A quirky festival of art inspired by ... Folkestone

The art of regeneration is coming to the Kent coast. It makes for a great day by the seaside, if you can find the exhibits, says Tom Lubbock
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The Independent Culture

Kent is busting out all over. The garden of England is in art bloom. You'll have heard of the Ebbsfleet Landmark, destined to tower 50 metres above mid-Kent in 2012. But around the coast it's already happening. In Margate, the Turner Contemporary gallery is being built by the sea. The third Whitstable Biennale is starting next weekend. And the first Folkestone Triennial opens today.

"Regeneration" is the common cause behind all this culture, using art as a magnet for investment and enterprise in economically depressed areas – for example, Kent's once-thriving coastal towns. The question for me, though, is not whether it's good for communities, but whether it's good for art. I suspect it isn't.

Go to Folkestone. Twenty-two artists are taking part in the Triennial, including Mark Wallinger, Christian Boltanski, Tracey Emin and Jeremy Deller. Their works are sited, indoors and out, along a few miles on the coastal side of town. Some works are mobile. Some involve participation: you fly a kite, you ride a bike. Some are films.

I like these occasions. I like walking around with a specially numbered map, ticking things off. And I like the way that, even so, you keep bumping into things, and wondering whether or not they're part of it. Why is that illuminated sign on a rooftop quoting David Byrne: "Heaven is a place where nothing happens"? Why is this tuneless song being broadcast in a brick shelter looking out to sea? And where did the huge gull on wheels come from? Who runs this van with wooden bodywork, containing a library of science fiction? And who left that baby's bootee, lying so sadly lost on a park wall? Oh. It's made of painted metal, and solidly fixed. Ah. It must be art. (Yes, by Tracey Emin.)

It's an enjoyable ramble, then, enjoyably enough punctuated. But it must be said: the art here is mostly of very low intensity. And when you consider how such projects work, that's not surprising.

Imagine. Your artist gets an invitation to contribute to the Folkestone Triennial. Your artist's mind goes a perfect blank. Folkestone, Folkestone, Folkestone, what the heck am I going to do in Folkestone? I know – I'll make something about Folkestone. So he gets Googling. He finds out the history, geography and mythology of Folkestone. He goes on some field trips. He seeks out curious Folkestone facts, features and locations. He's looking for something to be inspired by, something to respond to, something to use. And the funny thing is, he's getting rather excited, now. Folkestone, it's quite an interesting place isn't it?

Indeed, Folkestone is brimming. There's the classy Edwardian seaside resort it used to be, with its Grands and Metropoles. There's the defunct fishing industry. There are the Martello towers from Napoleonic times. There's the Folkestone-Boulogne ferry. There's a quaint hydraulic funicular. There are great Folkestonians like William "circulation of the blood" Harvey, H G Wells, Michael Bentine and Noel Redding, bassist with the Jimi Hendrix Experience.

And it doesn't stop. There was the 1933 chess olympiad, in which the artist Marcel Duchamp competed. There was the 2007 earthquake. Many British troops embarked for the Western Front from Folkestone. And what about the Romans, and the Saxons, and the Normans, and ... and the gulls. Your artist is sure to find a spark for an idea. In fact nearly all the artists in the Triennial have made a Folkestone-focused work. It wasn't expressly stipulated, but somehow the mental step from a work in Folkestone to a work about Folkestone was ineluctable.

The whole thing is simply an art-generating scheme, where artists become producers, operating in conditions of diminished creative responsibility. Whatever they do, it isn't coming from them. The search for inspiration is really a search for a prop, a pretext, some external necessity, to enable them to make a work they have no reason to make.

The atmosphere lightens their creative burden further. There's the local council and community to be pleased. There's the general cause of regeneration, and the hopeful enthusiasm of the festival organisers, and the prospect of a summer audience who won't be too demanding ... Artistic responsibility is dispersed in a sea of collective good will and usefulness.

The result, naturally, is art that is friendly and frankly perfunctory, which does the job. On the promenade you find Wallinger's Folk Stones, a square formation of thousands of pebbles, individually numbered 1 to 19,240: the number of the dead on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

Further along, it's the First World War again. Boltanski's The Whispers is a sound piece, in which boxed speakers transmit the voices of actors reading letters home from those about to embark for the front. Well yes, the First World War always gets me too. But both these artists, remember, are capable of remarkable work. Their invention here, like many of their colleagues', is simply ticking over. If you want a work that sums up the gratuitousness of this kind of project, it's Richard Wilson's 18 Holes. The artist has lifted a concrete crazy golf course from the ground, cut it into slabs, and assembled them into beach huts. Local materials transformed into local structures! With no conceivable point!

True, it can happen that an artist really is locally inspired. Adam Chodzko's film Pyramid, a pseudo-documentary fantasy, mythologising a weird bit of Folkestone seafront architecture, is funny, clever and plausible enough to enter into local folklore.

But how many more Triennials will there be? How long before the supply of inspiring Folkestoniana runs out? And who will finally claim Michael Bentine? Or will Folkestone be pronounced fully regenerated first? It's a race against time.

Folkestone Triennial, until 14 September; visitor centre in Tontine Street. All works free.

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