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Are You Ready for the Country?

Shifting Ground Seminars/Visual Artists Newsletter: May/June 2006

FIONA WOODS DESCRIBES FIVE RECENT SEMINARS WHICH FOCUSED ON THE SUBJECT OF CONTEMPORARY ART PRACTICE IN RURAL CONTEXTS, WHICH WERE ORGANISED BY THE SHIFTING GROUND INITIATIVE

The rural, far from the empty landscape of tourist brochures, is a contested zone in which a complex matrix of perspectives is at work. “The conventional notion of the rural as a 'marginal' or minor cultural discourse needs to be challenged, re-positioning the rural as a new intellectual site and critical impulse from which to construct a new cultural discourse about social, economic and environmental change in the context of sustainability”[1].

Shifting Ground is a partnership project between the Arts Office of Clare County Council, Galway/Mayo Institute of Technology and associated partners. The long-term aim of the project is to promote cross-disciplinary dialogue concerning art and culture in rural contexts with a view to creating a discursive space where artists, cultural practitioners and grassroots participants in the rural dynamic can work together to define the ethics and aesthetics of contemporary art practice against the background of social and ecological change.

Three areas of research were identified at the outset of the project.

The first of these was research into a pedagogical model of arts education focusing on contemporary practice in the rural context; the second, a focus on new strategic approaches to contemporary art practice taking place across Europe, while the third was to develop an idea for a mobile platform project where cultural exchange & discussion could take place between artists, rural communities and other stakeholders in the rural context.

Arising from the first strand of research, a series of 5 public seminars was conducted by GMIT in order to stimulate and provide a focus for discourse on contemporary rural art practice. The seminars explored aspects of public art and/or the rural context, each raising a particular set of questions.

The first seminar was given by Gavin Murphy, lecturer in Art History and Critical Theory at GMIT and was titled Once Again Comrades; Amnesia, Memory and Public Art. His talk looked at public art practices emerging in the west of Ireland in the light of debates about the role and value of public art in a society that supposedly holds ideals of inclusion, empowerment and active learning. He argued that “the marketing of public art under notions of its new, dynamic and participatory spirit often masks the complexity of the many roles public art is asked to perform. These range from a form of grass roots democracy, to satisfying the cultural demands of a tourist economy, or simply to perpetuate the public art funding pool for interested parties.”

His presentation was followed by two guest speakers. Fernando Garcia Dory is an artist and activist whose work engages specifically with issues affecting rural communities and contexts. A starting point for his work is the understanding that food and agriculture products are no mere merchandise; the issue of food sovereignty needs to be reintegrated into the cultural discourse. As well as engaging directly with issues affecting rural communities in Spain, Garcia Dory facilitates projects, such as working with shepherds who are trying to preserve their rights and way of life in the face of EU and tourist industry pressures; seed saver projects working to counteract GM Terminator Technology [2]; food security projects in Spain, India and Latin America and free software access for communities. He works in Asturias, Northern Spain with Plataforma Rural, an alliance of stakeholders including farmers unions, consumers’ associations, development NGOs, environmental organisations, and workers’ unions (industry or agriculture). It is aligned internationally to a number of organizations – the European Platform for Food Sovereignty, La Via Campesina [the International Peasant Movement] and others.

Dr. Mark Haywood is an artist and researcher at the Centre for Landscape and Environmental Art Research [CLEAR] at the Cumbria Institute of the Arts, UK. CLEAR has a very specific aim - to explore and promote how the arts can contribute to our understanding of landscape and the environment. It is part of a growing new research culture whose disciplines are drawn from the humanities and sciences. They work to bring together formerly discrete areas of knowledge and research and to create new research contexts for environmental arts through transdisciplinary collaborations.

Haywood’s presentation focused on the ways in which the Strategic Research Theme ‘Changing Views of Landscape and the Environment’ informs the work of CLEAR. This work takes the form of publications, seminars and artist projects, which reflect three concerns:

  • visual - indicators of landscape and environmental change
  • conceptual - shifts in how landscapes and environments are perceived or valued
  • influential - shaping future understandings of landscape and the environment

Ann Mulrooney’s seminar, Between a Rock and a Hard Place; Re-negotiating the polarity of global/local, concentrated “on the language and operation of funding bodies in relation to rural communities, because it draws attention to the larger cultural paradigm in operation in Ireland.” Based on her experiences of curating Sculpture at Kells and Strata, Mulrooney spoke of the way in which funding institutions [part of the state apparatus] demand that rural communities shift their language and modes of operation from Local to Global in order to be successful. This action can be seen as cultural colonialism, she argued; rather than perpetuating ideas of cultural polarisation she proposed that we “shift our paradigm to one of Hegelian dialectic growth which would allow the contradictions of cultural nationalism and cultural globalism to be both overcome and preserved in the formation of a new synthesis produced from the two.”

