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Remotely Connected: A big rural orbit

Rural artists have typically found themselves trying to translate their experiences of living on the land to gate-keeping gallery owners in the major cities. But new informal networks of artists, brought together on the internet, are cutting out the middle man and staging their own shows and happenings. Michael Shirrefs investigates.

One of the truths of rural life is that power and money and modernity usually lie elsewhere—in the metropolitan other. Well, it’s a truth of sorts. But it’s a truth that’s starting to loosen its grip.


Rural life, the world over, is in the midst of changes that are altering, not just who lives remotely, but what they do there. In this mix, artists have often seen rural life as an option that allows them to live and work on meagre incomes, but it usually comes at the cost of profile, access and any semblance of urban arts cool.


However, even that’s starting to change, because technology has begun to make geography less relevant, not only for artists, but for rural communities in general.


There’s always been a disconnect between the work and concerns of the bush and the endless self-fascination of cities. Cities want what rural folk can give them, but they don’t want to know all the grubby details. And for rural artists this has meant that it’s been almost impossible to get the attention of city gallery-owners, curators, funding bodies, art magazines and, as a consequence, art buyers and the art market. It’s been an almost feudal and very one-sided relationship.

But over the past five or six years, many rural artists have realised that technology, especially the internet, offers them the chance to form new communities with people working remotely in another part of the world. It’s been quite liberating for many of these artists to discover that others share similar concerns, outlooks, and approaches to their artwork and to their own universes. As a result it’s begun to free these artists from the need to endlessly pander to their metropolitan cousins.


One of the ‘early adopters’ of technology to find like-minded individuals and groups around the world was Neil Berecry-Brown. Neil is a farmer and an artist, not necessarily in that order. In fact he sees the two roles as quite complimentary and interchangeable. Generations of his family have worked the land at Mangrove Mountain on the NSW Central Coast, but Neil has also had another life as an artist, curator and teacher, both in Australia and overseas.

Some years ago, Neil made contact with an Irish artist called Fiona Woods and the two began what has become a strong relationship of artistic collaboration. In the process, Neil also found that he had unwittingly tapped into something far more widespread.


Networks were already forming across the northern hemisphere. Fiona Woods was involved in collaborations with a Swedish art and farming collective called Kultivator, who were in turn working with a US art and architecture group called M12, based outside Denver in Colorado. Since then solid links have formed with other countries, and back to Australia.


One of the early, and quite significant moments in all this was an event run by Kultivator, based on the island of Öland off the east coast of Sweden. In 2005 they hosted a Dinner With Cows, and it involved people and cows all dining at a long table.

It was a bizarre idea that was intended to ‘marry’ the idea of art and agriculture in people’s minds. However Mathieu Vrijman, one of Kultivator’s founders, admits that even he isn’t sure what it all meant.


In April this year Neil Berecry-Brown hosted an exhibition on his farm of installations from Australian and overseas artists. Later this year another exhibition called Yak Yak will be held at the Swan Hill Regional Gallery, co-curated by Fiona Woods and Swan Hill’s Gallery Director Ian Tully. Ian is important in all of this, because he’s been something of a lynch-pin for connecting Australian artists and arts groups to these networks. Ian has travelled widely and been able to participate in a number of events and projects run by some of the artists and groups involved.

For Australian artists and arts organisations, a critical moment came when Ian Tully brought many of these threads together at a conference called ACRE 2 (ACRE stands for Australia’s Creative Rural Economy) that he hosted in Swan Hill in 2011, and which I attended. It seemed to trigger something for the rural artists and arts organisations attending. They suddenly found themselves wondering why they were still looking to the cities for affirmation and approval. It was clear that ‘the city’ didn’t understand ‘the country’ and, for the most part, had little interest in what rural artists were doing. Most of these people were discovering that they had more in common with rural artists working in another country, than they did with city folk in their own region. It was interesting to watch this dawning awareness that new doors were opening, and that the urban arts-Tsars were starting to lose their power.


Many of these rural artists are highly skilled, very tech-savvy and totally across contemporary ideas and conversations about what art is and the role it plays today. More than that, they’ve  quite deliberately chosen to work away from the dominating noise and culture of cities. Neil Berecry-Brown, for example, is collaborating with a very capable artist in Canada called Megan Leigh Smith. Megan uses video, sound and internet technology to examine and communicate aspects of her part of the world—a small town two hours from Ottawa—with people in other places.

The Colorado team called M12 that I mentioned earlier, work with their own mid-west communities, but have also been involved in a number of collaborations abroad, including one in Australia called Ornitarium—a wetlands regeneration project in Denmark in Western Australia. Their focus is a constant mix of the local and the global.


So is any of this important for anyone who’s not an artist? Well, yes … for at least two clear reasons.


These global arts networks are starting to have a wider impact, allowing remote communities to piggy-back on these connections and to discover that they are not as isolated as they once were. It’s becoming clear that many of the problems they face are being confronted the world over. And in times of great change and uncertainty, many artists are helping their communities to crunch some difficult and confronting problems about what it means to be ‘on the land’.

The other factor is an idea I mentioned back at the start. Is geography as important as it once was? Do people have to live and work in the big metropolises to feel connected or valued? The answer is, of course, yes and no. We may be heading towards that, but it will take a lot of things to level the playing field. Access to genuinely high-speed internet is nigh on impossible in almost all non-urban areas the world over. In addition many employers still see the centralised urban workplace as non-negotiable, so the idea of doing your job remotely from some lakeside idyll will have to wait for most of us.


But the arts situation has been interesting, because it has thrown the distinctions between urban and rural cultures into stark relief. For many rural artists, the metropolitan arts world has turned into a shallow place of art-as-commodity—a parody full of expensive objets, lacking any real substance.


This is not to say that we don’t need an art market, but what is now finally starting to happen is that a space has opened up for artists who find that reality stifling and want to have substantial engagements about their art, without having to turn themselves into a brand.


For Neil Berecry-Brown, however, there are some things that a metropolitan artist simply can’t do. As well as trying to create a sustainable output of coloured duck eggs for an eager boutique restaurant market, he is also attempting a new breed of belted cattle—a particular shade of red/brown and with a white belt. It’s a fabulous mix of art, farming and whimsy.

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