Folkestone’s on the edge of something

England’s seaside towns are unlike anywhere else in the world. They were the places that the country’s industrial workforce went for rest and relaxation, certainly, but the mass market that appeared there meant that they were also the places that industry carried out its research and development. Seaside towns are scattered with rusted remains of prototyped cutting-edge technology, from concrete seawalls and cliff paths secured by man-made stone to mechanical marine lifts and electric railways. So Folkestone, overlooked on the South Coast because Dover, Hastings and Brighton have more pizazz, is an interesting place for an international arts festival, especially as it became a prime stopping-off point, as people abandoned the south coast’s seaside and headed for the continent.

There are two strands to Folkestone’s festival – the ‘official’ bit is the Folkestone Triennial, titled ‘Lookout’. Running alongside it is the Folkestone Fringe, on the theme of ‘Future Now’. Both run from 30th August-2nd November, and together, they’re a very good reason for (at the very least) a daytrip to Folkestone. In all honesty, you’d need a weekend to fit it all in, especially as events, installations and interventions are spread out across the town, with some walking needed to get from one to another. Our one-day visit with children was certainly not long enough to get more than a glimpse of an interesting event.

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We started at the Art Car Boot Fair. This I was excited about; I’ve seen reviews of this in London, but never been able to make it (not living in London, I can’t always get there). The idea is simple; well-known artists and emerging artists side-by-side, selling affordable work from the boot of a car. The reality, though, was a little different. Emerging artists and small galleries made all the effort, with new work and a degree of performance in their presentations. Tom Swift and Paul Hazelton‘s De-In-Stall, Heidi Plant and Julia Riddiough (pictured), Bayle Window Lost Pigeon Archive, Quiet British Accent, Hello Print and Sadie Hennessey stood out. Collectively, these artists created a chaotic carnival atmosphere.

The name artists, meanwhile, knocked out work to a willing audience of ebay dealers who were throwing cash at them. At the Emin International stall, a proper fight broke out between two pushy dealers. Meanwhile, Peter Blake didn’t make an appearance, but you could buy a colour photocopy of an old Folkestone postcard with his signature on it for £60 from a trestle table. Now – I’m a huge Peter Blake fan and own half-a-dozen of his works, but even I can see that’s just lazy.

Just round the corner from the Art Car Boot, on the platforms of the abandoned Folkestone Harbour station, Tim Etchells has installed ‘Is Why The Place’, a pair of neon signs, one on the ‘up’ and one on the ‘down’ platform. This work is simple but effective, occupying the space well. We saw it twice; on the first visit, families were wandering along the abandoned rail tracks and climbing across both platforms, unguided urban explorers. On the second, a steward had stopped people leaving the platform they entered on; the work was far more powerful when you could explore the station, rather than being a passive viewer, standing on one side and looking across to the other. And I think people can manage that slight risk for themselves.

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Adjacent to the station, in an old waiting room or ticket office, is a small exhibition, presumably part of the fringe but unsignposted and unlabelled. It’s well worth finding – the work is about travel and journeys and the atmosphere of the unloved space (pictured below) is a perfect complement to the art.

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We wandered along the seafront after the station, visiting the Folkestone Future Choir‘s ‘Lookout!’ before stopping at a battered white shipping container under AK Dolven’s piece ‘Out of Tune’. This bell, suspended high in the air between two poles, is a beautiful piece of public art, and a permanent addition to Folkestone’s seafront since the 2011 Triennial. It rings out over an abandoned space, left when a seafront amusement park closed.

The booklet explaining the work in the shipping container, Centipede, wasn’t available to take away. Which fits – the container was a secret research laboratory, funded by the EU, with a range of equipment monitoring the local area for signs of the mysterious centipede. Secret equipment, mounted on a tuk tuk, was wrapped in tarpaulin. Everything’s waiting to be uncovered here and I like the mystery.

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From the seafront we wandered back into town, through the Creative Quarter. These steep, narrow streets are giving Folkestone a new heart, full of quirky and interesting shops. Somewhere in here (but we overlooked it – ironic in a festival called Lookout, no?) is Andy Goldsworthy’s shop. We did watch Strange Cargo scanning people, though.

We headed for Wilkinson’s, instead – in search of both flip-flops and Hollington & Kyprianou‘s The Castle, art inspired by the idea that as every Englishman’s home is his castle, so he should carry out DIY improvements. Some great interventions in the shop are confusing shoppers.

In search of fresh air, we headed back towards the seafront, walking along the clifftop and stopping to watch the headless chicken of Whithervanes before catching the lift down to the beach again.

We headed back towards the harbour, where most Fringe and Triennial activity seems to be happening. Gabriel Lester’s bamboo pagoda over the unused railway line was closed, officially, but is actually uncloseable so was soon reopened by people-power. Straddling the line and with a view down to the station and ‘Is Why The Place’, it’s a calm space in a place that should be inaccessible and busy.

