Micah Saul: This project is built on a hypoth­e­sis. There are moments in his­to­ry when the sta­tus quo fails. Political sys­tems prove insuf­fi­cient, reli­gious ideas unsat­is­fac­to­ry, social struc­tures intol­er­a­ble. These are moments of crisis. 

Aengus Anderson: During some of these moments, great minds have entered into con­ver­sa­tion and torn apart inher­it­ed ideas, dethron­ing truths, com­bin­ing old thoughts, and cre­at­ing new ideas. They’ve shaped the norms of future generations.

Saul: Every era has its issues, but do ours war­rant The Conversation? If they do, is it happening?

Anderson: We’ll be explor­ing these sorts of ques­tions through con­ver­sa­tions with a cross-section of American thinkers, peo­ple who are cri­tiquing some aspect of nor­mal­i­ty and offer­ing an alter­na­tive vision of the future. People who might be hav­ing The Conversation.

Saul: Like a real con­ver­sa­tion, this project is going to be sub­jec­tive. It will fre­quent­ly change direc­tions, con­nect unex­pect­ed ideas, and wan­der between the tan­gi­ble and the abstract. It will leave us with far more ques­tions than answers because after all, nobody has a monop­oly on dream­ing about the future.

Anderson: I’m Aengus Anderson.

Saul: And I’m Micah Saul. And you’re lis­ten­ing to The Conversation.


Aengus Anderson: So here’s episode twenty-five, Frances Whitehead. This is the only con­ver­sa­tion I’ve had that has gone into two ses­sions and has sprawled across sev­en and a half hours.

Micah Saul: Seven and a half.

Anderson: Of which five and a half are on tape, and of which you, our dear lis­ten­ers will be hear­ing thirty-six minutes.

Saul: I am impressed. This was such a daunt­ing edit­ing task. And I am blown away at how quick­ly you actu­al­ly got it done.

Anderson: I actu­al­ly had to tear out all of my hair and sac­ri­fice a chick­en to the local sky gods, but I made it through. But do you need to have a cou­ple of dis­claimers, because when you’re edit­ing five and a half hours of raw audio into thirty-six min­utes, you lose some­thing. So I need to tell you what you’ve lost. 

You’ve lost a whole lot of details. So, there are a cou­ple of ele­ments that are going to come into this con­ver­sa­tion, and we’re going to whirl­wind through them. And you will say, Wait a sec­ond. I kind of know what she’s say­ing what she’s talk­ing about ethics and aes­thet­ics…” You can make it out pret­ty well. But you’ll know that there is a much deep­er con­ver­sa­tion there. So we have to kind of put this in as our own dis­claimer, because Frances’ thought is real­ly deep and well-developed, and we are just giv­ing you a lit­tle tiny abstract of it.

The oth­er thing I should prob­a­bly men­tion is that we did talk about a lot of oth­er inter­vie­wees and a lot of oth­er ideas. A lot of those will influ­ence this con­ver­sa­tion, but they won’t be explic­it­ly men­tioned. So, we talked about David Korten. We talked about Timothy Morton. We talked about Robert Zubrin. We talked about Joseph Tainter. We talk about Wes Jackson. She men­tions Wes Jackson once, and it’s in pass­ing. It’ll all make sense. It’s not a response to any­thing. But all of those oth­er threads were dis­cussed and will influ­ence this. So, enough talk about the editing. 

So, a lit­tle bit of back­ground on Frances. She was a sculp­tor, but about twelve years ago she began to real­ly shift direc­tions. And he’s been inter­est­ed in a lot of things that well…to you and me might not look exact­ly like art. Places where artists bridge dis­ci­plines. Where artists bring a lot of dif­fer­ent ideas togeth­er to do real­ly new work. And one of the main place she’s done this is as an embed­ded artist with the city of Chicago. But she’s also worked on a vari­ety of oth­er projects across the world. In Peru, in Ireland. She’s cur­rent­ly work­ing on a large project in New York. And a lot of these things are real­ly trans­dis­ci­pli­nary. Not sur­pris­ing­ly, she actu­al­ly found­ed a cen­ter called the Knowledge Lab at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she teach­es, which is ded­i­cat­ed to sort of cre­at­ing new knowl­edge through bridg­ing a whole lot of dif­fer­ent disciplines.

She’s done a mil­lion projects. We’re going to pro­vide links to a bunch of them on the site. There’s one that comes up specif­i­cal­ly in our con­ver­sa­tion, that I decid­ed to include. We talked about three or four. But this one was called Slow Cleanup, and I’ll let her explain that to you in greater detail. So let’s leave it there, and let’s jump straight into the con­ver­sa­tion. This is Frances Whitehead.


Frances Whitehead: Art, botany, and pub­lic pol­i­cy seems to be the place that I have grav­i­tat­ed towards. I stud­ied art and have always self-identified as an artist, and con­tin­ue with that even though at times it seemed like a rem­nant of a pri­or life and a pri­or intel­lec­tu­al con­struct. And now I call myself crazy things like, I have a vari­ety of monikers I use for both clar­i­ty and at the same time provo­ca­tion. So for exam­ple I might call myself an artist inno­va­tor.” We’ve heard a lot about artist as change agent. I’m actu­al­ly inter­est­ed in artist as dou­ble agent. To be both inside and out­side art, to be both inside and out­side oth­er things, like sci­ence or design. 

Around 2000, I was mak­ing art for the art world. The work that I made, even though it was fre­quent­ly about the kind of nature/culture col­li­sion, rela­tion­ship, head­ed to gal­leries and muse­ums, or maybe out­door sculp­ture parks, this kind of thing, was very much involved in an art world con­ver­sa­tion. And I began to have mis­giv­ings about this. I had no lan­guage for them. They were com­plete­ly intu­itive. And I came to an under­stand­ing even­tu­al­ly that the realm of design (by that I mean archi­tec­ture, urban­ism, etc.) was actu­al­ly hav­ing greater impacts on the world than was art. Now, it would be nat­ur­al that I would look to design and not say, engi­neer­ing, because design and art of course are so close and yet are pro­fes­sion­al­ized com­plete­ly differently. 

