VIDEO: What on earth does any of this mean?

The Whitstable Biennale arts festival takes place in June

by Joanne Bartley

I organise a local writer’s group and last week a Whitstable Biennale “learning curator” contacted me to share details of a writing workshop.

Great, I thought, a free event for local writers! How foolish I was. This is the Biennale and pretentious arty randomness subverts every good idea.

The workshop was described as a “sentient value systems writing workshop”. No, I don’t know what that means either.

The description asked: “How can writing help us reflect on value? How can the process of articulating the value of the immaterial (experiences, emotions, affections, affects, interactions) revitalise our capacity for solidarity and collective agency? We will reflect on what currency and trade could mean by imagining and subverting value systems.”

I tried to articulate how the values of this description made me feel, but my experiences, emotions, affections, affects, and interactions were overwhelmed by how much utter gibberish it was.

Joanne Bartley: “Utter gibberish.”

It went on: “Only an act of language escaping the technical automatisms of financial capitalism will make possible the emergence of a new life form.”

Financial capitalism and new life forms? My writers usually write romance or crime stories. Do we need to bring a pen?

Whitstable is an arty little town but the Biennale is a step too far for most of us. It confuses locals for 10 days every two years. Most people don’t ever talk about this problem because they don’t know how to pronounce Biennale.

I noticed another writing workshop, a “swimming and writing workshop”. I was worried about the paper getting wet, but I thought I’d check it out.

“An exploration of the body in the water as a site of knowledge production,” it said. I think that means sitting in the sea with a notebook.

It’s “an experience in sensuous scholarship, negotiating the relationship between ways of knowing. Critical swimming draws from the questions posed by peripatetic philosophy, adapted to what Neimanis calls “the gestational logic” of water. Participants are called to engage different registers of discourse, and explore embodied thought from a state of immersion, combining a sense of urgency with a sense of ‘being at sea”.

I decided to Google what a Neimanis was. It turns out she’s a professor of post-human feminist phenomenology. I didn’t Google phenomenology, I just gave up.

Of course you could argue that it’s harmless enough for the organisers to use big words in an attempt to scare away the ordinary people, but there is a serious side to this too.

Organisers say the Whitstable Biennale attracts thousands to the town

The Whitstable Biennale has an annual budget of £280,000 with money provided by the Arts Council, Kent County Council and a few other grants.

It has a lot of cash to spend on our town but the whole thing seems to be designed to impress the Guardian arts editor rather than art-loving locals.

A typical Biennale event is Rise Tiding, a movement workshop described as “A durational dance assembly choreographed by the tide, that’s a longform score of movement and attendance, a gathering of heterogeneous bodies, a dance of and with the environment”.

How many people know what heterogeneous means, let alone want to dance durationally on a Thursday afternoon?

Maybe I’m wrong about all this. The Biennale accounts say that the 2016 festival attracted 66,077 visitors. That means it’s more popular than the Oyster Festival, which managed 60,000 visitors on a much smaller budget of £30,000.

I’m afraid I can’t help wondering if the Biennale curators used a little artistic licence with their very exact 66,077 visitor figure. My family of four were among the 66,077 two years ago. One Sunday afternoon we visited three events. I noticed around a dozen other people. Did the 66,059 people visit another day?

Net curtain art in Whitstable

We went to “Squeezing within Squeeze Gut” where a Whitstable alley had some voile fabric hanging up. There wasn’t any queue to see this net curtain suspension, it was just us.

Then we visited the Horsbridge to see a film about a walk from Greenwich to Kent. It was a fiver each so we decided not to bother. There were about ten people in the cinema.

Next we went to “Aint Got No Fear”, a short film showing in the youth club. It was set on the Isle of Grain and involved youths popping up in various locations wearing masks and chanting a rap they’d written.

The amateur rap and scary masks were accompanied by crushing noises recorded during the demolition of the local power plant.

“What is this, Mum?” my son asked, as the teenagers hammered on a policeman’s helmet. “It’s an art film,” I told him, hoping he wouldn’t ask what the story was about.

I was glad there were only two other people at the screening, that made it easier to sneak out without enduring this crushing art for the full 10 minutes.

I didn’t get much out of Biennale 2016 but I will try to enjoy it this time. A huge budget is spent filling our town with free art.

It is surely the duty of every Whitstable resident to try to find pleasure in this event. To be fair it is quite nice to stumble upon performance art while walking on the beach, some of that stuff is comedy gold.

To get yourself in the Biennale mood why not try some YouTube highlights from previous years?

Man in blue pyjamas with wheel on head dancing slowly while Viking ladies hold branches:

Women in old fashioned skirts sit in circle weaving, while old man stands too close:

Lady has hair combed by man while sitting in front of a film about fingers wiggling:

The Biennale welcome page says: “Life is only worth living because we hope it will get better and we’ll all get home safely.”

It’s a nice sentiment. I hope the Biennale will get better and that the Guardian arts editor gets home safely.

  • Whitstable Biennale 2018 takes place from June 2 to June 10. Click here for more information.

Joanne Bartley is a writer and education campaigner. She lives in Whitstable with her husband Stephen, a Canterbury city councillor.


  1. I’m not sure what you’re getting so upset about, to be honest. This year, 2018, was my first experience of the Biennale and I thought it might all be arty-farty and affected, too. A few bits were. But for the most part it was funny, entertaining, often moving. Did you not see the Lady Garden embroideries in the beach hut? Or the pretty amazing, deeply involving films at the Horsebridge? You saw all the little artworks dotted along the beach? The marine images, the fish and starfish, all along Stream Walk? And so on and so on. I was really sorry when it was over. Oh, and yes, the programme was hilarious. My husband and I read it to each other, crying with laughter, in the pub. I treasure that thing now!


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here