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Interview by Ronny Koren

Jeanne van Heeswijk

RK: In 2014, you initiated Philadelphia Assembled, a show that brought urban settings together with museum spaces. Over a few years of work, you helped create new communities and came to be involved with existing ones. Can you tell me about what happened there?

JVH: I am now working on developing a curriculum of community learning, and I look back at the work I did at “Philadelphia Assembled.”[1] What I’ve noticed in Philadelphia Assembled is that while working so intensively around some of the notions of figuring out ways and modes of methodologies of how can we learn from each other, and what are the ways in which we can create exercises of collective care, I talked a lot about this idea of imagination, as a collective exercise of care. How do we build an imagination of how we wish to live together? Not in a pedagogical, school-like way but in terms of specific training. Philadelphia Assembled was a way of starting to think of the “Training for the Not Yet.”[2] I’m thinking of the Not Yet training today—is there a way as a community we can learn from each other and can help ourselves be prepared for the future?

One of the principle things I started doing was what is called “Deep and Radical Listening.” The subjects we listened to varied. For instance, we listen in to a place. How do you do that? How to listen to the acts of life, acts of resistance, and acts of resilience that reside in a place. What is the process of Deep Listening, for instance? What are the questions that need to be asked?

One of the other things that happened is that we brought these working groups together in Philadelphia Assembled.[3] On what premises can these working groups start figuring out a form of common ground, a sort of commonality? How can processes of solidarity be built, even in small groups? What do we need for that to happen? You can say that training for the Not Yet, is also a deeper questioning of these processes of community resistance. It’s almost like backtracking, thinking in a non-linear way about what happened, what we learned and what we didn’t. 

How do you use it in a transferable way? You mentioned that you are focusing on gathering lessons. But every community is different.

JVH: What I use as an example is the Sanctuary working group, which was very interesting, at Philadelphia Assembled.[4] They were a group of people in the space who figured out very quickly that they did not have the same understanding of Sanctuary, even though they reside in the same city and there is an idea of what a safe space might be, they all have different modes of operation within that, and they very quickly decided to change the name of the working group into “Towards Sanctuary,” investigating what is need to be done towards that. This group created a Sanctuary Stewardship. They went to each other's work space and organizations, looking into groups and their dynamics of finding a safe space, before thinking about how to find things in common, or share solidarity. In that group, it became very clear that not everybody can be in solidarity with each other. There are fundamental differences. It might be a call to postpone the idea of looking for solidarity, or what people have in common, but first train towards it, ask each community—how do you do it? It’s about what we learn: what are the acts of resistance and acts of life, how do people create space in which they can imagine forms of inhabiting a collective future? Training for the Not Yet, for me, is really about how do we, as a society, train ourselves for a collective future, when we do not know the collective yet? How can we talk about a future without knowing first who we are?

RK: Why does a person have to change and put up a new attitude in order to fit a certain community? What is wrong with what we currently have?

JVH: I don’t think a person needs to change. This fundamental understanding, based on Maria Garces’ text on letting go of your subject position—to understand that, in my opinion, you are in a world in which there are many subject positions at this moment.[5] And there is also a lot of systematic oppression. So, in order to imagine a possibility of being together otherwise, we need to be able to let go of our own understanding of what it is that creates relationality.

RK: It’s very interesting, something I would like to train for. However, it sounds very difficult.

JVH: It is very hard, and sometimes very joyous, too. It is hard to explain it as well. It requires me to be in a different mode of operating. What I know, I know through practice.

Thinking back on what happened in Philadelphia, is looking back at ways in which communities in the making, or groups that come together also check in with each other. The Sanctuary group realized that there is a fundamental understanding of what providing a safe space really meant. However, people might have been more aligned politically, but there were underlying differences. The group talked a lot about intersections of safe space, but what does it really mean? How do you hold that in a group that is not homogenous, or in a territory that is fractionated?

This idea of letting go of one's own subjectivity is also thinking in line with Hannah Arendt, when she talks of the battlefields of publicness, in which we as persona also have to place ourselves in this public space, in relation to each other, and in that relationship create that in-between space in which we can operate civic resistance or civic imaginaries.[6] If you think about it like that, than the concern is not only on how do we in one way become a public persona, but also how do we put our subject position at risk in public in order to create new forms of togetherness? This is a fundamental question. At the same time, it’s a question of who can afford that. If we then think on a larger scale, there are bodies that cannot afford that risk, that their subject position has been denied forever. How can we create spaces where people can slowly figure that out?

