Art, culture and regional collaboration

On a nippy weekend in August, KSCA hosted a weekend gathering in beautiful rugged country outside of Rylstone, to share ideas about rural futures, art and sustainability, and rural/urban interaction. Here are Laura’s recollections.

 

There were 17 of us, travelling from as far north as Inverell as far south as Albury (I’ve listed those who participated at the end of this post). Along with these broad themes, we wanted to talk about how we can further the collaborative relationship that is emerging between KSCA, Starfish Initiatives and The Living Classroom (and their friends), and between two regional towns: Kandos and Bingara. We were very ably and generously assisted in this by Tirriania Sahood and David Pointon who acted as facilitators over the weekend. Beyond these strategic intentions, we also wanted to simply spend time together without the pressure of a deadline or an outcome – essential for groups who are so dispersed geographically.

The question of culture was central, whether we were talking about regenerative farming, micro-enterprises in small towns or reimagining rural life through artistic practice. What forms can ‘cultural adaptation’ take in these different contexts? We all know that the obstacles to change are not just the usual political things that get us all fired up, but the “cultural imaginaries” that shape public thinking. It’s this that gets the artists among us excited about working outside the art-world, where we can learn from, and work collaboratively with people who are being creative within the cultures of agriculture, industry, governance and the like.All of us at Rylstone’s famous Yum-Cha and Tea House. Thanks to Emma Wisser for a great photo!

As a group, we discovered that we all had an interest in modelling, though we had different ways of naming that activity. From The Living Classroom’s new Carbon Farm, to The Hemp Initiative, to small town renewable energy initiatives supported by Starfish Initiatives, we all see the value in illustrating, trialling, and doing proof-of-concept exercises. As artists like Ian Milliss have shown again and again, working with an economy of means to express big, speculative ideas keeps things playful and low risk. The Carbon Farm is a project intent on modelling forms of sustainable agriculture, so farmers can learn and observe without being burdened by the heavy costs of overhauling their farm on their own.

We also had useful conversations about how collectives like KSCA or Starfish Initiatives are connected to place. I ponder this quite a bit. Some of KSCA’s members are local to Kandos, but some of us aren’t. In the town itself, some people are interested in what we’re doing, some hostile, some don’t care, and many don’t know KSCA exists. From the small community regeneration work Bob Neville has done for 20 years, to the Cementa Festival, to farmer Glenn Morris’ climate change activism which bemuses his neighbours – out-of-the-ordinary activities always trigger such a mix of responses in small communities. Adam Blakester very sagely reminded us that mass extinction events and refugee movements are just two indications that this is an era of massive, global disruption – it’s just not being experienced evenly in all parts of the world. Carrying such thoughts while also responding to the predicament of a small town feels, for me, like a kind of dizzying mental table-tennis match between macro- and micro- lenses for looking at the world. Rather than simply contemplating and debating those disorienting meta-concerns and leaving them up in the ether, our activities bring those issues “to ground” in a particular place and community. Social frictions are unavoidable. A key question that arises, then, is can we work creatively with the messiness that is produced?

With that in mind, we also addressed the question of how rural communities can support each other. Kandos and Bingara are just two of many hundreds of towns in Australia (and many thousands in the world) that are vulnerable due to declining industries, scarce employment, the reduced viability of family farms, poor infrastructure and depopulation. But their size, affordability and land-based resources also means there are many latent possibilities for cultural and economic reinvention.   All of us are keen to find out how grassroots projects in these locations can draw sustenance from each other, and how a sense of solidarity that bridges vast distances can be fostered. As we discussed how to build such bridges – both face-to-face and virtual – Adam used the apt metaphor of ‘constellations’ to describe his commitment to the idea of a dispersed, networked movement for sustainable change that is driven by rural communities.

The project ‘an artist, a farmer and a scientist walk into a bar…’ is a chance to explore all of this, and we’re crossing fingers we can make it happen in 2018/2019.

This project’s title derives from one of Alex Wisser’s late-night pontifications on how to turn the conflicts currently afoot in the world of agriculture into an art project. Serendipitously, when I got home after the weekend, I came across something very similar in an old book that Glenn Morris gave me called ‘Out of the Earth’, by Louis Bromfield (published in 1951). Bromfield was a playwright, novelist, conservationist and pioneer of sustainable agriculture, and founder of Malabar Farm in Ohio:

‘Within every true artist or farmer or scientist there is a spark, as precious as that first tiny spark which life itself began, that is compounded of imagination and speculation, which are the handmaidens of creation. There is as well the immensely important faculty of observation…

In the long history of mankind, the tiniest observation or speculation of the most humble men (and all really great men humble in the face of Nature) has sometimes led to vast and dynamic discoveries of the utmost importance to man. Many of the greatest contributions to agriculture in our time have not come from the billion-dollar Department of agriculture nor from the countless colleges of aquaculture but from a county agent or a farmer who had the power to observe, the imagination to speculate and the logic to deduce a process from which vast benefits have developed.’

Earnest 1950s prose aside, this passage says a lot to me about the guiding ideas of our weekend.

Catching last light at Kerry’s and Dom’s in the Capertee. 

P.S. A KSCA gathering would feel incomplete without a visit to someone’s property. On this occasion, we were lucky enough to be welcomed by Dom and Kerry at their place in the breathtaking Capertee Valley. We took a look at the regenerative tree-planting work they’ve done around the place, and their native nursery. This nursery provides seedlings to the Regent Honey Eater project, which over many years has been able to re-establish habitats for the endangered Honey Eater in the region. We know you don’t get online very much Dom and Kerry, but thanks a million!

Who attended:

Adam Blakester (Starfish Initiatives)

Pete Arkins (Starfish Initiatives)

Bob Neville (Starfish/Community Regeneration)

Christine McMillan (KSCA/Cementa)

Georgie Pollard (KSCA)

Belinda Innes (Cementa)

Alex Wisser (KSCA/Cementa)

Victoria Walker (environmental systems community collaborator and educator)

Glenn Morris (FigTree Organic Farms)

Ian Milliss (KSCA)

Lucas Ihlein (KSCA)

Eloise Lindeback (KSCA)

Gilbert Grace (KSCA)

Rick Hutton (The Living Classroom, Bingara)

Garry McDouall (The Carbon Farm/The Living Classroom, Bingara)

Tirrania Surhood (InCollaboration)

David Pointon

With especial thanks to Tirrania, David and Adam for giving so much time and energy to the organisation of the weekend. This gathering was supported by the University of Sydney, through an Industry Engagement Fund seed grant awarded to Laura Fisher.

 

 

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