Rural Art Space

April 17, 2007


Filed under: Uncategorized — ruralartspace @ 9:56 am

Kathrin Böhm is a member of and public works, and currently AHRC Research Fellow at the School of Art and Design, University of Wolverhampton
A new typology art space for the rural


One of the ideas we had, when Antje, Wapke and myself started the artist initiative, was to run an arts project in the very villages where we came from. To start with we visited each other’s village. We walked around, had a chat with some of the villagers we met in the street and went to the local pub. Wapke always describes this as our first visit to a new art space. Even though the villages were extremely familiar to us, our new art outlook transformed them form the place where we have childhood memories and where we still visit our family, to a new place for our art practice.

The title for the symposium today is Rural Art Space, a rather dry title, but in my opinion a very pointed one. Within the current context of regional development and rural regeneration we need a discussion and debate about what rural culture is, and how contemporary art practice can engage with rural issues and places. The question of space becomes relevant, because art practice will take place and require space somewhere. Art projects might use and appropriate existing spaces and they will generate new ones. When it comes to cities, we have a clearer idea of the art spaces in existence and use. For the rural environment the first quick assumption is that there are less art spaces, and those that exist are smaller, more widespread, and less significant.

I want to ask a simple question.
What and where is the rural art space? Which images come to mind?
Is it galleries in converted barns that show contemporary painting and sculpture? Craft fairs? Wooden objects along well advertised sculpture trails? Minimal white qube galleries in the smaller towns? Is it the Welsh Pavilion at the Venice Art Biennale? Do we think of Landart? Artist communes? The Schwitters Barn? Is it a private studio at the back of a house overlooking a meadow? Or an evening life drawing class in the local school? Is it an artists meeting in the village pub? A theatre production for the community hall or an arts festival in one of the market towns? This list could go on.

Many of the more interesting art projects from recent years that really engaged with rural issues and rural communities took place outside of the institutional exhibition space. I am thinking of projects such as the Festival of the Regions in Austria (, Huit Facettes in Senegal ( car/documenta/11/halle/e-huit.htm)and Grizedale Arts in the Lake District (, just to mention some.
I would also like to refer to the Bibliobox ( which is an important part of the Why We Left The Village And Came Back project here in Shrewsbury, and which contains many art projects that developed and exist outside of the conventional exhibition space. They are often participatory and process based projects that take place across various sites and across social and cultural networks. I’m thinking of projects such as I like being a farmer and want to stay one by Antje Schiffers, the film A Village Does Nothing by Elisabeth Schimana and Markus Seidl or Multi Stop Shop by Amy Plant.

It is worth having a closer look at the spaces related to those projects.
They all are multifaceted projects which produce their very own space, one that remains largely invisible as a structure. It is a fragmented space which often has many temporary aspects to it. It spreads across places and time and comes into being as a complex spatial construct that evolves across various social and professional contacts. Some parts of it can be highly informal, others formal. It doesn’t keep it’s shape or form, but it does manifest itself. In the form of public events, spatial interventions or appropriation of existing spaces. It is also a public and semi public space. I want to draw attention to the fact that those projects are spaces, referring to the Levebrian concept of the Production of Space where programme and activities are at the heard of generating or “producing” space.

Can we develop a concept of a rural art space that is more appropriate to the existing social and spatial conditions of the countryside, rather than importing more urban models of cultural display and consumption, such as museums. This is not a fundamental critique of the built art space, but it is an attempt to articulate other spatial models which are of value. My argument is about undermining the authority of the built so called permanent space over temporary space. It is about establishing a number of spatial models to co exist, to avoid the neglect and the erasion of the temporary cultural spaces in favour of solid architecture.
I see the Rural Art Space discussion as an exploration of a space rather than a definition.

Furthermore I will be looking at how those fragmented spaces manifest themselves and what their existence means in regards to regeneration programmes, which still is focus on real estate and built infrastructure. I’m also going to look at some of the potential and threats of applying art and its practices to culture led regeneration, and finally I will draft a few conditions which might be particular to the rural art space.

Culture’s involvement in regeneration and its spatial manifestations

Since today is also about developing ideas for further Rurality commissions for Shropshire, it seems the right moment to develop a clearer idea and understanding of the kind of spaces that art will use, need and generate within rural settings. What is the meaning and relevance of fragmented and more ephemeral cultural spaces (as described above) within rural settings? Regeneration, whether urban or rural, targets physical infrastructure as the main outcome, such as landmark buildings, cultural centres, extensive road networks, etc. It will be important to clarify whether we want more white cubes, more sculpture trails, more local and trans-local networking without physical manifestations, or a mix of all?

