The artist as agroecologist

or how can culture and creativity be tools to preserve a living rural world

First, let us make a basic assumption: rural arts doesn´t imply necessarily a relation between art and agriculture.  But we will come to this later.
My approach to art, art is for life, is a celebration of the encounter of the social and nature, that transcends the limits of established perceptions and expands the present to re-invent the future.
Dickens (2001) termed subsumption the capitalist process through which human internal nature is changed at the same time as social relations transform external nature in the aspects we need to maintain social reproduction. He claims that capitalism is rebuilding human biology in its own image.
If historically the perceptions of nature have been culturally constructed, in post-industrial capitalism we live perhaps in the moment when mankind is furthest from nature, and at the same time most constricted by it, as it is represented in the city: the illusion of a technosphere seemingly divorced from ecology.
The re-encounter between society and nature can be achieved in many ways, but bearing in mind our urgency and limited capacities we have to choose strategically. I chose the rural as it:
- Implies a direct management of territory (80% of Spain is rural), natural resources and material transformation for covering basic needs.
- Implies locality, sense of place and community, due to the organic size of the settlements
-Is closer to the possibility of understanding and being conscious about ecological cycles.
 (maybe this is possible in cities, but I grew up in the countryside where I feel another rhythm   that make me easier to focus)
The rural is a critical site that is undergoing rapid and deep transformation. Its population (elderly and discounted) has evolved with nature, in the rural just called ‘countryside’. Richard Norgaard (1984) uses the concept co-evolution to emphasize how human activities modify an ecosystem and how the ecosystem’s responses provide reasons for the next individual action and social organization. Over time, co-evolution between nature and society has led to increased complexity in socio-environmental relations and in sophisticated social organisation.
Living in and from land has produced a character.  When Michael Hardt talks about biopower it is not only in the sense Foucault did, an authority able to coert life and imagination, oppression and control, that today reaches even the gene of the patented seed. Hardt as ecofeminism, defines bio-power as the capacity nature has – as woman - to self-organise, reproduce, in more complex structures with qualities such as care, affection, nurturing… (This behaviour happening in human relations, creating communicative affective links, is a work very valued by economic agents in the current stage of post-industrial capitalism, and therefore, is instrumentalised ).
It is questionable too that biopower only acts from top-down, as the  growing “affective labour” in the services sector poses a transformation potential by itself, to create autonomous circles of valorisation. Biopower is therefore from bottom-up, the capacity to create networks, to break social anomy:
“ In the production and reproduction of these affects, in this culture and communication networks, collective subjectivities are produced, and sociability, and society itself.” A life-form is created. My inquiry on collaborative art from an agroecological perspective aims to try and answer the question: What would happen if we exert biopower from the primary sector, in which affective labour is directly linked to the control and management of natural resources and the satisfaction of basic needs? Food as tool for social change)
Here we see one of the values you feel within the peasant culture of small farmers, the “awkward class” as Shanin said. Edgar Morin in ‘Introduction to Complex Thought‘ talks about the brutality of the global Iron Age we are living  ‘We have unprecedented knowledge over the physic, biologic, psychologic, sociologic world. Science has made empiric verification and logic to rule. But the mistake, ignorance, blindness, grows everywhere as our knowledge does.’
The roots of the mistake are not in the factual mistake (wrong perception), nor in the logical mistake (incoherence), but in the manner of organising the knowledge in ideas systems (theories, ideologies). There is a new ignorance related to the development of conscience itself, a new blindness related to the degraded use of reason. The more serious menaces that mankind face are linked to the blind and uncontrolled progress of knowledge.
But Bachelard, had already discovered that the simple doesn’t exist - just the simplified.
Science builds its object by removing it from its complex environment into artificial, non-complex experimental situations. Science is not the study of an inherently simple universe, it is a heuristically necessary simplification to obtain certain properties, see laws.
The modern pathology of spirit lies in the hyper-simplification that blinds us to the complexity of the real. The pathology of reason is the rationalisation that encloses the real in a coherent ideas system, but is partial and unilateral, unaware that part of the real is non-reasonable, and that rationality has as mission to dialogue with the non-reasonable.
“I feel that the true rationality is deeply tolerant with mysteries. False rationality was always considered as primitive, childish, pre-logic, (irrational), populations where there was a complexity of thought, not only in the technique, in the knowledge of nature, but also in the myths…”
This statement grounds ethno-ecology, a discipline integrated in the agroecology. It studies how peasant and indigenous peoples develop a cognitive and material appropriation of ecosystems by having a KOSMOS (beliefs as image, or representation), CORPUS (knowledge as reading, or interpretation) and PRAXIS (practices as uses, or managements). These three interrelated aspects define the relations between society and Nature.
The recognition of complexity and the value of peasant knowledge and creativity forms Agroecology, a scientific framework of the new paradigm, made of many disciplines, such as Ecological Economy, Environmental Sociology, etc. It is directly oriented to action, its aims are to rescue and revalorise traditional knowledge, promote economic, social and cultural equity and justice, promote participation and organisational processes for self-management and empowerment of communities, merging social and natural sciences methodologies for endogenous rural development.
How can art operate from an agroecological perspective?
In my view agroecology is nothing but the design of sustainable systems: agroecological and social. There are different ways to articulate artistic intervention on this field:
- Individual work with traditional artistic, such as photography, sculpture, installation.., tackling rural issues.
- Using arts in a Community Cultural Development plan, as participatory video, children’s drawing workshops, socio-drama,
