Give back to the community

– 24 de novembre 2023 –

​​​Give back to the community: can residencies help face the challenges of rural Spain?

Cultural geographer and residency host Rosa Cerarols believes culture offers innovative solutions to challenges in Spain’s non-urban areas.
By Nick Verginis

Last September, we organised the live event Country Focus: Spain – Changing Landscapes, New Residency Opportunities. The main focus was the important role of art and culture in a democratic society in general, and specifically artist residencies as a creative way to develop long-term relationships between people and places. Or, as DutchCulture’s director Kirsten van den Hul put it in her opening speech: “spaces of resistance to cultural polarization”.

But before we look back at the event, I had the chance to talk with keynote speaker Rosa Cerarols, an expert wearing two hats: “I’m an academic cultural geographer who has been working at the Pompeu Fabra University of Barcelona for many years, trying to understand how culture interacts with nature in specific places and how that is part of people’s knowledge and roots. But as co-founder of Konvent Zero, a contemporary cultural centre located in an old nunnery in the industrial river colony of Berguedà, Catalonia, I’m also an activist interested in how we deal with culture in rural areas, from a political, economic and artistic perspective.”

Two sides of the same medal

​​During our talk, she emphasised the preconceptions many people have about the differences between urban and rural areas. “In my work, I encounter this kind of stereotype a lot, and I try to talk about rural areas from many different perspectives. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, we heard a new discourse, in the sense that the pandemic affected people in the city much more than in the countryside. As if the latter was some kind of ‘arcadia’, which is of course a stereotype.” For Rosa Cerarols, this is the same kind of prejudice as the perception that in rural areas, there is no such thing as culture or art. ​​

Or take the way Northern European people look at the Mediterranean. Cerarols: “It’s all sun, sea, and Mediterranean diet from the Western perspective. But there are much more pressing issues, such as the refugee crisis that Europe has to deal with. Why do we have these problems in the Mediterranean Sea? For many different reasons, but one is that people from the African continent look at this region literally from the other side. Their side of the medal is: in Europe, we will live in better conditions. That’s the dream they have.”

The conception of the countryside as some kind of arcadia is of course a stereotype
Rosa Cerarols

Local lens on global challenges

Cerarols presents herself as a defender of decentralization, explaining that “not everything has to take place in the capital.” She notices a shift in the political-European perspective, with an increasing allocation of subsidies to municipalities with fewer than 500-700 inhabitants. This aims to support these areas and address the challenges of depopulation and emptiness resulting from environmental and social crises. However, especially in the field of culture, she argues that a lot can be improved.

“To me, this is not an example of bottom-up culture. If culture and arts are just considered to be entertaining, we forget the social transformation that is necessary, and that they can provide. Especially where it concerns people with no access to the theatre, or other cultural venues. Konvent Zero is not even financed by public funds, we are totally self-organized. We only have an international presence because we know a lot of different people, because we love to meet them,” Cerarols points out.

Lampost with photography artworks of a farmer and dried corn cobs

For her and her partners at the residency, culture is about contemporary production, but also about being sensitive to global issues from a local perspective, such as rural areas suffering from climate change or helping artists flee from the recent war in Ukraine. During the 20 years of their activity, they have offered many opportunities, including artist residencies, to both local and international artists. Their local lens on global challenges is reflected in the use of language: despite being Catalan, they willingly switch between speaking Spanish and English. “It depends on the needs,” she explains. “When the majority of guests come from Spain or when we receive foreigners speaking Spanish, we mix. But sometimes English is the main language.”

Cerarols stresses that they try to keep the everyday practice free from political or urban issues for all residents. Instead, their objective is to focus on the artistic practice, allowing time and space for experimentation. “The most innovative experiments and cultural activities are taking place in rural areas rather than in big cities.”


About rural and urban

But what defines a place as urban or rural? “From a traditional perspective, cities are considered urban, and the villages are seen as rural,” Cerarols explains. “But nowadays, especially in the Netherlands, there are people dwelling in rural areas who are mentally urban, living an urban lifestyle. Many people in the countryside do not work in the fields. That makes a big difference. The urban mentality is everywhere.”

All the more reason for staying engaged with a place, she believes. According to her, this can be achieved by thinking with the land and really relating to the community and its challenges, like global warming or depopulation. “You can’t just go to the countryside and look at nature from an urban point of view. You have to really live and feel the land to fully understand the implications of the changes it faces. I think therefore, residencies need to slow down and give back to the community, the interaction must be reciprocal. If not, they can remain very abstract to their inhabitants. That’s why I believe most residencies should blend disciplines and even professions. For instance, scientists can partake in a residency for a creative phase, immersing themselves in the local community to elevate the quality of their scientific endeavours. Simultaneously, locals can gain new perspectives by interacting with individuals from outside their community, just as artists don’t necessarily have to exclusively engage with other artists.”

You can’t just go to the countryside with an urban point of view. You have to really live and feel the land to fully understand the implications of the changes it faces
Rosa Cerarols

Country Focus: Spain – Changing Landscapes, New Residency Opportunities

During the above-mentioned Country Focus event that took place in Instituto Cervantes in Utrecht, Rosa Cerarols discussed the ecological challenges confronting contemporary Spain, such as regions grappling with severe weather conditions such as floods, droughts, forest fires, and storms. She also touched upon demographic challenges, particularly the depopulation of specific areas.

Later on, cultural manager and creative copywriter Hanna Szabó from rural residency AADK (Murcia), and artist and sound recordist Andrès Garcia Vidal from MAL (Los Santos de Maimona) presented their programmes, followed by a panel discussion with the three speakers on how to foster the interaction of artists with the environment. For instance, they stressed the importance of being aware of the local community and making the environment a co-creator in every project, since you can’t really create something meaningful without considering it.

In three breakout sessions, we focused on discovering and funding a residency in Spain. The KFHein Fund and the Mondriaan Fund were on hand to guide artists in finding support and funding for their artistic endeavours, while the DutchCulture | TransArtists team presented its comprehensive residency database and tools for finding, contacting, and applying for Spanish residencies. Netherlands-based Spanish musician Ysa Bermejo played live, and we wrapped up with essential networking opportunities over drinks and bites.

speakers and moderator sitting on a stage
Moderator Simon de Leeuw with speakers Hanna Rita Szabó (l), Andrés García Vidal (m), and Rosa Cerarols (r) during Country Focus: Spain, 2023

About Spanish residencies

Apart from a high concentration of residencies in the cities of Barcelona and Madrid, Spain offers many interesting alternative initiatives. As showcased in our event, these are often located in rural areas, are less institutionalized, and show a great degree of autonomy and opportunities for experimentation with critical issues such as the environment or politics. For the purpose of this event, the TransArtists database for Spain was updated, with any new listing marked by new in red letters next to it. Worth highlighting are Campo Adentro, El Cubo Verde, Hangar, as well as the previously mentioned AADK, Konvent, and MAL.

Want to know more about artist residencies worldwide? Feel free to contact our TransArtists advisors.