Kirsten Leenaars: Aesthetics and Social Practice

Matt Robinson

I had the pleasure of conversing with artist Kirsten Leenaars. We talked social practice, aesthetic, people, the post office, and what’s next for Leenars. As one of the artists involved in the exhibition RISK: Empathy, Art, and Social Practice – which is open Feb 10th – April, 26th, at Glass Curtain Gallery – I thought it appropriate to get her take on the complicated practice of a socially engaged artist. Leenaars will exhibit in the RISK, the exhibition featuring contemporary artists whose work “invites the outside in,” blurring “the lines between public and private space.” Click Read more for the full interview.

Kirsteen Leenars (left) and Lise Baggesen in Boulevard Dreamers

Kirsten Leenaars (left) and Lise Baggesen in Boulevard Dreamers

Matthew Robinson: 
How did you come to know about the show RISK? Perhaps you can give us a precursor as to the concept behind the work you’ll have exhibited.

Kirsten Leenaars: Neysa Page-Lieberman and Amy M. Mooney (curators of RISK) wrote me that they wanted to do a studio visit with me in late August of this year. They came by, and did a studio visit with me and we talked about the work that I’m making – I  was familiar with the gallery.

When they came for the initial studio visit I was editing and analyzing a video that I will be presenting there – which is called Not in Another Place, But This Place (Happiness) -a project that I had been working on for almost two years. Originally, part of the Happiness Project I was focusing on for some time. In the Happiness Project, I focused on the Edgewater community, and we established that I would be the artist in residence there with my pop-up space, Bureau for Investigation of Strategies for Happiness, Community and Policy Development. Focusing on that community, and in particular looking at how this idea of happiness fell into the concept of community and how it informs policy making. [The question was] Do policy makers think about happiness when they make decisions?

KL: In Bhutan, they look at Happiness also as a measure of how the country is doing. They don’t only look at economic welfare, but they also have these parameters of happiness and well-being for their citizens. During the Happiness Project, I started talking with the Alderman, Harry Osterman, interviewing him about happiness after he agreed. He actually said “Well, I never really thought about it.”

He had never thought about it in this way specifically. He said “I think about well-being of the community, but not about happiness [of the community in my policy decisions].” We had an interesting conversation about that, about whether, if he did consider this concept of happiness, how it would influence decisions.

MR: It is interesting how the rhetoric changes the meaning of the word. When I think of well-being, I view it as something external to be gauged, and I would expect the alderman to do the same thing. Happiness, however, is something that is more reciprocal and it’s more of a correspondence that you have to have with people almost constantly to even get a grip on how “happy” they are.

KL: That’s very true. It was one of the things that was really interesting about the project. I ended up interviewing 48 people in the 48th ward – which was a total coincidence. So there were people who had specific roles in the community (builders, environmentalists, community leaders), but there were also people that just so happened to walk by my space and were interested in having this conversation about happiness. I was also curious as to how students in the community would present their interpretation of happiness. I approached this project from a lot of different angles, and it turned out that everyone had something good to say.

Happiness is [a thing] that everyone can respond to, but once the conversation goes deeper it turns out to be more complex, more complex than just this one thing. It’s reciprocal, it’s an exchange, and it’s ongoing. I wanted to convey that conversation visually somehow.

MR: So this was a video project?

KL: The videos were just the start for the interview aspect of the project. I didn’t want the interview to just be documented as interviews in the project – one because I know how many documentaries there are like that [laughs] and because I also thought it would become literal  again. The thing about happiness is that it’s not simply language based. I wanted to find another form of expressing these ideas and the notion of happiness. I wanted to find a more performative form or a more symbolic form, not through language. So in the end I shot the video at San High School auditorium. I never record my interviews; I write them down. So when that happens it’s a kind of subjective note taking and that records my interviews. Then from the notes I started to make the mind maps, honing in on things that were important from my perspective or the interviewees’.  [From the mind maps] I started to make drawings centered around the key things from the interviews. I wanted to capture this in a visual manner.

The drawings sort of became the base, the foundation for the set that I built for everyone. During the two days we were shooting I built everyone a set that was specific for their scene. Everyone was part of a vignette or scene by themselves, and I also shot a lot of collaborative and combined scenes carried out between people who had never worked together before or even known each other. Then I asked them to perform these actions which I imagined would symbolize our discussion of happiness. So it happened that I was presenting a kind of set of instructions that the participants could take their own way. Most people kind of expected that they would just come and kind of repeat the interview again. And they said “OH you want me to do what? throw these balloons?!” [laughs]

[The experience] made for some beautiful moments where they had to surrender and trust. Also, it became really playful and I think that was very nice to grace out of people and we really enjoyed it.

