The Artist as Versatile Infiltrator of Public Space
1 jul '03
Published in: n.paradoxa international feminist art journal volume 12, pp 24-32
Jeanne van Heeswijk (1965 Schijndel, the Netherlands) is currently one of the most hotly debated artists in the Netherlands. Since 1993 she has been working on socially committed art projects that take place in public spaces. She sees herself as a mediator, an intermediary between a situation, a space, a neighbourhood and the people connected to these. Acting, meeting and communicating are key concepts in her method of working. She generates "interspaces", contexts and crossovers within which new relations and connections can be established between groups of people, institutions and conceptual frameworks that are always different. The connection itself is never her sole concern as Van Heeswijk belongs to a generation that propagates a new moral attitude moving away from the attitude where "anything goes" towards a committed and engaged approach which aspires to a higher aim of connecting communities.
Often, her name as the initiator is missing from invitations to events that she has launched. Is this altruism? She feels it is more important to convey the content of the project than to have her name listed. Moreover, her projects always materialise through co-authorships, in collaboration with others. While staying in the guest studio at the New York's P.S.1 on a scholarship in 1998-1999, for example, she decided to share her work space with people with whom she had previously collaborated. Together with Dorine de Vos, she transformed her studio into a genuine hotel room (of the famous New York Hotel in Rotterdam) and invited artists, researchers and critics to stay. Each Sunday afternoon for a whole year she organised an open house where any of her guests could present their work to the public. The focus was not on the artist herself, but rather on the work of the hotel guests.
Van Heeswijk's projects are not contained by sound conceptual statements, attractive publications or visuals; they transcend the customary length of a performance or exhibition and extend beyond the boundaries of the autonomy of art. She is the type of artist some critics call "community worker", whereas others classify her work as 'esthétique relationelle' or "the new commitment". She herself has coined the term "urban curating" for her interventions. In the sedate Dutch art world in which all taboos appear to have been broken, her work - uniquely - arouses fierce controversy. Often, this is linked to the question of whether her interventions belong to the realm of art and how she stretches and shapes her art practice/ artistic strategy and positions her seemingly idealistic approach in an era which considers itself liberated from both ideology and idealism. Yet, the bizarre fact is that although everyone in the art world has their own opinion of her work, only a handful of people (who, moreover, are not involved in her projects) have ever experienced her projects at close quarters - in spite of their long-term duration. No doubt, the location of her interventions - outside prestigious art institutions, on the fringes - plays an important role here, as well as her "low-profile" aim and preference of working both for and with people who generally fail to reap glory in the art world. A third and not insignificant reason why the contemporary art public does not actively relate to her work could be due to the fact that Van Heeswijk does not offer the public bite-size portions of her methods or embellish her projects with spectacular events. The artist, alongside the average art visitor, needs to make a considerable and above-average investment of time and energy to follow Van Heeswijk's projects in their full scope, let alone to contribute to them.
'Art has the capacity to contribute to life'
The moment I visit Jeanne Van Heeswijk in her living/working studio in Rotterdam is typical of the enthusiasm and boundless commitment which she has displayed for over ten years: she has two labour-intensive projects on the go simultaneously, De Strip in the Dutch town of Vlaardingen, and Langs de lijn van de toekomst (The Future from the Sidelines) in the town of Gorinchem. In addition, she is working on her presentation for the Dutch Pavilion at the Biennial of Venice. Meanwhile she is preparing new interventions, gives lectures and interviews, and hardly finds the time to register that her project Face Your World, which took place in Columbus, Ohio, last summer, has just been nominated for a prize. Although it would be beyond the scope of this article to mention all her projects individually, I would like to highlight a few to clarify her method of working and her views, but chiefly her motives.
In her lectures and publications Van Heeswijk expresses a remarkable optimism about the relationship between art and society. She feels that 'art has the capacity to contribute to life. in a time where specialization continues to increase, there is little space left to really connect things such as the communication between various disciplines and between various subcultures. It appears to be close to impossible to bridge the various social islands. No matter how beautifully subcultures exist within a generally praised multiformity, it remains poignant that nothing happens amongst those subcultures. I believe that the trouble is a lack of crosscommunication. At the same time, what is still communicated, namely how our current reality is portrayed and mediatized, remains basically very dominant and compulsory. It is a form of mass communication without much space for people's own manner of representation.'
