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Ventriloquizing Gramsci

I heard the opening movement of the requiem for communism, The Gramsci Project, as it was played at LaGuardia Community College. Standing before a photo blowup of the sainted Depression-era mayor of New York pressing the flesh, artist Thomas Hirschhorn presented a slide show about the Bijlmer Spinoza-Festival he produced in 2009 in a housing project outside Amsterdam. He was invited to Queens by professor Charity Scribner as part of her class’s Gramsci Project.

LaGuardia CC is part of the City University of New York system – CUNY. This resource-poor public university system turns out to have a significant holding in papers of Antonio Gramsci, the leader of the Italian Communist Party who died in Mussolini’s jail. Gramsci, deprived of the outlet of activism, could only write: Prison Notebooks. These became a blueprint for post-1968 Marxist political cultural analysis. Spinoza, the subject of Hirschhorn’s project, was really not discussed. A Jew in Amsterdam in the late 17th century, this Enlightenment philosopher talked ethics, not God – personal responsibility based on rational thought. The Jews of Amsterdam were rounded up under the Nazis – among them Anne Frank.

Hirschhorn is Swiss. He does mainly “monuments” and “festivals” as his public work, all designed for a “non-exclusive audience.” Bijlmer is a vast housing project 20 kilometers outside Amsterdam, with 90,000 folks in it. The people Hirschhorn hired to run the Spinoza Festival turned out to be immigrants from Surinam, a former Dutch colony that became independent in 1975.

The density of philosophical, biographical and historical detail accumulating around these few hours of discourse in Queens was extraordinary. And the background: As Spinoza wrote, Holland was organizing its colonial ventures using a wonderful new financial innovation – the joint stock company. (Now corporations are persons.) After this golem of money was created, it first reached out to gather up our estuary, the Hudson Bay. It was only after the English rode in and took away their New Amsterdam that the Dutch turned their attention full-time to the east. Surinam, New Guinea, and so on. But TH’s project was not intended to be about these histories, as much as they might be seen to impinge. It was about the dense relation between art and philosophy. With Marcus Steinweg, a daily lecturer at the Spinoza Festival, TH made a “map between art and philosophy” which he called a “handshake.” It had ten fingers, ten terms.

Hirschhorn’s public art process, he explained, is driven by the twin notions of “presence and production.” He is the artist, he is there, he produces the situation and makes things. Pretty basic. “HELP” is the cornerstone of his method in public space, “to ask for help.” (Of course he pays.) The installation is a “festival” because it’s temporary and demountable (i.e. it can be repeated). There were four phases to this project: 1) preparation of 1-½ years; 2) setup of one month; 3) exhibition of two months, and 4) dismantling in one week. Each of these phases, TH said, is equal in importance.

The pavilions of the Spinoza Fest were busy. The “child’s play” theater of children, another theater, a daily photo-copied newspaper (edition of 80-100 copies), and an “embedded art historian” who also lectured were among the features. Her job assignment was to answer all questions which could arise concerning “art.” Almost certainly the one that came up daily, “why is/what makes this art?“ There was a Spinoza Museum of course, and a display commemorating a fearful plane crash into the Bijlmer complex some years ago. In the end, the Spinoza Festival is dismantled, or as they say in theater, the set is broken down. Then the lottery occurs – and all the stuff is given away. The crowd was about 300 for that one!

I am a fan of TH. I wrote of his Cavemanman installation at Gladstone gallery in 2003 together with a huge, bombastic show by Anselm Kiefer which ran concurrently. Kiefer was an actual student of Joseph Beuys, while Hirschhorn won the Beuys Prize in ’04 (the what?). TH indeed is doing it, in his last decade of work extending the form and procedures of social sculpture fast and far (faster than Rirkrit? Further than N55?). And he has graphed out how he can get away with it in the world of high art. TH’s “Spectre of Evaluation” shows the relation he designs into his work. The evaluative agents – institutions, markets, critics, etc., crucially impact the artist, but he directs his work towards the “non-exclusive audience.” From them he takes “judgment,” not “evaluation” – i.e., is it worth my time. Naturally, the project blows it regularly. Sometimes there are a lot of people listening to the daily lecture(s) at the Spinoza Festival, sometimes only a few, and some times none. A megaphone in the wilderness. This way of working, which is assuredly unsatisfying if evaluated by normative market/institutional criteria of audience, is part of the projects’ “precariousness.”

This term is most commonly applied to the condition of artisinal and intellectual labor across the board in contemporary global neo-liberalism. That is, it describes labor relations in our emerging contemporary information economy, where what in the U.S. is called temporary or freelance work is the new normal. But it’s spinning bigger in egghead circles. “Precarity” interests TH as the “bio-logic of survival.” TH is impelled always “to risk my work.” It is “important not to make compromise but to face the disaster.” I was amused to hear him describe his basic audience – “outsiders,” drunks, old people, the jobless and just plain lonely.

Finally, TH who is a tall lanky fellow with a worried looking visage and big red hands which he waves and shakes a lot, concluded by asserting his FAITH in art, its universality, and power to transform. Do you mean “God”?, queried one of Scribner’s students. TH defaulted to the subject/object of his festival. Spinoza’s project was to convince people to think, not just to believe. Spinoza got in trouble with his Jewish community on that one.

TH was upfront about the basis of his work, and this is what makes it distinct from most community art. He designs everything, and, as in the economy of theatrical production: “I pay people” to execute it. People come to the project as spectators, not as participants. Their reactions stay “hidden, very precious” to the people who were there. I don’t think this is the subjectivist cop-out it may at first appear. TH, it may be argued, is working to build a subterranean aquifer of affect, which some have called the “undercommons.” This is also a traditional goal of progressive education, to instill an ongoing ability to self-educate. Of course, teach a man to fish and you ruin someone’s perfectly good business. There is progressive education, and there is the other.

