Artist Interview:
Joanne Coates

Around 10 million people live in rural areas of the UK, which accounts for 17% of the country’s total population. Somewhere is rural if it has a population of less than 10,000 residents, according to the UK government’s Rural Urban Classification. Visual artist Joanne Coates explores the widespread tendency to label these regions as the “middle of nowhere” in her new exhibition at Baltic, titled Middle of Somewhere. Winner of the 2024 Baltic Vasseur Arts Award, the working-class visual artist explores rurality, hidden histories and inequalities that relate to living on a low income. Her primary medium is the camera, but she also makes use of audio, installations and video. Coates draws on her lived experience and an important part of her practice involves collaborating with rural, working-class communities . We see this in her series The Lie of the Land (2022), which positions the ravaged landscape next to portraits of working-class women from rural areas in the Northeast and still lifes of the objects important to these subjects. This is an example of how she explores the social histories of land, gender and class to narrate stories that have long been forgotten – or simply never told. We interviewed the artist to learn more about her practice, her earlier works such as The Lie of the Land and Daughters of the Soil and intimate collaboration in photography.

A: Collaboration with communities is key to your practice and we see that in your project The Lie of the Land, where you worked together with 12 working-class women from the Northeast. How did you go about co-creating the series with them?
JC: Co-creation has become a bit of a buzzword. In really simple terms, I make work as someone with lived experience of the issues I’m looking at – which means thinking differently. I approach art differently from this perspective. A big part of what I do is listening, learning, walking and talking. These women were half my friends, people I work with, and the other half came from an open call. The creative process involved talking about the work, making it with them and asking how they want to be photographed. Photography is a medium with a  history that  is connected to power and creating stereotypes so this is about flipping that dynamic on its head. Intimate collaboration is a way of doing that.

A: Each subject has also chosen an object that reflects their identity, such as a writer’s pen and a brass horn. Could you tell us more about this element of the series?
JC: These still lifes show objects chosen by these women to demonstrate elements of the their identity. Moreover, these objects reference class and how it is still present. The instrument refers to Lynn’s brass band, her moment of freedom, and references historical political brass country bands. Sarah’s writer’s pen asks the question – is she still working class as a writer in a rented cottage? She is still low income because she has a builder for a parent but is she still working class? With this project, I asked participants what items they would choose to define them to the wider world. The objects referenced working class histories, hidden work, multiple jobs, seasonal labour and also the future. Sometimes, these were more obscure. For example, one woman chose an owl to represent not only her job, falconry, but a way of life deeply connected to the land and nature. Someone chose their daughter, which concealed their own identity whilst nodding to the women of the future.

A: By showing the land scarred by the aftermath of the industrial revolution, you’re also drawing attention to the long-term impact that extraction has had on communities and the environment. How do you approach this topic in your work?
Extraction of the land, the lead industry, agrarian labour and feudalism are cyclic. Now we see zero hour contracts, multiple jobs and job insecurity. The way the land is treated also affects people that work the land. Land work does not just mean those that directly work with it, but includes the people that are behind this pastoral vision. This includes the ones who are cleaning, cooking, serving beer and keeping the countryside going. The violence of capitalism is told through the history of the land. The history of photography itself is often one of extraction and exploitation. Here, there is a power play and control over representation so the way a working class gaze is still not evident.

A: The project is also multidisciplinary, accompanied by sound and video work. What drew you to these different media?
JC: I did a degree in photography, but I wouldn’t say I am a photographer per se. This separation in the arts still exists, I am an artist using different mediums to tell complex stories around class, a narrative that is not often seen. I used sound and video to create create the world of this installation – and draw the viewer in. 

A: Your earlier project Daughters of the Soil came out of a year spent researching the role of women in agriculture with Newcastle University’s Centre for Rural Economy and the institute for Creative Arts Practice. How did this project come about? Could you tell us about your findings?
JC: This work was a year-long arts commission and residency with The Maltings, an arts organisation based in Berwick-upon-Tweed. The theme was agriculture and gender. I had always felt shame around my second job as a farm worker; I needed it to pay the bills but worked full time in the Arts. It was through this project that I could share this part of me. I worked with the The Centre for Rural Economy. The commission was part of the really successful residencies that The Maltings run with CRE. Artists, from any discipline, who were successful with their applications had the opportunity to explore and respond to current rural issues and the Institute for Creative Arts Practice, which promotes and supports creative arts practice across the University. The partnership provides the opportunity for the exchange and sharing of knowledge between the artist and researchers at CRE to inform critical responses to the rural, which has an increasing profile within contemporary art debates.

A: What were your considerations for creating a photography series based on this research?
JC: I didn’t create a series based on research. It was mainly based on my lived experience as a farm worker combined with informed research working with an academic. This was not just any academic, I worked with Professor Sally Shortall – who is basically the number one to me (fan girling). Sally is a key figure writing about farming and gender and she has influenced policy across the UK. Her work has uncovered these hidden aspects of the industry. I worked closely with Sally by talking through her research and responding, however, it’s the life I live that informs my work. In some ways my lower income isolates me from my artistic peers but it also brings me closer to my own community. My series are heavily researched and influenced by literature but I am not a researcher.

A: It’s very exciting to see that you are presenting new work at Baltic with Middle of Somewhere. Could you tell us about how you landed on this title and what the exhibition is about?
The title is a bit tongue-in-cheek. When anyone hears where I live, which is remote rural, it’s always the “middle of nowhere.” I think for those who are in a rural classification, it’s often easier to say “middle of nowhere” than 40 minutes to a town or to try to describe the location. This is also how tourists and visitors describe these places, it’s often “The Middle of Nowhere” or “The Back of Beyond.” On a political level, these places are often overlooked when it comes to policy making decisions – they’re not seen as vital. Ultimately, this “middle of nowhere” can be harmful. Everywhere is somewhere to those that live, work and grow there. My show is about reframing these places to show that they are important. There’s a whole generation of young people who are having to leave due to the lack of affordable housing options and not being able to partake as a citizen due to the complex nature of how these spaces work. Middle of Somewhere is the story of rural young women, the issues they face and the future they have to navigate. The work asks: who gets to live here and whose future matters?

A: What impact do you want to leave on visitors that have come to see the show? 
JC: I want visitors to question this conservative version of the rural idyll that hides the stories about post capital communities. Of course these are things I want… ultimately I have no control over how visitors view the work or what experiences makes them reflect on certain elements from the work. If it resonates with a few people to the point that they ask questions, take a different viewpoint and then this eventually contributes to policy changes, that would be a dream. I hope to make people think, dream, hope and realise these issues affect us all – whether rural and urban – because all movements need people to come together.

A: Can you tell us about any projects you are currently working on?
JC: I’m showing work as part of the After the end of History, which is a working class photography exhibition currently touring across the UK. Currently, I’m making new performance-based work as a rural working class disabled artist that centres on my place / space for a show that will be announced soon. I’m also making new collaborative work around hidden histories and pigeon fancying with a working class histories grant from Historic England. Asides from that, I’ve been working on a project exploring the rural potential, community and alternative education.

Baltic, Joanne Coates: Middle of Somewhere | Until 17 November

Words: Diana Bestwish Tetteh and Joanne Coates

Image Credits:

  1. Joanne Coates: Middle of Somewhere © 2024 Joanne Coates.