RK: In your text, you mentioned a new meaning: “collective as an activity.” All of a sudden, you are attributing action to this formed idea, transferring it into the realms of a verb, describing an action. Coming from the Middle East myself, values disrupt, draw extremists to act. It can be an explosive subject, loaded with military references. And I am wondering, what are the limits of such activity?

JVH: It is not for nothing that I talk about training. Honestly, I think one of the things is to not control it. To let it get out of hand. This is exactly one of the difficult things in thinking about the Not Yet. How do we train to be together, otherwise, without shared value sets?

RK: How do we do that?

JVH: I don’t know, but that’s what I think we need to start training for. Start processes of learning from each other’s slight bits of tactics. It’s almost like training a muscle we don't know we have. It makes us think differently about our subject position, relationality, territory. That, I feel, is very important, creating emergence but establishing a new root system at the same time.

Some of the methodologies created at Philadelphia Assembled echoed in a lot of places in the world. How do you create a land equity, food sovereignty, safe spaces? These are questions that are being asked everywhere. But I’m a believer, I think that small groups that are being netted well can have power at large scales. I wonder, how do we re-root ourselves differently, in our small ways of creating new ways of life?

And this is something I still don’t know—I am a fellow at BAK for Non-Fascist Living.[7]  Fascism at the moment has a metanarrative; the left is known to be too fractured. Is the answer only another metanarrative, or is there actually a different way for us to move our understanding forward? I don’t know. This is what I feel like I still need to figure out.

RK: Is that in a way a political act?

JVH: It’s a question that a lot of people ask, if I am still an artist or am I in politics now.

RK: How do you answer that?

JVH: I think that the possibility of imagining an option of collectively being together in a different way is very important. It’s beside the political, economic, social. It is the cultural and the imaginative that are at stake. With somebody like Walidah Imarisha, who says that the decolonization of the imagination is the most dangerous and subversive decolonization process of all.[8] She says that when the imagination is unshackled, liberation is limitless. So, this idea that the possibility of imagining in the place where you are, and to be able to do that by building new forms of collectivity, are in great danger at the moment. And we must do that. I think that working on the imagination and forming it into bodily experiences, which could lead to a collective exercise of care, of imagining a being-together otherwise, and I think it’s extremely important. Working through the imagination is a very political act. It’s more than telling different stories; it’s about relating civic imaginaries that we can collectively inhabit.

RK: This is such a beautiful notion. We need it, in our society.

JVH: What I learned in Philadelphia Assembled, the way I set it up, was already an attempt to look through my practice. To check what kind of methodologies, what kind of simple things we need to unpack.

Like what?

JVH: For instance, the politics of relation. What is the idea of belonging? What are the simple exercises in looking at that—for instance, a group like the Alumni Ex-Offenders Association (AEA), who had deep check-ins with each other.[9] Bi-weekly, in a group, they ask themselves questions regarding being in a community. What is it like, how does it feel, how to reconcile with that. Do you ever ask yourself that? I learned that it’s an interesting question to ask a group of people.

In the Sanctuary curriculum, there were questions about timelines, movements of literacy, about self-help questions, which is a very ‘70s term. All formed important and complex questions regarding one’s subject position of potential privileges.

RK: It reminds me of a quote from Joseph Albers, the first head of teaching at Black Mountain College: “We do not always create ‘works of art,’ but rather experiments; it is not our intention to fill museums: we are gathering experience.”[10] How do you feel about that, regarding your own work?

JVH: I think that it’s not all about works of art, but something that works as art.To see the artwork in itself also as a verb. Less as an experience, but more of something that could actually activate the register of art, of the imaginary, of the relation of aesthetics.

And this is where I think of Black Mountain College—so much experimentation with forms of art and forms of imagining possible situations, practicing other inhabitations of soundscapes. These are all ways of practicing being together, otherwise, practicing and forming what a school like that would look like. When I think about Black Mountain College, which experienced a lot with systems of scores, then I think to myself, what can be the scores of future survival? 

I am currently focusing on transforming existing artworks into learning objects, and that is exactly that. I am looking into the results of what was created during my projects, like Philadelphia Assembled, not as art objects but as something that works as art. And if anything could be activated or reactivated within different things. I am investigating if there are objects, tools, or methodologies that within that framework could re-practiced.

RK: What do you mean by that? Is it like the essence of craft making?

JVH: For example, in Philadelphia Assembled, this dome-space was created. It’s not really an artwork, nor an artifact. But it is an object that was created in which a lot of the things learned around the Sanctuary Curriculum manifested itself. What I am trying to figure out is whether this space, which by now carries specific meaning and lessons, can be reactivated, or is it just a tent structure? I do not know, but I am asking myself these questions—if the object can be addressed again and receive a different meaning. Whether the object can be re-used, re-interpreted, re-contextualized.

