My Villages – The Rural School of Economics
In our series of interviews with Culture of Solidarity Fund grantees, we spoke with Wapke Feenstra one of the founders of Myvillages. Meet Myvillages and their project The Rural School of Economics:
With Antje Schiffers and Kathrin Böhm, Wapke Feenstra is one of the founders of Myvillages (2003). Myvillages has been connecting communities, individuals and spaces using an a-national and trans-local identifier: The Rural. We come from rural backgrounds, made our home in the arts, and want to connect both. We are based in London, Berlin and Rotterdam, and connect long-term to rural places and people worldwide, but mainly within the geography of central and eastern Europe. We have been working internationally and trans-locally since 2003 and work from within the rural, and collaborate with rural communities to dig out, reflect on and engage with localised forms of culture, economies and resources.
Myvillages prefers to work with formats that are close to the every day of a place – be it a communal lunch, a slide show in the village hall, a walk across the fields, a market stall. We also have a number of ongoing trans-local infrastructures to make connections between people and places: the International Village Shop, the Farm Drawings Collection and the Eco Nomadic School.
Our work is questioning and critiquing an assumed urban cultural hegemony. How can a currently centralized and urban-dominated cultural space be stretched from a dispersed rural position? How to establish a shared cultural ground for the mutual exchange of knowledge and for new forms of visualization and co-production?
Myvillages’ work is exploratory and we want to understand how a rural mindset expresses itself,
is being used and can be shared. This can’t be done from an urban position. Our work is to make space in the rural and in the arts, so we can connect and redefine it in togetherness.
What made you think of the project? [pre-corona, what did this change? in-corona, why the necessity?]
The Rural School of Economics – from 2020
The Rural School of Economics is an extension of Myvillages’ ongoing work to acknowledge and share rural knowledge in collaboration, like collaborative peer-to-peer learning with farmers, villages and networks such as the Eco Nomadic School. As contemporary rural culture has the knowledge of how to adapt to a place and the ability to connect with the non-human, it should be no news that we can learn from the countryside. This became more urgent in the in-corona period and with this project, we want to sharpen former pedagogics and artistic methods in togetherness. We know that a ‘learning by doing’ attitude is often more developed in rural areas and that a practice-oriented attitude is relatively more common there. The RSoE reflects that by working in non-lingual and alternative learning sessions and test them by doing.
Our school constantly moves between rural places, and between everyday spaces and art spaces. The network of the RSoE includes village committees, farmers associations, regional scientists, international artists, museums etc. In order to stretch out a new cultural space, we move and work across, and use the publicness of each situation to make space for thinking about, recognising and reconnecting with a rural (mindset/particularity/possibility/memory….). The school is local and trans-local and focuses on what we together know across.
The focus of the Rural School of Economics is on:
- The rural as a place, a mindset, a memory and trans-local geography. Rural Mindsets are mobile and not just geographically defined. The school explores and recognise rural mindsets as a source of knowledge for cultural and economic survival, that is rooted in intersectionality and interdependence.
- A School is any form of organised gathering where we learn and create mutually a place for recognising undervalued knowledge and sharing knowledge. Our “classrooms” can take many different forms, they can be informal and formal, on a field or around a table with food and drinks, they focus on localised knowledge and make trans-local connections.
- The economy is etymologically and fundamentally a social and cultural phenomenon that is part of our everyday life. The School is an attempt to recognise and practice a different economic reality that could work for all of us, people and the planet.
The school is made by many. Our collaborators and their topics and reasons for connecting with the Rural School of Economics in 2021/22 include:
- Lumsden Village in Scotland and the Scottish Sculpture Workshop SSW; who want to set up a better system to connect local-everyday-knowledge and visiting-artist-knowledge in times of Brexit.
- Oost-Brabant, Het Groene Hart and Schiermonnikoog NL, all traditional agricultural regions that start a transition into circular agriculture. We focus on cows and landscape while working with the farmers-cooperation and researchers from WUR and UVA. Our partner is the Van Abbe Museum, located in Brabant but with little or no links to the rural.
- Pollinaria in the Italian Abruzzi area; a wine farm in the family for centuries, agricultural heritage, art production, rapid depopulation and a new influx of refugee communities.
- Brest and the surrounding area in Belarus. We work with the village Zburazh, where older women hold textile design skills and subversive political communication skills. In an unsure political future, an off-grid residency is set up.
- Pushkino in the Tver Area in Russia is marked by a large Lenin painting on the village hall. We invent new decorations and landmarks in co-design with youngsters by drawing the nature that surrounds this village.
- Nagykamarás in Hungary, to set up a village-play where conflicts of interest between industrialized agriculture and small-scale producers, the (global) market and/or centralization of political decision-making – are burning issues for this rural community.
What will your project contribute to Europe, post-corona?
It is timely and urgent for rural culture to reclaim a role in the urban gaze that is dominant in art and culture and we want to contribute to the building of a collective future, with an interdependent rural and urban. The city of the future will benefit from other forms of knowledge, which will engender a revised set of values and alternative ways of seeing.
The RSoE is the start of a long-term infrastructure that makes rural navigating in art and culture a more common field of knowledge. We will run a start period of the school till 2024 and want to work with young curators and artists (from different backgrounds) to refresh and learn from and with a new generation as well.
How do you envision it to grow from local to pan European?
We suggest comparing and collecting the language and concepts to do with commoning, decolonise and de-anglicise the terminology and explaining learning as commoning. The mode and mood of the RSoE are peer-to-peer, horizontal and feeding into what is already there. Giving and receiving and rolling on – more circular than relational. From 2023 we plan to include other schools we know about and some of them are already our colleagues and (former) co-operators. We wish to include e.g. the Rural Environmental Field School USA; Deepa Bhasti from the Foragers Collective, India; CERN connections Southern America and Asia; Fumihiko Sumitomo JP; Border School Texas USA; Gudskul in Jakarta IND; (FYI this list is subject to change and will grow in the realisation of the RSoE in a natural way).
In this upcoming network, we want to share and publish about tested and proven working methods and of course, Myvillages will stay focussed on rural-urban interdependence. And in commoning include and work out more universal and shared concerns such as:
- Avoiding a monoculture in knowledge by including non-language based knowledge, and facing our blind spots in the divers positions such as e.g. cultural contexts and non-human knowledge. Paying attention to our linguistic tools – language, tone, translation – and make them accessible to those who face barriers to e.g. English, reading, listening. In this, we also have to pay attention to the set-up of the physical social space – relating bodies and energies.
- In general, we want to go on learning about economic and cultural knowledge that is informed by practice. Theorising whilst practising, or: thinking things in the making (hands-on research). Foregrounding knowledge that we still can reach but is marginalised by mainstream economics and politics.