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The pagoda looks out towards the Grand Bustin, a monolithic hotel with architecture like something from Soviet Russia. Perched just above the highest balcony is Alex Hartley’s Vigil. Hartley has installed a climber’s camp, hanging outside the top floor rooms. This spot, the artist says, is ‘a unique vantage point from which to look out over the sea and back over the town [from which] a lone occupant will inhabit these exposed ledges, acting as a lookout over the sea, harbour and extended coastline.’ That’s a beautiful, poetic explanation, so I was looking forward to seeing Vigil – and I enjoyed the feeling, walking around the town, that there was somebody up there, watching over us. However, it’s not unique vantage point nor a lonely spot, as hotel visitors have much the same view from their balconies, and I’m not sure the work stands up to this contradiction.

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Round the corner from the pagoda is a piece which really isn’t quiet. Michael Sailstorfer has rather won the Triennial with Folkestone Dig. £10,000 worth of small gold bars have been buried on a small beach by the harbour. Dig, find them, they’re yours. This simple idea has created an incredibly powerful work, bringing hundreds of people together every day in a communal activity with a selfish end. It’s a spectacle, worth watching from the harbour wall – but it has also created an incredibly social space, where strangers happily talk to each other while doing a job of work which they know has little chance of success. And that’s totally in the spirit of Folkestone and the seaside town; a place where holidays were an industry, where work is about leisure.

So, with the Triennial and Fringe, it seems that Folkestone is finding a way of reinventing itself, presenting challenging art in public places. It’s certainly worth your time to visit, and you’ll find meaning, challenge and enjoyment when you do. But Folkestone’s still very rough around the edges (it felt much, much harsher than Margate, say) and while that adds an edge, it also left me a little uneasy. A couple of times, I saw locals reacting angrily to the art – similar to the problem faced by Turner Contemporary in Margate.

I really believe that good art (considered, careful, made for the site and calmly explained) can make the places we live, better. And I hope that with events like the Folkestone Fringe and the Folkestone Triennial, we can persuade other people of the power of art in public spaces, too. That, yet again, England’s seaside towns are the research and development spaces for society. Spectacle, yes; challenge, for sure; but enjoyment, shared experience, education, and enlightenment too.

Those who argue…

Those who argue that there is an element of the work of art in any locality study, and particularly in one-man studies, have undoubtedly some truth on their side. But this element of the work of art enters into any sociological research.

Margaret Stacey, The Myth of Community Dtudies, 1969

Where’s the artist?

10014578_10151955518951050_850719480_nThere was a moment during Bedford Happy which raised an interesting question; ‘Where’s the artist?

On Saturday, left behind, is the answer. The photographer we had documenting the day was taking a photograph of everyone involved – the Bedford Happy gang, the choir, Bedford Creative Arts production team, assorted artists, and so on. But me, the artist? Left out of it.

Talking to Lloyd Davis, who was helping document the day, we realised that in some ways, that’s the sign of a job well done. The social artist is an alchemist, mixing things up, making things happen, lighting the touchpaper – but a good alchemist doesn’t really want to be part of the bang itself.

But it’s important to remember that Bedford Happy was a work of art, not an event. It had a narrative, the stories gathered by the artist about what makes people happy, which were used to weave the day together.

It used the whole town as a venue, because that served an artistic purpose – to remind people, by using they spaces that they already knew in different ways, that they were special places and that Bedford, as a whole, is a beautiful place.

And it had a very strong aesthetic, a sense of beauty which held all the diverse parts together. (And that worked so well, one lady was overheard talking about how ‘those Happy people’ were everywhere. We were a small team – we weren’t. But the branding was that strong that it looked as if we were.)

So, where’s the artist? There, behind it, underneath it all, interwoven into the fabric of the artwork. So maybe not in the big group photo, but very much there.

PS This photo, taken later by the ace Graham Watson from We Can Creative, does have me in it – because I insisted. 🙂 

The Social Artist Podcast

Lloyd DavisThe trouble with being a social artist in a small town is that it can be rather solitary. And it’s an area of work that’s fed by discussion, debate, a bit of discourse. So – good fellow, fine chum and all-round top chap Lloyd Davis (left, photographed on our Workshop 24 project) have decided to address that, by having a conversation regularly, and recording it as a podcast.

Here’s the first one. A little rough, sans exciting jingles, and Lloyd sounds a bit quiet in places; but where else will you get happiness, Mary Portas, Jeremy Deller, Humphrey Lyttleton at Conway Hall, Bryony Kimmings, William Gibson on bohemias, the tidal Thames, The Story conference, a mysterious trunk belonging (maybe) to Powell-Cotton and the Arcadia Sweetshop all in one podcast? Nowhere, that’s where.

Download the Social Artist podcast – it’s about 30 minutes long – here.

A workshop that showed social media works

P1070426I’m often asked to talk about social media, and have discussed the subject at conferences, workshops and discussions for the last few years. I’ve never claimed to be an expert (I don’t think there are any, and certainly don’t think there are rules to follow). But social media is very much part of the work that I do, and is wrapped into everything Revolutionary Arts has ever done since we created artistsandmakers.com, which let users set up a profile and create their own content. So I have some practical, grounded experience to share.

