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Review: RURALities

Repeated lockdowns and ongoing restrictions aimed at suppressing COVID-19 have been doing funny things to people. I’ve lately found my searches of RightMove straying from my regular south Birmingham haunts in B13, B14, B29 and B30 into even more verdant climes. Looking north and east, a vague fantasy of finding work in Manchester or Yorkshire, has seen the names Todmorden, Glossop and New Mills added to my most searched. Whilst to the south and the west, a longing for old towns deep in the country has seen cookies for Ledbury, Leominster and Ludlow placed on my Chrome browser.

This is one way the pandemic has changed unlimited Network West Midlands travel pass wielding, communications working, industrial and modernist architecture appreciating me? Eighteen months ago you wouldn’t have caught me wanting to live pretty much anywhere with a headcount below 300,000, but now I am seriously entertaining moving into the country. My steadily growing enthusiasm fueled by walking websites, rural set novels and travelogues, and all manner of films, videos and music focused on the eerie and the strange. Maybe this feeling will pass, maybe it won’t, but like hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of others whose work and whose interests – it transpires – can be pursued pretty much anywhere, after months of confinement, I suddenly feel enabled to explore a certain rurality that previously lay dormant.

It’s not just people that the pandemic has challenged and changed. Pretty much every avenue of creative practice – and all manner of organisations and people which facilitate it – have had to adapt what they do to the new physically distant world. Meadow Arts, a Shrewsbury based contemporary arts organisation working across the rural west midlands counties of Herefordshire, Shropshire and Worcestershire have launched “RURALities” their first ever digital programme of new work. With support and mentoring from Birmingham based media arts experts Vivid Projects, the programme has enabled four artists to produce new digital work for exhibition online and (after their 17th May reopening) at the three counties’ respective county museums.

The artists who created the work are, Dan Turner who produced “Kipsi” a performance celebrating Gypsy Romani Traveller (GRT) life and culture past and present. Martha Kelsey, whose “Mirrors in Stone” uses illustration and animations to present a journey around some of Hertfordshire’s eccesiastical romanesque sculptures. Craig David Parr who used video to, create, evoke and explore a “Temporary Phantasmous Zone”. And Lucy Wright, whose “Plough Witches” subverts and challenges our expectations of gender in rural traditions, plays and storytelling.

In several cases prior to the work produced as part of RURALities, the artists had limited experience of working digitally, a fact which is astounding given the quality of work which they have produced. Taken as a whole, the works are a fantastically rich and multifaceted exploration of the traditions of diversity, subversion and counterpower which bubble up if you scratch the English countrysides’ ostensibly conservative and homogeneous surface. They draw upon history, myth and the fecund, murky rich soil where those two things meet, to challenge the perceptions of outsiders, incomers and established locals alike, as to what “rural” means in England.

This is necessary because there is an assumption, especially prevalent amongst city dwellers like me, that the countryside that we see today is monolithic and unchanging. Such an outlook is of course completely wrong. RURALities is embedded in a proud seam of cultural production which draws upon mythology, nature, and the cussed and subversive elements of rural life and culture to create art. A tradition which looks at the countryside askance and against the grain so as to challenge exploitative and prejudiced thinking, systems and practices. Illuminating a landscape and society rich with traditions and rituals that are product of millenia of human activity, embedding as rich a set of social relations as anything encountered in a major town, city or conurbation.

Out of all the works Craig David Parr’s seven part “Temporary Phantasmous Zone” does this most directly. His films adopt a rural horror aesthetic to explore centuries of class based economic and environmental exploitation. He weaves together elements of social history and mythology from rural Shropshire, with a sci-fi horror narrative connoting both American zombie cinema and the traditions of low budget British horror films, into a tapestry expounding Marxist theory and anarchist praxis. Creating in the process a filmic montage revealing and forcing the viewer to think through how the domination and subjugation of rural and small town workers throughout human history, and their resistance to this degradation and rejection of rural class society, has created the landscape and web of social relations and practices within which we are all embroiled. This sounds pretty full on and intense – which Parr’s sequence of short films is – in a good way. However, the film is also lightened by some genuinely amusing sequences and juxtapositions, alongside some interesting use of video game imagery. If I am able to get across to Shrewsbury Museum and Art Gallery, where the work will be displayed IRL, I am looking forward to seeing the fairground haunted house installation within which it will be situated.

Hierarchy, control, and the process of othering, also expresses itself and is reinforced in rural traditions and society through vernacular culture. There is a long tradition of artists, researchers and other creatives in England exploring and challenging this to question these notions of who belongs in the countryside and where. These questions, this uncertainty, and the demand for recognition, lie at the heart of Ingrid Pollard’s “Pastoral Interludes” series. The photographs from which resonates as much today – and is as necessary – as it was thirty five years ago.

