Voice, Representation and Neo-imperialism within Rural Revitalization
A Case Study of the Shorefast Foundation
Written as part of coursework at The Glasgow School of Art
In 2003, the Shorefast Foundation was established on Fogo Island in order to address and restore cultural resilience and ‘economic nutrition’ on the small island off the coast of Newfoundland. Promoted as a “social enterprise”, some of the organization’s projects include the establishment of the Fogo Island Inn, a luxury hotel with a focus on geotourism; Fogo Island Arts, an international artist residency programme; and Fogo Island Shop, an online shop marketing island-inspired furniture, textiles, and objects. The recent branding of the island triggers questions about representation, voice within the writing and re-writing of histories, and the role of the “metropole” in ascribing a newfound value to the island. In this essay, I will address these questions by analysing the distribution of artists who have taken part in the Fogo Island Arts residency programme and a selection of objects on the Fogo Island Shop website. Using Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s thoughts on value and representation, I will then structure my analysis within a neo-colonial framework in order to assess the Shorefast Foundation’s work in branding upon a face of post-colony rural resilience.
In order to better understand the political landscape of Newfoundland and Labrador, it is essential to note the historical and geographical distribution of wealth within the former British colony and dominion. In the 19th century, English and Scottish merchant families settled in the capital city of St. John’s, while working class fishing families were situated in outport communities along the coast of the island. The merchants would pay the fishermen with tokens for fishing supplies, and living necessities that could only be redeemed at merchant-operated travelling shops. In 1908, the Fishermen’s Protective Union (FPU) was formed in order to resist the merchant’s control of the fishery and retailing of supplies. The FPU had more than 21 000 members distributed along the coast of the island, with a membership of more than half of the professional fishermen. While those days have long passed, the province is still largely controlled by the capital city with limited resources available to the surviving outport communities. In 1992, the federal government announced a moratorium on the cod fishery due to severely declining catches in the late 1980s. Mass exodus of outport Newfoundland followed suit as the provincial economy felt the impact of the closure. Since this time, many fishing communities have faced resettlement while others fight to maintain a stable population. Fogo Island has survived against the odds, with initiatives such as the 1967 “Fogo Process,” film series, a model for community media as a tool for addressing community concerns, and a strong FPU presence. Fogo Island represented rural resilience and community at a time when small communities on the mainland of Newfoundland were struggling to retain government services. The Shorefast Foundation aims to preserve and regenerate Fogo Island’s unique success by making rurality relevant within the 21st century:
The significant success achieved by Shorefast to date illustrates that reviving rural communities is possible; that the inherent value of rural places can be reclaimed and made relevant for the 21st century; that losing our rural communities and the human ways of knowing they contain is neither inevitable or necessary.
One way of doing this has been the establishment of an internationally acclaimed artist-in-residence program and an online design shop with a heavy focus on tradition, place, and locality. Despite an international image of social integration and community sharing, I witnessed firsthand an obvious lack of representation of Newfoundland artists within the residency program, alongside a lack of (and failure of) artist engagement within the community. One example that stands out is a poster advertising an artist talk posted at a local petrol station. It made me very aware of the barriers to the arts that have been left unaddressed by Fogo Island Arts and Shorefast. The poster was minimalist in its design and included the words “Everyone welcome,” without considering how the nature of the poster itself prescribed opposite meaning. The event was being held at the Fogo Island Inn, a new-Nordic luxury hotel with rooms starting at £582 per night. I was working at the hotel at the time and it was understood amongst staff that local people were not generally welcome on the property unless they had a reason for being there (again, notwithstanding the hotel being marketed as “community-owned”). I paid for my petrol and wondered if any islander (unlikely to have had any arts-based education) would feel welcome at such an event. Upon further research into the residency program, I discovered that only five Newfoundland creatives had taken part in the residency programme since its launch in 2010 (founded in 2008). Regardless of a lack of provincial access, the organization prides itself on “the resourcefulness and creativity of Fogo Islanders, which provides a vital framework for the organization’s activities.” Having hosted internationally acclaimed artists such as Janice Kerbel and Silke Otto Knapp – Fogo Island Arts is building a space for the creative landscape of Fogo Island to be reshaped by visiting, centralized, and academic ideals of contemporary art. Promoted as a space for remote creative retreat and rural idyll, island creativity is being re-written and reimagined by international authors.
