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Translated by Anna Knight

La Pommerie, an art research venue on the Plateau de Millevaches: interview with Natura Ruiz and Elie Kongs

by Benoït Lamy de La Chapelle

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La Pommerie is an art research venue located on the Plateau de Millevaches and has a special role as an outlet of contemporary culture in a very remote social and geographic context. Very different from an institutional and conventional contemporary art centre, for this focus report, we wanted to find out more about their view of rurality and cultural discussion and cooperation within this kind of context, as well as the conditions for survival of this type of business within the current social and economic context. We met Natura Ruiz and Élie Kongs, in charge of La Pommerie, who agreed to answer our questions.

Benoît Lamy de La Chapelle —» Could you start by telling us about the origins of La Pommerie project and the kind of person who created it?

La Pommerie —» La Pommerie represents at least three generations of successive contributors; so, three projects that, owing to circumstance, each evolved in a different way. The association was created by a Dutch gallerist, Huub Nollen, who, in the course of his activities in Amsterdam, met Michèle Laveix, an artist who came from the Plateau de Millevaches. Keen for a change of lifestyle, their meeting encouraged him to move to the town of Saint-Setiers in the village of La Pommerie in 1995 to create this artists’ residency which he called “Appelboom” (the name was later abandoned in favour of La Pommerie). This man died in 2007. The association was taken over by Pierre Redon, an artist from the region and a former resident, who specifically oriented it towards sound art. Finally, it was in 2011 that we approached the association and eventually took over its activities in 2012. While maintaining the residency program, we also developed a humanities and philosophy conference programme relating to the environment. La Pommerie’s project changed dramatically from early 2014 onwards, when the family of the association’s founder decided to sell the barn that had always been used to host its events. La Pommerie moved to the Lachaud farm, located in the town of Gentious in the north of the plateau, where it joined a collective to do with farming, biological research, and a communal wood workshop. Over these years, many people participated in developing La Pommerie’s activities, whether they were employees or volunteers.

BLdLC —» Was the installation of La Pommerie on the Plateau de Millevaches built out of nothing? Was the concept of “rurality” immediately a key concept for La Pommerie or was your installation in the middle of the country due more to happenstance?

LP —» We could say that the phase of creation of the association, the image of rurality that was present in the mind of its founder, was similar to the notion of “the wilderness”. His project consisted of extracting things from where they are supposed to happen – in cities – to introduce them somewhere outside of the usual frameworks and, through that shift, reveal in them a kind of authenticity. I think that Huub Nollen, the founder, genuinely felt that phantasmagorical perception of the rural world as a wild, remote world.
For us, the question of rurality is posed very differently. It is posed in exactly the same way as it has generally been themed in recent years by the social sciences and that could be summed up as follows: no, the rural world is not a remote or wild space, it is the extreme periphery of the cities. And it seems to us, as it does to many others, that this extreme periphery still enables certain things to be achieved, which for financial or security reasons, etc., would be difficult to undertake elsewhere. If the fact of ending up there does represent a deliberate choice, it is because it corresponds to the felling that adverse forces are converging on the centres and that, here, from this remote suburb, possibilities are still able to crop up.
Basically, we do not oppose city and country; the development of cities has always been accompanied by the anthropization of the huge geographic expanses required for them to function. The terms of this issue are instead presented in this way: what is usually brought together under the umbrella term of globalisation has, within a few decades, transformed the dialogism of the territories of production city/country into a centre/periphery dialectic. This concept of rurality you’re talking about now more closely resembles an act of neglect resulting from the normal operation of the capitalism of the present day, than a stable environment comprising its own identities.

BLdLC —» Many people living in urban environments have decided, for environmental reasons, to leave these urban centres to try to rebuild their lives in rural areas. Do you think there is a connection between your decision to come to a territory like the Plateau de Millevaches and the growing environmental awareness of the past fifteen years?

