According to the billboard-sized text panel at the entrance to Global Cities, shown at Tate Modern this summer: More than fifty per cent of us now live in cities and according to the United Nations this number is set to rise to seventy-five per cent by 2050.1 While these statistics obviously provided the rationale behind this oversize examination of urban sprawl, this statement left me wondering what about the rest of us? What about the other fifty per cent who, at least for the next forty-three years, live, work and somehow manage to exist outside a major conurbation?
I have been unable to find any statistics that detail how many artists find themselves or, better still, actually choose to live and work in non-urban locations2. This absence of statistical data could be seen as evidence that what I will be addressing in this a-n Collection is an underestimated, undervalued and often invisible form of practice. What I am interested in examining is artistic practice that generates conceptually sound, high quality works of contemporary art that not only take place in, but embrace the non-urban; practices that utilise, document and explore the many and varied experiences of the rural.
There it is Ive said it, the R word. Now I can pretty much say whatever I like as most readers will have turned the page, and I cant blame them until I learned to love the word I found myself using all sorts of meaningless expressions, resorting to describing the work in terms of what it was not: non-urban, non-metropolitan. It has become clear to me that the lack of critical vocabulary (accompanying the lack of statistics) calls for a re-definition of terms. In a paper given at a conference about culture and the arts in remote and rural locations, François Matarasso notes that: We have constructed an archetype of opposites: town/country; radical/conservative; lively/dull; sophisticated/conventional; tense/peaceful; frivolous/rooted; industry/agriculture; man-made/natural etc.3 The fundamental structures of language and therefore knowledge are based on positioning experience in relation to such polarities, however while received wisdom continues to labour under these tired contrasts it is possible to reverse the proposition in almost every instance. After giving examples such as Laurence Sterne, a country parson who reinvented the novel in his work The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, or Cezanne, whose innovative approach to the landscape around him established the basis for much of modern art, Matarasso adds that: There is, in truth, nothing essentially backward-looking, conservative or traditional in rural culture. There are too many innovators, in too many fields, who have belonged to the country or used it as a source material for that to be a defensible proposition.4 In this article I propose to reclaim the rural, together with such concepts as the countryside and the local artist. From now on these words will not belong to the domain of the rustic, the amateurish or the picturesque. Instead they will be applied to artistic practice that is cutting edge and critically engaged.
Here, I have tried to uncover exactly this kind of contemporary work taking place in rural or remote locations. My motivation in this undertaking was primarily generated by the prolonged frustration I have felt that my experience of living and practising outside of a major city was simply not represented in the mainstream of art production, discussion and exhibition. By the same token tired ideas around urbanism continue to enthral insular metropolitan audiences and projects of questionable originality are lauded simply by the nature of their connection with glamorous cities. This context has led to my, perhaps belated, realisation that when you do not see your own experiences represented you start to question their validity. A situation which provokes a fundamental questioning of the tenability of ones role as artist, writer, cultural producer or whatever in locations which quite simply do not seem to be on anyones radar. To return to Matarasso in relation to not only this invisibility of non-urban practice but the invisibility of non-urban living, he states that: .. the steady rise of the town means that urban experience, values and culture will come to dominate our sense of what it is to be human. Since this urban perspective is broadly shared by the major commercial media industries, it is being promoted very fast and very powerfully. Yet, even within its own terms, what dominates is a minority view: there is little room for the poor, the non-white or the marginalised who actually make up the majority of city dwellers.5
As a response to this situation there is an increasingly important role for artists to play in representing, documenting, mobilising and engaging with the many various forms of rural living in order to ensure continued cultural diversity. Matarasso identifies that: One crucial role for rural cultures in the new century must be to question increasingly dominant cultural norms.6 This a-n Collection is not and cannot attempt to be a mapping of rural practice or the challenges faced by rural practitioners and arts organisations, as this would negate the fact that rural practice is a multitude of different activities carried out by a diverse range of people in a myriad of locations. What this collection does aim to do however, is to highlight some of the ways in which dominant forms of urban culture and assumptions about rural culture are being challenged by artists in rural or remote locations. It aims to look particularly at one of the strategies employed by such artists, which is to engage with everyday life as it happens in rural locations. To pursue this line of enquiry is in contrast to the more travelled route of engagement with the countryside through spectacle such as panoramic, sublime or spiritual treatment of the landscape.
