Rural Art is…

This is an extract from Myvillages, ‘Rural Art Is…’, in The Rural, eds. Kathrin Böhm and Wapke Feenstra (London: Whitechapel Gallery/Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2019)


If you don’t like monocultures – whether in art or agriculture or elsewhere – you will like this book. The Rural questions and frustrates the current cultural hegemony of the urban and declares the rural a place of and for contemporary cultural production. This requires a newly de-urbanised and un-nostalgic attention to the rural, a commitment to accepting similar complexities to those which are acknowledged for the urban and taking an emancipatory step to undermine the preconceptions of the rural as backwater.

The rural is not new. The rural is not static. The rural is not disappearing.

This book looks at the rural as an identifiable particularity without being definable. The rural is a multitude and it is dynamic, it can be attached or detached from a geography, it can be a mind set, a certain practice or a shared identity. It is a common term without being precise. The rural and the urban are interdependent, and the current dichotomy has always been false but was maintained because power could be gained from playing down and denying the true relationship between city and countryside.

The rural is back on the map, so what can we make of this new urban-rural debate if rural culture is at first mostly ignored only to be reintroduced later as a spatial, cultural and even political problem in which the countryside is again seen as something outside the city?

The fact that for the first time in human history the global urban population outnumbers the rural one doesn’t signify a victorious tilting towards urban culture, but reflects a capitalist logic towards land and indigenous populations that commences with the enclosure of land, strategic geopolitics, and the industrialisation of cities, all of which favour dependent subjects (wage labourers and consumers) over commoners and subsistence. In his book Planet of Slums, Mike Davis portrays sharply the scale and velocity of global urbanisation as a result of a politics of the market, rather than simply a cultural shift. The ‘anthropocene’ in its relentless omnipresence renders accusatory distinctions meaningless and instead requires the acknowledgement of a deep urban-rural interdependency of our planetary culture. Urban and rural are intertwined there is no way to polarise or blame each other; just time to act.

‘Rural art is …’ will remain an unfinished sentence.

This book’s main aim is to declare the rural a shared and common cultural space and we use art and our thinking as artists as one way of addressing continued and disrupted relations, feelings of belonging, longing and indifference. The book advocates a rural art practice that breaks with a more traditional mode of gazing. It is reflective, partitive and performative at once, which means it reviews the relation to the rural, and artists’ relations with the rural. The contributions and contributors to this book come from scattered geographies, including nomadic lifestyles; temporary rural lifestyles; urban academic; remote and well-connected; from the littered to the pastoral; the militarised to white cube strategies.

One aspect of the rural which is prominently present and represented through art history and more recent practice is ‘land’, as in landscape, and the wider field of land art. Steven Jacobs introduces the word ‘Photoresque’ which stresses that the experience of visiting a landscape (outdoor and indoor) and the representation of the landscape (painting or photography) are closely connected. Derived from the Dutch, landschap, this term has always encompassed both the parcel of land itself and the image of it. Landscapes create screens that can channel indefinable feelings and narrate our relationships to the environment. How we see the ‘land’ is a blueprint of how we (want to) relate to it.

Land Art can be seen as an early venturing away from the city, an institutional critique towards the urban and white cube-bound art apparatus. Through land art landscape is claimed as a new production and exhibition space for artists. Environmental concerns enter into artistic decision making, but this also coincides with the large scale industrialisation of, and application of neoliberal agricultural policies to the countryside, which adopt the bird’s eye perspective of planning, whereby land becomes the formal canvas to shape and place ideas onto.

With this book we want to go beyond the gaze of the landscape artist and the interventionist placement strategies of land art, and contribute to a rural art practice that works from within rural situations, and often together with rural communities. Paul O’Neill locates Grizedale Arts as a post-land art, deeply locally invested arts organisation in the English Lake District; Andrea Zittel’s explains her decision to deliberately make herself remote and Elisabeth Schimana convinces a village to do nothing for a week. We introduce the voice of Robert Smithson alongside the De Boers, the family who own the sand pit where Smithson made one of his circle pieces.

