Interview: Jeanne van Heeswijk and Amanda Sroka, Philadelphia Assembled

By Kaitlin Pomerantz

Philadelphia Assembled, Perelman Building, Philadelphia Museum of Art. Image courtesy Title Magazine.

Philadelphia Assembled, Perelman Building of the Philadelphia Museum of Art

on view through this Sunday, December 10, 2017


In 2013, artist Jeanne van Heeswijk assembled a team comprised of Philadelphia-based curators, artists and community activists to embark on a series of conversations, gatherings and explorations following two central questions, “Where are Philadelphia’s acts of resistance and resilience?” and, “Where do people try to create just futures for their communities, or form another understanding of time and space?”

This open inquiry took place upon the invitation of the Contemporary Art Department at the Philadelphia Museum of Art for van Heeswijk to consider the ways in which the city relates to the Museum and the Museum, the city. Through early discussions between the selected team (or “editors”) and self-selected community members (“collaborators”) from across the city, recurring words and motifs emerged: reconstructions, sovereignty, sanctuary, futures, and movement. This constellation of concepts became what van Heeswijk termed “atmospheres,” around which subsequent dialogues, teach-ins, workshops, and group meetings (of over one hundred and fifty collaborators) took place over the next four years. The atmospheres and the thinking groups exploring them became the framework for the culminating 2017 Philadelphia Assembled exhibition, which took over the Museum’s Perelman Building this fall.

A sense of the exhibition’s totalizing reach into the museum can be understood in a simple visit to the revisioned gift shop, where pre-Philadelphia Assembled merchandise — inkjet printed Monet water lily scarves and Impressionism postcard sets — are now joined by locally made goods and books like Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and WEB Dubois’ The Philadelphia Negro. Add in the rich, home-cooked smells emanating from the “Victory Menu” of the Museum’s reimagined cafe, the sounds of spirited musicians, constant teaching and skill-sharing from the “Paul Robeson Stage”, and an Atrium library stocked with radical critical theory, DIY, and history texts; and it becomes clear that Philadelphia Assembled does not just occupy the Perelman building, but permeates and transforms it. Finally, there is the gallery show itself, which contains a meandering array of art and engagement ephemera, and contains a flexibility (including the intermittent addition of objects since the show’s opening) atypical of large museum shows.

With the project nearing its completion, I met Jeanne van Heeswijk and curator Amanda Sroka in the Museum’s cafe to get a better understanding of the working process, methodologies, and philosophical and conceptual underpinnings behind Philadelphia Assembled, and to gain a sense of what we might anticipate of the afterlife of this project’s network.


Installation view, Philadelphia Assembled atrium at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, on view through December 10, 2017. Photo courtesy Janneke Absil, Philadelphia Assembled.


Victory menu at the Philadelphia Assembled Kitchen, in partnership with W/N W/N Coffee Bar, open 10:00 AM to 2:30 PM, Tuesday – Sunday. Photo courtesy Janneke Absil.


Philadelphia Assembled opening celebration, September 9, 2017. Photo courtesy Love Me Do Photography.


Kaitlin Pomerantz:  Can you begin by describing the nuts and bolts of the working groups, editors, etc. Like an overview of the kinship structure of the whole project?

Jeanne van Heeswijk: So the way I normally work is to begin a process of deep listening. I had many conversations to learn about what I call the emotional tissue of Philadelphia: what’s happening and where, what are its acts of resilience, where are the places that people are actively trying to create a different understanding of the city and of the future. I then invited seven people alongside me to be part of an artistic team, because it is important to cut my artistic persona into a team, especially because of some of the concepts that came out from all of these earlier conversations about the city, which ultimately became our five atmospheres of Futures, Sovereignty, Sanctuary, Reconstructions, and Movement. So I bring a team together that can help form the working groups, but who can also, together, ideate around some of the things that were brought forward from all these conversations.

KP: How did you choose the team?

Amanda Sroka: Each person brings to the table a different kind of methodology, a different way of understanding the city, a different way of telling their stories. Storytelling, facilitation, administrative skills to hold the project’s organization, community organizing, a deep understanding of the land, etc.- everybody brought a different element. 

