Jeanne van Heeswijk is an artist who facilitates the creation of lively and diversified public spaces, typically from abandoned or derelict sites. Her socially engaged art practice generates new forms of encounter while challenging bureaucratic conventions and acquired rules.
I’m trying to find ways for people to become participants in the future of their daily environments.
Van Heeswijk trained at the Jan van Eyck Academie in Maastricht and the Academie voor Beeldende Vorming in Tilburg. She had her first solo exhibition in 1991 and has since exhibited at venues worldwide, including numerous biennials.
The vagaries of large-scale urban renewal schemes have inspired much of her recent work. She cites her 2002 De Strip project in Vlaardingen, the Netherlands, in which she turned shops left vacant by unrealized development into galleries, artists studios, and workshop spaces for different community groups, as a turning point in her career: “It was the first time I worked with the issues I keep coming back to: how to make sure people gather, confront [their situation], and become visible.”
Indeed, van Heeswijk’s projects distinguish themselves through their strong social involvement, often among hundreds of participants and over an extended period of time. She sees herself as a mediator who generates “interspaces,” contexts and crossovers within which new relations are established between groups of people and institutions. These connections lead to public improvements, self-organization of local groups, self-sustaining enterprises, and a stronger community identity.
In her Freehouse–Market of Tomorrow project of 2008, van Heeswijk sought to revitalize Rotterdam’s Afrikaandermarkt. Working with vendors, artists, designers, and local shopkeepers, she developed a detailed sketch of the ideal market of the future, devoting more attention to diverse high-quality goods and services, and new skill-based collaborative projects. While drawing up the master plan, van Heeswijk challenged government regulations that were preventing vendors and the community from establishing sustainable sources of income. Some of these proposals were then implemented in the new governmental plan. The renewal of the market is ongoing, but it has once again become the “beating heart” of the Afrikaander district.
Recently, as part of the Liverpool Biennial, van Heeswijk has engaged the city’s Anfield district. The 2Up 2Down project seeks to revitalize an area in which four thousand low-income homes were emptied to make way for market-driven renewal that never materialized. 2Up 2Down is a self-build/collective ownership scheme; the pilot project is an eco-friendly renovation of a block of several housing units and a storefront. The project has engaged a wide swath of the community: Local architects and builders are mentoring Anfield’s youth in the design and construction processes, and a cross-generational cooperative, called Home Baked, holds the community land trust that owns the retrofitted properties, and plans to reopen a 100-year-old bakery as a social enterprise.
Van Heeswijk’s artistic practice presents a transformative contribution to the design world—in her vision, art actively works in shaping society, and the ultimate artistic production lies within the evolution of the people involved in the process.