Civic Experiments: Tactics for Praxis

Frances Whitehead

Reviewed by Jonathan D Solomon

25 Jul 2017

Sit­u­at­ing Cul­tur­al Knowledge

Artists today are seek­ing greater social engage­ment, mov­ing beyond entrenched roles cir­cum­scribed by the cul­ture indus­try, towards the com­pelling issues of our time. Some are evolv­ing knowl­edge-based plat­forms for pub­lic prac­tice, oper­at­ing in the larg­er soci­ety to re-imag­ine knowl­edge, to cre­ate new futures. We began our jour­ney fif­teen years ago, encoun­ter­ing the charis­mat­ic the­o­rist Tony Fry with his focus on the semi­os­phere,1 the intan­gi­ble realm of val­ues and mean­ings. We under­stood this as a direct chal­lenge to artists and the cul­ture at large.

Our work since then has been dri­ven by these core ques­tions and a search for cre­ative answers.

• What is Sus­tain­abil­i­ty?
• What is the role of Cul­ture?
• What is the role of the Artist?
• Where is Agency to effect change?

We came to artic­u­late two inter­con­nect­ed cul­tur­al hypothe­ses, which form the basis for sub­se­quent exper­i­ments. First, sus­tain­abil­i­ty is a cul­tur­al prob­lem and requires a whole-sys­tem cul­tur­al frame­work that accounts for intan­gi­bles to suc­ceed. Sec­ond, artists’ par­tic­u­lar exper­tise can be of great val­ue to trans-dis­ci­pli­nary teams due to large­ly unex­am­ined skills that con­tem­po­rary artists deploy. In this way, a new mod­el of cul­tur­al prax­is has emerged: pri­vate ques­tions led to strate­gies, strate­gies to ini­tia­tives, ini­tia­tives to engage­ments, widen­ing out towards the pub­lic realm, the civic exper­i­ment. Ani­mat­ing this meta-project is the rhetor­i­cal ques­tion, What Do Artists Know?2 which has over time become both method and mes­sage. Although acad­e­mia address­es art prac­tice with­in research cul­ture, ques­tions of knowl­edge and inno­va­tion have a dif­fer­ent order of urgency for the civic sec­tor, includ­ing rust-belt Amer­i­can cities like Chica­go, Detroit, and Cleve­land, where we have found con­sid­er­able appetite for new ideas.

Tony Fry, 2000. Fry attributes this model to himself with Ezio Manzini and Félix Guattari. Redrawn by the author.

The par­a­digm shift from indus­tri­al to post-indus­tri­al, under­way it the late 1990s, cat­a­pult­ed urban dis­course into a lim­i­nal zone of new pos­si­bil­i­ty and urgency. Con­test­ed the­o­ries of sus­tain­abil­i­ty were emerg­ing from design think­ing” but not arts think­ing.” With­in this the­o­ry, a post-enlight­en­ment, meta-typol­o­gy of cul­tur­al prac­tice, arte­fac­ture,”3 locates the envi­ron­men­tal cri­sis firm­ly with­in arti­fice, in a non-hier­ar­chi­cal zone of cul­tur­al pro­duc­tion, art, design, phi­los­o­phy, sci­ence, etc. This focus out­side spe­cial­iza­tion chal­lenges the sig­nif­i­cance of iso­lat­ing pure­ly sym­bol­ic strate­gies and has brought the sym­bol­ic back into con­ver­sa­tion with the prac­ti­cal, offer­ing the poten­tial to, as Janeil Engel­stad has said, make art with pur­pose.”4 The auton­o­my of indi­vid­u­al­is­tic art prac­tice is aug­ment­ed, not refut­ed, cre­at­ing a space where mean­ing and pur­pose coex­ist, are equal­ly val­orized, offer­ing expand­ed agency to artists and refo­cus­ing design prac­tice on ethics and sig­ni­fi­ca­tion. For artists inter­est­ed in art’s rela­tion­ship to both the built and nat­ur­al world, this is a space full of pos­si­bil­i­ty, cap­tur­ing the imag­i­na­tion, where all dis­ci­plines col­lab­o­ra­tive­ly con­sti­tute an emer­gent trans-dis­ci­pli­nary.”