That’s how the project came about!

MR: Excited!

KL: It was important that I didn’t try to recount a story from A to B. I had all this amazing footage from working with two amazing camera men. It took me a while to wrap my head around the wealth of footage that I had. Asking how I am going to bring this together? How is this going to take shape? I spent a few months editing and kind of figuring out it’s final form.

MR: Do you have an aesthetic that guides you? And for a practice like yours, is the challenge to convey concepts visual manner so that people can grasp the work without having to read a text?

KL: I think that’s always my challenge as an artist and my responsibility as an artist. In the end, I want the work to speak for itself, I want someone who had no part in the project to find a way to relate to it. So yes, this is an aesthetic experience. I think about that a lot, and I think that is it really important.

I feel also that my role as an artist comes [aesthetically] and that’s where I am the maker. That is where I can insert myself as the maker. In my projects there is always difficulty and questioning as to what becomes of my subjectivity as the maker. And I feel like the more clear I can be about this subjectivity or things that I made – which are subjective products – it’s better in a way. The relationships I build with the people are based on built trust. But, in the end it’s also important that I am able to step back and say “Well this is material now.” The relationships that I make are not the works in themselves. However, they are key. The work is the thing that I make and put out into the world. That’s the thing the people in the audience need to respond to.

This process is of course different for everyone – I think everyone in social practice has different motivations to make work; for me, exchange is really important. I am also very aware that this is not an equal exchange because I have set the parameters, taking the end as material. I feel almost that I am being more true to a project if I am clear about my relationship to the relationships. I think that I am more true to the project when it’s not that I say this is a democratic model and you get to do whatever you want.

Because that’s not true.

MR: So you give people the framework, the means for all this conductivity. That’s the impression I got from Boulevard Dreamers.

The Boulevard Dreamers, Young and Old Image courtesy: Kirsten Leenars

The Boulevard Dreamers, Young and Old
Image courtesy: Kirsten Leenaars

KL: Dreamers was the most that I was hands-off. We built the stage, but the idea was that people get to do their own thing. That was  a collaboration with Lise Baggesen.

In my own projects, the relationship with the people I work with is very different. They are built over an amount of time and I pull from personal stories or exchanges that then get transformed into something else.

MR:  It seems that and social practices extend outward – that’s the point. They’re searching for correspondence and are trying to engage people. Do you have a place where your ideas ferment? Let’s talk about the role of the studio in social practices.

KL: Yes, there is also the studio. It’s both outward and inward. My inspiration definitely comes from outside the studio, from these relationships that I built. Usually, my work is specifically in response to a certain community or a certain institution. In On Our Way to Tomorrow  I was responding to a situation or community that I am a part of. That’s really where a lot of the work gets generated. It’s almost what I see as my research period[s].
My works start to develop, and in beginning I never know exactly what will become of it. I never know the narrative that will come. I usually start with a set of questions that I have and then I go into the community to go tease out these questions. And depending on what kind of conversations those generate the project may go one way or the other.

The studio moment is really key. For me, it’s time for me to reflect back and say “Ok, now I have all this.” My undergrad background in sculpture [still] influences my practice. I really am a maker and I think through making. So a lot of my ideas for the RISK video come from drawing. I start to make drawings in response to what happens, and it’s through that that a narrative becomes clear to inform my editing or shooting later on.

Other times, I will be working with a specific architecture then I can see how I  will use specific spaces. Sometimes I’ll make objects that I use as props or sets, and even I don’t know exactly how they will be used. But, in making them it’s a time in making for me to open up this space in my head to contemplate and things start to come together.

In the end, the studio is still a very important part of my practice too.

MR: Do you ever get tired of people?

KL: No never! [laughs] No, not true. Mostly never. Even when I am really frustrated with people I am still just really fascinated with us because of this idea of a shared humanity in being human. Sometimes that means being frustrated with people. In those moments, I remind myself that this is also my fascination with people – all the emotions and impacts. I love people!

MR: Could you touch on the differences between practices, patronage, and funding in the USA and The Netherlands and Europe?

