Interview with Sarah Lookofsky (2013)
I know that you were searching for a long time for an ideal location for your Gramsci Monument in New York. What made you finally decide on the Forest Houses in the Bronx?
The decision to do the “Gramsci Monument” at ‘Forest Houses’ was made together with Erik Farmer. I’m not the one who selected a site. It’s thanks to ERIK FARMER – a long term resident and President of the Forest Houses tenants – that the “Gramsci Monument” is where it is. Erik Farmer is the ‘Key figure’ for the “Gramsci Monument” in this specific neighborhood. It was him who invited me to do my work of art, with him in his neighborhood, and with the help of the local neighbors. This is why such a long time was needed for the phase of “Fieldwork”: the “Fieldwork” consisted in trying to meet the residents of NYCHA-Projects and explaining my project to them. The idea guiding me during the “Fieldwork” was always: I need to encounter a person who will help me, it’s not me who brings help – it’s me who needs help! Therefore I am so happy that I could establish a contact with residents like Erik Farmer – to meet him is a real Encounter.
You are choosing a public housing project in the USA, a country in which there are not many public services left and where many are still being dismantled. Was that part of your calculation for the Gramsci Monument?
I wanted to do the “Gramsci Monument” where people of NYC are living. This is one of my ambitions for the new kind of monument I want to do: assert a location which engages everyday Life and everyday Reality. As an artist doing a work in Public Space, I can decide upon the location for the work, and I think that this issue is indeed an important one. This is why I want a location which is part of the Form of the work. Why should I put my work on the Highline, on Park Avenue or in City Hall Park when I can decide – myself – about Location? Since New York City has more than 400 000 persons living in NYCHA-Housing Projects (the US largest Public-housing), it seemed obvious to me, that the “Gramsci Monument” should take place in one of them. As one of the 300 Public Housing Projects of New York City, “Forest Houses” is also an Universal Place. And my Monument wants to be an artwork that reaches Universality.
Some would argue that the Highline and City Hall Park are indeed also public spaces in New York. You very deliberately describe this project as an artwork in public space. There has been much debate about what constitutes a public space (its ownership, the people that occupy it…) How do you define it for yourself?
Of course the Highline, City Hall Park or Rockefeller Center Plaza are public spaces.
But – as an artist – with a project for an artwork in public space, the decision for a location of such a work is essential. It is essential because the artist can – unlike in a museum, a gallery or even in an alternative art space – decide where to build the work. The possibilities are – not as in an institution – almost unlimited and when the artist himself or herself decides for a location there is a chance to do and to assert something new, throughout – as well – the new location. Besides – if the point is about doing art in public space – why just use a location already dedicated to art? Why not use the incredible range of possibilities offered the artist, to redefine – in deciding for a specific location – what public space should be today? Because definitively, exhibiting in the sculpture garden of a museum is not public space – it’s only “outside”. And defining or redefining public space – throughout the location of an artwork – is as such already a chance, because it means already giving form to a position. It’s certainly what I want to do with the “Gramsci Monument” and with the location in which it is situated.
I am emailing these questions during the construction of the Monument, but before its opening. What have the initial responses to the structure been? And what are your expectations and hopes for the Gramsci Monument given your experiences with similar installations that are not within art institutions?
The responses during the construction of the “Gramsci Monument” – with the construction-team of 15 residents – have been positive so far. But the real question, my hope, my ambition and also my problem – as the artist – is and will be: Are the residents coming to the “Gramsci Monument”? Are the residents having fun? Are the residents establishing a dialog or a confrontation with what the “Gramsci Monument” will produce? Are the residents hanging out there? Are the residents feeling implicated? Are the residents making encounters? Are the residents exchanging with other residents they did not know before? Are the residents seeing something of interest to them in the “Gramsci Monument” output? Are the residents thinking of Gramsci’s contribution to the thinking of today? Are the residents enjoying the artwork? Are the residents contributing to the achievement of an event?
You adamantly insist that your are an artist, not a social worker and that this is an artwork. You have also stated that you work differently than many socially engaged artists in that you produce an artwork for others to respond to-unlike creating a work together with a given audience. In light of these opinions, how did you decide on creating an internet corner, the workshop space, the lounge, the bar and the radio station, among other components, for this particular site?