Dur­ing this same peri­od, the art world has seen a con­tentious polemic con­cern­ing the move­ment known as social prac­tice. Orga­nized around Nico­las Bourriaud’s Rela­tion­al Aes­thet­ics,5 par­ties argue the poten­tial of blend­ing the polit­i­cal, the social, and the aes­thet­ic. This dis­course is focused pri­mar­i­ly on social jus­tice, see­ing eco­log­i­cal con­cerns as a dimen­sion of the social.” Embrac­ing event-based, col­lec­tive action, cri­tique, and resis­tance, or as we could say, Act UP, Point OUT, Opt OUT,” the social turn”6 con­tin­ues to grow, even as it is chal­lenged for its large­ly sym­bol­ic com­mit­ment to pol­i­tics.”7 As artists with a sys­temic view, we have invert­ed these con­ven­tion­al activist art strate­gies by opt­ing” IN not OUT, defer­ring, at least tem­porar­i­ly, the ques­tion of art,” which can lim­it our abil­i­ty to re-con­ceive pos­si­bil­i­ties. Here we fol­low the advice of Amer­i­can philoso­pher John Dewey, who exhorts:

In order to under­stand the mean­ing of an artis­tic prod­uct, we have to for­get them for a time, to turn aside from them, and have recourse to the ordi­nary forces and con­di­tions of expe­ri­ence that we do not usu­al­ly regard as esthet­ic.8

Per­form­ing the Tropo­log­i­cal Transdisciplinary

Through OPT­ing IN, we have learned to speak the lan­guages of oth­er dis­ci­plines, both nomen­cla­ture and atti­tude, reflect­ing mul­ti­ple intents and val­ues. Cul­tur­al geo­g­ra­ph­er Mrill Ingram has called this the diplo­ma­cy of art,”9 a sym­bol­ic hand­shake, reach­ing out­side art prac­tice towards the work of oth­ers, to become val­ue-added. This diplo­ma­cy some­times dis­rupts these prac­tices by oper­at­ing with­in their sphere dif­fer­ent­ly. Some would claim gen­eros­i­ty,”10 a join­ing in, dot con­nect­ing. This also dis­rupts art.”

Thus, when describ­ing the for­mu­la­tion of recent projects, we often com­mu­ni­cate in dis­tinct voic­es, which inform both the ver­bal and visu­al deliv­ery of infor­ma­tion, a kind of dura­tional speech act. Here we might uti­lize an exact­ing, descrip­tive, expos­i­to­ry voice, espe­cial­ly used for tech­ni­cal details from oth­er dis­ci­plines, which we per­form fac­tu­al­ly, faith­ful­ly. Also present is a rhetor­i­cal, per­sua­sive voice, a voice that makes claims, pro­nounce­ments, deliv­ers state­ments of impli­ca­tion, sig­ni­fi­ca­tion, inten­tion, and aspi­ra­tion. This is a cru­cial voice for the cul­tur­al for here­in lies the debate con­cern­ing ideas, actions, and their mean­ings. Last­ly, we employ a poet­ic voice, a fig­u­ra­tive, metaphor­ic voice some­times spo­ken, some­times pur­pose­ful­ly with­held, some­times rep­re­sent­ed visu­al­ly but not paired with ver­bal equiv­a­lents. This is the voice of the trope, the dou­ble mean­ing, ambi­gu­i­ty, the voice of the cul­tur­al out­side the par­a­digm of knowl­edge pro­duc­tion, out­side cer­tain­ty. For what­ev­er is said, some­thing else is not said; some­thing else is always meant. This is the under­ly­ing log­ic of these projects even where it is not artic­u­lat­ed. This tropo­log­i­cal trans­dis­ci­pli­nary forms the basis of the Tac­tics for Prax­is.

Prac­tic­ing in Pub­lic — (we know we don’t know)

In each project that fol­lows, there has been an explic­it aim and out­come; but in each case, addi­tion­al unfore­seen out­comes have also arrived, which are car­ried on as a reflex­ive work­ing method. We are prac­tic­ing in pub­lic — we know we don’t know.

From 2005 to 2007, anoth­er artist and I became deeply embed­ded in the plan­ning process for a new trail and green­way in Cleve­land, Ohio, that ran beside the his­toric steel mill. The explic­it out­comes were a sys­temic sus­tain­abil­i­ty plan for the trail, and a process for includ­ing artists in such projects. The sus­tain­abil­i­ty plan includ­ed an ambi­tious tech­ni­cal pro­pos­al to change the steel mill, sav­ing CO2 by gran­u­lat­ing steel slag, piled up, bare­ly used. This tech­ni­cal pos­si­bil­i­ty grew from the recog­ni­tion that the slag pile is cul­tur­al her­itage, not waste, and from under­stand­ing it as an under­uti­lized asset avail­able for reval­u­a­tion. Here we did not invent a new tech­nol­o­gy. Rather, act­ing as free agents, not as paid con­sul­tants, we ignored the advice of the engi­neers and did the research required to iden­ti­fy an avail­able tech­nol­o­gy, main­tain­ing auton­o­my even in col­lab­o­ra­tion—artist as a new kind of prob­lems solver.