Mirjam Westen: Since the 1980s, the art establishment has regarded such optimism about art and society as naive positivism. How and at what time did you realise that you no longer wanted to make autonomous objects, but wanted to develop your artistic strategy in a different way?
Jeanne van Heeswijk: My first solo exhibition in 1991 was a confrontational experience in that respect. I always wanted to become an artist. I wanted to tell stories and feel connected to my surroundings. My aim was to link my stories to a larger whole, to grand shapes. These became very complex silhouette images, self-portraits with videos. My search for a grand shape or gesture raised doubts and made me query whose story it was I wanted to tell and who would be waiting for it. During and after the solo exhibition it became clear to me that I couldn't and didn't want to grasp such complexity in one single well-defined image. That was a major disillusion. I threw everything away.
Mirjam Westen: You were not disheartened by this. How did you deal with your critical doubts?
Jeanne Van Heeswijk: Apart from my work as a seminar organiser I acted as a researcher/observer for a few years in order to refocus. At first, I organised small 'events' such as the series Het Avondeten (Evening Meal) (1993). I invited artists, designers and theoreticians to add their own interpretation to the evening and they could invite other people too. I retreated into the background; I was the butler, so to speak, but at the same time an observer, or a voyeur. Through "care" I tried to create situations in which other people could meet and energy would be released. Bigger projects such as State of Mind (1996) were developed later.
Mirjam Westen: What did you learn from these "care" events?
Jeanne Van Heeswijk: An incredible amount! Initiating these encounters gave me a great deal of experience. I also became aware what it meant to literally give "shape" to space by creating space, but also by breaking open spaces and the energy that is released if other people also contribute and people listen to each other. I learned a lot from the way in which each artist gave their own interpretation to the evening and the importance they and the other guests attached to it. For instance, Suchan Kinoshita had invited ten complete strangers. She had given them an invitation in the street earlier that day. Marcel Wanders asked all the guests who were all colleagues or competitors of his to make portraits of each other. What I remember most, apart from all the valuable memories, is Q.S Serafijn's evening: 'You have to be right in the middle of the world to do something with it, rather than cycle round it and have an opinion about it.'
Mirjam Westen: The latter is certainly typical of your commitment. Instead of keeping your distance you are right in the middle of things and feel involved from start to finish. How do you chose how to become involved and in which themes?
Jeanne Van Heeswijk: The ideas are often inspired by commissions and by current events. The work always exists in the here and now. As an artist I never process these topics literally, although it is of course not surprising that I am currently dealing with the issue of integration. What we see very clearly right now is a kind of 1950s rhetoric, a notion of compartmentalisation that is being applied to modern society. In my view that will not only lead to greater differentiation, but also to segregation and isolation. Ultimately, all that remains are floating cells - groups of people who live completely separately from each other. I never offer a solution in my work, I only visualise problems. I want to generate cultural models that do justice to, for instance, the complexity of the integration issue.
"If you really want to think about and contribute towards a change in social structures you need time"
Stratification and length are characteristic of her projects. Examples are the Valley Vibes project, which has been ongoing since 1998, and the De Strip project, which was launched in May 2002. Valley Vibes originated in response to an invitation from curator Amy Plant to take part in a project for residents of London's Holly Street Estate, a neighbourhood caught up in a process of urban renewal. Plant asked Van Heeswijk to develop a 'creative process' which could give people a say in the whole regeneration process and which would also enable the exchange of information. In Plant's experience local residents do not easily warm to abstract ideas. She was looking for something tangible that could be of immediate benefit. Van Heeswijk designed a tool that can be used to transfer information, for research as well as for entertainment: the Vibe Detector, a big silver-coloured trolley equipped with a professional sound system for playing CDs which could also amplify, broadcast and record voices or other sounds. Residents can have free use of the
Vibe Detector for all kinds of events, activities, parties and meetings. The only favour required in return is that all music played and all speeches are recorded. Therefore, whenever someone uses the sound trolley they purposefully contribute towards an archive that is intended to record an impression of a neighbourhood as it is experienced by the locals at the time. In addition, residents are offered the opportunity to provide posters and invitations for events. For four years the Vibe Detector travelled from one neighbourhood to the other throughout the entire 'London Sector A' regeneration area. Florian Wüst called it a sculpture of accidental information because of the randomness of the information storage. He queried whether the Vibe Detector, in view of the entertainment function of most sound trolley bookings, in the end will turn out to be merely a party machine. Amy Plant, however, is very pleased. 'The Vibe Detector functions like a kind of magnet of energy, attracting people of all ages and cultures who want to do something, relate something, want to create things and want to make a contribution towards life. All these bookings have revealed a network of human relationships', says Plant.
