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.
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!”
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.
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.
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.
Saul: And this project is directly opposed to that sense of fatalism.
Anderson: I mean, in throwing out irony we ourselves embrace our naïvety.
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.
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.
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 30, 2012.
Anderson: So thanks for listening. I’m Aengus Anderson.
Saul: And I’m Micah Saul.
This interview at the Conversation web site, with project notes, comments, and taxonomic organization specific to The Conversation.