This was the begin­ning of a com­plete rein­ven­tion of self that hap­pened over the last decade. So, I began to inves­ti­gate what the dis­course around design was, and in that con­text came upon this word sus­tain­abil­i­ty,” and my intro­duc­tion to that top­ic, when hard­ly any­one knew the word except a very obscure group of pol­i­cy experts— Now it’s jar­gon, but at the time no one under­stood with this was. And I sat through a num­ber of sem­i­nars and basi­cal­ly over a two year peri­od of time had a great deal of immer­sion into this phi­los­o­phy. And you might say after that there was no going back. 

I feel that what I can best do is not dwell on every sin­gle cat­a­stroph­ic thing that may come. That is not to say that I am not aware of it, that it doesn’t wor­ry me, that it doesn’t moti­vate me. I absolute­ly think, espe­cial­ly in the tech­no­log­i­cal West, we are fid­dling while Rome burns. So I am very con­scious of it. I know a lot about cli­mate change. I believe it. I am out­raged and infu­ri­at­ed, and have moral indig­na­tion about what we do for our super­fi­cial plea­sure that in the col­lec­tive has ram­i­fi­ca­tions for devel­op­ing nations, peo­ple in oth­er cli­mates, and non-human species of all kinds. I think that we are in the ter­ri­to­ry of moral haz­ard in the extreme. 

Aengus Anderson: What hap­pens if noth­ing changes? Where does this lead us if we stay with our sta­tus quo thoughts?

Whitehead: Within peo­ple who deal seri­ous­ly with the ques­tion of what is sus­tain­abil­i­ty— And there is the ongo­ing con­ver­sa­tion about whether or not we missed the moment and that we are post-sustainability, and now we’re in cli­mate adap­ta­tion, and that we will in fact see an increase as the cli­ma­tol­o­gists have been pre­dict­ing of a cer­tain amount of increase centi­grade and weath­er volatil­i­ty. So even if we don’t change, it’s very like­ly that con­di­tions will change that will cre­ate pain and we will then change. So the ques­tion of whether or not we will do it because we’re smart, or whether or not we will do it because the sys­tems start falling apart, time will tell.

Anderson: Are you wor­ried that we’re look­ing at some sort of col­lapse sce­nario? You know, maybe it’s in a much longer-term sense, but is that we’re push­ing off against? And I real­ize col­lapse is a loaded and dra­mat­ic word to start with.

Anderson: Am I wor­ried? I think the hard­er word for me to talk about is wor­ried. Do I think a col­lapse is pos­si­ble? Of course. I mean, you would be sil­ly to not think it was pos­si­ble. I real­ly don’t oper­ate in the realm of prob­a­bil­i­ties. Do I have my five-gallon buck­ets of water and hard­tack stowed in the base­ment? [laughs] I’m not there yet.

The best and only way that I can oper­ate is not to go into despair. I don’t have to try, actu­al­ly, to hold despair away. I have a priv­i­leged life. Maybe despair is so abstract, that kind of despair. We have chal­lenges to our per­cep­tion, and own own stan­dard of liv­ing in the West is absolute­ly a chal­lenge to our abil­i­ty to com­pre­hend what life could be like. And I am among those who can­not quite imag­ine it, because I know that I have a blind spot a mile wide. 

As a human species, a bio­log­ic enti­ty, pro­grammed for sur­vival, I have to work against my own pro­gram­ming, my own bio­log­ic blind spot in terms of under­stand­ing that oth­er crea­tures and the rights of nature on this plan­et might also eth­i­cal­ly, aes­thet­i­cal­ly, moral­ly, what­ev­er kind of large sys­tem of thought you want to bring to bear on it…theologically. They are here also and I have to con­tend with that real­i­ty, and I have to attempt to grow in con­scious­ness to under­stand what is the right scale at which I can under­stand myself as a human being in rela­tion to that which has also arrived here with me on the planet.

Whitehead: I’m not a philoso­pher, not an aes­theti­cian. I can’t stand toe to toe with those who know that lit­er­a­ture well. But I do believe that at this moment, what we can see is the byprod­uct of an unbri­dled anthro­pocen­trism and all of the mul­ti­ple aes­thet­ics that have accom­pa­nied the his­to­ry of human beings in the name of cul­ture. We have arrived at a place where there’s a cleav­age between what is eth­i­cal­ly in front of us and any­thing we might think an aes­thet­ic could be or not be, or deliv­er or not deliver. 

And so I have come to want to talk about the rela­tion­ship of ethics and aes­thet­ics. Now, I’ll tell you that with­in the acad­e­my these are fight­ing words. I have col­leagues who are infu­ri­at­ed and out­raged, and think that it com­plete­ly shows a lit­er­ary igno­rance of me that I would want to put these two words in the same sentence.

But I believe that we have what I can only call a failed meta­physic. We have a meta­physic, a large philo­soph­ic sys­tem, that has these mov­ing parts. It is very informed by the way, for exam­ple, tech­nol­o­gy per­me­ates our cur­rent life in the West. Something that I’m inclined to do is take a very very long view. And I look ten thou­sand years back and try to imag­ine ten thou­sand years in the future. And when I look ten thou­sand years back to the ori­gin of agri­cul­ture, which the anthro­pol­o­gists tell us is the begin­ning of cultura. 

And so this deep con­nec­tion to agri­cul­ture and place and the most basic roots of cul­ture and bio­log­ic sur­vival are sort of at the core. And then they become high­ly elab­o­rat­ed over time. And I kind of won­der (this gets back to your col­lapse idea), at one place, are we so involved in this labyrinthine under­stand­ing of what an aes­thet­ic is or isn’t, that we have lost this con­nec­tion to a sys­tem that accounts for all con­di­tions before us? And right now, the con­ver­sa­tion around aes­thet­ics does not account for many of the con­di­tions before us, includ­ing the rights of nature, includ­ing all of the cri­tiques of anthro­pocen­trism that we have, etc. 

