Rural Utopias

Table of Contents

Blood and Soil

In the sturdy solid heaviness of the shoe is stowed up the stub­born­ness of the slow trudge through the far-stretched and monotonous furrows of the field, over which a raw wind blows. On the leather lies the dampness and fullness of the soil. Under the soles slides the lone­li­ness of the field path as eve­ning falls. In the shoe vibrates the silent call of the earth, its quiet bes­tow­al of ripening corn and its unexplained self-denial in the desolate fallow of the winter field. Extending through this tool are the uncomplaining fear as to the certainty of bread, the wordless joy of once again having withstood need, the tremb­ling before the arrival of birth, and the shaking at the surround­ing threat of death.1

In this beautiful passage from The Origin of the Work of Art Martin Heidegger describes the life-world of a peasant farmer evoked by Vincent Van Gogh’s painting A Pair of Shoes (1988). Like exhi­bits in a historical museum, or Marcel Proust’s made­leines, the worn-out pair of mud encrusted shoes in Van Gogh’s work summon to cons­cious­ness a whole way of being in the world, an exis­ten­tial horizon captured in the materiality of the most humble of objects. At first blush, Heidegger’s view of the rural seems realistic, almost bleak, on closer scrutiny, however, his deeply empathetic response reveals the deeply held conviction that traditional rural life is the foundational bond between a peo­ple and a land upon which every­thing rests.

Heidegger’s idealisation of farming would be very close to the Nazi concept of ‘blood and soil’, if it weren’t for the fact that it eschews geneticist explanations of ‘race’. For Heide­gger ‘blood’ was not a matter of inherited chromosomes, but a mani­fes­tation of what he called ‘Being’, a complex term by which he meant the ultimate historical or existential horizon that gives meaning and purpose to a community or an indivi­dual. Although Heide­gger’s Being is cultural and historical rather than genetic, it also contains seeds of intolerance, because since the Being of a people is rooted in its bond with an ancestral land, landless people like Jews or the Roma, are deficient or inauthentic in some fundamental way. Old anti-semitic stereo­types denigrated Jews for not being able to ‘farm and fight’, that is to say for neither cultivating nor de­fend­ing the land in which they temporarily dwell­ed. Because of this, they were seen as alien to the holy bond that farmers maintain and renew when they respond to ‘the silent call of the earth’.

This association between farming, existential authenticity and national identity is by no means exclusive to Heidegger or Nazi Germany. Early in the nineteenth century Romanticism popularised the view that rural life protects and preserves human values threatened by the means-to-ends mindset of the new industrial age. And European irredentist movements that in their struggle to libe­rate their motherlands from foreign rule, herald­ed peasant customs as the bedrock of national cul­tu­ral identity. Modern utopian views of the rural society span a wide ideological spectrum ranging from conservative longings for a lost social order ruled by static hierarchies, to progressive visions of agrarian communities based on equality, sharing and harmony with nature.

In reality, by the time Heidegger and others had started glamorising the rural, agriculture was alrea­dy undergoing a transformative process that would eventually turn it into what it is today, not the life mission of saintly peasants, but just ano­ther mo­dern industry dependent on large capital, mecha­ni­sation, and the reality of global trade. As it had been the case with the rise of modern landscape painting in the eighteenth century, the countryside became a focus of intense cultural interest right at the time when modernity and mass urban­isa­tion had started undermining the long-term viability of trad­i­tional agrarian forms of life.

  • Tina Stefanou, Agripoet(h)ics: Back-Breeding, The Ball, Fantasy Creatures, 2023, three channel video with sound, Back-Breeding, 2023, sculpture, wool, seeds, feathers, sweat, sheep body, muscle, 3,500 kilometres of thread, seed-stitching. The Art Gallery of Western Australia, 2023. Photo by Dan McCabe (@artdoc_au)

We all have to eat

But how did all this start, where do all these far­mers in muddy shoes come from? The story is, in its broad strokes, well known. Homo Sapiens used to eke out a meagre living grab­bing what they could from the environment. Nature called the shots, humans had to adapt, move when food be­came scarce, cope with countless threats. This kept populations very low, a mere flea on Gaia’s back. Life was, in Thomas Hobbes’ words, ‘poor, nasty, brutish and short’2, it was the price we had to pay to be ‘in harmony with the environment’.

