London View – An Interview with the artist Kathrin Böhm by

by 28. 2. 2023

You are an artist of many faces, because, as I am well aware, you always work with someone. You are connected to lots of collective projects like My Villages or Company Drinks. What led you to start them? Are there any connections among these communities (Myvillages, Company Drinks)?

I stopped using the word ‘projects’ in early 2019, acknowledging the fact that what I am doing as an artist is meant as practiced societal possibility, a one-to-one way of working and being together. The word ‘projects’ doesn’t capture that very well. Many of the groups and initiatives I have co-found- ed have become long-term, and they are now better described as cultural and social infrastructures. They are all based on principles of collaborating, working in public and sharing economies.

Myvillages was set up in 2003 together with Wapke Feenstra and Antje Schiffers, questioning and breaking down the binaries when it comes to contemporary art and the rural. Myvillages has worked from within rural communities, we have co-produced products, shops, films, books, conferences, a nomadic school and a mobile library on art in the rural, and Myvillages is better described as an artist run international arts organisation which is connected and held together by a multiplicity of communities and interests.

Company Drinks is different in its set up, but similar in its aim to allow for a complexity of issues, interests and places to merge. Company Drinks is art in the shape of a community drinks company based in East London. I initiated Company Drinks in 2014 as a new and lasting public space in my hometown London. The enterprise connects local rural, industrial and communal heritage with the changes in geography, demographics and politics of the early 21st century. Rooted in the well-remembered history of East London families working as fruit and hop-pickers aka cheap seasonal labour in the nearby countryside, Company Drinks suggests to “go picking” again, but this time the “going picking” is part of a collectivised and communal drinks production cycle, where we grow, pick, make, brand, trade and reinvest together.

Using a very basic definition of economy as a system in which we organize and practice our relationships with others (including the planet), the economy is cultivated through how we behave and make everyday decisions, and is brought back in the realm of everyday culture (and art).

When we met in London, you mentioned the Company Drinks community with a new building and it was brilliant to go and see it there. As I know from you, Company Drinks has moved to the edge of London where you have a huge building with a kitchen, other rooms and a community garden where you regularly gather to hold workshops and pick berries. One of the big aims of this space is to bring together many different groups of people. How important is this place within the community?

Company Drinks is based in Barking and Dagenham, a so called Greater London Borough which is part of London but, at the same time, is located in the county of Essex. It’s a perfect place to understand how our cities have developed, and in the case of Barking and Dagenham the land has been agricultural until fairly recently, and later industrial (the famous Ford factories). Now it is mainly post-industrial and residential and is regarded as economically and socially deprived. At the same time it has also been declared London’s largest corridor for real estate development. So it’s full of dualities and contradictions and conflicts, and my interest with Company Drinks is to set up a space where different collective and individual histories, identities and desires can actually meet and do something on their terms. Company Drinks has many different access points and everybody can join with their interest, be it someone’s interest in gardening, the social aspects of what we do, a free trip, nice drinks, exploring new plausible economies, etc. We use the green open spaces within the borough to forage for fruit and berries for our drinks and we go to the nearby countryside to glean and pick strawberries, currants, apples and hops. We were nomadic for the first four years and are now based at a former sports pavilion in Barking Park, where we have a Grow Club, a social space and a production andtraining kitchen. Company Drinks has grown organically and our activities are community-led and organised along the seasons. Company Drinks is responsive and our business decisions have simple ethics: not to colonise or exploit people or the planet. Company Drinks is popular locally. We also know from conversations that it is the mix of people and a new collective productivity that makes it relevant. People describe Company Drinks as rich, even though we operate on a slim monetary budget, but it is indeed extremely rich in terms of what we collectively know and have access to. It is a matter of reminding ourselves, and reclaiming forms of self-subsistence and self-representation that resist and reset dominant neoliberal and divisive thinking.

Company Drinks Group Portrait 2018, photo: Jennifer Balcombe, courtesy of Company Drinks, 2018.

Do you think that native communities have fully integrated into the local art scene or back and forth?

In short, Company Drinks combines many different ways of culturing, and art is one form of producing culture alongside many others, where art is important but not special. Company Drinks is about how art relates itself to wider society. What is its function? Who benefits from art? What’s the use of art? Using the quite narrow concept of art as an object for spectatorship comes with narrow possibilities of how we as artists relate with others: I’m the creator you are the consumer. I’m much more interested in the concept of ‘Usership’ in art, a term which is clearly described and explored by Stephen Wright in Toward a Lexicon of Usership. It doesn’t mean that art needs to be useful, but that it should open up about how others might use it.

Company Drinks exists for many different reasons and is connected to many different communities, be it the local home-schooling group, the east London community of former hop-pickers, the new London food growing scene or adult soft drink scene, etc. To come back to your question, it’s the broad range of uses of this one bottle (and any otheraspect of what we produce) that connects many communities and interests. No one has to become fully integrated into something. It’s about keeping a fluidity between possibilities and allowing for connections instead of separations. This is very political for me.