With Philadelphia Assembled, you (Jeanne) really created a kind of score, that ultimately became the project’s organizational form. So with that, we knew that there was this tempo that the project had to keep. And it’s not just Jeanne who holds that tempo – that form – it’s also collectively held by the members of the project’s artistic team. It was this team who facilitated working group meetings, starting in 2015, which were made up of 20-30 people meeting on a monthly or bi-monthly basis according to each of the project’s atmospheres.

KP: Do you feel like what you ended up with is a cross section of sorts of people in this city, or do you think it was a very specific either selected or self-selected set of groups? For instance, were there Trump supporters in the groups? When you talk about the emotional tissue of Philadelphia, like there are a lot of tissues in this city, there are many that are not present in this show… was that intentional?

JvH: I set out to ask questions like, “Where are Philadelphia’s acts of resistance and resilience? Where do people try to create just futures for their communities, or form another understanding of time and space?” These questions were important in forming the team of collaborators, almost like leads.

AS: Although it is called Philadelphia Assembled, it is by no means an attempt to address the entire city and all of its emotions, voices, and tissues. This is a very specific group of people that ultimately came together again and again.

Front row from left to right: Phoebe Bachman, Nehad Khader, Jeanne van Heeswijk; Back row from left to right: Shari Hersh, Damon Reaves, Denise Valentine, Counter Narrative Society (CNS), Kirtrina Baxter, Amanda Sroka. Photo courtesy of Tieshka K. Smith

KP: Would you say that the group formed organically or was it a selected group?

JvH: I like to think more about it as a score, as was mentioned earlier. People interact with each other and some interactions make sense and other interactions don’t make sense, so they become disharmonious and it doesn’t work. When there’s too much dissonance it will break apart. But if there’s too much harmony it becomes too sweet. So it needs to have that inner tension for the project, and the network, to keep working, to keep forming.

So it’s organic, but it’s also intentional… but not in the sense that it’s hyper selective. It’s done with care, about what you can hold and what you cannot hold. Within the spectrum you could say there were various understandings of what progressiveness is, in this city, or what it is to be radical. That’s why the project became so very fragile after the election, because everything was suddenly understood through a political lens. And I do think that by nature art is political, but this doesn’t need to make it politics.

AS: [This group of collaborators] is both selected and self-selected. One of our values for the artistic team is radical inclusivity, and that means that we (as best as we can) honor our differences and commonalities across the project. Sometimes people will want to leave, and that’s OK. In other cases, we’ll feel as if we want someone to leave because that particular relationship is causing too much dissonance…but part of radical inclusion is, together, holding that difficult relationship to make sure that it remains part of the continuum of the building of this network that is Philadelphia Assembled. It’s a project, but it’s also a network of ongoing relationships.

KP: Knowing the scarcity of peoples’ time, and that, as you mentioned, this has been a vulnerable period for many of the people involved, how did you get people to participate and commit to participating over the four years of this project?

JvH: With the editors [core members of the artist team] we spoke about a sustained commitment, but with the the rest of the collaborators– the working groups in particular– it was very important that people could come in and out. The structure of the project was in such a way that people could get small reimbursements for getting to and from meetings– like travel expenses and a stipend, etc. — and there was always a meal, and if needed, childcare. So there was an infrastructure that made it possible for people to be there, but then also, when some people felt like they couldn’t find a way in or were very busy, they could go away for a while. Sometimes, after a while, people would come back and become collaborators again, because they felt… another way in.

AS: Providing a certain level of transportation, meals for meetings, and childcare created an organizational form in which people could come together in times and spaces where access had previously been inhibited.

KP: This whole project professes to be about how people collectively shape future, but it’s also clearly very much about how we narrativize the past, and how we occupy the present. It seems like it could be difficult to get people to conceive of a shared future if they don’t share a sense of past or present. Was this something that came up?

JvH: Something that artistic team editor Denise Valentine introduced, and that we’ve been doing throughout the project, are timeline exercises: bringing dates and narratives to the forefront that are important for people at the individual level, their own personal biography, and showing how your personal biography relates to local, national, and global dates in time.

