Afternoon Dust

Whitstable Biennale 2014

Last weekend saw the opening of the 2014 edition of Whitstable Biennale, a festival of new visual art located in a quaint little Kentish coastal town. Having spent a couple of years living in Whitstable, helping out on the production team for the previous two editions of the Biennale, I was much looking forward to exploring this year’s festival as a punter. The main programme for 2014 seems bigger this time round, bolstered as usual by a healthy satellite strand.

The festival opened on the beach with a performance of Fiona James’ The Incident, A Diagram For Whitstable, in which a team’s participation in a lifesaving competition was recounted from the perspectives of each of the team’s members. A compelling narrative unfolded, and as the accounts built up and began to interact uncertainties gradually emerged: the possibility of a real emergency began to threaten the boundaries of the competitive simulation. The piece ended leaving me filled with questions and wanting to know more, in this case a very good sign.

Film tends to feature heavily at the Biennale, and Louisa Fairclough’s Absolute Pitch — Film Sculpture, in which spots of colour corresponding to different vocal tones are projected to fill a room at the town’s museum, was one of this edition’s highlights. I was less convinced by her choral procession Composition For A Low Tide, as I struggled to see beyond the aspect of spectacle the work seemed to rely on. Mark Aerial Waller’s selection of films in the Horsebridge Arts Centre also falls flat, seeming tenuous and insubstantial compared to previous editions’ film programmes.

Back on the beach, Radio Arts’ red radios played sounds made in a workshop the previous day, smartly punning on the theme of sirens: the songs luring listeners to the rocks were vocal imitations of emergency service vehicles. Radio Arts were participating in the satellite programme for developing and self-funded artists, but their open and accessible work is consistently both more thought through and more playful than some of the main programme’s brave but failed experiments. Also in the satellite programme was Jennie Wright’s screenings of films in a tiny makeshift cinema in her dining room, the tea and cake exuding the homespun hospitality that characterises Whitstable as a town. Hannah Lees took that notion of hospitality in the direction of communal ritual gathering for Everything That Happens Simply Happens, an open and welcoming event that seemed thoughtfully crafted yet immediately familiar.

With different events and performances scheduled for the three weekends of the festival, I only got to see a part of the 2014 Whitstable Biennale, but my experience confirmed its continued rude health as a platform for bold, risk-taking, thought-provoking new art.