Yes, I want to establish a new term of art, as – I think – every artist wants to! My guidelines for the “Gramsci Monument” are ‘Presence and Production’. These guidelines for which I am competent come from what I have experienced so far with Art in Public Space. “Presence and Production” were not developed in regard to a specific site, nor exclusively for my work in Public Space, but I developed them as such – over the years. “Presence and Production” means: I want to be present – all the time – and I want to produce something. Beyond my presence and my production, I want, through ‘Presence’ and ‘Production’ to create precarious moments of grace. Gracious moments when someone needs to be there and someone needs to be awake. In order to create the conditions for such moments, beside the condition ‘Presence’, I want to use, as a tool, the different ‘Production’ components – those you mention – and furthermore, in organizing also Daily- and Weekly-events. I understand all this as output – which can be simultaneously a beam of meaning and a beam of sense. Because a monument – today – must be a beam of meaning and sense. I hope the “Gramsci Monument” will give form to this.
I wonder about how you view pedagogy in relationship to your work. You are presenting a philosopher to an audience that does not necessarily have much of a background in philosophy and philosophical history. Is this a pedagogical project and, if not, why?
The “Gramsci Monument” is an Artwork because it believes in the Autonomy, the Universality, the Assertion and the Form of itself. When Gramsci says that every human being is in Intellectual, I believe it as I believed Joseph Beuys who declared that every human being is an Artist. Such declarations are what make breakthroughs into our every day reality. And this kind of belief deserves to be lived for or to be dying for. In my work I want to give Form to this belief – that’s why at “Forest Houses” – as everywhere else – the dialogue must be a dialogue or a confrontation from one to one – at the level from one human being to another human being. I want to be truthful to Gramsci’s affirmation, it’s as simple as that, there is no place for pedagogy, for disappointment or for cynicism. Only the passion of Equality counts and the only mission is to give Form to this belief in Equality – in doing a work of Art.
Among other reasons for selecting Gramsci, you write “Because his texts are a toolbox for everybody willing to confront today’s’ reality.” Can you explain in more detail what “tools” you think this 20th century intellectual offers to our current world situation?”
I do not think of Gramsci as a 20th century intellectual as I did not think of Spinoza as a 17th century philosopher. They are just both important to me! In their lives and in their work, and this is the reason why, beside Bataille and Deleuze, I made a monument dedicated to them. They are my personal heroes – beyond centuries. Therefore I see the importance of Gramsci in all he did and lived for – to name some examples: his Philosophy of Praxis, his definition of an Intellectual, his interest in the Common Sense, his Theory of a War of Position. In our times of ‘I-pad’, ‘I-phone’, ‘twitter’, ‘facebook’, ‘google’, ‘wikipedia’ and ‘wikileak’ I think that Gramsci’s work makes explosive sense today.
“The question of universality that you bring up is important, I think. I understand the rationale for insisting on universality as a means of critiquing the tremendous inequality that exists in the world today. However, it is also clear that people live under very different conditions, which problematizes the idea of universality. To take New York as an example like you do, this is the city with some of the most dramatic stratification of wealth in the world; where people live in very different housing; receive very different education, incommensurate health care, etc. Your monument must therefore also take this difference into account, no? In other words, that someone living in a townhouse on the Upper East Side of New York would understand Gramsci and your monument devoted to him differently from someone living in the Bronx?”
Absolutely not. Universality is not negating differences nor ignoring differences. But before anything else Universality is an affirmation! A powerful, dreamful, beautiful, passionate, concentrated affirmation. Universality is the affirmation of equality, of justice, of aesthetics, of the other – with all its differences, of the real, of the one world – we all are living in, and Universality is affirmation of truth. To constantly point out the differences of context, brings us nowhere. Because in doing this you are getting neutralized – and by saying that Gramsci can be understood differently according to where you are living, is precisely an example of a powerless and neutralized thinking of the circumstances. I am not afraid to use the term of Universality, because it is what I want to do as an artist: I want to take Position, I want to give Form to this Position, I want this Form to create – beyond the cultural and political habits – a truth, I want to create an universal truth.