Being Heard at Forest Houses in the Bronx

Originally published in NYCInfocus

Thomas Hirschhorn's Gramsci Monument in Forest Houses, South Bronx, Photo by Sumi Naidoo/NYCInfocus

Thomas Hirschhorn’s Gramsci Monument in Forest Houses, South Bronx. Photo by Sumi Naidoo/NYCInfocus

At open mic Sundays, residents of Forest Houses in the Bronx crowd onto the Antonio Lounge’s homemade stage. Some belt out Aretha ballads and rap songs. Others listen and clap their hands. DJ Baby Dee, a retired public servant named Harry Drake, emcees here seven days a week and artfully segues from live performances to remixed recordings of the Jackson 5. In a wooden shack behind the lounge, a state-of-the-art music studio streams the program out to the world.

So goes a typical weekend at Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn’s Gramsci Monument – a temporary structure of connecting plywood rooms, dedicated to honoring the life and theories of Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci. Since June, Hirschhorn, supported by the Dia Art Foundation, has run a library, museum, computer room, radio station, bodega and newspaper press from the grounds of a public housing development in the South Bronx under the watchful eye of an ever-present police patrol car.

The Gramsci Monument is Hirschhorn’s fourth and final work in a series dedicated to philosophers, all set in housing projects. This is Hirschhorn’s first American venture, and the last step in a intercontinental approach to exploring “the universality of art,” as the artist describes it. By employing Forest residents to help build and run the ramshackle structure, Hirschhorn set out to foster encounters between them and outsiders while exploring Gramscian ideas about culture and power.

“My goals were first to make an affirmation of a new kind of monument, second to create encounters, third to create an event and fourth to ‘think Gramsci’,” Hirschhorn says.

Every available space of Hirschhorn’s work is steeped in philosophical and historical significance. But for many Forest residents, including those hired to work at the site, the monument is less about studying philosophical perspectives on class and society and more about having a safe place to spend the day. For others, the monument is a reminder of the racial tensions that divide Forest residents.

Little tension is noticeable on a typical weekday when art classes and philosophy lectures dominate the schedule. The monument misses what its deejay calls the weekend’s “spice,” but the ramshackle structure still hums with activity. Forest regulars like Faye Jones, 71, come more for the company and facilities than the intellectual stimulation. “I don’t know nothing about no art,” says Jones. “I come to not be alone and to meet different people.”

Visitors watch a cellist in the Antonio Lounge at the Gramsci Monument, Photo by Sumi Naidoo/NYC Infocus

Visitors watch a cellist in the Antonio Lounge at the Gramsci Monument, Photo by Sumi Naidoo/NYC Infocus

These “different people” that Jones refers to are participants who have traveled from across the world to investigate Hirschhorn’s work. On one recent day, a Portuguese woman received a tour of the Gramsci library by Forest resident and proud librarian Freddie Velez. Swiss filmmakers chatted with bodega manager, Forest resident Stanley Scott, while sipping Cokes. In the art room, philosophy students from New York University played with local kids.

According to DJ Drake, many of these people would never have visited a housing development if not for Hirschhorn’s creation. The safe space, he says, gives residents an opportunity to dispel stereotypes about housing projects that typically keep visitors away. The monument gives Forest an opportunity to show that “all our kids are not all bad, all our kids are not drug addicts,” says Clyde Thompson, director of the Forest Community Center. Thompson describes Hirschhorn’s project as Forest’s “testament to being heard.”

But some feel that not all Forest is being heard, and the monument has exacerbated tensions between black and Hispanic residents. Very few Hispanics were hired to work at the monument, though they make up 58 percent of Forest’s 3,168 residents. When the monument first opened, there were no Hispanic staffers at all.

Yasmil Raymond, the Dia curator who oversaw the Gramsci project, says the hiring process was left to Thompson and Erik Farmer, the Forest tenant association president. Farmer and Thompson say they announced available positions in community meetings, created flyers and posted sign-up sheets. If people wanted to apply, they could, and over 100 people did, says Farmer. Few of them, he says, were Hispanic.

The absence of Hispanic staff is “an effect of the hardcore reality,” of Forest Houses where African Americans, are socially “dominant,” Hirschhorn says. The artist believes that the monument was designed to provide a space for all residents to interact, but that it would be inauthentic to force it. “What I tried to do – and I understood that I must do it – is to implicate the Hispanics (in the monument), but it is important to create a universal approach that is not outside of the hardcore reality,” he says.

Thompson says he actively went to great lengths to include anyone who wanted to work, regardless of ethnicity. He says he found the limited response frustrating. “People of color who are lacking need to know they can’t have things handed to them,” says Thompson, who is African-American. He believes  few Hispanics applied because they didn’t consider the two-and-half month jobs a “real prospect.” Farmer says Hispanic residents “just didn’t read the flyers.”

When asked, however, many Hispanic residents say they never saw any flyers and that it was only after a substantial push to bring the staffing discrepancy to the attention of Dia and Forest’s managers that Hispanics were employed. Most have had little to do with the monument.

Pete Soto, a 30-year resident of Forest, lounges on the same bench a few yards from the monument every day, but he never visits. Sipping a beer, a straw fedora perched rakishly atop his head, Soto, 73, says the lack of Hispanics involved in Hirschhorn’s undertaking has left some feeling estranged from the Forest bureaucracy. Soto says that the staffing situation illustrates how Forest’s African-American residents don’t consider the interests of their Hispanic counterparts.

The fight for jobs, says Soto, gave his community an opportunity to carve a place for themselves in the multi-ethnic landscape of Forest. “We show them that we’re here, that we’re going to stay,” he says.

Gramsci librarian Freddy Velez shows off the library that library mural that he painted himself, photo by Sumi Naidoo/NYCInfocus

Gramsci librarian Freddie Velez shows off the library mural that he painted himself, photo by Sumi Naidoo/NYCInfocus

The monument, on the other hand, will soon come down, though the newspaper and radio will continue to run out of the community center. Whether the monument’s presence will have a long-term impact on the Forest community is unclear. For a while, at least, it provided a respite from the endemic violence that resulted in the shooting of a Forest child at the development last year. Thompson says that the Gramsci Monument ushered in a summer of “peace, artistic culture and creativity” in the wake of the community’s shared tragedy.

But there is still concern that when the monument disappears, it will take with it the tranquility of the last two months. “Summertime, it would be crazy around here – fighting, shooting,” says Drake. “When all this is over, it’s going to go back to the way it was.”

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