AS: Also integral to these timeline exercises is a collective understanding of the idea of non-linear time: that our futures affect our past, that our pasts affect our present, that our presents affect our past. If you go into the Alternative Time Portal that Rasheedah Phillips and Camae Ayewa of Black Quantum Futurism created, there are literal exercises within to prompt ways in which we can decolonize our sense of the past and the future through non-linear time.

JvH: So you could say that by imagining a future, what we actually did was make a snapshot of now. Creating an image of the future is not about forming a utopian projection, it’s about actually thinking about where are we now, and what image can hold us together in this moment.

Futures Working Group meeting at the PHLA Workspace with collaborators Brandon Stokes, Michael Muehlbauer, and Counter Narrative Society (CNS). Photo courtesy Philadelphia Assembled.


Installation view, Philadelphia Assembled City Panorama, 2017, with quote from Walidah Imarisha. Concept and design: Bri Barton (drawings), Charlyn Griffith (drawings), Jeanne van Heeswijk (initiating artist), Shari Hersh (process), in•sitecolaborative, including Larissa Begault, Rania Dalloul, Nora Elmarzouky, and Sara Minard (framework design, research, and mapping), Jason Killinger (design), and Janneke Absil (design). Philadelphia Assembled City Panorama was produced with the support of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Mural Arts Philadelphia. Photo courtesy Joseph Hu, Philadelphia Museum of Art.


Installation view, Alternative Time Portal (2017) by Black Quantum Futurism. Photo courtesy Joseph Hu, Philadelphia Museum of Art.

KP: Obviously the shape of this whole project is… Philadelphia. Philadelphia created the shape that it took. But is the method behind the project one that could happen anywhere?

JvH: I mean yes, and no. I think about the local differently. More commonly, the local might be understood as just a territory with a community. For me, the local is not a territory per se, and if it is a territory, then it’s a fractured one. And to me, it is a condition that embodies global conflict and urgencies with local specificities. I think our territories are very fractured at the moment, and that the powers that be segregate people. It is a condition. An emotional, relational condition. So this project, it’s hyper-local. While at the same time telling a story about where we are now, at this moment, in the midst of something that is happening to all of us.

In some ways, it is very Philadelphian, in the sense that, in my work, meeting has always been important, but in this city, which is born in the idea of the [Quaker] meeting, that kind of ideation becomes charged. And it’s a city of neighborhoods, so to make the decision to work not with neighborhoods, but with atmospheres, is a methodological choice. At the time that the project started, I was thinking about this Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy book [by Bruno Latour] and exhibition and considering the ways in which things can be more porous, and not confined by the boundaries of one group or ideology, or defined by one neighborhood. This is also because I have been actively thinking through my own practice and how it can work at the scale of the city. And also, I use the title Philadelphia Assembled not to say that we are assembling all of Philadelphia, but to emphasize this idea of “assembly” –  thinking about Judith Butler’s the Performativity of Assembly – as a form that brings people together. It can be a form of democratic practice. So it’s also thinking about this kind of collective ideation as a democratic practice.

AS: [The project] is both looking out to the city and considering its scale, but also considering the scale of an encyclopedic museum like the Philadelphia Museum of Art and trying to apply that same porosity that Jeanne speaks of as we look inward at the Museum. This is a place that holds and shapes narratives of place and time. So if we are coming together as 20 to 30 people on a monthly basis to try to rethink and reimagine the narratives of our city, it felt really important to also be able to do that in a place that is a place of narrative, a place of history. And it still does. I think that people come into these galleries and claim those [PHLA City] panorama timelines, they see themselves in them, which is especially vital in an institution that has, at times,  isolated those histories or marginalized them from its own walls.

KP: Jeanne, in terms of your identity and not “being from here”,  what has it meant to be a quote unquote “outsider” engaging with a place in this way? Does this factor into how you’ve been received or how you are able to look at or create these structures?

JvH: Sometimes it helps to have a less-involved history with a place, so you’re not directly part of existing disagreements. It temporarily gives you a certain distance from that allows you to imagine different cross-relational networks.  

AS: That’s also why the artistic team was so important. Although Jeanne participated in all of the initial conversations, it was absolutely integral that those other members of the artistic team – which includes people who have lived and worked in Philadelphia for their whole lives – continued the conversations and held some of those negotiations. That’s how the project started to build trust and continued to be shaped by key stakeholders in the city.

