Posted in CF Writing, Producing, Sited work by chrisfremantle on May 16, 2009

Twice this week I have been confronted by the importance of thinking about the rural as a thing in itself, rather than by what it is not.  The Scottish Government defines the rural in negative terms; it is that which is not urban.  But, and it has to be said, sometime around now according to the UN Population Fund humanity is crossing a threshold into (statistically speaking) more than 50% of us living in cities.

And it is precisely at this point that it is increasingly clear that we need to pay attention to the cost of our beliefs, and our belief that the rural is backward, dependent and boring compared to the smooth, fast and creative spaces of our cities is one we need to question.

On Thursday 14th May 2009 the Geddes Institute at the University of Dundee, as part of the Annual Conference of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland held a symposium entitled Landworkers. We were taken on a journey into a space where the indigenous and the vernacular and the rural and the remote were foremost. I have a slight reservation even using the word rural in the context of work around the Great Bear Lake in the North West Territories of Canada, or of Samiland stretching across Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. Rural suggests the space of western agrarian cultures, not the space of travelling folk and nomads.

So I’d like to start by suggesting several things Scotland can learn from its own rural:

The international Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) recently reported that Scotland’s rural schools provide the best education in the world.

As noted previously, the result of more than 20 years of community development through the process of land claim on Eigg (amongst other remote Scottish estates) has resulted in the Eigg Trust introducing a renewable energy system which makes the island an exemplar. Moreover the fact that this renewable energy system incorporates a means to limit any individual from taking too much is something to be celebrated. It means that social and environmental justice are manifest in the infrastructure.

Rural Scotland also has the potential to generate 25% of Europe’s wind energy, as well as a very significant proportion of wave and tidal energy. In the context of climate change it is imperative, not that we cover every square mile of the Scottish landscape with wind turbines, but that we develop a robust politics to maximise the production of renewable energy by pushing all the technologies to commercial viability, and by re-designing and re-engineering the grid to support this. The key words for such a policy need to be a mixed economy of means across both technologies and scales – just as rural life is characterised by mixed economies and complex interdependecies.

This moves from the overused word ‘sustainability’ to the more imaginatively rich concept of a ‘stability domain’ as articulated by the eminent ecological artists Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison. A ‘stability domain’ is a region, whether a watershed, or another geographical entity, which achieves ecological and economic stability. In human terms this means having the necessary interdependencies, structures and limitors embedding social and environmental justice, for life to thrive. It also means ceasing to be dependent on the extraction of, and consuming of, limited resources beyond the carrying capacity of the ecology.  We might also want to ask what a cultural stability domain might be?

If we want to challenge beliefs, then we might want to imagine the situation where our energy needs are met from the energies already in movement around the planet, rather than those embedded beneath our feet. I can understand why miners in St Helens in Lancashire are proud of their motto ‘Ex Terra Lucem’ and it’s a wonderfully resonant phrase, but we need a new motto.

These are all pragmatic and practical lessons we can learn from the rural, but we can also learn in a different way, and returning to the Landworkers symposium I want to highlight the cultural things we can learn from the rural.

Four, if not more, presentations focused on vernacular and indigenous projects:

Gavin Renwick working as cultural intermediary for the Dogrib in their land claim negotiations with the Canadian Government, andnow moving on to the process of designing and developing a new vernacular for housing in the new nation.

Juhani Pallasmaa creating a museum of nature and culture with and for the Sami.

Then two wonderful presentations flowing into each other by a process of playing ‘tag’ starting with Arthur Watson, handing on to Will Maclean, handing on to Fergus Purdie, handing back to Will Maclean handing on to Marion Leven.

Watson was talking about Cairn Gorm: Reading a Landscape in which he is collaborating with Maclean and Purdie, amongst others. Maclean then talked about the works Cuimhneachain nan Gaisgeach (Commemoration of our Land Heroes) on Lewis where he is collaborating on the fourth site with Leven.

These projects are more than just art in rural places. They speak to a very specific and different understanding: one the places priority on the vernacular and indigenous. T.S.Eliot and others were quoted on the relationship between tradition and innovation but Renwick provided some of the key phrases that structure thinking this through. The first, probably derived from reading MacDiarmid, in “Being modern in your own language.” The second is the dictum of the Dogrib elders which is to educate young people to understand both Western culture and their own traditional culture: “to be strong like two people”.

The cultural projects all demonstrate that it is absolutely critical in the context of rampant urbanisation to express the value (richness, complexity, duration, immediacy, experimentation and repetition) of the rural. And that the expressions of value and meaning we saw help us understand, if nothing else, that the rural is more than just a lower density of population.

The issue of the vernacular seemed quite opaque in the event.  What is vernacular?  Is it of the everyday?  In relation to architecture it can seem like an aspect of the aesthetic realm or a stylistic device.  But it struck me that the terrace I live on with 20 houses the same and two at the end which are larger (for the builder/developer and his family at a guess) also describes a vernacular – yes in the ‘character,’ but also in the economics.  There is a real danger that the vernacular is a lifestyle choice rather than an aspect of imagining our ‘stability domain’.  It seemed to me that the artists’ projects evidenced a clear operation within a complex idea of vernacular which comes back to Renwick’s ‘modern in our own language’ and ‘strong like two people.’

What art have I seen?

Posted in CF Writing, Exhibitions, Research, Texts by chrisfremantle on March 27, 2008

Gavin Renwick‘s Home Office at the Cooper Gallery, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, University of Dundee.

Gavin invited me to participate in the last discussion in the series.

Gavin Renwick

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