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Gramsci In The 'Hood - Why Italy's Marxist Icon Is Being Honored In The Bronx

Thomas Hirschhorn, Gramsci Monument, 2013
Thomas Hirschhorn, Gramsci Monument, 2013
Francesco Bonami

NEW YORK - In the art world, auctions and mega galleries dominate. There are departed graffiti artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat who sell for tens of millions of dollars. Venice’s biennial tips its hat to ‘outsider’ artists, such as Antonio Ligabue, and mixes them with ‘insiders’, such as Richard Serra.

Enter Thomas Hirschhorn, a creator of installations, spaces, meeting places similar to bidonvilles or Brazilian favelas – a real outsider. He is the last survivor of social art which aims to change not so much the history of art as the art of history -- and of life.

Invited by the visionary director of the New York DIA Foundation, Frenchman Philippe Vergne, Hirschhorn visited 46 of New York’s 334 public housings units in search of the perfect place to build a monument to Antonio Gramsci, the revolutionary philosopher and founder of the Italian Communist Party.

In the end, he chose Forest Houses, an urban complex in the South Bronx which, until a few years ago, suffered from extremely high crime rates. Today the situation has improved a little. Once he had found the location, Hirschhorn moved there with his wife and child and started to work with the people of the neighborhood to create his idea for the monument.

“A precarious monument, a short-term monument," he tells us, shirtless and lanky with glasses which make him look like a cartoon character from the 1960s.

Hirschhorn has already built three monuments in this series dedicated to intellectuals he admires. One in Amsterdam in 1999 dedicated to Baruch Spinoza; another in 2000 in Avignon to honour Gilles Deleuze; and a third in Kassel in 2002 to celebrate Georges Bataille.

Spinoza monument in Amsterdam - Photo: FaceMePLS

“I dedicated monuments to these philosophers because they are thinkers who help us to believe in our capacity for reflection, they give strength to our thoughts, they encourage us to be active," he explained. "I like the idea of full-time thought. I like philosophy.”

Gramsci’s will be the last. Anyone expecting a traditional style monument – a sculpture of Gramsci seated, maybe on a stool, with a book in his hand – will be surprised.

Instead, the treehouse-like plywood and plexiglass construction is a moving makeshift open space that will host cultural events through the summer. Hirschhorn’s monuments don’t celebrate memories, the past or death, but life.

They are a type of pop-up story; places which appear for a few months and then disappear, consigning history itself to stories, to experiences, to anecdotes, and to the disappointment of those who not only admired the monument but who lived it, as the people of the neighborhood have done and will continue to do -- a neighbourhood where Gramsci's name may have never even been mentioned before.

We spoke at length with the artist...

La Stampa: Why the Bronx, and not Turin or Sardinia?
Hirschhorn: I never choose a context that has anything to do with the philosopher in question. I look for places that can be in some way ‘universal’. Forest Houses is, for me, a universal location that contains the reality, beauty, complexity, chaos and contradictions of our times.

Why Gramsci and what does he represent for the people of the Bronx?
Because his texts are a toolbox that even today everyone can use to consider real life. Because he wrote that art is interesting for its own sake and satisfies one of our many needs in life. Because he wrote that the only justifiable enthusiasm is that which accompanies activity and intelligent concrete initiatives, which can change the reality we live in. Because reading his writing is extremely encouraging. Encouragement can be shared by everyone, and therefore also by those here at Forest Houses.

You are more interested in the concept of “energy” than of “quality”. Why is this?
Energy is something that can be shared, and is universal. It is needed for all our activities, for our thoughts. The term energy is a positive term because it includes others; it goes beyond good and bad, beyond culture, politics and our aesthetic conventions. I am against the idea of quality everywhere, including in art of course. Quality is the unconditional reflection of luxury, it distances us from everything that is not ‘quality’. The idea of quality is an attempt to establish a scale of values from high quality to low quality. Quality always excludes someone or something, energy does not.

When talking about the film director Godard, you said that you don’t do political art but you produce art politically. Can you explain what this means?
To produce art politically means to take a risk, to enjoy your work, to be positive which means also knowing how to face the negative sides of things and reality. It also means making a decision, risking a statement, taking up a position that goes further than just simple criticism. It also means working for others. Making art politically means being a warrior.

When your monument will be dismantled what do you hope to leave behind for all these people who you have gotten so involved?
I hope that I will have been able to create a memory. My mission is to create a new idea of a monument, something that provokes encounters, which creates events and which makes us think about Gramsci today.

