Philadelphia Assembled (PHLA)

Philadelphia Assembled was initiated by artist Jeanne van Heeswijk at the request of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and was the Museum’s first major foray into social practice art (sometimes called socially engaged art or relational aesthetics). It’s initial design had a dialogic and networked model at its core and it was conceived as a project that would better connect the Museum to communities in Philadelphia that do not frequent the PMA. Over 5+ years PHLA evolved into a sprawling, ambitious and multifaceted exploration of resiliency and resistance in Philadelphia. Five subgroups of collaborators, called atmospheres, formed around the broad themes of Futures, Reconstructions, Sovereignty, Sanctuary and Movement. The atmospheres planned public events (April – July 2017) and a museum installation (October – December 2017). Throughout the project the emphasis was less on making and physical artifacts, though there was a lot of that too, and more on doing and connecting: events, community gatherings, installations, activations, interventions, and protests formed the backbone of the work. From the outside, a lot of it probably looked like activism and community work, and it was, but it was also more than that. 

I joined PHLA in early 2016, largely through serendipity and word of mouth. Most of my work was with the Futures atmosphere and all of it was collaborative in one form or another.  Because this Hybrid Project blog functions as a sort of portfolio I will use this post to give a snapshot of the project and my involvement in it, and I will call out some specific pieces that I authored or co-authored. I have not attempted to write a definitive account of Philadelphia Assembled and to do so feels inappropriate because it is fundamentally polyvocal and ongoing.  (Note: I have used all my own photos but they are not necessarily broadly representative – so please look at the PHLA website as well as the links included throughout.)

PHLA was written up in a lot of places – thoughtfully in Hyperallergic, Curbed PhiladelphiaPhiladelphia Citizen,  Philadelphia Tribune, and WHYY,  frustratingly in and infuriatingly (imho) in Philadelphia Magazine.

Mobile Futures Institute 

The Futures Atmosphere developed the MFI to function as a mobile workshop, library, classroom, installation and event space. We developed the schematics for a converted bus and the retrofit was done by artists at Traction Company. From April – June 2017 the MFI traveled three routes that explored various aspects of the city’s future which were further explored in an accompanying publication. The bus served as a host and catalyst but also as a recording and collecting device for different visions and manifestations of the future – a key idea was that we did not want do organize events around the future because that work was already being done, so instead our group would go to where the work was already being done and partner with groups doing it. The MFI hosted events at the Paul Robeson House, Germantown Festival,  Lancaster Ave Jazz Festival an Lemon Hill (pictured below) for an Interdependence Day BBQ, among many other locations.

MFI parked on Lemon Hill for Interdependence Day BBQ

Futures On Strike May Day Event and Portrait Series. 

The Futures Atmosphere planned Futures On Strike for May 1st 2017, an important day for labor activism and activism more broadly, as the launch day of the MFI. The bus was not ready but our stand-in MFI pickup was in residence at City Hall to host workshops and spoken word and to engage with passersby. As part of that day I codeveloped an activity with other Futures collaborators to take portraits of passersby responding to questions about the future:

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The subjects of these portraits all gave their permission for their images to be used for PHLA and in the museum phase (concluded December 2017), so I share them here as an extension of that public showing.  

The photographs shown here were taken by me, and I played a key role in designing the activity and identifying questions, but it’s implementation and iteration were collaborative.

We Will Not Be Silent: Celebrating the Granny Peace Brigade 

I also co-produced and was primary videographer and editor on a short documentary about the Granny Peace Brigade in Philadelphia, which features six grannies talking about their lives and activism:


Public Phase in the Perelman Building

During the public phase of Philadelphia Assembled atmospheres transitioned their ideas, activities and artifacts into the three galleries, atrium and cafe of the Perelman building.  I hosted weekly during the public phase from October to December 2017, and also contributed to the booklist for the library that figured prominently in the atrium space. 

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I also facilitated a chalk mural activity that I’ve done in several other contexts: participants respond to question prompts and to each other’s artwork to collectively create a mural. This was my first time doing the activity without a captive audience and even though participants came and went the results were still powerful.  Questions were simple: What is one fear you have for the future? What is one hope you have for the future? Participants were encouraged to engage with and modify (but not obscure or irrevocably alter) each other’s drawings. Among many transformations, someone mistook my mushroom cloud for a sad tree and transformed it:

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Take Aways 

There were many mind-expanding (for me) revelations from PHLA. Here are some key ones:

  • Centering indigeneity and indigenous people and approaching future-facing work through a decolonizing perspective on the past shifted my relationship to many things, among them climate change.  How to work from this perspective as the descendent of European immigrants is a question I continue to live into.
  • The continued presence of history, and choosing not to compartmentalize past and future, changed how I approached the Futures work and undergirded our insistence that the future is already happening, already being lived and built (and influenced our decision to make a mobile site like the MFI that would travel to places the future was already happening). For more on this line of thinking please also see the work of Black Quantum Futurism.
  • PHLA was a reality check for me about art museums and I came to a deeper understanding of museums as non-neutral spaces. Though I may feel safe and welcomed in them, I repeatedly heard other PHLA collaborators say that they do not. This is often if not always about race and class.  Curation may be a creative act but it is also a controlling one: certain ways of knowing, aesthetics and narratives are always amplified over others. Following from this line of thought, I was glad to lean about  Occupy Museums (even though it occurred well before PHLA).
  • Social practice art seems like it is still figuring out what it is, and much of what it is seems, to me, to be about rediscovering and emboldening practices and ways of being deadened by modern consumerism and globalization and culture loss, and deadened by false divisions between realms of art. If challenging the distinction between fine art and decorative/domestic art is your jam, wait until you discover that art does not have to be visual or performative, and that conceptual and participatory are just the beginning, that art is life.

PHLA did not strive to present a cohesive vision or voice, and the cacophonous multitude was embraced even while profound resonances were surfaced. Sitting with that discomfort — and inviting all of Philadelphia to come to the Perelman building and sit with us in that discomfort and that resonance — was huge. I am grateful for the experience.

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