At a recent conference about socially-engaged art, Dutch artist Jeanne van Heeswijk seemed uncomfortable presenting about her ongoing work with residents in Anfield, UK called 2Up 2Down: Homebaked, despite having done so dozens of times. In a way, she was faced with an impossible task — how to help us to understand the complicated breadth of what she was engaged in? After all, her presentation (bolstered by internet searches) was probably the only way that most of us there would experience the work, as an arbitrary and mediated snapshot. Her passion and her ability to tell a compelling story with nuance and detail still flattens the work. Such work is an ever-shifting series of tenuous relationships, and its coalescence through encapsulating narratives is the false echo of an effort that one person alone (even one deeply embedded) can never truly grasp. Such work breathes.
The newspaper and magazine articles I later found, in the local Liverpool Echo, the Guardian, Frieze Magazine and the New York Times, were even more frozen in time than Jeanne’s passionate talk, especially because many of them were reviews of the just-opened Liverpool Biennial, the international art exhibition Homebaked was associated with. The reviews of the biennial itself were mixed, but nearly all were glowing about the work in Anfield, and every single one mentioned van Heeswijk and her project out of the many works represented in the exhibition platform. The positive descriptions focus on the deleterious effect of the Housing Market Renewal program in Liverpool, a slash-and-burn form of urban regeneration in which large tracts of housing were scheduled for demolition and rebuilding in various working class neighborhoods. The neighborhood of Anfield, poor but attractive due to its proximity to the football stadium, fell victim to this excision in 1998. Many residents moved out, sold, and boarded up their houses, but because of the financial crisis and changes in leadership, the area never got rebuilt or even fully demolished. The remaining residents now live amidst the abandoned and blighted remains of a neighborhood in permanent limbo, the cornerstone of which was the former Mitchell’s Bakery. Commissioned by the Liverpool Biennial to create a project “with lasting impact,” artist Jeanne van Heeswijk began working with a group of teens (common pattern in such projects, perhaps because teens are such powerful forces for advocacy in a community—they effectively motivate participation in both young and old and refuse to be ignored) to take over the bakery as a meeting space and create a community-owned Land Trust. The plan gained partners and additional neighborhood participants and has slowly progressed, coalescing into an “alternative to the existing situation,” as van Heeswijk puts it. “I’m talking about small-scale developments with more manageable footprints which are easier for the community to understand what will happen.” The newspaper articles are aspirational, painting Anfield as a victim of runaway greed and governmental overreach that was given a “glimmer of hope” by the Homebaked project. The residents caught in the middle become symbols for the precarity of our times, casualties in a housing war. Jeanne van Heeswijk is oft-quoted as saying, “Housing is the battlefield of our time, and the house its monument.”
Homebaked is a great story. The metaphors abound (“we will rise,” and “brick by brick, loaf by loaf, we build ourselves,”), eliciting domestic nostalgia, strategies of cooking and food as social lubricant and cooperative effort. The issue it addresses is very timely, and the people involved are creative, articulate and empowered by the artist. In fact, its story became so popular, so resonant in the media, had “such legs” as they say, that the Anfield Home Tours that were part of the Liverpool Biennial exploded. These “heritage” tours, conducted by and with Anfield residents, were laborious and intense. They were also meaningful, poetic, and symbolically powerful, but drew time and effort away from what was considered the actual work –getting the bakery up and running and lobbying for it (and the houses around it) to be sold to the communal Land Trust. Jeanne van Heeswijk lamented this. She worried over how cute the branding was, how immediately accessible the references and the narratives were. She fretted about the very pressing work at hand, and the very real possibility that everything the community had been working towards could still be demolished. She worried that the tidy media characterizations of Homebaked would overshadow the messy chaos and systemic imbalances the project had to navigate every day.
Addressing his own attempt to encapsulate these practices into an exhibition format, Nato Thompson begins his essay in the Living as Form catalogue by describing poetic projects that gain a lot of media traction, their concise and reverberating explications that move us. He asks, are these projects geared for the media? “Each project flourished among news outlets as these artists created a new spin around old stories,” he writes. This is characteristic of the media society we live in, where the political, poetic, and functional merge, where life and virtuality and art are entertwined. But most of all, a society where politics and media are deeply intertwined and feed off one another. Becoming media saavy is a necessity for nearly everyone, and it is very difficult to give up control of the symbolic media narrative in favor of the actual on-the-ground work, because it is not so clear that one does not determine the other. A member of the collective Ultrared, who also work with communities on complicated issues of housing and services, underscored the porosity of these borders “People will describe their world the way the media describes it. But then as the conversations continue, the story changes.” It becomes more grounded, more realistic. It opens new possibilities. This observation makes clear the necessity of media understanding, literacy, and manipulation in these projects, because the media narrative determines the way people see themselves. A symbolic counterattack on prevailing narratives, carefully calibrated through self-branding and actualization, can shift understandings and pave the way for progress, as surely as baking bread or laying down brick. Ultrared also said of socially-engaged work, “It’s not just changing our perception of our world, it’s changing the world we perceive.” In fact it must do both: change perception, and the world, for one follows the other.