De Strip, commissioned by Vlaardingen town council, which is soon to celebrate its first anniversary, is part of the extensive long-term plan Until we meet again which Van Heeswijk began to present in 1995. Again, urban regeneration featured as an important argument. The commission at the time was to create a master plan for art in public spaces for the post-war neighbourhood of Westwijk. The project would run for ten years and involved renovation and a restructuring of the neighbourhood by adding single family dwellings, schools and car parks and by relocating shops. Instead of objects on plinths or murals that could serve as the crown jewels of the 'regeneration' or 'to sweeten the pill', Van Heeswijk proposed to follow the entire ten-year process from the start. Her plan involved a series of projects that could make a positive contribution towards community life precisely during the chaotic period of dug up streets, unoccupied houses and vandalism. It became a comprehensive project aimed at involving residents in all the changes and initiating "meetings" between residents, the housing association and council departments. Van Heeswijk set up a series of activities for which she commissioned artists, architects and residents. In addition, for an eighteen-month period Van Heeswijk was given the use of a dilapidated shopping arcade in a block of flats, fulfilling an ambitious plan. Within two months, the seven empty shops were converted into a single zone of cultural production accommodating studios, a gallery, a museum, a council information desk and a video library. The programming is not just geared towards young people but also towards the various cultural identities within the neighbourhood. The Rotterdam MAMA gallery was asked to open a branch in the former supermarket and now organises youth workshops. Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen was offered the chance to equip the old vegetable shop as a branch, showcasing constantly changing exhibitions from their collections of applied art (e.g. Moroccan pottery as well as contemporary design in an exhibition of food and drink culture) and contemporary art (featuring topics such as language or, the recently opened Transcience). The museum café presents programmes organised by residents, and there is a video magazine where apart from a changing video programme residents can make their own videos. The two studios accommodate different artists, designers or producers who stay for work periods of three months. They can work there for free in exchange for two afternoons a week developing activities for residents. Would any urban regeneration area or indeed any other neighbourhood not be happy with such an exciting project? There are many people in the Netherlands who are sceptical about the role that art can play in public spaces, particularly since the 1970s when art was deployed as a kind of compensation for urban failures. Van Heeswijk has long since left her scepticism behind. Through this project the artist demonstrates what it means to become a genuine part of urban life other than by contributing towards the look of an urban landscape.
Mirjam Westen: How do you generate a process that establishes the conditions for connections and contacts between people?
Jeanne Van Heeswijk: From within the realm of art I try to create platforms where people can meet. It may seem easy to intervene in this way, but during my career I have discovered how difficult it can be to achieve this in collaboration with the community you focus on. It is vital that I am inside the community, become a part of it, and develop the ability to "listen". I want to encourage people to take an active part in what I see as the starting point of processes that may continue, which will ultimately give them more control over their environment. That can be a long-term and sometimes painful process, as we have to get used to each other's different ideas and views.Urban curating to me means maximising the potential for open dialogue, communication and acting communally within communities. The key to this is creating and implementing an infrastructure or network which can maintain such a dialogue and can establish the conditions for a critical discourse that clarifies the possibilities for social change. To achieve this you constantly need to go back, need to listen time and time again and make it clear that public space in essence means shared space, where everyone's contribution is important.
Mirjam Westen: How do you feel about criticisms of being a community worker?
Jeanne Van Heeswijk: Such comments don't just display an arrogant attitude towards other professions but also contempt for an artist's strategy. As if an artist could simply put on a different coat, adopt a different role. That's not how it works. To me it's not about working in a different discipline but about working together with other people, in order to connect different areas of their lives/ or specialisations within disciplines. This is part of my work concept. Incidentally, I specifically don't see it as the artist's duty to relieve social distress. I strive to generate positive energy, which is within my means.