The work Lucy Wright and Dan Turner have produced as part of RURALities ask not dissimilar questions in different ways.

In “Plough Witches” Wright challenges the subsidiary role that women and non-binary people traditionally play in our perception of the countryside and rural life. She does this but putting six women and non-binary people, diverse in terms of age, disability status and ethnic background, quite literally centre stage in a series of animations which are derived from the stock characters found in Shropshire’s traditional rural plays. These roles, seldom written down and instead handed down through the generations through repetition and practice, are (with the exception of the figure of “the mothers”) through force of habit and our existing perceptions, coded as masculine. In traditional performance in the locations from which they originate the roles would be played by men. Through putting women and non-binary people in the roles Wright challenges these inherited notions. Just as the immaterial digital telling of the story through the medium of animations viewed online and accompanied by cartoon style graphics and additions simultaneously augments and alienates the stock characters from their original context. This is something which gains added piquancy in the context of the third COVID-19 lockdown in which the work was created. Each of the characters is depicted alone against a rural backdrop, meaning that they are also separated and therefore alienated from each other, as well as the wider social context from which they originated.

Dan Turner’s performance piece “Kipsi” which foregrounds the art, culture and presence of the GRT community does similar work, which in the context of the repressive and discriminatory Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill currently before Parliament, is perhaps even more urgent. The work proudly asserts the position of GRT people as an essential component of England’s rural and pastoral tradition and identity. Having definitely had a presence in these islands since the 16th Century they are an ancient ethnic minority community who currently find their customs and way of life threatened with additional oppression and outright criminalisation. Turner’s digital performance shows the vibrancy of GRT art and culture drawing upon the community’s storytelling traditions to show the depth of the community’s connection, whether through visual art, the rhythm of life, or the arcane root of place names, in the English rural landscape. This has the effect of celebrating the GRT community and their traditional means of cultural expression whilst also complicating the notion of what it means to have an established connection to the countryside and England’s rural traditions. Proof if needed that the countryside has always been a place of diversity rather than containing one monolithic culture. That rural life can, and does, consist of different lifestyles living together in one landscape symbiotically. The existence of this strong tradition shows the possibility that others – like those depicted in Wright’s “Plough Witches” – can find their way, express themselves and be at home in rural society.

A hopeful vision of a bright and welcoming rural society, with a hint of magic, is sketched in by Martha Kelsey in “Mirrors in Stone”. Her work for RURALities consists of a journey across an illustrated map of a very green and fresh looking Herefordshire, stopping at colourful vividly drawn sketches of medieval carvings from the county’s churches in the Herefordshire School of Romanesque Sculpture tradition animated as gifs. so that they move, sparkle, and in one case breath fire. This colourful progress to out of the way spots and the pleasantly whimsical text which accompanies it appears on the surface to lack the political charge and urgency of the other works. But within the sequence of the four works as a whole, this is the magic of Kelsey’s work. Through using digital technology to represent and reimagine these brilliant, mostly very remotely situated, centuries old carvings, and slotting them in a straightforward narrative, they are made accessible to a wide public that would most likely never otherwise get to encounter them. In this way new generations of people in Herefordshire and beyond – regardless of background – get to discover, enjoy and be inspired by their county’s deep tradition of creative and expressive sculpture.

Taken together the works developed and presented as RURALities, point towards new ways of appreciating and negotiating the English countryside which ask difficult questions of the conditions and social formations comprising the present, whilst pointing the way towards an emerging more open and inclusive tomorrow. It is wonderful that the people of Herefordshire, Shropshire and Worcestershire get to see, connect and be inspired by the patterns and stories of their past in this way. Works that make rural England more open, welcoming and interesting, for all manner of incomers and people who might feel like outsiders.

Maybe one day I will leave south Birmingham for a small (albeit well connected) town in the country, or maybe I won’t. However, the travails and restrictions of the last year and a bit have given me lots of time to uncover, think about and dream of exploring rural England and it’s myriad of brilliant, yet complicated landscapes, customs, pasts (and presents). I know that I am far from alone here. In this way the RURALities art works speak very much to the current moment, whilst harking back to other great radical works which draw upon the subversive and the strange, the weird, the eerie and the magical present in the English rural life, to point the way to freer, brighter days ahead.

RURALities can be viewed on the Meadow Arts website. “Kipsi” can also be seen live at Worcestershire County Museum at Hartlebury Castle, “Plough Witches” and “Temporary Phantasmous Zone” at Shrewsbury Museum and Art Gallery, and “Mirrors in Stone” at Hereford Museum and Art Gallery. The live installations will be open between 17th May and 27th June 2021 (COVID-19 restrictions allowing…)

RURALities logo and branding is by Meadow Arts. All rights reserved.

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