Los Angeles

On the Boardwalk: Jeanne van Heeswijk's Public Faculty 8

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Saturday night on Hollywood Boulevard and the sidewalk is busy. "I just got here," says a fast-walking man, "I've only got two hours to see it all." Charlie from Nashville turned forty last week and arrived two days ago: "I'll stay 'til the money runs out, maybe sell the car." Pamela smokes outside of a café: "Usually I avoid it like the plague, but I opened in a play tonight." "You see the world here," says singer/song-writer Stuy, "the failure and the opportunity...they're in arm's reach." A family strolls by with two little girls in party dresses.

Wednesday morning and Franklin is sitting on a low wall outside of Hollywood High. An off-duty security guard, he arrived the day after Northridge: "I used to live on Carlton Way, then Whitley, all over. I paid 440, but a sleazy guy jacked it up to 750. I took him to court. I'm between places right now." Julio says he "came in '88...it's better, no gangs, no drugs. What? No, I don't live here now." And one of the students says: "My parents are afraid they can't afford to stay. The City is cleaning it better, that'll have implications soon."

Night and day on the Boulevard, and people speak -- through their presence and their words -- to the impact and experience of Hollywood's ongoing process of gentrification. This is the context of Public Faculty No. 8, "Canvassing desires of the street (PF8)," the most recent "sketch" by acclaimed Dutch artist Jeanne van Heeswijk, which Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE) presented in the first week of June.

Public Faculty No. 8, Friday June 6. | Photograph by, and courtesy of, Carol Zou

"I'm trying to find ways for people to become participants in the future of their daily environments" van Heeswijk has said of her work, which engages places where market-driven "regeneration" is displacing resident populations, and often involves hundreds of people in the co-generation of long-term, community-driven, self-organized initiatives.

"I started with a faculty here," she told me, "though I don't always. They are my way of sketching about civic space. We start collectively learning about the place, building forms of alliance, and finding a point of entry."

The visible part of the "PF8" sketch -- 4x4-hour long sessions in and around the Boulevard, during which participants (including me) engaged passers-by in conversation -- took place on four consecutive days. Like the proverbial iceberg, those 16-hours of conversation were supported by eighteen-months of activity, which former LACE Executive Director Carol Stakenas initiated in 2012.

Since then the artist has made four visits to L.A. to explore the LACE neighborhood ("I think I walked every street in Hollywood"), to converse with allies among L.A'.s network of socially engaged artists, and to make contact with Hollywood stakeholders. Between visits Stakenas, curator/organizer Jacqueline Bell, and artist/organizer Carol Zou compiled information about Hollywood's history, populations, and gentrification; and worked to generate, as Jeanne put it: "at least enough will and trust among the community in L.A. to engage." ("I'm not going to do it on my own -- it's not a performance.")

Public Faculty No. 8, illustration by Emilio Venegas Jr. | Photograph by Angel Alvarado, courtesy of LACE

In order to cast a wide net over the Boulevard's multiple populations -- and in keeping with the practice of sketching, whereby an artist will often try out multiple versions of an image -- each of the "PF8" sessions was organized with a different ally, at a different location and time of day.

Wednesday by Hollywood High, for example, happened with artist Dont Rhine and Ultra-red. L.A. Voice and Yucca Corridor Coalition partnered for Thursday's early evening session on the corner of Yucca St. and Cahuenga. On Friday morning artist Karla Diaz canvassed outside My Friend's Place with two residents, Jeanne, and other participants. And artists Christina Sanchez Juarez, Cayetano Juarez, and the Restaurant Opportunities Center of Los Angeles collaborated at Hollywood and Vine on Saturday night.

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Underlying the daily differences though, two things stayed the same for each session. First, a Hollywood tour bus -- single-decker, open-topped -- gave the project visibility and a "base station" on the Boulevard. Second, a framework process of listening, articulation, and reflection let canvassers not only gather information, but also begin to assess it together.

