#FolkestoneGold. Popular and extremely newsworthy. People digging for little chunks of gold on the beach in Folkestone is certainly an arts marketing dream; a boon for this year’s Folkestone Triennial. Folkestone Digs was commissioned by new Arts Council England National Portfolio Organisation Situations and produced by Berlin-based artist Michael Sailstorfer. But what does this public art work say about ‘participatory art’? Is it a ‘gold rush’ or cold exploitation? When the veil of secrecy was first lifted on Folkestone Digs, I felt cold and uncomfortable…
Then lyrics from my youth by The Stone Roses shuffled about somewhere inside:
I'm standing alone
I'm watching you all
I'm seeing you sinking
I'm standing alone
You're weighing the gold
I'm watching you sinking
Earlier now. The early 1980s. Unemployment. Riots. Thatcher. Grey… No. Not everything was grey, was it?
Not summer holidays away from my Jarrow home stripped bare once and forever by industry-killing, North loathing Tories!
Memories of Blackpool, Scarborough, Filby (near Great Yarmouth); Butlins, Pontins, other less uniform caravan parks. I remember now…
Crap pirate boat trips to cheap play sand islands floating on worn out re-treads in sludgy pools no deeper than knee-high to an eight-year old. Cardboard palms, polyester sateen ‘slops’, wiry nylon ringlet wigs and drawn-on market-stall mascara beards. Searching for Hong Kong doubloons on ‘organised’ summer holiday activities for the kids.
I loved it! Wanted more. I was a swashbuckling buccaneer. The plastic cutlass my dad bought me soon became a cherished souvenir. (Until next year.)
Summer holidays 2014 are almost over. A new ‘participatory artwork’ was grabbing media attention. Not just the arts media either. Wow! An artist had hidden 30 pieces of gold worth £10,000 under the beach at Folkestone. Hmm… Apparently, it’s a game of ‘finders, keepers’! People who don’t do art are, well, doing art. They’re digging for gold. Plastic buckets and spades for the kids, garden-standard hardware for the adults, and dusted down metal detectors for the, erm, metal detectors.
And other obvious (like this blog’s title), glimmeringly superficial phrases.
Straplines and copy heralded this new public artwork as ‘participatory art’. The curator, Lewis Biggs, said: "It is a participatory artwork. It is about people coming to the beach and digging and possibly finding hidden treasure. Some people will get lucky, some people will not get lucky – and that's life." This, for me, seemed worrying. Searching for dog-tag sized bars of 24-carat gold. (Ooh! ‘They may be more valuable as art works than if traded-in at ‘We Buy Any Gold’, etc. etc.) A curator who thinks participation is about some people winning whilst others lose is a metaphor for life? I could go on. You get the gist.
Folkestone Digs is undeniably art. We say it is, so it is! It is also participatory. But then so is gambling in local bookies, sitting in traffic jams on the M6, rioting – most things…
For me, it’s the cynically exploitative undertones of this art work that concerns me; the monetisation of participatory experience; the lack of any depth to the work other than the position of each piece of metal in relation to the surface of the sand. These types of ‘participatory art’ are becoming commonplace. They are not about social justice or dialogic approaches or co-producing. This is artist-led. Aesthetic. Art as treasure map. This is a different form of participation in the arts from the type of social and ecological practices I am interested in. The only ideology this type of ‘participatory-lite’ art espouses is capitalism.
A bloke turns up with a JCB. Somehow, by stealth or corruption, he digs up the whole beach and carts it away, taking all but one, it is later revealed, of the golden art works with him. They are never found. Neither is the one that got away…
Where’s my old family Polaroid folder?