LP —» We really wouldn’t know how to answer that question. Let’s just say that in our case, that of La Pommerie, what is certain is that thinking about environmental issues from a philosophical standpoint can produce truly abstract forms. By abstraction I mean – what the social sciences and philosophy can often be criticised for – dealing with reality while having a zenithal perspective on things that is purely theoretical or normative and not often being confronted with concrete experiences. As for philosophy, it is even more troubling from that point of view. So, coming here, with a desire to enter a new kind of relationship with matter, that unquestionably influenced us and played into our hands. When we use the term “matter”, it might seem strange, but it’s a way of introducing the idea that ecology is, I believe, fundamentally a materialism. The way we intend it to mean is that we base ourselves in a place where interaction with the materials of the world occurs, beyond the attribution of the instrumental values that humanity is likely to assign to them. Basically, it implies that the ecological paradigm identifies objective forces in nature that the constructivist theory and positivism of the social sciences – and of course economics first and foremost – cannot capture without a deep questioning of their premises. What that means that for us is that the least we can do is never stray too far from where matter is torn from its world to be transformed here or elsewhere, all things being equal.

BLdLC —» In L’Arbre, le maire et la médiathèque, Eric Rohmer implicitly applies a critical view of disproportionate cultural policies in rural areas, carried out by mayors and other political figures. This film arose at a time when the concept of neo-ruralism was flourishing, when this phenomenon was analysed in the book La rurbanisation ou la ville éparpillée by Gerard Bauer and J.M. Roux. From your point of view, do you think that there has been a real urban exodus over the past 20 years?

LP —» We haven’t seen L’Arbre, le maire et la médiathèque, but we can quite easily imagine the theme. Interests of a more personal nature, shall we say, correspond to the means designed to cater for what is necessary or useful. The disproportionate infrastructures that you evoke certainly exist; they are often more due to a strategic opportunity in the political career of some ambitious individuals rather than a neo-rural phenomenon. We tend to challenge the term “neo-rural”. It is also very tricky to respond to the second part of your question about the urban exodus in general – we don’t have the statistics and basically we’re not very interested in that, so we’ve never really informed ourselves about it. But, if you want feedback on the way we perceive our territory, we are living in a region where we can say that there is a movement of people who have been raised, lived, and studied in big cities and who come to live here. It’s true that a huge amount of people we know are people who have had a very extended experience in urban environments, whether they were born there or spent a large part of their life there.

BLdLC —» How does La Pommerie provide an alternative to this kind of cultural policy currently underway in rural zones?

LP —» It’s not easy to answer a question in a few words something that would require a more ample report on the situation… So, what is it about? We can try to give you a quick sketch of our interpretation of the cultural policies and public institutions in France since the early 2000s. In this period, a sinister observation has been made concerning the prevailing paradigm since the Lang years (not to go as far back as the Malraux years) in terms of cultural policy: social emancipation through culture, through the de-concentration of artistic institutions and the distribution of the means to act, by way of multiplying the allocation of funding to associations, does not work, is not understood, and leads to bachelor machines – that is, among other issues, art centres that no one visits, besides a few schoolchildren who are forced to do so, and a whole host of associations whose actual impact on their territory is very difficult to evaluate, except by the individuals involved in keeping them alive.
This observation was obliging, since it justified cutbacks and allowed the funding of culture to be redirected towards the extremely powerful major centres that were contributing to showcasing national heritage on the international stage. It was at that time that merchandising was born and the branding of symbolic exhibition venues such as the Centre Pompidou, Versailles, or the Louvre took place. In addition, the decentralisation policies – of state disengagement – were accompanied by regionalising policies. This process progressively caused cultural policies in the regions to become ways of forming regional or local identities – whose economic justification is of course the development of tourism, etc. The FRAC and DRAC in particular, whose territorial role had been fundamental in the development of cultural policies in the previous decades, thus found themselves threatened by this reconfiguration with opposing interests. Decentralisation policies have become policies for re-concentrating culture within major urban centres. La Pommerie belongs to the Nouvelle Aquitaine region and we have a very strong sense that these arrangements are currently focusing in and around Bordeaux and that we now find ourselves in the back of beyond of this huge region, as we were saying.
There is a history of cultural policies in France that has led to the formation of a network of places involved in creation, such as art centres, which now risk being converted or abandoned as these policies come to an end. Alongside all this, there are small associations that are not integrating these new cultural policies, even if they are affected by them. If La Pommerie was no longer funded, we would continue our work because even if we currently receive some subsidies – which enable us to do many things – that is not what motivates us. Art centres like the ones in Meymac or Vassivière, without funding, would disappear. It is quite intriguing to imagine what these venues would become after this collapse – they would no doubt convert them into hotels or something like that. That’s not the case with La Pommerie. If the funding was cut, some things would survive – the project would obviously change a lot, but the reasons that have encouraged us to act would mean we’d persevere.
Cultural policies of the kind that grant subsidies to associations will progressively be subject to regional and local policies and, apparently, will be increasingly merged with heritage, that is, with traditions, identities, and narratives, etc. This trend is accompanied by imperatives of visibility, to which the principles of generalised mediation and the shaping of artists as coordinators of the social body are designed to respond to. It’s a feeling that is very strong and that poses real questions at a specific period in our history where the global political orientation is likely to lead to tragedy. That cultural affairs are propelled onto the terrain of identity-based competition, through the prioritizing of more-or-less fictional regional stories strikes us as stirring up dangerous ideologies, along with everything else that is identity- and heritage-centric today. Those who are tending things in this direction are brewing something that is strictly proportionately opposed to the idea that once presided, in terms of cultural affairs and social emancipation, the public policies of the past fifty years. In short, we don’t think that La Pommerie represents an alternative to these policies of the 1980s; it is more an expression of both one of the its potential results and a direction for the future.

