The Culture in Agriculture

wild food map screengrab

Wild Food Map project by Diego Bonetto, Adrian O-Doherty and Boris Gordon

In 1975 when this exhibition was first proposed it seemed absurd to suggest that a farmer and engineer like Yeomans could be regarded as an artist. So absurd in fact that the Art Gallery of NSW Trustees intervened to cancel the exhibition on the basis that it wasn’t art.

In 2013, the idea is not only understandable enough to make the exhibition possible, but it’s also been quite easy to find a number of artists who use farming, food gathering and systems-design, not only as the subject of their work, but also as their media.

Artist as Family website

From the beginning, Yeomans’ ideas were being extended into other activities. In the 1960s his son Neville used the underlying principles of Keyline in his psychiatric practice, developing a revolutionary contextual approach that treated psychiatric disease on a family and community basis, instead of treating just the individual.

At the time Neville was vilified for being out of step with the psychiatric mainstream. 40 years later, his approach to psychiatric treatment has become the norm rather than the exception.

But that’s not all. The social ecology theories of Professor Stuart Hill, which we have outlined in one of our prints, envelope Yeomans’ principles. And permaculture, the Australian farming and gardening technique that has now spread worldwide, had its roots in Yeomans’ work.

milkwood website

Milkwood Website

It was inevitable therefore that artists would be attracted to the elegance of Keyline ideas and practice. Rix Wright, the son of the painter Hilda Rix Nicholas, completely restructured his family property “Knockalong” (near the NSW-Victoria border) according to Keyline principles. It was this example that provided AGNSW curator Daniel Thomas with an insight into my 1975 proposal. And although I never succeeded in curating an exhibition of Yeomans’ work in exactly the way that a conventional contemporary artist would be presented, in the decades since then many artists have come to recognise farming and food production systems as their artmaking media.

Take Milkwood Permaculture, for instance. Set up by Kirsten Bradley and Nick Ritar (previously working as video and multi-media artists), Milkwood is not only a family farm run on Keyline and permaculture principles, it is also an educational hub engaging dozens of niche practitioners. Milkwood is an ongoing experiment in designing farming and rural living techniques of the future.

On a completely different scale, Artist as Family document their various investigations of living a life of slow and frugal abundance in a peri-urban environment, without the resources that most of us consume so wastefully. Their radical redesign of their own family living situation, carried out as an artwork, is another snapshot of the future.

(F)route website

Diego Bonetto, whose “Weedy Connections” and “Wild Stories” have for more than a decade taught us the value of weeds and other overlooked gourmet foods and botanical medicines, is now creating web based applications to help us locate, celebrate and preserve alternative food resources.

And (f)route is a social enterprise developing, packaging and marketing a trail of foraged fruit as a tourist experience. Combining exploration and foraging, food and accommodation into art tours and camps is also a model with a future.

…we’ll be posting about a number of other artists’ agri-projects on our blog during this exhibition.

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Yeomans Project at the Art Gallery of NSW

ian milliss at milkwood farm

Ian Milliss comes in from the wilderness… (at Milkwood Farm, Mudgee, NSW)

…and so it has come to pass. After thirty eight years of wandering in the wilderness, the Yeomans Project is finally coming to rest at the Art Gallery of NSW.

Exhibition Dates: 28 November 2013 to 27 January 2014.

The exhibition, which is an updated and enlarged version of what we showed at ACCA in 2011, will include:

  • a big old Yeomans Plow
  • display cases including books and artefacts lent by PA Yeomans’ daughters
  • videos showing Keyline design in action
  • prints produced on the Big Fag Press
  • a large chalk map of one of Yeomans’ properties
  • the original Art Gallery of NSW Trustees’ Minutes book which shows the decision NOT to exhibit Ian Milliss’s Yeomans exhibition back in 1976.

The show will also be making links to some contemporary artists who demonstrate that things have come full circle since the Art Gallery of NSW rejected the original Yeomans exhibition. In other words, unlike back in 1976, it’s now totally acceptable for the works of an artist (or art collective) to consist almost entirely of agricultural, botanical and permacultural processes. (Artists featured include Taranaki Farm, Milkwood Permaculture, Diego Bonetto and collaborators, f(ROUTE) and Artist as Family.)