But as a social artist, I don’t think just talking about social media is enough. It only really works when you couple the words with some action. Like the Pink fairies say, ‘Don’t talk about it man, all you gotta do is do it’. I’m a social artist because I want to make things happen.

So when long-term collaborator Steve Bomford asked me to come back to Portsmouth for Global Entrepreneurship Week I said yes – as long as we could do more than talk. I wanted to bring together people who wanted to learn more about social media, find out what they had in common, and create a live project by the end of the workshop. So about twenty people, with diverse experiences and skills, came together at Portsmouth’s impressive Guildhall in November.

I thought we might get a Facebook page, or a Flickr group, or some kind of funky mashup. But Portsmouth’s finest creative minds went one further, and used social media to create a one-day busking festival, Southsea Sunday.

The event, just a few weeks after the workshop, focused attention on local shops and cafes in the run up to Christmas, and raised funds for Southsea’s Food Bank.

Even better, the gang that met at the workshop are still working together, and are planning what’s next:

So one afternoon, a good room with coffee and biscuits and reliable wifi, and you can not only learn what social media is and how it works, but test that in action and have some fun doing it. I’d love to repeat the workshop  elsewhere and see what a different twenty people come up with. Get in touch if you’d like that to happen.

The Pillar Street Essays 1

And but one word with one of us? Couple it with something. Make it a word and a blow.

Romeo & Juliet, Act III Scene I

Words are interesting, with power and meaning, and how we use them as social artists makes a big difference to our work. Using Plain English, just one word where ten would do, helps. Coupling words with actions is even better. That’s why hashtags are so good. Short, simple, and usually related to an action.

Worthing drainSo look at the things local residents write about community issues and you can understand a lot. Like the letter one resident posted to every house in Pillar Street.

It’s about the ‘problem’ of children playing out in the street after school, ‘which has made many residents unhappy’. Now – you could easily read the letter and think there’s an important issue here. Danger, even! But don’t we all believe that children should be playing out in the street? Hasn’t the playing out actually made many other residents happy? An older citizen I met at the weekend, said she loved seeing children playing on her street. Of course, happy people tend not to write letters and stuff them through letterboxes.

The increased play is the result of the street getting younger, as more families move in. It’s part of a natural urban cycle.

Children have as much right to the pavement and the road as everybody else. And if they’re out, we should watch out for each other’s children, pick them up when they scrape a knee, be the ‘eyes upon the street’ that Jane Jacobs talks about. There’s nothing as safe as a busy street where children are playing, parents are watching, and people are passing through. Streets need diversity, and life, and scraped knees, and noise.

To understand what’s really going on, unpick what people write. In the letter stuffed through Pillar Street letterboxes, there are about 300 words. 18 sentences. Of which, 10 are about the person writing the letter – ‘I am a…’, ‘I arranged the…’, ‘my own children’, ‘I thank you all’ and so on. Is it really about the neighbourhood, about Pillar Street, or just about one person who’s struggling with change?

The letter has inspired me, as a social artist and a community organiser, to write The Pillar Street Essays, which will look at some of the issues covered in this first post in more detail. The aim of writing will be to help other social artists and community organisers to do what brings benefit to the most people, even if it is momentarily disruptive, and not to give up because the loudest voices demand things stay as they always have been.

The Pillar Street Essays are inspired by living in one road in Worthing for three years, and look at how the social artist and the community organiser can work in a small neighbourhood. There is no Pillar Street on the map of Worthing, but this is a real place, and these are real people. Pillar Street is a short, one way road on the edge of the town centre. It’s next to the main park in town, and near to the hospital, with a community centre in the next street. The housing is probably late Victorian, terraced on one side with larger, detached properties (some converted into flats) on the other. Some people have lived here for many years, but in the last few years more young families have moved in, attracted by lower house prices than in nearby Brighton.

Laughing in Peel Precinct

The square could be a filmset. There’s a pub on the corner, a row of shops (flats above), a park and the Oxford Kilburn club, the school a few doors down. An empty film set now, waiting for the crew, lights, actors, props. A script, of course, and a script.

All London life is here. The whole estate, eleven blocks, 170 floors, tilts up from the square. Rises from the central point, a CCTV camera post, out to the edges – the broad sweep of the train tracks out of Euston, the gentle terraces and Tin Church of Kilburn Park Road. Rises, packed with people; more people than the architects, throwing out the better standards of the Housing Manual 1949 in favour of high-rise living with a bonus for each extra floor built can ever have imagined.

The estate is like Babel after the fall, everyone speaking a different language: English, Somali, Arabic, Portugese, Filipino, Amharic, Yoruba, Albanian, Urdu. And where there should be a noise, a joyous noise unto the Lord, a babble… instead is silence. Nobody talks, everyone walks quietly, quickly. Heads down, hoods up.

Except for two beautiful girls in headscarves, giggling and smiling, chatting and texting, meandering through this and that. They’re the life of South Kilburn. The point, the purpose. Despite the crushing weight of the tower blocks tilting in, the paranoia of the CCTV camera in the centre of the square, the fear of the shops’ shutters, they’re laughing. Happy to be here, today, in Peel Precinct.