When Dutch artist Jeanne van Heeswijk came to Philadelphia about three years ago, she did not know the city and had no work she planned to exhibit.
Yet her charge from Carlos Basualdo, curator of contemporary art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, who invited her to town, was to mount a project culminating in an exhibition in fall 2017.
No art. No contacts. No problem.
So van Heeswijk spent two years hanging out, asking questions, talking with one person who passed her on and on, down the line. What is Philadelphia? What is its spirit? Concerns developed. Stories became visible.
And "Philadelphia Assembled," her vast sprawling project involving dozens of organizations and more than 150 collaborators, began to emerge.
What is it?
That will be answered, in a small way, on Saturday on the buffeted streets of Nicetown/Tioga when members of the community will gather during the day for a cleanup. In the evening, the three underpasses affording access to the neighborhood will be lighted up and a ceremony will take place.
"It will be processional and metaphorical," van Heeswijk said recently. "But it's also talking about freedom," she said, in an era of mass incarceration. "How do people survive? How do people celebrate? How do people deal with their rage? How do they then come to the light? What does it mean to bridge? What does it mean to bridge the gap?"
The Lighting of the Bridges, which will be marked by the procession and lighting effort, also has a practical aspect — it draws attention to the dismal state of access to the community.
"The purpose is to temporarily light the underpasses as a way to advocate for permanent lighting," said Denise Valentine, a well-known Philadelphia storyteller who is a leader of this aspect of "Philadelphia Assembled."
"It's also a chance to shine a light on the harm that's been done to this community because of mass incarceration and the war on drugs. We wanted to allow people the space and the permission to voice their rage about the system of mass incarceration. But we also wanted to show the ways this community is resilient in the face of it."
Valentine, who was introduced to van Heeswijk perhaps two years ago by a historian, cited the very high percentage of community members who have spent time in jail, not to mention those who have family members entangled in the prison system, as a driving force for her group's efforts.
Other aspects of "Philadelphia Assembled" address issues of the future, power, movement, and sanctuary. All involve projects and narratives, large and small, that are mostly ignored or distorted or told only by outsiders. The hope, said van Heeswijk, is that the stories of hidden Philadelphia will emerge — as told or experienced by actual characters in the stories.
In "Philadelphia Assembled," the whole city becomes a figurative palette and storyboard.
Nicetown/Tioga, where the bridge lighting will take place, happens to be home base of Reconstruction Inc., a shoestring organization on the front lines of dealing with the criminal justice system and its disfiguring impact on individuals, families, and whole communities.
Valentine brought van Heeswijk together with William Goldsby, who established Reconstruction Inc. more than 20 years ago. Goldsby found van Heeswijk's questioning approach appealing.
He also liked her focus on seeking ways to embody community resistance and resilience "by illuminating the substrata," he said. In other words, finding ways of telling stories and showing sides of the city that have been kept out of "the dominant narrative."
"Very few look at the nuts and bolts of oppression," he said. There is a continuum at work that begins with "the colonization of Africa, continues through slavery, Reconstruction, convict-leasing, Jim Crow, and sentencing guidelines and mass incarceration."
Valentine's segment of "Philadelphia Assembled," which is called Reconstructions, also encompasses a project at Fourth and Master Streets focused on displacement and gentrification. Collaborators are constructing a house they'll use to gather and share neighbors' relevant stories.
So what makes this art? After all, many people are struggling with addressing the problems of mass incarceration. Many turn out for neighborhood cleanups. What makes this different?
For Goldsby, the "art" aspect is focused down the road on the fall exhibition at the art museum, which will run from Sept. 10 to Dec. 10 in the Perelman Building. He will contribute a "period room."
Portions of Goldsby's Nicetown house (including one of the two waterfalls he has built) will be installed in the Perelman building – a mordant commentary on the museum's other period rooms.
"This house has almost been like a wailing wall," he said. "People can come and transform themselves. The door is never locked."
Those involved with Reconstruction Inc. will be at the museum daily, in the room, talking about jail and the scars it inflicts across broad swaths of the population.
In one way, then, "Philadelphia Assembled" gathers up the city itself and all of its social structures and teases out the hidden stories that rarely make news, or at least the affirming news.
For Valentine, stories are her focus, but she finds that the process of van Heeswijk's project is an art form, as well.
"It's almost looking at it as if life itself is an art form," she said. "It took me a while to come to that understanding of art. I think in the beginning I had always thought of art as a painting or music, something you could hear or see or touch. But I came to a new understanding of what art is and I realized that I had been doing what Jeanne described as art. I just didn't know it was art."
Van Heeswijk is comfortable with that description.
"The way we think of art as pure contemplation in front of an object or the sound of something is only from the last few hundred years. Before that, art was combined with the way we related to each other, the way we can tell stories. The way we collectively imagine or envision. The place where we are and how we celebrate — that's always been part of art or culture."