2310: Manchester Piccadilly station
We've arrived back in my home town once more for a weekend at the 2019 Manchester International Festival, bringing my coverage back in-house after four consecutive Festivals elsewhere. (It's running till July 21st, so at the time of writing you still may be able to catch some of it for yourself.) Over the next 48 hours or so, we'll be revelling in MIF's commitment to bringing us artistic experiences that haven't been seen before. A journey that along the way will bring to us new colour, new dimension, new value. New new new.
2350: BrewDog Manchester
Okay, so not everything here's going to be new. But as we pop in for our nightcap beers, we're immediately confronted by a DJ playing Billie Jean at top volume: it's funny how quickly that became socially acceptable again, isn't it? And as we sip on our #Mashtag2015 and Jackie O's Oil Of Aphrodite, I can't help but notice that over its seven years in the city centre, BrewDog Manchester has gradually become just another place in town where the kids come to get bladdered on a Friday night. A group of merry girls asks me to take a photo of them holding their cocktails: another group gets told off by bar staff for standing on the seats in their booth: a bloke takes his shirt off to mark something on the stroke of midnight, and is discreetly escorted from the premises shortly after. There's no trouble as such, but something essentially BrewDoggy seems missing. It makes you wonder what the new place is going to be like.
0930: Pot Kettle Black, Spinningfields
I'm pretty sure that Spinningfields wasn't a thing when I was a lad growing up in this city, and it always surprises me when I stumble across it and see what's sprung up since I was last there. This is slightly more focussed stumbling than usual, though, aiming in the direction of a nicely relaxed breakfast burrito and mushrooms on sourdough, the latter served with a knife so inadequate for the task you could offer it on a plane.
1130: Atmospheric Memory, Museum of Science and Industry
We're actually here an hour earlier to fit in some quality museum time: seeing the original Stephenson's Rocket, looking at the history of the local cotton industry without Jane Horrocks singing over the top, and reminding myself about Manchester's involvement in the invention of computers. Rafael Lozano-Hemmer's piece starts with another display of that ilk - Babbage's Difference Engine - and then in a text prologue starts raising questions about the ability, and desirability, of data being stored and retrievable for all time. Once you've seen a woolly disclaimer about how they promise they're going to delete your data at the end of the festival, you're off, walking inside a gigantic installation of multiple pieces on that topic. The one everyone likes best is the huge bank of processors that takes the words you say into an intercom and instantly physicalises them in the form of jets of steam. Is that really Danny Boyle who says 'hello Amber' in front of us and then takes a picture of the results? There's fun with facial recognition techniques - I get picked out of the crowd by the roving camera, but The BBG is presumably too close to the ground to be detected - as well as the visualisation of sound waves, text disturbed by motion, and a dead woman's breath kept circulating in a paper bag. Maybe there are a few too many concepts in here for comfort, but it's all done with the right amount of playfulness, and amazingly the most offensive word displayed in steam in the whole hour we're there is 'testicles'.
1330: David Lynch: My Head Is Disconnected, HOME
After a quick snack of the inevitable cherry pie and damn all right coffee, we have enough time for a half-hour sprint round this exhibition of Lynch's pictures. Sometimes the fake naivety is a little grating - and maybe it's a proximity thing, but it strikes me at one point that the handwriting he uses on these pictures is a scruffier version of Frank Sidebottom's - but the warped sense of humour leavens the grim watercolour washes and layers of slimy gunk. (Apparently The BBG was going to buy me a book of his art, but couldn't find a display copy to look at - given that the 3D nature of these pieces is part of what makes them, um, stand out, the book would have to be five feet thick to do them justice.) It's nice to get a life-size view of the pictures he was working on in recent documentary The Art Life, but his early matchbook sketches are also enjoyable and even charming, something you can't say about a lot of the pictures here.
1500: The Nico Project, Stoller Hall
Pausing to marvel at the sort of city where a walking route can take you from Tony Wilson Place to Jack Rosenthal Street, we catch the free bus to Stoller Hall, where there's a huge queue which includes Danny Boyle, again. We're here for what turns out to be the equivalent of the 2017 festival's Cotton Panic, in which a famous actress does a piece of gig theatre which everyone assumes is one thing but turns out to be something else. Maxine Peake is channeling the singer Nico here, and we get to see her literally doing that, as she breaks character repeatedly to muse in her own voice about the nature of artistic creation. We don't learn much about Nico at all, and that probably was never the intention really, although you suspect most of the audience went in unaware of that. It's a shame this is so dramatically unsatisfying, because musically it's superb. It's based around one specific Nico album, The Marble Index: the band of 15 RNCM students accompanying Peake play up a storm, and director Sarah Frankcom ensures there are a couple of audio-visual coups in there - the climax, in particular, is a breathtaking bit of stagecraft. But you can't help feeling that you've just seen the classy equivalent of an Elvis tribute act, and one that runs 15 minutes short of the advertised 65 minute duration to boot.