- Collaborative work joining agroecological processes, developing systems.
Or all these ways together. There are specific methodologies to carry the different stages of a project as planning and diagnosis, participation and development, evaluation and formalisation. Agroecology provides valuable resources, a toolbox validated by decades of experience as we see in the Participatory-Action-Research (IAP in Spanish) methods.
Artists can learn all this. One way is to integrate them in multidisciplinary fieldwork teams that carry agroecological projects. Another is to provide training in educational schemes, workshops This is what we start to do within Rural Platform. Plataforma Rural is a national alliance of small farmers, environmentalist, local associations, consumers, NGOs, who have united to keep the rural world alive. It was created in 1992 and is part of Via Campesina, a global movement of small farmers and indigenous peoples.
The compact of artists with the rural is validated by them ‘working together with small farmers organisations. Plataforma Rural has working several commissions - as Rural University, Seeds Network, Short Circuits and Art & Culture. We have developed this area of activity in two ways:
-National: thirty artists met in September for a discussion to define our principles and ways of action. We agreed on understanding art in a expanded conception as “usual performances visually organised not for utility, but for emotion”, and necessarily attached to a group and context, as a tool for empowerment, self-organisation and exposure on emergencies. Three policies were agreed - to create a data base of artists, skills and offers to fit the needs of rural communities and agroecological projects, organising a workshop in the countryside to stimulate creativity, and support one specific campaign of Plataforma Rural with a communication design strategy (such as the one against supermarkets or GMOs).
-International: Study the possibility of launching an exchange of artists’ residencies amongst small farmers’ organisations of Germany, UK and Spain around the importance of keeping small farms in Europe.
Challenges and questions
This experiment raises many questions:-
-Utility: can the scientific approach and results oriented approach mean a constriction for the artist?
-Effectivity: How far can arts reinforce or awake an agroecological process? It is a matter of rhythm. Empowering a community requires immersion (Littoral), which means time, whereas art and artists tend to travel fast, driven by the voracity of cultural system.
-De-materialisation until…when?  On one hand we see art as the mediation between the realm of subjective experience (even when that experience is purely conceptual) and techniques for representing that experience to others, mastered by the artist, as Prof. Andrew Light stresses. Or, as Austrian collaborative public art group Wochenklausur said, “art is not a formal act but an intervention into society”. In anycase should ask how far can we integrate the aesthetic final formalisation within a project as a way to measure its artistic value. Certainly if we act as artists – and not “pure” sociologists or agroecologists- we have to demand ourselves about this output, dealing with the visual presentation. In my view a kind of complacent attitude in collaborative environmental artworks you see in a gallery make them poorly re-presented, sometimes growing a collection of fair´s-stands-looking installationswhen maybe a very beautiful intervention is behind.
- How saving the gap between the so called popular low-art, art crafts, and elite high-art?
- And many others…
What is true as I have experienced is that art can help in making us value a place, give (back or not) the sense of a place to a person/community. In this task the artist has to keep clear that this work doesn’t consist in a list of traditional environmental amenities suitable for ecotourism, but rather an account of experiences. Now we face the coming of the simulation, the spectacle of the rural. A dialectic between two landscapes: landscape of production (cultivation-farms and agroecosystems) and landscape of consumption (public entertainment and recreation-natural park). Landscape is not just an iconography as texts or ways of seeing (as James Duncan poses in ‘The City as Text’). It is dialectically connected to the power relations that produce it. In the Victorian school of gardening the aim was to insulate the bourgeois subject from the rural environment as had advocated in the writings of Humphrey Repton, one of the garden designers of late XVIII century:
“ Is the union, not the existence, of beauty and profit, of laborious exertion and pleasurable recreation, against which I would interpose the influence of my art; not let the fastidious objector condemn the effort, till he can convince the judgement that, without violation of good taste, he could introduce the diary and the pig-sty (…) into the recesses of the drawing room, or the area of the salon”.
In that time, as art critic Grant Kester points, the identity of bourgeois subject is produced, or performed, through the act of possession. This performance requires the agency of some as yet un-possessed thing, which must provide sufficient resistance to man´s will to mark the boundaries of his identity, while at the same time not offering so much resistance that this identity is threatened. The freedom of his view expresses the extent of his domain and of his status as a subject. Paradigmatically ‘Nature’ is the name assigned to that category of objects that resist man´s will. The landscape garden provides the spectacle of nature-like land, seemingly un-marked by the signs of possession. A kind of capitalist primal scene, it promises both the plenitude and the universality of the original common land, open and available, and not yet subject to the regime of cultivation. It is land that is suspended between nature and culture, awaiting only the transformative ritual of ownership. The redemptive experience of property-taking is performed over and over again in the unimpeded vistas offered by the natural-style landscape garden.
As it happened with the pseudo-re-wilding of countryside in these gardens, nowadays, the rural tends to be artificially maintained or reproduced as the picturesque, virtuous primal state for the urban-dweller’s weekend retreat. In La Garrocha, Catalonian Pyrenees, the city council plans to contract actors to perform rural activities as mowing the hay, to animate abandoned rural landscapes ( by agro-business oriented agrarian laws).
This is why Rural Arts without agriculture, without radicality that is going to the roots, can lead us to this dead end of the Disneyfication of the countryside, sinisterly masking the dispossession of the capacity of managing the land and the peoples and rural communities sovereignty over the natural resources.
* artist and Co-ordinator of the Arts & Culture Comission of Rural Platform

Corrected and revised by Dr. Mark Haywood