But I believe that the best thing I can offer that is to work to bring my best knowl­edge, skill, cre­ativ­i­ty, dis­po­si­tion, the whole bun­dle that I can, to not just problem-solv­ing but problem-finding, artic­u­la­tion, and demon­strat­ing that if we can lever­age the entire­ty of human cap­i­tal and all of the knowl­edge resources that we have, includ­ing those of peo­ple that we have a ten­den­cy to dis­miss, that actu­al­ly we have great capac­i­ty as a species to to places that we cur­rent­ly might not see that we can go to. And that my best tool is not to dwell on the neg­a­tive, but to demon­strate pos­si­bil­i­ties, and the pos­si­bil­i­ty of possibilities.

Anderson: Are you famil­iar with the Clock of the Long Now?

Whitehead: Uh uh.

Anderson: It’s a 10,000-year clock being built in West Texas by a foun­da­tion in San Francesco. I inter­viewed the Executive Director and his feel­ing [is] that sort of one of the biggest things we need to be address­ing now is just timeframes.

Whitehead: Absolutely. You know, I have these lit­tle mnemon­ics in my head that I use. One from my bud­dy Tony Fry, where he always talks about design, is that work from the future back­wards.” The future arrives every day. You know, try­ing to get your mind around what in fact is the future? And how does it come? And what does that mean. That it isn’t an abstrac­tion. That it is just anoth­er man­i­fes­ta­tion of the now.

I’ve also been very inter­est­ed in lan­guage, such as the art of the long view. And I’m inter­est­ed in that for two rea­sons. One is because it con­tains this kind of thought that we’re describ­ing about push­ing our imag­i­na­tion and our com­pre­hen­sion to deal with these time­frames that for human con­scious­ness, because of their own lifes­pan, seem incom­pre­hen­si­ble or incom­men­su­rable. In fact, the very notion of incom­men­su­ra­bil­i­ty is a key dri­ver of unsus­tain­abil­i­ty, in my mind. And by incom­men­su­ra­bil­i­ty, I’m refer­ring to how things that are mea­sured in dif­fer­ent units are inter­act­ing with each oth­er as active sys­tems, but they [are] not account­ed for with­in the same met­rics, or by the same exper­tise, and there­fore they’re invis­i­ble or they’re not legible. 

And this is where the will­ing­ness of the artist to research some­thing and learn a bit about it with­out becom­ing an expert, and then move into that inter­sti­tial space between exper­tis­es, gets imme­di­ate­ly back to the thing we start­ed with, in terms of what do artists know they can con­tribute? How do their method­olo­gies con­tribute? And I’ve actu­al­ly come to joke that I am a pro­fes­sion­al dot con­nec­tor. And I do that prin­ci­pal­ly in a project-by-project basis. So what­ev­er I’m work­ing on, I will tend to grav­i­tate towards areas that no one is touch­ing on, which are where large sys­tems meet. Or where cul­tur­al val­ues meet oth­er kinds of hard metrics.

Anderson: So let’s make this tan­gi­ble. Let’s have an exam­ple of some­thing that deals with some of these, from your work.

Whitehead: Well, like for exam­ple let’s look at this Slow Cleanup, which is a petro­le­um phy­tore­me­di­a­tion project that I’m just wrap­ping up with the City of Chicago. This project is both a pro­gram, an ori­en­ta­tion, and also we have estab­lished the field tri­als for a sci­en­tif­ic inves­ti­ga­tion. And this sci­en­tif­ic inves­ti­ga­tion is also a cul­tur­al investigation.

First off, phy­tore­me­di­a­tion is using plants to clean up soil. It’s a rel­a­tive­ly new tech­nol­o­gy. And many plants have not been test­ed. And I dis­cov­ered very ear­ly on, to my sur­prise, that the very very famous prairie plants that grow in this part of the world nat­u­ral­ly, includ­ing some very orna­men­tal, fab­u­lous horticulturally-valuable plants with mas­sive root sys­tems (That’s impor­tant because it’s the roots that actu­al­ly do the work.), that these plants have nev­er been test­ed for their abil­i­ty to clean up petro­le­um and oth­er pollutants.

And when I dis­cov­ered in doing the research for this project that this had been called for by many land­scape archi­tects but had nev­er hap­pened, this is where the inten­tion­al­i­ty of the artist kicks in. I’m not wait­ing for a client to com­mis­sion me to do this work. I just set about mak­ing it hap­pen with­out get­ting anyone’s per­mis­sion. And I did this by find­ing out who are the impor­tant soil sci­en­tists who do this work, call­ing them up, and con­vinc­ing them on the pure intel­lec­tu­al mer­its of col­lab­o­rat­ing with an artist work­ing embed­ded in the City of Chicago as a form of exper­i­men­tal research, that I was able to get cooperation.

And so Dr. Paul Schwab, who’s one of the lead­ing plant-based phy­tore­me­di­a­tion soil sci­en­tists, joined me, and we have cre­at­ed a pro­gram. And he has been run­ning the lab tri­als for eighty species, and we will have results in a few weeks. And this will be bona fide, peer-reviewable, repro­ducible, sci­ence. This is not sci­ence by artists. This is science.

Now, those same plants were plant­ed out in a large field-trialed gar­den in the Cottage Grove Heights com­mu­ni­ty of South Chicago. We call this the knowl­edge site, where we’re grow­ing the knowl­edge. The com­mu­ni­ty imme­di­ate­ly named it Cottage Grove Heights Laboratory Garden. (Which I loved. They took own­er­ship of it.) So this is a site where we are doing sev­er­al things. We are run­ning the field tri­als for the eighty plants. And that required, in a for­mal design, required that the site be par­ti­tioned off into test plots. So it was going to be a test plot garden.

Test plots are typ­i­cal­ly just a gridded-off agricultural-style site. So I had to fig­ure out how I could design a set of test plots where they could be kept track of, but that it would be leg­i­ble to the com­mu­ni­ty and the pub­lic. How would the sig­nage be there so that you could look at it and view it from the street and make some sense of it, but also, because it is a pas­sive site that can’t be entered (it’s not a park), how can it con­tribute aes­thet­i­cal­ly, (And in this way I do mean pure­ly visu­al­ly.), all dur­ing the year to the neigh­bor­hood? To be a ben­e­fit, a cul­tur­al asset, to the com­mu­ni­ty. So, what could that look like? 