In this context it is interesting to think of an architecture and form for dispersed cultural spaces and practice. The question is whether we can develop a new typology of art space for the rural that can coexist with other art space typologies such as museum, gallery, public square, etc. This new architecture or architectural manifestation is unlikely to be a singular landmark gallery. It might be a fragmented structure which is still recognizable and accessible as a space, no matter how non-physical and temporary it is.

Ian Hunter from Littoral Arts (, is for example proposing a new National Centre for Rural Culture, as part of his argument for the inclusion of the arts in rural regeneration. Again, do we see this as a large new building that aims to represent rural culture, or might it be a dispersed and multiple space where collaboration with and participation in rural culture is possible, rather than the consumption of it? Can we think a rural art space as a productive and participative one rather than the gallery based model of the visitor versus displays?

In his book Relational Aesthetics, Nicholas Bourriaud defines form as the result of lasting encounters. This idea is an aspect of the relational art and relational architecture debate which fundamentally questions the conventional production process of making objects and buildings, with a singular author and focus on a definite and predictable outcome. Bourriaud’s definition suggests form as a construct that shapes itself organically over time and space, and most importantly through human encounter. If we apply this definition to art and its space, the new art space will constitute and manifest itself through multiple intentions, ambitions and contributions, and probably across sites. It will also shape itself through the formal and informal social networks associated with the project, through the various existing local cultural resources, and the newly imported ideas and media by the commissioned artists who enter. Part of the shaping influences will be arbitrary or accidental.

What do those evolving structures mean when we start to think architecturally? Does this space need new a infrastructure and buildings? Or will it need extended networks and access to existing spaces. Will it mainly exist in personal experience and memory, or will it create more public and communal spaces? And how can this space be recognised and acknowledged?

Muf (, the London based art and architecture collective has been dealing with issues of the invisibility of their work and the lack of buildings for years. Their comment is following:
“Buildings are considered to be the target.(Whereas) The common intent of all the (our) work is to make space for more than one thing at the time.”

“Every project (…) attempts to expand the opportunities available in the public realm.”

“Definitions of temporary and permanent become specious. Some of the art projects may last as projections for only three nights, but they have a six month history of research and preparation, the audience is the accretion of each meeting. By pulling in individuals and experiences which were not supposed to be in a particular site, a space is magnified (…). The period of process and research might mean that the project makes relationships with hundreds of people, however fleetingly. This accretion of an audience over time can be imagined as the life cycle of a building and its inhabitants. Strange diagram can be imagined comparing the footprint of a permanent structure with the same budget, a temporary proposal, spreading across a site like liquid. With the realization that this making space for was the value of the work, the dismissal of its not-building status became irrelevant.”.

Doina Petrescu, a writer and architect, who is promoting and practicing architecture as a participatory and ultimately self-managed process has following comment:
“Making community and making space for community can not be separated. Planners and architects might start to consider the inherent social and relational dimensions of the spaces they create, and to integrate their specific temporalities and mobilities into the design process.”
“The architectural production of public space could start by identifying the claims for it. Sometimes these claims are modest and informal, but what is important is how to transform them into a brief, a challenge, and sometimes a proposal that will give room to the multiplicity and needs of diverse sets of users.”

When we start to talk about forms and architecture it might be worth reminding ourselves that architecture can be small scale, temporary and fluid. It normally is solid, permanent and highly visible, but it doesn’t have to be.

The question occurs whether we can apply and formal and aesthetical value to less formalized and materialized structures? How to judge the aesthetics of something that isn’t primarily about formal aesthetics? Jane Rendell in her just recently published book Art and Architecture asks very precicely: where should we look for the aesthetics in such complex practice, which doesn t manifest itself in a single formal object or building? She suggests that the aesthetical value, and therefore a judgement on form, can be in regards to the various relations within the project, or can be found within the quality of engagement between participants. The aesthetical judgement doesn’t refer to the physical manifestation only, but to the project as a complex and relational process.

Dispersed art practice as space

What role does art practice play in this discussion and context? As I was trying to explain earlier, we can read and understand art projects as spatial constructs which should play a role when it comes to regeneration and planning, especially culturally led regeneration and the planning of new cultural spaces for the rural environment.

