By Paul Krainak
Frances Whitehead is a longtime Chicago-based civic-practice artist, working internationally in her hybrid capacity as “embedded artist,” with technologists, designers, city planners, and citizen scientists to sort out pressing cultural, environmental, and social challenges. In the process she has been a staunch advocate for those with the least cultural agency. Recent work includes launching the City of Gary Indiana Fruit Futures Initiative, collaborating as Lead Artist with Chicago’s 606 to produce a natural climate monitoring system, and working on a sustainable agriculture project with the city of Lima, Peru. With a background in printmaking and sculpture, and a full-on engagement with scientific disciplines and civic policy, Whitehead is uniquely positioned to reconstruct alternatives to grinding official histories in art and civic hierarchies. She has been Professor of Sculpture at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago since 1985 and contributed to the formation of the school’s Architecture and Design Program, where she occasionally teaches experimental urbanism. Much of her complex career orientation and conviction, as well as her extensive professional accomplishments can be viewed by visiting www.franceswhitehead.com.
PK Frances, let’s begin by talking about why you decided to relocate to New Mexico.
FW Well, the principal reason has to do with scale. Over the last five years I’ve been working in Gary, Indiana. The motivation for that was coming out of “The 606” and wanting to work and live at a more intimate scale. So, I was looking for a place that had some of the key intellectual components that I needed, including perhaps some institutions. A lot of the things that I had always paid attention to were either in Santa Fe, New Mexico or in the proximity, and that included the Santa Fe Institute that studies complexity science, which is a big part of my worldview. I feel like contending with complexity is the main thing that artists need to do. It’s connected to sustainability, but it’s bigger than that. It’s about nature and culture and how humans connect to all of the living systems in the life web, which is at the core of my work. In addition to Santa Fe Institute there is Argonne National Laboratory which does a lot of work on phytoremediation. I’ve always been interested in plant-based soil remediation. The Nevada Art Museum is out here, they run the art and & ecology archive, and University of New Mexico has the only art and ecology MFA in the country. Tamarind Institute is also there. My background is in printmaking. The Santa Fe Art Institute, which deals a lot with social justice – I’ve been in contact with them for the last few years as a juror and supporter, and of course Site Santa Fe, and other art world offerings.
In the meantime, my most important work in Chicago has been very focused on the bioregion dominated by the Great Lakes. But the water is so ever-present people don’t think about it. But New Mexico, like all of the West, is in a drought and even before that Santa Fe always understood that water is a precious resource. So, there’s a lot of water consciousness here and a lot of my work has been driven by plants and water of a bioregion. I want to think more actively about water in a place where the issue is more legible. It isn’t in Chicago.
Likewise, in the last few years, I was invited to Aotearoa, New Zealand, where they are undertaking this political process of becoming a bicultural nation, embracing the Maori indigenous culture, becoming the bicultural University, bicultural governance, etc. And that just took my breath away. In terms of the indigenous perspective, which largely matches my own – although I’m not indigenous obviously – but share an integrative worldview. So, it also interests me that there is so much living indigenous culture in New Mexico, and I look forward to learning more about it. But I would say the intimate scale is really what made me start looking for a place for the next chapter of my work. I wanted to work in a more intimate scale and have a fresh take on things.
PK What specifically?
FW My husband and I are continuing what we call our “dwelling projects” – in this case we’re renovating a conventional mid-century residence into a new home/studio. We’ve titled it “Waterhouse;” It includes grey water re-use, rainwater catchment, water conservation measures, and passive xeriscaping and landscaping features. So, that’s what I’m doing now and that takes us to a conversation about the dwelling projects which are both life and art and have been a big part of my relationship between art and design. While my embedded artist and civic projects were about operating at a larger scale (including civic engagement), I’m now looking for a more scaled-down community to work with.
