Over the summer, members of Folkestone’s online community occasionally posted pictures of mysterious objects that had popped up around town, and found their question “What is it?” often met with the single word ‘Triennial’.
That is, the 2017 Folkestone Triennial – the fourth manifestation of the town-wide exhibition. It’s part of a plan, led by the Creative Foundation, to help regenerate the seaside town through creative activity: every three years several artists (this year, twenty) are invited to create public artworks, some of which remain after the official period (this year it ends on 5 November). Obviously, you should visit since not all of them will survive beyond the Triennial, so if you miss them you miss them.
Art-as-regenerator is an idea around which swirl complex issues applying in different ways in different places. But rather than trying to unpick all that in a would-be comprehensive and inevitably lengthy piece, or trying to map particular questions onto Folkestone, I’ll be writing about some of the new artworks, interleaving the posts with some on those that have remained from the previous Triennials and artistic responses to it.
Still, it would be weirdly insular not to at least acknowledge the issues around ‘gentrification’. There’s a vast literature on the concept’s validity, and the process’s benefits and disadvantages, but the word itself is rapidly becoming shorthand for rich outsiders coming in, out-purchasing locals to force up housing costs, encouraging developers to concentrate on inappropriate and unaffordable ‘luxury apartments’, and introducing things like artisan twig shops that fail to cater to local needs. The popular debate has been reduced to a rancorous and simplistic NIMBY-vs-X. The ‘X’ have various names: Out of Towners, DFL (Down from London); CFA (Come From Away), or the simple all-encompassingly dismissive ‘hipster’, a figure who seems to be hated, derided and feared in equal measure.
But the background is far more complex. Struggling towns – and their inhabitants – are struggling with a cocktail of issues: educational standards, training, employment opportunities, housing, infrastructure, transport, physical and mental health, and others. There is no silver bullet: ‘ART’ is not going to stride in and solve them all, and rarely claims it will (though there are those who think it does). It can contribute and cultural regeneration can be a part of the mix but other agencies can’t use that as an excuse to sit back and wait for it to carry all the weight.
Of course, you can’t please all the people all the time (and responses to art – and ‘art-as-regeneration’ show that as clearly as anything). But more pertinently, we can’t return to the past (even less so one viewed through rosy spectacles) and, short of preserving the world in aspic, change is inevitable. And remember, the people who want things to stop at this moment are those who are generally content and want to keep it that way: but what about those who are currently impoverished, disenfranchised or dissatisfied in some way – are we happy to consign them to perpetuity at the bottom of the heap to retain our contentment?
Still, if regeneration is the way forward (‘managed decline‘ having proved an unrealistic and politically unmentionable policy), it isn’t unreasonable to ask how the local population is engaged in the process, how (and by whom) it’s funded, what are its aims, how (and by whom) its success is assessed, what might be the corollary disadvantages etc.
So, while I’ll be writing from an art perspective, it won’t be an art-for-art’s-sake perspective: there’ll be thoughts about how the artworks relate to the area’s landscape, history and communities, and they’ll spark contemplations of larger questions. But I might as well get some general thoughts out of the way now.
One of the frequent concerns around regeneration is the apparent speediness of change, a concern which then morphs into a more general cynicism about change itself. Barring responses to natural disasters, major change has often happened quite slowly, making it easier to digest. The danger of imposed regeneration, whether through art or other means (or, indeed, of imposed decline), is that an externally formulated masterplan is delivered and dumped on the town without consultation or regard for the population as a fait accompli with an astonishingly fast lead time. There will be new houses, new businesses, and (perhaps) new infrastructure, such as roads, schools etc. Now, all of this may or may not be ‘a good thing’, but the lack of consultation feeds a suspicion that it’s something ‘being done to the town’ for the benefit of shadowy corporate puppet-masters. While people may be dissatisfied with their current situation, they’re unclear about the benefits of the new one and feel excluded from the process, leaving them in a disempowered limbo. Of course people want to escape their current travails but some prefer to avoid the challenge of the future by looking backwards to a romanticised past when things were ‘better’ in ways they may find difficult to articulate. Perhaps some look back to childhood or adolescence, when they had fewer responsibilities, forgetting that their parents faced difficulties of their own that might have made them, in their turn, yearn for an easier, ‘simpler’ time.
One could brutally express this as “the present is unsustainable and the past is irrecoverable, so there’s nothing but the future, and it’s going to happen so you’d better get aboard.” But such an in-your-face message isn’t going to persuade anyone. The challenge is to bring people along, to persuade them that, though not everything about the future is clear, and perhaps not everything will be entirely to their taste, there’s enough to be hopeful about. And whatever mechanisms are used for regeneration, the managers of it have to reassure people that it will happen with their involvement and cooperation, and at a manageable rate.
I’ll probably develop some of those thoughts in the essays, calling out those artists who seem not particularly concerned about the issue. There’s also this year’s Triennial theme, Double Edge, an idea to be considered geographically, historically, economically, etc. I’d be astonished if there hasn’t been a massive uptick in local (if not the locals’) use of the word ‘liminality’. Again, I’ll consider that, but as a general heads-up: some of the artists have engaged with it pretty well and some seem to have largely ignored it.
There are twenty Triennial artists but some of the works are multi-part and spread around the town; there’s a list and a map (pdf) here, though for those with time it’s equally fun to wander around and encounter them randomly – there are a number of old Triennial pieces that I still haven’t tracked down.
As for ‘imposition from above’, there’s some public information about the Triennial before its launch but it operates to some degree as a (hopefully, benign) intervention. The works don’t just plop onto the town overnight like invaders from Mars; they’re introduced gradually, unannounced – some were constructed in public. This might be whimsicality but also an attempt to encourage people to engage with their environment, to notice changes and to contemplate their import. It certainly encourages some discussion. And of course that rate of change also allows people to start to digest one change before the next one arrives. Conversely, unless you use the map, some of the works are so small an unobtrusively placed as to make them easy to miss…
Despite the theme, the tag-line is really Bob and Robert Smith’s Folkestone is an Art School, a declaration that appears everywhere. In that spirit, there’s also a series of non-Triennial pieces and, something I particularly like, a number of completely unofficial interventions: anonymous or semi-anonymous pieces popping up all over the place. Where it seems to me that I’ve got something worth saying about them, I’ll say something .
For more on art-as-regeneration (and evidence that it’s not a recent phenomenon), here’s a small selection of links. Their bibliographies will lead you further down the rabbit hole than I’ve been concerned to go.