Last week I was in Folkestone, doing a collaborative micro-residency with artist and writer Sydney Hart at LOW&HIGH interdisciplinary platform. On the last day of the project (called ‘Vacant Value’) we presented some work in progress, showing videos and talking with plenty of interjections from the audience who helped keep things lively and conversational. I showed my video of ‘research’ while explaining some of the ideas behind it, mainly visibility and resolution as value systems and how they relate to Folkestone.

In my video, I capture men – and it was only men- wearing high-vis jackets, while wearing one myself. This alluded to our first presentation (on day one of the residency), which was delivered wearing high vis and touched on the idea of construction, especially of idealised spaces. For example the artist residency as an idealised space for creativity; nature as an idealised space beyond commodification; and regeneration through culture as the idealised mode of urbansiation.

This last one is especially relevant to Folkestone, which appears to be attempting the Hoxton effect on speed, thanks to a local organization, the Creative Foundation, which buys out, does up and rents out spaces on the cheap for creative businesses. This foundation, keen on regenerating the town, is also behind the Triennial- opening this weekend- suggesting they have read the likes of Richard Florida, who asserts that the cities that thrive- economically, culturally and in terms of population- are the ones that can attract and keep what he terms the creative class: ‘a fast-growing, highly educated, and well-paid segment of the workforce on whose efforts corporate profits and economic growth increasingly depend’. This all gives Folkestone an air of ‘in construction’- much like an artist ‘emerging’, the town has a feeling of being almost there: full of potential (to put a positive spin on it) or else in limbo, with fully ‘established’ status tantalisingly out of reach.

Magnifying this atmosphere of anticipation was the pre-Triennial buzz, which provided plenty of hi-vis jackets for me to film as there was so much building going on: scaffolds came down; paint went on, a fountain was installed. Wearing the vest I was attempting to perform some of the anxiety around visibility, which is an issue for both artists and towns like Folkestone- how to be, and stay visible, or put differently, how to attract and retain attention. This topic has been hotly debated in recent years, especially through books like The attention economy, by Thomas H. Davenport, John C. Beck. Put simply attention is a commodity, and one that is in scarce supply: everything is vying for your attention, but as its limited, not everyone can get it and those who get maximum attention are at the top of the hierarchy. They quote Georg Frank, writing back in 1999, who claims prominence is what all present-day elites have in common; and prominence is simply the ‘status of being a major earner of attention’. Of course the problem is that everybody’s doing it; just like the high vis jackets, however bright and visible those jackets are, the individual wearers get lost, subsumed into the neon collective.

Again this relates tenuously to places like Folkestone, and its neighbour (ish) Margate (often referred to as the empty shop capital of England)- both towns are banking on culture as a tool of regeneration, with the Turner Contemporary seemingly built for (only?) this reason. If increasing numbers of cities continue to favour culture as a tool for attracting and retaining attention- of high-class tourists, creatives, as well as investors and businesses- and becoming visible on the global scene, won’t the individual cities just disappear? If everywhere has a biennale/ shiny new museum in the future, then any cachet originally conferred upon the town is diminished.

Hou Hanru (original supercurator with 20 biennales under his belt), quoted in a great article questioning the ‘point’ of biennales in the Art Newspaper, doesn’t agree. Instead of saturation leading to biennale-fatigue, he believes that as long as urbanisation continues, so will they: “There are now 300 biennales around the world and everyone is trying to find a new format or new ideas. And this is only the beginning.” You have been warned.

Research video from Folkestone