In Santa Fe, a lot of the small streams are completely dry, the Rio Grande still has water in it but we don’t know for how long. One of the things that I’m doing is picking up this walking practice that I was introduced to in Aotearoa. They have this tradition of the “hikoi.” These are solidarity marches, but are also walking as an embodied form of peripatetic learning. So, we were taken by our Maori host Huhana Smith who’s head of the art school in Wellington at Massey University. She had never seen her hikoi in GPS so I tracked them and then I made them into maps. My printmaking’s morphed into mapmaking.
PK You showed a group of these prints at Bradley a couple of years ago.
FW Right, right. I forgot about that. So, this is something I’m going to pick up here in New Mexico. I want to walk all of these arroyos, and streams, and dry riverbeds, and walk the active watershed because water management here for agriculture is so important. I mean it’s a big issue here that I admittedly know almost nothing about as a newbie. But it’s fascinating. All of these small streams that run through town are mainly dry now. So, there’s some art projects coming along with that and the garden at the Water House. I’m growing some pigment plants and will make pigments and then drawings that way as well.
PK Can you say a couple words about placemaking, maybe describe how that’s different than other kinds of projects, and a few words about “pink infrastructure” that’s mentioned on your website?
FW Yeah. So, um, placemaking is a very contentious term. I was delighted to be asked to contribute an essay to this new “Handbook for Placemaking” which is a herculean effort by Cara Courage from the Tate, to bring perspectives together from the civic sector, from architecture, from the NEA, and from artists to really explore in a practical, but also deeply theoretical way. Many people think, and I’m one of them, that places are not made by humans, that it’s anthropocentric and arrogant. Places already exist, they are geo-specific, and bio-specific and humans are not the only living entities, occupying a place. A lot of people think that place-making is just a tool of gentrification and is about the kind of uneven financial investment that comes in to redo a place, to make it suitable for a different group of people that displace whomever is already living there. So, there’s an obvious social justice critique. There’s also the biologic critique.
A lot of people are interested in the fact that after Richard Florida put placemaking on radar, that the creative economy and others in the mix could revitalize neighborhoods, communities, cities, etc. And so, on the one hand, as artists we want to champion the role of culture and creativity as a contributor to community fabric, but on the other hand we recognize that it linked to capitalism and financial strategies that are really about displacing existing communities so that something can be spiffed up for somebody else. Well that’s really problematic. And so, in my essay I introduced some additional critiques and ideas about the notion of place.
I love Jerry Wilhelm who is a famous Chicago area prairie specialist. He has a phrase “reconnect to the realities of place”. This is the biologic reality, the climatological reality, the microclimate reality – that there is a reality to this place. This becomes more complex when you add the cultural terms “site” and “place,” which is a bit different than site because it’s it frequently carries these different discursive connotations. We talk about authentic places, places that grew up over time, that were not generic strip malls brought in Friday night then opened on Monday morning, so authentic places are another cultural component. But Wilhelm would say there’s always a biological component to place, upon which the cultural is formed and afforded.
PK Timothy Garton Ash once discussed a town in central England where there was growth in an ethnically diverse immigrant population whose political presence began to concern some of the locals. One of the things that became apparent over time, however, was that as the ancestral dimensions of the city shifted, traditional economic and governmental structures became absorbed by the new population. Place and its history determined change and identity more than the reverse. Places seem to maintain their logic, and character no matter who comes and goes – no matter who’s in charge. It even comes into play when oppressor cultures are influenced by indigenous populations via religious syncretism or as a “Creolization” of master mythology becomes the norm.
FW Paul, when I was asked to write about place for this book, yeah, I thought… now I have to have something smart to say about this completely problematic term that I never think about. And I believe that, just as you’re saying, if you put up a cement block building, everything living except the humans, just think, oh… it’s a high alkaline, pH changing, new rock, right there. I mean they don’t see the cement block as artificial. So, the relation of the microbes and the insects and whatever creates the environment around that building doesn’t change when the people come and go. So, this primacy that we think through identity now, it just disappears many other factors.
