7 Questions Yasmil Raymond, 2016
1) It has been two years since the closing of the Gramsci Monument in the South Bronx. There was a great number of individuals who visited the project, attended the lectures, performances and workshops. Your initial idea of proposing a new type of “monument” involved demonstrating how art can reach the level of a very powerful experience, one-time and unrepeatable moment that lives as a vivid memory. How important was the form in generating this ambition?
The “Gramsci Monument” wants to be a form, wants to be a pure form, only a form. Form is the most important thing in the “Gramsci Monument”, in my work, and I believe – in art. Form means complexity, over-complexity, form means working and building something in the surrounding chaos of the world, without attempting to bring order. Form confronts the incommensurable and form needs a work-ethic. Form requires clarity, the clarity of a position. To give form is essential, because to me, as an artist, the ‘form’ of the “Gramsci Monument” – but also of each work – is my problem, my task, that’s what my work is about. Because the question is: How to have a position? How to give this position a form? How to reach beyond cultural, aesthetical and political habits? How can this form create truth? And how can this truth be a universal truth? This is the problem, this is my problem, my ambition, my strategy. Everybody can have an idea, but the crucial difficulty is to give form, because form is always form as such – it never illustrates an idea and an idea never comes first. The difficulty is that form – as such – must be precise and exaggerated at the same time. Form is not based on calculation, convention, reduction, satisfaction or function. And form is never, ever, the “good form”! The “Gramsci Monument” – it’s my pride – was an improvement in showing that a real, decided, asserted formlessness is also a form – without falling into the trap – I therefore insist that form is crucial and that therefore a real, decided and asserted form is always autonomous. Art is autonomous. Autonomy is what gives the artwork its beauty and its absoluteness. As you mentioned, the one-time moments, the unrepeatable instants is form itself. Such a form creates the conditions for having an experience, for building a monument of experience and memory: This is the new form of a monument!
2) All your early monuments, from the late 1990s and early 2000s, had a commemorative sculpture. What brought about the switch in genres, what made you want to build a monument to Antonio Gramsci in architecture? Not only was the scale different to your earlier monuments, but the structure of events was different as well.
Each work of my ‘Monument-series’ is different, but my plan to do a ‘Monument-series’ dedicated to my four beloved Philosophers was set from the beginning. The advantage of doing such a project over more than a decade, embedded with other works of art, in galleries, art-spaces or in public space, is that from monument to monument you can integrate your experiences and new ambitions. This led me to define, point by point, through experience, more and more precisely my position about sculpture. Therefore my first monument, the “Spinoza Monument”, in 1999 in Amsterdam, was the smallest, the most compact, and the one which involved only one person of the surrounding infrastructure. The second Monument dedicated to Gilles Deleuze in 2000 in Avignon was the first work-experience with residents. It was divided into four architectonically separate parts: a library, a sculpture of Gilles Deleuze, an integrated altar (to the memory of Gilles Deleuze) and a philosophical stone. For this monument I chose the location together with the residents and built the work together with residents of an outskirt of Avignon. But – and this was my failure – I didn’t consider staying on location during the full exhibition-time. I learned then, that when working with residents, presence is a necessity. It is necessary to rebuild the Monument anew every day, every moment, literally but also as a mission. Therefore after the “Deleuze Monument” experience I invented the guidelines “Presence and production”. Consequently the “Bataille Monument” in 2002, in Kassel was the first work I made with my guidelines “Presence and Production”. There were six separate – but connected- elements, built with residents: a library, a TV-studio, an exhibition space, a shuttle service, a bar and a sculpture. With its aesthetic, the sculpture was a statement asserting: “this is the sculpture, not the monument; it’s only the ‘sculptural part’ of the monument!” My experience of this first “Presence and Production”-project was conclusive – I noticed that my presence during the full exhibition time gave more availability for production on location. Therefore, with the “Gramsci Monument” 11 years later I wanted to explore that point, and planned a lot of production, divided into Daily events and Weekly events. I wanted an over-complex monument, I wanted over density and over charge. Therefore – to get back to one of your questions – I also thought that the previous ‘sculpture-element’ in the monument was no longer a necessity. The “Gramsci Monument” had no ‘sculptural” part anymore. The “Gramsci Monument” is the most architectonical of my monuments because it wanted to offer implication and over implication, complexity and over complexity with a program, with an over programming.
