“A walk from riches to rags” is how Folkestone Triennial curator Andrea Schlieker described the event she has been working on for the past three years. It was Friday, the exhibition’s opening day, and we were standing at the “riches” end: the sunlit ballroom of the Metropole Hotel, a luscious relic of the Kentish coastal town’s Edwardian boom years as a holiday resort. As David Batchelor’s Disco Mechanique—comprising dozens of motorized faux glitter balls made from thirty-four hundred interlaced pairs of colorful Brazilian sunglasses—twirled in the room’s center, Schlieker promised “a string of pearls from the east to the west,” one made up of twenty-two artist projects, mostly by marquee names but with a surprising number hailing from the region, who have “responded to and articulated the town’s different levels of wealth.”
Though the artists frequently depart from Schlieker’s template—while nevertheless paying admirable attention to the local—“different levels” is right: Folkestone, like many an English seaside town, is half-sunk in desuetude. English tourists have long since taken to going abroad to escape English weather, and the town’s industry isn’t entirely healthy. “Since the ferry terminal to France closed down, Folkestone’s been on the slide, so the triennial is great,” one optimistic invigilator opined later, as we stood on a breezy hilltop at the far end of town. There, I was trying to fly one of Nils Norman, Gavin Wade, and Simon and Tom Bloor’s kites emblazoned with sardonic bits of “regeneration-speak”: e.g., UNEVEN DEVELOPMENT and HIPSTERIZATION STRATEGIES. Here, and in Adam Chodzko’s video, Pyramid, housed in a disused town-center shop and depicting Folkestone as first cursed, then magically rejuvenated, one sensed that if artists are going to be instruments of regeneration, they’re not necessarily going to keep quiet about it.
Will the triennial boost tourism? “I’m just here to see Folkestone, really,” offered current Turner Prize nominee Mark Leckey, who I bumped into on the windswept beachfront while I failed, even with map in hand, to find one of Tracey Emin’s miniature Baby Things bronzes (socks, shoes, teddies, etc.). Jeremy Deller, there to choreograph a series of outdoor slapstick performances, was relatively circumspect. “It’s just more art, isn’t it?” he said, reasonably enough. By this point, we were on a coach, hurtling toward lunch and overtaking curator Greg Hilty, who was riding a strange bike with a loudspeaker attached. Those who mocked him—me included—hadn’t been apprised of Kaffe Matthews’s Marvelo Project, wherein GPS technology triggers sounds as you ride her cycles around town. “Hark how fresh and varied the sonic landscape becomes,” Matthews writes in the catalogue. The sounds might at least drown out certain noises that are fresh in a different way. For example, the Folkestone youth we encountered shortly before, leaning out of their passing car and gleefully shouting “Cunts!” at our group, which included Richard Wentworth, who at that moment was explaining his series of signs identifying nonindigenous trees growing in the area. “Folkestone,” sighed Wentworth absently, giving the hooligans the peace sign.
Lunch, in a big tent in a spectacularly dismal part of the docks, turned out to be fish and chips, with—heresy!—no salt and vinegar, which suggested a few gaps in the organizers’ knowledge regarding the fundamentals of the seaside experience. (Should this disaster ever afflict you, try art historian Claire Bishop’s lateral solution: a drizzle of white wine.) Some things you can rely on, though: As the afternoon wore on, in classic English seaside style the rain fell. Cue punters taking shelter beside Mark Dion’s Mobile Gull Appreciation Unit, a bird-shaped info center on wheels, where the affable American dispensed facts about the local birdlife; or in Tacita Dean’s screening room, where the Berlin-based expat is presenting a characteristically beautiful 16-mm film of a boat crossing the English Channel at sunrise.
And then—prior to a packed evening party back at the marquee, which led into a firework display—the sun came out again, as if it had been planned that way by the show’s ultimate organizer (that being Roger de Haan, former chairman of Folkestone’s biggest employers, insurance and holiday specialists Saga, who has invested heavily in the town and “lives in a weird glass house” outside it, according to a local cabbie). On the train home, it became apparent that there are some things you don’t really want second helpings of—such as fish and chips, even when purchased by Antony Gormley and consumed in the genial company of Sir Nicholas Serota and his writer-curator partner, Teresa Gleadowe, curators Alex Farquharson and Polly Staple, and Cabinet magazine’s Brian Dillon (who’d all already moved on to matters other than Folkestone). Over at the next table, meanwhile, the ideal tribute to an enjoyably exhausting day came from Leckey—who, by then, was lodged deep in blissful sleep.