PK What you said about placemaking jogged my memory of Ash’s text. The town’s industry, policy, and social traditions were almost pre-determined by the kind of resources, economy, and conventions in that region, and it will continue to influence them.
FW Totally, we have lost the reality of place. We have to reconnect.
PK Right, this also reminds me of how extra-urban culture in the Midwest can’t depend on critical networks linking them to the national and international business of art. Place determines the nature of art and language. Global networks are ironically determined by specific cities which, borrowing a term from you, are also cultural microclimates. Coastal art production is just as grounded in community and is as parochial as rural art. For urban/coastal artists the community is the machinery of the artworld. Inland artists understand collaboration differently. If they want to get something made they may have to enlist a carpenter, or a machinist trained by local industry or agriculture. Learning to speak with a colloquial accent in this case is comparable to being fluent in artspeak. Those more vernacular traditions, based often on exterior disciplines, affect complex rural and suburban artworks in ways we never talk about.
FW Well, you know, I agree. The other day we were having a place-making conversation and everything we were saying had to do with cities. But there are other problems too. Haudenosaunne Mohawk and Anishinaabe scholar Vanessa Watts cites the premise of “place thought.” Unlike the Descartes’ idea, “I think, therefore I am,” place-thought holds …you are from here, therefore you can think like this land. Watts’ irrefutable voice critiques the anthropocentrism and eurocentrism of placemaking better than I’m positioned to do.
You know when I started gardening in the city, my soil was disturbed, was full of shag carpet and a lot of other garbage. I come out of art and science and I’m pretty geeky about the stuff I get involved with, including soil and phytoremediation – pulling petroleum out of soil – which is very interesting. So, I am very, very focused on the biochemistry of plants and soil, it’s a big source of my ideas. Suzanne Malec-McKenna who ran Daley’s Department of Environment, calls them “dirty sites.” You know the disturbed industrial sites – she used to say, “You and I, we like the dirty sites,” and there’s a redemptive impulse there for sure to clean up the soil. And plants are very good at it. Plants, the biochemistry of plants is so breathtakingly complex: they make pharmaceuticals, they make pigments, they make the carbohydrates that we eat, and they cleanup soil with symbiotic microbes. I mean it’s fascinating stuff. So that’s the source of my ideas, and that is not just site-specific as we would say in art, but place-based. There you are.
PK There’s a remarkable overlap between the rigor you engage in your research and your sense of design, skills with materials, etc. – the way you approach form. What I mean is that with your confidence with materials and respect you have for all nature of objects, I can’t imagine you having less for what stimulates you intellectually or ideologically.
FW Well, these days I am disinclined to fabricate a whole bunch of sculpture and objects that require an institutional support for their future, and that consume a lot of materials. I’ve done plenty of that, a bunch of it’s in storage so what’s the point? I came of age, like you, during conceptualism. I frequently think that I really am a conceptual artist, in that the materiality is just what’s needed for the ideas, and so I’m not a craftsperson. It’s not a skill set that is an end in itself for me, not at all. Right, it’s a set of ideas. I have a very coherent set of ideas, but my outputs are not materially the same all the time. They change with context: time and place.
Well, I think that, um, you know, I spent many years as a builder and I’m dealing with the impact of the built world on the natural world. Right. And so, I think that I do know a lot about the built environment and how it gets constructed, and that includes material science, metallurgy, industrial processes like galvanizing, and I continue to use them. But that’s when you connect back to the phrase I coined “Duchamp in reverse,” where I took things out of context, symbolically, in the name of art, and now I’m putting them back into usefulness. So, the galvanizing that I learned about in Chicago is being used on the “Waterhouse” in Santa Fe. We have multiple, highly visible galvanized water tanks, so yes, it’s a material language – a sculptural language – and I know what it means. I know how they’re made. I know why they’re galvanized which is to hold the water. Thus, I know how to situate them both symbolically and practically.
“Environmental Sentinel,” a climate monitoring artwork consisting of 453 native, flowering trees along the 606
Images courtesy of The Trust for Public Land and the artist.