Fiona Woods

Conflicting Interests and Interesting Conflicts

Curatorial Strategies in the context of the Rural

Fiona Woods

The following is a transcript of a given by Fiona Woods on the occasion of the Shifting Ground seminar series for GMIT/Clare County Arts Office partnership project; March 13th 2006

I would like to start by clearly defining the role I occupy this evening. I am a visual artist, and although my time is largely taken up at the moment with the work that I do for the Arts Office of Clare County Council, I view that work as an extension of my practice, otherwise I wouldn’t have much interest in doing it! I will make reference to work I have done in my capacity as Arts Coordinator for the North Clare region, but I am not representing the Arts Office here tonight, I am speaking as an independent visual artist.

To outline a framework for this presentation I am going to begin with a few general statements. Rather than get drawn into a debate about where urban ends and rural begins, I will use the word rural to refer to all areas that are not urban, suburban or periurban, leaving villages, cultivated land and wilderness areas. The urban cultural discourse is not the same as the rural cultural discourse where broader definitions of culture apply. The prevailing cultural discourse is quite metro-centric and it does not view rural culture as legitimate, but as naïve and inadequate. The rural context is informal, local, discontinuous and complex.

On many occasions  I have 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. In general, where contemporary artists have engaged with the rural using through the medium of public art, they have kept rural culture at arms length or treated the rural simply as an empty space within which to place art objects.

The topic I am going to address is ‘Curatorial Strategies in the context of the Rural’ focusing on Public Art practice. In Public Art the curatorial process is a complex one involving many agents, from commissioners or funders to host committees, artists, selectors and occasionally a person who actually carries the title of curator. Each agent, I will argue, introduces a layer of strategy into the process; in this case ‘strategy’ refers to the choices that determine the relationship between artwork and context.

Slide 1 – Image from In Context 3 brochure – Roads…

I began to look critically at the type of Public Art happening in the rural realm in Ireland when I got involved in developing a proposal for a Per Cent for Art scheme arising from the development of the new Ennis-Limerick road. During my research into local lore, someone explained to me how the road had severed community, literally preventing some of the older people from driving relatively short distances to see friends because they found the scale of the new road intimidating.

As I thought about this, I realized that as well as inflicting physical and psychological scarring on the land and community, these 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 the 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.

The act of placing artworks within the cultural corridor that these roads both create and occupy generates a sort of Drive-By Art placed for the benefit of the motorist. I believe that the function of the artworks commissioned under the Per Cent for Art scheme and located on the side of the new roads is to validate this new cultural place; as such the commissioned artworks become part of the apparatus of the state.

This situation, in which one set of cultural values is accorded dominant status by virtue of being state-sponsored and is imposed upon another local and indigenous set of values is akin to cultural colonialism. I started to think about other ways that artists could engage publicly with and within the rural. When I took up the position as Regional Arts Coordinator for North Clare I set about trying to devise a project that would facilitate a different type of engagement. This project became known as Ground Up and I should point out is also state-funded, though not through the Per Cent for Art scheme. Later this year a book documenting all three strands of the Ground Up project will be published, so rather than discuss Ground Up here, I thought it would be interesting to focus on curatorial strategies that have been adopted elsewhere in relation to Public Art in rural contexts. I am going to present three projects and my intention is to look at the layers of strategy introduced into a project by each of the agents involved and to consider how those strategies manifest in relationship between the final artwork and the context.

Slides 3-35 Various images from Artscape Nordland

Artscape Nordland was the brainchild of one artist, Anne Katrine Dovlen. Her idea was to turn an art periphery into an art centre. This would be achieved by commissioning an artwork from an international artist for each of the municipalities in the Norwegian county of Nordland; in this way, and I quote ‘Nordland and Norway would acquire an international art collection….founded on qualities inherent in the landscape’. A collection of 33 permanent artworks by artists from 18 countries was assembled over a period from 1992 – 1998.

In the introductory essay to the publication documenting the project, Maaretta Jakkuri, the primary curator of the project states ‘Artscape Nordland has come about in a dialogue with the landscape surrounding it and the spectator. The sculpture set in the landscape creates a new place, one that we can visit, look at and reflect on.’

This gives us two layers of strategy so far – the first, a stated intent to ‘acquire an international art collection….founded on qualities inherent in the landscape’ and the second idea of art and spectator encountering the landscape, as cited by the curator. This overarching emphasis on landscape, which implies primarily the visual aspect of the rural, is firmly rooted in the Romantic tradition. Another layer of strategy comes into play through the process of each selected artist choosing a site and devising a work for that site. Potentially, 33 completely different approaches to the idea of ‘qualities inherent in the landscape’ could emerge; after all this was the 1990’s when it was widely known that a large hole in the ozone layer was appearing right above this area. Surprisingly, the strategies employed are very limited; a large majority of the works rely heavily it seems, upon an experience of the sublime, with 12 out of the 33 works literally incorporating ‘Enframing’ devices. This device reinforces the separation between the idea of a ‘spectator’ and a ‘scene’. I find this strategy very unsatisfying.

