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Thursday, 19 March 2009

WHERE ART GROWS GREENER? -art in a rural context.

I was asked to write my thoughts on a seminar held in PSSquared for the VAI. The (better) edited version appears in this months edition of the paper (pg. 36). Below is the unabridged version.

I grew up in Killarney, a rural town of around 20,000 souls during the months of December and January. The rest of the year the population fluctuated reaching a metropolitan sized peak with the annual flood of workers and tourists during the summer months. Each year this flood left behind a smattering of people who became members of that town, both adding to and altering its character. A typical Irish rural town? Killarney perhaps is busier than most but it is not an atypical experience for the coastal regions of Ireland. Jenny Haughton (Arts Adviser on Public Art to the Arts Council) in her presentation, pointed out that “according to research some 60% of the population may be described as rural and that they live outside the 5 major urban centres and predominantly in coastal counties, with all but an estimated 10% of the population residing within a 14 kilometre radius of the 13 larger urban centres"(1) The perception of Ireland, by many tourists including Irelands own urbanites, is of a rural idyll where the pace of life is slower, with a traditional culture that is all singing, all dancing and ‘mighty craic’. At least that is what they come to expect and Killarney duly obliges, along with a dash of American style country and western, the ubiquitous burger, and house music from late night hostelries. Nobody notices the frenzied pace at which the residents work within this ‘rural economy’. Jenny Haughton quotes from the NDP (National Development Plan): “rural communities are closely associated with Irish traditions, heritage and culture which have been critical in shaping the national identity.” Implied in this statement is an understanding of rural culture as a vessel which contains and preserves ‘Irishness’, a fixed unmovable discourse, and ultimately, marketable.

The speakers in PS2 were or are involved in making art within a rural context. It was a relief to see that none of them subscribed to the NDP’s reductive notions of rural as fixed, but in fact, questioned and interrogated its premise.

Artist Gareth Kennedy, along with his partner and colleague, Sarah Browne, lived and worked in Leitrim for 3 years. Kennedy took part in ‘After'(2) part of a public arts programme, TRADE, run by Roscommon and Leitrim arts offices. Inflatable Bandstand (10 year crescendo) is an apt vehicle through which his many observations of rural living can be read. He researched land ownership finding the most likely developers were locals rushing in to get 30 yellow houses on their couple of acres in anticipation of the wave of commuters expected to sweep into the villages. As the global economy grinds downwards these houses stand largely empty, without even a ghost to haunt them. There is a kind of post apocalyptic banality to them which recalls the post famine landscape of empty villages, but with a very modern economic twist. The landlords of the famine era were given to building follies as an answer to that crisis and Kennedy became interested in using this as a structure to ‘frame’ the content. But a mobile structure, reflecting perhaps the expected mobility of our society, and the impermanence of buildings. The inflatable bandstand was used as a performance site where Ian Wilson composed and played a different work for each location. It travelled to a number of places creating a momentary social interlude into an everyday space.

Poet Alice Lyons was eloquent in her reading of the housing gold rush fever of recent times. Her work is sited in the old Barracks of John McGahern’s boyhood which now looks across to the empty promises of The View, another folly of a housing estate. In her poem Viewfinder she refers to McGahern’s short story Korea where a young man overhears his father chatting to a neighbour of his plans to “sell his son downriver”(3) She uses texts on mirrors around the exterior of the Barracks allowing for different points of view as her text is read. Buildings reflecting back on each other refracting Cootehills layers of history.

Housing, the built environment, is the most visually explicit way to read the effects of political and economic policies on a landscape. Another visual indicator is the avenues of distribution. Philip Napier is one of the lead artists in the arts programme ‘Regenerate’(4) a 5 Council initiative in West and South Ulster. One of the main locations this programme engages with is Craigavon, a 1960s artificially created town land, with a largely urban community relocated to the countryside that at the time was supposed to meet all its inhabitants’ needs. A Belfast taxi driver described it to me as a place surrounded by roads with “that many roundabouts that you get seasick”. So it was appropriate that Napier began his roundtrip history with stories of adventurers and explorers from the area who travelled by sea and later led us to the engineering feats which created the links of communication between Dublin and Banbridge. He reflected on the rural as a site of endless distribution, a culture of white vans which reflects the transience of the rural community, the loneliness of the traveller, the required mobility and flexibility needed to survive in a liberal global economy.