Over a two-year peri­od, the plan­ners began to note things they per­ceived we artists knew, and why it was valu­able, unin­ten­tion­al­ly pro­duc­ing a Knowl­edge Claim for artists. The doc­u­ment artic­u­lates the tac­it and method­olog­i­cal knowl­edge deployed by con­tem­po­rary artists. The most impor­tant claims are for a rad­i­cal lat­er­al-ness and spe­cial cul­tur­al lit­era­cies that arise from being both pro­duc­ers and crit­ics of cul­ture. Addi­tion­al impor­tant aspects deal with the abil­i­ty to maneu­ver in mul­ti­ple economies, trans­fer­ring and trans­form­ing val­ue. With this Knowl­edge Claim, we were able to engage direct­ly with Fry’s well known change strat­e­gy,” Redi­rec­tive Prac­tice, which chal­lenges each dis­ci­pline to redi­rect from with­in.

The ambi­tion of redi­rec­tive prac­tice is to…gather a mul­ti­plic­i­ty of prac­tices, includ­ing, but beyond, design, to start to redesign/​redirect the struc­tur­al and cul­tur­al con­di­tion that designs our mode of being-in-the-world […].

Redi­rec­tion does not mean total rup­ture; rather it means, mod­i­fy­ing, remak­ing or refram­ing…”11

A sys­temic look at my own art and life revealed three sec­tors for redi­rec­tion—per­son­al, ped­a­gog­i­cal, and pro­fes­sion­al—and pro­duced three redi­rec­tive projects. Almost imme­di­ate­ly, inten­tions, means, and meth­ods began to trans­gress the bor­ders, cir­cu­lat­ing ideas across sit­u­a­tions, gen­er­at­ing more provoca­tive projects, and unex­pect­ed agency. Even­tu­al­ly this translit­er­a­tion jumped the bor­ders of art prac­tice into archi­tec­ture and, from there, into the civic are­na. Ped­a­gog­i­cal­ly, we import­ed our pro­fes­sion­al ques­tions as par­tic­i­pa­to­ry cur­ricu­lum, cre­at­ing the Knowl­edge Lab. We simul­ta­ne­ous­ly export­ed ped­a­gogy. Next, The Green­house Chica­go was ini­tial­ly con­ceived to redi­rect our pri­vate home/​studio. How­ev­er, dur­ing con­struc­tion we became rad­i­cal­ized about the pos­si­bil­i­ties and trans­formed the project, tak­ing cre­ative con­trol away from the archi­tect, adding fea­tures immod­er­ate­ly, test­ing the lim­its, turn­ing it into a demon­stra­tion project, BOTH archi­tec­ture AND art. The stu­dio moved from the site of pro­duc­tion to the object pro­duced — the stu­dio became the art. Duchamp in reverse. The oth­er out­comes were more sur­pris­ing and hard­er to claim. Though not our inten­tion, our com­mit­ment to the actu­al­iza­tion of this ency­clo­pe­dic project chal­lenged archi­tec­ture. The house became not only the art, but also the class­room, as archi­tects and urban­ists came in for tours, cre­at­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties for dia­logue and future engage­ment. We were no longer redi­rect­ing from with­in, we had OCCU­PIED archi­tec­ture, per­formed archi­tec­tur­al redi­rec­tion, a RUP­TURE, revers­ing and up-end­ing tra­di­tion­al hier­ar­chies and roles. We were simul­ta­ne­ous­ly solv­ing prob­lems and cre­at­ing them.

Diagram and Double Agency concept by author, adapted from Sacha Kagan, Art and Sustainability: Connecting Patterns for a Culture of Complexity, Transcripts-Verlag (August 5, 2011).

Artists inter­est­ed in these new modal­i­ties of prac­tice use their dis­ci­pli­nary skills very strate­gi­cal­ly, deploy­ing anoth­er type of knowl­edge known to the Greeks as metis. In The Prac­tice of Every­day Life, de Certeau describes metis as:

knowl­edge that is immersed in prac­tice” com­bin­ing flair, sagac­i­ty, fore­sight, intel­lec­tu­al flex­i­bil­i­ty, decep­tion, resource­ful­ness, and diverse sorts of clev­er­ness.”12

In the pro­fes­sion­al realm, com­plex work is now per­formed by mul­ti-dis­ci­pli­nary teams. What hap­pens when you add an artist into this sys­tem as pro­fes­sion­al trans­gres­sor? Impor­tant here is Sacha Kagan’s, notion of Dou­ble Entre­pre­neur­ship in Con­ven­tions.” To play on the rules rather than in the rules.13 Here, the artist is a dou­ble agent, putting the trans­gres­sive dimen­sion of con­tem­po­rary art to prac­ti­cal use.

