Deirdre O Mahony and Fiona Woods

Renegotiating Relationships: The Ground UP Artists Collective

Deirdre O Mahony and Fiona Woods

The Ground Up Artists Collective is an independent artist organization that emerged from the Ground Up programme of Public Art in rural contexts initiated by Clare County Arts Office. This project was intended to generate new thinking about public art in rural contexts and to strengthen artist networks in what is a very rural county. The collective is currently made up of 10 of the artists who participated in the first and second strands of the project. Some of the aims are as follows:

-To create a platform for discussion amongst peers; artists who want to examine modes of participation and engagement with rural audiences and to focus attention on the rural as a context and an audience for artwork.

-To examine and challenge existing models of public art commissioning

-To create a framework which allows for partnerships, collaborations and projects to sprout within the membership, and to develop a critical and productive dialogue with other artists.

The collective research phase of both Ground Up projects examined ways of engaging with a rural audience. It soon became apparent to the artists that working methodologies taken for granted in the urban context had to be reconsidered. Audience perceptions of what constitutes ‘art’ are fluid. For many people the visual arts still consist of painting, drawing and sculpture. Ground Up challenged this perception of ‘art’, and in order to introduce a notion of contemporary art that might encompass video, ambient sound, spoken language, live performance, even local ecosystems. The artists realized there was a need for a visible presence within the community to mediate between the proposed work and the audience. The artists in Ground Up 1 used the simple strategy of having an insert magazine in the Clare Champion, the weekly regional newspaper and a series of public meetings. The artists in Ground Up 2 chose to work collectively and stage a series of public interventions by initiating a process titled ‘In Under Over Out’. This title signaled our point of entry into the rural public domain.

This presentation consolidates the collective ideas and experience gained from the concentrated focus on the rural context.

The Land / Landscape

For the purposes of this discussion, the difference between ‘land’ and ‘landscape’ is that the former seeks to conceptualize and unrepresentable experience; an insider’s everyday experience of place, the latter the ideological, the historical and social discourses that structure and frame the conceptualization of landscape.[1] It is a contentious and problematic term in the rural west of Ireland; to the tourist or the painter ‘landscape’ can mean the spectacle or view. For the local farmer there is the addition of a timeline; ‘landscape’ becomes a narrative of survival and development. To the immigrant or migrant worker the ‘landscape’ is a terrain to be negotiated. The rural landscape of the west of Ireland has been identified with the formation of the State and referenced as site, source and image of Irish national identity. From Paul Henry to John Hinde, from paintings to posters to post-cards, images of rural Ireland have been suffused with longing and nostalgia for a pure, pre-modern Ireland. The difficulty with this nostalgia, says John Gibbons “….is not that it turns its back on the modern, but that it is part of it, if by that we mean a particular view of social change which embalms rather than actively renegotiates the past.” [2] The conflict between this nostalgic view of rural life and the ahistorical post-modern sensibility now being brought to bear on it engenders tension within rural communities and impacts on every facet of rural life, from planning to REP’s to tourism development.

Rural contexts and audiences have not been considered significant in the development of the contemporary cultural discourse. Where artists have engaged with the rural they have often treated it as an empty site, ignoring the complex matrix of perspectives at work. Increasingly it is becoming clear that the rural is a contested zone, where some of the most pressing issues of our time are being played out – issues of environmental sustainability, issue of global economics versus local economies, issues of cultural commodification. A new cultural discourse is required, one which places the rural at the centre of a debate about arts practice, social engagement and sustainability.

This tension is what the Ground Up public art program sought to address. As Anne Birmingham noted at another key moment of stress, this time in English rural society at the time of the enclosures act; “This coincidence of a social transformation of the countryside repeats a familiar pattern of actual loss and imaginative recovery. Precisely when the countryside – or at least large portions of it – was becoming unrecognizable, and dramatically marked by historical change, it was offered as the image of the homely, the stable, the ahistorical.”[3], in other words, as heritage.

Challenging Cultural Assumptions

Visual decisions are part of the common-sense, commonplace knowledge of everyday rural life. Field management, wall construction, ploughing, planting, or inventing ways of ‘making do’ in order to make tasks easier, have a social and aesthetic value which is of enormous relevance to contemporary artists particularly in relation to sustainable development. The Ground Up project has been an attempt to make this commonplace aesthetic visible and bring the discourse around the future of ‘the rural’ back from the margins. This discourse is just as valid for a Slovenian whose house has been bought as a holiday home for foreign, maybe even Irish, investors, as for the farmer in Ballyvaughan whose home and land have been in his or her family for generations, but who is being offered millions for the view. Sustaining rural culture is a problem across Europe as food production moves to cheaper supply bases and land use changes from food production to leisure site.

The rural context has its own aesthetic, separate from the visual qualities of the landscape; this aesthetic is informal, local, discontinuous and complex. The prevailing cultural discourse is quite metro-centric and it does not view rural culture as legitimate, but as naïve and inadequate. I have often heard artists and curators speak of the need to educate rural populations in the language and aesthetics of contemporary art, but I have rarely heard artistic practitioners speak of the need to educate themselves in the language and aesthetic of the rural context.

Artists in urban spaces are expected to be edgy and have a license to dispute, challenge and question orthodoxies and ideologies, without being taken personally or seen as a particular threat by the public. In a rural context if one is to challenge or question prevailing orthodoxies, it is personal. The artist must be prepared to be accountable in a way that is rarely demanded in an urban context and this can lead to tensions around the use of local knowledge and fear of interference with livelihoods. In our collective discussions the issue of how to redefine practice previously used to the informed, ‘known’ context of the urban public space and this local, rural context has been challenging. What we do, and how we engage with local culture, is an issue for the community at large.

