Village Convention: Contextual Art in Rural Environments
Ditchling, East Sussex (UK)
May 2005

The Village Convention took place over two days (May 21st, 22nd), and split into a presentation and workshop based part with invited practitioners from the UK, NL, Germany, Spain, Austria and Denmark, and a public event part on the Sunday afternoon.


Kathrin Böhm
Wapke Feenstra
Antje Schiffers
Clare Cumberlidge
Lucy Musgrave
Hilary Williams
Doris Koch

Ditchling Museum
Somewhere
General Public Agency
Clare Cumberligde & Co
KCO Kunst en Cultuur Overijssel
SKOR

Report on the Village Convention



Thanks to General Public Agency we have this complete Report on the Village Convention:

1 The Idea
In recent years artists, curators and commissioners have increasingly used contemporary art to shed light on the decline of traditional rural structures, or have chosen to intervene with participatory practises to alleviate some problems associated with the dominance of the urban over the rural. Village Convention: Contextual Arts in Rural Environments was a three-day international convention/workshop focusing on the particular issues related to contextual art practice and production in rural environments. It addressed issues around the vitality and sustainability of village life in the context of modern pressures on the community, and to strengthen the debate about how contemporary art can contribute to village life.

The aim of the convention was to support and create an international professional network amongst practitioners addressing the rural as a context for contemporary art production.

The convention provided an opportunity for artists to share information, develop national and European networks and to discuss issues arising from personal experiences of rural art production and to set this in a European context.

2 Development
2.1 Collaborators
General Public Agency devised and organised the Convention in collaboration with the European cultural organisation myvillages.org. It took place at Ditchling Museum in Ditchling, East Sussex, UK.

2.2 Participants
A list of about 40 participants was drawn up and invited, comprising mostly of British and European practitioners, but also of relevant curators and commissioners.
Local artists suggested by the Arts Council were also invited. See the list of participants at the end of this document.

2.3 Structure
The Convention was a practitioner-led and non-hierarchic meeting of like-minded spirits.
It was centred around three workshops focusing on:
· The Representation of the Village/Villager
· Village Business: Informal Economy and Social Exchange
· The rural as a location for contextual art practice
Each issue was introduced by two artist presentations, which served as case studies and illustrative material.
In addition two keynote speeches by internationally renowned researchers gave a theoretical overview of the issues at stake.

In between the workshop sessions both guided walks by artist Jo Roberts and less formal walks through Ditchling and its surrounding countryside provided informal opportunities for discussions, collaborative thinking and peer-to-peer learning.

A dinner on Saturday night allowed for a more intimate atmosphere, making it easy to connect between and establish new networks.

The event closed with a Public Event at Ditchling Museum, to which local artists, regional curators and commissioners, local authority officers, rural representatives, and, of course, all villagers were invited. The Public Event functioned as an informal place to meet and exchange with the participants.

2.4 Fundraising
The core grant was given by the Arts Council of England (£12,000). Smaller sums were granted by the UK Royal Netherlands Embassy (£1,500), All Ways Learning, a SE England-based organisation promoting professional development for the arts (£1,000), and the Austrian Cultural Institute London (£500). The Goethe Institute offered to cover for two flights from Germany to the UK.

2.5 Location
Ditchling Museum was found to be the ideal location. Director Hilary Williams had recently commissioned artist Jo Roberts to do a project to explore the village's history, which was shown at the Museum a few months earlier.
The decision to stage the convention in Ditchling was informed by the village’s history as home to the Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic, an early 19th century artistic community founded by Eric Gill, the celebrated typographer, sculptor and engraver.
Ditchling is closely linked to the intentions of the Art and Crafts movement who has established a very distinctive model of cultural production at the beginning of the 20th century. The issue of the rural as a place for art practice was locally and historically rooted and urged for a contemporary reconsideration.
The welcome session and introductory keynote talk took place in the museum, as well as Sunday's Public Event. In between we hired the school hall for two days for the workshops and breakout sessions.

2.6 Marketing
The Convention coincided with the Brighton Festival. Ditchling is only 8 miles from Brighton, and the Convention was listed in the Fringe Festival programme. The Public Event was also advertised in Art Monthly.

2.7 Local Strategy
The decision was taken to arrange for all the catering to be arranged locally, in accordance with the belief that any initiative should always benefit the local economy first. The organisers and all participants, numbering over 40 people, were all accommodated in local B&Bs, and were ferried around in private cars and local taxis.