There is also oth­er val­ues that come because these plants sup­port a great deal of wildlife and habi­tat, includ­ing insects and birds and oth­ers. So it had to func­tion for the sci­ence, because you had one plant in each plot. You had to go count the plants in plot 27. So, plot 27 had to be delim­it­ed. It had to have a grid of some kind. But I end­ed up mak­ing a radi­al grid that is half of a cir­cle, view­able from one loca­tion on the side­walk. Designed it in such a way that it leads the pub­lic to that location. 

The site is actu­al­ly ramped up from that loca­tion in the front, like a shal­low amphithe­ater. So I used to that to cre­ate a per­spec­tive for the view­er. This friend of mine likened the design that we have to Versailles and the idea of pow­er, where the seat of pow­er, the own­er, the king, looks out over the gar­dens. Well, I real­ly liked this, because what I’ve done is I’ve made the cit­i­zen be the king. They have own­er­ship and par­tic­i­pa­tion in this project. And so this makes it real­ly dif­fer­ent, and flips the pow­er script of a Versailles. The mes­sage, I hope, there is, even though you’re not in, you’re in. This is for all of us to comprehend. 

Now, that radi­al design, this is where my inter­est in time, space, and multi-criteria comes in. So this radi­al clock that goes round, that radi­ates from the view­er, has two lives. On the one hand it orga­nizes the trees, shrubs, and forbs into dis­crete types of hor­ti­cul­tur­al or botan­i­cal plant types. So, it oper­ates for the scientists.

But the oth­er thing that it does, and I nev­er told any­body I was doing this because I didn’t know if I could achieve it… I also orga­nize them so that the bloom moves from North to South like a big clock of bloom. To the North are the first bloomers, in the mid­dle are the mid-summer bloomers, and to the South are the late-summer bloomers. And so I’m hop­ing that it will show sea­son­al­i­ty and time in that way.

That’s an exam­ple of how I cre­at­ed some­thing that looks like sci­ence, gives sci­ence what it needs, cre­ates an aes­thet­ic expe­ri­ence, makes man­i­fest simul­ta­ne­ous­ly sea­son­al­i­ty and the pas­sage of time itself, and does so in a way that even though phys­i­cal­ly peo­ple are out they are invit­ed men­tal­ly and visu­al­ly in. And the part that it is design, is work­ing with those con­di­tions and giv­ing them form. And the part that you might say is art is the inten­tion to do all of those things at once, and demon­strate that they can all hap­pen at once. 

Anderson: There are all these val­ues that are in the prac­tice of this project. So, it shows the dif­fer­ent val­ues in action. I’m also curi­ous about, on one hand, we see the val­ues and we talk about them, and no doubt like all the peo­ple and gov­ern­ments and the sci­en­tists you’re col­lab­o­rat­ing with are all think­ing about these prob­lems in a dif­fer­ent way now. And maybe that is some of the way of chang­ing the con­ver­sa­tion about the meta­physics or the ethics. But for the guy who doesn’t real­ly know about this, how do we sort of change that broad­er con­ver­sa­tion about the ethics? How do we shift the metaphysics?

Whitehead: You know, there is not a one size fits all com­mu­ni­ca­tion device. I think that it is impor­tant for peo­ple who are think­ing about things in a com­plex way to not pre­tend they are not, sim­ply because it is not acces­si­ble or use­ful to every­one. This is where the projects, the phys­i­cal projects, are so impor­tant me as a prac­ti­tion­er. Because I can only get so far by talk­ing about it. At the end of the day, I have to see if I can craft an embod­i­ment or an instan­ti­a­tion, and I fre­quent­ly fail. I will just tell you that my ideas, like all ideas, are almost always big­ger than what you can actu­al­ly deliv­er in the real world.

But maybe you get a lit­tle piece of it, and that is a tick­ing time bomb that if it does its work, bring[s] peo­ple who don’t access your ideas ver­bal­ly, bring[s] them in anoth­er way. Experientially, visu­al­ly, even if it’s just by them won­der­ing, Well, there was a gas sta­tion on that cor­ner for twen­ty five-years, and now it’s this oth­er thing. Like, what’s that about?” Just that is already some­thing, right.

We must reflect, we must be crit­i­cal. But then we must move into action. And this is why irony, there’s just no place for irony in this. Because you have to be equal­ly crit­i­cal in terms of under­stand­ing what you and oth­ers are doing, which would per­haps be the begin­ning of that irony, because it’s rev­e­la­to­ry. But then, you must move into action. And to fail to do so, in my opin­ion, is… I tend to speak in such a hyper­bol­ic way, I want to say cow­ardice. [laughs]

Anderson: I want just going to say cowardice!

Whitehead: Is cow­ardice and lack­ing in imag­i­na­tion in the extreme. And I would love to chal­lenge all my fel­low artists to opt in, come on down, vio­late your own taste, get over your irony, speak to peo­ple who speak a dif­fer­ent lan­guage, get on with being the inter­sti­tial work­ers we can be, and trust that art and cul­ture have always been part of human­i­ty, and they will always con­tin­ue to be. 

Some of my artist friends think what I’m doing isn’t art, and I’ve giv­en up on art. It’ll take care of itself. You know. I mean it’s always been there, it will always be there, and we always know that new art nev­er looks like art at first, ever. So why should this be any dif­fer­ent? We just have to trust the process. And I would say that must be true for every oth­er discipline.

Anderson: Just in this project, I’m see­ing all of these big abstract sys­tems out there. I’m try­ing to put them togeth­er and won­der­ing, do you ever feel that things are so com­plex that there’s kind of no way to deal with them get­ting ever more complex?