Thus, through metis, artists and oth­er cul­tur­al bor­der hop­pers are a kind of irrev­er­ent cross pol­li­na­tor, punch­ing holes in dis­ci­pli­nary walls. Oper­at­ing both inside and out­side art, both inside and out­side civic and pub­lic struc­tures, a kind of dou­ble change agency. Again lever­ag­ing the Knowl­edge Claim, we launched the last of the redi­rec­tive projects, the Embed­ded Artist Project. Spon­sored by Chicago’s Depart­ment of Inno­va­tion, the pro­gram ran between 2008 and 2012. Here, artists are embed­ded in city work­groups to bring new per­spec­tives to the dai­ly work of the city. A decade after its incep­tion, the leg­i­bil­i­ty and val­ue of this strat­e­gy has begun to increase, as oth­er cities in the USA, UK, and New Zealand are adopt­ing embed­ded artist pro­grams influ­enced by this model.

Civic Exper­i­ments – (prax­is)

Slow Cleanup: Sites of Pub­lic Learning

Jon Hawkes, The Fourth Pillar of Sustainability: Culture’s essential role in public planning (Melbourne, Australia: Common Ground Publishing, in association with the Cultural Development Network (Victoria), 2001). Redrawn by the author.

Work­ing as Embed­ded Artist with the Chica­go Depart­ment of Envi­ron­ment, we devel­oped Slow Cleanup, a net ben­e­fits mod­el for Chicago’s 400+ aban­doned gaso­line sta­tions, a lega­cy of Amer­i­can auto­mo­bile cul­ture. A very informed Com­mis­sion­er of Envi­ron­ment embraced the pro­pos­al to use Jon Hawkes’ Four Pil­lar14 mod­el as a schema for a new approach to brown­fields, using phy­to or plant-based reme­di­a­tion. Mod­eled on the Slow Food move­ment, the pro­gram rejects the Fast Cheap Easy” par­a­digm of con­ven­tion­al dig and dump” cleanup. Tech­ni­cal­ly, petro­le­um reme­di­a­tion is per­formed by soil microbes attract­ed to phe­nols, sug­ar-like sub­stances exud­ed by some plant roots but not oth­ers. Sur­pris­ing­ly, very few plants have been test­ed, includ­ing the prairie forbs native to Chica­go. Addi­tion­al plant reme­di­a­tors would allow the re-imag­in­ing of the post-car­bon land­scape and the revalu­ing of these degrad­ed properties.

The pro­gram is con­struct­ed as a series of inter­im approach­es that mod­el time in rela­tion to invest­ments, ben­e­fits, and com­plex­i­ty. We also evolved an in situ soil prep method for keep­ing all soils on site, repur­pos­ing a road-build­ing tool. A typ­i­cal cor­ner site hosts the field tri­als for the pro­gram and was designed for leg­i­bil­i­ty and func­tion. Stu­dents from four com­mu­ni­ties of prac­tice — art, soil sci­ence, hor­ti­cul­ture, and STEM learn­ers—have been involved in the project, par­al­lel­ing Hawkes’s Four Pil­lars. Because the Com­mis­sion­er was very adven­tur­ous, the explic­it aims of the project large­ly matched my pro­fes­sion­al inten­tions: to extend the plant palette and cre­ate more value(s) through reme­di­a­tion and to simul­ta­ne­ous­ly con­duct Civic Exper­i­ments” as pub­lic research, involv­ing many learn­ers and cre­at­ing capac­i­ty. The pure­ly dis­ci­pli­nary ambi­tion to crit­i­cal­ly extend the sculp­tur­al genre of the earth­work” remained tacit.

Four communities of practice involved in SLOW Cleanup, clockwise from top left: art and design students doing sitework, a soil science university research lab, horticulture training for ex-offenders, and STEM learner workforce development. Images by the author.

Work­ing with soil sci­en­tist Dr. A. P. Schwab,15 we have iden­ti­fied twelve new species of native orna­men­tal petro­le­um reme­di­a­tors. Schwab has worked con­trac­tu­al­ly like an artist, which is to say, for free. Con­ver­sa­tions over time with Schwab have made clear that the intel­lec­tu­al mer­its and sig­nif­i­cance of the work were com­pelling enough that Schwab was will­ing to work out­side the con­ven­tion­al research par­a­digm of hard sci­ence and to enter the non-com­pen­sa­tion, sym­bol­ic econ­o­my of art, where par­tic­i­pants often work com­plete­ly in kind.”

Dias­pore /dī′ə‑spôr′/
In botany, a seed or spore, plus any addi­tion­al ele­ments that assist dispersal.

The pan-Atlantic exchange of plants and peo­ple that began in 1533 with the Euro­pean encounter with the Peru­vian pota­to is extend­ed through reci­procity to all sites where food pro­duc­tion and cul­tur­al pro­duc­tion are inter­twined. We were intro­duced to the City of Lima, Peru, through CIP, the Cen­tro Inter­na­cional de la Papa,16 which holds over 4,000 vari­eties of Andean pota­toes, the cul­tur­al her­itage of ten thou­sand years of hybridiza­tion by indige­nous grow­ers. I had been in con­ver­sa­tion with the Direc­tor con­cern­ing the cul­tur­al nature of food ways and the Four Pil­lar mod­el, and how these ideas might enrich the new urban agri­cul­ture pro­gram under­way in Lima, with which she was involved. We assem­bled a team of Chica­go artists, design­ers, and preser­va­tion­ists to pro­vide cre­ative sup­port to the City of Lima in their efforts to inte­grate archi­tec­tur­al con­ser­va­tion for the his­toric cen­ter and food planning.

