Hyper-rural: Rethinking Place


A short presentation for the Hyper-Rural ?:  TheEnd of Urbansim Symposium 2017 (http://www.ruralculture.org.uk/), setting a context for discussion of “New Rural Mobilities; rethinking rural tourism, culture and the post-agri. visitor economy” by exploring some of the barriers to rural creative movement and questioning an orthodoxy of “place”.

At the risk of going over old ground it remains true that cultural tourism in the UK, and more specifically its rural spaces, is still driven by aesthetics and symbolism grounded in 19th century Romantic and Picturesque literature and landscape imagery. Its fame has made it a highly valuable commodity which is sold to the global cultural tourism market, a market worth £7.6 billion to the UK in 2016, which is 42% of all inbound tourism.

Visit Britain

Visit Britain

Traditionally this has been based on spectacular and well known sights and attractions: the wild mountains of the Lake District poets, Turner Contemporary, the gardens of the Eden Project. Increasingly though a large segment of the market for cultural tourism is driven by the search for authenticity of culture, the real Britain of pubs, of factories, of farms. As the geographer John Urry says in his book The tourist gaze (1990):

“All tourists…embody a quest for authenticity, and this quest is a modern version of the universal human concern with the sacred. The tourist is a kind of contemporary pilgrim, seeking authenticity in other “times” and other “places”, away from that person’s everyday life.” (ibid: p. 48)

The Romantic idyll therefore frames the way in which rural space is developed and constructed by authorities responsible for the countryside, as well as the management and development of cities and towns. For example the English landscape style of Capability Brown which symbolises power and continuity of English culture continues to appear in national public spaces like parks and corporate settings, as well as in the creation of the new Garden Cities proposed by the government to address our current housing shortages (TCPA, 2017).  Here it also frames more contemporary policies of environmental sustainability and equally responds to the peculiarly British attachment to the individual ownership of land. For most people the size of the plot of land owned is getting smaller and smaller, particularly where it is being developed by high density housebuilders in sites such as at Cranbrook, a new, so called eco-town being built outside of Exeter. Ironically decreasing living space creates an increasing psycho-social imperative to access the larger spaces of the countryside either physically as a tourist or through virtual media.

If though you are wealthy enough though you can live in hyper-real places such as Poundbury in Dorset that are able to incorporate the English landscape style set alongside a re-creation of the architecture of the mediaeval, Georgian and Neo-classical homes. This seamlessly conforms to the expectations of both the nostalgic resident and visitors to Dorchester who look for authentic rural Britain. Hyper-real Poundbury in this way is similar to Disneyland’s estates which similarly re-create an America of the golden 50’s which Umberto Eco described as: “a place of absolute iconism… a place of total passivity” (Eco, 1986: p.48).

Poundbury, Dorset

Poundbury, Dorset

In the UK though Poundbury is widely applauded in the urban design world as an exemplar of the concept of “place-making” (O’Rourke, 2009). Back in the 90’s Marc Augé’s wrote a critique of the proliferation of non-places, airports, shopping malls and other undifferentiated, global spaces, he said:

“If a place can be defined as relational, historical and concerned with identity, then a space which cannot be defined as relational, or historical, or concerned with identity will be a nonplace” (Augé, 1995: p. 77-78).

As a counter  organisations like Common Ground suggested that “place” could be created by re-affirming a commitment to “local distinctiveness” which reintroduces “authenticity” through art and design, bringing forward “the vernacular”, “history”, “identity” and “common place” (Common Ground, n.d.) as features of public space. They said:

“Through our work on Local Distinctiveness, we have tried to liberate us all from the preoccupation with the beautiful, the rare and the spectacular to help people explore, express and savour what makes the commonplace particular” (Chapman and Randall-Page, 1999: p. 72).

