ROAM (West) with me


Blog post by Jack Ky Tan

View all of this project's blog posts 

Gallery view (L-R): Anne Waggot Knott, Frances Ross, Sarah Stewart, off camera a site-specific installation by Savannah Crosby, Hope London and Del Whitticase.
Gallery view (L-R): Anne Waggot Knott, Frances Ross, Sarah Stewart, off camera a site-specific installation by Savannah Crosby, Hope London and Del Whitticase.

ROAM (West) is a yearlong research project with Upland* that explores how contemporary art practice can be developed in the Western region of Dumfries and Galloway (the West). The research has two strands. Firstly, as action research, it asks whether there is a lack of support, infrastructure and resourcing for contemporary art in the West and explores a few solutions for this. The action comprises a group of artists who meet monthly as a supportive peer group and who are delivering a skeleton contemporary art programme in 2023: a pop-up show, a public education event, and a final exhibition. The success or failure of this attempt to do contemporary art in the West this year will provide insight into what works and what's missing in the region. Secondly, as a recent migrant to the area, this is also a form of autoethnographic research where I can observe how the rural context is changing my art practice, and also allowing me space to reflect on and develop new ideas about the nature of the "contemporary rural". 

In 2018, I moved from London, where I had lived for 25 years, to the far West of Dumfries & Galloway in Scotland. And I do mean far because the East and West of this county is about as far apart as Hull is from Liverpool, Birmingham is from London, and Belfast from Dublin. I came in search of ruralness and wilderness, and for a kinder place in which to be a contemporary artist. London, my home and heart, was no longer survivable economically. And England was becoming so politically noisy that it was a struggle most days for me to have a clear creative thought. But could I be a contemporary artist in rural Southwest Scotland?

Rural in my current context means living in a village of 230 people, in a region where agriculture occupies 70% of the landscape and forestry 25%, and where the largest employers are health, schools, retail and social work. More importantly, I don't know how my artistic practice translates to the rural. Originally, I trained as a lawyer, then a potter, then in theatre. My work today combines all three, where I use law as if it were an art medium or clay, and I activate this medium performatively in art installations, sculpture, events/happenings and organisational consultancy work.

Much of my work over the last 20 years has been motivated by an interest in unpicking how social order and justice is composed. I use the word "composed" here intentionally, because like the Fluxus artists of the 1960s, I believe that "everything is art". Or at least I consider that everything that is put together and holds together in nature or society, can be analysed and understood through their aesthetic components: balance, consistency, strength, scale, intention, tension, timing, context, presentation, etc. As lyricist Stephen Sondheim says via the Broadway musical character of George Seurat*: "The challenge [is to]: bring order to the whole, through design, composition, tension, balance, light and harmony". Although for me "order" or "balance" also includes intentional and crafted disorder or imbalance. 

So what then is the order/disorder or balance/imbalance required for a contemporary art practice to survive or thrive in rural Galloway, or in fact anywhere? It seems to me that while the elements are uncontroversial, the challenge lies in achieving a level of quality in each element and in putting (or composing) them together in a dynamic, sustainable and beautiful way. The elements are:

  1. a supportive community of peers: contemporary artists, curators and producers;

  2. interested and critical audiences (which includes the public, journalists and academics); 

  3. enough work and funding to sustain a desired number of artists in the region; and

  4. a logistical and communications infrastructure that enables a rural practitioner to be connected to and contribute to wider art worlds nationally and internationally.

In ROAM (West), I am exploring (1) and (2) above and asking what is required for an (and indeed my) art practice to endure here in the Western region of Dumfries and Galloway. By 'Western', I am referring to anywhere within an hour's drive from Stranraer, our most Westerly town. To me, this area is underserved because much of the county's contemporary art activity happens in and around Dumfries in the East, some 1.5 hours away by car or 2 hours by bus, if you don't get stuck behind a lot of lorries. And while Kirkcudbright is nearer and has an active arts scene, much of the focus there is around Modernism, i.e., art produced between mid 1800s to mid 1900s, rather than contemporary art. 

So what do I mean by "contemporary art"? To me, "Contemporary art" is broadly understood to mean visual art that is made by living artists who address the issues or concerns of today within their work. Art historians generally consider that contemporary art began after Modernism around the 1960s with pop art, and on to include other art movements like photorealism, conceptual art, minimalism, performance art, installation art and digital art. 

Contemporary art also includes any medium, ranging from traditional forms such as painting and sculpture, to found objects, digital objects and socially-engaged practice. Typically, beauty or pleasure is not the most important consideration in works of contemporary art. Instead the artwork's aim could also be to produce a sense of the uncanny, disgust, longing, loss, hope, horror, surprise or any combination of these and much more. Artists may deal with themes such as the climate crisis, economics, justice, health/mental health, identity, politics, migration, etc. In short, anything that could add to our collective understanding of what it means to live/exist in the world today, i.e., what it means to be contemporary.

It is in this sense that I want to learn how the rural is contemporary, and what a contemporary rural looks like. Further, I wished to connect with other contemporary practitioners living and working out there, and find out if it was possible to develop a community of practice in the West.

To help me answer this question, I have been meeting monthly with a group of local artists since November 2022, to discuss, share works-in-progress and to show together. It is a diverse group of artists working across 2D, 3D and time-based mediums, and who are interested in topics ranging from the relationship between landscape and mental health, to the nostalgia around coastal or post-industrial detritus.  We held a pop-up show for one day in January 2023 at the Print Room in Wigtown where no work was for sale, which allowed us to be experimental and to engage with audiences not as consumers but as co-enquirers.

Further, some questions have been emerging about the nature of contemporary practice in the rural, what contemporary issues are germane to rural cultural life (beyond tourism, landscape and wildlife conservation), and how to ring fence a creative space for the contemporary rural from urban-centric concerns (or from an urban hegemony even) in national contemporary art scenes and education. We haven't yet had much opportunity to dig very deep into these questions as a group. But we will hold a public roundtable discussion on 15 July to open up a discussion around these issues among ourselves and with audiences. Additionally, in the run up to this roundtable, Upland will be profiling each of these participating artists on its social media platforms and we will get a chance to read more about their artistic practices and their hopes for working as a contemporary artist in the region.


* 1. Upland is an arts development organisation that aims to support and nurture the arts throughout Dumfries & Galloway:

* 2.  George Seurat, a 19th century post-impressionist French painter, was the protagonist in the 1984 Broadway musical ‘Sunday in the Park with George’.