BLdLC —» Martha Rosler in her essay Culture Class: Art, Creativity, Urbanism, Part I (2010) highlighted the role of cultural stakeholders (artists, galleries, independent art venues, museums, etc.) in the colonisation of poor neighbourhoods in major Western capitals, known as “gentrification”. Is it possible to speak in the same way of “rural gentrification”? How can we ensure that this phenomenon is not as harmful as in the cities?

LP —» Those are extremely complicated questions. Cultural and market processes define a mechanism of gentrification and are usually guided by public policy. We don’t believe it’s seriously possible to speak of gentrification, just as we don’t believe it’s possible to use the term “greentrification” (the rural equivalent) without describing the implicit social categories that are mobilised and that are, in real terms, extremely unclear. The fundamental, implicit category, which is also a moral category, is that of the “real people” as opposed to some kind of “false” people that would in this case be called “bobos” (bourgeois bohemians), “babos” (hippies), artists, beneficiaries... like intermittents (artist beneficiaries) or those who receive cultural funding, etc. would be seen to be replacing.
It is true that today we are witnessing several phenomena of conscience that are leading to self-criticism and the questioning of our legitimacy in being here, as Martha Rosler has done with other groups. Well, we think that these categories, as we were saying earlier about identity-based movements, traditions and so on, are extremely dangerously categories to manipulate in this way.
We don’t subscribe to the idea that there is a “real” people who would be intrinsically opposed to a “false” and colonising people. That said, we obviously do not deny the existence of considerable financial stakes in real estate, which lead, mainly in urban environments, to the re-evaluation of neglected areas by relying on certain habits or cultural phenomena. However, in our view, that is called speculation, above all, which most of the socio-cultural categories in question are suffering from in some form or other. The fact that real estate constitutes one of the main vectors of wealth, which is also considerably concentrated in the hands of the few, seems to us to have attained a critical point that is a far more serious issue to tackle and call into question than an imagined identity that causes hate for one’s neighbour to become a normal political view. This leads us to another important point: no one can officially say how identities are constituted and we think that it is not desirable that politicians get involved in that. What continues to define the national territory is the fact that anybody living on this territory legally (anybody, in our opinion) has the right to live wherever they like. This also means that thinking about territories in terms of identity, rather than in terms of the inhabited reality, is a problem. What do people who come to live on the Plateau de Millevaches do? They come to live, that is, to experience, to exist, to learn to exist among the environmental to-and-fro, among the various stories. This is what we also believe about the people known as refugees or exiles: we think that those individuals have no other choice than to inhabit – meaning, construct their lives, or world, wherever they happen to be. In this way, nothing pre-exists anyone living in the world.