KL: In general there is more support for the arts publicly. I think that affects the kind of work people are making. If I look at fellow friends and artists in the Netherlands… it’s a different kind of way of working. The support allows for artists to work differently and there’s a different kind of pressure. Artists may have more time to develop projects, or there’s more intense research that they can conduct with support. There’s less of a need for the work to be sold. There’s less reliance on a commercial market, and that makes a difference in the kind of work that people are making. [Dutch artists] say they’re involved in projects more than works – of course they also make work. And there’s also something that I admire about being here: how driven people are to make it and keep it up. Almost everyone I know here has another job next to being an artist.

So it’s like… people here still make and there is lots of really great work. I find it really inspiring for me. Though sometimes I catch myself thinking “It would be great to have this grant from the Netherlands!” [laughs] But there’s something also about feeling a different kind of urgency to make work.

MR: To make things too?

KL: Yes, to make things, but also to kind of remain productive. There’s a greater urgency or activist tendency than when compared to the same types of socially engaged art in Europe. There are two very different social systems and it has been interesting to observe. For me it took a while to conceptualize what social practice means here, and figuring out if I feel comfortable with that distinction. It was interesting to figure out those differences.

Drawing on your previous question I am thinking about the idea of having an aesthetic, and how does that play a role within social practice. I again think it’s hugely important for me.

MR: Interesting. I’ll have a chance to be involved with Alberto Aguilar’s Lunch Room Expanse. It’s really interesting how socially engaged artists work – how many of you manage multiple projects, teach, and do other things in addition to being an artist.

What would you say is the goal of social practice(s)? I guess what I’m getting at is… Why Social Practice?

KL: Good question. For me it was really that I had always this fascination with people so my work has always been about people or particular places. I didn’t grow up with  art, but I was always interested in documentary. And I was always really interested in documentary photography, film-making, and this idea of conveying histories through image. And then, more and more, my work became participatory. It started really with asking the question of who has the power and position in this relationship when I am taking photos or video. Is it the one behind the camera or the one in front? It came out of that to how can that relationship be more participatory.

That’s kind of how it evolved to what I do now.

Engagement is very important, and also I always thought that… this will sound really heavy handed but it still informs me now. When I was growing up in the Netherlands, my generation was still very aware of what had happened during the second world war. Because we lost a huge part of the Jewish population and the Dutch were very passive. It’s not a history that I think anyone can be very proud of. And so for me there was always this puzzling question of how could anyone ever think that one person is better than the other? That one race is better than the other? It was a question that always I struggled to wrap my head around and I asked why can people not see that we are all connected.

MR: What could veil their eyes?

KL: Yes, I think that that’s still an important question that answers why I make work. It’s about a shared experience and a shared humanity and I want people to kind of recognize that through my work. Or through being part of my work. Somehow this realization is key.

MR: In closing, I have a tough question. Galleries. Do you have a gallery that represents you or will you ever?

K: Yes. [laughs]. No. I don’t really know. But sure, I mean why not? I do great drawings too that you can sell. Hit me up. [laughs]

MR: What is next for Kirsten Leenaars?

KL: I am editing a science fiction video that I made at Hyde Park Arts Center, involving many of the staff and visitors. Hopefully, it will come out this summer because it’s the Center’s anniversary – it would be a nice reflection. I have a new project that I am developing with Steven Bridges.

I want to know particularly about The United States Postal Service. I have been fascinated with that institution and what it means. And how it has played a role in America with connecting people – thinking about postal offices as a place for community. And then there’s the American history that the postal office has been a crucial employer for a long time employing African-Americans because of racism on the part of trade unions. Also, the postal service allowed many people to move up from lower to middle class and have the common sort of life where they have an element of safety. Then there’s the change in ways we communicate, from letters being carried by horse to completely digital communication.

There’s a wildly romantic engraving on the Washington D.C. Post Office. Every sentence covers something huge.

I want to do something with that statement, it’s mind-blowing. I’ll be wrapping my head [around] that statement. I would love to be the artist in residence at the post office. I am drafting that letter to the Postmaster General right now.


This interview was recorded on February 11th, and transcribed February 13th 2014. Slight edits have been applied due to length constraints. Audio available soon.

Special thanks to Kirsten Leenaars and Jonathan Kinkley. 

Kirsten Leenaars: Aesthetics and Social Practice

I had the pleasure of conversing with artist Kirsten Leenaars. We talked social practice, aesthetic, people, the post office, and what’s next for Leenars. As one of the artists involved in the …

Arts Management/ Art History Matt Robinson,
600 S. Michigan Ave. Chicago, IL 60605