A turning point in her career was the 2002 De Strip project in Vlaardingen, the Netherlands where she turned shops left vacant by unrealized development into galleries, artist’s studios and workshop spaces for different community groups. “It was the first time I worked with the issues I keep coming back to: how to make sure people gather, confront [their situation], and become visible.”
van Heeswijk’s projects distinguish themselves by their strong social involvement, often including hundreds of participants and over an extended period of time. She sees herself as a mediator who generates “interspaces,” contexts and crossovers where new relationships are established between groups of people and institutions. These connections lead to public improvements, self-organization of local groups, self-sustaining enterprises, and a stronger community identity.
In her 2008 project, Freehouse–Market of Tomorrow, van Heeswijk sought to revitalize Rotterdam’s Afrikaande Market. Working with vendors, artists, designers, and local shopkeepers, she developed a detailed sketch of the ideal market of the future, devoting more attention to diverse high-quality goods and services, and new skill-based collaborative projects. The master plan challenged government regulations that were preventing vendors and the community from establishing sustainable sources of income. Some of these proposals were implemented in the new governmental plan. The renewal of the market is ongoing, but it has already become the “beating heart” of the Afrikaander district.
In 2010, as part of the Liverpool Biennial, van Heeswijk engaged the city’s Anfield District. The 2Up 2Down project seeks to revitalize an historically working class area in which four thousand low-income homes, many owned outright by generations of the same family, were forcibly emptied and boarded-up to make way for market-driven renewal that never materialized. 2Up 2Down is a self-build, collective ownership scheme. Its pilot project is an eco-friendly renovation of a block of housing units and a storefront, all slated for demolition by the town council. The project engaged a wide swath of the community. Local architects and builders mentored Anfield’s youth in the design and construction processes, and a cross-generational cooperative called Home Baked acquired a community land trust. They reopened a 100-year-old bakery that sits across from the Liverpool soccer stadium as a social enterprise.
More recently she has worked with the Philadelphia Museum and over 150 collaborators and organizations across the city to present Philadelphia Assembled. This collaborative endeavors to invite change agents throughout the city to collectively imagine a present and future Philadelphia. In 2014, she was the inaugural Keith Haring fellow at Bard College in upstate New York.
Van Heeswijk’s artistic practice presents a transformative contribution to the design world—in her vision, art actively works in shaping society, and the ultimate artistic production lies within the evolution of the people involved in the process.