Barbara Steiner
projects & works
International Village Shop

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Barbara Steiner published on the occasion of 10 Years Myvillages (2003 - 2013)

Closeness and Distance
Kathrin Böhm, Wapke Feenstra and Antje Schiffers have an interest in rural places as spaces for and of cultural production. Against this background, they founded Myvillages in 2003. (1) All three grew up in small villages, Kathrin Böhm and Antje Schiffers in Germany and Wapke Feenstra in The Netherlands. Today, they live in London, Berlin and Rotterdam. On the webpage of Myvillages the initial idea for the joint project is described as follows: ‘For years we had chatted about the farms and villages where we grew up – because let’s face it: what is more fun? Talking about the latest visit to a club in London or that your uncle has slaughtered a pig? The participatory art practice – which we have in common – embodies amongst other things a utopian approach to community building. We agreed that we knew through experience a lot about small communities and the close, though sometimes narrow relationship, people have in villages. (2) Reading this, two worlds seemingly collide: the hip urban and the down-home rural life, and the latter seems to provide more excitement. Most probably, there are many clubs in London, and the ‘Schlachtfest’, a feast of freshly slaughtered animals, which might appear almost archaic to many people nowadays, has become the more distanced, both, spatially and culturally. At least, it does not correspond to the daily living situation of the three founders anymore.

One could look at this statement as being romantic, an expression of alienation from their own roots, and moreover, as desire for being part of a community, that, although perhaps only in fantasy, might exist in the faraway. As a matter of fact, village life and rural living have massively changed, be it in Germany, The Netherlands or elsewhere. It is part of a global economy, which itself has had an enormous impact on rural living, the local economy and social life. Villagers nowadays do not spend much time at home; workplace, school, recreational and shopping facilities are very often spread far apart. This dispersed spatial structure goes hand in hand with dispersed social relationships: One is not only part of his or her village community – if this still exists at all – but of other communities as well, be it at the work place, school, sports club or in the chat-room. This means, that as traditional ties dissolve, bonds to the home become weaker and connections to other places and people emerge. A multitude of movements and identification possibilities places individuals and communities in new relationships of space and time.
Social relations nearby and far away merge and coexist; in many cases far away relationships might even replace the ones nearby. Motivation and readiness to join forces are distributed widely to various individuals, groups and places and are not necessarily bound to a particular locality anymore. (3) Furthermore, growing differentiation of lifestyles contributes to individualisation. (4) In connection to this, it might be less surprising that people prefer to spend time with members of their own peer-group, even if they live somewhere else, than with neighbours who lead different lives. Generally speaking, the interest in joint adventures with, and the attendance to people who one does not share much with, diminishes. The ‘Schlachtfest’ described by one of the founders of Myvillages and other feasts that were once constitutional for village communities have turned into reminiscences of the past. Additionally, semi-public spaces – places with a public function such as village shops, hairdressers and post offices, places where people can exchange news or opinions – have disappeared at increasing rate. These ‘institutions’ have become as unprofitable as all other local economies. Many of the small farmers, craftsmen and others engaged in small income-generating activities such as food processing and petty trade gave up their small-scale businesses, a development that accelerates an irretrievable loss of local skills and knowledge.

The work of Kathrin Böhm, Wapke Feenstra and Antje Schiffers responds to this: In various projects, starting from the villages they grew up, they look at the contemporary potential of rural areas from this point of view. They went back to their villages of origin in order to initiate context related art projects there. Höfen Goods, a collaborative project between Höfen’s women, artist Kathrin Böhm and product designer Angelika Seeschaf, is a series began in 2006 which features local products rooted in stories, materials and skills particular to this village. Before this, in 2002, one year before Myvillages was founded, Wapke Feenstra started a correspondence with Beart Oosterhaven, a villager and poet whose work was located in the landscape around Wjelsryp. This exchange resulted in eight Frisian poems and one year later in a book. (5) Antje Schiffers’s I like being a farmer and would like to stay one actually began in 2000 when she asked various farmers to make videos about their lives and working circumstances. (6) In return, the artist did paintings of their farms. On the occasion of Heiligendorf’s 850th anniversary in May 2003, the videos and paintings were shown in public, displaying various (sometimes conflicting) images of rural life. This event was not only constitutional for Schiffers’ on-going series about farming it also marked the launch of Myvillages. Rather than attempt to turn back time, its activities are motivated by a closer look at the current situation of cultural production than by any romantic ideas about rural living. Actually, it is a completely unromantic, unsentimental approach driven by both past and contemporary experiences of the founders of Myvillages: Clearly, the local is inextricably bound to the global, the rural to the urban, nearness to distance, and vice versa.