Mirjam Westen: Ine Gevers called you a political artist without being politically correct. What do you see as the political aspect of your work?
Jeanne Van Heeswijk: I'm not saying that everyone should be an artist. I rather tend to support the aim that art and knowledge should be disseminated. Thresholds should be levelled and everybody should be invited to take part in art and culture. I want to forge links in order to make the complexity of our society transparent. The interesting thing about the visual arts is that they are still in a relatively autonomous position with space to develop new ideas. From this position I hand people tools with which they can influence their own surroundings. Giving people access to cultural capital, that is what I call politics.
Mirjam Westen: How do you explain your boundless commitment and involvement?
Jeanne Van Heeswijk: I'm genuinely interested in people - that in itself keeps me going - that's how I achieve collaboration. When you take the other seriously you engage yourself with the other. This is never without obligations, by the way. Although I don't aim for a preconceived end result I do sometimes call it 'contemplation with dirty hands'. Sometimes I am too directly involved and unable to distance myself. Because you are right in the middle of things some people use you for their own purposes without you realising.
Mirjam Westen: Have any of your projects ever failed?
Jeanne Van Heeswijk: Of course there are disappointments. The starting signal of the project Until we meet again was a Dahlia Race Show, a project of Jan Hein van Melis, a kind of fraternization
sculpture involving teams racing miniature cars. We had hoped to bring people from the housing association, council departments, residents' organisation and local residents together through this show. However, three days before the event we found out that the teams that had been entered for the show were fake. In no time, we then drummed up everyone we knew. I view the project both as a failure and as a success because it suddenly made the intermingling of interests so painfully visible. What we were faced with was competition between council departments and organisations. Even though officially we no longer have a compartmentalized society, there are still an awful lot of cliques or interest groups with very few exchanges that take place between them.
Every fibre of local subjects contains international issues. Another project Van Heeswijk is working on this year is called Langs de Lijn van de toekomst (The Future from the Sidelines). In order to bring people from different cultures in contact with each other she developed a sports event in the Dutch town of Gorinchem. She transformed a dressing room at one of the sports fields into a radio station from where weekly radio broadcasts were made about the role of sports and games in modern culture over a period of two months. Interviewees discussed questions such as the games that are played by different cultures, the rules they have and the importance of nationality in sports. The highlight of the event was to be a "multicultural" heptathlon at the end of May 2003, with games that have emerged from stories by Gorinchem residents, such as a game based on breakdancing and hopscotch, or a BMX bike variation of the Afghan game of Buzkashi in which traditionally goats are dragged off. The outcome is uncertain and failure or success depends on the participants. Risky?
Jeanne Van Heeswijk: With every project I run the risk of little response despite all my efforts....Maybe that risk is inevitable if you aim to break open spaces and investigate boundaries. Often, people cannot believe I could bring together groups of different nationalities to organise a sports event together. I don't care about such preconceptions. During the preparations some extraordinary things can happen. For instance, under the supervision of Akkiz Colkusu, Turkish women organised the international day of the child on the sports field and together with 'Gorinchem beweegt' (Gorinchem in Motion) we worked on a number of afternoons of sports and games. Because we worked with games from all cultures people suddenly got the idea of sending a coach to collect all the children from the asylum seekers centre so they could take part in the event.
In Columbus, Ohio, in 2002 Jeanne van Heeswijk undertook another extensive project with a two-year preparation period. She created a platform for the Wexner Center that had invited her, the COTA bus company and the 'Children of the Future' programme of the Greater Columbus Arts Council which resulted in the Face Your World project for city children. She had a local bus converted into a digital laboratory where children aged between 5 and 12 were able to transform their own surroundings using an interactive computer programme. Called Interactor, it was developed in collaboration with the multimedia collective V2 and Maaike Engelen. The Van Lieshout Studio was asked to situate three anthropomorphic bus stops with monitors in the city centre on which the public could follow the games and the input of the children. The game could be played by six children simultaneously. Although they were allowed to change the destinations of a certain neighbourhood, they had to realise how their interventions could thwart the plans of other children. The result was much debate, many negotiations and a lot of fun. The children were also provided with digital cameras so that during the bus trip they could take pictures at different locations in town which could be added to the existing archives of images. Or, as expressed so aptly by curator Carlos Basualdo: 'The project is an invitation to act, but to act through images, to produce images that act.'