We had urban cultural regeneration for a while, and artists and art practices are used in a variety of ways to support and enable regeneration policies. We have a critical debate about art’s involvement in urban regeneration, and practices like GPA ( or BandB ( in the UK, city-mined in Bruxelles ( and Park Fiction in Hamburg ( have articulated methods of practice that allow a critical, and at times subversive, but also creative and engaging relationship with regeneration as a political issue and reality. There have been increasing concerns about the instrumentalisation of art in order to achieve the “soft” regeneration goals such as community cohesion, inter-generational communication, representation of minorities etc.
Art is often used as a means to an end and rarely seen as an end in itself. And that’s exactly the crucial point. How can art and curatorial practice remain and become more a more determining force within regeneration, rather than being used as a set of activities that helps to implement policies which have a different interest and focus?

There is a danger that art is slowly transformed into a service to become part of a creative service industry, which is expected and requested to deliver commissioned outcomes and targets. There is a recent tendency to package all cultural work as creative industry. This is partly related to global trade agreements in regards to the free trade of services, and the Labour Government would like to include arts in the service industry, a proposal which is e.g. strongly opposed by France. There is no clear definition of what creative industries are, everything from art and architecture related to new media and everything to do with leisure, like football.
We know that the best and most interesting art projects evolve from open brief situations which allow art to remain experimental, critical and unpredictable in their outcome. Art shouldn’t have to “deliver” but it should be allowed to remain curious and experimental about the world, and to share new or unusual ideas with others, which might lead to transformation and change.

Another critical aspect of involving arts in regeneration is a growing bureaucratisation and institutionalisation of culture. Regeneration schemes normally introduce a whole new layer of agencies, policies and administration to the rural space. European programmes such as Leader+ which supports local cultural initiatives as part of a rural development strategy, still require a high level of bureaucratic and administrative infrastructure, which can’t necessarily be provided by the rural communities in question. We know this from urban regeneration programmes, that the administration of their implementation is huge in costs, employs hundreds of office staff who administer and deliver schemes from behind a computer screen. Local communities feel often excluded, patronised and without any direct power, even though the schemes are meant to be community driven and need led. This is a shortcoming that doesn’t have to be reinacted in the rural context.

Conditions of a new rural art space
Contextual and participatory practices offer a number of criteria which seem to suit the development of a rural cultural space in particular. I want to highlight some of those issues and criteria, which might help to develop a new brief and a typology for an art space that is reflects rural conditions.

Introduction of Everyday Ruralism into Rural Planning
Every Urbanism has gained importance in the urbanism discussion, and to quote Margaret Crawford, a specialist in the genre: “What is Everyday Urbanism? It is exactly what it sounds like. It’ s an approach to urbanism that finds its meaning in everyday life that always turns out to be far more than just the ordinary and banal experiences that we experience.”
“Urban” everyday urbanism celebrates and builds on the richness and vitality of daily life.
Urban design and planning has traditionally be involved with the creation of permanent, static urban conditions “ as in the implementation of infrastructure, or the designation of open spaces and actual built form. In reality it is the kinetic fabric that defines the ground reality.
Or as people like Henri Lefebvre see everyday life as a repository of all kinds of meaning, which range from the ordinary to the extraordinary that is hidden within ordinariness. Everyday Urbanism or Ruralism an accretional approach where small changes accumulate to transform situations.

Slow Growth
Within a rural setting, the notion of a growing and slowly developing art space seems appropriate. I think that (if there is anything like it) Rural Identity could be described as relational and productive one and slow rather than fast. Rural communities think very much about themselves in relation: in relation to the next village, in relation to the surrounding land, in relation to the city. Villages don’t have the idea of themselves as a centre, but as an interacting periphery. Maybe this observation could be the starting point for an architectural brief. And maybe that’s why contextual and relational art practice might lead to more interesting projects and outcomes. This is also going back to Nicholas Bourriaud’s idea of form as the result from lasting encounters; the notion of something slowly developing and lasting light be closer to a rural identity than to an urban. The landscape has been shaped slowly over centuries following the relationship between farming and land. If the rural changes quickly and fast, it s mainly due to urban or suburban programmes that get imposed, such as large-scale private developments and large-scale transport systems.

The other aspect is that rural identifies itself strongly with production, even if that’s not the case anymore and farmers are slowly being turned into land managers. But “making” is still very much part of a rural identity, and therefore process based and participatory art might have a different response and meaning in the rural than an urban society.

Regeneration can be fluid and flexible, it deals with changing relationships, politics and opportunities. The spaces involved in, and addressed by regeneration don’t change overnight, but evolve slowly, as does the image that goes with those spaces. If regeneration is bottom-up, the making of the new starts from within the existing, and is a slow transformative process, rather than an abrupt replacement of the present by the new, which might be an interesting process for art to contribute towards.