A crum­bling but mag­nif­i­cent UNESCO World Her­itage Site built around 1500, the his­toric cen­ter of Lima now hous­es the urban poor, who also have inad­e­quate nutri­tion and food secu­ri­ty. Sim­i­lar to oth­er quick­ly urban­ized areas in South Amer­i­ca, the city edge is extend­ed by infor­mal set­tle­ments of a grow­ing pop­u­la­tion. Lima has a host of chal­lenges beyond pop­u­la­tion. Due to the preva­lence of the Span­ish-style court­yard house, most of the open space is inte­ri­or and pri­vate, not pub­lic. The dimin­ish­ing glac­i­er-fed water sup­ply, vis­i­ble in the dry beds of local rivers, also cre­ates a chal­lenge for this desert city. Slow­ly we became aware that all pro­grams in Lima must be eval­u­at­ed against the under­ly­ing prag­mat­ic dilem­ma of sus­tain­ing a city that is in the wrong place — a per­pet­u­al colo­nial lega­cy — an unsus­tain­able set­tle­ment pat­tern. Last­ly, many of the adobe brick Span­ish colo­nial build­ings are mere shells with no extant inte­ri­or. These are remark­ably com­mon. These con­tra­dic­to­ry con­di­tions informed our strate­gies in Lima as we sought sym­bol­ic and prac­ti­cal solu­tions to enhance demo­c­ra­t­ic par­tic­i­pa­tion, food secu­ri­ty, and her­itage conservation.

Diaspore /dī′ə-spôr′/. Image by the author.

Dur­ing our work in Lima, a hex pat­tern emerged as a motif for many of these inves­ti­ga­tions, mov­ing from a metaphor for par­tic­i­pa­tion at City Hall, the Civic Hive, to a space sav­ing spa­tial con­fig­u­ra­tion for roof gar­dens, to a motif for a mobile orchard, revers­ing the pri­vate court­yard and the spa­tial inte­ri­or­i­ty17 of the city. While design tropes such as the hex shape allowed us to nav­i­gate between the sym­bol­ic and the prac­ti­cal, every­one under­stood that urban agri­cul­ture in Lima was a short term propo­si­tion, rais­ing as many ques­tions as it answered.

The 606

Return­ing to Chica­go, from 2012 to 2016 I was the Lead Artist on the Design Team for a 3‑mile long rail adap­ta­tion project, The 606, which opened to the pub­lic in June 2015. The 606 is a civic exper­i­ment in every way, a public/​private part­ner­ship with great ambi­tions. For me, the project has also been an oppor­tu­ni­ty to actu­al­ize the ideas that we had been devel­op­ing at a more spec­u­la­tive scale.

The pri­vate part­ner, The Trust for Pub­lic Land, estab­lished pub­lic engage­ment as the ethos of the project. Work­ing rhetor­i­cal­ly with the val­ues of par­tic­i­pa­tion and engage­ment, the arts became the orga­ni­za­tion­al frame­work for the project, shift­ing the mul­ti­dis­ci­pli­nary team struc­ture towards the more col­lab­o­ra­tive (but more con­test­ed) trans-dis­ci­pli­nary mod­el. Sus­tain­able best prac­tices” were used through­out the project, but there was no time for a philo­soph­ic dis­cus­sion con­cern­ing cul­tur­al aims. Tac­it­ly we trans­formed the Four Pil­lars into a set of cul­tur­al val­ues — Expres­sion, Par­tic­i­pa­tion, Inno­va­tion, and Sus­tain­abil­i­ty—shift­ing the focus from cul­tur­al her­itage to cul­tur­al futures.

There are many fea­tures along the 3‑mile project, includ­ing an obser­va­to­ry at the west end and a mul­ti-func­tion­al skate park/​performance venue at the east end. How­ev­er, my main inter­est is a plant­ed line that runs the full length, form­ing what came to be called an embed­ded art­work, a land­scape inter­ven­tion, achiev­able only by pro­claim­ing it art.” Envi­ron­men­tal Sen­tinel is a cli­mate mon­i­tor­ing art­work, a plant­ed line of 453 native, flow­er­ing trees, Ame­lanchi­er x gran­di­flo­ra (Apple Ser­vice­ber­ry). The five-day bloom spread of this flow­er­ing line will visu­al­ize Chicago’s famous Lake Effect in spring and fall. The pro­pos­al was based on a cli­ma­to­log­i­cal study, which reveals how large bod­ies of water like Lake Michi­gan affect local tem­per­a­ture patterns.