During the development of the Fogo Island Inn, several designers were hired to transpose island aesthetics into original furniture and décor for the hotel. Manufactured mostly on the island by locals, several of these objects are now available for sale through the Fogo Island Shop website and through Klaus by Nienkämper, a boutique in Toronto. The designs aim to embody authenticity and islandness, many of which incorporate histories of boat-building and the fishery. The first design I would like to review is Simon Jones’ Stacking Tables.
These tables take their form from the island’s traditional cod splitting tables. The removable table tops fit onto bases with ‘X’ shaped legs that can be stored stacked vertically like the chair they are designed to accompany. The colour palette specified was inspired by the lichen found on Fogo Island’s rocky shorelines.
The tables sit in the Fogo Island Inn library and conference room, far from the fishing stages from which they were inspired. Are imported non-fisherpeople designers necessary in order to develop a cod-splitting table into something of contemporary value? This process of translation and re-telling creates an artificial object-based history that means very little to local people. Yes, the objects are being made on the island and producing jobs for some local woodworkers, but the objects themselves are designed to elevate local motifs to something above their original designs and uses. The users of the renovated products are even further removed from the original context, raising questions about “authenticity”, ownership and romanticizing rurality. Additionally, the cost of the products makes the designs inaccessible to most islanders, furthering both the illusion of genuineness and the class division between the residents and the consumers of the island. In this process, the role of the new and culturally removed author is vital in appointing a new value upon an old object.
The second example I would like to discuss is a shingle motif designed by Donna Wilson. Derived from the whimsy cladding on the Brett House museum in Joe Batt’s Arm, Wilson’s design is available in a scarf or a blanket. “Stay warm and toasty this winter by bundling up in our Donna Wilson Shingle Scarf”, the website advertises, ensuring to include the designer in the product name. Again, the value of local knowledge and design is only validated upon the touch of a visiting London-based artist. By re-branding and hyper-commodifying local design, any remains of community agency is revoked and replaced when the author brands the final product as their own, regardless of any prior consultancy with local informants.
Is this process of renewal and design-validation necessary in attracting the global recognition that will “save” Fogo Island and its vulnerable economy? Or – is the interjecting of outside voices upon Fogo Island culture diluting the vibrant island that Shorefast set out to preserve in the first place? In The Problem of Cultural Self-Representation, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak explains that “There is an impulse among literary critics and other kinds of intellectuals to save the masses, speak for the masses, describe the masses. On the other hand, how about attempting to learn to speak in a way that the masses will not regard as bullshit.” While the designers behind the Fogo Island Shop and the Shorefast Foundation projects are not literary critics –the thread runs true. The commodification of ‘Fogo Islandness’ essentialises local histories and informants who have no agency or interest in the final output, patiently awaiting any kind of “trickle-down” benefit. This insider-outsider voice dynamic is pertinent to Spivak’s continual questioning of the ways in which Value is formed, and ‘who speaks for whom?’ It also assumes a level of “consciousness” inherent to the elite and educated designers that that local people apparently do not have for themselves.