RK: So, there’s a difference between a work of art, and something that works as art.

JVH: Yes. It’s a question I am looking into, I still don’t know. I’m thinking, if there’s an option also to un-art a work, these are the mind games I am playing with at the moment. There are a few objects in my work that are in collections, so can I un-object them, and make of them something again that works as art? I don’t know.

RK: There are interesting similarities between your work and BMC. BMC was very much established upon the thinking of John Dewey, and the sense of teaching and democracy, and how we can combine them. You are attributing so many things to art that collide with essence of democracy as well.

You also work from an institution. Why do you work from there? What does art give your practice that other places won't?

JVH: I’m not always working within art institutions. There are other things, like the Afrikaanderwijk Cooperative, or other self-initiated projects.[11] But I do think that it is important to think about the fact that these art spaces, although they sometimes have a very colonial legacy, are also still spaces in which some of this discussion can be held. I still see them as part of civic spaces, of public spaces, if you want.

RK: But why is it part of the art imaginary?

JVH: I make a very big distinction between participation and co-creation. When I think about the Training for the Not Yet, I think of how we could create a co-creation of the future, otherwise, rather than just participating in certain things. So, co-creation is fundamentally thinking about the structure of participation. It’s not just participating in a certain framework as a democracy, but how do we fundamentally think about it otherwise.

RK: Black Mountain College’s foremost objection was being educated without hierarchies, in a tense hermetic environment solely concentrating on artistic practice surrounded by beautiful mountains while focusing on creation. Do you also have a materialistic goal?

JVH: I think that my focus is to create that space for creativity, very much like they did in Black Mountain College. To create a space, like the sanctuary for different forms of thought, and for other ways of creating collectivity and being together that is extended outside, so it’s not the privilege of a few. I am very interested in the way BMC thought of creativity. The way they fostered it in a way that it can thrive. We have to extend that into society. We have to find spaces in which we can all imagine our future otherwise. Because I am believer—it’s of utmost importance to our survival to do so.

RK: The college closed down after twenty-five years of freedom. It could not hold on any longer, and was never re-constructed mainly due to the financial crisis. What happens after you finish a project—how do you leave behind your work in communities?

JVH: I think that what is important with these things is that they get a light of their own. They become what they are. I stay sometimes involved in the distance, more of a member of the community rather than an active participant, an ally, a stranger visiting. If you think about Homebakedin Liverpool, the project that became its own entity—the bakery became an interesting and well running cooperative business. These ideas of cooperative business and cooperative economies are always a thread through my work.[12] How can we find ways to sustain things financially, and not be dependent on grants and stuff like that. The bakery bakes bread and sells it, and this is also how they survive.

Now, they are also building houses. There is money from the housing ministry for building the houses. That is not because of the art, but because of the houses, so there is a mix of funding that is not only art-related, because not all outcomes are artworks. So, the bread works as art, but it is not an art object. It is the vehicle that sparked the imagination, and it temporarily embodied designers of that community to take matters into their own hands. It became the transferral of that. The bakery started a new civic imaginary of that place, in itself. I am still on the board; I am interested in the housing struggle. And lately I was back since they started building houses, and I was back at the bakery, and Angela, who was very involved from the very beginning as a member of the community, showed me that inside the bakery, she created in a corner of their toilet a wall of fame for the area of Anfield and Breckfield in Liverpool. Among the paraphernalia and black-and-white images of the Liverpool football club, there was a photo of me from the very early days of the bakery.There I am, apparently, a part of the historical paraphernalia of the area, not only of the bakery. Then I am, apparently, a person that has been very much a part of the formation of thinking in the area, but I am not an active member, I am a ghost on the wall. It’s interesting. First, it made me cry, but it was also interesting to think about it.

Yes, I am still involved. This is why when I talk about the local, I don’t actually talk about a specific territory. The local to me is also a place in which we see ourselves and our relationship with the world. You can be local in many ways, because you live there, work there, share certain trajectories or maybe you share futures. So, it’s also about understanding the non-linearity of the local. Because it’s always a question I get: “Are you from there?” And I do not know what it means. In many ways, I am from there, I am part of their struggle. And this is also part of the notion of territories that are fractured. How do we think of what we share in common, and how do we move forward? Why is the bakery such a good connection then? I think we still don’t do enough in closely reading communities’ resistance or acts of life.

RK: Some of the things that happened at BMC were not expected in the free atmosphere of the school. New forms of art emerged, such as the Happening, the collaboration between Cage and Rauschenberg in ‘52.[13] How do you manage the unexpected?

