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Is the nature of working in a rural context inherently more socially engaged?

Image: 'Liminal' Brodie Sim

Artists have long been considering our connection to place, how it can shape, affect and inform us. But what is place? In the postscript of her book ‘Place’ artist Tacita Dean concludes:

“I played with many ideas about place for this book, but in the end I realised it can only ever be personal.”
(Dean & Millar, 2005)

This got me thinking - what is my rural? It is community, resilience, collectivist; a sense of place.

As an artist and producer working in a socially engaged context, the role of place is fundamental. Writer Tom Jeffreys recently wrote an article published in Frieze titled “Is the Countryside the Future of the Art World?” (Jeffreys, 2019) where he explores how today’s art world is increasingly looking to rural venues, and references the latest edition of Whitechapel’s Documents of Contemporary Art series: 'The Rural'. The anthology looks at a diverse cross-section of rural art, thinking and practice, and “declares the rural a place of and for contemporary cultural production”. (Myvillages, 2019)

Living and working rurally does not mean having to work on a smaller scale or ambition. One only has to look at SCAN’s ‘Art Map’ of Scotland to see the number of ambitious programmes being delivered outside of the central belt, An Lanntair, Atlas Arts, Taigh Chearsabhagh, and Comar to name a few. But how do these programmes sit within their surrounding communities?

Image: SCAN's Art Map

When thinking about the resourcefulness of small islands (like the one I live on), it is interesting to consider American Anthropologist Edward T Hall's notion of 'high context' and 'low context' in relation to communities and ways of living:

"High-context cultures tend to be highly relational and collectivist - relationships are important and members of the community swim as a shoal, looking out for each other, helping, sharing, respecting, protecting."
(Welstead, 2014)

Image: Sea Change Development Lab, Isle of Tiree

Artist’s Placement Group famously said 'Context is half the work'... does a rural context innately involve the ‘social’, if it is indeed a ‘high context’ culture? Myvillages describes “a rural practice that works from within rural situations, and often with rural communities” (Myvillages, 2019) I would argue that in a rural situation, it is almost impossible to ignore the ‘human’ or ‘social’ side of place; the emotions, the people, the narrative, the community. That a rural practice is co-dependant on a rural community:

“Artworks are relevant to communities because they emerge from a dialogical exchange that reflects the specificity of the situation in which they were collaboratively conceived.”
(Marcon, 2016)

For me, the future of the art world is social; we need to be having creative conversations that form sustainable, nourishing and committed social relations. Rural life gives space to a personal and subjective interest, a sense of active responsibility for our collective environment. Perhaps it isn’t working but living in a rural context that is inherently more socially engaged, and therefore a rural practice, in collaboration with its community and environment, will almost always be a social practice too.


Bibliography /

Dean, T. & Millar, J., 2005. Art Works: Place. s.l.:Thames & Hudson.

Jeffreys, T., 2019. Is the Countryside the Future of the Art World?. Frieze, 13 11.

Marcon, M., 2016. Looking for art in all the wrong places: Repositioning art in a regional context. Artlink, 36(3), pp. 20-27.

Mountford, C., 2019. Arts Professional. [Online] Available at:

Myvillages, 2019. Documents of Contemporary Art: The Rural. s.l.:Whitechapel Gallery, The MIT Press.

Network, S. C. A., 2019. Mapping the Visual Arts. [Online] Available at:

Welstead, J., 2014. Cultures, in context. Human Givens Journal, 21(2), pp. 36-38.


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