3) Let’s talk about the location. Although you had considered other invitations of exhibiting your work in outdoor spaces in the United States, I know that once you were considering sites in Minneapolis, Los Angeles, and New York, Gramsci Monument was your first project in public space that happened outside of Europe. You brought together both American and European philosophers, theorists, artists, poets and musicians to partake on the daily and weekly events. I would like to ask what you hoped to achieve with these invitations, in the end, what you felt was achieved.
My goals, my ambition, my mission for the “Gramsci Monument” were: to establish a new form, a new term of Monument, to make encounters, to create an event and to think or rethink Gramsci today. Without modesty and without pretentiousness I think I achieved my mission. The “Gramsci Monument” was not a success and not a failure – art in public space, or simply art, never is – but the “Gramsci Monument” accomplished a new way to remember the thinking of an important philosopher and project it into the future. As an example, I can attest that such a work cannot be built without many encounters, I mean real, important, enriching encounters, as first of all the encounters with the residents of ‘Forest Houses’. The “Gramsci Monument” as an event and a form challenged the question of community – which is, by the way, the only real difference I noticed between working with residents in Europe and in North-America. From my perspective and experience, what is similar is much more important than differences, meaning: the resident’s openness and welcome, their dignity, their heartbreaking directness, the fun of working with them. I truly believe that the “Gramsci Monument” is a contribution to think and rethink art in public space as an experience which can lead to a transformation. One can say: it’s an affirmation, it’s only an affirmation, it’s not countable! Which it is! It is the strong and fragile, the beautiful and conflictual, the enlightening and problematic affirmation of a form. A precarious form of friendship. As every friendship, it is something beyond argumentation, beyond proof, beyond guarantee. Friendship is one of the most valuable things we can gain in this world, thus the essence of Friendship is loyalty. I can’t assure anyone that Antonio Gramsci’s ideas took root at ‘Forest Houses’, but I can reassure everybody that the residents of ‘Forest Houses’ offered their loyalty to the thinking of Antonio Gramsci. The “Gramsci Monument” is a monument built in and with Friendship and if you ask me what is left of it, I can answer – for sure: Friendship!
4) I saw visitors dropping into a kind of disbelief when they saw you attending the events, gardening or working with the editors on the layout of The Gramsci Newspaper. Your conception of “presence and production” is centered on the idea that you are interested in taking care of your work, the thing that matter to you the most. For Gramsci Monument you needed a visa to be able to stay legally in the United States beyond the customary three months. You lived in the South Bronx in a rented apartment two blocks from Forest Houses. In other words, is being “present” in the world is part of your definition of being an artist? Is that what making art does for you?
The disbelief of the visitors – only those from the ‘field of art’ – comes from the fact that artists are not present, or only there for the opening or for a performance during the opening days. And the disbelief of visitors – from the ‘field of art’ – comes from the fact that, at the “Gramsci Monument”, the ‘presence of the artist’, my presence, is a form. A simple form for saying: this is the place where I want to be at this moment, there are no other places more important, no other moments more valuable. The work has to create the contact with the audience here and now. As always in public space, surprising questions arise, as during the “Bataille Monument” in 2003 a resident of the ‘Friedrich Wöhler Siedlung’ asked me: “Why are you present beside your artwork while other artists are not there with their artwork?” Beyond a certain naivety, the question pointed to the evidence of my presence at the “Bataille Monument” for this person. My presence shows only – or better and firstly – my commitment, my engagement, my concern to be on the frontline, to have no distance, not to be an organizer – or worst – a manipulator, not to be an anthropologist, or whatever distanced observer. My presence, the presence of my body is not everything, but it’s already something as we learnt from the ‘Occupy-movement’. The gift of the body, one body, two bodies, three bodies etc. is reaffirming the importance of the body in this virtual bodiless -and faceless- time. My presence is a gift, an offensive gift towards the audience – meaning, yes, this is the spot, and this is the time to be! My presence is not a performance. There is no glory – for the artist – in being present; there is only work to be done. Joseph Beuys, my beloved artist, did it before me at ‘documenta9’ – so there is nothing new, it is a kind of self-evidence which – again – the visitors from the ‘field of art’ turned into disbelief. Not the residents, because for the residents of “Forest Houses” (where the ‘Gramsci Monument’ took place), my presence was just normal and – I think – useful. And to me – beside a fantastic experience – it was a moment with a lot of fun! Yes ‘fun’ because that is what a simple presence can create: encounters, friendship, moments of laughter and astonishment. But it’s not about ‘presence’ alone, if I am present I can already produce something; there is production, therefore my term ‘Presence and Production’-projects. ‘Presence and production’ is a guideline for work in public space, but also for moments of public space in institutions as for example the work “Flamme éternelle” I made at Palais de Tokyo in Paris in 2014. ‘Presence and Production’ is not the essence of my work of art, but a work basis to redefine the artist’s responsibility.