Then agriculture appeared and everything chang­ed. Humans no longer adapted to nature but changed nature to suit their needs and desires, they turned scrubland into arable fields, domes­ti­cat­ed wild animals, diverted the course of rivers. As food production increased, populations started to grow and eventually more scrublands had to be turned into arable fields, more animals domes­ti­cat­ed. Farming begot larger populations which in turn begot more farming. With time, farmers developed distinctive local cultures symbolically rooted in the territories that provided the material means of their survival. Blood and soil. Markets, cities, money, armies, bureaucracies, political systems, writing, organised religion, schools, social classes, laws, police forces, justice system followed suit.

The accoutrements of civilisation affected main­ly urban dwellers, in the countryside, where the over­whelming majority of the population lived, prog­ress arrived as a feeble, distant echo. As this urban/rural dichotomy became entrenched, cities started to be associated with historical change, symbolically confining rural communities to the immutable cycles of growth and harvesting, death and regeneration. Farmers were, and still are, per­ceiv­ed as unsophisticated but also the inter­me­dia­ry between nature and culture and as such more authentic, more ‘grounded’ than city dwellers.

For thousands of years demographic expansion fuelled by agriculture was kept contained by famin­es, wars and pande­mics. It is only relatively recent­ly that industrialisation, capi­tal­ism and modern science have created the conditions for human habitat to expand at ever greater rate and at the expen­se of the non-human biosphere. But we all have to eat, and even though the world population will probably peak by 2080, feeding everyone won’t be easy. New farming practices may mitigate the impact of agriculture on the environment, but the means-to-end logic of modern techno-capi­tal­ism cannot be easily countered, idealism doesn’t have a great track record as a force for change, and we are all victims of the normalcy bias due to which danger doesn’t worry us until it’s too late (this is why climate denialists accuse envi­ron­ment­alists of indulging in ‘catastrophism’).

  • Rural Utopias, installation view featuring works by Jo Darbyshire, Nathan Gray, Wendy Hubert and Andrea Williams. The Art Gallery of Western Australia, 2023. Photo by Dan McCabe (@artdoc_au)

An elegant ending or a new beginning?

A question then arises: considering the envi­ron­ment­al crisis is it possible for art to speak about the rural without falling prey to old nostalgias or new utopias? Paola Antonelli, Senior Cura­tor of Architecture and Design at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, addressed this question in Broken Nature: Design Takes on Human Survival (2019), an exhibition she curated for the XXII Milan Triennale.

The underlying assumption of Broken Nature is that it is too late to focus on preventing a global environmental catas­tro­phe, the most urgent job at hand is to repair what has been broken. The task is momentous, but according to Antonelli, con­tem­porary design can play a part in tackling it if they adopt a ‘restorative’ approach, spanning a spec­trum ranging from homespun solutions for every­day problems to visionary techno utopias. To make her case, Antonelli selected designers that don’t subscribe to the early 20th-century infatuation with square corners or believe that simple geometric forms are intrinsically rational. If anything, this kind of ‘restorative design’ is inspired by a rhizomatic morphology that blends the formal patterns of biological and digital systems.

Two works exemplify this approach. The first is Daisy Ginsberg, Sissel Tolaa and Christina Aga­pa­kis Resurrecting the Sublime, a project attempting to resurrect the perfume of a flower that’s been extinct for millions of years. The quixotic and poig­nant melancholy of this conceit is typical of an exhi­bi­tion in which the elegiac longing for the fra­gile beauty of what has been lost inspires design repairs that are more symbolic than practical. The second is Bernie Krauser’s deeply moving The Great Animal Orchestra a monumental sound installation created by mixing vocalisations of living creatures from around the world. Located right at the end of the exhibition, this enve­lo­ping sound­scape fills a huge, darkened room and is comple­ment­ed by data projections visualising the pro­gress­ive deple­tion of biodiversity around the globe. Akin to a chill-out room at the end times, The Great Animal Orchestra is an aural womb where one lingers to meditate one the perilous future of Gaia, while bathing in its fading beauty.

Antonelli argues that design must transcend its anthro­po­cen­tric, humanistic bias and embrace a new ‘allocentric’ pers­pec­tive that doesn’t privilege one species over others. But when it’s all said and done, she doesn’t seem to believe her own argu­ment, in the catalogue introduction she writes: ‘Even to those who believe that the human species is inevitably going to become extinct at some point in the (near? far?) future, design presents the means to plan a more elegant ending.’3 But to die in style is a rather unambitious goal.