Whitehead: I think there are peo­ple who are already work­ing on a bit of a solu­tion to that dilem­ma. It real­ly orig­i­nat­ed with the Slow Food peo­ple, but it is what I would call a relo­cal­iza­tion. I think what hap­pened when we had the eco­nom­ic melt­down a cou­ple of years ago, that peo­ple saw for the first time that hav­ing every­thing con­nect­ed world­wide is prob­a­bly not a good idea. We know from biol­o­gy that mono­cul­tures are vul­ner­a­ble. And so the ongo­ing con­ver­sa­tion in the EU about a shared cur­ren­cy and shared bank­ing sys­tem, and then how that made them vul­ner­a­ble. The inter­con­nect­ed economies of transna­tion­al com­pa­nies makes the US vul­ner­a­ble. The way mort­gage prod­ucts were sold into oth­er economies… We imme­di­ate­ly saw eco­nom­i­cal­ly how it’s real­ly not maybe the com­plex­i­ty that makes the vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty, but hav­ing no fire­walls at any scales between dif­fer­ent mag­ni­tudes of systems.

So, where maybe we use to have the town and the biore­gion and the state and the nation, and you know, you go on up in these dif­fer­ent mag­ni­tudes. And the eco­nom­ic fab­ric began to reach… (it’s that incom­men­su­ra­bil­i­ty thing again) began to reach through these sys­tems and uni­fy them in a way that made them vul­ner­a­ble, such that if Louise can’t pay her mort­gage, the stock mar­ket crash­es in Germany. [laughs] I mean that’s kind of extreme. But I’m not so sure it has to do with com­plex­i­ty in this abstract way, but more hav­ing to do with whether or not there are any geo­graph­ic real­i­ties and biore­gion­al edges to things that should be respected. 

And there are mul­ti­ple argu­ments for this. One has to do with vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty of say, the eco­nom­ic sys­tem. Another place that every­one cites as major­ly vul­ner­a­ble that I work in is food secu­ri­ty. Because the food sys­tem is the top­ic in the large sys­tem that peo­ple already real­ize are vul­ner­a­ble. So we see all of these dif­fer­ent groups of users. We see the food secu­ri­ty peo­ple. We see the Slow Food cul­tur­al peo­ple. We see the per­ma­cul­ture as the envi­ron­men­tal sec­tor. We see econ­o­mists wor­ried about the monop­o­lis­tic food sys­tem prac­tices and the con­sol­i­da­tion in the food industry. 

So now, social, cul­tur­al, envi­ron­men­tal, eco­nom­ic, you can see that the food sys­tem has got major advo­ca­cy from four dif­fer­ent sec­tors deal­ing with it for very good rea­son. One is it’s every­where in the earth. Everybody eats. It’s deeply cul­tur­al. That’s leg­i­ble. It’s [a] cul­tur­al aspect. It’s leg­i­ble. It’s leg­i­bly eco­nom­ic, etc. It’s leg­i­bly envi­ron­men­tal, etc. 

Its leg­i­bil­i­ty as a sys­tem that is con­nect­ed to all these major sec­tors and that every­body can relate to, has allowed it to become a flash­point for all kinds of peo­ple work­ing top-down and bottom-up. And we know that it is biore­gion­al­ly spe­cif­ic. It must be because of what you can grow. So, it’s place-based. And so it has all of these attrib­ut­es. And I believe that we are learn­ing from the food sys­tem work that’s being done. And I’m hop­ing we can extrap­o­late oper­a­ble prin­ci­ples out of that work, and that that is going to become a mod­el for inter­ven­ing in oth­er systems.

Anderson: That seems like there’s the tan­gi­ble case exam­ple for a lot of peo­ple who aren’t think­ing big sys­tems, com­plex­i­ty, who can just kind of imag­ine like, Oh yeah, if the truck doesn’t show up at Safeway there’s noth­ing grow­ing in Arizona to eat,” right. I mean, that’s like our foun­da­tion­al lev­el of Why care? That’s why you care.”

Whitehead: That’s right. It’s a place where if you want to work bottom-up, no prob­lem. If you want to work top-down, no prob­lem. And because of that I think it has attract­ed a lot of work­ers. I think a lot of peo­ple can’t look at an aban­doned gas sta­tion and come up with the idea that the auto­mo­bile is America’s great­est mate­r­i­al cul­tur­al arti­fact. But I think a lot of peo­ple under­stand that if the truck doesn’t show up at the Safeway and they live in Phoenix, they’re in trouble.

Understanding the deeply place-based man­dates of sus­tain­abil­i­ty, and appro­pri­ate instan­ti­a­tions that take into account local con­di­tions (What Jerry Wilhelm says we have to recon­nect to the real­i­ties of place.), this gets us right back to peo­ple like Wes Jackson and the kind of work that he’s doing, and cri­tiques of progress. And so if we imag­ine the cul­tur­al work­ers of future, how can they not be deeply place-based, sit­u­at­ed knowl­edge, that is glob­al­ly con­nect­ed. We will have our PDA in our back pock­et. We’re not in that region­al ver­sus inter­na­tion­al dichoto­my any­more. We are all glo­cal. We can work local­ly, think glob­al­ly, right? That’s been around forever.

So it’s not about turn­ing the clock back to an old parochial region­al­ism. It’s actu­al­ly about under­stand­ing that our phys­i­cal loca­tion and our intel­lec­tu­al, vir­tu­al, and dig­i­tal con­nec­tiv­i­ty allow us to oper­ate spa­tial­ly dif­fer­ent­ly, and in mul­ti­ple ways that was not pos­si­ble before. And this casts a whole new ques­tion on rel­a­tive scales and how they become nest­ed into the larg­er real­i­ty. It’s not a ques­tion of big ver­sus small, or com­plex ver­sus simple.

Anderson: What does a good, sta­ble future look like? We’ve talked about local, we’ve talked about the food con­ver­sa­tion as being a real nexus for us to be think­ing about this. When you think about a very good future where things are work­ing out per­fect­ly and where we’re hav­ing the right con­ver­sa­tions, what does that look like for you?

