Essays & interviews

Art and Social Change: learning collectively to take responsibility

Jeanneworks – Sep 2011

Artist Jeanne van Heeswijk explores keyquestions in her practice. This text formed part of her acceptance speech as she was awarded the Annenberg Prize for Art and Social Change.

In a time of accelerated globalisation and rapid changes in our environment, where neighbourhoods become sites of contestation, where different conditions of power are inscribed, where everything seemed to be locked up by over-regulation and populist images prevail, people are increasingly feeling de-invested and excluded from their own daily environment. There is a serious disconnection between ordinary people and govern-mentality. Taken together, these things call into question traditional methods of artistic interventions in the city. Today there is an urgent need for us (artists and our co-producers) to re-engage and witness to the invisible vectors of power that shape the territory and the faculty of publicness, to reorganise systems of urban interaction and to challenge the political and economic frameworks.
The question is are we capable of creating a place and associated capacities for public faculty – a public domain – where we can research, debate, face up to the confrontation and address one another as co-producers of the city? Can we make this area of tension visible and develop instruments to enable intervention in that area. In order to create models that allow for people to become participants in the process of visualizing the dynamics, complexity and diversity of the city they live in and collectively develop a narrative about the city in which everyone has a place? Can alliances between politics and art, be imagined, tested, and based in practices that establish (…) narratives for a democratic, post-national, inclusive society? (note 1) I often refer to forms of urban acupuncture (hit and run tactics) that will allow the sensitive places in our society to emerge and blocked relational energies to flow again. Developing instruments that enable people to fill in this place and deepen, sharpen or question that narrative. So they can face their world in progress (not as consumers but as creators) and become actors in their own surrounding, being able to act up, to be an active citizen.
It seems to me that is really important to ask how an engaged practice can address and mobilise the existing local physical and socio-cultural capital and use it as the performative basis for a city under development. It should provide a platform for artist and non artist exchanges, for participation and real/ honest communication, that underpins a broadly supported, inclusive and integral idea about living together in the community, as a condition or possibility for bringing about changes, and preferably improvements, in social structures. (note 2)

Artist practice
The key concepts underlying an engaged practice are in my opinion ‘acting’, ‘meeting’, ‘learning’, confronting, acting and ‘communicating’ but these are all activities that demand mutual responsibility. Rick Lowe, who has taught me a lot in this area once explained to me ‘I began to learn to shift from creation in splendid isolation to collaboration, when I became part of the audience myself. For this I had to develop the ability “To listen” on how to interject or intervene with my own creative energy.’

To intervene in such a way that the people who are participating can increase the number and intensity of their ties, may seems a simple act to perform. However during the course of my practice, I have learned how difficult it can be to create in collaboration with a community you are addressing and to be dependent upon the community’s continued involvement for sustainability. It also involved all of us together learning how to take collective responsibility to make the information gathered work operate significantly in the social and political context too. These processes are always long and sometimes painful, as we have to learn about each other’s ideas and different viewpoints. This is a process of collective learning about how to unlease the potential of people to engaging with different creative energies for collective action in order to become a shaping force in our immediate environment.

What did I learn (a few notes on some projects)

So what did I learn from different communities? While there is a growing faith in the potential of greater community participation to develop models and instruments for city-building, it is too often blind to the naivety of the notion of transformation based on harmonious togetherness. It seems to me that offering a menu of choices is just the last convulsion of the idea of supply-side transformability that still treats the citizen as a consumer. To enable the individual or the community their right to participate in building the city means more than merely presenting them with a few choices and allowing them to communicate through public consultative channels, demonstrations or standard procedures. In fact it is precisely these conditions – the notions of how we wish to and are able to live together – that we should be able to question again and again within this process. It is exactly here where people teach me what it takes to become active citizens.

Face Your World
In an intense process of more than a year, youngsters worked hard to rewrite the brief and with that the design of their neighbourhood park. While the City Council wanted it to be a quite green zone, the young people went to look for what the community really needed and introduced the concept of ‘Active Green’. Green that allowed for a lot of activities such as sports, play, and gathering for different generations and groups. Trough their production of different viewpoint they argued for the communities need. This might have taken a long intense time but it generated enough friction to change the political process in the end. Finally a month ago (5 years later) their new park was opened. The local Health and Sports Counsellor took this opportunity to launch his campaign to fight obesities and praised the park because of its contribution towards wellbeing.
Samia, one of the pupils, whispered in the background “Sure like we didn’t know what the community really needed’. I learned that when a community starts to articulate its own voice and aesthetic and begins to self-organise, it quickly becomes apparent that they know what they really want and need. And that in facilitating this process we might be able to pass on tools to reshape their world-in-progress.