A recent exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum, New York offered a more optimistic response to these dilemmas. Titled Countryside: The Future (2020) and created by Rem Koolhaas, the show envisages a future in which the rural becomes a via­ble, even essential, alternative to the city-centred life that has so far dominated the deve­lop­ment of modernity. To quote from Koolhaas’s cata­logue foreword:

Total Urbanization requires that a large part of the countryside would be claim­ed as a back of house for urban civilization, a resi­dual, enabling domain where all needs, demands, impo­si­tions of the urban can be orchestrated and imple­ment­ed at will… In 2020, two blatant tasks stand out. The inevitability of Total Urban­i­za­tion must be questioned, and the countryside must be redis­co­ver­ed as a place to resettle, to stay alive, enthusiastic human presence must reanimate it with new imagination.4

This thesis replaces commonplace visions of futuristic smart-cities with the concert of a ‘smart countryside’ in which technology and new eco­no­mic practices generate more sus­tain­able forms of living. But severing the umbilical cord con­nect­ing modernity and urbanism is no easy task. Right at the time when this exhibition was opening, building work had started on The Line, a fantastical project for a 170-kilometre-long smart-city stretching from the Red Sea deep inside the Arabian Peninsula. Completely severed from the surrounding envi­ron­ment and costing 500 billion — to be paid by the Saudi government — The Line is the most grand­iose urban utopia ever conceived, although it might just be a gigantic sinkhole for surplus petro­dollars in need of a final resting place.

Should we trust modern design and architecture with the task of solving global problems consi­der­ing the ambivalent nature of their ethico-political alliances? Both disciplines have at some point in their history presented themselves as agents of redemptive social utopias while simultaneously serving the interests of the markets. Neither Anto­nelli nor Koolhaas deal with this issue system­ati­cally nor question the absolute hege­mony of techno-capitalism, solutions are sought within not outside the currently dominant system. In this they are proba­bly right, techno-capitalism is to us what water is to fish — or Being to Heidegger — an all-enclosing horizon that con­tains every question but which is itself beyond questioning.

At least we tried

When in 1998 we created IASKA, the precursor of the orga­ni­sa­tion currently known as SPACED, our intention was not to repair an environment broken by farming, nor did we set out to save a small country town from economic decline (although we certainly didn’t want to add to its woes). Our goal, only par­tial­ly conscious when we started, was to save con­tem­po­ra­ry art from itself, mitigate its so­cial marginality and intramural ob­ses­sions, a uto­pian aspiration if ever there was one. The idea was to take artists out of their inner-cities ghettos and ask them to live and work in a small rural com­mu­nity for long periods of time, it was a way of taking artists and local residents out of their res­pect­ing comfort zones and bring together social realities that rarely rub shoulders, and see what happened.

Of course there have always been artists work­ing in regional areas, but in our case the small­ness of the community, the visi­bi­li­ty of the artists — they worked in a large store with a glass front right in the middle of the town’s main thoroughfare — was going to create a new framework for making and experiencing art. Modernity and Modernism have always been closely asso­ciat­ed with the urban and maybe this contributed to the crisis that afflicts contemporary art. Could the rural offer art an oppor­tu­nity of renewal and new social relevance? We wanted to address this question while avoiding populism, patronising our audiences or dumbing down art practice. We were the first Australian art organisation to try this with such stubborn con­sis­tency and determination.

Since we started, populism has grown much stronger, not just in politics and social media but also in the arts. Consider, for instance, how the paint-by-numbers ideological pieties of identity politics have come to dominate the subsidised art sector. Ironically, and to make things worse, in recent times identity politics has also become the battle cry of right-wing identitarianism. Identity is a bloody double-edge sword as the recent, tragic events in Ukraine and Israel and Palestine remind us, and it is sad to see how quickly the anti-identi­ta­rian, deconstructive ethos of previous avant-gardes, both artistic and philosophical, has been forgotten. Tackling con­tem­po­rary art’s social mar­gin­al­ity without giving in to populism was always going to be extremely difficult. Did we succeed? Only occasionally, and we also often failed to explain what we were trying to achieve. Yet it was worth trying, we brokered new relationships, we planted a few seeds, fertilised a meta­phor­ical soil with our figurative blood.

Dr Marco Marcon,
Artistic Director & Founder, SPACED


1: Martin Heidegger, ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’, Martin Heidegger: Off the Beaten Track. Edited and Translated by Julian Young and Kenneth Haynes, p. 218 2: Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan XVII.13. 3: Paola Antonelli, Broken Nature: Design Takes on Human Survival, Rizzoli: 2019, p.34. 4: Rem Koolhaas, Countryside. A report, Taschen: 2022, p.8.