1630: BrewDog Outpost Manchester
Yes, I know you haven't seen BrewDogging #63 or #64 yet: they're on their way, just in a non-sequential order, okay? So as far as you're concerned for now, this follows on from the newer Aberdeen bars, and like those it's in an incongruous location: in a University shopping centre sharing space with Five Guys, Caffe Nero and Blackwells. It seems like carelessness for them to have opened this bar a few weeks ago, after the end of the academic year: but there are adverts outside saying 'have your graduation pissup here,' which is some sort of compensation. The name 'Outpost' distinguishes it from the other Manchester bar, but also indicates that it's a brewpub that makes its own beer on the premises: the third one BrewDog have opened after Tower Hill and damn, I really need to finish writing BrewDogging #63 soon.
There's lots of hype about it being a brewpub on the signage outside: there's a beautifully presented small batch kit just inside the door to your right. The one thing there isn't is, um, beer from the kit: nothing on sale on the taps, no indication of what's currently in tank, if anything. Tower Hill was selling its own beer literally from its first preview day: why is Manchester still dragging its heels over a month after opening to the public? Don't get me wrong, it's a nice bar in all other aspects: spread over two stories in the modern style, offering brews from a wide variety of guests (we get through Cloudwater, Northern Monk and Fierce in the space of two hours), and containing a pleasing lack of shouty beer monsters compared with the city centre bar. (Hello to non-monsters Neil and John, by the way.) But given that on-site brewing is the bar's sort-of USP, they really should crack on with making that work. (Mind you, if Tower Hill is anything to go by, the results might not be anything special. But if BrewDogging #63 is anything to go by... yeah, yeah, it should be there in a couple of weeks.)
1930: Tao Of Glass, Royal Exchange
Like The Nico Project, this is a show that starts with its main performer just appearing, and gradually reveals itself to be largely about the creative process rather than the famous person namechecked in its title. This one, however, does it with a much lighter touch, while working much more effectively at an emotional level. Phelim McDermott tells the story of his connection with the composer Philip Glass, from his early teenage obsession to the point where they're now working on operas together. The key points of his story are eerily familiar to me: we both discovered Glass through the same album and the same opera, we both remember the opening of the Royal Exchange Theatre, we both have a story about spotting Glass on the streets of London. (Though his story is better, because it actually goes somewhere.) It's a show that's largely about its own making, but not obnoxiously so: it playfully juggles big ideas of creativity and philosophy alongside jokes, puppetry and some splendidly inventive design work. In the end, it's McDermott's simplest special effect that hits the audience hardest right in his final scene, leaving us all on a ridiculous high.
2245: Dave Haslam, Festival Square
We're meant to be meeting up with my sister for this one, but she cries off the day before saying she's worried about the crowds in town. It'll be fine, we tell her: it's old man Haslam playing his records in a tent, we've done it for the last few MIFs, it'll be chill. But she's right, and it isn't. Sorry for doubting you, our kid. Festival Square (in its final year as a MIF hub before the whole area is shut down for refurbishment) is bursting at the seams with people on a Saturday night out, meaning twenty minute queues at the bars for an okayish pint of JW Lees. (We find out too late that the good stuff - more about that tomorrow - is on sale in a tiny pop-up bar elsewhere in the Square.) Meanwhile, Haslam's doing his thing in what looks to me like a smaller tent than usual, so for the first half hour or so it looks like we'll never get in. But we eventually find ourselves a less mental corner of the dancefloor, mainly occupied by people old enough to remember the original version of The Message, rather than the jazz-inflected mashup that he plays here. "I knew all the songs," says The BBG afterwards, "even though I didn't know the versions he was playing," and that's what makes Haslam such an ingenious choice of DJ for this middle Saturday. As we walk away from Festival Square towards the inevitable BrewDog nightcap, we can hear several hundred people behind us screaming the chorus to Ain't Nobody, and that's exactly as it should be.
0915: Moose Coffee, York Street
Success! We've tried to have breakfast at Moose Coffee on a few occasions in the past, but found the massive queues offputting. The trick, rather inevitably, is to a) go there early and b) go there on a Sunday. It's the first time we've tried that combination, and we've got a table within two minutes. We celebrate with the Green Line veggie hash and the Double Dutch meat-stuffed pancakes, and end up fairly bloated as a result.