Some of the most innovative work in this field has been undertaken by On The Edge Research, led by Anne Douglas with a team of other artists, researchers and academics including Chris Fremantle at Grays School of Art, Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen. They comment that, our edge could be defined as geographical, one marginalised from mainstream visual art practices,7 but the edge is also a place to find a wider perspective and to use this position to ask some difficult questions. The questions On The Edge Research is interested in asking are about how and why artists work with location, people, communities and social spaces. Its activities and questions are always framed by its geographical position in Northern Scotland, which has enabled it to carry out work that is sensitive to the particularities of working in small, rurally located communities. They comment that: What unfolded was the realisation that remote rural culture is founded in relationship. This provided the catalyst to a fundamental repositioning of art within everyday experience as a process of making meaning.8 While it is possible to argue that all culture, rural or urban, is founded in relationships, such relationships to place and the other people who inhabit that place are often richer and deeper when communities are small and remote. When artists operate well in these situations there is the potential for their activities to become part of the community at an everyday level. They may be engaged in mapping or documenting everyday experiences in rural locations but there is also the opportunity to create a cultural experience which is not designated as such by virtue of it taking place in a gallery, but one that simply happens within the existing community infrastructures and as such becomes part of the everyday.
An example of a project that works to challenge dominant forms of urban culture and assumptions about rural culture through an engagement with the everyday is Edge FM. One of On The Edge Researchs projects, it took place with artist Paul Carter in Fraserburgh, a small town on the east coast of Scotland in 20039. Carter worked over a period of two months with a group of teenagers in Fraserburgh to record interviews with residents about what its like to live in the town. The interviews were then edited and broadcast via Edge FM, a radio station set up by the group operating from the towns Lighthouse Museum. The use of radio in this project is particularly appropriate to the location as Marconi made some experimental transmissions out across the North Sea from Fraserburgh in 1904, however it is radios ubiquity that makes it the perfect choice for this project. Radio sits in the background of everyday life in many peoples day-to-day world; it is a constant yet often unnoticed companion. Edge FMs intervention into this world meant that the people of Fraserburgh heard themselves and their own opinions represented in this otherwise impassive medium. As the interviews were accumulated it became clear that the interviewees and the group themselves were taking this opportunity to communicate their ideas around how Fraserburgh should change or develop in the future: discussions took place regarding a new vision for the town based on its merits as a surfing town. Edge FM became a way for the teenagers who were otherwise undervalued in the town, to mobilise themselves politically and develop a voice. After having worked with groups in urban and rural areas Carter noted how wider-world aware the young people of Fraserburgh are in contrast to general assumptions about attitudes in rural locations:
The young Brochers [residents of Fraserburgh] travel much more than any groups that I know in the city because they have to. They have been to Livingstone to skate and of course to Edinburgh and Aberdeen. People in Livingstone havent been to Aberdeen. They are a lot more streetwise so they are in a position to comment much more than anyone else. They have been to Manchester as fifteen-year-olds. The sport is just a vehicle to meet other people.. Going to Manchester to hang out with people is an incredibly cosmopolitan thing to do but the Mancunians havent been to Fraserburgh so they dont get to see the world in the same way.10
Edge FM was a contemporary art project which not only recorded and represented the everyday experiences of the young people in Fraserburgh, but through the artist engaging the participants on their own terms and their own territory the art work took place within their everyday activities of hanging out and skating: For the particular group of young people involved in this project, the everyday is about play and hanging out, centred around the skate park or other more improvised spaces for boarding or rollerblading. The function of the artwork in Edge FM has been to find and value the norm while enabling individuals to open up a different set of relations with the adult world by being heard.11
The territory of the rural everyday is also explored by Karen magazine a publication produced by artist and designer Karen Lubbock12 from her home in Rodbourne Bottom, a small village in Wiltshire. Each issue documents the artists everyday life in the village, and is composed from extracts of conversations, photographs of participants or places, found ephemera and personal observations. A typical issue of Karen magazine might feature: thoughts on looking for four leaf clovers; Tinas top ten breads (number one Soda brown or white, number two French Stick); a conversation with the coalmen who are waiting for it to get cold and photos of what she might be having for tea.