3 The Event
41 participants (including the organisers) descended on the small village of Ditchling on Friday 20th May 2005. A welcome session in Ditchling Museum was followed by an introduction into the subject matter by the internationally renowned writer and researcher Francois Matarasso, who gave a summary of the rural arts debate by providing many examples of its historical development and its present state.

Over the following two days a variety of different approaches were represented through a series of talks, workshops and artist presentations, including "A Village Does Nothing", a film by Austrian composer and film maker Elisabeth Schimana, "One Stop Shop", an informal-economy project in Ireland by UK-based artist Amy Plant, and a presentation by curator Adam Sutherland from Grizedale Arts, a rural residency and commissioning centre, about his complex relationship with the village he is working in. All throughout the two days informal walks made it possible to breathe a bit of fresh air, clear the head, or engage in passionate discussions about the rural arts.

The Sunday Public Event saw a small exhibiton set up in Ditchling Museum featuring documentation of the participants' projects, a concert by local artist and Convention participant Elle Osborne, village produce from all over Europe brought by the participants, and guided tours of the village by artist Jo Roberts. The Public Event served as an opportunity for locals, arts commissioners and Arts Council officers to meet and greet the participants and find out more about the Convention and its outcome.


4 Outcome
4.1 A New Network
The Convention established a new informal practitioners network, which was immediately adopted by the participants.

4.2 Case Studies Archive/'Bibliobox'
All participants' work will be represented as case studies on the myvillages.org website archive, and the practitioners will be contactable through the website.

The material provided by the Convention participants forms the starting point for myvillages.org’s new project, the Biblio-Box. The Biblio-Box contains information about and documentation of previously implemented village-projects and is designed for travelling: It travels from village to village and there - with the help of local hosts – offers information about contextual art projects in other villages

4.3 Poster
General Public Agency are now in the process of developing a small publication/poster that will summarise some of the issues discussed during the Convention (funding permitting). This will be a well-designed publication featuring some of the participants' projects, with an emphasis on policy-shifting, demonstrating that Rural practice can be inspirational and provocative.

All talks and presentations have been recorded on video with the possibility of publishing them on DVD alongside the publication. We've also conducted short interviews with all the participants straight after the workshops as a means to brainstorm and collect fresh impressions and ideas; this resource could be published separately either on DVD or on a website.

4.4 Village Convention II
For myillages.org the Convention has been of great use to articulate their position in the rural arts debate, and it has helped them to map the issues that are of particular interest to them. The Convention was a great opportunity to find and contact relevant artists, curators and commissioners.
Myvillages.org are now looking to stage a smaller and more focused seminar-type Convention, probably at Grizedale Arts, Cumbria, to further the debate and instigate new rural arts commissions as part of their 'ourvillages' programme.

Andrew Hunter (Wysing Arts) suggests
An interdisciplinary conference where an established artist network is brought into
contact with practitioners from other disciplines such as town planning (or food retailing or public) transport would be interesting (though difficult to chair).

Several participants offer to host the next village convention in their region in 2-3 years. Possible locations are Swabia/Germany, or Allenheads Contemporary Art in Northumberland, UK.

4.5 Trade Exhibition
Both General Public Agency and myillages.org have subsequently been invited to take part in an exhibition about informal trade networks in Leitrim, Ireland, in November 2005.

5 Feedback
5.1 The Convention
Numerous participants reported that the Convention helped them greatly in articulating thoughts and arguments. It seems everyone enjoyed spending a long weekend away from his or her usual work.

Talks
Especially Francois Matarasso’s comprehensive introduction to the UK’s rural arts situation was seen as an essential factor to the Convention’s success.

Artists Presentations
Everyone enjoyed the artist presentations and would have liked to have more of those.


Walks
The walks were a welcome respite from the sometimes heated discussions during the workshops, offering a less formal and more relaxed forum for exchange and learning.

Location
Even though some of the participants’ B&Bs were not closely situated to the Convention’s venues, the overseas participants enjoyed meeting locals and getting an impression of the English countryside. Staying in small local B&Bs ensured that nobody lost focus of the issues at hand.

5.2 Thoughts Confirmed
Several participants reported that they felt encouraged in their belief that the countryside is a place for reflection away from the hectic production circle of the city:
"I still think the rural environment offers significant advantages for artists practice. The city, with its constant sounds and dynamic, can be distracting. In a more at ease surrounding all the attention can go into the work."