PLUS:

…we’ll be hosting some discussions with the following luminaries, touching on different aspects of Yeomans’ life and work:

  • Kirsten Bradley of Milkwood Permaculture (on the impact of Yeomans on contemporary permaculture practices)
  • Joanna Mendelssohn, College of Fine Arts (on the history of the AGNSW Trustees and their very “hands-on” approach to exhibition planning in the 1970s)
  • Stuart Hill, Professor of Social Ecology at UWS (on the usefulness of Yeomans’ work for the philosophy of Social Ecology)
  • Wendy Yeomans, PA Yeomans’ daughter and a researcher at the Institute of Sustainable Futures at UTS (on her father’s life and work, and her own)

And if that wasn’t enough, we also invite you to hop on a bus for our Field Trip to an early Yeomans experimental farm outside of Sydney (free, but bookings required).

CLICK HERE FOR ALL THE INFO ON THESE EVENTS

CLICK HERE FOR EXHIBITION DETAILS
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Field Trip!

Field Trip publicity

We met at ACCA in the morning. Some enthusiastic punters beat us to it, and were already milling around in the foyer. They had brought cute-looking picnic baskets and thermoses, and there was an excited feeling of agricultural anticipation. Field Trip!
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PA Yeomans and Social Ecology

yeomans social ecology perspective

A Social Ecology perspective on the Work of PA Yeomans, based on research and publications by Stuart B. Hill, and Yeomans himself, 2011-12

In his last post, Ian mentioned a “fourth print”, based on Professor Stuart Hill’s research into PA Yeomans. Of all the Yeomans prints we’ve produced on the Big Fag Press, it’s the one which most resembles a highschool project (which is also why it’s the most daggy). Aesthetics aside, I’m going to try and make sense of some of the Stuart’s ideas which this poster grapples to exhibit.

I sketched up this diagram after having a chat with Stuart in a meeting room within Wollongong University Library, and then delving into a bunch of his academic texts – some of which are available via his own website. Stuart is Foundation Chair of Social Ecology at the University of Western Sydney.
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The Power of the Press

The big FAG printing press (from which Big Fag Press gets its name) is a wondrous thing especially to someone like me who once worked in publishing. It is horrifying to think it almost went into the scrap metal crusher. Its survival is partly responsible for this project which originated in discussions Lucas and I had about some prints I wanted to do, a series to be called “What didn’t happen” about my past projects that had never happened or had failed or turned out differently to the way they had been conceived.

Lucas with the first print photo Louise Anderson

But one fact about the original Yeomans Project as envisaged back in 1975 was that it would never have contained prints, or anything else resembling conventional art works. The original proposal was an exploration of the idea that if you regard cultural innovation as the essential characteristic of artists then a lot of people working in areas that would not conventionally be regarded as art media (like farming) could be seen as artists. As a consequence their work should be collected, analysed  and presented in cultural institutions.
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The Exhibition Circus

I know we have looked really slack not posting for two months but the reason was simple enough, we had to do the work for the exhibition Power to the People: Contemporary Conceptualism and the Object in Art . What an effort it has been, you wouldn’t think anything so simple could involve so much work and not just by us, an enormous amount was done for us by ACCA and the exhibition curator Hannah Mathews. The irony of this exhibition, with its title that references the radical activism of the 1970s, occurring at the same time as there is finally some growing public resistance to the pervasive corruption and decadence of the last few decades is an irony you could never have scripted.

acca

The Yeomans Project installation at ACCA photo Andrew Curtis © ACCA

Of course the Yeomans  Project overall consists of this blog which will continue as we put in more of the mountain of research we have accumulated, the work in the Power To The People exhibition and the bus tour to Taranaki Farm on October 8. We’ll talk about the bus tour later but in the exhibition we have a recently manufactured Yeomans Plow, a vitrine of Yeomans publications, signage of Yeomans logos, six prints recently made at Big Fag Press  and the AGNSW Trustees minute book, kindly lent by AGNSW and showing a snippet of the exhibition’s history. Let’s talk about the prints first.

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Creeping suburbs

Lucas and I have been looking at photos to use in the prints we have been working on and I’ve been struck by the way the suburbs are creeping up on Yeomans’ early properties. I was born in late 1950 and the population is two and half times what it was then which in itself explains why sustainability has become an issue during that time and also why the art world is a very different place.

Just look at this early photo of Yobarnie, Yeomans’ first property

and this recent shot from Google Earth.

