From my window in Berlin, the city looks more or less the way it did before the pandemic. On a Sunday, the shops are closed; few people are on the streets; bars are sleepy, darkened. Even prior to the social-distancing era, the city was slowing down. The face, the ›look‹ of gentrification, had actually eased despite factorially-increasing rents. Artist friends from Lisbon, Oslo, or Shanghai went back to Portugal, Norway, China. The city felt more fractured and less international1, and the conversation did, too.
Whereas just a few years ago, a night out at a Berlin gallery meant a hundred people speaking expat English, packed into a well-lit, ›bel étage‹ art space, that’s not the place I recognize today. The openings are smaller, the conversation splintered. It’s rare that I catch what I am terming ›the conversation‹, and it isn’t because of the language we speak or the size of the space. That doesn’t mean it’s not on the other side of town or in another city, in Paris or Seoul. Yet I wonder: Where is the pulse of things today?
»The conversation simply isn’t happening in (or ›about‹) cities«
I see two mutually exclusive narratives to account for this decentering. The first theory is that the herd has simply movd on to another, cheaper place. But a second theory, more complex and plausible, is as follows. The formula of visibility and economic access that allowed for cities to be metonymies for connectivity and artistic externalization is decoupling. In other words, increasingly, I think the conversation simply isn’t happening in (or ›about‹) cities, at least not with the concentration I experienced before.
I write this in the post-COVID-19, post-War-in-Ukraine era, the combined forces of which have brought something to a close. The 2010s were a peak of global mobility for workers. In this time, the metaphor for this pulse was ›the cloud‹, a superstructure expanding rashly across the world, albeit with the human capital of insecure gig workers and tech infrastructure. The cloud’s material, on-the-ground operator was the face-lifting mechanism of an ever-gentrified, ever-connected, ever-›shareable‹ city.
But in the 2020s, the pulse feels to me subterranean, more of a subtle tremor, decentralized. Just as content becomes algorithmically generated and experienced and culture becomes micro-cultural, these tremors become smaller, more individualized, radial, and thus experienced less as a collective. It’s a conversation with one. The space of the conversation is now domestic, ›hygge‹, its drug marijuana rather than speed or ecstasy, its activity cooking rather than ›flaneuring‹ across capital cities.2
This fracturing of the conversation mirrors what sociologists and health experts tell us: namely, that people are more atomized, and lonelier.3 f the city in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was the space of art, this was because it proffered spaces of bourgeois visibility and because urban agglomerations, East and West, were sites where capitalism asserted its primacy, fueled by colonial and territorial conquest, though also enabling a materialism of culture.
Consider the astonishing echo today of John Maynard Keynes’s widely cited 1919 statement that, previous to World War I, »the inhabitant of London could order by telephone, sipping his morning tea in bed, the various products of the whole earth, in such quantity as he might see fit, and reasonably expect their early delivery upon his doorstep.«4 World War I put a cork on economic globalization, coinciding with a pandemic comparable to ours in scope and duration. Today it’s shortages, soaring gas prices, trade wars and, once again, a new real war in Europe.
This is not to say there is no exchange of culture today, or that cities do not provide a relatively even measure of concentrated activity, but rather that the currents run rather in the tributaries below and around, not in any main stream. If the 2020s are in any way roaring, it’s due more to climate change than parties à la Babylon Berlin.
An image comes to mind: it is no longer about the space of the club, on a former industrial site such as a power plant, regenerated and prized for its exposed piping. Now young people are dancing in parks or fields, self-organizing, like dropouts, reliving some imagined 1990s rave. Berghain now hosts art shows. If the vehicle of material culture in the 2010s was gentrification—with its promise of upward and outward movement, its reifying and refinishing of the look of the means of production (factories, warehouses, industrial sites)—then in the new decade something more diffuse has replaced this.
An extra-urban precariat, as nomadic as pollen, feels permanently locked out of the upward, salaried world of middle management and ›career‹ progress. Amid the death of retail, cities become sites of a new feudalism of inheritance, tourism, and investment. Culturally, the operant metaphor shifts outward, from the repurposed industrial site to the garden, the field, the terrain. The rave happens outdoors.
»KAWS shows at the Brooklyn Museum. Culture is a sneaker collaboration. Activity is not concentrated in one place; it’s on TikTok.«
We can call the old regime the WeWork era. In the art sector, we once tracked visibility through the itinerary of galleries and the topography of important, tastemaking shows. Now neither seems as important or as tastemaking. The canon’s rope is frayed, and the big galleries show the same things, hanging above the big couch at a SoHo house sprayed in Le Labo. The actual tastemakers are numerous, and you probably haven’t heard of them. KAWS shows at the Brooklyn Museum. Culture is a sneaker collaboration. Activity is not concentrated in one place; it’s on TikTok.
After a decade of peak globalization in which the swarm traveled from New York or London or Milan via Basel and Miami, the visibility of art is so dispersed as to be in every corner of the world, albeit spread thinly, like a gel. It’s not that nothing is happening—inclusion here, market figuration there, the hard fist of institutional critique, a big collector opens a foundation, another record-breaking auction—but that culture is too splintered for any individual to get a sense of the bigger picture.