JvH: And of course I know all the comments, like, “Why do you have to bring in a white European artist to talk about Philadelphia? Aren’t there Philadelphia artists who can do that?”

KP: So how do you respond to that question?

JvHAbsolutely, I think another artist could also address Philadelphia, but that would result in a different project. Yes, I am a white European artist, but part of this journey is understanding what that means in the context of Philadelphia and forming a network of people through the project that can speak to all different experiences and histories. This network of collaborators also informed how I think about myself, and my practice.

I create that artistic team in order to then become part of that team, to start working with it, as one of the people at the table. That’s also why I fiercely fight for the fact that I’m not called the lead artist. I’m the initiating artist, and there’s a probable reason for why I am the initiating artist – because I have the skill set, the methodology of working through practice that can set up a project like this. But I’m not a lead artist. This project is led by an artistic team and built by 150 people.

AS: I feel that for this invitation to come to you from the Contemporary Art Department, in particular, was also important as it allowed for the forming of an understanding of this work, your work, as an artwork, and an understanding of this process, your process, as integral to how we engage with a certain history of artists and work in our own collection. Philadelphia Assembled is durational. It asks us to continuously rethink the way that we would more traditionally think about exhibitions – as not just a static installation of objects but a choreography of interactions, relationships, and conversations over time.

Jeanne has been working in the field for 20+ years, beginning at a time before we even had an accepted term called “social practice,” and she has always deeply understood and asked questions about the role of collaboration. We embarked on this project with Jeanne and an expansive group of people and organizations from across the city.

KP: It seems like more and more within the field of social practice there is criticism of the parachuting artist who drops in to a place and does something and leaves. How do you see your work in relation to that phenomenon?

JvH: I think that these are questions that belong to social practice. The parachuting artist is normally somebody who is in for a bit, a few months, and might do an oral history project or something else to create an artwork and then leaves again. I don’t know if three years is long enough… or if it needs to be ten years, or even if the length of the duration matters, but I think the intensity and ways of working does. You can say also that for the last three years I’ve been living and working here. Like with all my work, I always spend an intense amount of time invested in a certain place, to actually work with that emotional substrata, that’s what I do, I become part of that field of questioning… which also means questioning my own position within that.

What I try to do in my work is to think about challenging organizational form, creating different ones or if you want, a new score in which to try to create a field of interaction in a way that as many people that want to be part of it can become co-owners and co-creators of this project. What you saw at the opening is that a lot of people own this project, in the very many ways it can be owned. And that shared ownership, that shared responsibility, for me is very, very important.

I think this institution [PMA] does have a white Eurocentric lens, which art history also has. So I questioned, how do you create seepages? Not breakages, because breaking the walls of the institution would be too much to ask in three years, but how can you create seepages? So maybe I do understand that European-centric narrative, because I embody it. So if I cannot let go of what I embody, how can I ever work on a project that aims to do that? I talk a lot about that in my work on a more philosophical level about ‘letting go’ of one’s own subjectivity in order to extend the space in which we can learn and unlearn from each each other.

KP:  I remember speaking with you, Jeanne, a few years ago, and you had a pretty strong stance on the term social practice.

JvH: I still have.

KP: Where do you want this project to be situated in relation to social practice? If people come away from this project thinking that it’s a social practice project, is that something you are comfortable with?

JvH: I find these categorizations problematic. I think that this kind of qualification prevents people from seeing this as a beautiful and strong exhibition. Saying, “Oh this is a social practice project,” does that mean it’s not a good exhibition? What does that mean? What does it mean to label it as “social practice”? Because labeling it quite often means that it gets another set of criteria to be measured against.

This project had many phases. The project in the city involved much more of what you could call a process of performativity, of actions, and shared meals. I would not have called the phase in the city public art commissions. I would not want everything we did in the public phase to be considered public sculptures. They were actions, performances, meals, conversations, a rhythm of things. So I would refer to them like that – a conversation, a meal, an action, an installation, a sculpture. I think we have the tendency to create and over-populate these categories.