The process worked something like this: 8-12 participants met at the bus for an introduction, dispersed to talk with members of the public, and periodically returned to share what they'd heard with a writer (Melinda Guillen or Erick Huerta) and a visual artist (Emilio Venegas Jr. or Monica Martinez), who drew on-the-spot images of the findings. Midway, and again at the end of the session, everyone gathered to "recap."

Public Faculties, says Jeanne, look at gentrification "through the lens of a specific place." In addition to L.A., they have happened in Macedonia, Serbia, the U.K., Denmark, and the Netherlands. "The recaps," the artist explains, "always emphasize how much we hear the same sort of answers in each place...but the specificities are different."

Public Faculty No. 8, Friday June 6. | Photograph by, and courtesy of, Carol Zou

Unlike the canvassing undertaken by NGOs, voter-registration, or political parties therefore, which generally seeks to poll or persuade, the point of a Faculty is not so much to identify answers, as it is to listen for "the way people phrase their responses." Consequently, PF canvassers listen for "nuance" that can reveal the "emotional texture of a place." "People," Jeanne clarifies, "carry the specificities in their emotional tissues. This is what we need to work with: the embodiment of general conflicts over time."

What is the "emotional texture" of Hollywood Boulevard? As Jeanne said in a conversation the day after "PF8," "it's too early to say." But Julio was pleased for the tourists and his boss, who owns property in the area. Security guard Joe, an ex-vice cop who commutes in from Lancaster, was proud of the "clean up." Pamela was surprised to find the Boulevard "family-friendly." Stuy was "walking my yellow brick road." And Franklin was angry, tired, and very, very certain that "they want to eradicate the middle class and only have the rich and poor...they want people they can walk over...illegals who won't take them to the [Labor] Board. You see construction sites, but there's no housing for the poor. 2000-3000 a month for rent -- that's crazy!"

In 1964 British sociologist Ruth Glass used the word "gentry" -- defined by the OED as "the class directly below the nobility" -- to create a pithy descriptor for a London housing market trend. People with the capital to do so, she noted, were buying and renovating houses in working class areas on which banks refused to make loans. "Once this process of 'gentrification' starts," she wrote, "it goes on rapidly until all or most of the working class occupiers are displaced and the whole social character of the district is changed."

Although the development of massive high-income consumer "hubs" has now superseded domestic renovations -- and given that the U.S. "middle class" and UK "working class" are largely synonymous -- Glass's descriptor remains apt. Not least in Hollywood, where 12,878 working class Latino families were pushed from their homes between 2000 and 2010. For the word continues to get at the heart of the matter: the class shift that happens when a city is restructured, as geographer Tom Slater puts it, "to serve the needs of capital accumulation at the expense of the social needs of home, community, [and] family."

Public Faculty No. 8, illustration by Emilio Venegas Jr. | Photograph by Angel Alvarado, courtesy of LACE

In a 2001 Primer on Gentrification and Policy Choices, the Brookings Institution called for a more nuanced definition of "gentrification:" one that distinguishes between class displacement, with its attendant inequalities and individual traumas, and the "socio-economic process of revitalization."

The distinction is familiar to Jeanne, who simultaneously operates within and refuses the dichotomy. Referencing "2Up 2Down," her UK project that has developed a land trust and cooperative bakery, she tells me: "someone said 'it's gentrifying.' But one of the neighborhood women told him 'we're just getting fresh bread, why shouldn't I have a cappuccino too? How is that gentrifying? We deserve good food that's affordable'."

"It's not always bad," says van Heeswijk, "if places get better. The problem is that [gentrification] always brings displacement...[the question is] how to make it more inclusive? How to build a more complex ownership...including emotional ownership? Her projects "2Up 2Down" and "Market of Tomorrow" in the Netherlands, suggest some possible directions.

