Betty steals the show

19 August 2023


Today I cancelled my own artwork.

Kilsture Roaming was – is – a group show, a weekend exhibition in a community forest in south west Scotland. It features unexpected works-in-progress by a small, ambitious collective, keen to push our contemporary art practice, asking questions about whether there is room for challenging, conceptual art in rural locations. We’d produced a fabulous set of outdoor installations and had been looking forward to showing them for months.

A matrix of three photographs. The first is a collection of small wooden artworks, printed blocks, arranged on the forest floor. The next is an image of printed black and white pamphlets, bound with a yellow band. The title of the pamphlet is 'The Un-Map'. The third is a woodland image of an old, mossy stone wall surrounded by ferns with a forest in the background. It is very green.

It's mid-August. Until now we’ve had a summer of relatively emphatic weather - a mix of baking sunshine and torrential downpours - but nothing that would prove detrimental to our exhibits. Until today, when a named storm gatecrashed from the Atlantic.

Good morning, Storm Betty.

Should we cancel? The inevitable email chain clunked into motion, each contributor with a slightly different point of view. Some with health and safety on their minds, some keen to ensure the artwork remained intact, and some happy that it was just a breeze and would run itself out by lunchtime. Most were keen to ensure we didn’t kill any artists or visitors under falling branches, and to make a swift, clear decision preventing visitors travelling unnecessarily. I found myself pushing for postponement early in the conversation, essentially advocating for the cancellation of my own artwork today.

Those that know me as a creative practitioner know I can be fairly gung-ho. I have a reasonably high appetite for creative and professional risk, probably because by challenging yourself and moving outside your comfort zone you often see the best results.

So why did I come down so heavily on the side of cancellation?

There were several obvious tangible reasons. I used to work in the nuclear industry so I will always have health and safety brand-stamped onto my internal organs. I’d received an ominous email about artwork-related litigation the previous afternoon which played on my mind. I have a career history in outdoor education, post-Lyme Bay when the sector had a huge scare and undertook to embrace statutory regulation. During that time I spent several years signing off risk assessments for woodland activities, to the extent that we were making children wear helmets on forest playpark equipment. I’ve been here and had these conversations before.

A long panoramic photograph. It shows a washing line, with bright orange wooden letters pegged to it, spelling 'comfort zone' in reverse.

But there was something else speaking to me, a sort of innate hunch, another voice urging me to cancel.

I drove to the exhibition site early, through increasingly charged air. There was a tree down near Creetown. A flight of kamikaze starlings attempted a murmuration over the estuary but were beaten back to settle begrudgingly on swaying telegraph wires. Lorries on their breakneck charge to the ferry meandered thuggishly over the centre line again and again, finally retreating to laybys to wait it out. The ocean was a seething, brown chop of mud and shit and agricultural run-off, foaming and flying, haphazardly swallowing the haaf-net posts and raking the rocky shoreline. It was an awesome display.

I often try to incorporate this voice of the natural world into my artwork. I’m still learning how best to collaborate with our environment, how to include it as a partner in my practice. How to listen – really, truly, listen - to what it has to say.

Today, wrestling with the decision to advocate for cancelling our show, we were quite rightly concentrating on risk to human life and limb. But I realised the natural world was shouting louder than ever. With all its might, it was clamouring for us to cancel. The forest, in its gale-force chaos of straining boughs, did not want us there today.

Betty had stolen the show.

Anne Waggot Knott, 19th August 2023

Kilsture Roaming WILL be going ahead on Sunday 20th August at Kilsture Forest near Wigtown, 11am-4pm. 

Fellow exhibiting artists are:
Frances Ross
Dell Whitticase
Savannah Crosby
Jack Ky Tan
Sarah Stewart
Hope London

ROAM(West) is supported by Upland CIC, Creative Scotland, and the artists themselves.

A wide panoramic image of a beech forest floor. The trees are straight and uniform. There is a carpet of leaf matter but not much other ground level vegetation.