The Gramsci Project is pedagogical, as indeed was the Spinoza Festival. The CUNY-verse, as professor Giovanni Marinelli (CUNY-CSI, Economics) informed me it is called, is full of professors who don’t believe in their students, or think them incapable of grasping higher concepts. Charity Scribner, a new hire from MIT, has walked past that cynicism. Noting the presence of the Gramsci papers (now part of the Calandra Institute collection at Queens College), she decided to put this sea monkey in the water, and organized the Gramsci Project as part of a liberal arts capstone class.

As the afternoon’s discussions began, I thought of other public art projects which bring high culture to subaltern groups, like the long-term campaign by unsung U.S. humanists to teach Shakespeare in jail. Folks in there respond directly to the Elizabethan’s gory texts and tragic situations since they are those for whom such realities lie close.

Professor Scribner kicked off the roundtable afterwards by citing Gramsci’s contention that political problems get reinterpreted as cultural, covered over, and then become insoluble. (A key tactic of the rightist “values” agenda.) She asked her class in the audience – each of them wearing t-shirts with a white-on-black Gramsci-inspired quote: “I am an intellectual” – what does “insoluble” mean? Despite this clear injunction to the panel to be clear and boil it down, the professors by and large took to the stratosphere, mooting the point of the panel as an adjunct to her classroom and demonstrating another fundamental law of the CUNY-verse, or academia in general.

Nevertheless, it was nice to hear attempts to make the dead Italian relevant. Irwin Leopardo (CUNY-LGA, English) referenced the liberation pedagogy of Paolo Freire, recently attacked without rejoinder by an education honcho in Arizona (surprised?). Artist Hong-An Truong used Augusto Boal’s theatrical techniques to prepare a collaborative environment in the classroom before launching into her video work with them. (The result is in very spooky and evocative black and white, like some political Japanese ghost movie.) Kate Crehan (CUNY-CSI, Anthropology) spoke of the aesthetic opinions of the “curatoriat” (a term she referenced to Arthur Danto), which may diverge wildly from popular taste. This she says is articulated by the rabid British tabloids, which cheered the fire that destroyed much of Tracy Emin’s work. Vinay Gidwani (CUNY-GC, Geography) spoke of the motions of the “organic intellectuals” (Gramsci’s famous term) who made up the leadership of rightist Hindu nationalism in the agrarian regions of India. (Gramsci’s term “subaltern” was taken up by Gayatri Spivak in an important essay specifically to speak to the situation of India.)

Benedetto Fontana (CUNY-BB, Political Science) has written comparing Gramsci and Machiavelli. He sketched the contemporary moment of our crisis in Gramscian terms as a “war of position” for control over civil society. Those at the top understand but do not feel, while those underneath feel but do not understand. The “ordinary passions” of the people are not felt by the curatoriat, nor by progressive elites. As Marx said in his theses on Feurbach – (a very short and succinct text which the artist Rainer Ganahl once used on us cold-call students years ago in his seminars at Apex Art) – “who is going to educate the educator?” Gramsci reminds us that every educational arrangement is a political situation. (Should I type that again, in italics?) There is always a double movement between the educators and the people. Knowledge is movement within society. (How is that reflected in your syllabus, teacher?)

In his texts, Fontana said, Gramsci uses the term “democratic philosophers.” This is a concept alien to the tradition, which guards philosophical knowledge from, as Croce said, “contamination” by popular ideas. How, Fontana asked, does one learn how to make one’s own history rather than simply be the instrument through which others make history?

One of Scribner’s students asked a pointed aggressive question about the implicit racism in having a white philosophical hero and all white lecturers speak to a neighborhood of people of color. TH cut him off with a politician’s deftness during the Q&A, but in the social hour he sought the young man out to engage his question. TH explained that he found his first collaborator, and then asked him to bring his friends. TH trusted them all, as his first contact at Bjilmer would not invite his friends to take part in something that was shitty. The project’s human relations developed and spread by that kind of colorblind basic connection, not by any institutional quota system.

Nearly all the students in Scribner’s class are people of color. And in both the lecture and round table, I had to remind myself how basically amazing it was to see so many various ethnic origins reflected in the audience, in the studentry, and in the professoriate addressing what amounts to the universality of the message of socialist revolution.

What is underway right now is a very important retooling of utopia. As Susan Buck-Morss contends in her recent “Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History,” the Enlightenment discourse on political liberation was spoiled at its very inception by a turning-away from the question of slavery in the colonial plantations. Toussaint Louverture’s revolution was not supported. He was deceived into parlay then arrested, and died in Napoleon’s prison. The U.S. under Jefferson undermined the Haitian revolution to protect southern slavery. While the 18th century discourse around liberty and tyranny depended on the idea of slavery, that idea was converted into oppression by the crown. Later, with Marx, it became oppression by capitalism: “wage slavery.” Actual existing slavery was not part of the Enlightenment discourse of liberation. Ergo, that discourse is not universal.

There’s been a lot of water under the bridge since then, for sure. But communism is not summed up and dismissible in the demise of Napoleonic state socialism. That’s not the end of the revolution. Really, the revolution has not even yet begun.


Page on the LaGuardia CC site announcing Hirschhorn's visit

Description of the Gramsci Project

Description of the Calandra Institute collection at Queens College.

An essay on Spinoza and precarity in contemporary art

The Headless Artist: An Interview with Thomas Hirschhorn on the Friendship Between Art and Philosophy, Precarious Theatre and the Bijlmer Spinoza-festival

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