BLdLC —» What do you say to people who affirm that culture is above all an urban phenomenon?

LP —» It is really very surprising that these questions, which are all identity-based questions, are such a problem nowadays. But to answer you in a more direct way, what exactly are we talking about when we speak of culture? It is hard for us to speak in these terms, because we’re starting from a very broad definition of culture, which covers a group of practices, of ways of staying alive. In other words, culture describes the way in which humans chose to orient themselves within time and space.
In a certain sense, culture is everywhere, meaning that it is everywhere where there are humans, we might say. The question might be better posed as: is this form, which has settled into what we now call contemporary art, is it an urban phenomenon? Although we are not art historians, we would tend to reply in the affirmative. What art history teaches us has happened
mostly in cities. All of the main urban centres have been drivers of creation, of the conception of new forms, which were called “modern art” in the late 19th century and that stabilised about 30 or 40 years ago under the label of “contemporary art”. But, if we’re talking about a sequence of one century, barely one and a half centuries, can we really affirm, in all obviousness, that Van Gogh was an urban painter? We are not sure that Gauguin or Henri Rousseau, to name only them, were true urban painters, although
we can undeniably affirm that modern art is Paris, New York, etc. We think that these are moments in history that the gaze of the historian has established within the great melting pot that metropolises represent. Nevertheless, from where we’re standing, these are things that can be perceived and understood in quite different ways. Once again, we do not oppose city and countryside, but above all, we are highlighting the contexts of enrichment that are currently both making and breaking contemporary art.

BLdLC —» Dominique Marchès, who founded art centres like Vassivière or Chamarande, describes the stakeholders of contemporary art who were working to open exhibition venues in the provinces in the early 1980s as “pioneers of contemporary art”.  Should we or can we speak of “contemporary art activism” today for places like yours that seem to resist the demagogic and populist cultural policies at work in these territories?

LP —» That’s another really tough question… Our simple answer would be yes, but we would problematize the term “contemporary art”. It seems more appropriate to us to refer to the figure of the intellectual, which is hard to pin down. We could describe a powerful anti-intellectual movement today, expressed on the one hand by discourses in defence of traditions, morals, true values, etc. as these are articulated in so many political positions, and on the other hand, among the followers of the online world, of management, of global thinking and its manifestations. Anti-intellectualism has traversed all of the darkest hours of modern history. Defending the figure of the intellectual today certainly required a particular form of activism. What is an intellectual? It is a way of being in suspense, or in other words, of questioning things. We think that this is also the work of an artist: to put us in suspense, to feel that one’s convictions are dynamic, that we are evolving within complicated environments, and that the labour of meaning is always a dangerous business. We think that this is part of what it means to be an artist, like a writer, whether it be a philosopher, or someone working in the field of humanities or the sciences. An activist of meaning, furthering the cause of criticism. This obviously does not give them any more rights than the others, but does open them up to threats. It’s never singularities that are governed, but those that are endowed with the attributes of a mass.
But contemporary art escapes this: it is a category that encompasses anything. The term contemporary art refers to both the thing that is made, with difficulty and without an agent, the person who has emerged from any of the normal orders; conventional objects by those who are primarily the sales representatives of their small business; productions funded that are in cahoots with the luxury industry; a hobby for some landed gentry; and finally, the remainder, consisting of a whole host of the unselected and miscellaneous. In the midst of all of that, there is a torrent of mediocre justifications. In short, the competitive society at its somewhat depressing paroxysm.
In recent times there has been a lot of talk about a kind of return to the 1930s. A few of us think that that’s pointless, that it prevents us from seeing the specificities of the situation. Nevertheless, recurrent forms of totalitarianism seem to be presenting themselves to us without us knowing exactly what precipitated this phenomenon. Anti-intellectualism as a cross-sectorial position is surely one of the most striking signs of this. But the intellectual as we understand it is above all the figure of the artist, in terms of an artist’s temporality and doubts – in other words, as the resident of what forms a world.


Benoît Lamy de La Chapelle Natura Ruiz Elie Kongs La Pommerie

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