Karen Guthrie summed up the discussion that took place about what it means to work in a rural context:
"In our group we spoke about the notion of going back to the countryside. There was almost an unquestioning assumption initially that that was what we are all doing by working in a rural context. In fact, very few people originate from villages, and are experiencing that feeling. But perhaps what it gives rise to is the metaphor of going back, as maybe something to do with the desire or a need to regress slightly, as an artist, into a state of some kind of naivety, maybe some state which gives you access to an audience and a context to make work in that is in some way therapeutically different from the urban one. … It's just that in a small population in a rural community you were often not going back to a place as much as going back to working amongst very intimate members of your family, for example, your mother, your mother's friends, your school friends. And perhaps that made you more vulnerable as an artist. And that was something that people often enjoyed."

Bianca Visser, too, reported back on her ideas about the specifics of rural environments:
It is mainly a matter of space. Urban public space is ruled by so many regulations that it is nearly impossible to organize a spontaneous act on the street. In Holland, for example, you are not even allowed to draw with chalk on the pavement without having gained previous consent by the council. Not to mention how difficult it is to shoot a film outside. This means that artists have to stay inside the studio or exhibition space. This does not stimulate experimentation. The studio is too isolated a place to try out new ideas….

My experience is that working outside is stimulating. In small communities everybody knows what is going on and there is always somebody curious to know what you are doing. This is the way art contributes to the village community.

She concedes that rural art cannot exist without its representation in an urban context:
But in the end, the final result is vindicated in the city. The urban infrastructure provides the devices that are necessary for generating art.

Andrew Hunter from Wysing Arts, a South Cambridgeshire-based public visual and applied arts centre, stresses the significance of exchange between rural and urban, artists and audience:
Contemporary visual art is on the periphery of debates around social and environmental change. Artists and curators are prone to talking among themselves exclusively and failing to engage with 'outsiders'.

All participants consider the email network very useful.


5.3 Future discussion points
Issues flagged up which participants would like to see addressed in future forums:

· Indigenous cultural practices - what rural people themselves do.
· The role of the agencies (typically public sector) that are commissioning and funding artists to work on socially engaged projects.
· The issue of why to choose to work in the villages. Why in the first place to go to a new/different context.
· Some people would have liked to see the inclusion of non-artist villagers.
· Is social/public interaction relevant? Why participatory practise in the first place?
· Someone suggested a more in-depth discussion about the relationship between artists and commissioners, and their respective motives.
I am very interested in discussing the way art and artists are today being used by authorities as a device to attract tourism to villages. There is a lot of money involved and I know many artists are quite rightly happy to collaborate. I’m not saying we should be against a priori, but we should define a position. We are being used as merchandizing. Do we agree with this development? Do these shows demand another kind of practice? Can we maintain independence in this situation?

6 Organiser's Conclusions
6.1 What went well
· Informal nature of the event
Everyone involved agrees that it has been a very successful event. The participants all understood the nature of the event; that it was by and large of an informal nature. Simply the fact of bringing together so many practitioners working in the same field made it possible and necessary to sharpen one's position and agenda. This in turn is good for the rural arts as a whole (if there is such a thing), and its standing in the wider contemporary art world gets a boost.

· Introductory talk
The opening talk by Francois Matarasso proved immensely valuable for the Convention. It was crucial that it took place at the very beginning of the Convention, allowing everyone to sharpen their own position and agenda. His resumé of current strategies in rural arts continues to influence GPA's thinking.

· Learning experience
For both General Public Agency and myvillages.org the experience of organising the Village Convention was a great learning experience, and both will make use of this experience in their future work.


· Accommodation/catering/travel
All participants were accommodated at local Bed&Breakfast places, much to the delight of the participants from overseas. All the participants' travel, even though for the most part not covered by grants, went well and smooth. The catering, provided by the local tea room, included a set-down dinner on the Saturday night, which was a great success.

· By making exclusive use of the local facilities, the Convention has contributed to the village economy.

6.2 Constructive Criticism
· Mixed roles for organisers
A problem for the organisers was that at times it was difficult to be responsible for both logistics and facilitation.
Some of the co-organisers would rather not have lead the workshops, because it made it impossible to express their opinion or to ask what they personally were interested in. In the end we would have preferred to have someone dedicated to each role, which would have been more satisfying for anyone involved, e.g. a professional facilitator. This would have given more structure to the workshops, and would probably have given a better chance of controversy, or a more precise outcome.

· A suggestion for an improved structure: “The other day, I learnt that on scientific conferences they have one person prepared to give a reply to every lecture. This person is being given a manuscript before and is therefore prepared to analyse what has been presented, which helps a lot for the discussion. It is difficult to find the right mixture of laissez-faire and structure.”

