similar police checks. (Unsurprisingly, such checks of “Muslim-looking” black or North African men in France have increased since the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January 2015.) I also read David Joselit’s latest article in Artforum where the author considers the failure of material evidence in Eric Garner’s case: if even a video can no longer serve as a proof, he wonders, what role can visual representation of any kind—including contemporary art—play in racial politics today?
The strength of some of Hirschhorn’s best work lies, in my eyes, in the ways it goes beyond issues of visual representation in favor of experience. Of course, this opposition is an artificial simplification, and it is far from new. Many 1960s artists such as Robert Filliou and Hélio Oiticica, whom I cited in my last response, sought to oppose “lived experience” to the capitalist “spectacle” of power and the media. Yet I think it is important to keep it alive, because I agree with Lex that it is by confronting reality—and not its phantasmatic representation—that we can learn from others. The strength of Hirschhorn’s works in public space like the Gramsci Monument is to refuse to take art’s place for granted, in order to expose it to what Allan Kaprow, another pioneer of experiences-as-art, liked to call a “give-and-take” with the everyday. As Lex points out, this can mean taking the risk that people ignore the artwork, or, worse still, throw it back in the artist’s face.
But I think that it’s this “give-and-take” that makes the artist, as well as viewers, more open to the “reality checks” that Lex mentions. Hirschhorn’s praise of the Forest House residents’ “dignity,” in his answer to Whitney’s questions, may at first appear to be suspiciously romantic, but I don’t think his definition is: “‘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.” I think this gap between the two—which could be perceived through the “give-and-take” that the Gramsci Monument opened at Forest Houses—is where politics can happen.
The encounters between black residents and white visitors at the Gramsci Monument were fleeting, but they happened within conditions of shared experience and visibility, rather than visual representation. I felt conscious about my middle-class whiteness, and that was good. The art world definitely needs regular reality checks.
Of course, I realized even then that neither my presence nor the artist’s was going to change the long-term divide that separates my life from the residents I talked to, whether in terms of race or class. But when remembering the Gramsci Monument I’ll definitely remember the people I met and heard—as well as the exchanges during this online discussion one year later!—far more than either the Gramsci Museum or Library, for example. And I don’t think I’ll be the only one…
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Growing Dialogue is a series of moderated online debates among thought leaders in social practice.