This idea of place making is now reaching its zenith and is becoming an orthodoxy with tourism agencies, local authorities, planning departments and governments alike. The recent Culture White Paper (2016) published by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has a whole chapter is dedicated to how culture can be used in place-making, showing how it is: “integral to the identity of local areas … and has the potential to transform a place”. (ibid: p.31). These specifics of existing identity and common experience, a shared heritage, are therefore becoming foundational precepts for the commissioning of art in public space, part of “place-making” which brings the cultural together with the architectural.

However I would argue that there now that this orthodoxy of “place making” must be challenged by artists. Particularly where it serves a tourism agenda that requires simple messages to market to tourists, it can create a version of local identity which rigidly adheres to a singular attribute, or narrative, that precludes complexity, creativity and innovation. For example if you search the net for art in public spaces in Sheffield you get steel, steel and more steel. In rural locations this over-emphasis on an official canon of heritage is often reinforced by conservation agendas, particularly in landscapes protected for their cultural heritage, aesthetic beauty or ecological value. The restrictions on what can be done creatively in these sites, either by the visitors or residents has led to geographers Macnaghton and Urry undertake a Foucauldian analysis of these “landscapes of discipline”. Assessing the language of government agencies (Sport England, the English Tourist Board and the Countryside Commission) they identify the continuing primacy of a Romantic gaze: “…the model of the person presented is of a privatised individual experiencing and consuming qualities associated with a national beauty (true England)” (Macnaghton and Urry, 1998: p. 187).

They go on to argue that this has the effect of disconnecting the subject from the object, in this case “the rural”, through the mechanisms of leisured, aesthetic appreciation, for example walking, motoring, caravanning, photographing and painting. These passive modes of experiencing and consuming the countryside are re-enforced through overt legislative codes and through self-surveillance. The Countryside Code emphasises the transient nature of participation in rural spaces for the visiting public; follow the path, keep dogs under control, take home litter, and so on. This discipline is also spatially manifest and impacts on creative and cultural activity. Sociologist Howard Newby suggested this attitude is informed by the historic zonal land management practices he likens to apartheid as:

“Environmental bantustans are set aside where virtually unrestricted leisure activity is allowed and even encouraged, so that the surrounding area can be strictly controlled and rationed for those interested in a more solitary appreciation of the countryside” (Newby, 1979: p. 222).

Whilst spectatorship and passivity do not preclude engagement there is a case for arguing that all of these strategies decrease the likelihood of experiences of the countryside that can express creative visions of its physical and social future. Macnaghten and Urry say:

“These issues need to be recognised as cultural dilemmas requiring political responses, before they can be addressed by management or a planning system primarily concerned with competing land uses and the negotiation of physical pressures“ (Macnaghton and Urry, 1998: p. 189).

The idea of artists actually effecting change is therefore discouraged. In the Arts Council England policy document Arts in the protected landscape (Arts Council England, 2008), a list of actions contained within the introduction shows that art “records” and “interprets” and although it is allowed that artists “create” and “explore”, appropriate outputs are facilitatory, non-assertive, passive and interpretative – to “understand”, “share”, “make connections”, “communicate”, “knit together”, “define”, “reconnect”, “record”, “protect” and “promote”.

Many contemporary artists reject these limitations by defining their practices as forms of critical tourism or as mobile researchers who create more imbricated perspectives on these rural spaces, as in this project Tourists Like Us (2013) at the Nida Art Colony in Lithuania which set out questioning easy notions of “authenticity, the tourist gaze, the museification of the landscape, [and] the visual construction of place”, amongst other things.

Nida Art Colony and Myvillages

Nida Art Colony and Myvillages

Others entirely reject the critical model however and insist that the only way to overcome the discipline of rural space is in its intimate occupation over time. For example the work of Katherin Bohm and Myvillages who organise socially relational rural and urban works, such as foraging for invasive species of plant like Japanese Knotweed. US art critic Lucy Lippard describes this approach as artists supporting audiences in a local understanding of history and environment which is “intimate, personal and familial”, in opposition to a heritage which has been commercialised as a “…hyped-up, idealised, no-place  or pseudo-utopia” (Lippard, 1997: p. 85).

