Essays & interviews

A dialogue between Emiliano Gandolfi and Jeanne van Heeswijk

Emiliano Gandolfi – Sep 2009

Emiliano Gandolfi —
Projects like Face Your World and Freehouse reveal a radical attitude in your interest toward local dynamics. Apparently the final aim is always in terms of stirring a collective process, rather than on the definition of a specific result. How do you define your scope and what is your intent for these projects?

Jeanne van Heeswijk —
I am interested in immersing myself in a specific situation and stimulating a set of interactions between the people involved. In order to start to work on a certain location, I create what I call a “field of interactions.” I pose a set of questions that circumscribe particular problematics or tensions, and when this field is defined, I step inside! For my work, this is a fundamental procedure. I am not curating the project, nor do I write a conception and produce a project. Instead, I become part of the field. This is where my work lies and is also the biggest challenge: how to be completely inserted within a collectivity.

Emiliano Gandolfi —
And how do you define the field of interest and why is it so important to establish this relation?

Jeanne van Heeswijk —
To define the questions that circumscribe the field is already a process that has to come from a specific circumstance and from the people involved. I am interested in identifying a group of people that I call “experts on location,” and also in swindling the dreadful discussion on participatory practice. I am not working specifically with “inhabitants” in neighborhood communities. Last year, for instance, I worked on a project in a hospital in Norway that resulted in a TV soap opera—so it depends very much on the circumstances. These “experts” are people with knowledge of a place: usually they live there. Or they are people that have a peculiar
purpose, such as working there, or that carry a certain knowledge that is needed for that specific place.

Emiliano Gandolfi —
So the experts are an entry point in order to understand the latent potentials of a specific condition
and to activate a response. But which are the aspects that attract your interest? Is there
something that emerges from a specific situation that strikes you?

Jeanne van Heeswijk —
Looking at certain areas, questions arise immediately about how these places can become public again. There are questions about publicness, social interaction, and politics that are constantly in my reasoning. What will publicness mean in these areas, and how can these areas be platforms again for meeting, discussion, and conflict? In that sense I would say that the approach of my projects is always similar, but they are completely different in execution, which is partially because they are not “executed.” They are an ongoing collective research on these notions.

Emiliano Gandolfi —
The questions that you record or pose define the field, and then you empower local inhabitants
that carry a specific knowledge to start a process. Do you have a specific aim in mind from the
beginning of the process?

Jeanne van Heeswijk —
I am interested in processes of change. Through interactions, confrontation, and, eventually, conflict, ultimately a movement starts happening. And if a movement starts happening, change starts happening. For instance, in the case of the work in the market in Rotterdam, we identified a number of market sellers, people who might not live in the area, but who nevertheless through their roles have specific knowledge of the place. My interest lies in how they can—through forms of interaction and conflict with other “experts on location”—become agents of change. And this can happen only if you are part of that process yourself.
So for my practice this really means engaging, becoming part of that action/reaction, part of that conflict, to move toward the interaction process that is needed to get things moving. When I insert myself in these processes of “experts on location,” I insert myself as an amateur. At the moment I am extremely interested in this notion of the amateur in a field of experts. I am not directing, and being an amateur means being completely open as much as you can, being submissive to anything you can learn, and being reactive to anything a person wants to bestow upon you and wants to teach, even with things that you think are unnecessary to learn.

Emiliano Gandolfi —
In this way you are making things emerge from the local context and asking people to take positions in a process.

Jeanne van Heeswijk —
In this process it is important to let go of any grip and to wait for the spatial conditions to emerge. You have to let go within your subjectivity, and that is something that as an artist I try to practice all the time. When we all attempt to lose our subjectivity, it is, at least partly, the precondition for generating something between us that is actually an agent of change.

Emiliano Gandolfi —
In other words we could say that your work is an effort to make people lose their subjective position. And how do you develop this process when you are commissioned to work within an art institution?

Jeanne van Heeswijk —
I must say that I don’t see very much of a distinction between working inside or outside the museum framework. Sometimes a project is commissioned and I am interested in the question framed by the commissioner. I rarely stick to that question—I think of it as one of the questions that might be part of the framework, and then I extend, rework, rethink, or counterbalance the question. When you start to speak with the people that are involved, more and more questions emerge, and at last you have the frame of questions into which we can step and start a process. Eventually I find other partners to match up with whatever the commissioner is lacking. I even think that sometimes it is good to bring reflections on certain projects back to the institutional context. It’s always hard, but I definitely try to avoid displaying documentation as an art piece.

Emiliano Gandolfi —
Every project that you are doing is in fact related to a certain framework that generates a set of questions, which fosters a field. But not everything that is generated by this process is actually art.

Jeanne van Heeswijk —
No, not everything is an art piece, in the sense of a commodity that you could put on display or sell. But I do believe that the whole process in itself is art. So if you talk about art and how art can effect social change, that is more than a chain of commodities, of art pieces. To me, art is the production of social change. And that occasionally can also result in art pieces, books, discussions, a festival, and many other things. Differently from politics, art has a specific framework derived from aesthetics, from the imaginary, and in that it elevates ideas into imagination and its relation to ethics. That is a whole field that comes with it, and it is a whole different one from the one of politics, or of city planning, if you will. All works derive from a continuous interest in the world and from seeing art as a very important part of that world. In that sense, I always say that I am a believer. I do believe that art is an important catalyst for social change.

Preparing for the not-yet

Jeanneworks – 2016

The Blue House

Paul O'Neill – 2012

Playing the City

Maaike Lauwaert – 2008

In The Field of Players

Kim van de Werff – 2004


Siebe Thissen – 2002

The Miracle of Gorinchem

Jo van der Spek – 2002

Principles of Hope

Henk Slager – 2002

The Ontology of the Bagel Cart

Martin Lucas – 2001

Networks, faces, membranes

Reinaldo Laddaga – 1999


Maaike Engelen – 1999

A House for the Community

Ole Bouman – 1995