Judy Chicago's "Birth Project" is a couple of things.

It is a collection of 85 needlework-embellished paintings on the subject of birth and creation, a topic "virtually unexplored in western art, especially postindustrial art," says Mary Jo Aagerstoun, coordinator of the Project in Washington. Twenty-one of these creations arrive here May 12 as part of a multiple-site installation in Washington and a 13-city tour nationwide.

It is also a book by the feminist artist -- creator of the colossal, sexually evocative "Dinner Party" installation, which never did come to Washington -- to be published April 19. Serving as a kind of exhibition catalogue, it details the efforts of the 125 women from around the country who created the artwork, adding their own needlework to a series of images designed by Chicago.

"This work is designed to be exhibited in specially selected groupings, which are focused on the particular environment in which the work will be shown," says Aagerstoun. Washington environments include the Women's National Bank (16th and K NW and in Georgetown), the Martin Luther King Jr. Library (Ninth and G NW), the Wallace Wentworth Gallery (2006 R NW) and the Maryland College of Art and Design in Silver Spring.

Although there is no real institutional support for "Birth Project" installation, this glitch is "no one's fault," Aagerstoun says. In order to place the exhibit in a D.C. museum, the organizers would have had to begin such planning two years in advance. Rather than waiting, Chicago approved the organizing of a nontraditional exhibit.

Its shipment to and installation in Washington are now the focus of a series of fundraisers to be held by 10 different cosponsoring groups over the next month.

Herb's Restaurant and the City Paper are joining forces tomorrow night in a $5-a-head fundraiser at Herb's, where a 10-minute video about the "Birth Project" will be shown (333-HERB). On April 10 at 7 p.m. the Washington Women's Arts Center presents a taped presentation of Chicago's October 1984 appearance at the Smithsonian (393-8364).

Even the Smithsonian Resident Associates Program will get into the act, providing a bus tour next month to all five Washington exhibition sites.