The Embedded Artist: Opting In

Welcome to our latest Growing Dialogue, where we’re exploring how artists work with and within municipalities and city agencies. Diya Vij, who manages the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs’ newly launched artist residency program, kicked things off in March. In our second installment below, artist Frances Whitehead shares her perspective.



The Embedded Artist Project (EAP) ran as a formal program with the City of Chicago from 2008-2012. The program was based on the experiments from an informal engagement between myself and the Cuyahoga County Planning office in Cleveland, Ohio from 2004-2006. Here a conversation about the contributions of artists to sustainability planning for the region ran parallel to the work on a new trail and greenway project under discussion. These linked processes produced documents and strategies that were later deployed in the Chicago program. Chief among them was the insight that the intellectual and creative “free agency” of artists is key to their ability to contribute to “possibility”. Their varied research and working methods can and must be allowed to operate within and alongside the highly structured multidisciplinary and consultative processes typical in public planning. A “knowledge claim” document entitled What do Artists Know? (2006) emerged organically from this conversation and has proven useful as both method and message for the kinds of (tacit) skills artists deploy with engaged and embedded practices.


This experimental program enacts the speculative proposition that un-sustainability is at core a cultural problem, and that it can be located in specialization­—that the systemic disconnects are created by our current disciplinary model and habits of mind (as developed for example by Fry from Bourdieu.) The aim of the EAP is to test this strategy, test the “cultural hypothesis” that artists can contribute to a more sustainable world by joining the work of multidisciplinary teams and (re)integrating cultural perspectives into the formulation of civic projects. Can art/artists contribute to a culturally informed trans-disciplinary method as other disciplines are challenged themselves to do? This experiment can also be understood as a performing of E.O. Wilson’s Consilience: the jumping together of knowledge, a critique of practice based in enlightenment knowledge models.

SLOW Cleanup Program Brouchure_Part1-01 LOW RES
Slow Clean-up, which evolved through the Embedded Artist Project (EAP), experimented with plant-based remediation methods at abandoned gas stations throughout Chicago from 2008-2012. Courtesy Frances Whitehead.

Although we made a rhetorical point of claiming knowledge not just creativity, we entered the engagement understanding that we would most certainly learn from each other, and expected a reciprocity that was for the most part openly met. The apparent tradeoffs between artistic autonomy and increased agency did not prove to be the critical dynamic. Reflecting the inherently collaborative formulation and execution of these ideas and programs, I typically employ the pronoun “we” unless I am referring to a unique individual experience.


In this trans-disciplinary framework there is no focus on artistic autonomy—those opportunities continue to exist elsewhere. Nor do we work solely within the symbolic economy of art practice. Although the Embedded Artist Project was not conceived primarily to challenge authorship or autonomy specifically, long-held conventions are called into question nonetheless, along with ideas about art’s usefulness and uselessness, purpose and purposelessness. Here there is a renegotiation between the symbolic and the practical, or as Janeil Englestad frames it, to Make Art with Purpose or as Tania Bruguera frames it, Arte Util (useful art).

We are also not concerned about instrumentalization. Clearly the urgency of climate change demands our participation, but this is not the only factor. We have learned that in a good multi-disciplinary collaboration, structured around shared interests, ethics, and goals, one’s voice is amplified not diminished. As an experiment in reciprocity, we are there to be of service and thus are content to defer, at least temporarily, the question of “art” which can limit the ability to re-conceive possibilities. The idea is integration and multi-valency, and the creation of new working models; not the maintaining of borders or old modalities.

Conventional activist art strategies are therefore extended by this “opting IN.” Through this engagement 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”[i], 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 this as an act of “generosity”[ii], a joining in, dot connecting. This also disrupts “art.”


[i] Ingram, Mrill, The Diplomacy of Art: what ecological artists offer environmental politics, Annual International Conference of the Royal Geographical Society, London, August 31 – September 2, 2012.

[ii] Purves, Ted (Ed.) What We Want Is Free: Generosity And Exchange In Recent Art (SUNY Series in Postmodern Culture), 2004.

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Embedded ArtistsFrances Whitehead

By Frances Whitehead
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