5) Your work have always relied on synchronicity with events affecting the world: this is even more apparent in your recent works In-Between at the South London Gallery in 2015 and Pixel-Collage currently on view at Chantal Crousel Galerie. But I remember at the Gramsci Monument when you made the signpost in memory of Trayvon Martin after learning the news that the jury had acquitted the shooter from manslaughter. Is this foregrounding of current events a result of your own sense of helplessness? Or does it have more to do with your sense that this approach is how art operates?
Art – to me – is a tool. A tool to encounter the world, a tool to be in contact with reality, a tool to live in the time I am living. Therefore, to understand art as a tool and the artist – me – as the one who uses this tool, means making something which operates as a form, as an affirmation, as a critical body. A critical body is something which can also run against itself, beyond certainties, beyond habits – artistic habits – and beyond guaranties. I made the signpost dedicated to Trayvon Martin at the “Gramsci Monument” because I was struck by the deep impact that the trial’s unjust result made on the residents of ‘Forest Houses’. I was touched by their uncompromising way of facing this injustice – one of many others – but also by the dignity that they expressed in speaking about it. I remember that it was Lakesha and Sequan, the editors of the “Gramsci Monument-Newspaper”, who decided to dedicate the paper’s front page to this case. I understood it as something essential, non-negotiable and given as such. On the signposts – together with the front page-portrait of Trayvon Martin, I wanted to reaffirm the notions of “Universality”, “Justice”, “Equality” and “Truth” – which are notions that I always carry with me in my artwork, in the “Gramsci Monument” and all other works. So I thought that this was the moment to use the artwork as a connecting surface on which something of actuality can be fixed. I understand an art work as a stone to anchor something, a platform which permits an opening, a rift, a disruption, a disturbance. Because, yes, I believe that an artwork can and must create the conditions to link synchrony and diachrony. I also understand these links, points or moments in an artwork as graceful – and I, as the artist must be awake to allow this gracefulness.
6) There was an assumption that Gramsci Monument offered alternative model for political activism. I remember the puzzled faces of the editors from the socialist quarterly Jacobin when they visited the project. (I still don’t know what to make of their silence). You have spoken repeatedly about the importance of differentiate between “political” art and making art “politically.” From my point of view, the political dimension of the Gramsci Monument is the idea that we can no longer rely on a political party for the promotion of equality and justice but we have to make our own world where equality and justice, love and solidarity can exist and be nurtured. You told me once that you were impacted by the dignity of the residents of Forest Houses. Could you talk about some of the “lessons” you learned on politics and love from the Gramsci Monument?
Indeed I think the experience of the “Gramsci Monument” is an example for making art politically and not for doing ‘political art’. I have nothing against political activism but – as an artist – I’m not that passionate about it. My passion is doing a work of art, giving form, asserting form. My passion is to establish a critical corpus – the “Gramsci Monument” for example – and my passion is to create a platform for a contact with a ‘non-exclusive audience’ throughout my work. Throughout the work “Gramsci Monument” – thanks to my presence and thanks to my production I can learn, because I made an experience. Is there something more beautiful one can get from art? I can even be the one who learns most, it’s not the point – what’s important is that I was not the only one who could learn something. Is there something more beautiful one can get from art? You are right; I got my lessons from the “Gramsci Monument”. I learned a lot about Antonio Gramsci from the weekly lectures and seminars of the Gramsci-Scholars Series. The invited Gramsci Scholars put me in touch with the thinking of Antonio Gramsci and his ideas in an incredibly extensive manner. Through examination of his thinking, I learned whether art can resist simplified idealism and simplified realism. In rejecting aestheticism, but also in rejecting polarization, the figure of Antonio Gramsci is exemplary. He can, of course, be replaced by other heroes, like Malcom X for example. Finally, by insisting on Gramsci’s thinking as a thinking of ‘pure politics’ instead of ‘good will’, ‘socialization’ or ‘political engagement’, the Gramsci-Scholars Series pushed narcissism, passivity and self-neutralization away.
