Training for the Not-yet
In our rapidly changing cities we must train ourselves to work collectively to imagine a just future with complexity and care, both militant and empathic.
This requires setting up an open conflictious and radical inclusive process, which questions: How to collectively shape the places we live, influence the processes of design, regulations, policy making and take responsibility? How to engage in deep cultural exchanges among different communities? And creating a steep learning curve full of political uncertainties for all involved.
Jeanne van Heeswijk (NL) is an artist who facilitates the creation of dynamic and diversified public spaces in order to “radicalize the local.” Her long-scale community-embedded projects question art’s autonomy by combining performative actions, discussions, and other forms of organizing and pedagogy in order to assist communities to take control of their own futures.
Van Heeswijk’s work has been featured in publications and exhibitions worldwide, including the Liverpool, Shanghai, and Venice biennials. She received the 2011 Leonore Annenberg Prize for Art and Social Change, the 2012 Curry Stone Prize for Social Design Pioneers, and in 2014 was awarded the inaugural Keith Haring Fellowship in Art and Activism at the Center for Curatorial Studies and Human Rights Project at Bard College. She lives and works in Rotterdam and Philadelphia.
Artist and artistic researcher Jeanne van Heeswijk offered an insight into two of her durational, urban development projects situated in ‘Afrikaanderwijk’ (a city district in Rotterdam, The Netherlands) and Philadelphia (a city in Pennsylvania, The US). Van Heeswijk facilitated a slow and meaningful change within these public spaces by analysing local social constructions and organising performative actions. She elaborated on the idea behind this approach, including her views on pedagogy and community development.
‘Freehouse’ is an ongoing, community-embedded project set in Van Heeswijk’s native Rotterdam, The Netherlands. The project focuses on the outside space as a meeting place and aims to revive areas like ‘Afrikaanderwijk’ that suffer from low education, unemployment and a bad reputation. The name of the region (‘Afrikaanderwijk’) and the many street names honoring the colonial past suggested a social division within the city. Previous efforts to turn the area into a more prosperous and attractive residential space were unsuccessful as the municipality failed to recognize and understand the area’s existing cultural and social mechanisms.
To reveal “the emotional tissue of the community”, Van Heeswijk listened to residents recounting stories about their backgrounds and their personal issues or needs. Van Heeswijk also analysed local skills and studied cultural activities to create skill-based opportunities afforded to members within the community, to support business developments and connect individuals. Over twelve years, the ongoing, community-embedded project which Van Heeswijk managed and which is now run entirely by the residents as a ‘neighborhood cooperative’ has achieved demonstrable success: a community kitchen, a textile workshop and a cleaning company were created to enhance the exchange of knowledge and skills – supporting collective rather than individual activity. As a self-run organization operating on a small-scale, ‘Freehouse’ allowed individuals to autonomously focus on their own needs while also sustaining the long-term development of the community.
‘Philadelphia Assembled’ is a project that combines art and civic engagement, asking: “How can we collectively shape our future?” The project resulted in an exhibition, hosted by the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Over four years, Van Heeswijk actively collaborated with the citizens of Philadelphia to organize public actions and civic programs such as social gatherings, communal dining events and installations throughout Philadelphia to explore an alternative imagined-future and address the following themes: reconstruction (“How do we rewrite our histories?”), sovereignty (“How do we define unity?”), sanctuary (“How do we create safe spaces?”), futures (“How do we reimagine our tomorrow?”) and movement (“How do we share knowledge?”). What I found particularly impressive was the financing of this project as the exhibition was held free of charge, so it was literally created by and for the public. The exhibition also invited engagement and visitor participation.
A personal summary:
Van Heewsijk’s work has left me feeling inspired. The presented projects illustrate just how people can facilitate change by collaborating and working together as a community. However, besides the success stories, I would have also liked to learn about some of the failed attempts of change. It would also be interesting to see some of Van Heeswijk’s strategies applied within the fashion industry. This would probably require endurance and patience but, as Van Heeswijk conveyed, that process can be worthwhile. I’m excited to see how each Fashion held in Common participant will help shape the future through a similar community centered approach.
(by Anna Wetzel)