Being familiar with rural life but disconnected from the daily life in the villages, Kathrin Böhm, Wapke Feenstra and Antje Schiffers are insiders and outsiders in equal measure. However this distance allows a different perspective on local skills and knowledge, communal work and communities, and last but not least, on the relationship between art and the countryside. (7) It also allows the group to establish connections beyond the actual site, which respond to and also mirror the dispersed spatial structure and social relationships that are a significant part of rural living today. Production in the respective villages is connected to production in other places. Everybody involved in the project becomes part of a smaller and larger community in equal measure, the one on site, in the village, and the one established by the joint (web-)space Location must be read in two different ways: as a tangible physical space – and as a non-tangible virtual space. Basically, Myvillages has a triple nature: It is the name of an extensive artistic project, which comprises of temporary and on-going activities ranging from small to large-scale presentations, from short to long-term projects, from exhibitions, publications to lecture performances. It is a web-platform, which informs, discusses and archives the single projects and sets them in relation to one another; and last but not least, it is a multi-folded cultural space, which connects specific local sites, villages such as Höfen, Wjelsryp and Heiligendorf, with cities such as London, Rotterdam and Berlin, (8) and co-producers and projects worldwide – be it in Zvizzchi (Russia) or in Dyested (on the island Öland, Sweden), Ittingen (Switzerland) or in Ekumfi Ekrawfu (Ghana).

The comprehensive network of Myvillages forms the support organisation for the projects collected under this name, and in this regards the collaboration between Kathrin Böhm, Wapke Feenstra and Antje Schiffers established the first node – so to speak. From this, other connections have evolved. Individual, collective and institutional protagonists are related to one another on a global scale without leaving local specifics, individual ideas and needs behind. During a decade of existence for Myvillages the three founders have pursued their individual projects, and have been involved in other collaborations, for instance Kathrin Böhm was a member of the architectural collective ‘Public Works’ till 2011, and Antje Schiffers has run a collaboration with Thomas Sprenger since 2004. Some projects presented under Myvillages were later incorporated, particularly when they ‘fit’ into its agenda – such as Schiffers’s I like being a farmer and would like to stay one. Others have been conducted in parallel, as it is the case with Wapke Feenstra’s on-going drilling project, which might become part of Myvillages one day. (9) Over the course of the decade, Myvillages has initiated many projects, be it the New Village Goods, Vorratskammer or Farmers’ Medley, however, the borders between individual work, Myvillages and other collaborations remain deliberately frayed. Based on the engagement of each person involved, the single activities accumulate to a collective adventure in order to develop the joint project further beyond the individual realm of each member. Via networks it spreads, multiplies and develops its own life.

Started in 2007 as a collaborative initiative with Public Works and Grizedale Arts the International Village Shop project plays a particular role within Myvillages. On the website it reads: ‘It is a shop, which consists of many shops where goods from rural communities are made and traded. Actually, is a temporary and semi-permanent trading platform with different groups involved. (10) Obviously, the International Village Shop is largely built on experiences made with the umbrella platform Myvillages and its activities: The idea to run a collective network of single shops across a network, (11) uses the already tested network structure. The locally made products available at International Village Shop include also products from previous projects, which travel between the different shops and are often results from collective and cross-cultural productions. Such products are, for instance, Horsemilk Soap (Friesland/NL), Frogbutterspoons (Upper Frankonia/Ger), Caravan Pots (Ballykinlar/Northern Ireland), Ittinger Egg (Kartause Ittingen/CH) and Ohner Linen (Ohne/Ger). They all have a certain strangeness and oddity – either because their original function/use has been forgotten, or, as it is the case with the Ittinger Egg, its function is deliberately vague and invites speculation. Strongly connected to local narratives each product stimulates new ones in equal measure. (12) With the International Village Shop, the founders re-activate and mediate local skills and knowledge otherwise lost to a wider audience. However, the emphasis is placed on narratives, which trigger the imagination, for example, the story of the frog, which survived falling in a cream pot by paddling as long as he could, finally, to jump off the resulting butter. These stories are mediated in various ways, (13) often taking into consideration the oral origin and spread of the narratives, and how they are embellished and sometimes stretched almost to the point of undermining or serving more or less clichéd image of the countryside. The settings chosen for the presentations are deliberately different: At Lawson Park, where Grizedale Arts is located, the International Village Shop followed the principle of an Honesty Box, meaning that buyers decide about the value of the product and give money accordingly. The honesty shops are usually without sales personnel and solely reliant on the honesty of the customers. In Höfen a market stall during the annual village fete was chosen, connecting the project to other local public events such as the church service or visits to the local pub. In Friesland the products were presented on a shelf in the waiting room of a veterinary practice, and in San Francisco, a one-hour shop opened on a table. (14)
Generally speaking, the International Village Shop responds to changes in the economic fabric of society, to the decreased demand for fairly priced rural products and to an increasing demand for idyllic images of rural living, which often feeds the PR-machines of the food industry and the desire of its (urban) customers. Against this background, the shop-project does not aim to re-establish a glorified past, nor does it deliver idyllic images, on the contrary, it takes the cultural and economic realities of rural and urban communities today into consideration. However, the International Village Shop does not only play off and through the self-created and attributed images of the countryside, and the various economic models set up on the respective spot – firstly and foremostly it connects rural and urban, social, economic, cultural, topographic and media-related spaces. They overlap, merge, converge, push off or rub up against each other.

