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Reclaiming the rural 2: Rural microcultures

Kristopher Kohler

With the innovations of the postmodern period, a rurally-situated criticality was liberated that allows many artists, including myself, to work in the ways in which we do today. Robert Smithson's seminal Spiral Jetty appeared in 1970 and Conceptual, Process-Based, Performance and Land Art began to leave the older, urban commodity-based art forms of painting, print and sculpture behind. This seismic break in art history was probably as significant as the innovations in oil painting and perspective that, in the Renaissance, gave art the illusion of reality, or the invention of photography in the 19th Century that emancipated it from that illusion. This is art for the third millennium, and it allows the rural context to flourish.

I began thinking about the problems surrounding rurally situated contemporary art in response to a paper entitled 'Country Living' by Rosemary Shirley6). I saw her present her ideas at a conference in Wales in late 2008 and began to realise that there was a multitude of artists self-identified as rural operating beneath the surface of mainstream media and critical discourse. These were often artists, who whilst not united by any common medium or technique, or necessarily even by approach, were operating with similar concerns to those which had been developing within my own artistic practice. As Shirley stated, if one is to collect together the myriad different practices that are occurring under the umbrella of their common ‘rurality’, this genre is essentially 'an underestimated, undervalued and often invisible form of practice'7). I came to believe that this is what artists self-consciously working within such a field were well placed to alter, given the wider cultural shifts at play in their favour.

I grew up in the countryside, surrounded by working farms, where everyday struggle and practical down-to-earth realities went hand in hand with the sublime and romantic view of the land as something marvelous, even transcendent. It is, and has been for sometime, the critical fashion to draw stark separation between the mundane, often harsh realities of the countryside and the urban perspective of the rural environment as a panoramic spectacle for bourgeois enjoyment: the landscape construed as a stage set for excursions or a vista within which to repose. Indeed the term landscape itself has been criticised for its connotations, for turning the rural into an idealised commodity: a conveniently packaged entity for the enjoyment of the bourgeois gaze.

To me, personally, this idea does not necessarily hold true. As a child in the country I was as happy and as thrilled as any young Wordsworth to clamber through thickets and dash across hillsides beneath epic skies very much aware of the landscape as a venue for adventure, as a glorious succession of exquisite imagery, as a sublime companion. I did not idealise my environment, it was just as it appeared to me, within my own phenomenological position as a child growing up within a vast arena that might be at any time given over to play. When I photographed or sketched my surroundings for idle enjoyment I did not make a commodity the land, the farmers were busy doing that all around me, that was their business and the everyday business of the countryside. Instead I merely took the rural at face value, and for me it seemed more than enough to light the touch paper on a million mental adventures and an entirely reasonable basis for my burgeoning creativity.

Then came Art College and the steady realisation that I was not creating work that others considered quite as natural or acceptable an output as I had, up until that point, considered. I was fighting a constant war with my tutor who considered my output too romantic and by no means 'edgy' or 'gritty' enough. I thought much of what he considered edgy to be tired and largely devoid of anything that affected me in any meaningful way. Vacuous replays of old urban concerns, glamorised by association with fashionable galleries, colleges and of course the urban metropolis were not always the work that I considered most important. All I would hear was how the city was the location in which culturally and critically valuable art occurred, but much of this was work that did not affect me in any significant way or speak to me of any vestige of my experience of the world.

The urban centre is full of people, that much is obvious, and where there are people there follows there is a market for art. As artists must survive they must exchange their creativity and their skills or output for money: therefore, goes the argument, make art for the market in the metropolis. But this art meant little to me, it was another symptom of the alienation I felt in the face of mass culture. What I did not understand at that time were the potential political, economic and theoretical reasons for my visceral reaction.
I started to think about what sort of art would speak to my experience and to the people I knew from the countryside where I grew up, for if there was no market for this work then things would develop down very different avenues. Ideas and expressions became more strongly wedded to specific spaces but also more aware of time and the processes of change. They became, in a word, situational.

The work, liberated from market requirements, became more ephemeral and transient: a phenomenological experience that worked in conjunction with the landscape context. It became a trajectory, a process that might create a transient shock that, through drawing attention to its incongruity, would cut through the banality of experience. It became an experience of singularisation, situating itself within the grammar of a specific chain of signification, only to disrupt that signification and divert its meanings in new directions.

I came to the conclusion that such work was not only valid, but fundamentally necessary. It was work that was necessary not just for rural artists and communities but for society at large. Paradoxically in light of this, it was work that was not in itself confined only to the rural situation but was rather a genre of working derived from the peculiarities of the rural that had a wider position and implications for cultural discourse in all spatio-temporal situations.

In the critical discourse of contemporary art attention is directed towards urban, globalised, metropolitan culture which is perceived as the sole site of the innovative or radical. Whilst such a macroculture clearly has much to offer, I have come to believe that such discourse should not and must not overlook the quietly stifled, local microcultures that cling on, mostly in rural contexts, giving a sense of grounding and depth in our increasingly transitory world.

Such rural microcultures give roots to the rhizome of history. Intimately linked with the land; with folklore, linguistic diversity, biodiversity and tradition; they are regularly overlooked by those discourses that create, commission and define culture. An attention-grabbing, metropolitan, showpiece media event that draws the crowds to the mechanising shop can often be an empty shell, both alienating and shallow. That is not of course to say that all urban art is bad, all rural good – it is patently not and such a position is one that I would passionately refute. However art and cultural investigation should naturally be permitted to exist in rural areas beyond a censoring discourse, arising from their own particular strengths: a sense of relations, sociality, community, the land, folklore, language and traditions.

By applying the frameworks of deconstruction and the prevalent cultural models of the postmodern, traditions can become methodologies of singularisation, folklore a contestation, sociality a site of innovation, just as stark, if not more so in the countryside. All that is required is for critical discourse to make the leap and to acknowledge new frameworks that do not necessarily rely on commodity value or huge, impersonal, and often alienated audiences of passive, consuming spectators. The country, the rural, needs a voice within contemporary culture, precisely as what it has to offer is an alterity and a site of contestation of the hegemony of urbancentric models of semiocapitalist, global cultural colonisation.

When one does not see one’s own experiences and values represented and reflected back then one starts to question their validity. Human beings cannot exist in isolation - one man on his own does not have a culture. With mass culture and media, as the main manifestations of the dominant cultural discourse, overlooking rural concerns and value systems such systems potentially become undermined and eventually wither.

6) Rosemary Shirley, Country Living AN: The Artists Information Company, 2007.

7)Ibid. pg3 




Images on this page (top to bottom) are by Simon Whitehead, Rupert White, Christopher Collier and Jennie Savage.