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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Why hasn’t British Asian entertainment built on the Goodness Gracious Me golden age?

It is 20 years since the original radio series of Goodness Gracious Me aired. Over two decades, the UK media portrayal of Asians hasn’t used its success to evolve.

Save for a handful of special one-off episodes, Goodness Gracious Me hasn’t occupied a primetime TV slot for nearly two decades. Yet still it remains the measuring stick for British Asian comedy.

The sketch show, which transitioned seamlessly from radio to screen (it started as a BBC Radio 4 series in 1996), has stood the test of time and is as much a staple of modern British Asian culture as Tupperware or turning up an hour late.

What Goodness Gracious Me did so expertly was to take a set of serious issues facing first, second and now, I suppose, third generation migrants, and turn them on their heads. 

In making light of the pressures of academic expectation or family drama, Goodness Gracious Me wasn’t playing down the poignancy of such concerns; it was raising awareness and combatting their uglier side with humour.

It offered resonance and reassurance in equal measure; it was ok to have an embarrassing uncle who insisted he could get you anything much cheaper, including a new kidney, because other people like you did too.

That Goodness Gracious Me was broadcast on a mainstream channel was also a victory for minorities; it made us feel integrated and, perhaps more importantly, accepted. Against the backdrop of Brexit, what wouldn’t we give for that treatment now?

Really, though, the jewel in Goodness Gracious Me’s crown was its willingness to recognise diversity within diversity. It is a relic of a departed era when discourse on TV around Asians was different, when the broad church of that term was truly represented, rather than reduced to one catchall perception of British Muslims.

Goodness Gracious Me offered insight into the experiences and idiosyncrasies – religious or otherwise – of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and even English people. It’s what made it so accessible and, in answering why subsequent programmes have failed to reach similar heights, this is a good starting point.

Without the flexible sketch format, the modern Asian sitcom Citizen Khan has struggled to cover multiple topics, and, by being specifically about a Muslim family, it leaves many non-Muslim Asians wondering: where’s ours?

I hasten to add that I feel plenty of sympathy for the British Muslim community, hounded by tabloid headlines that attack their faith, but it would be disingenuous to suggest that non-Muslim Asians are sitting pretty in 2016 and don’t need a similar level of support in terms of positive public perception.

The current volume of British Asian media products is fairly good. The BBC has its dedicated network, The Good Immigrant essay collection was one of the outstanding reads of the year, and we still have champions of comedy in Romesh Ranganathan and Nish Kumar.

But I think ultimately it comes down to the broadness of appeal, rather than the quantity of products. Goodness Gracious Me was not only able to engage the full spectrum of British Asia; it transcended its target audience and was on terrestrial TV.

The British Asian media on offer now is up against it, released as the country’s attitude towards foreigners completes a full circle back to the same suspicion my grandfather encountered in the Sixties.

Fewer outlets are willing to explore the stretch of what it means to be Asian, either by denying it due consideration in mainstream shows or by peddling their own monolithic observations. The BBC Asian Network, for example, is laudable in its existence, but does little to engage the young Asians who aren’t into techno spliced with Bhangra.

The mainstream representations of Asians in Western film and television that are commissioned, meanwhile, are irritatingly limited and sometimes inaccurate. In an article for the Guardian last year, Sara Abassi lamented the disproportionate appetite for “gritty post-9/11 films about conservative Pakistani families”, and that the researchers of American series Homeland failed to realise that the national language of Pakistan isn’t Arabic.

When I interviewed the actor Himesh Patel for the No Country for Brown Men podcast, he suggested that the answer to re-establishing Asians in mainstream media, both here and in America, was three-fold. The first challenge to overcome was for outlets to acknowledge that not all Asians fit the same religious or cultural profile; the second was to be open to placing Asians in non-Asian specific products to better reflect their presence in society.

Patel, who is best known for his portrayal of Tamwar Masood in the soap opera EastEnders, made his third recommendation based on this role. He felt that characters should be written with only their personality in mind, making the ethnicity of the actor who plays them incidental. Tamwar’s awkwardness but underlying kindness, Patel said, was what defined him – not his skin colour.

Goodness Gracious Me, though a primarily Asian show and a comedy at that, actually taught some salient lessons about representation. It succeeded in providing a window into a multiplicity of cultures, but at the same time wasn’t a total slave to the politics of identity – several of the 100-plus characters needn’t have been Asian at all. It was reflexive to the times we lived in and a perfect advertisement for empathy. That is why we still talk about it today.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.