Nicole Pietrantoni

POST-RURAL

POST-RURAL

A loosely formed collective of artists engaging ideas related to living in the rural West.

Excerpt from the Post-Rural catalogue:

Forword; towards a post-rural hermeneutic:
by Devon Wootten

The post-rural, like any "post-x," is a slippery term. If one looks to the forward of this catalogue for clarification, one reads that "post-rural themes consider the commodification, narratives, and shifting mythologies of rural areas since the 19th century." However, one cannot help but feel that something is missing in this description. Whereas the artists in this catalogue no doubt "consider the boundaries between urban, suburban, rural, and wilderness areas of the American West," one wonders if there is not something greater at stake for the post-rural than the content and forms of its emergence.

The forward of this catalogue references Jeffrey Hopkins' article, "Signs of the Post-Rural: Marketing Myths of a Symbolic Countryside" and it is worthwhile to examine how Hopkins conceptualizes the term "post-rural." For Hopkins, the post-rural is something more than the representation (and consequent commodification) of the rural; it is not enough that the rural be represented in movies, books, or art. Rather, the post-rural emerges in a field of "uneasy pleasures" – i.e., "the tensions created between a consumer's willing suspension of disbelief and their knowledge of an advertiser's persuasive intensions" (65). In other words, only when the consumer is aware of advertisers' role in the construction of the rural can one assert the emergence of the post-rural.

To take a local example – when the Montana Office of Tourism's "Get Lost" campaign extols the state's wild, natural beauty, one would be hard-pressed to assert the presence of the post-rural (though the campaign speaks, perhaps inadvertently, to Montana's ambivalent relation to tourism – Get Lost!). However, when the "Get Lost" website describes Butte's Berkeley Pit as both "one of the largest Superfund sites in the country" and as "Montana's deepest 'lake'," one clearly senses the "advertiser's persuasive intentions." In this moment, when a monument to environmental degradation is naturalized into a "lake" ("Some days the lake looks red, others green, and still others swirling with colors."), one realizes the extent to which Montana – or, more accurately, "Montana" – is sustained by the same "uneasy pleasures" Hopkins describes in his article (Montana Office of Tourism).

It might be possible to imagine a time when representations of the rural were as yet unaffected by the "advertiser's persuasive intentions." However, as it stands today, any representation of the rural is met with suspicion. Co-opted by the discourse of commodification, the rural has become the "rural" and has, at best, a tenuous relation to reality. This is Hopkins' conclusion as well; he states that "[T]he representational spaces of the symbolic countryside do not correspond to the material landscape" (77). Put another way, one can say that within the context of today's global capitalism, the "rural" has joined the ranks of those free-floating signifiers which, abstracted from their signifieds, refer not to phenomena but merely to a semiotics of exchange-value.

In some ways, it is unsurprising that the discourse of the post-rural has been taken up by artists – one notices a similar dynamic in certain discussions about art. Take, for example, Dave Beech's essay, "Art and the Politics of Beauty," in which he suggests that one's experience of beauty is inevitably haunted by "a tension between individual experience and the social structure" (14, emphasis in the original). This tension, like Hopkins' "uneasy pleasures," emerges only when the individual is aware of the forces that have shaped his or her experience. For Beech, the individual's experience of beauty is tempered by his or her awareness of the way in which the "beautiful" has been shaped by social, economic, and political forces. Thus, beauty, like the rural, "exists at the tense intersection of the individual and society, with the individual neither fully subsumed nor fully free from social norms and cultural hierarchies" (Beech 18).

If this is the case, then to describe art as post-rural is somewhat of a misnomer (as if the post-rural comprised a set of easily-identifiable characteristics). In fact, if one reads Hopkins' article closely, one realizes that the term "post-rural" describes neither persons, places, nor things. Rather, for Hopkins, the post-rural is a temporal phenomenon. When Hopkins says that the post-rural refers to the "aestheticization or symbolization of the material countryside," he is describing a process, i.e., something that occurs over time (77). This seems, at first, a banal observation – until one realizes that such a temporality allows for the possibility of change. Though he suggests that ours is an era of degraded representations, the "post-" in Hopkins' post-rural is ultimately hopeful; for if what was no longer is, then our post-rural present may ultimately yield a more hopeful future.

With this in mind, that the artists in this catalogue have claimed the post-rural for themselves speaks less to their aesthetic than to their political orientation. For if one can speak of post-rural art, such art must challenge the system in which the "rural" has been reduced to a commodity. I do not doubt that these artists are interested in precisely such a project. If it is true that "Imagination is…the place where our landscapes begin," then these artists are at the vanguard of a new artistic imagining of the American West (Hopkins 79).

- Devon Wootten, 2012

Works Cited:
Beech, Dave. Beauty. London: Whitechapel, 2009. Print.
Hopkins, Jeffrey. "Signs of the Post-Rural: Marketing Myths of a Symbolic Countryside." Geografiska Annaler. Series B,
Human Geography 80.2 (1998): 65-81. Print.
http://getlostmt.com/places/650/berkeley-pit/