The figures are that Australia’s population in 1950 when Yobarnie was being developed by Yeomans was around 8.3 million and in 1975 when this project was originally proposed it was around 13.9 million, a 67% increase. Now in 2011 the population is  around 21 million, a 153% increase.

Sydney’s population was 1.7 million in 1950 at which time Yobarnie was well out in the country, now in 20011 when it is over 4.5 million (165% growth) Yobarnie is probably closer to the geographical centre of Sydney than it is to the outer edge which in reality is probably the western escarpment of the Blue mountains near where I live and nearly 150 kilometres from the coast. Much of the land that is being swallowed up in urban sprawl was among the most fertile agricultural land in the country and crucial to food security.

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Mrs Yeomans

Recently Ian and I visited Kirsten, Nick, Ashar and Trevor at the wonderful Milkwood property outside of Mudgee. We were all having a cup of tea after touring the farm, and chatting about P.A. Yeomans and the wider Yeomans clan. All of the sons (Neville, Ken, Allan) have gone on to do interesting things with their lives. Each of the sons contributed to P.A.’s book The City Forest (which I explored here): Ken wrote a back-cover-blurb entitled “For Youth”; Neville wrote the Foreword; and Allan the Afterword.

But, as Kirsten asks in her email,:

What was the story with P.A.’s wife? I was thinking about the sons this evening and realised I had no idea about her, or where she intersected with Yeoman’s work, the sons’ take on things, etc…

Good question Kirsten!
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Just thinking

On Friday I attended part of a conference at the National Institute of Experimental Art at UNSW specifically to listen to Donald Brook’s keynote address where he summarised his recent thoughts on defining art. His approach corresponds closely with what we have argued here, that art in the cultural evolutionary sense can take any form … but anyway you should read his address rather than my clumsy precis. This is the clearest and most readable summary of his ideas that I have seen and it relates closely to the overall theme of the ACCA exhibition. It is important to understand that from very early on there was a split within conceptualism between those intent on developing a marketable product and others like myself more determined to pursue the radical implications of the analysis inherent in early conceptualism. The commercial strand of conceptualism won out of course (as money always does in the short term) and has dominated for decades.

But seeing Donald reminded me that he also had ideas that were torpedoed by the cultural gatekeepers that now look increasingly prescient. Take a look at this project that failed to get funding.

 

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We’ll have none of that here, sir!

My feeling is that the original exhibition never happened precisely because of the very issues it was addressing, the limited nature of the prevailing definition of legitimate “art” activity, especially because it didn’t look like anything that had been done somewhere else. Of course I would not be surprised if there were a lot of similar things going on all over the place but not well publicised. One of the ironies of the internet is that artists like me are discovering in our old age similar artists we should have known about when we were desperately isolated a few decades ago.

I finally heard of one about a year back from Diego Bonetto via Lucas, the incredible Italian artist Gianfranco Baruchello and his small farm outside Rome, ‘Agricola Cornelia’, which he assembled in the 1970s by buying back, one by one, the small plots of a fairly unsuccessful real estate development subdivision.

I suppose the cancellation of the exhibition was the clear omen that redefining who was an artist and what activities were legitimate forms for generating cultural change was not going to happen here any time soon, in fact probably not until it had already been done many times in Europe or the US for a few decades. As I always say, Australians don’t really like art but they like stuff that looks like art and what I mean is that if something is a genuine example of “memetic innovation” as Donald Brook says, then it is going to be different, probably a bit threatening to the existing order and certainly not necessarily easy to come to grips with.

And despite claims to the contrary, the Australian art world doesn’t really like anything that is actually different in underlying thought, they just like the window dressing to change regularly because that’s all part of business as usual. Today I saw a quote by Cocteau making a similar point:

Art produces ugly things which frequently become more beautiful with time. Fashion, on the other hand, produces beautiful things which always become ugly with time.

If an artwork instantly looks like the most brilliant work of its time that will be because it conforms to an already well digested meme and will probably be completely forgotten in a few decades – but not before a lot of mug punters have been fleeced. There are a whole range of human cognitive biases that come into play in the art world that then get dressed up as “connisseurship” or “having a good eye” – things like the bandwagon effect, the mere exposure effect, status quo bias, availability cascade – and none of them are helpful in terms of understanding cultural innovation. But since I find cognitive bias the most interesting subject imaginable I’ll back off immediately before I get completely diverted.

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  • This project has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body.

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