Fiona Woods(5) was the first speaker of the ‘Where Art Grows Greener’ discussion at PS2, and in many ways it was her extensive work in a rural context which provided the framework for positing so many questions around notions of rural, urban, public and art. Jenny Haughton had said when asked “what is public art?” she looked at art practice itself to find the answers. Woods outlined a little of what was possible in ‘Ground Up’ a four year “experimental programme of contemporary art in the rural, public realm” in Co. Clare, involving 22 artists, a series of public events, two publications and eleven temporary art works. It was artist led and laid a strong emphasis on research. “Art in public was understood as both a process of research and a mode of dialoguing between artists, rural communities and the wider cultural discourse.” This programme has since led her to problematise some of the terms she used when writing the original brief for ‘Ground Up’, some of which she attempted to “unpick” at the discussion. She found herself questioning ideas of engagement in public art, that it had “become almost synonymous with participation and occasionally the terms are collapsed into one another … a reification takes place where participation becomes an end in itself.” She was worried by the signs that this was becoming an orthodoxy occluding “other equally political aspects of art.” She referred to the problem of public as opposed to a multiple of public spheres who coexist, overlap and compete which leads to questions around proximity, function and the foregrounding of the social use of art. There were many points Woods made which hit home with my own practice not least concerns around the use of the term community in “consultation processes and policies that actually mask an absence of democratic politics” and a “kind of lazy use of the term, specifically where there is a kind of consensus agenda and in that process an antagonistic politics of difference might be suppressed.” She looked for ways to understand the problems of defining rural and found herself “reverting to a discourse of spatialisation, a study of the practices – discursive, cultural and institutional - by which place and place-related identities are constructed”, influenced by a paper given by Rob Shields, A Sense of Place and Region(6) She says that Shields “argues that there is nothing natural or essential about the identities of place or region, but that place must be continually reproduced through practices.”

This rather brings me back to where I began, Killarney, a place which is continually reproduced through the flow of people, the changing origins of those who become local, the holiday home bonanza that clutter its hinterland, where you can go from Riverdance to Prodigy in one night. A place which relies heavily on the buoyancy of global financial markets whose executives like to play in its exclusive hotels. What monuments to Ozzymandis will litter this rural town should the recession bite as hard as is predicted?

Haughton, in pointing to the NDP’s catch line of “a better quality of life for all” and “enhancing culture and leisure facilities for rural communities” asks for whom and by whom? She recalls a project in Sligo where small farmers from the outlying areas were forced to migrate. Housed in social housing estates they found their skills redundant and “inadvertently entered into an impoverished lifestyle”. She reminded me of the older farmers who had been moved to the back of our estate, people we rarely encountered except when choosing that cul-de-sac to escape the all seeing eyes of our parents.

There were many pertinent points raised by this discussion, chaired by Daniel Jewesbury, which are relevant not only to a rural context but to all facets of society, and in particular to those where practice looks to the alterior to tell us something about dominant discourse. Haughton believes that “neither expert nor judge can be offered as the remedy for the failure of democracy, we must not accept what we thought democracy was but actually create democracy …We must learn to govern ourselves, to create rights, to invent the machinery that will get a social will created. Democracy depends on local democracy processes … the power produced by relationships is a qualitative not a quantitative thing.”

Just as in the urban, just as in life, the rural is not a static vessel. The varied approaches taken in the art practices discussed reflected this. For me the most exciting element in art is the questions it generates which allow us to reflect on where we are, but also, that art practice is never rigid and its fluidity reflects our human natures.

(1) Rural Ireland 2025 – Foresight Perspectives available at

(3) Quoted from Lyons poem Viewfinder.

(5) The full text of Woods’ talk can be read at

(6) R. Shields, A Sense of Place and Region, Notes for a Talk, Putting Region in its Place Conference, University of Alberta, October 2007.