Lippard also identifies one of the key barriers to the experience of place as part of a continuum of lived experience as nostalgia (homesickness), which is a sentimental longing for return to a place or time of happiness. There is evidence to suggest that nostalgia is a key part of the make up of the provincial life in the UK. Nostalgia was even influential in the recent vote for Brexit where one of the defining features of the Leave campaign in the provinces was a nostalgic view of Britain’s past (British Election Study, 2016).

Lippard notes though that “bad” nostalgia creates a “refuge” (Lippard, 1999: p. 164) from the problems of the present, disavowing any authentic connection to place. Lippard follows this idea of intimacy in the relationship of culture to place to its logical extreme in aesthetic terms and says:

“Perhaps art about agriculture or nature itself will not be fully effective until it goes underground, until it is integrated into and almost disappears into local culture and nature itself.” (Povall, R., Sinclair, N. & Hayes, J. 2007: P.45)

Conservation of the landscape for ecological reasons by both managers and by though art projects has been similarly criticised as nostalgic. Talking about some environmental restoration projects critic Brian Wallis suggests

“…such measures disguise the actual problems of modern-day environmentalism by fixing an image of the landscape frozen in the past, privileging one moment in ecological history over all others, and precluding more complex interactions with various inhabitants, native or other” (Kastner and Wallis, 1998: p. 33).

In conclusion simplistic notions of place making, heritage, conservation and their combination need to be carefully scrutinised for a hidden discipline and nostalgia which acts as a barrier to developing new understandings of the rural as a creative place of future development. The critic Grant Kester offers an mobile approach to place that does not succumb to this nostalgia which is based on free movement and negotiated positions:

“Site is understood here as a generative locus of individual and collective identities, actions, and histories, and the unfolding of artistic subjectivity awaits the specific insights generated by this singular coming-together. As I’ve already noted, this entails a movement between immersion in site and distanciation from it. Dialogical practice thus remains open to the transformative effects of site while resisting the tendency to romanticize local knowledge as an almost mystical, uniform, good” (Kester, 2011: p. 139)

Felix Guattari, one of the fathers of environmentalist political philosophy, describes this more forcefully, “Rather than looking for a stupefying and infantilizing consensus, it will be a question in the future of cultivating a dissensus and the singular production of existence” (Guattari, 1989: p. 33). It is only by acting in these ways that we will be able to re-think place and open up the rural as a site of creativity, complexity and movement across cultural, political and social boundaries. A conceptual example is a project, Exeter City Likeness Farm (2017) (http://ruralrecreation.org.uk/projects/likeness-farm/) proposed by ruralrecreation as a response to the work of the collaborative group TOPOS in Exeter who have creating work which links the landscape, nature and city in topographical folds. Responding to the use of poor Bangladeshi famers by unscrupulous advertising companies to “like” products on Facebook, it questions normative orientations by suggesting a platform for dissensual exchange which outsources the critical appreciation of contemporary British landscape art to farmers in Bangladesh, and other subsistence economies.

Likeness Farm

Likeness Farm

In contrast to the traditional linear perspectives that characterise tourism and binary views from the urban to the rural (and vice versa) this project is an example of the 360o perspective of what I describe as aesthetic complementarity – an idea that the unknowable always contains reference to its opposite, the knowable. This is described by Slajov Zizek:

“…complementarity conceived as the impossibility of the complete description of a particular phenomenon — is, on the contrary, the very place of the inscription of universality into the Particular” (Žižek, 1996: p. 214).

Enabling these diverse perspectives on culture, tourism and the rural is the challenge of the Hyper-rural and new rural cultural strategies. In practical terms I refer to the ideas of Guattari again where it has been said he frames a “fluidarity” of political (and aesthetic) positions where: “…a plurality of disparate groups come together in a kind of unified disunity, a pragmatic solidarity without solidity” (Guattari, 1989; p. 10).


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