In my own research on the value and devaluing of decentralized creativity, I have placed focus upon phenomenological perceptions of value over the economic side of the matter. In the case of Fogo Island, the economic value or “nutrition” production is at the forefront of Shorefast projects. Spivak presents ideas in Scattered Speculations on the Question of Value that can be applied to better understand the value-money-capital transformations that are taking place on the island. By Marxian argument, all “value is in excess of use-value” – we can illustrate how value is supplemented upon use-value by referring back to Simon Jones’ Stacking Tables. Simply stated, the use-value exists on the primary level of the original object – the cod-splitting table used for splitting cod and splitting cod only. In this state, the object’s value does not exist beyond its specific use for the fisherman and has virtually no money-value, “the universal symbol for measuring excess value”. The object is transformed by adding excess value, through a bifurcational transformation of labour-power. On one path, labour power and value is added to the object through the re-design process. The re-authorship of the object by a non-fisherman, London-based designer i) removes the lower-class use-value from the object; ii) places contemporary design value upon the object; iii) appoints elite metropolitan validation upon the object. This allows the object to be consumed outside of the fishing context from which it derives. In addition to the urban and design value, the tables accumulate labour-power value by being manufactured on the island by local woodworkers. This step is important because it allows the object to retain a marketable “authenticity” and a “feel-good-buy-local” flavour, while discharging the unmarketable use-value of a fish splitting table. Not only that – but the worker herself becomes a valuable product that can be used for promotion of saleable products. Through this transfiguration, the object is converted from its use-value into a state of parasitic exchange-value or capital. Spivak explains further:
In the exchange-relation of commodities their exchange-value appeared to us as totally independent from their use-value. But if we abstract their use-value from the product of labour, we obtain their value, as it has just been defined. The common element that represents itself (sich darstellt) in the exchange-relation of the exchange-value of the commodity, is thus value.
Whether or not this process contributes to the betterment of the place, its economy, and its cultural heritage is contentious, as Spivak stresses, “the complicity between cultural and economic value-systems is acted out in almost every decision we make; and, secondly, that economic reductionism is, indeed, a very real danger.”
Newfoundland has always been a “vulnerable” and yet hugely impervious population. More often than not a “have-not” province in Canada, the land holds long histories of centralized imperial control from both the island’s provincial capital and from Britain. I find great discomfort and internal conflict when I consider the work of the Shorefast Foundation. While I wholly believe it is good intentioned, I cannot help but wonder whether or not the organization is facilitating an internationally sourced system for stimulating the local economy, or inadvertently producing a neo-imperialistic, exclusive, and increasingly gentrified space. I suppose it is a double-edged sword in many ways, not unlike the countless former colonies that survive largely on the tourism industry. However due to the Shorefast Foundation’s private funding, geographic locality, and organizational smallness they have been able to quietly design their creative team, market audience, and island image with incredible finesse and control (unlike a ‘democratic’ government). In order to evaluate the Shorefast Foundation’s conduct in Newfoundland within a postcolonial discourse, I have found it useful to consider Ania Loomba’s differentiation between imperialism and colonialism:
One useful way of distinguishing between [imperialism and colonialism] might be to not separate them in temporal but in spatial terms and to think of imperialism or neo-imperialism as the phenomenon that originates in the metropolis, the process which leads to domination and control. Its result, or what happens in the colonies as a consequence of imperial domination is colonialism or neo-colonialism. Thus the imperial country is the ‘metropole’ from which power flows, and the colony or neo-colony is the place which it penetrates and controls.
During my postgraduate research at the Glasgow School of Art, I have been apprehensively positioning my research on rural creative practices in Newfoundland within a postcolonial framework. My hesitance has been largely grounded in questions relating to whether or not applying a postcolonial paradigm is an appropriate system for critiquing issues of control within places of British origin that hold a great deal of relational power. That being said, differentiating neo-imperialism from neo-colonialism is useful in this context because it allows an area to address how power flows both within and in-between places in a post-colonial environment. With Loomba’s ideas in mind – the Shorefast Foundation is creating a neo-imperialist situation by outsourcing creative control from the ‘metropole’ (largely from the UK and Europe), and exerting that urban power upon Fogo Island and its pre-existing cultural heritage, while producing a profitable façade of rural agency. In effect, what is happening is an illusion of democracy and decentralized power. The Shorefast Foundation could be compared to Spivak’s critique of subaltern studies in Can the Subaltern Speak?, arguing that they are in fact contributing to the larger system of oppression they seek to dismantle by reaffirming who’s voice (and thereby power) can be heard, the voices of white, Western academia – or in the case of Shorefast – the elite directors, designers, and artists of the initiative who have a stage to speak. Questioning who can speak also addresses who can intervene upon a place, a population, and its historiography.