How do you start if you decide to start? What do you need for it? Do you think that with this position it is necessary to write grants for funding and have some money?

I guess I have cultured my own way of interdependence as an artist over the years, so any start is a combination of setting up relationships of mutual interests and a basic budget. Myvillages started from a moment of collectively deciding that we as artists wanted to consider the rural as a place forour art practice. At the time none of the curators we knew were interested in supporting this desire or the topic, so we set up our own organisational form, which is an International Foundation registered in The Netherlands. This was initially self-funded, making use of the gift economies in our own home villages and the non-monetary economies amongst ourselves. We soon collaborated with others and identified and merged budgets to produce public events, such as the first Village Convention at the Museum in Ditchling in 2005.

Company Drinks started with my own desire to initiate something long-term in my hometown London. The initial proposal was financially supported by the local council and Create London, and since then we have established a diverse economy that underpins all of our activities. This diverse economy is not just a pragmatic strategy for survival, but also part of a wider global push to Take Back the Economy by acknowledging the economy as an everyday activity we are all involved in. Our economy at Company Drinks is comprised of income from sales, free rent, volunteer contributions, donations, foraging and gleaning, income from cultural and educational grants, etc. So yes, we have to write funding applications, but more importantly we regard our economic activity as a cultural one which comes with ethics and principles. The economy of things is not just a way of financing, but an opportunity to cultivate relationships and practices. In that sense the format of a drinks company is just a means to practice ideas of collectivising and commoning, where the monetary element is of course acknowledged but isn’t allowed to dominate.

You worked as an editor for the book The Rural published by Whitechapel Gallery and MIT Press. How was it? What was the key for deciding which essays you wanted to publish?

Myvillages was offered the opportunity to edit The Rural as part of the Documents of Contemporary Art series. Wapke Feenstra and I didn’t hesitate to say yes. Since we were very aware of the many artists and curators working with contemporary art in rural settings yet highly invisible within an urban art scene, we wanted this book to be artist-led in the sense that it would not colonise the rural as yet another topic for the arts, but would open it up and describe the rural as a complex and interrelated possible space for artists to work from within. The whole series is a republishing of existing texts. We selected texts for five chapters covering overarching topics such as “how to read the rural”, acknowledging the rural as a contested and historical realm and presenting various forms of existing artistic practice. The book clearly doesn’t want to define the rural but rather acknowledge existing rural particularities.

Setting the Table: Village Politics, Myvillages exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery, installation shot, photo: Wapke Feenstra, 2019.

This was a really rare book with lots of good essays and interviews about community, rural work, villages, etc. I enjoyed it a lot. Do you think it could impact the audience and result in them building a local community again?

We know that the book is selling really well. And the international conference on the rural which was organised by the Whitechapel Gallery and where Myvillages has also been an advisory partner was also fully booked. This confirmed an urgency to make the rural more public and present within the current art discourse. So yes, we think that the rural and rural culture has been repressed due to an urban cultural hegemony for many centuries.

Self-subsistence is, for example, an aspect that – even though under immense threat – is still a strong practice among many rural communities – and I think we could make an interesting connection between self-subsistence and the concept of autonomy in the arts in order to develop cultural and economical practices that insist on the importance or rich ecosystems, instead of following the path of prioritising monocultures, be it in the arts or elsewhere.

Have you come across an ideal community? Or what is an ideal community for you? What would your ideal community look like?

I want to use a statement from the Keep it Complex website here, which explains that all this kind of work is less about community and more about society. “Keep It Complex is about making clear what we want, without simplifying discussion: a peaceful, caring, angry, anti-austerity, factual, DIY, transnational, struggling, messy, family-friendly, queer, inclusive, intergenerational, generous, diverse society.” What’s important to all the work I do in groups and collectives is that we try and practice what we preach. That we don’t just announce radical ideas but try and make them work to whatever extent is possible under the given circumstances. You don’t have to use the word radical to be radical. I don’t really want an ideal community, but ideally I want a feminist society based on politics of care, because equality doesn’t hurt anyone. So the aim is societal, and my job is art.

Tereza Záchová is an art curator and art educator.

MyVillages was started by Kathrin Böhm (UK), Wapke Feenstra (NL) and Antje Schiffers (DE) in 2003.
Company Drinks was set up in 2014. It is currently run by a team of five part-timers. 1200 local residents are involved annually.

The Centre for Plausible Economies was founded by Kathrin Böhm and Kuba Szreder in 2018 to bring together artistic action and critical thinking to reclaim the economy. The centre is hosted by Company Drinks.

Keep it Complex – Make it Clear is run by an evolving group of art practitioners who share and produce activist knowledge through campaigns and events.

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Tereza Záchová