There are parallels to be drawn between Karen magazine and Edge FM in that both utilise the traditionally low tech communication devices of the marginalised: pirate radio in the case of Edge FM and self-publishing in the case of Karen magazine. Both these strategies enable the transmission and distribution of ideas and information from an individual or a small group to a large audience, providing a structure and vehicle for challenging cultural norms. However, Karen magazine differs from Edge FM in that while the radio station was a temporary project facilitated by an artist who was visiting the community, Karen magazine has been produced over a number of years by an artist who lives in the village. This difference also shows itself in that Paul Carters role was to mobilise the teenage residents, who then determined the content and approach of Edge FM, whereas Lubbocks collection and then subsequent editing and designing of the material for Karen magazine is key to the project, it represents in essence a distillation of her own experiences of everyday life in a rural location. This said, however, Karen magazine continues to maintain and develop a meaningful engagement with the village community; past editions have included an interview with the butcher, Neils food diary and Jackies weather diary.
Karen magazine challenges dominant forms of urban culture by providing an antidote to the mainstream celebrity and lifestyle magazines. It does this most effectively by appearing among them in addition to being sold in gallery bookshops and cultural venues, Karen magazine can be picked up in all the hyper-bookstores like Borders and Barnes and Nobel world wide. Lubbock works with and against the conventional magazine culture; she uses layout techniques prevalent in the mainstream titles but combines them with content gathered from village-based everyday life rather than celebrity gossip. This is particularly evident where sensational headlines are splashed across double pages, followed by a quote from the victim or survivor, however in Karen magazine this format sensationalises the less dramatic events of real life. A recent example reads: Jackie picked up all the fallen pears that were in her garden today, followed by: We just couldnt eat them all.
Both Edge FM and Karen magazine provide examples of high quality critically engaged work being produced in and about rural locations and in themselves justify my initial call for a rethinking of mainstream assumptions around rural practice. Through their engagement with the everyday in rural and remote locations they contribute to a field concerned with representing ways of living which are largely invisible to mainstream culture. Both these projects together with the many other artists and arts organisations working in this way, focus on location and place specificity yet through their connection to the everyday manage to achieve a wider relevance that presents a real challenge to increasingly dominant urban cultural norms.
Rosemary Shirley is an artist and writer based in Hampshire. She studied Fine Art at Winchester School of Art and MA Contemporary Art Theory at Goldsmiths. In 2005 she initiated and continues to edit Leisure Centre, an artists fanzine with a non-metropolitan outlook, which has a network of subscribers and is distributed in art galleries around the UK. She has also recently become the online editor for a-ns new reviews website Interface and is about to begin a Phd at the University of Sussex where she will be researching contemporary artists who work with the everyday in rural locations.
1 Global Cities www.tate.org.uk/modern/exhibitions/globalcities/default.shtm
2 There is of course the ubiquitous Artists in figures, a statistical portrait of cultural occupations, Rhys Davies & Robert Lindley, University of Warwick, Arts Council England, 2003, which states that over twenty-five per cent of artists live in London, however the other figures are broken down into arts council regions from which urban or non urban residence cannot be deduced. www.artscouncil.org.uk/publications/publication_detailphp?browse=title&id=353
3 Francois Matarasso, On The Edge: art, culture and rural communities, p24 www.ontheedgeresearch.org
4 Op.cit. Matarasso p27
5 Op.cit. Matarasso p25
6 Op.cit. Matarasso p30
9 Paul Carters role in Edge FM is also discussed in the a-n Research paper Leading Through Practice www.a-n.co.uk/leading_through_practice
10 Dr Anne Douglas Edge FM Post Script, p61, Paul Carter, Edge FM, Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, 2004
11 Ibid p.56
12 A profile of Karen Lubbock accompanies this a-n Collection at www.a-n.co.uk/country_living
Rosemary Shirley is Interface editor, she writes about art for magazines, websites and galleries, she teaches at Goldsmiths, Birkbeck and University of Sussex.
First published: a-n Collections November 2007
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