Is this a preferable future for Fogo Island? Possibly yes. If a cod splitting table is more valuable to the growth and well being of the community at large if it can be sold in a boutique in Toronto, then perhaps it is a viable means for the island to move forward and prosper in a globalized capitalist society. If the glocalization of Fogo Island could facilitate its survival, one might wonder how that could possibly be a harmful thing. What I have attempted to illustrate in this essay is that by selling romanced and carefully crafted ideas of islandness, Fogo Island is being re-written by transient artists and designers of Value, exclusive from (and potentially hindering) island-bred creativity or voice. I see this to be problematic as the project will only be sustainable if the designers who are fuelling the project continue to contribute from afar, or make Fogo Island their home. I imagine ways in which the program could become more sustainable, such as through accessible apprenticeship programs for young people or even introducing a post-secondary art and design program. But alas, Fogo Island Inn guest-alumni are buying up property on the island that now remain vacant apart from a few weeks each summer. As a result, housing prices are rising and island youth and young families are being pushed to leave more than ever before. There is a delicate balance that must be achieved in producing voice and democratic future for the island. Fogo Island Arts and Shop is building an imaginary island through the voices of the urban visitor with the intention of saving the rural, but will the local be lost along the way? While it is undeniable that notions of locality are shifting, and a shift is essential in imagining new rural futures – but perhaps a redistribution of authorship is necessary within the current state of the Shorefast initiative. Constant self-critique of voice and power is fundamental to its holistic and sustainable success. If not, the islandness that grounds the entire organization could very easily be reduced and exploited into nothingness.
 ‘Trade and Commerce’, Heritage – Newfoundland and Labrador, 1999 <http://www.heritage.nf.ca/articles/economy/trade.php> [accessed 22 April 2016].
 ‘Cod Moratorium in Newfoundland and Labrador’, Heritage – Newfoundland and Labrador, 2009 <http://www.heritage.nf.ca/articles/economy/moratorium.php> [accessed 22 April 2016].
 Appendix A
 Appendix B
 ‘About’ (Fogo Island Arts) <http://fogoislandarts.ca/about/fogo-island-arts/> [accessed 22
 ‘Stacking Table’, by Fogo Island Shop <http://fogoislandshop.ca/products/conference-roomstacking-chairs?variant=1000598672> [accessed 20 April 2016].
 ‘Donna Wilson Shingle Scarf’, by Fogo Island Shop <http://fogoislandshop.ca/products/donnawilson-shingle-lambswool-scarf> [accessed 20 April 2016].
 Appendix C
 ‘The Problem of Cultural Self-Representation’, in The Post-Colonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues, by Sarah Harasym and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (New York: Routledge, 1990), pp. 56
 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ‘Subaltern Studies: Deconstructing Historiography’, in In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics (New York: Routledge, 1987), pp. 273.
 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ‘Scattered Speculations on the Question of Value’, in In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics (New York: Routledge, 1987), pp. 212–42.
 Ania Loomba, Colonialism/Postcolonialism, 2nd edn (New York, NY: Taylor & Francis, 2015), pp. 6–7.
 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’, in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. by Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988), pp. 271–313 <http://abahlali.org/files/Can_the_subaltern_speak.pdf> [accessed 21 April 2016].
Source: Fogo Island Arts
[Accessed 22 April 2016]
Fogo Island Arts – Artists in Residence (multiple disciplines) 2010 – 2015
Source: Fogo Island Arts – Artists-in-Residence
[Accessed and Interpreted 22 March 2016]
Source: Fogo Island Shop