Ruhr 2010
By working with a small community living in the middle of one of the largest motorway intersections in the Industrial Ruhr area in Germany I learned a lot about the way in which ‘small happiness’ can be a resistance force. In a time where the Ruhr area wanted to put itself on the map as a ‘creative Metropole’, they effectively fought to retake an empty church so as to create a community centre. Together, we created a large table (at which it was possible to seat the whole village) to serve both as a council table, a beer garden and most of all as a place to publicise their ongoing fight to be recognized as a viable community and to be taken serious for that. “We are the Ruhrgebied. We are people open to the world and principled, acting in solidarity. We are the heartland of Europe par excellence. You have to take us in account while dreaming up a new Metropole”. While at the same time, through selling beer, cofee, cakes, marmalade and soks they raised the neccesary amount of money to do the building work. I learned that the programs of action (a offline form of crowd funding) and multipliers of images which make up the work, made it possible for a community to maintain itself in its own indetermination and at the same time, to multiply its links with a world that it continually approaches.

Stavanger University Hospital
The same counted for the employees of one of the largest university hospitals in Norway. They used the opportunity to be part of the public art project ‘Neighbourhood Secrets’, in order to tell their own narrative on the ethical and moral dilemmas they face every day, but which have no place in the ‘official information the hospital is supplying to the outside world’. After collecting stories from within the Hospital, an Open Call for Actors (players) was made and over 80 people both working as being patient in the hospital showed up for audition. It took two years to shoot (completely in house, actors, camerawork, musical score, scene locations) an episode hospital sitcom series. Imagine how difficult it is to have 7 ‘volunteer actors present in a real time operating hospital and at the same time to shoot a scene’. But all the actors/players always found away to be there. When I expressed my concern, that we might take time away from more urgent matters, they had to tell me – that besides saving lives – the way in which the hospital performs and to discuss the sensitive issues publicly is also important. So they told me to just do my job and do it well.

The Afrikaander district was one of the first in the Netherlands with a population mostly of foreign origin. In the 1990s, the Rotterdam City Council started a major urban development scheme adjacent to the area, and while one architectural feature after another rose up around it, with the slogan ”Clean, Whole and Save” stricter regulation were put in place and the economic activity in the Afrikaander district itself died out. In order for the Afrikaander district to survive the expansion of the ‘creative city’-and to thrive from it – Freehouse actively challenged this new regulation imposed by the local government in doing over 300 interventions. Freehouse helped to set up small-scale skill based projects to regenerate the area and its market, by improving products, services, market interactions and social integration in order to retain its intimate local character and cultural diversity. In collaboration with residents, artisans, artists and designers new sustainable infrastructures were different skills and knowledge were combined were created such as a neighbourhood workshop for making and designing clothes, a communal kitchen area, a neighbourhood shop selling local products and a small-scale delivery service, which at present offering 40 jobs and various internships in the community. But more important by radicalising local production people together created a different image of success showing that a skill based city could be a viable alternative to the creative city.

The money of this prize is also going to the Freehouse project, as it is exactly the amount we needed to establish a local holding to ensure the duration and sustainability of the different cooperatives.

For my practice, becoming part of the community and being part of the whole process of change a neighborhood is undergoing, is key. Learning how at a deeper level we can face today’s broken circuitry between people, culture and the political process. To take collective responsibility to learn from each other how to produce change can make it possible that the processes started, work in a larger social political context as well. Encouraging people to make in their territory an environment in which they can create, produce, disseminate, distribute and have access to their own cultural expressions.3 So that the energy generated through people acting out in their own environment will lead to a network of support, a critical reading of one’s own surroundings and an involvement in the changes that take place. Finding ways to re-set the public value of the arts, its public faculty as a contributor to greater solidarity. And for this you need to continuously go back, again and again to create an understanding of public domain as a shared space, a space that everyone can contribute to and change.

1 In reference to Gottfried Wagner, The Art of Difference
2 My own lesson from practices about the contemporary state of the public domain is that it will require nothing less than making private public during this state of exception

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