Phenologic Concept for Environmental Sentinel for The 606. Image drawn by the author, courtesy of The Trust for Public Land. Embedded plant images courtesy of; JaneMT; dufour24; island native; Robert Videki, DoronicumKft,; and The Dow Gardens Archive, Dow Gardens,

Mod­eled after the Japan­ese cher­ry blos­som fes­ti­val whose tran­sient bloom­ing has attract­ed audi­ences for cen­turies, this phe­no­log­ic spec­ta­cle will become liv­ing data visu­al­iza­tion in time and space. Phe­nol­o­gy — from the Greek to come into view”—is the prac­tice of observ­ing nat­ur­al events like bloom time, and it is under­go­ing a revival because liv­ing indi­ca­tors pro­vide inte­grat­ed data and can tell us more about cli­mate than iso­lat­ed instru­men­ta­tion. Japan­ese court records of exact bloom-date extend back 1200 years, pro­duc­ing the old­est and most impor­tant phe­no­log­ic data set world­wide. Unlike con­tem­po­rary approach­es, this data set was gen­er­at­ed cul­tur­al­ly, by the appre­ci­a­tion of beau­ty; it was not gen­er­at­ed by sci­ence, nor by social respon­si­bil­i­ty. As a form of spec­u­la­tive artis­tic activism, Envi­ron­men­tal Sen­tinel explores the poten­tial of the cher­ry blos­som fes­ti­val to be repli­cat­ed else­where. Is it a trans­fer­able mod­el”? Will this work in Chica­go with native plants? Can beau­ty be cat­alyt­ic and educational?

A par­tic­i­pa­to­ry obser­va­tion pro­gram links aca­d­e­m­ic and cit­i­zen sci­en­tists, delib­er­ate­ly sens­ing the anthro­pocene,”18 but most encoun­ters will be infor­mal, by reg­u­lar trail users who engage this Slow Spec­ta­cle in oth­er ways. This syn­thet­ic approach blends new par­tic­i­pa­to­ry art prac­tices, cli­ma­tol­ogy, and the expres­sive poten­tial of pub­lic infra­struc­ture to cre­ate what we are call­ing, a bit provoca­tive­ly, pink infra­struc­ture.”19

Tac­tics For Praxis

Col­lec­tive­ly, these projects extend and explore the cul­tur­al dimen­sion of sus­tain­abil­i­ty and mod­el new cul­tur­al strate­gies for cre­at­ing change. The projects inter­ro­gate and reflect on con­test­ed mod­els of sus­tain­abil­i­ty and devel­op the rad­i­cal strat­e­gy of opt­ing IN.” Sev­er­al tac­tics for new cul­tur­al prax­is have emerged from this work, including:

• Translit­er­a­tion — the mov­ing of parts across sec­toral bor­ders
• Re-val­u­a­tion — the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of under­uti­lized assets
• Per­for­ma­tiv­i­ty — the adop­tion of the means of oth­er pro­fes­sions for trans­la­tion, redi­rec­tion, dis­rup­tion, diplo­ma­cy, sol­i­dar­i­ty — val­ue-added
• and the use of mul­ti­va­lent inten­tions to deploy the ambi­gu­i­ty of the cul­tur­al voice to open space for new questions.

Here, the impor­tant dynam­ics are not bina­ry between, say, auton­o­my and agency, but rather trans­ac­tion­al, free agency, and mul­ti­va­lent dou­ble agency. Each of these tac­tics con­tains some degree of trans­gres­sion. Even when diplo­mat­ic, change agents don’t always play by the rules. And last­ly, there is much to learn about the rela­tion of the sym­bol­ic to the prac­ti­cal—the use­ful, the pur­pose­ful, the util­i­tar­i­an, and the instru­men­tal­ized — as art and cul­ture re-nego­ti­ate their rela­tion­ship to oth­er forms of knowl­edge towards sustainability.


By Jonathan D. Solomon

What can archi­tec­ture learn?

Frances White­head doesn’t ask this ques­tion explic­it­ly, but in Civic Exper­i­ments: Tac­tics for Prac­tice, she presents implic­it answers that are worth explicating.

White­head, a sculp­tor whose recent work is in the ter­ri­to­ry of land­scape archi­tec­ture, works as an out­sider agent in the tropo­log­i­cal trans-dici­pli­nary”: she seeks in her work to graze exper­tise across dis­ci­pli­nary ter­ri­to­ries. Soil ecol­o­gy, for exam­ple, is an exper­tise, or a knowl­edge, that White­head takes for a nour­ish­ing walk, across the fields of art, design, and pol­i­tics in her project SLOW Cleanup. This kind of work makes an instru­ment out of know­ing how to know, specif­i­cal­ly how to herd knowl­edge and move it around — what White­head invokes Sacha Kagan to call dou­ble change agency.” It is also an actu­al­iza­tion of Whitehead’s own 2006 What do Artists Know?,” a litany for art knowl­edge that includes syn­the­siz­ing diverse facts, goals and ref­er­ences — mak­ing con­nec­tions and speak­ing many lan­guages’” and mak­ing the explic­it implic­it, mak­ing the vis­i­ble invisible.”

