Jeanne Van Heeswijk, artist

Jeanne van Heeswijk is an artist, and the initiator of 2Up 2Down. In the past, Jeanne has worked on various projects that revolve around re-imaging social spaces and encouraging greater participation and interaction in public spaces. Jeanne explains that her ultimate aim is to encourage people to become active citizens and enact social change within their own communities.

What is it that interests you in that junction between where society, social spaces and art meets?

I’ve always found art important especially in these times when our societies are getting more and more complex and people feel left out. There is a discrepancy between people and how well they can relate to their daily surroundings. I think to be able to relate and engage with your everyday environment, you have to be able to get a grip on your surroundings and be able to create an image of that environment, so that you are able to act out in that environment. I think art is a very powerful tool to help people to re-image and re-imagine their relationship with their environment and allow them to become actors in the sense of being able to act out, act up and become active citizens. So, in this very complex time , art can help people better understand where they are and become more engaged.

You have also talked about art as resistance? Why do you think people need to resist in their surroundings?

The way that our environment is designed is often presented as very neutral but it is not. The way that our surroundings look or are talked about is very much controlled by the powers that be. Some neighbourhoods have a negative image and some places look super secure but the whole notion of security is also given to us by the dominant powers. Control is a mechanism that is used in public spaces a lot, not only to make people feel safe but also to control behaviour. It’s important to help people see how these powers operate and also to offer them the possibility of creating a counter image. Creating your own image is a form of resistance.

I think that neo-liberalism has been very good at creating these supposedly neutral images of our surroundings that everyone accepts as normal and natural -  but we have to realise is that it doesn’t have to be like that. Worldwide, it seems people haven’t been able to question that anymore but I think that all the new civil movements, people are beginning to say ‘I don’t like or accept the way that things are and we want change’.

As most of your work is collaborative, you can’t really have a vision of what the final project will look like and how you will achieve that. Is it a daunting experience as an artist to relinquish control over a personal project?

I think that is one of the more difficult things – to accept that are lots of different types and forms of participation. And it’s not just me that has to relinquish control, it’s also the other people that have to to be open to changing their views. In this process, I always say we all  have to move either a centimetre to the left, right, forward or backwards – that includes organisations and people. To change your perspective on anything is never easy. I have to let go of certain things and encourage people to do the same thing. And in the end what we end up with is something that is neither me or them, it’s us and it’s something that we made together.

Does collaborative work get easier or is it always challenging?

It is always very challenging. I work with people who I call ‘experts on location’ who are knowledgeable about the area -  that can be somebody who lives there or someone who can help to consider the problematics. All these people become part of the process learning and sharing knowledge. Through this process we will collectively become more in charge of our situation – to be able to grasp it and  change it. And these processes can be long and painful  – gaining knowledge sounds very easy but you also have to be able to let go of your own prior opinions and beliefs.

People assume that as it’s “community work”, it’s just people gathered around talking nicely about lots of things but it’s actually a lot more complex than that and often the process is about confronting each other and dealing with different viewpoints. And it’s in that confrontation that we learn what’s really needed. Change is not always an easy and happy process.

Tell us a little about how the 2up2down project came to be?

I’ve had an ongoing relationship with Liverpool Biennial and we have talked about doing a large scale project in Liverpool for a long time. Paul Kelly, who used to work at Liverpool Biennial thought it might be interesting for me to come and see the impact of the Housing Market Renewal programme and what was going on in Liverpool. Paul was heavily involved in looking at the regeneration/gentrification process and the initial idea was to do to something more temporary like an installation. But seeing the situation as it was, I realised that what needed to be done here was not just to talk about ways to engage people within the planning process but to actually engage people in the physical – and the metaphorical – rebuilding of their community.

I mean you could see the crisis coming, not only in Liverpool. What if this doesn’t work? What is going to happen to these communities? My work is not only about how you re-engage again but also how through this process of re-engagement you become an inhabitant again. And that means you have to feel collective ownership of an area. So the project wants to look at how people can become owners of their own environment again– and not just because they can afford enough money to buy a house but because they become people who work, live and belong to a place.

What was the local reaction and was there a reluctance to get involved in this project?

Of course and quite naturally – because they have been asked to participate in all kinds of projects  and have been disappointed over and over;  and because I don’t have all the solutions for the area  either.  It takes time for a community to realise that this a process of engagement for me as well and that I have lots of questions too. I think that people in Anfield have been told time and time again that they don’t matter and so when somebody comes along and say ‘hey, we want your involvement again’ people are reluctant . I mean would you join? I often ask myself, if someone came to my neighbourhood and said “I am going to try to do things differently”, would I join?

Is it risky relying on the participants for the success of the project?

Of course, you’re always afraid that no-one will step forward and there will always people who say that ten participants are not enough, that you need twenty or two hundred. I am not too worried about numbers because there is a big difference between what I call co-producers who are people in the core group that are heavily involved,  participants who take part in a more ad hoc manner,  and the audience members who are just interested in observing.  Right now we have an active group of around 23 co-producers and you know, that is a lot! Sometimes in these projects I am happy if I have two or three people who are carrying the project.

One thing the project has tried to do from the outset was get young people involved. Why did you feel that this was important?

I think it’s important that young people start becoming more active in their environments and are more present in their neighbourhood because it’s their future and their families futures that we are talking about. The Biennial had been doing work with kids in the area and although I am really keen on working with young people I didn’t want it to be such a niche target group so we broadened it out. I wanted it to be a diverse and cross-generational project as that is critical to building sustainable community.

Are you surprised at the progress of 2up2down and the particular decisions the collective  made?

I think that it started really slowly but now everyday more and more people are joining.  Marianne [Heaslip of URBED] did a fantastic job with the design process and including lots of young people and to see their progress and how well the group is coming along is really rewarding. There is a real movement building itself and getting stronger now. The project is also in a precarious position because we need to start delivering and building which is another big step.

What have been the biggest barriers that you’ve had to overcome in the 2up 2down project?

The politics of HMRI  in Liverpool and Anfield and the stickiness of that has been a huge  issue. Getting the right information and a foot in the door has been very difficult. In the beginning, a lot the local people from an older generation thought we were just an art project which meant for them you do some community activities but that’s all. Getting that shift from a project that would be ‘quite nice’  and entertaining to the fact that we wanted to actually have a real impact in the neighbourhood took some time. From the perception of community art to a real building site was not an easy transition to make. I mean we have gone from a temporary Biennial project to a community group with plans a  housing portfolio and a community bakery!

There is an environmental aspect running through the work you do – 2up2down has a design process that was lead by architects with sustainability expertise. Why is sustainability  important to you?

I see sustainability not only in an environmental sense but also socially. In this time and day, if you are thinking about living conditions you have to look at sustainability and make sure homes are energy and eco friendly. I think we should  also create blocks of houses that contain some social sustainability in terms of common facilities which could be anything from a day-care centre, a playground to a community bakery or a growing field. That way, communities become more socially sustainable over time –it’s crazy that there are streets after streets without amenities or social or shared facilities.

A lot of the work at the 2up 2down Hombaked project has been about what living well means.  What does it mean to live well to you?

To me it means that you have a sense of belonging to a place and that you can make it your home. And to make it your home you have to relate to your place and to others in that surroundings. Forming relationships are important for living well as is a decent standard of living, a physically and an emotionally healthy environment.

What is your favourite place at home?

The place I spend most of my time is behind my computer but my favourite place to be is by the window in the sun having my morning coffee. I also really like my bath!