BY Tom Jeffreys in Opinion | 13 NOV 19

Is the Countryside the Future of the Art World?

From Cample Line in rural Scotland to collective Myvillages, artists are reconsidering their relationship to ‘the rural’

BY Tom Jeffreys in Opinion | 13 NOV 19

Down a single-track lane with no lighting, in a village consisting of barely a dozen houses, is not where you might expect to find a cutting-edge contemporary art centre. Yet, as we drive for some 40 minutes through rain and fields from the nearest station to Cample Line, its founder and director, Tina Fiske, tells me: ‘I would not have attempted this anywhere else. It really is a product of the place.’

Fiske, an art historian and former lecturer at the University of Glasgow, first visited this particular part of rural south-west Scotland – about an hour’s drive from the English border – in the early 2000s. In 2010, she relocated full-time with her family and, in late 2016, launched Cample Line with an inaugural exhibition of photography and installation by Lorna Macintyre. Housed in a disused mill by an old railway viaduct, Cample Line is currently holding its first group show, ‘From Narrow Provinces’, with work by Claire Barclay, Rana Begum, Aleana Egan, Ruth Laskey and Alison Turnbull. The gallery also hosts book groups, poetry readings, workshops and film screenings – on which there is a particular emphasis: this winter, the programme is dedicated to Rosalind Nashashibi, in partnership with Edinburgh Art Festival.

Louise Hopkins, Bridge and Crown, 2018, digital archive print. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Tina Fiske

As we drive, Fiske tells me about the area. Although the economy is predominantly agricultural, the public sector is also a significant employer. As in much of Scotland, the population is ageing. Fiske speaks warmly of the local farmers, some of whom sit on the gallery’s board, and their entrepreneurial wives running successful businesses in the nearby town of Thornhill. ‘Here, farming is a spine that can support so many things,’ she says. ‘Farmers have a deep connection to culture and its relation to the land.’ Contemporary art, however – at least in the form it is shown at Cample Line – is something new for many in the area.

Today, the art world is increasingly looking to rural venues. In the UK, Grizedale Arts in the Lake District has played a vital role in driving this change. Under director Adam Sutherland, the organization has recalibrated both theory and practice around contemporary art in relation to rural communities, work and the land. Dutch Architect Rem Koolhaas has also been vocal in advocating critical thinking beyond the city. A recent series of photographic juxtapositions published in frieze issue 207 lays out some of Koolhaas’s lines of inquiry, with a related exhibition, ‘Countryside: The Future’, set to open at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York next February.

Myvillages, Farmers and Ranchers, 2014,  project by Wapke Feenstra/Myvillages, with M12, Colorado and Friesland. Courtesy: Myvillages; photograph: Wapke Feenstra

Art collective Myvillages, ploughing rural furrows since 2003, has helped to reorient global art conversations. Kathrin Böhm, Wapke Feenstra and Antje Schiffers have collaborated with rural communities all over the world: from helping to set up small-scale ceramics production facilities in Zvizzchi, Russia, to facilitating knowledge exchanges between farmers in the Netherlands and the USA. This year, the collective participated in the Festival of the Regions in Austria and had a solo show at London’s Whitechapel Gallery, which played host to a three-day conference, ‘The Rural Assembly’. 

Myvillages has also edited the latest in Whitechapel’s ‘Documents of Contemporary Art’ series (co-published with The MIT Press, 2019). Entitled The Rural, the book brings together a diverse array of practices, voices and critical thinking related to art and the countryside. Grace Ndiritu describes her interest in shamanism and nomadic lifestyles; Sigrid Holmwood advocates an art history that engages less with paintings of peasants and more with peasants who painted.

A casting workshop at Scottish Sculpture Workshop, part of their 40th anniversary celebrations, 2019. Courtesy: Scottish Sculpture Workshop; photograph: Felicity Crawshaw

Discussing the book, Böhm – whose multifaceted collaborative practice also includes Company Drinks, an east London community enterprise, and the Eco Nomadic School, a network of local projects across Europe – told me: ‘We wanted to be very clear that, for us, “the rural” is not a definition but a critique of a specific cultural hegemony within the arts.’ As stated in the book’s introduction: ‘The rural is not new. The rural is not static. The rural is not disappearing […] The rural is a multitude and it is dynamic.’

Such multiplicity and dynamism is evident everywhere, if you look hard enough. In Scotland – where I live – artists and arts organizations are operating in rural areas across the country. On West Burra in the Shetlands, GAADA work with local communities on a range of workshops, exhibitions, events, publishing and research. An Lanntair programmes film and contemporary art in the Outer Hebrides. The Bothy Project runs small, off-grid residencies in diverse locations. Cove Park, overlooking Loch Long, commissioned Charlotte Prodger for Scotland + Venice 2019. Gallerists Hauser and Wirth (following the success of their Somerset venture) have opened a hotel in a former hunting lodge in Fife and commissioned a beautiful guide to the local area, gathering (2018), by artist and poet Alec Finlay. In Aberdeenshire, the inspiring Scottish Sculpture Workshop has just celebrated its 40th anniversary with a weekend of walks, workshops, feasting and a performative iron pour, as well as appointing Collective Architecture to help redevelop its facilities in Lumsden. 

Gathering, 2019. Courtesy: © Hauser and Wirth; photograph: Ed Park 

All this activity is not without its difficulties. Decades of under-investment have left many rural areas lacking in basic infrastructure, such as schools and public transport. The UK’s rail network, for example, was famously savaged in the 1960s following Richard Beeching’s reports. Near Cample Line, however, locals are trying to have their station reinstated and Fiske remains optimistic. ‘Things that might be perceived as barriers to access, we are trying to see as advantages,’ she says. ‘People are already making a step when they come to see us, so we want to give them something special in return.’

Main image: Rosalind Nashashibi, Part One: Where There Is a Joyous Mood, There a Comrade Will Appear to Share a Glass of Wine (detail), 2018, video still, digital transfer from 16mm film. Courtesy: the artist 

Tom Jeffreys is a writer based in Edinburgh. He is the author of two books: The White Birch: A Russian Reflection (Little, Brown, 2021) and Signal Failure: London to Birmingham, HS2 on foot (Influx Press, 2017).