What do artists know? How to ques­tion their own knowing.

If White­head points, implic­it­ly and explic­it­ly, to archi­tec­ture and design as the ter­ri­to­ries of strate­gic think­ing to which artists must respond with a knowl­edge claim” for the civic sec­tor, how does her decade of work on tac­tics for prax­is” cre­ate a ter­ri­to­ry with a knowl­edge claim of its own for these fields?

If we take archi­tec­ture for a nour­ish­ing walk through Whitehead’s tac­tics for prax­is,” what can archi­tec­ture learn?

Archi­tec­ture can solve prob­lems in one ter­ri­to­ry and prob­lema­tize in anoth­er. Whitehead’s SLOW Cleanup improves the qual­i­ty of the envi­ron­ment by remov­ing tox­ic chem­i­cals from the soil, and it cre­ates val­ue in the city by allow­ing pre­vi­ous­ly vacant urban parcels to move onto the mar­ket. At the same time, the project prob­lema­tizes val­ue with the sym­bol­ic econ­o­my of art,” as stu­dents learn out­side the class­room and sci­en­tists make dis­cov­er­ies out­side con­ven­tion­al economies of research.

Archi­tec­ture both acts and implies: it has both mea­sur­able out­comes and embod­ied mean­ings. White­head presents her work on the 606 in Chica­go as a simul­ta­ne­ous enact­ment of best prac­tices in sus­tain­abil­i­ty and of the broad aims she terms cul­tur­al futures.” Her con­tri­bu­tions in land­scape archi­tec­ture pull across data visu­al­iza­tion, phe­nol­o­gy, and cit­i­zen sci­ence. Can beau­ty be cat­alyt­ic and edu­ca­tion­al?” is a ques­tion archi­tects can also ask.

For archi­tec­ture to have a cul­ture, it needs to have a -cul­ture. Whitehead’s DIAS­PORE explores colo­nial lega­cy, ecol­o­gy and urban­ism in Lima, Peru through the entan­gle­ment of food pro­duc­tion and cul­tur­al pro­duc­tion. It is a remark­ably durable mesh of cul­ture and agricul­ture. Architecture’s cul­ture” — it’s dis­course — can­not exist out­side of its “-cul­ture” — its nour­ish­ing medium.



Fry attrib­ut­es this mod­el to him­self, in com­bi­na­tion with Ezio Manzi­ni and Félix Guat­tari, as con­firmed in email, April 112010.


Frances White­head, 2006. Avail­able in orig­i­nal from at http://​www​.embed​dedartist​pro​ject​.com/​w​h​a​t​d​o​a​r​t​i​s​t​s​k​n​o​w​.html, April 12015.


Clive Dil­not, Sol­i­dar­i­ty Through Arte­fac­ture? From The Fear of Acknowl­edg­ing Mak­ing,” draft­ed c.1989, unpublished.


MAP with Janeil Engel­stad, derived in con­ver­sa­tion with Frances Whitehead.


Nico­las Bour­ri­aud, Rela­tion­al Aes­thet­ics (Dijon, France: Les Press­es du réel, 1998).


Claire Bish­op, The Social Turn: Col­lab­o­ra­tion and Its Dis­con­tents,” Art­fo­rum 44: 6 (Feb­ru­ary 2006): 179 – 185.


Ben Davis, book review of Jacques Ran­cière, The Pol­i­tics of Aes­thet­ics: The Dis­tri­b­u­tion of the Sen­si­ble (Lon­don, Eng­land, and New York, NY: Con­tin­u­um, 2006; 1st pub­lished 2004), http://​www​.art​net​.com/​m​a​g​a​z​i​n​e​u​s​/​b​o​o​k​s​/​d​a​v​i​s​/​d​a​v​i​s8-17 – 06.asp. Retrieved March 312015.


John Dewey, Art as Expe­ri­ence (1934), reprint­ed as John Dewey: The Lat­er Works, 1925 – 1953, vol. 10, ed. Jo Ann Boyd­ston (Car­bon­dale, IL: South­ern Illi­nois Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1987).


Mrill Ingram, The Diplo­ma­cy of Art: what eco­log­i­cal artists offer envi­ron­men­tal pol­i­tics,” Annu­al Inter­na­tion­al Con­fer­ence of the Roy­al Geo­graph­i­cal Soci­ety, Lon­don, Eng­land, August 31 to Sep­tem­ber 22012.


