BY Harry Thorne in Profiles | 03 JUN 16

In Profile: Sue Jones

The Director of Whitstable Biennale talks about her time in Kent and what can be expected from this year's programme

BY Harry Thorne in Profiles | 03 JUN 16

Harry Thorne  You were director of Chisenhale Gallery in London from 1998 to 2000 before directing the Whitstable Biennale, a position you have held since 2005. How did you find that transition from the physical gallery space to the less-defined festival environment?

Sue Jones  I first joined Chisenhale Gallery in 1990 as part of a small team assisting the then director Jonathan Watkins. It was when Rachel Whiteread’s sculpture Ghost (1990) was showing, and the gallery was one of only four in east London (alongside Matt’s Gallery, Maureen Paley and the Showroom). I grew up in east London, and it was interesting to watch the area become saturated with galleries during the 10 years that I was at Chisenhale. By the time Tate Modern opened in 2000 I wanted the space to do something different, to work with artists in a different way. The first project I curated outside London was Stephen Turner’s Seafort (2005), where the artist spent 36 days in isolation on an abandoned sea fort defense from World War II in the Thames Estuary, just off the coast of Whitstable.

Having worked with Whitstable Biennale now for 10 years, I sometimes miss the level of formal control that comes with a venue, and the extended period of time that I had with works in a gallery – that’s an amazing privilege for a curator. However, I like the fluidity of festivals, the way the shape can adapt from year to year. One of the things that hasn’t changed with the transition from gallery to festival is that both are small organizations, where the whole team can work with the artists and are very closely involved with the process and production of new work. This is really important to me.

HT  Was it easy to make the adjustment from ongoing programming to working towards an event held every two years? 

SJ  The process of commissioning new work is the same at the Biennale as it was at Chisenhale, but the obvious difference is that in Whitstable everything opens at the same time. The pace is different and there’s something terrifying but also satisfying about seeing the results of two years work come together at the same time.

Lucy Pawlak, Academy Training Aids, video still, 2015. Courtesy: the artist

Whitstable’s cultural infrastructure is developing rapidly but like many small towns there aren’t the large venues and empty buildings that you find in cities, and so our venues are part of the fabric of the town: the odd halls and huts, the shops and bars, the alleyways and oyster beds, the working harbour and the steep shingle shoreline. I don’t see the Biennale as a group exhibition, more a series of solo commissions that are able to speak to each other within the context of the town. Something that people often point out to me is the way that the Biennale brings artists together, not only in very direct contact with audiences, but also with each other. Critic John Slyce called it a ‘sibling culture’, which I think describes it really well. 

‘I like the way that things build over time. We have worked with many hundreds of artists over the last ten years, and it’s satisfying that visitors are now revisiting their memories of previous works.’

HT  How do you feel Whitstable Biennale has developed since you took over?

SJ  There had been just two editions of the Biennale when I joined in 2005 and I've very much enjoyed the challenge of building the festival into an event which operates in various different contexts; one that has real value locally but also has relevance both nationally and internationally. I would like to keep the organization small, to retain the clear focus on working closely with artists, but as a small staff we are stretched, and we face that constant dilemma of judging how much growth is a good thing.

I like the way that things build over time. We have worked with many hundreds of artists over the last ten years, and it’s satisfying that visitors are now revisiting their memories of previous works. This year when you go into the newsagents you won’t find a work, but you may remember Katie Paterson’s Dying Star (doorbell) from 2010. When you visit the Library lecture room to see Parlor Walls by young artists Webb-Ellis, you may remember Katrina Palmer’s work from 2014, or Olivia Plender & Unnar Örn’s work from 2010. When you see Evan Ifekoya’s performances at the Sea Cadets’ Hall, you might recall Ryan Gander’s performance lecture that took place there in 2006. 

Tessa Lynch, Stance, 2016, documentation of performance. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Emma Sandström

HT  Do you feel the Biennale has had an impact on the town itself?

SJ  Unlike many contemporary art festivals we don’t have a specific regeneration agenda. Our remit is to support experimental work and the development of artistic practice. Nevertheless, we do have an impact on the town: the local authorities calculate that we bring in over GBP£1 million per edition to Whitstable. With London recently named as the world’s most expensive city in which to live and work, artists are increasingly moving out of the capital, and the seaside towns of east Kent are one of a few key places that provide a community where visual art is a strength.

HT  The title for this year's edition of the Whitstable Biennale is ‘The Faraway Nearby’. What motivated that choice of title?

SJ  It comes from the title of Rebecca Solnit’s wonderful book, The Faraway Nearby (2013), which in turn is a phrase Georgia O’Keefe used as her sign-off to letters sent from New Mexico back to New York. Solnit’s book is about storytelling, a study of closeness and distance in a conceptual terrain that ranges from the Arctic landscape, scenes from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1813) to the fairytale-like mounds of apricots Solnit inherited when her mother’s house was sold.