To me, art is more than the art object. It is a collective process of imagination in which things get a particular form: it can be a performance, a meal, an art object, or it can be a conversation. There are many ways in which things can become public, and by it becoming public it can become discussable, interactive, negotiable. What I try to do in my work is create platforms for those things to happen. In this case [of Philadelphia Assembled] it was, from the beginning, very important that it also became an exhibition.

The problem with a lot of these terminologies is that they actually narrow the field into a set of measurables – to say something is good or not good – and what those measurables take away is that space of imagination, that space to actually create across different understandings of time, and space, and form. And then we, again, repeat the bad habit of creating the deterministic modernist cannon of categories for which the artist has a kind of pureness that I never believed in. I always say, I’m so messy. And this project has been very messy. And people, from the beginning, wanted clear cut answers, but the unknown is not always clear and I can assure you that it is messy.

Opening day of the PHLA Toward Sanctuary dome at Thomas Jefferson University, Lubert Plaza, July 2017. Photo courtesy Joseph Hu, Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The Mobile Futures Institute bus parked at the PHLA Seeds of Sovereignty Marketplace on 52nd Street, June 2017. Photo courtesy Timothy Tiebout, Philadelphia Museum of Art.

KP: So how does how does the project live on, and then how do you allow the “seepages” created to continue within the institution?

AS: We’ve talked a lot and thought deeply about this next phase of the project, its afterlife, its legacy. There are certain elements that will continue to have a life out in the community with our collaborators. Objects like our Mobile Futures Institute bus, currently parked outside of the Perelman Building, will be used by our collaborators at Traction Company and Mill Creek Community Partnership after this project. Another example is our Towards Sanctuary dome, which was previously at Thomas Jefferson University, but will now be situated at Urban Creators in North Philly and serve as an outdoor education space.

What’s important in this process of transition is asking our collaborators, which includes the Museum, “What is this network that is Philadelphia Assembled? After these years of working together, what’s your relationship to the network, to the city, to this museum? Has it changed over time?” Jeanne’s work, and this project, has never been about prescribing future forms, so it’s important that we participate in these discussions internally and externally and take a moment of pause to understand how we’ve grown, what we’ve learned, and where we can best cultivate and build upon these relationships into the future.

JvH: What do people feel like caring for after this? What do people want to continue? And what do those relationships look like? Is Philadelphia Assembled by now a network of people who want to work together and continue that collaboration or was this a one time collaboration? These are the ongoing questions that we must continue to ask ourselves. And if there are collaborations within this project that people feel would be fruitful if they continue, then how can we make sure that they can continue? What is the next platform that can help foster those relationships to thrive and grow? 




Jeanne van Heeswijk is an artist who facilitates the creation of dynamic and diversified public spaces in order to “radicalize the local.” Her long-scale community-embedded projects question art’s autonomy by combining performative actions, discussions, and other forms of organizing and pedagogy in order to work alongside  communities to take control of their own futures. Van Heeswijk’s work has been featured in publications and exhibitions worldwide, including the Liverpool, Shanghai, and Venice biennials. She received the 2011 Leonore Annenberg Prize for Art and Social Change, the 2012 Curry Stone Prize for Social Design Pioneers, and in 2014 was awarded the inaugural Keith Haring Fellowship in Art and Activism at the Center for Curatorial Studies and Human Rights Project at Bard College. She lives and works in Rotterdam and Philadelphia.

Amanda Sroka joined the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2014 as Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art following the completion of her Masters Degree in Art History at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London where she focused on global conceptual art practices. Recent projects at the Museum include Philadelphia Assembled; Word, Image & Domestic Dissent (2017); Unlimited: Painting in France in the 1960s and 70s (2017); Jitish Kallat: Covering Letter (2016/17); ‘Plays of / for a Respirateur’ An Installation by Joseph Kosuth (2015/16); and Into Dust: Traces of the Fragile in Contemporary Art (2015). In 2012, Sroka served as the Performance Coordinator for Dancing around the Bride: Cage, Cunningham, Johns, Rauschenberg, and Duchamp and prior to that, she conducted research for the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation and served as an assistant to the curatorial team at the New Museum.

Kaitlin Pomerantz is an artist and educator in Philadelphia, and an editor at Title Magazine.