Public Faculty No. 8, illustration by Emilio Venegas Jr. | Photograph by Angel Alvarado, courtesy of LACE

Market of Tomorrow is focused on a 300-stall multi-cultural market in Rotterdam's gentrifying Afrikaanderplein. Since 2008, the project has sought to "resist the outward spiral of money" that characterizes capital investment, "and generate an inward spiral of benefits for people," by bringing vendors, residents, local entrepreneurs, designers, and artists together to rework the site, and develop new products and services. By-laws and customs that impeded the self-organizing process were challenged and, in some cases, changed; and a skills-based neighborhood co-op, which took over the project in January this year, was established.

Now five-years-old, 2Up 2Down operates in a Liverpool community in which 4000 working class homes were emptied to make way for a "regeneration" that never happened. Developed and produced in collaboration with local people of all ages, as well as designers and architects, the project has grown the "Homebaked Community Land Trust," which now owns and has rehabilitated a housing block and the 100-year-old bakery that it operates as a cooperative.

Co-ownership, collective governance, non-corporate economic models -- what might have been fostered had Jeanne a similar amount of time to work in Hollywood? The question is hard to answer for two reasons. First: unlike planners or politicians -- and even unlike many other socially engaged artists -- van Heeswijk does not enter a site of contestation with a menu of pre-set "choices." She did not, for instance, have a bakery in mind when she initiated 2Up 2Down, or pre-plan market stall makeovers for the Afrikaandermarkt -- these actions emerged from the processes of the projects.

Second: though LACE and van Heeswijk had anticipated that PF8 would be the first public action in a project that might extend over multiple years, Carol Stakenas's 2013 departure from LACE seems to have signaled an institutional turn away from such durational social engagement, and there are currently no firm plans for continuance.

Public Faculty No. 8, Saturday June 7, waving au revoir. | Photograph by, and courtesy of, Carol Zou

In her long term projects Jeanne's process stimulates spaces for listening in which people with little agency (and let's face it, who among us has much of that when there's capital accumulation at stake?) have the opportunity to co-develop alternatives to their own displacement by, or collusion with, gentrification.

Like good soup, which has to simmer in order for the full range of flavors to emerge, the project duration enables possible directions to bubble up from the participants' deep knowledge of an existing context and its conditions -- in other words perhaps, from its "emotional tissues."

It takes time, a lot of time, to see what van Heeswijk collaborator Ashraf Osman has described as "the invisible forces that shape the territory," and even more "to challenge the political and economic frameworks that have produced the crisis in the first place." It must be asked therefore, what can be done in four days?

I put the question to Dont Rhine, who responded: "as an end in itself, the Public Faculty does run the risk of appropriating something of social use and turning it into an end in itself...[but] I think the reason Jeanne advocated for many of us to be involved was precisely to make sure the canvassing acquired a social use."

Public Faculty No. 8, Saturday June 7. | Photograph by, and courtesy of, Carol Zou

"For people engaged in a local struggle," he elucidated, "having four hours to canvas could reveal tremendous amounts of political material for deep analytical listening...Frankly, there are very few opportunities to learn how to do canvassing outside of corporate NGO campaigns...voter-registration, or sectarian proselytizing...It gave me a sense of how we might organize similar canvassing actions in School of Echoes."

Ashraf Osman has stated that "the city can always be transformed; the question is how?" As well as providing an opportunity to consider the ways, "Public Faculty 8" afforded a possible model for future action, and a new ingredient for local activism. Given the degree to which artists and arts institutions -- wittingly and otherwise -- participate in gentrification's displacement apparatus, this is something to be heartily applauded. I only wish the soup might really get time to cook.

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Top Image: Public Faculty No. 8, Wednesday June 4. | Photograph by, and courtesy of, Carol Zou.

About the Author

Janet Owen Driggs is a writer, artist and curator who, along with Matthew Owen Driggs, frequently participates in the collective identity “Owen Driggs.”
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