Whether she is making a soap opera with volunteers in a Norwegian hospital to reveal the daily dilemmas of the employees, or turning a bus stop in Lithuania into a venue to express the inhabitants’ desired future for the site, or breathing new life into a deliberately dismantled neighbourhood in Liverpool, Dutch artist Jeanne van Heeswijk makes work that takes time, collaborating with the locals to reimagine everyday life. DAMN° spoke with the artist via Skype while she was in Philadelphia working on a new project that seeks to revise the city according to the personal and collective narratives of resilience that shape its urban fabric.
Jeanne van Heeswijk: No, I am a sculptor by train- ing. I don’t really depart from a sociological angle, but from public space as a place in which we have to find ways of relating to each other. In my tool- box, I hold many ways of creating inclusive images of our changing world. We live in a neo-liberal system, one that powerfully influences our imagination as well as how we interact day-to-day and what we value. To challenge this system, we must collectively alter the functioning of the economic and political system. To accomplish this, we have to transform culture and imagination. Imagination is a collective exercise of care.
JvH: Localised models of collective ownership as developed by the Afrikaanderwijk Cooperative in Rotterdam and Homebaked in Liverpool, are seen by various community organisations as examples of strong collaborative practice. The lessons we have learned through these projects are actively implemented. But you are probably also referring to the question of instrumentalisation by local governments or housing associations. Of course, there is always a risk that when you try to develop models to encourage people to take matters into their own hands, they might get appropriated by the powers that be. You have to be very aware of that.
JvH: When I arrive in a place, I become familiar with the territory through asking questions and actively listening to how people describe their daily situation – both the local, specific sort and the one that embodies global issues. Working on location is about relating different kinds of knowledge and experience to a certain territory. In the case of my project in the Afrikaander district in Rotterdam, apart from the people that live there, market vendors come into the area twice a week from other parts of the country. And they also have site-specific knowledge. I embed myself in the local context and work closely with others who have an invested interest. Together, we develop and implement the project.
DAMN°: A lot of your projects last several years. Clearly, you don’t just fly somewhere for a week, make the project, and go back home.
JvH: My work is time consuming. It takes a lot of effort to understand the local context and meet the people who will work with me. I have been in Philadelphia for three years now. In the beginning, I went back and forth, but now I’m here more permanently. There’s a large number of conversations you have to have, conflicts you have to work through, in order to build not only projects, but also a change in attitude. This refers back to what I was saying about shifting the neo-liberal mindset.
DAMN°: Does it sometimes happen that you don’t manage to win the community’s trust or start a collaboration or achieve the desired result?
JvH: Oh yes, it happens. I’m working on a very difficult project on a former mining site in Germany for the third year. It is a rather closed community that’s quite distrustful, as they have been screwed over many times. I constantly have to go back there in order to build trust. Often people think that if you work locally, you have to be there all the time. I don’t think so. But you have to have a presence that is more than a one-off visit. You really have to engage yourself in the process.
DAMN°: Are you invited to go to specific places, or do you identify a situation yourself that you then tackle?
JvH: It goes both ways. I get invited less than one might imagine. (laughs) I am also extra careful with invitations. It is about whether I am interested in the project and the issues at hand. In the Afrikaander district there are, for instance, themes that I find really important to continue dealing with.
DAMN°: We have a little case study for you. You’re familiar with the situation in Brussels, as you’ve made a project there about waste, called Waste- landers. One of the main streets in the city centre, Boulevard Anspach, has since been closed-off to cars as a social experiment. The idea was that people would reclaim the street in a bottom-up way. In reality, the project is a disaster. There is violence and littering, and the local shopkeepers are com- plaining about losing their clientele. Where did it go wrong, according to you?
JvH: I can only speak about this in general terms. I think the government shouldn't have seen it as an experiment. They should have carefully considered the entire situation and all the conflicting interests. A typical misunderstanding of the common or pub- lic space is that it is a free zone where people are invited to do whatever they want. In reality, if done correctly, it requires a highly labour-intensive pro- cess that begins with understanding what desires are present. From there, if must be negotiated how to be in that space together – which is not always pretty. There’s permanent pressure. Which is why my projects take years. It is about trying to figure out how we can find a collective desire that is more than a stack of individual desires. Because creating a free zone for individual desires is very neo-liberal. It has nothing to do with building a city where people are figuring out how to live together. The risk of becoming instrumentalised happens when cities say: ‘We have a neighbourhood or a piece of land. Please do something with it and make it nice!’ But it doesn’t work that way! When I work within a local context, what is needed has to emerge from the territory, and that includes all the different, often conflicting interests. I can’t and I don’t do a quick fix.