At the end of June this year, the English town of Folkestone hosted the Festival of Looking – an event which took place within the Magic Carpets European exchange programme. The admirably lively and active art scene of this small, but picturesque town was enriched by yet another contribution to its culture.
Folkestone, a town of fifty thousand, is located in the county of Kent on the southeastern coast of England, near the English Channel. The city neighbours Dover and its large port is located where the Channel is narrowest. On a good day, you can see the continent from the cliffs at the edge of town. Folkestone has a rich history. The area is interesting in its geology, and particularly the sediments near the shore promise any palaeontologist a rich bounty of ammonites, brachiopods and other such creatures. Records of human habitation also reach deep into the past – among the oldest records is a recently discovered Roman villa from the end of the 1st century BC. Another example of ancient architecture is the parish Church of St Mary and St Eanswythe, built in 1138, a reminder that there was a Christian monastery here in the 720s. The town saw significant development with the arrival of the industrial revolution at the beginning of the 19th century. From a small fishing town, Folkestone gradually turned into an important industrial and merchant port, once the largest in the south of England. In 1810, a new inner dock was built from stone, as well as a monumental harbour jetty reaching almost a kilometre out to sea. The year 1843 was crucial for the town’s development – the railway station opened. Thousands of tonnes of fish, wood, coal and ice now reached the harbour and were reloaded onto trains to be distributed around the country. Folkestone is a witness and an integral part of the radical transformation of society; industrialisation; modernisation. In addition to a thriving industry, the seaside town with its impressive panorama also became a recreation resort, with luxury villas being built on the shore. H. G. Wells is among the most famous residents from the beginning of the 20th century – he had the architect Voysey build him a beautiful villa in the spirit of the arts and crafts movement using the money he had made from sales of War of the Worlds. Only a few metres away, Sir Robert Baden-Powell – the founder of the scouting movement – found his retirement home. Folkestone was an important military port in both world wars. In the first, it was famous for being the port which all British units used to get to the continent. In the second, Folkestone repeatedly suffered heavy bombing – the extent of the damage to the harbour was similar to nearby Dover. After World War II, Folkestone became a harbour for passenger ships, with millions of tourists from continental Europe arriving each year. This new role, however, only worked until the Eurotunnel under the English Channel opened with great pomp and ceremony. The harbour closed, the historical railway connection was cancelled and the city ran into trouble. A local private investor then entered the game, buying up most of the large residua of industry and making them available to artists, renovating the jetty and turning it into a meeting place full of dining, live concerts, a beautiful view and also a source of income for non-profit art projects. Since 2008, Folkestone has hosted a triennial of sculpture in public space. Thanks to a generously conceived acquisition policy, many of the works were purchased, so after four editions of the triennial, Folkestone is literally full of sculptures and installations by well-known artists: Tracey Emin, Mark Wallinger, Yoko Ono, Cornelia Parker and others.
The reason for this extensive retelling of the town’s history is the fact that Folkestone’s transformation was the central theme of the Festival of Looking, which took place during the last June weekend of this year. The non-profit Folkestone Fringe was the main organiser while Georgie Scott the main curator. The event was composed of smaller exhibitions, performances and installations in the public space of the town, as well as lectures and gallery performances, with several exhibition spaces taking part. The heart of the festival and home of the liveliest activity was a wooden structure near the historical harbour – Urban Room Folkestone. On top of the lectures and presentations, there were also two smaller exhibitions on show. Maps of the town’s urbanist developments were comprehensively presented on the walls, including a hypothetical view into the future. There were also several installations by contemporary artists. A video installation on the topic of play by Gemma Riggs was the result of her stay in Zagreb. Daniel Tollady’s Urban Archive: Folkestone presented a peculiar combination of archeological, geological and sociological research into the Folkestone harbour, also including the visitors, who could take away a sample of rock from the former freight railway earthworks encased in an elegant box. Only a few metres from the Urban Room, on the former railroad tracks, visiting artist Patrick Hubmann created his mobile site-specific installation Grand Plaza Express in collaboration with local artist Mitchell Bloomfield. Using construction material, the artists created a representation of a passenger car from the 19th century and let it roll down the remnants of the rusty tracks leading somewhere into the harbour. This improvised mode of transport also became a platform for a happening involving the local inhabitants (both underage and adults) in creative action. Hubmann, an Austrian resident of Portugal, was nominated by Ideias Emergentes, based in Porto, and he spent several weeks preparing his Folkestone installation. It is a bit of a shame that the relatively demanding realisation lasted such a short time. Another artist from abroad who spent a longer time in Folkestone was Ana Dana Beroš from Croatia. This versatile artist works with architecture, action art, poetry and politics. Her happening, Landing Mirrors, took a group of participants on an adventurous pilgrimage through the suburban wilderness, interspersed with readings from Hannah Arendt and culminating on a chalk cliff with an enthralling view over the English Channel. At the peak of this cliff – at the finish-line of the happening – stood a remarkable technical heritage building: concrete parabolic structure ten metres in diameter, the remnant of an acoustic warning system from the beginning of the 20th century; a precursor of radar. A happening by a group of architecture students from Canterbury Masterhackers also took the form of a stroll – this time along the subtle and forgotten corners of urban space: heterotopias. The lecture programme in the Urban Room included a presentation by Diane Dever, a key figure in Folkestone’s cultural life. Dever, herself an active artist, helps run the non-profit activities of Folkestone Fringe and organise events in the reconstructed harbour.
A lecture by former fisherman and Folkestone historian Alan F. Taylor was also very impressive. Taylor owns a collection of tens of thousands of historical photographs and postcards of the seaside town, which are his material not only for lectures, but also publications and – most importantly – a very cute private fishing museum located about fifty metres from the Urban Room.
The diverse and inventively composed programme of the Festival of Looking proved that Folkestone is not only a town with a confident cultural scene, but also that there is a new generation listening intently to their predecessors, a generation hell-bent on maintaining and reinforcing the genius loci and transforming the old English port into a harbour of culture. Fingers crossed!
Milan Mikuláštík is an artist and curator.