Whitehead: I’ve heard sev­er­al futures described that ring true to me, but I say that know­ing that that is of course col­ored by what I enjoy doing in my life, and that I am not the only kind of ani­mal out there. There is a pret­ty hard-boiled food plan­ner here in the city of Chicago. We’re not talk­ing about the tree hug­gers here, we’re talk­ing about some­thing fund­ed at a very high lev­el that is look­ing at the Great Lakes basin as a food shed to sup­port the metrop­o­lis­es that are here, giv­en the car­ry­ing capac­i­ty of the land that we have here. And she talks about things such as what per­cent­age of the pop­u­la­tion in the future will be involved in the food sys­tem. I don’t remem­ber the exact fig­ures, but now there’s a cer­tain per­cent­age of the pop­u­la­tion involved—

Anderson: It’s small, right?

Whitehead: Very small. Of course his­tor­i­cal­ly, the vast major­i­ty of all humans on the plan­et were involved in food pro­duc­tion of some kind. And so she talks about that with with­in a cer­tain num­ber of years, we will be back to 25% of the pop­u­la­tion will be involved in the food system.

This is a real­ly inter­est­ing vision because it sig­nals a kind of back to basics that some might see as a loss in qual­i­ty of life. But you know, you don’t have to hear from me that peo­ple are feel­ing as iso­lat­ed by tech­nol­o­gy as they feel enabled, that peo­ple long for com­mu­ni­ty even as they seek it digitally.

As a per­son who learns from direct expe­ri­ence and who gets ground­ed by gar­den­ing and such things, I don’t per­son­al­ly see that hav­ing more peo­ple involved in food pro­duc­tion and hus­bandry would result in a decrease in the qual­i­ty of life. I think it would cre­ate an increase in the qual­i­ty of life, because it would con­nect us to sea­son­al­i­ty, to place, to a full five-sense kines­thet­ic life. It would con­nect the tan­gi­ble and the intan­gi­ble. For me per­son­al­ly, when I’m not too much in my head, or just clunk­ing around in my body, but when these things are in sync, this is maybe some­thing we might call happiness.

Now, some peo­ple would hear that and think I’m being a Luddite, and I’m not. I actu­al­ly think this is as good a way for­ward as any oth­er tried and true para­ble. And that would include a bal­ance between things tech­no­log­i­cal, things bio­log­ic. How could you argue against some kind of balance?

Anderson: When we’re talk­ing about the good here, what is the good? You were men­tion­ing hap­pi­ness, you were talk­ing about kines­thet­ic expe­ri­ences, unmedi­at­ed expe­ri­ences. Where do you get those ideas?

Whitehead: Perhaps this is a bit of a dis­claimer. Perhaps this is when I say I can claim inten­tion­al­i­ty, not moral­i­ty. I think this is anoth­er way of say­ing I’m doing what I can to be mind­ful and respon­si­ble, but I can make no claims to absolute good. Like, oth­ers make claims this is right, this is wrong, this is good, this is the way for­ward. That’s all sort of polit­i­cal grand­stand­ing, in my opin­ion, of one sort or anoth­er. I can make no such claims. I do not know what the out­come of my actions will be. And I am will­ing to admit it.

Anderson: But you are guid­ed by some sense of right and wrong. Perhaps it isn’t an objec­tive moral­i­ty, but it is a sub­jec­tive val­ue set?

Whitehead: Well, see I would call that an eth­ic. Yes, I think that the whole long con­ver­sa­tion around sus­tain­abil­i­ty— I think sus­tain­abil­i­ty is aspi­ra­tional. I think it’s an unachiev­able absolute, like the oth­ers that we’ve already dis­cussed. But it’s an ethos. And it can be applied to any sec­tor or sphere of work.

Anderson: And for you, where do the ethics come from?

Whitehead: Well, I think it comes from two places. It does not come from social respon­si­bil­i­ty. Many many peo­ple have talked about the social respon­si­bil­i­ty of the artist to be a pub­lic intel­lec­tu­al and to be social­ly respon­si­ble. I don’t think you’re going to get very far blud­geon­ing artists or any­body else with pure­ly with the log­ic of social respon­si­bil­i­ty. I will say that when I was intro­duced to the ideas around sus­tain­abil­i­ty, the chal­lenge and the con­cept of what sus­tain­abil­i­ty could look like, and the ques­tion of what does that mean for art… It will make a new art. Climate change, cul­ture change. But what is that new art? This has total­ly cap­tured my imagination.

You know, we don’t pick what cap­tures our imag­i­na­tion. It cap­tured mine. It got under my skin. And only after I got deeply into it did I become politi­cized and real­ize what was at stake. At first it was pure­ly on a cre­ative imag­i­na­tion lev­el that entered.

Anderson: Really?

Whitehead: Yes. Absolutely. It rocked my world and it chal­lenged me intel­lec­tu­al­ly, and I couldn’t believe that there was such a thing com­ing and such a body of knowl­edge that I had been com­plete­ly obliv­i­ous to. It was just like a whole new world open­ing before me that refreshed my take at a time when I was a bit tired. It extend­ed what I was already doing in this huge new way that was fascinating. 

The oth­er piece of that, on the deeply per­son­al lev­el, is won­der­ment. I had begun to have, when I moved to the city, a gar­den. I plant­ed, one year, bot­tle gourds. That is to say nocturnal-blooming hard-shell logi­nar­ia, the old­est prime cul­ti­var in the world. And I plant­ed those, and they’re pol­li­nat­ed at night, and we don’t have ade­quate pol­li­na­tors in Chicago because we’re too cold. And I thought that I had to go out and pol­li­nate all of these. That’s what all the books said, and I would go out every night with a paint­brush to pol­li­nate in order to get enough gourds.

Well, one night I went out. An enor­mous sph­ynx moth shows up, in the mid­dle of the city in a bombed out neigh­bor­hood of vacant homes where there was nary a tree let alone a logi­nar­ia patch, and the huge six-inch sphinx moth shows up because you plant­ed the plant that it wants. And where did it come from? And how did it find its des­ti­na­tion that it had coe­volved to pol­li­nate? I became like this child. And what was revealed to me was the clos­est I have ever come to a mys­ti­cal or the­o­log­i­cal moment. So, I guess I am now offi­cial­ly a nature worshipper. 