What preparation does a visitor need in order to understand your work?
No visitor needs any preparation to experience my work, or in general for any piece of art. Art can, exactly because it is art, initiate dialogue and personal interaction with anyone, directly.

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Paying tribute to the victims of the attack in Kongsberg

Terje Bendiksby/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA
Carl-Johan Karlsson

The bow-and-arrow murder of five people in the small Norwegian city of Kongsberg this week was particularly chilling for the primitive choice of weapon. And police are now saying the attack Wednesday night is likely to be labeled an act of terrorism.

Still, even though the suspect is a Danish-born convert to Islam, police are still determining the motive. Espen Andersen Bråthen, a 37-year-old Danish national, is previously known to the police, both for reports of radicalization, as well as erratic behavior unrelated to religion.

Indeed, it remains unclear whether religious beliefs were behind the killings. In an interview with Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, police attorney Ann Iren Svane Mathiassens said Bråthen has already confessed to the crimes, giving a detailed account of the events during a three-hour interrogation on Thursday, but motives are yet to be determined.

Investigated as terrorism 

Regardless, the murders are likely to be labeled an act of terror – mainly as the victims appear to have been randomly chosen, and were killed both in public places and inside their homes.

Mathiassens also said Bråthen will undergo a comprehensive forensic psychiatric examination, which is also a central aspect of the ongoing investigation, according to a police press conference on Friday afternoon. Bråthen will be held in custody for at least four weeks, two of which will be in isolation, and will according to a police spokesperson be moved to a psychiatric unit as soon as possible.

Witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

Police received reports last year concerning potential radicalization. In 2017, Bråthen published two videos on Youtube, one in English and one in Norwegian, announcing that he's now a Muslim and describing himself as a "messenger." The year prior, he made several visits to the city's only mosque, where he said he'd received a message from above that he wished to share with the world.

Previous criminal history 

In 2012, he was convicted of aggravated theft and drug offenses, and in May last year, a restraining order was issued after Bråthen entered his parents house with a revolver, threatening to kill his father.

The mosque's chairman Oussama Tlili remembers Bråthen's first visit well, as it's rare to meet Scandinavian converts. Still, he didn't believe there was any danger and saw no reason to notify the police. Tlili's impression was rather that the man was unwell mentally, and needed help.

According to a former neighbor, Bråthen often acted erratically. During the two years she lived in the house next to him — only 50 meters from the grocery store where the attacks began — the man several times barked at her like a dog, threw trash in the streets to then pick it up, and spouted racist comments to her friend. Several other witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

The man used a bow and arrow to carry the attack

Haykon Mosvold Larsen/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA

Police criticized

Norway, with one of the world's lowest crime rates, is still shaken from the attack — and also questioning what allowed the killer to hunt down and kill even after police were on the scene.

The first reports came around 6 p.m. on Wednesday that a man armed with bow and arrow was shooting inside a grocery store. Only minutes after, the police spotted the suspect; he fired several times against the patrol and then disappeared while reinforcements arrived.

The attack has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms

In the more than 30 minutes that followed before the arrest, four women and one man were killed by arrows and two other weapons — though police have yet to disclose the other arms, daily Aftenposten reports. The sleepy city's 27,000 inhabitants are left wondering how the man managed to evade a full 22 police patrols, and why reports of his radicalization weren't taken more seriously.

With five people killed and three more injured, Wednesday's killing spree is the worst attack in Norway since far-right extremist Anders Breivik massacred 77 people on the island of Utøya a decade ago.

Unarmed cops

As questions mount over the police response to the attack, with reports suggesting all five people died after law enforcement made first contact with the suspect, local police have said it's willing to submit the information needed to the Bureau of Investigation to start a probe into their conduct. Police confirmed they had fired warning shots in connection to the arrest which, under Norwegian law, often already provides a basis for an assessment.

Wednesday's bloodbath has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms — the small country being one of only 19 globally where law enforcement officers are typically unarmed, though may have access to guns and rifles in certain circumstances.

Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert and professor at the Swedish Defence University, noted that police in similar neighboring countries like Sweden and Denmark carry firearms. "I struggle to understand why Norwegian police are not armed all the time," Ranstorp told Norwegian daily VG. "The lesson from Utøya is that the police must react quickly and directly respond to a perpetrator during a life-threatening incident."

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