1100: To The Moon, Royal Exchange Studio
Unfortunately, our luck with breakfast doesn't extend into our first two MIF events of the day, both of which make the same mistake: starting at a specific time in the morning that coincides exactly with the doors of the venue opening. We've got a tight schedule this morning that won't brook any delays, so we're very much on edge when they open up the Royal Exchange at 10.59 for a show that's supposed to start at 11.00. Still, we're mollified slightly by walking into the Studio to see actual Laurie Anderson standing around chatting to people. "God, these VR goggles are good, it's like she's actually in the room with you," I say: I'd like to think she heard me. Yes, it's a virtual reality installation, so there's no real reason for either her or co-creator Hsin-Chien Huang to be there. They've chosen to mark the 50th anniversary of the moon landing by giving you the chance to spend 15 minutes doing your own walk across the moon's surface: and once you get the hang of the controls, to fly across it too, soaring over surreal star formations and craters. It's seamlessly done - you're never really aware of the limitations of the tech, which I have been in previous VR presentations - and it's the first one I've ever done where you can dramatically change your POV, rather than just rotating on the spot. You've had dreams like this, and now you can have them while you're awake for a fiver.
1200: Future Manchester: What Comes Next For Our Cities, Festival Square and elsewhere
So you can guess what happens next: we run like maniacs from the Royal Exchange to the Festival Square meeting point for this walking tour, worried that we're going to miss the departure at noon, only to find that they don't even open the Square until that time. Despite the cock-up at the start, Jonathan Schofield remains his usual jolly self, taking us around various Manc landmarks and talking about the city's development, past as well as future. He talks about the boom time of the cotton panic, when the city's population exploded rapidly and needed development to match. He thinks we're going through a similar boom in the city centre now - he's loath to call it gentrification, certainly not on a social level, as nobody's being displaced except for the cars in the carparks that are being redeveloped as housing. Schofield likes the piecemeal development of Manchester's architecture over the centuries: as he points out, Manchester never had a city wall, it had the first elevated inter-city railway instead. He's been told by a French architect "I love your city, it is a mess," and he'd rather have that than a whole pile of buildings that look the same. It's the familar mix of facts, anecdotes and gags: Schofield's walks have been a Festival highlight of ours for several years, and I hope they stay that way.
1600: A Drunk Pandemic, under Victoria Station
Our Festival ends with a Japanese art installation that's actually a working brewery: they should have just titled it We Saw You Coming. Phil Catling, one of a rotating series of guides, leads us on a tour of the tunnels under Victoria station, a location that used to be a burial pit for cholera victims. Japanese anarcho-art collective Chim↑Pom have tied this in with the medical fact that people who drank beer rather than water at the time didn't get cholera, and have taken this to its logical conclusion by setting up a working brewery in these tunnels. So once again, The BBG and I find ourselves in some railway arches listening to a man with a beard telling us how beer is made. As an event, it's a little too conceptual in parts, particularly when Catling has to explain how and why Chim↑Pom are literally taking the piss out of its audience. But if you put aside the fact that two thirds of this show consists of someone who didn't make the art telling you Do You See What They Did There, the ideas are entertaining, the way they're joined up is even more so, and the beer that comes out at the end of the process genuinely works. So how come these guys can turn around an ale, a pale ale and a dark ale in just a few weeks, and Outpost Manchester can't? Maybe BrewDog should take that 'beer is art' slogan of theirs a bit more literally.
Our last two hours in Manchester are spent in the city's finest curry and craft beer joint, reflecting on the eight MIF events we've attended in two days. Could this be the best Festival yet? I think it might be: Tao Of Glass and To The Moon are two of the best artistic experiences I've had this year, and even the disappointment of The Nico Project was tempered by its glorious music. (I've subsequent heard the Nico originals, and I think Anna Clyne's arrangements for the new show are even better, as they don't hide the melodies under layers of racket like The Marble Index frequently does.) So roll on MIF 2021: no Festival Square, a new purpose-built venue in The Factory, and who knows what else? (Well, probably Dave Haslam on the Saturday night and Jonathan Schofield on the Sunday afternoon. But apart from that...)
[Previously: Bristol, Camden, Newcastle, Birmingham, Shoreditch, Aberdeen, Manchester, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Kungsholmen, Leeds, Shepherd's Bush, Nottingham, Sheffield, Dog Tap, Tate Modern†, Clapham Junction, Roppongi, Liverpool, Dundee, Bologna, Florence, Brighton, Dog Eat Dog/Angel, Brussels, Soho, Cardiff, Barcelona, Clerkenwell, DogHouse Glasgow, Rome, Castlegate, Leicester, Oslo, Gothenburg, Södermalm, Turku†, Helsinki, Gray's Inn Road†, Stirling, Norwich, Southampton, Homerton†, Berlin, Warsaw†, Leeds North Street, York, Hong Kong†, Oxford, Seven Dials, Reading, Malmo, Tallinn, Overworks, Tower Hill, Edinburgh Lothian Road, Milton Keynes, Canary Wharf, Brixton, Paddington, Dalston, Aberdeen Union Square, Peterhead]