(First published in Null Set and Slag Magazine Special issue; Volume 4, Rurality. March 2019).
The tensions between urban and rural areas highlighted by the 2016 US election result and the rise of populism across Europe were the catalyst for the founding of the Arts Territory Exchange, a large-scale collaborative project between artists across the world working with ideas of remoteness and challenging the idea that culture 'happens' in urban areas. Artists are invited to work together exploring ideas of territory, locality and place, documents from their postal/digital exchanges become part of an interactive living archive and evolving resource.
The rural/urban tension – one of aTE’s main research interests - play out clearly in the culture of rural artists residencies, artists retreats and field trips, where artists (most often from urban centres) descend upon rural locations to have 'pastoral' experiences and glean subject matter.
In the essay 'Shifting Rurality, American Gothic, Iowa Nice, Biotech and political expectations in rural America'. William D Nichols says,
'While artists will often take up long term (or sometimes permanent) residence in the areas they wish to depict, they, still, for the most part meet the category of outsider, not simply as someone from elsewhere but as an individual who has come to partake in the environment; hence, they have come to take something away'. (1)
Nichols goes on to suggest that artists working with their own romantic ideas about landscape end up communicating '(mis)information' about rural places. Rural residencies often focus on the development of an artist's relationship with the landscape and environment, with local communities most often sidelined and sometimes becoming resentful of the artists descent into their locality. Of course we may argue that small rural communities will benefit from exposure to artists, writers and visitors from urban centres and the idea of the 'other' as threat is one which should be constantly challenged but the idea that they are 'taking something away' as posited by Nichols, moves artists' tourism uncomfortably towards a position reminiscent of the colonial and exploitative.
Artists are not wholly culpable for the lack of connection with local communities and the absence of people in their representation of these rural places and spaces, for one, most rural artist residencies focus on the environment and mans' exploitation of the land and in these cases the landscape often speaks for itself – but there rises a new problematic of artists treating the landscape (particularly the arctic and areas subject to rapid climate change) as research labs, leading to further tensions with local people. Artists have historically tended to avoid local communities for fear of causing offence or becoming involved in local politics when they are not welcome. In a recent article for Canadian Art Magazine – Lucy Lippard reflects upon an artists' trip to Inuvik, a rural new town in the Canadian Northwest Territories which took place in 1969 as postscript to the exhibition “Place and Process” at the Edmonton Art Gallery. Lippard reflects upon their 'parachuting in to soak up place' with some discomfort,
'A number of conceptual artworks were executed, none of which addressed the political and environmental implications of our brief intrusion, or the plight of the Indigenous inhabitants (Inuit, Dene and Métis), many of whom had been involuntarily relocated from the nearby town of Aklavik'. (2)
Socio-political and socio-economic issues are always so closely knit with that of climate change that works ignoring human communities can seem tokenistic, as Lippard re flects. Bearing this in mind, artists are too often riding a wave of gentrification which may eventually see local people pushed out of their homes. With cultural connection to urban centres comes a higher price of living and all the exploitation this entails, so it seems to make sense that artists are met with some suspicion by rural communities and perhaps an awareness of this may prevent artists becoming complicit with the colonial narratives they would surely want to critique.
Regarding climate ecocide – aTE champions a need to go beyond providing a visual testament of a climate change seen as inevitable but to engage with the damaging human endeavours which may be halted or at least called out as exploitative – the network of oil investment pipelines across the arctic – fracking in the midwest US– etc. It is these issues, often the narratives of big business, that may unite the visiting (often left leaning liberal) artist with local more conservative rural populations. Towards developing a more reflexive and relational experience. (3)
On pairing artists in creative correspondences, aTE encourages an initial image exchange – artists are asked to take a picture of a view from their home or studio window as a way of introducing themselves and their territory to each other. The ATE Views project attempts to offer an experience of place mediated by someone who already lives in the locality- ideas are then developed through long distance postal and digital exchanges based on the lived experiences of artists in their own particular rural or remote localities. This subjective and mediated view of place may go a small way in circumventing the 'parachuting in to soak up place' problematic mentioned by Lippard – not seeking to replace artists travel and research trips but to offer an alternative way to experience rural spaces.
Page 5 Shifting Rurality American Gothic, Iowa Nice,Biotech and Political Expectations in Rural America William D.Nichols from Landscapes: The Journal of the international Centre for Landscape and language. Vol 8, Issue 1.
These ideas have been explored by many artists and writers including Chris Kraus in Kelly Lake Store and other Stories and a current research project and planned symposium at the Whitechapel, London https://www.whitechapelgallery.org/learn/the-rural/