Slide 36 – Anthony Gormley, Havmanen and Caspar David Friedrich, Monk by the Sea

This work by Anthony Gormley is titled Havmanen. I am showing it to you alongside the painting by Caspar David Friedrich, ‘Monk by the Sea’, because to me they are almost the same; certainly they are dealing with the same idea of the sublime, a Romantic contrasting of the individual with the infinite.

Slides 37 – 39 Inghild Karlsen, After-Images

There are only 4 works, in my assessment, which engage strategically with the complexities  of place. This work, titled After-Images by Inghild Karlsen from 1995 is the work I find most interesting in the collection. It borrows its form from the type of street lamp most commonly used in the area, while the lamp takes the shape of a woman’s face. It gives a constant light, both in the endless days of the northern summer and during the winter darkness. There are two of these lamps. One is sited in the center of a park in the small town of Myre, while the second, identical light is located in the abandoned fishing community of Nyksund some 15km away. In my opinion, this is a work of subtlety and complexity, which engages with locality and reflects upon the consequences of human activity for this beautiful, semi-wilderness area.

Slides 40-51 Various Images, !Xoe Site-Specific (thanks to Dr. Mark Haywood)

!Xoe Site Specific shares some common ground with Artscape Nordland. It took place in 1998, in the remote South African town of Nieu-Bathesda, located in the Sneeburg Mountains on the edge of a vast, arid wilderness called the great Karoo. Bringing art out from the centres such as Johannesburg and Capetown to this art periphery was at least part of the impetus for the project.

But that is pretty much where the similarities end. Nieu-Bathesda is a predominately white, historically Afrikaaner village; in the best South African tradition, it has a satellite township, Pienaarsig, made up of a predominately black population. Despite the fact that Apartheid had ended 3 years previously, and that the town council of Nieu-Bathesda had a black, female mayor, segregation was still the norm. The project was accepted and supported by the town council as a means of attracting tourists to the place and the mayor insisted that the township community should also benefit from the project.

The director of the project, Mark Wilby, established the Ibis art centre in Nieu-Bathesda; his essay in !Xoe publication states ‘If Ibis was to contribute anything – other than tourist-marketed material – it was not in denial of, in spite of our geographic position, but as a result of it. And so it has seemed increasingly appropriate to deal with artwork that concerns itself with the inescapable realities of place.’

The emphasis on ‘place’ as opposed to landscape or space is a key difference between the curatorial strategies of this and the previous project. Mark Haywood, who participated in this project as an artist and advisor, wrote an introductory essay called ‘Art in its Place’ in which he said ‘….site specific art, which draws meaning from its location, is usually diminished if subsequently re-presented elsewhere. This interaction means the artist has to establish a relationship with the site, acknowledge what is already there and work with it. The resulting artwork must be visually, conceptually and physically strong enough to maintain that relationship.’

There were 14 contemporary works in this project; the range of strategies employed by the artists in response to their chosen sites is very broad, so I am going to show you three works to try and give a flavor of that.

This work is by Strijdom van der Meerwe and is titled Fossicking. The artist took the term site-specific to mean that he needed to create an artwork that could only exist in Nieu-Bathesda. Having looked at various aspects of the site, he identified the fossil-rich riverbed, which had been declared a National Monument, as source for this work. The names of 16 fossil specimens were engraved on copper plates and re-buried 5 metres apart down the middle of Hudson Street’s west end. They are constantly covered and uncovered by the dust and sand of the area.

This work by Bonita Alice is titled ‘Illusions of Permanence’, and took place in the newly established football pitch of Pienaarsig. The artist has taken a floating sheet of corrugated iron as the central motif of the work, with its obvious reference to temporary and township settlements. The image is painted directly on the soccer pitch and is designed according to principles of anamorphic perspective. To view the image with the perspectives corrected it needs to be seen from a single point, so interestingly, this work also incorporates a framing device! But I would argue that in this instance, the usual implications of ‘framing of the landscape’ are actually turned on their head.

On the opening day of !Xoe two Pienaarsig soccer teams played a match on the painted field wearing jerseys bearing the central motif of the work. To quote the artist again, she says ‘Illusions of Permanence’ is a reminder that few of the things that have ever been regarded as enduring and indestructible have proven to be so.’

Finally, this is one of two works in !Xoe by Mustfasa Maluka and is titled ‘Movement’. It took place in an abandoned railway station 25km from Nieu-Bathesda. The artist has painted the building with fragments of graffiti sampled from various places across the country; he speaks of different cultural frameworks colliding within the work. He makes reference in his statement to the Khoi-san people who lived in this region for millennia and also says ‘The accumulation of marks leaves behind the illusion of activity and overwhelming busy-ness contrasted against the ancient, ageless emptiness of the immediate and distant landscapes.’