Ted Purves, ed., What We Want Is Free: Gen­eros­i­ty and Exchange In Recent Art [SUNY Series in Post­mod­ern Cul­ture] (Albany, NY: State Uni­ver­si­ty of New York Press, 2004).


Tony Fry, Redi­rec­tive Prac­tice, An Elab­o­ra­tion, http://​www​.desphi​los​o​phy​.com, Vol­ume 1 (2007) [site no longer avail­able]; see also Tony Fry, Redi­rec­tive Prac­tice: An Elab­o­ra­tion,” Design Phi­los­o­phy Papers 5: 1 (2007): 5 – 20.


Michel de Certeau, The Prac­tice of Every­day Life, trans. Steven Ren­dall (Berke­ley, CA: Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia Press, 1984), 81 – 82.


Sacha Kagan. Art effec­tu­at­ing social change: Dou­ble Entre­pre­neur­ship in Con­ven­tions,” 4, in http://​www​.leuphana​.de/​f​i​l​e​a​d​m​i​n​/​u​s​e​r​_​u​p​l​o​a​d​/​P​E​R​S​O​N​A​L​P​A​G​E​S​/​F​a​k​u​l​t​a​e​t​_​1​/​K​a​g​a​n​_​S​a​c​h​a​/​f​i​l​e​s​/​v​e​r​s​i​o​n​_​2​.​0​_​a​r​t​i​c​l​e​_​e​n​t​3.pdf. Retrieved April 52015.


Jon Hawkes, The Fourth Pil­lar of Sus­tain­abil­i­ty: Culture’s essen­tial role in pub­lic plan­ning (Mel­bourne, Aus­tralia: Com­mon Ground Pub­lish­ing, in asso­ci­a­tion with the Cul­tur­al Devel­op­ment Net­work (Vic­to­ria), 2001).






Jörg Plöger, Lima — City of Cages” Euro­pean Jour­nal of Geog­ra­phy, arti­cle 377 (June 52005).


Deb­o­rah Dixon, Pro­fes­sor of Geog­ra­phy, School of Geo­graph­i­cal and Earth Sci­ences, Uni­ver­si­ty of Glas­gow, Scot­land, email cor­re­spon­dence, Novem­ber 62014.


Ref­er­ences and redi­rects the well-known eco­log­i­cal urban­ism con­cept of turn­ing grey infra­struc­ture” into green infrastructure.”


Frances White­head is a civic prac­tice artist bring­ing the meth­ods, mind­sets, and strate­gies of con­tem­po­rary art prac­tice to the process of shap­ing the future city. Con­nect­ing emerg­ing art prac­tices, the dis­cours­es around cul­tur­al­ly informed sus­tain­abil­i­ty, and new con­cepts of her­itage and reme­di­a­tion, she devel­ops strate­gies to deploy the knowl­edge of artists as change agents, ask­ing, What do Artists Know?” Ques­tions of par­tic­i­pa­tion, sus­tain­abil­i­ty, and cul­ture change ani­mate her work as she con­sid­ers the sur­round­ing com­mu­ni­ty, the land­scape, and the inter­de­pen­den­cy of mul­ti­ple ecolo­gies in the post-indus­tri­al city. Whitehead’s cut­ting-edge work inte­grates art and sus­tain­abil­i­ty, as she tra­vers­es dis­ci­plines to engage with engi­neers, sci­en­tists, land­scape archi­tects, urban design­ers, and city offi­cials in order to hybridize art, design, sci­ence, and civic engage­ment, for the pub­lic good. White­head has worked pro­fes­sion­al­ly as an artist since the mid 1980s and has worked col­lab­o­ra­tive­ly as ARTe­tal Stu­dio since 2001. She is Pro­fes­sor at the School of the Art Insti­tute of Chica­go. Email: fwhite@​artic.​edu

Jonathan D Solomon is co-edi­tor of Forty-Five and Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor and Direc­tor of Archi­tec­ture, Inte­ri­or Archi­tec­ture, and Designed Objects at the School of the Art Insti­tute of Chica­go. His draw­ings, ana­lyt­i­cal and coun­ter­fac­tu­al urban nar­ra­tives appear in Cities With­out Ground (ORO, 2012) and 13 Projects for the Sheri­dan Express­way (PAPress, 2004). Solomon was cura­tor of the US Pavil­ion at the 2010 Venice Archi­tec­ture Bien­nale and of Out­side Design” (2015) at the Sul­li­van Gal­leries in Chica­go. His inter­ests include extra-dis­ci­pli­nary, post-growth, and non-anthro­po­nor­ma­tive design futures. Solomon received a B.A. from Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty and an M.Arch. from Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty and is a licensed archi­tect in the State of Illi­nois. Email: jdsolomon@​forty-​five.​com