To get to Salma Ashraf’s two-screen film in Whitstable Museum there’s a wealth of local history that first needs to be negotiated – glass vitrines containing items such as a ship’s barometer and compass; an old bright red horse-drawn fire engine; a large green ornamental fish leaping above a door arch. As permanent residents of this quirky volunteer-run museum, these objects have nothing to do with the fleetingly temporary Whitstable Biennale (which lasts for just nine days), yet their proximity is indicative of the way that the festival, with minimal fuss, eases itself into the year-round rhythm of this tiny seaside town in Kent best known for its oysters. It is a polite interruption, a gentle encroachment that, since it launched in 2002, has trod lightly and been careful not to break things – items of historic local interest included.
Ashraf’s film, Chalta Hi Gaya, 2017, operates at a similar level of stealth. With headphones on and seated on embroidered cushions, the viewer eavesdrops on the domestic conversations of a young British Muslim family whose faces we never see. English subtitles intermittently translate key moments: the girl whose hijab was pulled off her on the bus and no-one said anything; the school boy interrogated under the Prevent scheme after his teacher heard he’d been given a toy gun as a present; the woman searched at the airport on her way to Pakistan. Despite the unpleasantness of these scenarios there’s an undercurrent of familial warmth and humour, a sense of the home as an emotionally and culturally protective space, evoked in part through the cocooning feeling of half-viewed interiors and sunlight filtered through gently rippling net curtains.
Chalta Hi Gaya is a work that sits neatly with the stated theme of the biennale, directed by Sue Jones since 2005, and which takes inspiration for this edition from Deborah Levy’s 2011 novel Swimming Home and in particular its repeated coda: ‘Life is only worth living because we hope it will get better and we’ll all get safely home’. You can pick up three new short pieces of writing by Levy at the small independent Oxford Street Books. Commissioned by the biennale, during the opening day of the festival the author reads from them as she leans against a concrete sea wall on Whitstable’s main beach. There’s more activity on the beach itself, part of a changing daily programme of events throughout the nine days which includes a number of new commissions. People sit cross-legged on the shingle wearing wireless headphones and listening to a variety of sea and ecology-themed sound works. A little out of town to the east on another shingle beach I join a gaggle of people in groups of three for Bernice Donszelmann, Lucy Gunning and Helen Robertson’s durational piece [these roarers] (2018), and find myself contemplating the North Sea – and a large collection of wind turbines – as I sway backwards and forwards while reading an extract from Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse (1927). After a while we break for lunch, provided by the artists, and I can’t help thinking that other biennales should dispense with their aura of self-importance and adopt Whitstable’s homely, folksy approach.
There’s plenty more performances across town throughout the festival, taking in venues such as the Sea Cadets’ Hall and the Labour Club. But it is the mostly film-based exhibitions and a daily artists’ short film programme that provide the biennale’s backbone, spanning 11 spaces, all of which are a short walk from each other. Only one of these – the community-run Horsebridge Arts Centre – is an actual arts venue, but then Whitstable’s population is fewer than 35,000 and using unconventional spaces is a necessity rather than a curatorial experiment in exhibiting beyond the white cube.
In a carpeted alcove of the Spoon Web DVD shop there’s a TV monitor showing Rosie Carr’s The Photocopier Who Fell in Love With Me (2016), a witty if insubstantial tale of Ballardian fixation that channels an office worker’s alienation into an unrequited love affair between woman and machine: ‘I want to open up your lid,’ she intones to the object of her desire. Above the public library in the ‘lecture hall’ there’s Phoebe Cunningham’s rather hammily acted two-screen film installation, I am one with the people (2018), featuring interchangeable male and female politicians who promise the world to voters while gradually, and not entirely convincingly, succumbing to their own personal crises. Further along the high street a sound work by Sophie Lee broadcasts intermittently from a church bell tower; in a swelteringly hot shipping container on the harbour Kris Lock & Josephine Sweeney’s The Vase in the Container (2018) tells a made-up story about the real Kolyvan Vase, presenting an imagined future where the physical and virtual appear to conflate and contort.
It’s a very real and perplexing story – that of the left-wing activist Rudi Dutschke (1940–79) who was shot at close range in Berlin in 1968, then welcomed in the UK before being expelled in 1971 – that drives the narrative of Sarah Wood’s engrossing two-monitor film, Memory of the Future (2018). Installed in the Horsebridge’s tiny Gallery 2, with windows onto the street that make the space feel a bit like a shop front, it’s a whipsmart unpicking of postwar Europe that uses found footage and the artist’s thoughtful historical perspective to knit together personal experience and political expediency. It covers a lot of ground in its 28 minutes – the Blitz, May ’68, the war in Syria, the refugee crisis, the UK asylum process, Brexit – but Wood is in no rush. Film clips and other imagery act as markers and gentle prods and the artist isn’t afraid to leave one or even both screens totally blank as thoughts flicker and hopes fade. I sat through it three times during my two-day visit, the people and cars passing by on the street outside a constant reminder of ordinary life being lived – and of the role of Whitstable itself in shaping the viewer’s experience of this strangely affecting biennale.
The 2018 Whitstable Biennale continues until 10 June.
Main image: Bernice Donszelmann, Lucy Gunning & Helen Robertson, [these roarers], 2018, performance documentation. Courtesy: Whitstable Biennial; photograph: Lou Lou Sainsbury