I find in this work a visual reference to the rock paintings of the Khoi-san, of which there are supposedly 15,000 in South Africa. It suggests to me that artist is communicating an understanding of histories traversing and colliding within this landscape; a sense of ‘unempty’ emptiness.

Slides 52-60 Various images, Coniston Water Festival and Grizedale Arts

Grizedale Arts is an organization based in Grizedale Forest in the Lake District of Great Britain which supports the development of new context-specific work. It offers ‘resources and practical support as well as access to a vast range of cultures driven by the political, economic and emotional relationship to the place/environment.’

Grizedale is based in the heart of the Lake District, an area with an established reputation as the birthplace of British romanticism. In 2005, they planned a series of events under the title ‘Cumbriana Proof’ to look at the role of tourism, culture and regeneration in the rural economy.

They set about collaborating with local communities, local craftspeople and invited artists on a number of new and existing events. The main event was the Coniston Water Festival. This was originally a 19th Century Boat Dressing Pageant, which died out in 1998 through lack of voluntary support. Grizedale Arts worked with the villagers of Coniston to reinvent the Festival for a contemporary audience, using the best of the old events and adding new interest through artist’s projects. The project also included a temporary radio station, village newspaper and a post-event conference to discuss the role of culture and tourism in the regeneration process.

The strategy adopted by Grizedale Arts was not unlike that adopted in the !Xoe project, where the stakeholders had separate but clearly-stated agendas; for the villagers of Coniston, the revival of the festival was both a celebration of local culture and a tourist event; for Grizedale Arts, it ties in very much with their investigations into the complex matrix of perspectives at work in this place, including the historical baggage of Romanticism. Their decision to work within the framework of an existing cultural event, rather than generating a new art event takes this project a step closer to real collaboration with the local community in my opinion, and strikes me as an effective way of circumventing the usual hierarchical formulation of cultural value, that places art high up and rural culture low down.

The strategies adopted by artists in this project ranged from a survey of rave sites in the surrounding countryside to guided walks, talks and performances, floating artworks and many more. I am going to show you the work of two projects which make it clear that this type of engagement does not represent a dumbing-down of artistic content.

Manzill World is the creation of Sirus Manzill, an alter-ego of the artist Charlie Tweed. The idea behind Manzill World is to work towards a new, safer future by removing all the animals and plants from the world and replacing them with artificial or hand-made versions. The slogan of Manzill World is ‘Let’s start again.’

Sirus travels from place to place y rubber dinghy, and when he arrives he sets up a tent and begins digging an underground world in which this safe new future can take place. For Coniston Water Festival he proposed ‘digging a new future for us all below Coniston Water lake – the plan above gives you an idea of the ideal that I am working towards – which will lead us to a new safer future. I will also be making new animals for release around the lake and planting some safe plants.’ He also proposed to boil all the water of Coniston Lake and remove all the plants and animals from it.

During the festival he broadcast a daily radio show live from the edge of the water and distributes information leaflets encouraging people to remove plants and creatures from their gardens and start again. He ran classes and demonstrations to show people how to make their own animals out of bits of household waste i.e. tins, cardboard, tea bags etc. and to release them around the lake. Sirus maintains a weblog during his projects; unfortunately I couldn’t track down any images of the handmade animals in the wild.

Thinking Space for the North is a long-term project by artists Dan Robinson and Bryan Davis in association with Grizedale Arts to re-imagine the future of a remote and unoccupied farmhouse at Low Parkmoor in relation to a wider local, national and global contexts. During the Coniston Water Festival the site ran as a field centre, looking at the possible future uses of the building, the surrounding landscape and its diverse user groups. Steiner, Ruskin, ecology, tourism, 1970’s communes and land management ideas were all perceived as contributing to the dialogue. This illustration from the Coniston relates to a guided expedition to the farmhouse, incorporating a boat-ride and a walk, where the general public and invited guests could observe or join in renovation activities and get involved in discussions about possible future uses for the building. A website for this project is due online shortly.

The title of this presentation, ‘Conflicting Interests and Interesting Conflicts’ cam about in response to a comment from the floor at a previous seminar, where someone suggested that artists who want to work with rural communities should make it clear in advance that they are ‘not a threat’. I disagree fundamentally with this idea. Art worth doing is always potentially threatening to the status quo because it will ask questions; questions are a precursor to change. The idea that art should be ‘neutral’ is a false one – no art is neutral, and this is particularly true of Public Art. I also disagree strongly with the idea that conflict must be avoided by artists. Conflicting interests are inherent in human society, and the rural is a heavily contested site where some of the most pressing global issues of our time are being played out. Public Art which addresses rather than avoids conflict will certainly provoke discussion and debate, some of it heated; but I believe it has the potential to open up a space where people can examine issues of conflict rather than simply reacting to them.

Fiona Woods

March 2006