How the Art of Social Practice Is Changing the World, One Row House at a Time

Social practice is going mainstream as more artists focus their work on making an impact on problems like homelessness and pollution. But the question of how to judge activist art remains elusive

Last summer, Thomas Hirschhorn constructed the final edition in a series of “monuments” commemorating thinkers he admires. Like the Swiss artist’s other monuments, this one was crude—resembling a feverishly built backyard fort made from plywood and packing tape—and assembled with the help of the community that hosted the project. In this case, his collaborators were the residents of Forest Houses, an austere arrangement of public-housing towers dating back to 1956 in New York’s South Bronx.

Hirschhorn designed his Gramsci Monument—in honor of Marxist political theorist Antonio Gramsci—to encourage interaction. “The question of the site,” he wrote in a text that accompanied the work, “is a question of human encounter.” And for its ten-week duration, the monument was just that: a place for panel discussions, seminars, Latin-music performances, and art workshops. Kids ran up and down the ramps. Local poets took to an open microphone to read their stanzas. On family day, someone showed up with a horse.