Informal links – informal economy
Again, many of current regeneration policies are economically driven. It is ultimately about the economical regeneration, and “urban” or global economical principals are being applied. They are based on a monetary system and money value with business plans attached, that take numbers into account, but don t register other values and currencies that might be part of a specific rural economy, such as the obligation to help each other out, a very strong work ethos, the use of non purchased local produce and its recycling, etc.
Monetary assessment methods ignore alternative value and trade systems, such as collectively owned tools, helping out, gift economy, efficient recycling of resources. The lower financial turnover of the countryside is generally seen as a indicator for the need of regeneration. It doesn’t acknowledge other means of value creation which are an inherent and crucial part of a an existing rural economy, and could be used to regenerate from within. Again art projects, due to their either more subversive or alternative instinct and intention, often address those other values and start to articulate, represent and instrumentalise them within the project, e.g. Amy Plant’s Multi Stop Shop ( or A Village does Nothing film. (

Shaping the brief for a rural cultural/art space through direct cultural involvement and development over time

“The architectural production of public space could start by identifying the claims for it. Sometimes these claims are modest and informal, but what is important is how to transform them into a brief, a challenge, and sometimes a proposal that will give room to the multiplicity and needs of diverse sets of users.”

This quote by Doina Petrescu recognises the political and social need for participatory and self-managed design and building projects, which seem particularly important in a rural context with its tradition of the self build, which is still strong in many European countries and worldwide.

Re-sourcing locally rather than importing or – The local vs the generic
Franco Bianchini’s criticism of most regeneration programmes is that they are too generic. Regeneration is often generic and monotone, and applies the same concepts to very different places. They don t make use of the particular local resources, which include social resources, skills, narratives, material, etc. They use the same rhetoric and methods anywhere, and don t apply them with the particularities of the local in mind. Again, the danger of regeneration is that it delivers generalised policies in a generalised manner.
Art has a lot to offer. A lot of the projects presented today, and in the Bibliobox, explicitly deal with the existing local resources, whether they are social, cultural, economical or material. Culture doesn’t need to be imported, it exists, however rudimentary, dispersed or inarticulate. It is interesting to instigate cultural exchange, but it is un-interesting to import culture into a place, based on the arrogant assumption that there isn’t.

Grizedale Arts as an example / Hand over to Adam Sutherland
This is a good moment to slowly hand over to Adam Sutherland from Grizedale Arts, an arts organization in the Lake Dictrict that operates without a central exhibition space but devises local, national and international programmes which bring together a large variety of cultural producers and take place in a number of existing and newly generated spaces, e.g. the Coniston Water Festival acts on a local level of Coniston village but brings in producers associated with the wider Grizedale network, whereas Virtually Grizedale took local produce from Cumbria and Grizedale into the context of an international arts biennale at the A- Foundation in Liverpool, whereas Seven Samurai saw Grizedale taking up a four week residency in a small village in Japan.

In terms of Rural Art Space the Grizedale programmes operate on different scales and within different communities, but are highly specific to each context and together create a networked spatial and social construct which could be called its building.


Everyday Urbanism, edited by Rahul Mehrotra, Michigan Debates on Urbanism, Arts Press, NY

Environmental Models – Landscape Planning and New Descriptions of Nature, by Susanne Hauser, published in Trans, Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr., September 2004,

Working with uncertaintly towards a real public space, essay by Doina Petrescu, in If you can t find it give us a ring, IXIA, ARTicle press, Birmingham, 2006

Mediation and Constuction of Publics: The MACBA experience by Jorge Ribalta on

From SubUrban to SuperRural, Boyd Cody Architects, 26+1,for Ireland at the Venice Biennale, Venice, 2006, published by Gandon Editions ISBN 0-948037-37-7

THIS IS WHAT WE DO, a muf manual, published by ellipsis, 2001

Cedric Price: architect for life , essay by Paul Barker, on the website, 03/09/2003

Relational Aesthetics, by Nicolas Bourriaud, les presse du reel, France, 1998

ART AND ARCHITECTURE/ A place between by Jane Rendell, , I.B.Tauris & Co Ltd, London, 2006

The (un)common place, edited by Pietro Marchi, published as part of the exhibition NowHere Europe, Biennale di Venezia, 2005, ISBN 9 788495 951984

Managing Urban Change, edited by Jan Verwijnen and Panu Lehtovuori, Publication Series of the University of Art and Design Helsinki, 1996

Talking to Architects, by Colin Ward, Freedom Press, 1997, ISBN: 0-900384-88-3

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