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Reclaiming the rural 1: Landscapes and modernity

Kristopher Kohler


'There is, in truth, nothing essentially backward-looking, conservative or traditional in rural culture. There are too many innovators in too many fields, who have belonged to the country or used it as a source material for that to be a defensible position' – Francois Matarasso 1)

Whilst it is not possible to agree with this assertion in its entirety, the fundamental premise is correct. The urbancentric nature of the majority of cultural discourse often fails to account for the contributions that rurally situated cultural practice affords. The term ‘rural’ encodes a weight of urbancentric prejudice within dominant cultural discourse that is critically tied up with ideas of eurocentricity and logocentricity. Thus the rural has been dismissed as regressive within the binary oppositions of Modernity which instead construe the urban as the exclusive domain of the radical. Such an attitude is essentially the hangover of certain conceptions of homogeneous, centralised, progressive Modernity.

Bourriaud utilises the locomotive as a metaphor for the metanarrative of 20th century Modernism within his Altermodern essay2), surging forward as it did upon a strictly delineated path, racing onwards at speed towards the metropolis. He critiques the 'myth of progress' (pg.7) inherent in Modernism and the 'fetishistic obsession with contemporaneity' (pg. 5). He demonstrates that such metanarratives are inherently authoritarian and quickly give rise to colonialism and imperialism. Whilst he has the global situation in mind, in which western cultural conceptions of Modernity have colonised the globe, the analysis could equally apply to the 20th century expansionist colonisation of rural culture by urban artistic and cultural output, and the transformation of the rural into what Heidegger termed 'Bestand' or 'Standing Reserve'. (Standing Reserve is related to the idea of instrumentality, whereby technology's instrumental orientation to the world transforms the world into "standing reserve." We might say that for technology, nothing in the world is "good" in and of itself, but only "good for" something.)

Thus when man, investigating or observing, pursues nature as an area of his own conceiving, he has already been claimed by a way of revealing that challenges him to approach nature as an object of research, until even the object disappears into the objectlessness of Standing-Reserve3).

The development of global capitalism in 19th century across Western Europe and the US saw firstly the binary delineation of the rural as the negative other of the urban, and then the transformation of this rural space into both standing reserve and spectacle. The spectacle of the landscape was touched upon by Benjamin in his references to the proto-cinematic landscape panoramas of the Paris arcades, and it is a definition consistent with Debord's concept of the spectacle and his assertion that 'the spectacle is capital accumulated to the point that it becomes images'4). The images of the rural that permeated 19th Century dominant cultural discourse were, although ostensibly Romantic, in fact the manifestation of this spectacle. The original Romantic conception of the rural in its sublimity, though appearing spectacular had in fact largely been the result of rurally situated practice. It is this difference that is exposed by Debord's Heideggerian definition. The landscape painting is the urban bourgeois transformation of rural space into Standing Reserve, a spectacular accumulation of capital.

Where Bourriaud's concept of the Altermodern is interesting in this context is not necessarily within its widely accepted understanding of Modernism and Modernity, rather it is in its dismissal of the postmodern as a melancholic hangover of the modern, and the identification of a new prominence within contemporary culture, particularly contemporary art, of the heterochronic and heterotopic. The object, in light of Deleuzian metaphysics is no longer conceived of as singular in itself, rather constantly undergoing a singularization, a becoming. This is what Bourriaud touches upon when he identifies the artwork as a 'trajectory'. Form has become trajectory in this era that he terms the altermodern, and in light of his previous work the social and relational has become the aesthetic.

The idea that something is no longer singular but constantly undergoing singularisation, differentiation, at first seems at odds with a conception of the rural as a site of embeddedness and tradition. However, when we loosen our conceptions of singularity and with them fixed notions of signification, via a process of deconstruction, we can break down the binarism between urban and rural that constitutes rural in the negative, as the inferior aspect of such an opposition. Through such a deconstructive approach the apparent static, embedded and monolithic notion of tradition breaks down and we can perceive tradition as a constantly fluid process of becoming within the social and relational body. Those aspects of rural culture characterised as provincial, peripheral, amateurish, unengaged and overly traditional by a dominant, urban capitalist discourse are deconstructed one by one by such an approach. When form is perceived as trajectory and social relations as aesthetics then the traditional, the realm of folklore, becomes the site of radical artistic contestation.

As Bourriaud states in Altermodern, the conception of centre and periphery is no longer valid: this being a deconstructive topographical approach that has been widely accepted in the postmodern era. Such a view has only been strengthened by the widespread proliferation of mass communication and the internet across the globe, re-evaluating the local in the context of the global, whilst Modernity's conceptions of centralised States and urbancentricity are undermined within a neo-medieval new feudalism. Umberto Eco has commented on the postmodern condition being akin to a new middle ages (without necessarily negative connotations)5). The rural was always mistrusted by the urban bourgeoisie and radical theory alike as the site and locale of the feudal. In the neo-feudal alignment of contemporary culture, in a situation where semi-autonomous networks of 'city states' and provinces present their offerings at the Venice Biennale every two years, the rural is once more well placed to offer its culture on an equal billing to the urban within the frameworks of the dominant cultural discourse.

1) Francois Matarasso, On the Edge: art, culture and rural communities, pg27, www.ontheedgeresearch.org given in Rosemary Shirley, Country Living AN: The Artists Information Company, 2007.

2) Nicolas Bourriaud, Altermodern, London, Tate Publishing, 2009

3) Martin Heidegger, A Question Concerning Technology, given in Basic Writings of Martin Heidegger, ed. David Farrell Krell, (London, Routledge, 1993) 324.

4) Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, Paris, 1967. Translated by Ken Knabb, chapter one, section 34. given in Bureau of Public Secrets, http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/debord/1.htm

5) Umberto Eco, Dreaming of the Middle Ages, in Travels in Hyperreality transl. by W. Weaver, NY: Harcourt Brace, 1986




Artworks on this page (top to bottom) are by Simon Whitehead, Jennie Savage and Philippa Lawrence.