JVH: I do think we need to work towards it. I think that working towards being together, training for that, can create new forms. What happened at BMC, the formation of a new style, is exactly that. Letting new forms emerge. I think we are in a time that a lot of these important shifts are also happening, in how to understand ways of life.


[1] In 2014, van Heeswijk initiated a show at the Philadelphia Art Museum, together with a collaborative team of artists, makers, storytellers, gardeners, healers, activists, museum staff, and community members. Philadelphia Assembled explores social issues that resonate in "The City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection." Within this project, these urgent concerns are organized around five principles, or what van Heeswijk terms "atmospheres": Reconstructions, Sovereignty, Futures, Sanctuary, and Movement. The subject of each atmosphere was derived from the artist's preliminary conversations with people throughout Philadelphia about the city and its character. See http://jeanneworks.net/projects/philadelphia_Assembled/

[2] “Training for the Not Yet” is van Heeswijk’s idea regarding the importance of initiating new ways of thinking together, as a community, through specific training. Her text is available at the following link: http://jeanneworks.net/files/esy/i_0025/JW_2016_SlowReader_PreparingForTheNonYet.pdf

[3] Artists, makers, storytellers, gardeners, healers, activists, museum staff, and community members.

[4] As part of Philadelphia Assembled, van Heeswijk initiated the formation of a group called Sanctuary. The sanctuary activities in the city of Philadelphia in 2017 sought to embody a dynamic understanding of sanctuary that expressed various models of self-care, asylum, and refuge. See http://phlAssembled.net/sanctuary/all/.

[5] Marina Garcés, “Honesty with the Real,” Journal of Aesthetics and Culture4:1 (2012), DOI: 10.3402/jac.v4i0.18820.

[6] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition: Second Edition(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019).

[7] Over the next four years, basis voor actuele kunst’s current long-term program Propositions for Non-Fascist Living(2017–2020) is prompted by the dramatic resurfacing and normalization of historical and contemporary fascisms in our present, and advocates art as imagining and enacting ways of “being together otherwise.” Beside its public programs, BAK hosts a fellowship program and the online publication platform Basics. See https://www.bakonline.org/long-term-project/propositions-for-non-fascist-living/.

[8] Walida Imarisha, “Rewriting the Future: Using Science Fiction To Re-Envision Justice,” February 11, 2015, accessed April 2, 2019, http://www.walidah.com/blog/2015/2/11/rewriting-the-future-using-science-fiction-to-re-envision-justice.

[9] Re-entering group participating at Philadelphia Assembled. Individuals participated in the co-production of a new justice paradigm, free from the chains of the “prison industrial complex.” See http://phlassembled.net/reconstructions/index/freedom_in_a_carceral_state/

[10] https://hammer.ucla.edu/exhibitions/2016/leap-before-you-look-black-mountain-college-1933-1957/

[11] The Afrikaanderwijk Cooperative has been (Co)operative since 2013 and strengthens the power and qualities of Rotterdam South by investing in active inhabitants and local businesses. See http://jeanneworks.net/projects/afrikaanderwijk_cooperative/.

[12] Since 2010, van Heeswijk, commissioned by the Liverpool Biennial, has been working with people from Anfield and Breckfield to rethink the future of their neighborhood. Among their architectural projects the group have set up is Homebaked Community Land Trust—a cooperative organization, in order to enable the collective community to have ownership of the properties, and a cooperative business to reopen the bakery as a social enterprise.

[13] Mary Emma Harris, “John Cage at Black Mountain: by Mary Emma Harris A Preliminary Thinking,” Journal of Black Mountain College Studies4, accessed Apr. 2, 2019, http://www.blackmountainstudiesjournal.org/volume-iv-9-16/mary-emma-harris-john-cage-at-black-mountain-a-preliminary-thinking/.


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Issue 43

Revisiting Black Mountain
Cross-Disciplinary Experiments and Their Potential for Democratization

by Dorothee Richter and Ronald Kolb

by Ronald Kolb with Bitten Stetter, Brandon Farnsworth, Dorothee Richter, Jochen Kiefer, Martin Jaeggi, Paolo Bianchi

by Daniel Späti

by Steven Henry Madoff

by Mieke (Annemarie) Matzke, She She Pop

by Susanne Kennedy

by Olga von Schubert, Caroline Adler and Boris Buden

A collaborative exercise by Sascia Bailer, Lucy Bayley, Simon Fleury, Gilly Karjevsky, and Asli Uludag to reflect upon our shared experiences at Un-Learning Place at Haus der Kulturen der Welt

Interview by Ronny Koren

by Raqs Media Collective