I recently attended the Hyper Rural: End of Urbanism? symposium at the Manchester School of Architecture led by Littoral Arts Trust; a non-profit-making arts trust set up to respond to social, environmental, and economic change.

The symposium aimed to

  • document the emergence of a radical new programme of art and agriculture and critical rural arts practices.
  • propose a cultural re-framing of agriculture and rural development in the post-agricultural era.  
  • create a platform and a response to the Littoral Arts Trust’s publication

The New Creative Rural Economies report (2018):

“What the BSE and FMD (Foot and Mouth) disasters have shown us is that agriculture and the rural are now also important cultural responsibilities and arenas. And, as such, they also represent urgent new critical spheres for artists, digital media, architects, designers and cultural policy discourse.” Ian Hunter, Littoral Arts Trust.

I have selected some of these projects and initiatives that sparked my interest during this symposium.

Deveron Projects – entire rural town as an art venue

Deveron Projects, is an arts organisation based in Huntly, a rural market town in the north east of Scotland with a population of 4,500. They connect artists, communities and places through creative research and engagement. They look at their whole town as their  showcasing venue from for their creative ideas and projects.

Deveron Projects in Huntly, Scotland

Deveron Projects encourages the idea that ‘an artist’ is just as an integral part of the town, as a butcher or a baker might be perceived. They engage with artists from all over the world, to work and explore creative ideas within the town which helps connect their town with the international sphere.

Image of artist, butcher and baker in Deveron Projects

Shadow Curators

Interestingly Deveron Projects introduces the idea of Shadow Curators, which as they say:

like the Shadow Minister in parliament, acts as an embedded critic who scrutinises what we do and thereby brings constructive alternatives to our work process.

The Shadow Curators are selected curators from the UK and across the globe who assess Deveron Projects’ art programmes, work and the way they do them.

… this new form of peerage and self-reflection, working in absolute equality, maps the curatorial process through querying and critiquing the assumptions of the institution. In other words, it creates a mirror that when held up against a practice, highlights opportunities for critical development.

 

Shadow curator discussing with CEO of Deveron Projects

Shadow Curator Interns

The projects also encourages early career curators to take part of the programme as Shadow Curator Interns, The interns helps the main curators on a three to six months basis.

Shop

Not forgetting the value of sharing their learning, Deveron Projects has built up a sizeable archive of books, music, films and other records from their projects over the years. Anyone is welcome to buy these in their online shop, which also offers a wide selection merchandises on Huntly.

Bishan Project aims to reinvent, yet preserve, China’s rural identity.

Ou Ning, an intellectual activist, gave a lecture on the Bishan Project. He set up the project in a rural village in Anhui Province, called Bishan. He launched the project in 2011 along with fellow scholar and friend Zuo Jing, with hopes of carrying out experimental rural reconstruction from their cultural perspectives.

Bookshop and Library in Bishan Village

Rural Reconstructions

Examples of these rural reconstructions include the local ancestral hall being renovated into the Bishan Bookstore. Bookshelves are lined up in the courtyard and constructed a cafe on the second floor. A dilapidated oil mill was turned into a hotel. They even developed a motto, coat of arms and magazine for the village. They didn’t stop there, they also created Bishan currency. The currency is valued on hours spent helping each other.

Bishan Currency - 1 hour note

 

“The biggest difference between Bishan and most tourist sites is that people living and working in Bishan remain indigenous.” Zuo asserts.

Zuo renovated a house in Bishan. They hoped that the house would become the Bishan Culture Institute, where they could begin their rural education campaign.

“The young people are leaving for big cities. If they are ever to return to the village, they must give up relatively high-paying city jobs and find new employment in the countryside, which brings back the importance of developing the rural economy.”

A young person from the village who had moved away, heard about the project, moved back to the village to work on the project.

Traditional Chinese dance at Bishan Festival

Unfortunately the Chinese Government halted funding on the project in 2016, however efforts like the Bishan Project definitely have the potential to grow into a larger social movement that is comparable to the Arts and Crafts MovementBack to the Land Movement, or Organic Movement in the West.

Steve Messam – Bridging the gap between contemporary art and rural landscapes

Steve Messam is an environmental artist based in the North of England. He has worked primarily on temporary site specific installations. Messam is particularly interested in rural communities. He uses the idea of assets of landscape, agriculture and community to challenge the preconceptions of contemporary rural arts practice.

Examples of his works displayed in the following images.

Two children perched on Paper Bridge by Steve Messam in Cumbria

Paper Bridge (2015) a paper only bridge constructed in rural Cumbria (above).

Fleece clad sheep house with projection of water fall in Cumbria

Clad (2009) – a traditional timber-framed cottage wrapped in the fleece of 300 local sheep (above). For Oriel Davies Gallery, Newtown, Wales.

In 2002 he established ‘Fold’ – an arts organisation which aimed to provide and promote access to quality contemporary art in the rural environment. From its small gallery space in the sheep market town of Kirkby Stephen, Cumbria, Fold showed the work of hundreds of artists, both in the gallery space and in the wider landscape. In 2004 Messam created FRED – an annual art invasion across Cumbria – one of Europe’s largest annual festivals of site specific work.

X-PO – an old post office converted to a public space in rural Ireland

Deirdre O’Mahony is the artist behind X-PO. The project started life in 2007 as  public art in the former post office in Killinaboy, County Clare, Ireland. O’Mahony initiated this as a

‘social, cultural and community exchange where different forms of knowledge – farming, artistic, local, place-based – could make unexpected creative connections’.

In her first year, O’Mahony worked with  different groups and individuals. They collaborated in producing a series of archival exhibitions that reflected different aspects of rural life today.

X-PO building in County Clare

Since 2008, the local community runs the project between September and June. They continue to develop, fundraise for and manage X-PO. They hold weekly clubs in singing, mapping and Irish language; and regular talks on local history and archaeology as well as film screenings and occasional exhibitions.

Village archive collection and headphones to listen to audio excerpts

The project provides a very visible public space. In this space the project discusses and challenges the changes in what are increasingly socially fragmented rural communities. It has also been a catalyst for projects such as the film First Citizens Speak. A film about North Clare residents who grew up as the first citizens of the Irish State.

Final thoughts

For me, these projects were inspiring and great examples of how rural communities can not only engage with contemporary art on an international sphere, but can sustain their cultural heritage and even position themselves to rival their urban counterparts in delivering innovative creative projects.

Do you know any other interesting arts project in the rural communities? If you do, share on the comments space below.

Read more about what our rural art community thinks about how we can sustain our own arts ecology across Dorset here.

We do not own the images displayed in this article. They are taken from the artists or art project websites, or public articles online.