Whitstable Biennale: Small for a reason

Tea & Times is a café-cum-newsagents on Whitstable’s charming high street. It is also one of four venues where visitors to the Whitstable Biennale can collect Wars During My Lifetime, the free newspaper by Martin John Callanan that lists all the wars that have taken place between 1982 and 2012. Last weekend, a town crier read out the list; this Saturday and Sunday, as the Biennale comes to a close, there will be a host of performances exploring the connections between movement, ritual and ideological manifestations.

There is Emma Hart’s 3D game featuring trapped puppets; Jesse Jones’ re-creation of a 1960s group session with a trained humanist therapist, and for those parents who happen to have a good excuse, there might just be the chance to view Gareth Moore’s film programme commissioned exclusively for children.

Uniquely for a biennale, Whitstable commissions predominantly performance, context and time-based work, and the direction is driven by where each selected artist’s work is at that specific point in time. Sue Jones, the Biennale’s director explains that “although we don’t impose themes on to the festival, we often notice that there are themes which thread their way through the work, relating to current concerns or areas of interest that artists share. Last year it came about that a lot of works were investigating archives.”

The festival is based on a dialogic curatorial relationship between the artists and the work, evidenced in particular by Jeremy Millar’s exhibition of four distinct works by Maya Deren, Shezad Dawood, Derek Jarman and Joachim Koester. The juxtaposition of seminal and contemporary films based on ritual and dance add to the readings of each work, with Dawood’s soundtrack providing an inescapable framework to re-interpret each one.

This welcome curatorial intervention brings to the surface our recent national celebrations, as Jarman’s book and flag burning from Jordan’s Dance (1977) foregrounds Dawood’s tribal rhythms. We are reminded as we watch Deren’s mesmerising Ritual in Transfigured Time that she was about to embark on a real-life journey to become a Vodoun priestess, bringing to the fore the connection between an artist’s work and their life trajectories.

The importance of context

The context of Whitstable, a small seaside town, is also a decisive factor in the programme direction. The scale of the town means that the Biennale is characterised by work that adapts to small venues and inserts itself within the fabric of the place. With venues being available, at times for only a couple of days, the festival has an ever-changing programme, giving it a dynamism that longer running biennales often seek to engineer through symposia and off-site programmes: “We want to remain a small festival so that we can concentrate on working closely with the artists we commission,” explains Jones.

Reflecting the Biennale’s size, there’s an emphasis on nurturing strong relationships with emerging British artists and seeking a depth to the work it commissions and premieres. Kate Phillimore, assistant curator and organiser of the Biennale’s fringe, explains: “We have a big satellite programme, it’s an open platform, and we really try to encourage artists to create a project embedded in Whitstable. We also support artists from the area, for instance in the lead up by organising a group trip to Bristol or by hosting the a-n AIRTIME event.”

The high calibre of the Kent artistic community is demonstrated by the many Whitstable Satellite artists I encounter later that afternoon at the AIRTIME event. I chat to Magz Hall, a founding producer of Resonance FM who is completing a PhD on Radio Art. Her long-term research project sets out a number of fictional hypotheses about the future of FM once it has been abandoned by broadcasters. Babble Station is one of these future unsanctioned stations, using the airwaves for baby monitoring. This Sunday, Hall will be running an all-day drop-in workshop, sampling baby sounds and playing them back via a solar radio.

Sue Jones describes how Whitstable, with its close proximity to London, has always had a strong artists community. The Biennale came out of an artist-led festival that took place in the 1990s and was taken over in 2000 by Canterbury City Council, before Jones took over the reins in 2006. The Biennale is now an independent entity but, says Jones, “we haven’t lost the roots of there being an artists festival in Whitstable.”

Pippa Koszerek, AN