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Contemporary Art and Rural Places

‘The rural is not new. The rural is not static. The rural is not disappearing…The rural is a multitude and it is dynamic,’ declare the artist collective Myvillages in the introduction to their edited Documents of Contemporary Art collection: The Rural (Whitechapel/MIT 2019). The statement speaks to the complexity of rural places and the need to recognise them as sites of cultural production. 

Until recently the primary intersection between art and rural places has been through the idea/genre of landscape, however this overarching category of making and analysis can obscure artistic and curatorial practices that engage in and with rural places and their multiple communities.     This panel welcomes papers that intentionally move the conversation beyond the canonical exploration of landscape in connection with rural places, instead beginning the process of delineating a critical space for contemporary art practices that imagine, activate and unearth a diverse and complex collection of real, imagined and potential ruralities.

Themes for discussion might include (but are not limited to): the specific conditions of making or curating art in/with rural places; art practices that embody intersectional perspectives on rural places, contemporary art practices that generate new or alternative understandings of rural places; explorations of human/nonhuman communities in rural places; the rural as site of alternative economic models; food production; land ownership; environmental sustainability.

Session Convenor:

Rosemary Shirley, University of Leicester

Speakers:

Elisabetta Rattalino, Free University of Bolzano-Bozen

On Ploughed Fields, Community Orchards, and Mountain Pastures: Art Practices in Rural Italy, 1968-2023.

Over the past decade, Italy has seen a surge of small visual arts organizations in rural areas. From the alpine regions of South Tyrol (BAU – Institute for Contemporary Arts and Ecology; Hotel Amazonas) to the countryside of Puglia (Casa delle Agricolture; Lamia Santolina) and the hills of the Tuscan Maremma (Anonima Agricola; Habitare), these initiatives are proliferating and proposing innovative models of cultural productions and ways of living in rural areas. They engage with the social and environmental ecologies of the regions where they operate whilst being members of international networks. Yet, this is not a new phenomenon in Italy. Several radical and experimental artistic initiatives took place in the 1970s, engaging with the material and non-material culture of the countryside.

In this paper, I primarily argue that artists in Italy have long conceived “the rural” as a socio-political and ecological space where alternative cultural forms can emerge and develop. Discussing selected projects from the post-war to the present, it explores not the continuity but the specificity of these works in their time and ecological context. It also demonstrates how the artistic practices developed in the countryside have changed over time. Initially engaging with traditional extra-urban cultures, since the 2010s they have shifted to socially engaged arts initiatives and, more recently, to artistic and curatorial research practices that explore more-than-human epistemologies and ways of knowing in and with the countryside.

Torey Akers, independent writer and artist

Body as Borderland: Through the lens of Laura Aguilar


The work of Laura Aguilar, the late Chicana-American photographer, showcases the artist’s intersecting queer, Indigenous, and fat identities through her visual claims towards objecthood, actualizing the self beyond the limits of subjectivity or negation. Uri McMillan calls this opaque layering “prosthetic performance”, when an animate body and an inanimate actuant co-signify the refracted gaze and violent overdeterminations of white supremacy. Aguilar regularly inserted her fat body into the rocky environs of her photographs, rendering her margalized form a seamless element of the Indigenous, “rural” landscape. In these images, the proesthetic performance transforms into an embodiment of borderland existence, what Chicana poet and theorist Gloria Anzaldúa termed “mestiza consciousness”, a matrixial in-betweenness defined in part by its own mucosal fluidity. The notion of the queer, Chicana, prosthetic “rural” chafes against queer theory’s modern conflation of urbanism as the neoliberal gay imaginary. Laura Aguilar moves away from what Jack Halberstam’s “metronormativity” by becoming the borderland itself, reimagining the geopolitically pillaged landscape as a form of performative identity unto itself. This paper will braid critical analyses of Aguilar’s oeuvre at their roots with Chicana feminisms, queer studies, and new materialist theorizations of the colonized landscape.

Olga Sureda Guasch, University of Barcelona

Towards a new Ruralism: An approach to rural initiatives from a translocal perspective: The case of Nectar – Rural Artist Residency (Pre-Pyrenees, Spain)

Living and thinking the rural has been and is complex. The return to the countryside, to the connection with nature, to the origins, seems to have resurfaced even more strongly in the post-pandemic context, but, what is fashionable and committed in this incipient process? While this movement may seem fashionable, it is far more than a passing trend. In the wake of a global pandemic, our society has undergone profound shifts, prompting us to reevaluate our priorities, lifestyles, and the very spaces we inhabit. The countryside, once viewed through a nostalgic lens, has now emerged as a focal point of innovative thought, artistic expression and sustainable living practices. Today, in rural areas, there are more and more cultural and artistic initiatives, networks, platforms, and artists that explore practices of arranging the world otherwise through sustainability and creativity. The purpose of this paper is to challenge our perceptions of the rural and urge us to reconsider the very essence of our connection with nature, technology, and culture, by showing that the countryside is not just a space for living but “a place of and for contemporary cultural production” (Myvillages). I will present some of the projects, exhibitions, artist residencies and publications that are part of my research and which are key points for the ruralization of the Contemporary Art practices as well as Nectar’s project, located in a rural environment where creative collaborations and cultural productions flourish. I will also seek to problematize those postulates that conceive the “rural” from a situation of “otherness,” raising the dichotomy between the urban and the rural in art and creativity.

Fiona MacDonald (Feral Practice), Independent artist and researcher

Feral Participation: decentering the human and perceiving different worlds.


Rural places are not static, nor inevitably staid. They have considerable potential to support radical acts and emergent thoughts because unlike cities and towns they do not conform primarily to human rules or needs. We can learn from other species, their alternative subjective perspectives and cultures, if we can alter our noticing. Feral participation is a speculative, vulnerable mode of artmaking that elicits listening dialogues with different species to expand interspecies relations and challenge anthropocentrism. It activates ‘unknowing’ – a conscious delimiting of the artist’s and audience’s expectations of other-than-human participants – to open space in human minds for new, distributed knowledge to emerge. It practices ‘speculative anthropomorphism’ – the imaginative engagement with differing creaturely perspectives – to bring alternative sources of knowledge forward. This can enlarge human perceptions of the world and offer fresh approaches on human issues.
The paper draws selectively from participatory art, feminist new materialisms and indigenous animisms to articulate the affective dynamics of feral participations, which position other-than-human subjectivities as specifically powerful and influential within a creative assemblage. Imagination underpins our values in life. Art that explores material interdependencies and immaterial connectivity between species can shape human thought, perception and action, enacting what Maria Puig de la Bellacasa describes as ‘letting go of the controlling power’ and inhabiting ‘the realm of a more than human politics.’

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