A stroll in the air: Deltapoort by bike

Cycling in the air: that is the title that Jeanne van Heeswijk has given her Artist in Residence project at the Academy of Architecture. She and a group of international students will use a winter workshop to explore the possibilities and impossibilities of opening up the Deltapoort zone with new cycle routes and connections to enhance the quality of the area.

She illustrates her ‘performative research’ with a photo of a bike diver or underwater cyclist. ‘The title and illustration perfectly convey the various aspects of my project’, Van Heeswijk states. ‘The research is on the Deltapoort, a piece of countryside wedged in between the harbour, motorways and industrial estates and thereby cut off from its surroundings. It also says something about the research that I’m aiming for: to think gravity-free, to plunge completely into the surroundings in order to come up with totally new ideas.’

Plunging into the research

In the autumn of 2010 the province of South Holland commissioned Van Heeswijk to conduct a study of cycle routes and movements aimed at the environment, health and sustainability. The government has designated Deltapoort, the hinterland of the Rotterdam harbour, as one of the eleven buffer zones where agriculture and recreation between the cities are to be stimulated. Van Heeswijk has at her disposal a building in the centre of the zone where she will set up a test lab for the research: ‘It is incredibly important to address as many people as possible who are involved in the area: residents, policy officers, environmental experts, landscape architects, representatives of interest groups, tourist board staff, recreationists, and so on. I am on location to intervene and to test the findings during the research.’

Van Heeswijk and the students will formulate research questions and talk with various experts. ‘Precision is important in every research project. A precise, in-depth formulation of the question is required at the start. We must absorb everything around us, take note of small frustrations, findings and social discussion: that is the basis for further discussion. The result of the research can be an exhibition or a public presentation, for example, a platform where new questions are generated or research questions tested, a policy plan, new legislation, or a specific assignment, a work of art, a book, or just a new cycle route.’

Artist in the public domain

Van Heeswijk’s artistic activity takes place right in the middle of the public domain, with all its political, social, economic and cultural aspects – in which she regards the cultural dimension as being at least as important as the other three. ‘They are the foundations of our society and you can’t just eliminate one of the elements. You can see that we are growing increasingly distant from the public domain. This remoteness from the public domain leads to segregated zones and detachment: fear and security become the big issues. As an artist I can get people themselves to represent what they feel, get them to become actively involved in a public space that also belongs to them: helping to determine and shape its appearance, involved. Those are the key words of my artistic practice.’

Afrikaanderplein in Rotterdam

‘The Freehouse project in the Afrikaanderplein in Rotterdam is a good example of what you can achieve with cultural production as an artist. We wanted to create a lively public domain, inject movement into structures that had become rusty, and to create an active feeling of citizenship. Together with experts on location and fellow artists and designers, I organised a total of three-hundred one-day interventions, such as performances, lectures, speeches from the throne by school pupils, cookery demonstrations, mobile gardens, theatrical market stalls. We made designs for the market stall of the future, and there are a community kitchen and community workshop.

The pretext for this work of art was a change in the regulations: the local authority will soon give the market the status of an experiment. Then you see how by breaking over-regulation you can create new possibilities. The result is friction, confrontation, and in the end an affinity with the public domain.

As an artist I play a leading role in a project. You often see when a project has become completely stuck that there is a need for a different opinion, for commentary from an unexpected corner to create a rupture. I show something new, and even if I’m not always the first I do it as a fresh player, and then you can tackle new, unexpected things. I’m autonomous: I smash the rusty structures like a bull in a china shop by stimulating cultural production.’

Migration in Shanghai

‘I was invited to the Shanghai Bienniale with the theme ‘migration’. It was about the millions of people who leave the countryside for Shanghai to construct a new life. The entire economic growth of Shanghai depends on these people. I wondered what it means to people to be the grease of the engine of progress and what they expect in five years’ time. I arbitrarily chose twenty-five protagonists and drew their story about the contrast between city and countryside, progress and dreams in a new plan of the city. And I had T-shirts made with quotations from their stories: 2,500 red shirts that we got marketing people to distribute because they are used to freebie actions and are not afraid of the government. Within an hour Peoples Square was red with expectations for the future. Afterwards we went to see the protagonists again and took them their shirts. One of them, a man who makes keys, was surprised to see us a second time. His face brightened when we showed him the T-shirt and the photos of our action. “That’s about me, that’s me!”, you could see him thinking. It was the first time in his life that he was not anonymous, he told us, the first time that he was a part of the place he had chosen as his new home. All of a sudden he had come to contribute to the way it looked.’

Artist in Residence

‘I don’t have an idea of exactly what we’re going to do yet.’ According to Van Heeswijk, starting with reflection is already an intervention and the start of a work of art. ‘Perhaps we will kick off with the whole group on the first day of the winter workshop, 125 of us, riding in 25 columns of 5 like a ribbon over the cycle tracks through the landscape. A grand march through the buffer zone. It’s also an idea for a new Olympic sport: synchronized cycling. Or we will think up ways of jumping across ditches on the bike to open up new routes without any drastic change to the infrastructure. If you start on those kinds of radical interventions, the going often gets tough; plans like those die a rapid death. We shall try to find lighter solutions. We shall explore and record everything in photos, films or drawings. Perhaps we’ll make a very unusual routing system for cyclists. It’s all still open and depends on the research.’

'I’m going to organise a series of lectures for the Academy of Architecture in February and March in which I shall join with philosophers, political scientists and artists in tackling the themes that interest me as an artist such as the radicalization of local economies and migration. Then in the summer I will take a small group of students from the Academy to Anfield in Liverpool to continue work on one of my projects. It’s set in a community with two-up two-down houses, small working-class homes. In fact everything was going to be demolished, but there are no funds for that. Whole streets are boarded up. We are going to see how far we can improve what is still there and breathe new life into this desolate neighbourhood. I have already been intensively engaged with research at the invitation of the local authority. In the first instance I will tackle a block of six to eight houses.

At any rate, the neighbourhood will get a more generous footprint. We will recycle material, reuse what can be salvaged, but on larger plots of land with less houses, more communal greenery such as vegetable gardens, and room to play in. We are working with young people from the neighbourhood for whom it’s part of their professional education. And of course the local experts were involved right from the start and still are.’

New representation of reality

‘My art projects are not about satisfying everyone; confrontation is an important tool in my projects. For instance, I don’t believe in the classical far-reaching say of the locals, but in genuinely working together from the planning to the implementation stage. Nor do I believe in the educational value of community art. I’m involved as an artist and the projects are part of my work. I’m interested in research that goes beyond disciplinary boundaries and in the exchange of expertise. An artist can bring about a new representation of reality by literally coming up with a picture. As an artist, I make an essential contribution to the development of the public domain, and a more inclusive process of representing the space is the backbone of a neighbourhood.’