I recently wrote this article for the new Grant Kester-edited journal coming out of University of California, San Diego called Field, and it was a wonderful opportunity to dig more deeply into Dutch artist Jeanne van Heeswijk’s long-running Freehouse project in Rotterdam. Here are the first couple of pages.
One year ago I was invited to “Radicalizing the Local,” a gathering in Rotterdam described as the “international closing symposium of the Freehouse art project on co-ops as an organizational form in order to combine value determination, local qualities, organization, art economy, initiative, and co partnership.” This sounded great, if a little confusing, but once I understood that this symposium was connected to the twenty plus years of urban development and artistic research efforts initiated by artist Jeanne van Heeswijk in 1998 in her native Rotterdam, I was intrigued. The event marked the handover of Freehouse to a self-organized, resident-run Wijk (Neighborhood) Cooperative, which would continue the economic development and community organizing work of the art project and scale it up. Though often touted as a desired outcome in place-based social practice work, the actual birth of a truly self-run organization that is the outgrowth of artistic thinking around urban development is like a unicorn—a fairy tale creature that may not actually exist. The opportunity to witness the formalized “handover” to such an organization and my curiosity about the Co-op’s development over time was the impetus for my original visit to Rotterdam, and for the research that follows.
Much of the work of Freehouse predates the concept of “creative place-making” that is so ubiquitous in discussions around urban planning. A notion at once pursued by city planners and touted by the likes of Richard Florida, creative place-making has outcome problems (one such criticism being that neighborhood vibrancy indicators can rarely be proven to lead to economic growth or crime reduction). Freehouse, however, was able to work on a small scale with collectives and individuals to achieve demonstrable success. This success related not to the instrumental value of art and artists as a means to catalyze profit or investment, nor to the idea of art as possessing an intrinsic value (art for art’s sake). Rather, it was due to a process that enhanced the opportunities afforded to people in the neighborhood to improve their social well-being. In short, Freehouse was able to provide more choices to people about what lives they would like to lead and how. It is no accident that this effort was called Freehouse—the working process relied on individuals to autonomously determine their own economic priorities, while also aspiring to expand that choice in the long term for the community as a whole.
And recently, I was fortunate enough to continue the conversation with Jeanne in a Social and Studio Conversation organized by the awesome Daniel Tucker at Moore College of Art & Design in Philadelphia. You can watch that conversation below.