Cities don't have a monopoly on creativity
WHEN JONATHAN Raban warned that the West was “in the middle of a furious conflict between the city and the country, in part a class war, in part a generational one,” he could have been talking about a lake in Connemara or a south Galway bog.
“It’s the assault on their dignity that so offends the country- dwellers,” he wrote in the journal Granta four years ago, criticising “the assumption of intellectual superiority by city-based environmentalists, with their mantra of “best available science”.
So there was “the treatment of the logger, proud of his skilled and dangerous job, as a reckless vandal” or “the subordination of rural work to the recreational interests of urban sportsmen and nature lovers,” he wrote.
For loggers, substitute driftnet fishermen, small farmers or turf cutters on the Atlantic seaboard. The impact of hopper machinery to cut turf may be much greater than that of a sleán, but the uneven application of environmental law – permitting a high-pressure gas pipe through a special area of conservation, but banning a farmer from working a protected bog – fuels much resentment in rural communities. As if there wasn’t already enough pressure exerted by relentless globalisation and urbanisation – and yet, it is at such times of pressure that communities can be at their most creative.
Enter the artist, according to contributors at a workshop on “creativity at the edge” in NUI Galway last week.
“We have, historically, this popular idea that creativity is associated with the city, as in a melting pot of cultures and ideas which generate art, entertainment and technology, but that’s not quite the reality on the ground,” said Prof Mike Woods of Aberystwyth University’s Institute of Geography and Earth Science.
“This historical perception seems to influence economic planning, urban development policy and this drives a policy towards creative industries which excludes those working on the edge,” he points out.
“I’m not just talking about the artist or writer who seeks isolation in a rural idyll, but the fact that communities experiencing changes in agriculture and loss of population have often responded in very creative ways,” he says.
“There is a blindness in the urban mindset about what we regard as creative industries,” he continued, citing as an example projects which David Butler, co-ordinator of LifeWorkArt and of Newcastle University’s arts and cultures school is associated with.
Butler, who also attended the NUIG workshop, co-directs Intersections, a research initiative involving public art which focuses on the experience rather than the outcome.
“Northumberland is one of the most sparsely populated areas of Britain, but it has three large conurbations, including Newcastle,” Butler explained. “Artists who have graduated from third-level are encouraged to stay on and use the college resources, while working with communities in rural areas.” He cites three examples of this: the Holy Island partnership on Lindisfarne, established by the island’s 70 residents who felt a need to create a sustainable project beyond tourism; a collaboration with Allenheads Contemporary Arts, based in a restored Victorian schoolhouse in the highest village in England; and the Visual Arts in Rural Communities project in Tarset, a small parish which hosts a year-long artists’ residency.