The third seminar The Trouble with Beauty; Ethics, Aesthetics and Ecology and the Rural Landscape was given by Deirdre O’ Mahony, who also devised the seminar programme. Her talk explored the role of landscape painting in the construction of a distinct and differentiated cultural identity in the formative years of the Irish State, and the problematic legacy this leaves for artists working in the rural west today. Her subjective experience was shaped by the metropolitan context of London; she considered the trajectory her practice has taken since returning to Ireland, from an initial response to the pictorial elements in the landscape through to a critical stance towards the picturesque, reflective of the ecological and social change of the past ten years. O’ Mahony has looked at the signs of despoliation of the landscape to explore the relationship between nature and culture in rural Ireland in her work, considering the relationship with the land through the frame of Julia Kristeva’s writing on the power of horror. Through looking at the often disregarded legacy of post–colonialism related to landscape of the west of Ireland, she argued that it should be possible to open up a new discourse on aesthetics and ecology in Ireland.

The fourth seminar introduced another discipline into the discussions. “The view from the hedge and the view from the hill; how are we managing our heritage?” was given by Paul Gosling, archaeologist and lecturer in Heritage Studies at GMIT. The title of the presentation referred to the micro and macro level perspectives of heritage. This was a fascinating look at the way heritage is classified, and how that classification impacts on the rural landscape and even on rural culture. The relationship between official and unofficial heritage was explored, as were the aesthetics of Heritage Industry monuments; the practice of clearing away all vegetation, and surrounding monuments with gravel falsifies the relationship between the monuments, their surroundings and the passage of time.

Conflicting Interests & Interesting Conflicts; Curatorial Strategies in the context of the Rural was my own contribution to the series. The prevailing cultural discourse, I argued, does not view rural culture as legitimate, but as naïve and inadequate. While I have often heard artists and curators speak of the need to educate rural populations in the language and aesthetics of contemporary art, I have rarely heard artistic practitioners speak of the need to educate themselves in the rural aesthetic.

I presented the work of three projects and argued that each of the many agents involved in the process of commissioning or curating a work of public art, introduces a layer of curatorial strategy which affects the relationship between the final work and the context. My assessment of the overarching curatorial strategies of the three projects– Artscape Nordland (Norway) / Romantic Wilderness; !Xoe Site Specific (South Africa) / the Complexities of Place and The Coniston Water Festival (UK) / Contemporary meets Vernacular Culture - traced a trajectory from the jaded strategy and aesthetic of romanticism [still manifesting in public art in rural contexts] to an appreciation of the multi-layered nature of place, the complexities of ascribing aesthetic value and the co-creation of cultural meaning.

Each seminar was followed by a panel discussion – participants over the weeks included Dr. Peter Seddon [University of Brighton], Fergus Tighe [filmmaker], Tom Varley [community activist] Jeannine Woods [researcher in Colonialism and Culture] as well as artists and students contributing from the floor. The discussions highlighted a number of common themes – the tension between globalisation and local cultural practices; the impact of colonialism/ post-colonialism on the rural context; how aesthetics contributes to the values ascribed to land; the need to recognise that issues of trade and food sovereignty are cultural, not just economic, issues; the importance of identifying and clarifying the criteria for successful participatory models of art practice in a rural context. In relation to this last issue, the difficulty and necessity of equipping practitioners with appropriate negotiation skills to realise their work in context was felt to merit a deeper exploration. A day-long seminar with appropriate speakers from the rural and arts sectors will take place in September.

The Shifting Ground partnership will continue to explore and develop trans-disciplinary discussions through various mechanisms. In May, a number of Fine Art students will stage an intervention at the Bio-Diversity day in Dromore Wood organized by the Heritage Dept. of Clare County Council. An art research project, Rural Vernacular, will begin in June - artists from Russia, Hungary and Ireland will conduct research in rural contexts in Clare and develop proposals for temporary public artworks. A major conference and art symposium will take place in Ennis on October 20th/21st where presentations and discussions will further explore the issues identified in the seminars. Details of all these projects, along with papers from the seminars, will shortly be available on the partnership website - www.shiftingground.net

This article was first published in the May / June 2006 edition of the Visual Artists' News Sheet www.visualartists.ie

1. Ian Hunter Littoral Arts Trust.

2. Terminator technology is a genetic modification of seeds which is designed to switch off their ability to germinate a second time. This means that farmers become dependent on corporate seed suppliers; for farmers in the developing world this is an attack on both autonomy and food security. It is unknown how this technology will impact on wilds plants when cross-polination inevitably occurs.

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