Rural Economy: How much for that donkey or is that a cow?
One fine evening in San Antonio I had the pleasure of driving a certain Parisian curator along with a certain New York art dealer to party after party. The festivities were held on the occasion of a residency opening, the participants of which had been chosen by the curator. We were headed to a cosmopolitan bar that didn’t really warrant the drive but certainly shortened the time. And, while the duration of this entire endeavor was probably no more than fifteen minutes, it seemed to encapsulate the excessive vagaries of time and time zones within our carriage.
As the pair was getting into the back seat of my ’88 Volvo, I reached to gather the trash from the footwells that had become my refuse receptacles, apologizing for the mess. Just at that moment the curator exclaimed (and I really mean exclaimed), “NO, NO … it is real, it is real, … No, No, leave it, this is real …” As I tried to interject a modicum of common sense into this surreal moment, since perhaps the trash in the back seat of my car was no more or less real than the trash one might find in the back of a Citroën on the streets of Paris, the curator wouldn’t hear of it. Overwhelmed, he continued to remark about the realness of the whole encounter, which was nothing more or less than “trash in backseat of car” + “backdrop of the barren streets of San Antone.”
We were soon underway or, said another way, he and the New York dealer were soon underway. While the two were gettin’ it on in the back seat of my car, I started to wonder—or maybe just ponder—shouldn’t this car be parked and me not in it? Perhaps I should just quietly withdraw at the next stop sign. Considering the various liabilities such an action might entail, I drove on. I got to thinkin’ how is it that I, all of a sudden, feel like I’m part of someone’s private, projective anthropological experience or, put a little less dramatically, the caravan driver at the “Experience Texas” drive-thru—replete with real trash and a coozy. I wonder what kind of orgiastic reaction he’d have had if I had been drivin’ the F150 that night—it don’t even have a back seat. But don’t-cha know it, Ford now owns Volvo. I guess we have come full circle.
Pondering such forms of movement, development and exchange, the question became theoretically situational; where, in theory, had said action taken place? The situational dichotomy between the center and the periphery is a cultural and economic institution that birthed the polis, branded Robin Hoods and Cowboys, manufactured the bumper-sticker oppositions of both country bumpkins and city slickers and inspired (among other things) vast bucolic passages, as in the Victorian author George Eliot’s Adam Bede:
For in those days the keenest of bucolic minds felt a whispering awe at the sight of the gentry, such as of old men felt when they stood on tiptoe to watch the gods passing by in tall human shape.2
While such Victorian awe has since mired, much of the ingrained dichotomies have yet to wither, evolving in varying shapes, the shadows of which are often cast by others—like an inverse shadow-puppet theater—and projected upon from without as seen most overtly in today’s propagandistic notion of a rural “real” America versus a “fake” urban America, sewing the seeds of suspicion on either side. Suspicion here, whether erotic or banal, is nothing new—it is the suspect of otherness, which thrives to be tended to. And the rural is very much tended to in its displacement from what became no longer rural. Aside from the obvious observation of cultural and geographic evolution, it is a dialectic tendency, in theory, that draws and defines borders demarcating positions and systems of passage that aren’t simply based on movement, development or exchange. Such dichotomies are as much situational as they are theoretical, especially keeping in mind that theory is derived from one’s ability to see or simply speculate, stemming from the Greek thea “a view” + horan “to see.”3
Following my heart, I left San Francisco years before for the hills of Texas and wagered all bets on a certain point of view. My “heart” picked me up in Austin and we headed west, out of town and into the hills. Miles passed underneath, elevations began to plateau and roads got narrower and emptier and quieter. With a motivational hint of panic, I began to commit to memory my line of sight, which seemed to have voluntarily trained itself on passing telephone lines that eventually became a line—a very certain and specific line—the wire of my line of sight that I would soon pick up on the other end and continue to trace to find my way home.
Home got set up in a small, old, clapboard farmhouse, hinged together with aluminum siding due to an interminable termite infestation, and the gaps between the two afforded a familial gathering across borders—a sightline vast enough to spot a streak of lightning counties away. The home and adjacent tin-roofed shed-cum-studio were situated in the rough of a dying 600-acre sheep ranch, dying (the ranch and the herd), we were told by the rancher, because New Zealand had cornered the wool market presumably due to more advanced and efficient shearing and fueling technologies. Meanwhile, the rancher, who had fathered two daughters—each of whom had since married, lending their hands to new managements—took to managing a cattle ranch outside of Abilene and put in a couple days in town as an auctioneer of livestock.