I learned that the word ‘Community’ stands for ‘sacred cow’ and in order to take it seriously and avoid the trap of its political abuse and semantic superficiality, I really have to touch it, get in contact, in close contact and enter the ‘inside fight’ – this is what ‘Community’ substantially means. If a work of art is made in contact with a community of residents, its understanding becomes a community-understanding. As I explained before, I learned that being present is crucial. Being present – of course – not as ‘the artist’, but simply being present as a human being, equally, present as the one responsible, as the one who takes care of anything. At “Forest Houses” nobody needs your presence; you are the only one defining its necessity. That is what I learned: my presence or non-presence – or the presence or non-presence of someone else – is never an exception and never a way of including or excluding.
I learned not to be the ‘disappointed’ one. As an artist I have no right to be ‘disappointed’ by the reception of my work and no right to accept such an unforceful discourse. My daily contacts with the residents of “Forest Houses” taught me that feeling ‘disappointed’ is an attitude which, in its luxuriousness and selfishness, only serves the purpose of self-excuse and de-responsibilization. One cannot be ‘disappointed’ since there is and can be no control facing reality. Reality is far more unexpected, unpredictable and surprising, therefore disappointment is the last refuge of the ‘marvelous soul’ disconnected from reality. The “Gramsci Monument” experience allowed me to confront reality, to confront it just like it is, instead of moralizing about how it should be.
I learned what fieldwork in a certain loneliness means and consequently what dignity means. I learned how crucial the preparation and research work is. The most challenging part is to encounter – alone – the residents to find a possible location. I also learned why such loneliness in fieldwork is coherent and understandable and made sense to hold on to my own singular idea, in its fragility, vulnerability, uncertainty and precariousness. Doing ‘fieldwork’ alone as much as possible is a form which can, as a form, already contribute to a possible bridge toward co-operation, because it is based on what art can do: establish a dialogue or a confrontation from one to One. I learned how important it is to base contact on the evidence that One equal One. A demagogic argument, an opportunist or patronizing attitude, cannot succeed when facing a person who confronts the daily truth. Therefore the loneliness of the artist with a mission – distant from romanticism or particularism – is credible and of true help.
7) There is a prevailing notion that associates art in public space with either ideological propaganda or decoration. How do you balance this sense of feeling compelled to exhibit your work outdoors knowing the volatile nature of this endeavor. Was the impetus behind your guideline “presence and production” a parameter to shape an aesthetic of accountability. You give the visitor the opportunity to address her/his questions, concerns and thoughts to you directly. No intermediaries, no delays. Could you give me an overview of what this approach has meant to you?
Too often art in public space is indeed ideological propaganda: for example in the form of wall paintings, or decoration in the form of sculptures, light-projections or objects. With the guidelines of “Presence and Production” I want to construct a base for another form, the form of transformation. I believe this is what art can do. Art can create the conditions for transformation, the transformation of each human being. “Presence and Production” are guidelines which operate as a dynamic insisting on the ‘here’ and the ‘now’, on the precarious and precious moments of grace, of the unexpected, of chance, of links. Ideological propaganda does not produce anything, and you can never hold out against the ‘decorative’ aspect of things. “Presence and Production” are the necessary conditions to give the precarious a form. This means being present and producing something. This implies being awake, being attentive, being captive. Therefore any intermediaries, moderators, delays and filters are superfluous. On the matter of art in public space, David Hammons did an incredibly graceful work which -to me- is one of the strongest, most poetic and magnificent ways of working with precariousness. This works shows me that art in public space only makes sense if the dimension of precariousness is included. The snowballs of his work “Bliz-aard Ball Sale” New York City 1983, lead to another dimension which art can imply: The snowballs is a form that goes beyond its object status – without negating it – and reaches toward something new, different and crucial: The status of transformation.