"Energy: Yes! Quality: No!"

By Ashley Gange

As another summer in NYC wound down to a close and chilly breezes swept in deadlines, engagements and meetings like fallen leaves, I found myself drawn back to memories of an anonymously sweaty day spent in the Bronx visiting the ‘Gramsci Monument’-- a temporary piece of art -- a few summers ago.  Somehow this day leaves an equally odd and striking impression in my mind.  I was a spectator on the sidelines of an urban intervention that seemed completely arbitrary at the time.  Only now have I begun to unfurl what is salient and lasting about this ‘sculpture.’  

The Dia Art funded folly sat on the grounds of The Forest Houses, a New York City Housing Authority development in the Morrisania neighborhood of the Bronx, New York from March through September 2013. The artist, Thomas Hirschhorn aimed to: “Establish a new term of monument; Provoke encounters; Create an event; Think Gramsci today.”  Essentially, the piece was a plywood and MDF multi-room pavilion which housed a children's art studio, a community run radio station, a small ICT lab, a cafe and garden, and a ‘Gramsci Archive’-- a reading room devoted to texts written by and/or about Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Socialist political thinker.  What was fascinating less content than was the way that people who lived in The Forest Houses activated these spaces- they were not sitting empty, people seemed to want to engage and enjoyed using the pop-up.  Who wouldn’t?  Where else can you find a community asset like this?   What I couldn’t at the time get beyond was that the Gramsci connection felt absurd and tenuous at best.  Why couldn’t this just be a temporary community space?  What did this combination of useful and unprecedented resources have to do with an anti-Fascist, Italian Socialist?  Sure, Gramsci has an ‘empowered by education,’ Bolshevik origin story-- fighting his way out of poverty to become an educated Proletariat thinker-- and there are certainly ripples of the oppressive downward force of capitalism present in the NYCHA housing complex, where the artist chose to site the project.  Yet, would this project not have been just as strong if this element was removed and the useful services, spaces, and community ownership remained?  

Incapable of  reconciling these questions, I filed this place away in my mind and only now, as OIKOS is working with organizations in need of a ‘Vision Plan’ have I found the ‘Gramsci Monument’ relevant.  As program and mission-driven organizations begin Capital Campaigns, one of the materials they need is a visualization of their long term plan to transform their space and clarity around how it would increase their capabilities programmatically- how these theoretically ideal spaces will change the future for them and their communities.  Obviously, these plans are effective consensus building tools and also allow for a structured and disciplined phasing strategy, but what about the present?  What about the people who spend their valuable time contributing personal insights to this community charretting process?  The people who show up, time and time again- hopeful that this beautiful and well-considered image will one day soon be the community that they and their children enjoy?  These things take time, yes, of course…

What does this have to do with that day in the Bronx years ago?  Everything. What if what phased Master Plans, Architects, Owners Representatives, charts and proformas can’t address, public art can?  What I am lobbying for is immediacy, experimentation and the generation of temporary operational spaces that harness and reflect the best intentions of these long-term visions. Where buildings require funding and approvals in layers and in excess, public art has the benefit of agility. Hirschhorn, of his work states that it has “energy yes, quality no…”  I understand this as a call for action.  What can be learned from all of this planning and ideation and what too can we gain from doing something now, with what we have that gets us somewhere other than where we now are?