In such spaces, vision (in its various meanings) can be a vast mobility of extremes between standing idle and seeing a couple hundred miles in a day. The rural, in part, is the name for such spaces. Stemming from the Proto-Indo-European root rur, meaning simply “open space,” it evolved into the Latin rus, “open land, country” and ruralis “of the countryside,” becoming rural in the Old French of the fourteenth century. Seven centuries later, what has become of (or what is becoming) rural in the New World of the twenty-fist century (given that dates, like names, are carriers of meaning)? In light of the oil industry and superstores that exploit “rural” economies (is Walmart’s new flower branding supposed to make it feel friendlier?), and the Internet with its global neutrality (freeways connecting to everywhere), what does rural economy look like, look for, look to? “Its” economy, its ability to manage its own house, has historically been an exchange and challenge of prescribed and proscribed values and codes set forth by the lay of the land—by decree—and by that which it feeds. Mythically or otherwise, there is the sense of a certain rural resistance that flexes and bows like a slingshot in its mitigating proximity to the laws of nature and in its negotiating proximity from the centralizing agencies of bureaucracy. Similar to an/the avant-garde economy that imposes its own code, it is also imposed upon, folded into or liquidated by a/the larger moving/developing infrastructure. In fact, promoting contemporary art in rural communities has become a popular initiative for stimulating new economies: the new deer blind.4
Like any good art bitch, my first trip to Texas entailed a trip to the Chinati Foundation in Marfa. Unawares of the proper protocols, we hadn’t made an appointment and took to hopping the sturdy wood gate that deferentially marked the entrance to an expansive field of positioned objects and scattered building blocks of a former Army barrack. In the setting of that wide-open space, Judd’s specific objects seemed to make more sense than in a New York studio. Set within the landscape rather than merely against it as a backdrop, the work did more to enunciate the space among us as three particular protagonists than it did to annunciate itself as a staged art object for a viewer like me.5 Maybe we’re becoming full circle again.
I remember while working for American Music in Seattle, one of my coworkers posted a list of the top 100 worst country song titles that had been recently published in the newspaper (i.e., some of the best titles around), such as “You’re The Reason Our Kids Are So Ugly” or “How Can You Believe Me When I Say I Love You When You Know I’ve Been A Liar All My Life?” or “I Don’t Know Whether To Kill Myself Or Go Bowling” or “I’m Drinking Canada Dry”—the last of which brings to mind Richard Prince’s painting My father was never home, he was always drinking booze. He saw a sign saying ‘Drink Canada Dry.’ So he went up there. Like blues and bluegrass, country music is as indigenous as Americana gets; it’s certainly a state of mind. Like the amorphous, expansive notion of the rural, in and as culture, it doesn’t just come in cans. But if you stand tiptoe, you might see it in the shape of a tallboy.
So, there are centers and peripheries. And there are one’s center and one’s periphery. The rural is a surrounding and not simply just an outside as an antithesis of an inside seen as the countryside. Perhaps the rural in contemporary art is an economy of means that sidesteps or two-steps the seductive pull of a neo-Kantian Cosmopolitanism.6 In its desire for homogenous heterogeneity, it has the very “real” possibility of doing nothing, more or less, than acting as a neutralizing agent, kinda like salt—a tasty and vital common denominator with extinguishing effects. As an already-there by-product of cultural demarcation, the rural inherits a certain quality of tension keeping intact the immensity of its “otherness” and its “sameness,” without falling prey to the blind behind the deer feeder—it is a position not a place. It isn’t necessarily about proximity or its administration but rather a theoretical positioning—moving with a certain vantage point regardless of the level of surrounding density or distance.
1. As a quasi-disclaimer, the idea of the rural is at the very least complex and vast, regional and historical, cultural and geographical. For the purposes and nature of this essay there is the privileging of my “American-ness” and my experience in Texas in particular. With that said, these thoughts merely scratch the surface of a rural visuality, where its modes of address in contemporary art practice have numerous trajectories, and I’m merely aiming here at setting a scene upon which various protagonists—people, places, situations, movements, architecture, landscapes, objects, etc.—come into view.
2. George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans), Adam Bede (Hertfordshire, UK: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1997), 67–68.
3. For reference the complete etymology is as follows: 1590s, “conception, mental scheme,” from L.L. theoria (Jerome), from Gk. theoria “contemplation, speculation, a looking at, things looked at,” from theorein “to consider, speculate, look at,” from theoros “spectator,” from thea “a view” + horan “to see.” Sense of “principles or methods of a science or art (rather than its practice)” is first recorded 1610s. That of “an explanation based on observation and reasoning” is from 1630s. Cited from Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper, Historian. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/theory (accessed: January 5, 2010).
4. To be sure, I do not mean that in a derogatory manner—as if it weren’t already obvious, I’m also just playing with language.
5. As so infamously prophesized by Michael Fried in Art and Objecthood.
6. The term is both a generic and a proper name, and in the literal translation of its Greek etymology it would suggest a “universal city” (from cosmos “universe” and polis “city”). The theories and philosophies that take up or fall under the term are not singular in meaning or definition. The ideas that circulate the term vary in complexity and scope, and I’m certainly not a student of the school nor do I pretend to thus take it on but rather reference the term itself and its meaning, which is the commonality of the said varying theories and often employed in ‘positivistic’ manners to negotiate the other.
Amy Stein, Trasheaters, 2005; digital C-print; courtesy the artist