The same logic that locks out a would-be aspirant class from the earlier forums of status and recognition personalizes and profits from their individuated habits, ever algorithmically. Yet by that same logic of dispersion, the same mechanisms that foreclose collective experience, there is no center, no art capital or even capitals. The field, exposed to the elements, might have replaced the city, with its moats of insularity and extraction. And this is the new conversation.
When I examine this terrain, and hear, or fail to hear, the new conversation, it seems that the space of art in no way seems the same space as before. The twentieth-century artistic canon has not been decentered, it has just occupied a profit-generating space of relative invisibility; yet current artistic practice has been decentered, in that it occurs outside of the museum and the gallery and is no longer based primarily in urban agglomerations. Cities have changed, becoming empty receptacles for asset parking, and the museum has, too. I tend to think that art, as a set of practices, has all but left entirely.
A split between what we see and what we don’t is at the heart of my interest in extra-urban artistic practices. It is only outside of cities that I get a clear sense of what is going on, the most coherent account of visual culture as it exists in practice. Seemingly, frustratingly, I cannot generate a picture from a gallery tour in Berlin or Paris, or from a studio visit in the same city, for the reasons I have described above.
»The most powerful challenge to the hollowing-out of cities is being made by a set of artists for whom the setting up of new institutions is more important than dancing before the old ones.«
Oddly, it is at the farm, the outdoor studio, the workshop or festival, or with the studio artist living only part-time in a city, that I glimpse the most coherent account of what artistic life is in an age when mobility is truly hampered, when gas prices shoot up the price of flights, when visibility is no longer currency, when the work of cities is mere asset management in order to ›tap‹ new markets, when trade wars—or, now, real wars—put a damper on globalization as we came to prize it from the 1990s onward.
In practice, the most powerful challenge to this hollowing-out of cities—as previous configurations of visibility and mobility—is being made by a set of artists for whom the setting up of new institutions is more important than dancing before the old ones. And the space of this frontier, the extra-urban space, is approached not as a pretense for expansion, but as an opportunity for social reorganization.
Artists like Seth Price and Ryan Gander, Mary Reid, Patrick Kelley, or Grace Ndiritu, have all begun to seriously engage with extra-urban life, living at least part-time in former farms or communes or cabins in the woods, or setting up studios outside of capitals. Berlin artists, like Dirk Bell, or Danh Vo, find property in Brandenburg, to the enjoyment or consternation of locals—or the other artists who live there. It’s a mixed bag. There are relative dropouts with means who can afford to semi-retire in the countryside. Or artists with enough accumulated prestige and capital to buy up spaces that afford radical distance, but also the money to set up new systems, even for their own estates, like quasi-private museums. And yet other artists who cannot afford to live in cities with any financial, health, or ethical justification. This brings up questions about visibility and access, but also about the new gentrification of the rural.
In most cases, these artists show an interest in food and its production, in gardens as a sustainable corrective to anthropocentric extraction. Often in craft, too, and healing and spiritualism, not as buzzwords but as shorthand for a set of practices that are integral to artistic work as it is being reconceptualized now. These are all practices whose possibilities in cities we have already foreclosed.
In other words, the rural becomes a site of romanticization and escape on the one hand, but also actual engagement and innovation. The rural is a space in which to visualize changes happening everywhere else in society. It’s no longer the Kunsthalle, the museum, the art fair. To see what’s going on, we have to look deeper and broader. Maybe, we must even leave the city entirely.
This article is a condensed version of, and borrows excerpts from, articles first published in Mousse Issues 77, 78, and 79 (2021 and 2022) as part of a three-part series looking at rurality in the new roaring 20s. This text is published with thanks.
1 The Federal Statistical Office in Germany reported on 14 OCT 2021, an all-time low of arrivals to cities with populations of more than 100,000 from abroad; and between 2019 and 2020, the number of people living in cities in Germany decreased slightly on the previous year.
2 In 2019 the blog Ribbonfarm coined the phrase ›domestic cozy‹ as indicative of Generation Z and its combination of privacy and comfort: »[Domestic cozy] finds its best expression in privacy, among friends, rather than in public, among strangers.« Venkatesh Rao, ›Domestic Cozy‹, ›Ribbonfarm‹, 4 MAR 2019, https://www.ribbonfarm.com/series/domestic-cozy/. See also Jack Self, ›The Big Flat Now‹, ›032c‹, 16 DEC 2018, https://032c.com/the-big-flat-now-power-flatness-and-nowness-in-the-third-millennium
3 In 2019 the blog Ribbonfarm coined the phrase ›domestic cozy‹ as indicative of Generation Z and its combination of privacy and comfort: »[Domestic cozy] finds its best expression in privacy, among friends, rather than in public, among strangers.« Venkatesh Rao, ›Domestic Cozy‹, ›Ribbonfarm‹, 4 MAR 2019, https://www.ribbonfarm.com/series/domestic-cozy/. See also Jack Self, ›The Big Flat Now‹, ›032c‹, 16 DEC 2018, https://032c.com/the-big-flat-now-power-flatness-and-nowness-in-the-third-millennium.
4 John Maynard Keynes, ›The Economic Consequences of the Peace‹ (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), 50.