Local Global Relationships

The regulation of land use through CAP has brought with it a loss of control and power over the land and its uses. When Ireland joined the EU, farming practice diverged from ‘tradition’ and became linked to subsidy. This bought a temporary postponement of the demise of the small farm but the end of CAP payments will leave few options for full-time farmers in the post-agricultural landscape. Loss of respect for a way of life, memory and culture and the anger and resentment stirred up by what is perceived as outsider interference in planning disputes all figure in this contested space. The demographic profile of rural communities has also shifted with the economic boom; reverse migration a significant factor. Instant access via the internet to the global community has, (for some), enabled relocation from urban to the rural locations. Commuting long distances has become a way of life, as many maintain jobs in the urban sector but homes in the country, altering the fabric of close-knit interdependent communities.

Roads are new cultural places; they embody a set of cultural values that preference the global over the local. In rural areas we no longer eat food grown locally, fewer people work locally, the majority of us don’t shop locally and so on. The roads culture is an expression of the Oil paradigm, which promotes economic over social values and encourages the separation of production and consumption. The ultimate logic of this paradigm is that the principle of mutual assistance and reciprocity between neighbors, which has been so much a part of rural culture, will be supplanted by solely economic transactions. This is already happening.

What is happening at this rural local level is also repeated in communities’ world-wide. What has not happened is the same discourse around the changes in rural culture as there have been with urban cultures – particularly in relation to contemporary art practice and this marginalization is a real problem. Artist Anne Mulrooney has articulated her frustration with these different perceptions of what constitutes a valid, or ‘proper’ space for discourse.[4] In her writing she has stated:

“In my experience of both, urban and rural operate differently, hold different world views and different priorities. Western urban centres are based primarily on modernist paradigms of process and development as logical, linear, forward moving…What is problematic is that generally, decisions governing both are areas made in urban centres by urban dwellers who either don’t realize or have forgotten that there are other ways of doing things – or who mistake the modernist paradigm for an absolute reality and can’t understand why the rednecks won’t get with the program.”[5]

In discussions about Public Art in rural contexts, it is important to stress that the orthodoxies challenged by the artist may not always be those orthodoxies pertaining to the rural community. Working from the ground up can bring about a situation in which artists challenge stereotypes and clichés of the rural, including the cliché of the rural; conservative / urban; progressive.

The Rural as a Public Space

How embedded the nostalgic image of the ‘pure’ landscape has become and the economic premium placed on the ‘view’, particularly when the leisure, heritage and tourism industry is seen as a key factor in the economic future of the rural landscape. The written responses to one of the research stages for Ground Up raised several issues in relation to perceptions and expectations by the local audience of the representation of land / landscape. In staging the intervention, attaching the tag ‘public Art Project for Clare County Council’, showing images, what became apparent was the expectation by some of the audience of a certain type of ‘view’. Some who came were angry at the ‘negative image’ presented of the country and that “….none of the positive pulses of rural life were used.”[6] and others who expressed amazement that “…something which could have come from my own backyard….”[7] Should be considered worthy of an artist’s response.

A new form of Public Art needs to be developed which does not impose the values of the dominant cultural discourse on rural communities, but seeks to engage with rural issues and vernacular rural culture. This can only be developed in close consultation with rural communities. Ground Up set out to foster a new type of engagement between Public Art and rural contexts; to address and perhaps challenge the hierarchical formulation of cultural value, that places art high up and rural culture low down.

Is an open-ended, discursive, reflective mode of enquiry the best way to encompass the complexity of expectation and the many competing interests within the rural community? Implicit in such a notion of a mutual reciprocity, of a shifting, responsive, symbiotic mode of practice, is abject failure, is there room for this, in existing publicly funded schemes – what if you have no pre-defined outcomes?

The post-agricultural landscape will radically change rural life and the emergence of the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development should provide a range of opportunities to encourage sustainable cultural activities at a local level in rural locations. The Ground Up Collective is ideally poised to address both the effect of, and the implications of this change in the rural landscape. The future direction of the collective may or may not include looking to such programs to sustain the organization and this decision will be made in the weeks to come. This conference should serve to throw some light on the way forward and also to open discussion to the wider, dispersed arts community.


[1] In June 2006 the Burren school of art gathered together 12 participants to discuss landscape theory for a forthcoming book and the discussion which took place on the many meanings of landscape have informed this paper. The participants were: Denis Cosgrove, Rachael DeLue, Jessica Dubow, James Elkins, Michael Gaudio, Roisin Kennedy, Michael Newman, Rebecca Solnit, Minna Torma, Anne Whiston Spirn, Jacob Wamberg

[2] Gibbions, John. John Hinde and the New Nostalgia. Transformations in Irish Culture. Critical Conditions: Field Day Essays. (Cork University Press in association with Field Day 1996) P43

[3] Birmingham, Ann. The State and Estate of Nature. Landscape and Ideology. (Thames and Hudson, London 1987) PP9

[4] Anne Mulrooney presented a paper in GMIT as part of the development of a rural arts practice module within the Fine Art Degree program for the Shifting Ground seminar series, for full text www.shiftingground.com

[5] Mulrooney, Anne, from Love It or Leave It – Tim Davis, John Langan, Ann Mulrooney and Deirdre O Mahoney. Another Monumental Metaphor, edited / curated Alan Phelan for 51st Venice Biennale. Printed Project:Issue 5 (Sculptors Society of Ireland 2005) P36

[6] From response postcards given out after the slide show in Ennistymon with space to comment. In Under Over Out, Ground Up 2, Ennistymon Show, June 6th 2004

[7] Ditto 1