The invisibility addressed by the work of cultural theorists like Michelle Wallace (in her book, Invisibility Blues, 1990) and artists like Fred Wilson (with his work, Guarded View, 1991) seems to be layered into the remarks by at least one participant in the public programming associated with the Gramsci Monument. DJ Baby Dee said at one point:
You all helped put Forest Houses back on the map,…All the coverage and everything. It’s such a beautiful thing to see how it takes one man—well, it takes two people [referring to artist Thomas Hirschhorn and president of the tenants association Eric Farmer]—to help this project come up.
Baby Dee’s comments suggest the popular usage of the phrase about being “put on the map,” as reference to becoming part of the consciousness of the present, becoming part of the awareness of contemporary culture, being “known” to the people of New York City, or the idea of “Forest Houses” becoming familiar in New York parlance. To be placed “on the map” underscores a more general wish to be acknowledged by a population at large or by the hegemonic culture, as Gramsci might describe it. These comments also allude to the fact of invisibility (and in some cases hypervisibility) as experienced on a daily basis by people of color.
This visibility/invisibility issue seems key to the way the work functioned, even though this was not the intention. Forest Houses, as the locus of the action of the project, becomes the stage upon which this visibility is enacted on a daily basis. The project provided a temporary visibility for the inhabitants of Forest Houses to become visible to their own neighbors as key figures in the development of the project. They became visible to those visiting the Gramsci Monument from outside: contributing to the construction, running the radio station, the computer lab, the café, and also creating their own content for public programming. Those from the outside would represent not just neighbors from the immediate vicinity outside the houses but also the larger community of the Bronx and those from other boroughs. The visibility factor, then, as gleaned from the words of DJ Baby Dee, becomes an important outcome.
This visibility is slippery, however. While there was a clear impact on the visibility of the participants and on the name of Forest Houses, I was surprised by those who had not heard about the Monument. In working on these comments, I spoke to three people who are either activists or cultural workers in the Bronx or artists/activists working with public housing to ask them their own thoughts on the project. Of the three, two had not heard of the Gramsci Monument at all. This is surprising considering the scale of the project and its location in the same borough. The one person who had heard of the monument is a cultural worker at an alternative arts space in the Bronx. This seems to underscore a larger issue of “visibility” in the art world and in the rest of the world and underscores this continued separation, despite obvious nexuses.
Finally, I would like to end with a question. Hirschhorn’s own words, again, give us additional insight to his intentions and also lead to a discussion around the possibility of what might have been. In an interview with Benjamin Buchloh, Thomas Hirschhorn noted:
With Beuys it is not primarily the mysticism that intrigues me; what moves me is his continuous appeal to the public, the fact that he was constantly talking, approaching people, carrying on conversations. He didn’t see art as something sacred but as a contribution to the ongoing discussion. I learned that from Joseph Beuys.
This interest in talking to people and carrying on conversations was certainly a key aspect of this entire project. The fact that we continue to discuss its effects underscores the weight of Hirschhorn’s gesture. While there was a great deal of autonomy, I imagine, experienced by the participants, there remains the reality of a leader/follower relationship. I wonder what would have happened if the residents had been invited to share in a discussion about the subject of the monument? What if, as one reviewer alluded to, they had been asked to choose their own hero?
 Andrew Russeth, “Thomas Hirschhorn’s ‘Gramsci Monument’ Opens at Forest Houses in the Bronx,” Observer.com, July 2, 2013; accessed 1/8/15; http://observer.com/2013/07/thomas-hirschhorns-gramsci-monument-opens-at-forest-houses-in-the-bronx/
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Read more from Growing Dialogue: Gramsci Monument
“Visibility and Autonomy” by Rocio Aranda-Alvarado – February 5, 2015
Growing Dialogue is a series of moderated online debates among thought leaders in social practice.