A peculiar kind of biennial

The Whitstable Biennale

There is much good art to see in Whitstable, but it is unlike any biennial I have ever visited. Yes, it takes place every two years, is multi-sited and has developed new artist commissions specifically for presentation - something that is becoming a UK-specific biennial feature - but the similarities end there. It has none of the urgency and frantic busyness that are common features of many biennials, and in this edition, no real emphasis on visual art practice. There are no monumental sculptures sited in the public realm, few internationally famous art names, no circus coming to town.

Instead there is a quiet and persistent emphasis on how artworks are made and the process each practitioner goes through in defining their performance and project. There is almost a sense of “slow-art”, a foregrounding of thoughtfulness about what it means to be an artist, what it is to make art. This is explored through a range of text-based practices, from film through live-art performance to straight theatre, in a distinctly meta-textual programme. This theme is made explicit in Acting, the performance by Internet, which after a tedious start takes off into deconstructed and surreal realms, with an “overacting” dog and muppet puppets (both adorable). It continues in Jesse Jones’ dramatisation of an encounter group therapy session chaired by psychologist Carl Rogers. In The Selfish Act of Community, the role of psychological masks is explored at the very same time their removal is being intensely portrayed. With opposing symmetry, in This Alley Used to be Enormous on Me, artist Tim Bromage literally constructs his mask by sticking torn strips of masking tape to his face, transforming himself into a strikingly grotesque figure through which he performs his writing. There are two other performative surprises that lift this work onto a different level and suggest significant ammunition for his artistic future: no spoilers here though.

Other works sit more comfortably within fine art practice. A simple idea with high impact is Wars During my Lifetime by Martin John Callanan, which lists on newsprint all the wars that have taken place during his lifetime. There are 189 of them and he is only 30 years old. Emma Hart uses a sculptural installation to frame her narrative Monument to the Unsaved, which viscerally evokes an 80 mph car crash on the M20 motorway. In an innovative staging, her film is reflected in seven wing mirrors, effectively portraying the fragmentation of the experience while enabling visual interest and unusual depth of field for the viewer. The overwhelming noise and repetition of the soundtrack insists on the audience reliving the trauma as the victim must also do as part of the emotional recovery from the event. It’s a piece that has stayed with me.

Also ambitious and technically challenging is Tanya Axford’s The Path Made by a Boat in Sound (3 down), which combines a video projection of two spotlight dancers swinging in elusive interactions on the floor, vying for the attention of two musicians improvising a response to the pendulum’s movement. A mesmerising work, the music of cello and piano is beautiful and immersive. Less effective is Tom Gidley’s film and narrative Hollow Moon, which suffers from two competing themes that combine not to enhance, but to reduce each other.

There is a different programme of live events over the three weekends of the festival, including evening performances at the Royal Native Oyster Stores and late-night outdoor screenings at The Factory Cinema, a makeshift cinema on Long Beach. On the Saturday night I was there, the highlight from the evening was the clever, edgy, funny wordsmith and musician Jenny Moore. Her stage set included text projected onto an enormous white balloon, and songs with titles like “The Wilderness is so Over” and “Sometimes Money Matters”. Following that I caught the rather hard-core Jonas Mekas film, The Brig, from 1964, in the dark on the beach. How often can you do that?

This biennial concentrates on supporting emerging artists to develop new works for a specific style of presentation. As an event, it’s slightly scuffed around the edges and constrained by the available venues, spaces and resources of the town. Some works would benefit from editing and polishing, projection screens have seen better days, sound systems are not always state of the art.  But Whitstable Biennial’s character and strengths are not in the big budget spectacle, or highly-resolved monumental works, but in off-beat, small-scale nuanced pieces that explore the tributaries of the unexpected. It’s very much worth a visit.

The Whitstable Bienniale runs until 16 September, various venues, Whitstable

The seafront at Whitstable (Photograph: Getty Images)
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Over tea, the dominatrix told me that keeping a straight face was the hardest part of the job

"There is great power in being submissive," she explained.

As fetishes go it was fairly mild: just a bit of sissification – or, getting yelled at while wearing ladies’ clothing. He was a top entertainment attorney, a powerful man. He wore stockings under his suit to work. His wife didn’t want to engage – so she sent him to a professional, who put him in full make-up and forced him to run around a dungeon in high heels. Jenny Nordbak is younger than you’d expect for a retired dominatrix, stirring her tea in a King’s Cross café.

Nordbak, 29, serviced the movie moguls and lawyers of Tinseltown for two years. As a child, her Barbies always ended up gagged and bound. As a student, she defied a controlling boyfriend by dropping her trousers during a game of beer pong. And at 22 she took up her whip, for philosophical reasons, tired of bad sex and of the sexual politics women often live by: who starts it, who ends it and what to expect in between.

At her sex dungeon in Los Angeles, keeping a straight face was the hardest part of the job – especially during consultations, which worked like therapy sessions to unlock client desire. There was all the obvious stuff, such as the head-scissors (choking with the thighs). But there was also the man who wanted to lick a broom, and the one who asked her to ride a bike into him.

The stereotype is true: the more powerful they were in life, she says, the more demeaning their fantasies. “But I still wonder which way round it came: did they need a break from being in control, or had they become powerful because they secretly always felt humiliated?” She failed to control her laughter with one, only for him to pant in gratitude: “Mistress, no one’s ever laughed at me like that.”

Tea with Nordbak is a lesson in the lexicon of the underworld. Pro-dommeSub-flogger. Boner-check. Often her clients cried during sessions but they were clearly enjoying themselves – so I ask her in more depth about the nature of submission.

There’s a point that some people like to get to, she explains, in a low voice, called the sub-space. “A psychological state like being on drugs. Someone once compared it to a runner’s high. But it’s more intense because someone is inflicting it on you.” Nordbak has been there and didn’t like it much. But submission is misunderstood, she says – “It is powerful to be submissive!” – just as the desire to dominate is misrepresented in Fifty Shades of Grey as some kind of “affliction”, something you do if you’re broken somehow.

In Nordbak’s world it’s rather more nuanced; a dominatrix, after all, is submitting to a submissive’s desire. And working bloody hard. A dungeon pair build great trust between them, and great communication: sometimes your life depends on it.

She’s only once thought she’d killed someone – a woman, at the Burning Man festival in Nevada, who fainted during a headlock. Nordbak ran out of her tent for help, dressed only in boots and a strap-on. Female clients generally came to her because they wanted to learn her ways.

She gave it up when she started to get jaded, beating someone and thinking about her dinner. But her time as a pro-domme taught her to be more assertive in all areas of her life. “How does someone know what you want, in any area of life, if you don’t tell them?” she says. “Another person is never going to read your mind.”

Who’d have thought that S&M, the world of the rope and the ball gag, was all about communication? As with homosexuality, she thinks we all lie somewhere on the spectrum – a little bit submissive or dominant, whether we know it or not.

She is married now with a baby, and writing books. There is only one thing she misses and that is the look on a man’s face when you lead him across the room by the balls.

“They shut down,” she says, passing her palm over her eyes. “They follow you. They will do anything. Every woman should have that experience.” 

“The Scarlett Letters” by Jenny Nordbak is published by St Martin’s Press

https://www.amazon.com/Jenny-Nordbak/e/B01IZ1MQLG

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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