But what I believe that I came to wor­ship was not nature it the kind of tree-hugging kin­da way. Actually I got a glimpse of the com­plex­i­ty of inter­con­nec­tiv­i­ty that was beyond my com­pre­hen­sion up until that point. And glimps­ing that com­plex­i­ty that was out­side self goes back to that notion of the loss of self and the need we have through art or oth­er things to see some­thing larg­er than our­selves, whether you call it com­mu­ni­ty, what­ev­er you call it. The loss of self, step­ping out­side the bur­den of self, hap­pened for me in the gar­den. I for the first time under­stood the sto­ry of the gar­den of Adam and Eve. I under­stood the metaphor of the con­nec­tion between knowl­edge and par­adise. I under­stood why an enclosed gar­den has lim­it­ed insights to offer. I under­stood how one had to leave the gar­den to grow. 

And in a way the next years of my life par­al­leled that. My first gar­den expe­ri­ence was a walled gar­den that I devel­oped, and even­tu­al­ly it became too small and I had to step into the unknown and move into pub­lic prac­tice, and take those visions of com­plex­i­ty and my abil­i­ty to con­tend with it even though it makes my mind hurt, and it irri­tates those around me because I insist that they deal with it. The gar­den taught me that com­plex­i­ty is real, it is big­ger than self, it must be dealt with, and that’s the only thing I know about the good.


Aengus Anderson: Well how about that for a def­i­n­i­tion of the good.

Micah Saul: That is absolute­ly the most elo­quent, poet­ic descrip­tion we’ve heard so far. 

Anderson: I could get behind that.

Saul: I would buy that book. Let’s put it that way.

Anderson: There’s a lot here to talk about, and there are a bunch of ideas. A lot of them are just men­tioned very briefly, but we can expand on them a lit­tle bit because they do go by fast. A lot of words that we need to talk about. A lot of concepts.

Saul: Yeah, this is… I think just by nature of how it was edit­ed, this is one of the dens­est con­ver­sa­tions we’ve got so far.

Anderson: Yes. Let’s start where we always start: What’s the prob­lem? Why do we care about all this?

Saul: I mean, it seems to me that cli­mate change is a major con­cern for her, but I don’t know that that’s nec­es­sar­i­ly the prob­lem prob­lem. I think for her com­plex­i­ty is the issue, sim­i­lar to Tainter, although I think it’s a dif­fer­ent sort of com­plex­i­ty than Tainter.

Anderson: Yeah, that seems like some­thing we should also talk about. Tainter’s com­plex­i­ty, the way he uses that word, is built on top of an entire the­o­ry, and for him those com­plex social struc­tures that are problem-solving struc­tures. Whereas for Frances it seems like com­plex­i­ty is a much big­ger sort of thing. It’s human but it’s also non-human. In a way it seems like sort of the sum total­i­ty of things that are hap­pen­ing in the uni­verse. And so, when we brush up against com­plex­i­ty, we’re sort of brush­ing up into these cas­es where we know we don’t now.

Saul: Right. I mean, in many ways it’s sort of anal­o­gous to Timothy Morton’s mesh.

Anderson: Yes. If we’re fac­ing that sort of sense of mas­sive unknow­able com­plex­i­ty, and that is lead­ing us to make choic­es that are maybe ill-informed, that’s kind of com­ing back to us through the cli­mate in a way that’s also very sim­i­lar to Morton. Things do feed back to you, whether you under­stand them or not.

Saul: So, I thought it was inter­est­ing that, sort of what you were just men­tion­ing that for her com­plex­i­ty itself is some­thing to be admired. She likes it. 

Anderson: So it may be our prob­lem, but it’s not nec­es­sar­i­ly bad.

Saul: Right. Exactly. And then the bad comes in with our inabil­i­ty to accept com­plex­i­ty. Or inabil­i­ty to process the complexity.

Anderson: It seems like it’s kind of a multi-layered thing. On one hand we don’t see it, or a lot of us don’t see it. And when we do see it we don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly appre­ci­ate it.

Saul: Which I think can eas­i­ly car­ry us for­ward now to talk about what the solu­tion is, as espoused by Frances. 

Anderson: And the solu­tion to com­plex­i­ty is…we raise our hands in the air and scream, We don’t know!”

Saul: Exactly. 

Anderson: But we know there is an eth­i­cal imper­a­tive to do some­thing, which seems to be this link between the begin­ning and the end of the con­ver­sa­tion. You know, the sphinx moth is the reminder of the com­plex­i­ty. It’s also a reminder of the good­ness of that com­plex­i­ty. I don’t know. I mean, that’s the eth­i­cal imper­a­tive. There it is. It’s part of this amaz­ing thing and you don’t kill that.

Saul: Right. 

Anderson: But don’t kill that” is vague. That only gets us so far. So it seems like she goes in a lot of inter­est­ing dif­fer­ent direc­tions in terms of how do we actu­al­ly act.

Saul: Right. The one I’m most inter­est­ed in talk­ing about is her belief that artists have an incred­i­bly impor­tant role in our attempt to either wrap our heads around com­plex­i­ty or fig­ure out what to do with complexity. 

Anderson: This was one of the most excit­ing parts of the con­ver­sa­tion for me, because it seems like com­plex­i­ty, and whether it’s under that word or not, but that idea of sys­tems think­ing is anoth­er way we’ve talked about it, has been a theme in a lot of these con­ver­sa­tions, where we’re up against these sort of over­whelm­ing sys­tems, and what the hell do we do about them? 

And a lot of peo­ple have talked about the cri­sis of sort of hav­ing a bunch of spe­cial­ists, hav­ing more knowl­edge than you know how to deal with… And Frances sort of gives us a solu­tion by cre­at­ing a new char­ac­ter. And the new char­ac­ter is the artist. But it’s not an artist that I think most of us would recognize.

Saul: How do you mean?

Anderson: This artist isn’t pro­duc­ing a spe­cif­ic art-work that hangs in a gallery, you know. It’s the artist as, well she says pro­fes­sion­al dot con­nec­tor.” It’s the artist as ama­teur, it’s the artist as some­one whose spe­cial­ty is essen­tial­ly cross-pollinating ideas, who can bring the spe­cial­ists togeth­er to solve prob­lems in a way that may result in, to draw from her own exam­ples, infra­struc­ture projects.