· Discussions / Issues
Even though the presentations and following discussions were very interesting, they sometimes remained too abstract. A greater role could have been given to the topic of the village economy, as this is something very real that everyone can relate to.

· Workshop sessions
All of the participants have some experience of working in rural areas, but none of the participants, with the exception of perhaps Francois Matarasso and Adam Sutherland, were specifically rural arts-only specialists. The convention has stimulated everyone to reflect the part of their practice which takes place in the rural.

The discussions after the artist presentations were looser than we had imagined and did not result in specific agreed resolutions.

This was due to the following:
1) a still very heterogeneous group, with very different interests and from different backgrounds, practically speaking different languages, which kept the debate from moving into more specific issues, and
2) the fact that the organisers are not professional conference facilitators who could enforce a preset structure/idea (the workshops, the boards, etc).
3) Language barriers might also have played a part in this. The Convention was attended by 40 participants from 8 European countries, with the largest groups coming from the UK, Germany and the Netherlands.

However on reflection this ‘looseness’ has allowed a free discussion of similarities, difference and interests.


· Ditchling Museum & School
Ditchling was considered to be a rich and appropriate site for the Convention. Logistics however were sometimes difficult due to the double venues of museum and school not being used to hosting conventions. Were therefore underestimated the amount of logistics support required.


The inititiators



General Public Agency is a creative consultancy providing services which include strategic brief-setting, public realm strategies, cultural policies and programmes, and design studies. General Public Agency’s approach is multidisciplinary, encompassing architecture, artistic practice, community planning, environmental and creative regeneration, design, and issues of active citizenship. General Public Agency curates its own programme of action research projects as well as responding to client briefs.

Ditchling Museum is housed in the former village school and has been founded in 1984. The Museum shows a collection of arts and crafts work, including a significant Eric Gill collection, Shoji Hamada, and Hilary Pepler. It informs on former village life and has recently started to commission contemporary artists for site-specific projects in relation to the history and location to the village.

Doris Koch has joined myvillages.org for the contextualisation and organisation of the Village Convention. She is a Berlin-based artist who has been working extensively in rural contexts.


List of all involved persons



myvillages & GPA & Ditchling-Museum
Kathrin Böhm, UK, www.publicworksgroup.net
Wapke Feenstra, NL, www.wapke.nl
Antje Schiffers, D, www.antjeschiffers.de
Doris Koch, D, www.doriskoch.de
Clare Cumberlidge, UK, www.generalpublicagency.com
Christian Sievers, UK, www.christiansievers.info
Lucy Musgrave, UK, www.generalpublicagency.com
Hilary Williams, UK, www.ditchling-museum.com
Mark Korda-Gregson (MJT), UK
Daniel Russel (MJT), UK

Keynote speakers
Susanne Hauser, A, www.kunstundkultur.tugraz.at
François Matarasso, UK, www.homepage.mac.com/matarasso

Artist presentations
Adam Sutherland, UK, www.grizedale.org
Robert-Jan Muller, NL, www.sjaaklangenberg.nl
Elisabeth Schimana, A
Amy Plant, UK
Sofie Thorsen, DK/A, www.fdr.at, www.artpublicplaiv.ch
Jo Roberts, UK, www.jorobertsjourney.com

Participants
Julia Schmid, D
Mike Pearson, UK, www.mikebrookes.com, www.aber.ac.uk/performance
Christine Hoffmann, D, www.landkunstleben.de
Simon Grennan, UK, www.kartoonkings.com
Loretta Bosence, UK
Nina Pope, Karen Guthrie, UK, www.somewhere.org.uk
Claudia Büttner, D
Gavin Wade, UK
Loes Heebink, NL, www.loes-heebink.nl
Yeb Wiersma, NL, www.transartists.nl
Bianca Visser, Spain/NL
Lara Almarcequi, Spain/NL, www.braakliggendterrein.nl
Thomas Sprenger, D
Esther Polak, NL, www.milkproject.net
Ulrike Böhme, D, www.ulrike-boehme.de, www.gemeinde-hohenstein.de
Lorrice Douglas, UK
Alan Smith, UK, www.acart.org.uk
Marianne Eigenheer, UK/CH
Elle Osborne, UK, www.elleo.com
Donna Lynas, UK, www.wysingarts.org
Andrew Hunter, UK, www.wysingarts.org
Robert Eikmeyer, D, www.zkm.de