The Faraway Nearby has a local resonance in Kent, the nearest county in the UK to the European mainland, one which has come under increasing pressure from the refugee crisis. Without being heavy-handed, we wanted to say something about where we are and the humanitarian crisis that is happening around us. Boat People, a new film by Sarah Wood takes a statement made in 1946 in the aftermath of WWII by Martin Heidegger, that ‘homelessness is coming to be the destiny of the world’ and, 60 years on, considers whether displacement has become the norm. Boat People also questions the role that the moving image plays in the representation of human movement and the migration of ideas. Just as the invention of the telescopic lens brought near and far together for the very first time, Boat People is about the way that in the 21st century the near and far are mediated and transformed by the new ‘perception accelerator’: the digital image.

Mikhail Karikis, Ain't Got No Fear, 2016, video still. Courtesy: the artist

HT  Can you talk about some more of this year's new commissions? 

SJ  Main new commissions for 2016 include works by Mikhail Karikis, Louisa Martin, Tessa Lynch, Evan Ifekoya, Marcia Farquhar, Lucy Pawlak, the artist duo Webb-Ellis, Richard Layzell, Alice Butler and Trish Scott. We also have a cinema designed by Stephen Beasley at Manalo & White architects, and a temporary café (open every day of the festival) which is a work by Matthew Herbert.

‘We don’t ask artists to respond to Whitstable; the starting point is always the idea, the work. We encourage artists to push an idea to its conclusion, and we do everything we can to make it a reality.’

The cinema will be showing a daily programme of films (including a number of premieres) and hosting talks, including Brian Dillon with Olivia Laing, and Rose Wylie with Ben Rivers and Skye Sherwin. There’s also an artists’ short film programme running every day, which includes works by Jessica Sarah Rinland and Xiaowen Zhu.

Offsite there is a symposium on ethics at University of the Creative Arts Canterbury, and an exhibition curated by Ben Judd at the Beaney Museum in Canterbury. We are asking people to sign up to read one chapter of The Faraway Nearby every day, and on Saturday 11 June there’s an all day reading of David Seabrook’s All the Devils Are Here.

HT  In 2014, Laura Wilson's project made use of the local aggregates factory. How have the various artists responded to the landscape of Whitstable?

SJ  The festival is a showcase for new and experimental work. We don’t ask artists to respond to Whitstable; the starting point is always the idea, the work. We encourage artists to push an idea to its conclusion, and we do everything we can to make it a reality.

Evan Ifekoya, Let the Rhythm Pull you Towards Your Edges, 2015, video still. Courtesy: the artist

Some works are shown in blacked out rooms where everything around it disappears. Other works find their space through the logic of the project. For Clio Barnard’s Plotlands (2008), the audience were passengers aboard passing trains through the Seasalter marshes, witnessing a film of a burning shack. For Bronwen Buckeridge’s The Sorrowful and Immaculate Fall of One Hundred Grazing Sheep (2014), audience members had to find a nondescript garden gate, make their way through that garden to a room that overlooked the Isle of Sheppey across the water, and listen to a sound work about map dowsing. This year on 12 June, Matthew Herbert’s temporary café for the festival will host a dinner that grows out of a chapter of a book he is writing about the profound musical revolution that has happened over the last 100 years between the invention of the microphone, the tape recorder and the sampler and computer – the changing structures and assumptions of music as we move from a form of impression to a form of documentary. 

HT  What can be expected from this year's festival fringe, the Whitstable Satellite?

SJ  This year’s edition of the Whitstable Satellite sees more than 100 artists contributing towards 45 events, performances, exhibitions and displays of work, co-ordinated by young artist Charley Vines. For the first time the Satellite is extending into Margate, with a cluster of projects happening across the two towns, collected together in a performance tour by Julia Riddiough. There are a number of walks, including Emily Whitebread’s from Whitstable to Seasalter, which takes her research into John Betjeman’s ‘Shell Guides to British Counties’ as a starting point to consider ideas around nationhood in the 21st century.

Webb-Ellis, Parlor Walls, 2016, video still. Courtesy: the artists

HT  In 2014, Ellen Mara De Wachter noted how Whitstable's 'rural' status saved it from 'biennial fatigue'. Has the proliferation of globally-focused biennials led you to alter your approach?

SJ  I think Whitstable Biennale exists at some distance from the globally-focused biennial trail. We are not a survey show. We commission predominantly UK based artists, and focus on emerging artists and experimental work. Our programme is all about depth. 

Sue Jones is the Director of Whitstable Biennale. Originally from east London, she has lived and worked in the coastal towns of Ramsgate and Whitstable in east Kent since 2002. Jones studied Literature at London Metropolitan University (formerly North London Polytechnic) and in 1990 joined Chisenhale Gallery, working closely with Jonathan Watkins as part of a small team of three, before becoming Curator in 1995 and Director in 1998. She worked for five years as an independent curator (in London and east Kent) from 2000 to 2005, before joining Whitstable Biennale as Director in 2005.

Whitstable Biennale runs from 4  12 June 2016. For further details visit

Harry Thorne is a writer and editor based in London, UK.