‘Rural art is …’ will remain an unfinished sentence throughout this book which instead offers a cross-section of different and in our opinion crucial ways of thinking, initiating and practising art in the rural. The book is organised in five chapters, which starts with outlining some basics in the section Orientating the Rural, then continues to look into different Rural Relations of Production, we roam through some problematics and possibilities of Reading the Rural before the more anarchic and utopian rural Forces on Ground, and finally look into the various ways art globally arrives and survives in the rural in Art in All the Wrong Places.


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This book discusses the rural as a place for contemporary art, and its editing process stems from our own practice as Myvillages (since the early 2000s), from working as artists in the rural whilst raising questions about art in general. We are passionate about questioning the cultural hegemony of the urban and advocate making space and time to understand the rural as a place of and for cultural production.

Myvillages’ work makes space for a multi-vocal rural whether it takes place in a book, in a village or in an exhibition. We ourselves are poly-rural and the ‘we’ of this introduction has two voices, the west European voices of artists based in Rotterdam and London. We were both raised in the rural but in different decades and landscapes; one from a Fryslân dairy-farm which has been in family ownership for generations, during the sixties and Dutch hippy culture in the seventies, the other from a small catholic village in Upper Franconia, southern Germany at the height of the anti-nuclear movement, growing up as second generation immigrants (those condsidered not really from here) who ran the village shop. The fact that all three founders of Myvillages left the village to become artists and later returned to it, is not significant in terms of authenticity, it simply explains that we wanted the rural that we knew existed to be part of how we work and think and operate as artists, not as an exclusive territory but as a shareable cultural ground. We are also highly aware of the fact that it is not just the urban that has disdain for the rural, the view from the other side is equally problematic, and based on the same dichotomies and polarised cultural discussion this books seeks to impair.


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Art Enters the Village

When Myvillages started in 2003 we were aware of many other rural projects and organisations, but there was a severe lack of visibility, trans-local networking and international representation within existing art infrastructures, from art fairs to exhibitions, conferences and biennials. We expected the art world to quickly become more genuinely interested in the rural, especially after moments such as Huit Facettes being prominently identified as rural during Okwui Enwezor’s curating of Documenta 11.

Perhaps it’s time to introduce the term, critical rural art.

However, the rural is still not very present in the public art infrastructures that have grown out of, and mainly serve, urban art worlds. We have critical studies, critical spatial practice, critical thinking etc., and perhaps it’s time to introduce the term critical rural art, as a part of a collective ambition to emancipate art from its urban hegemony, and to introduce a new dialectical dynamics into the current consideration of cultural production. There is also an extraordinary curatorial challenge and necessity to think of structures and forms, which could support and promote rural art practice on a global scale, and come up with a durational and geographical concept that can be both representative, not-rushed and ecological (as in not perpetuating ever increasing travel). What would a rural Documenta look like?

For the time being we want to concentrate on the forms and formats that art takes, makes and maintains in the rural. Art can arrive and exist in many different ways, from the city-weary artists who need an occasional retreat (such as the Furk’Art retreat, up by Swiss art dealer Marc Hostettler and American artist James Lee Byars) to the long term movement of whole groups to establish new intentional communities (Worpswede), from the local artist whose art stays local and who becomes long term activist (Anne Marie Dillon), to the rural arts organisation that pushes for a continuous review of what an art in the rural can mean (Grizedale Arts and M12), to festivals and biennials which take place in the rural (examples in the book include Russia, Japan, Austria, Turkey) and self organises trans-national infrastructures that network and support local projects and dispersed cultural practitioners (INLAND and the Eco Nomadic School).


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Land-use, Industry and Leisure

Farming is always shaped by its diversity and often coexisting contrasts, sharply documented in Amy Franceschini’s text about her upbringing across vastly two starkly differing agricultural systems in the California of the seventies. Japanese farmers Yoskia Hagiwara and Tomiko Hagiwara are, with 65 years, the youngest in their village, not a local concern it is a worldwide problem to find young people that want to work in agricultural production. However, on the cover of this book you see youngsters walking through a cornfield in Colorado, anticipation of being the next generation of farmers and ranchers they are confronted by the extremes of difference in farming cultures, and united in having to manage and handle the environmental impact of climate change.