In this intrinsically differentiated, multiple space, International Village Shop and Myvillages create shared space, shaped by the activities of many individuals and groups. Both projects draw attention to what forms a community, of what it might be. In this regard, it suggests indeed a ‘utopian approach of community building (15) as described by the founders of Myvillages. With this approach, they not only ask what kind of community could we imagine, but also where could it be located, what could its relations to other communities and to the larger construct society be, and finally, where could communities get a chance of forming themselves. Most importantly, it drafts a community that is itself heterogeneous, polyphonic, yet inter-related. Perhaps one way of reading International Village Shop and Myvillages is to see their concrete actions, their activities and projects, as a way of allowing a utopia to momentarily loom into view and of airing the possibility of community-oriented attitudes and behaviour in an increasingly spatially and socially dispersed society.
Barbara Steiner

In 2013 the name was changed into Myvillages and ‘org’ was dropped. According to its founders most people omitted ‘org’ anyway when taking about the project, but first and foremost, the project’s name was modified because many considered to be only an internet-platform.
‘…and about us (a story)’,, Accessed: 16.11.2013
Certainly, it should be mentioned here, that not everybody can easily move (be it physically or virtually) and not everybody can establish connections beyond the village-home. Particularly, older and poorer people suffer from changes in the rural infrastructures, particularly in remote areas, because they are lopped off from social (and economic) participation.
This certainly does not only apply to rural areas. It correlates with general social developments that effect life in urban, sub-urban and rural areas.
However, as Wapke Feenstra stated in one of her emails, the individual interest in rural issues started much earlier: ‘For me it was from the beginning (living in cities since 1979) a clear decision not to turn my back on my background. When I was at art school I worked on issues of inclusion and exclusion, also in a narrative way, later it became more abstract. I have always had an interest in rural living and farming. In short: My interest did not just pop up in 2002/2003.’ Email to Barbara Steiner, 16.11.2013
Antje Schiffers did another village-project in 1997 when she spent one year in the Mexican village Chicahuaxtla.
The project description of Bibliobox, a traveling archive of Myvillages, which contains information about art projects in the rural context, that can be folded out and presented at various sites, states: ‘…inhabitants of rural areas… are rarely considered a potential audience for contemporary art.’ Accessed: 17.11.2013
A number of presentations took place in cities, be it in London, Rotterdam and Berlin or elsewhere.
Whenever Feentra works on a village project – be it in Zvizzchi or in Dyested, she uses the opportunity to continue with her drillings into the ground. With both, ‘she explores the direct physical and mental environment by tapping into local knowledge’ – as she writes on her webpage about her interest., Accessed: 17.11.2013
10 Accessed: 17.11.2013 The first joint shop was done for Agrofashionista in 2007. The idea came up after the residency of Feenstra and Böhm at Grizedale. The concept of the International Village Shop was based on the agreement that the founding partners would run shops, and that in principle everyone else could do so as well. Today it is only Myvillages who uses the name and keeps running it.
The International Village Shop consists of many different shops across rural and urban settings. The individual shop can be permanent or temporary. Various forms of trade, rules of conduct and currencies are set up individually by each shopkeeper.
It is part of the shopkeepers’ roles to recount the stories about the products. In addition, short film documentaries about the background of the products are made to communicate their particularities. The first films were produced as part of, a project curated by Grizedale Arts in co-production with Myvillages and Public Works. The products filmed in Höfen are part of Höfer Goods, an initiative by the artist Kathrin Böhm together with the women from Höfen.
Once, a group of cultural studies’ students asked Antje Schiffers if they could open an International Village Shop on the occasion of a theatre festival. They recorded the stories related of the shop products told by Schiffers and recounted them during the festival by heart.
Versions of the shop were done at many other places, including: Intermedia Madrid, TENT Rotterdam, Kartause Ittingen, Jerwood Space London, Royal Academy of Art London (together with Public Works), during Campo Adentro in Madrid, Tate Britain, Lawson Park (together with Grizedale Arts). See the full list under:, Accessed: 17.11.2013
…and about us (a story),