It was a highly successful project in which many children took part. But Van Heeswijk did run up against the boundaries of established art institutions. It took a lot of effort to convince them of the importance of the project. In the introduction of the catalogue the director clearly expresses her initial doubts: 'Yet another young artist, confident, earnest, and fiercely committed to a social ideal that would elude her. But I was very wrong.'
"Art can generate a different dimension"
Van Heeswijk has strong views about the role that art can play in society. 'Art has not just aesthetic but also communicative qualities. In our fragmented, overspecialised society the latter is particularly important, I feel: art can generate a different dimension. I truly believe that. In that respect I'm an idealist.' She could represent the ideal image of the type of artist championed by Suzi Gablik in her book The Reenchantment of Art (1991). Over the next few decades we will be seeing art that is 'essentially social and purposeful, art that rejects the myths of neutrality and autonomy,' Gablik optimistically predicted in 1991. Artists (herself included) will no longer be able to distance themselves from ecological and social issues, the author claims. Her aim was therefore to foster a 'socially engaged art'. Gablik's plea for a responsible art, an art that is concerned about social problems and that centres around communication seems to become a reality with Jeanne van Heeswijk's attitude and interventions.
In the Netherlands Van Heeswijk's projects have so far received fierce criticism or have been completely ignored. Thus, the art historian Jeroen Boomgaard in a long article about engagement in art (1999) was able to evaluate and criticise the interventions of contemporary artists without discussing Van Heeswijk's works. He feels that nowadays ideals are lacking, in contrast to the actionism of the 1960s. Present-day interventions may have a certain degree of openness but he was unable to discover any form of engagement in the traditional sense. Boomgaard typified these as a 'form of insouciance', as an adolescent dream world and dismissed it as 'new naivism'. He believes that the 'art of today involves itself in the world, purely because it takes place there and consequently is just as real as any other phenomenon.' In more recent discussions about art in public spaces many people have voiced their fear that art will lose its autonomy, having already turned into a policymaker's tool. Another thorn in the critics' side is that in terms of art in public spaces only its practical use and applicability are ever discussed. The plea in contemporary art discourse for more crossovers between disciplines and the debate on the autonomy of art may inevitably involve the fear of loss of certainties, reactions that are connected with any process of change. Perhaps this is equally inevitable for those who still think in terms of art as "contributing to" rather than as "being part of". Van Heeswijk, who takes an active part in such debates as shown by her numerous contributions to conferences and seminars, considers these issues irrelevant for her interventions. She exploits the autonomy of art in order to create a new space that is literally "rooted", interwoven, with the social here and now. She has an aversion to being an eminent exception. In fact, she regards the benefit and the effect of her interventions as valuable.
What's more, she has repeatedly spoken about the importance of a new moral attitude in art. 'I do not believe in an aesthetics without ethics. Ultimately it has always been one of the jobs of visual art to demand matters such as responsibility and solicitude. Therefore I feel the need to redefine the artist's space as a mental space where a new moral attitude might be formulated. I believe that today's aesthetics has isolated art by separating the image from reality, while shifting presentation to representation. Because of that, isolated images have emerged without any connection to reality. In my work I try to create contexts for images and their different possibilities so that images have the capacity to reconnect in a meaningful way their environment.'
On the subject of crossing boundaries, this does not rule out the occasional need for drawing boundaries. At the 2003 Venice Biennale Van Heeswijk will exhibit her video documentary of the Langs de Lijn van de Toekomst project as well as the installation Draw a Line (2000), which was made in collaboration with Rolf Engelen. This is a mutation of the traditional Dutch territorial game of Landje Pik (Land Grab/ Land Control) which used to be popular in the countryside but has become forgotten. It involves a piece of land where players can claim land from their opponents using a pocket knife that is thrown into the ground from above. 'The installation draws a line both in a literal and a metaphorical sense. I am very tired of all those discussions on how boundaries fade away. Precisely in the communication with the other there is a clear dearth of people who dare to draw a line by simply saying "I think that this is going much too far". Biennales have traditionally been a contest between countries which continue to revolve around competitions and award ceremonies. A typically Dutch game involving capturing land and marking boundaries fits in very well', the artist said.