Saul: Yeah. I appre­ci­at­ed her rede­f­i­n­i­tion of what an artist is. In some ways I almost feel if this is a…well, if it’s a return to an ear­li­er def­i­n­i­tion of artist.

Anderson: Ah, that’s intriguing.

Saul: Right now, we have this idea of the artist as some­one who pro­duces work in a gallery, or pro­duces what an instal­la­tion piece, or some­thing for the sculp­ture gar­den. I mean, all these places that she her­self described as work­ing in. But pri­or to that, I won­der if the artist used to be more along the lines of what she’s talk­ing about now. That dot con­nec­tor. The per­son that lives in the inter­sti­tial spaces. The per­son that process­es the world and feeds it back to the rest of human­i­ty. I mean, we can go back real­ly far, and I’m think­ing, the sto­ry­teller or the cave painter. But we could go a hell of a lot more recent and look at some­one like da Vinci, who was absolute­ly an artist but was also… I mean, he’s sort of the the pro­fes­sion­al ama­teur, in so many ways.

Anderson: Yeah. Truly a big syn­thet­ic thinker. It seems like she talks about the pro­fes­sion­al­ized art com­mu­ni­ty now as being just anoth­er spe­cial­ty group.

Saul: Right.

Whitehead: And it’s real­ly inter­est­ing how she sort of defines her work against that com­mu­ni­ty. Because it’s clear that…I mean, she men­tions her work is often not even seen as art any­more. She’s con­sid­ered to be some­one who’s left the art world. And I like how she sort of turns around and chal­lenges the art world, throw­ing down the gaunt­let and real­ly say­ing, Look, you guys aren’t mak­ing a dif­fer­ence. You’re hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion amongst your­selves that no one else can deci­pher, and we have an eth­i­cal imper­a­tive to try to make the world a bet­ter place. And you’re not doing it.”

Saul: Yeah. I agree. I real­ly liked her chal­lenge. Just the idea that artists have to opt in to the world. They can’t just sit back and observe, in her mind. 

Anderson: And there’s the whole irony com­po­nent of that, too

Saul: Yes. I real­ly liked hear­ing that. Obviously, for us when we were first con­ced­ing the project, we talked a lot about irony. Because irony’s easy. It’s a crutch. And it can also breed a sort of fatalism.

Anderson: Right.

Saul: And this project is direct­ly opposed to that sense of fatalism. 

Anderson: I mean, in throw­ing out irony we our­selves embrace our naïvety.

Saul: Yes.

Anderson: As peo­ple who hon­est­ly prob­a­bly don’t belong in the same room with any of these spe­cial­ists because we know so much less than them. And yet as sort of con­cerned peo­ple who care about the world, we’re plung­ing in.

Saul: I mean, in many ways you and I are in some small way cre­at­ing an art project in her new def­i­n­i­tion of what art is.

Anderson: Right. And maybe that’s one of the rea­sons her def­i­n­i­tion of artist is kind of excit­ing for us. It’s like, oh good now he can explain what we’re doing with all of our time.

Saul: Exactly.

Anderson: No no, it’s real­ly art. It’s not like, bad jour­nal­ism, I swear.

Let’s jump into some of the oth­er things that she brings up. So, here’s this new char­ac­ter, the artist who can attack these new issues of com­plex­i­ty and can be sort of a trans­la­tor. Now, it’s inter­est­ing that while she’s con­cerned about the irony of a lot of the art world, she’s not will­ing to go out there and say, I have a line in on an objec­tive, true good,” right. She’s got enough of that sort of iron­ic cri­tique to say, Look, I’m a sub­jec­tive actor. There is no objec­tive good, but I’m not going to stop there.” 

Saul: And this is I think where we can start talk­ing about some of the terms that she uses in the con­ver­sa­tion. So, that direct­ly plays into the dis­tinc­tion she makes between moral­i­ty and inten­tion­al­i­ty. So, moral­i­ty is that sort of objec­tive glob­al good.

Anderson: Yes, our world now. The idea of an objec­tive good that some­one has access to. Well, we’re iron­ic enough that we can say god, that’s childish.

Saul: Right. Exactly. But, she’s also call­ing for artists to do good in the world. So she believes that it is pos­si­ble to do good. She calls that inten­tion­al­i­ty. The idea is that I have my sub­jec­tive notion of what is good, and I’m being very inten­tion­al about work­ing towards that in my work.

Anderson: And putting it out there almost for you to see. These are my ethics. This is my inten­tion. I do not know if it’s going to get us any­where that is objec­tive­ly good. I don’t even know if there is an objec­tive good. But we’ve got­ta go. And we have to work now.”

Saul: Right. But, well, is any of this going to matter?

Anderson: And that’s the moment where we just don’t now. You always like to call it Ragnarök. We see the Ragnarök sce­nario again, where we’re kind of fac­ing some huge prob­lems. We are prob­a­bly not going to win. It does not mat­ter. You try to do some­thing any­way. And I mean, she talks specif­i­cal­ly about despair and how she doesn’t real­ly get hung up on that. You just act, because it’s the right thing to do. Regardless of what you assume will ulti­mate­ly happen. 

This is anoth­er moment where Timothy Morton comes to mind. In his lan­guage, he expressed it is you just sort of embrace that you’re going to be a lit­tle bit of a clown, you know? And you act.

Saul: Right.

Anderson: And I don’t know if that’s, at the end of the day, reas­sur­ing or not, but that may be the best we’re going to get.

Saul: You know, I went to cir­cus school. I’m com­fort­able being a clown.

Anderson: That was Frances Whitehead, record­ed her at home and stu­dio in Chicago, Illinois on July 23 and 302012.

Saul: This is The Conversation. You can find us on Twitter at @aengusanderson and on the web at find​the​con​ver​sa​tion​.com

Anderson: So thanks for lis­ten­ing. I’m Aengus Anderson.

Saul: And I’m Micah Saul.

Further Reference

This interview at the Conversation web site, with project notes, comments, and taxonomic organization specific to The Conversation.


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