The rural is equally shaped by industrial production both within the rural and the cities.

The rural is equally shaped by industrial production both within the rural and the cities. Industrial and technological revolutions/infrastructures in urban areas offered overcrowded and economically weak rural communities a new home, causing depopulation and a new urban working class, whilst industries that rely on ground and soil resources dig up rural landscapes and spit them out as hubris and holes. Katerina Šedá addresses this in her work ‘The Village and the Factory’ where the complicated capitalist relationship between external landowner/industrialist and local/labourer find their own spatial and visual language.

In the film, A Village does Nothing, Elisabeth Schimana and Markus Seidl try to convince a small village in Austria (from ‘upper’ Eberhardschlag) to not work for a week, provoking a vital discussion of what work means. The essential everyday work that needs doing gets done by art technicians who work for the Festival der Regionen who commissioned the work. Cultural money suddenly allows for relations of production to be fundamentally questioned and experimented with, whilst at the same time using art financing to pay for everyday activities. This reversing of finance and investment is a practical subversion of object-focused and market orientated art whilst at the same time re-framing what cultural production is. A Village does Nothing also points out in a humoristic way the transition of lifestyles that happen in a village when leisure and tourism arrive.


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Reading the Rural

Over all the screens and our imaginations the endless stream of images of the rural comes in. But what if this splits our roles just into spectators and dwellers? The sheer intensity of objectivation of the rural is alarming. The transition from an agricultural and mining economy to a service, and above all non-land-based, economy has fixed our view of the landscape. We see the rural environment as an image that serves us. We build the picture that we long for. We want a panoramic view, but while we moan about maize fields and phone masts polluting the horizon, our smartphone lies on the table and we eat beef from maize-fed cattle.

Reading the rural means questioning the global art world…

Today the rural is more commonly consumed than experienced; which means we need to consider carefully how we can produce new bottom-up readings of the rural. Here, Julia Kristeva’s account of Semiotics as ‘a critical science’ can play an ongoing role by questioning our knowledge and systems of knowledge production as a foundation for questioning our imagination of the rural. Semiotics can be the open system, that is self-questioning and producing knowledge at the same time, with ‘no end and no beginning and vice versa.’

Most artists work conceptually and have set up their practice in a service and leisure based domain, we need self-questioning here as well, which means rethinking our position to hand-work and craft, and food production. Reading the rural means questioning the global art world and concerning ourselves with how to inculcate ethical relations of production. We cannot just visit as art-tourists conserving traces of urban life-styles in overcrowded in-crowd-art biennales; we have to question how artists are part of economically successful models for city branding. The art world flies in and out. Can looking for rural relations of production stretch the space we can experience in art – so we can mutually set up new models of using our resources?



Image credit: Eco Nomadic School (Brezoi). Photo: Kathrin Böhm


This is part of FIELDS, a section of The Learned Pig devoted to exploring fields as natural and (agri)cultural, invisible and visible, poor and productive, created and creators. FIELDS is conceived and edited by Marloe Mens.


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Kathrin Böhm and Wapke Feenstra

Myvillages was founded by artists Kathrin Böhm (UK/DE), Wapke Feenstra (NL) and Antje Schiffers (DE) in 2003, to advocate for a new understanding of the rural as a place of and for cultural production. Myvillages’ work addresses the relationship between the rural and the urban, looking at different forms of production, pre-conceptions and power relationships, whilst passionately questioning the cultural hegemony of the urban. The collective is involved in co-operative projects in various villages and landscapes around the world, with the aim to bring a new dynamism to solidified notions of local resources and production, agriculture and culture, internal and external perception. Myvillages initiates and organises trans-local and international projects which range from informal presentations to long-term collaborations, from work in private spaces to museum exhibitions, from personal questions to multidisciplinary research and publications, from foraging to building permanent infrastructures.