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Manchester International Festival 2021 (part 1)

[THE SOUND OF TRYING TO FIND SOME DECENT PICTURE CAPTIONS]As we walk out of our central Manchester hotel on a sunny Wednesday afternoon, we see a plane flying overhead. It’s pulling a banner behind it. Because of the sun and the altitude, we can’t see what it says. This is a much bigger problem for us than you might think.

Less than an hour earlier, The Belated Birthday Girl and I had arrived in the city, all set for an extended run of the 2021 Manchester International Festival. Regular readers will recall our coverage of previous festivals – we paid a flying visit to the first one in 2007, had a good excuse for missing the second in 2009, then covered the next four for Europe’s Best Website (see 2011, 2013, 2015 and 2017) before bringing it back in-house for 2019. All six of those visits had one thing in common – they only lasted a weekend, with us arriving late on Friday or early on Saturday, and on the train back to London by Sunday evening.

That’s how it usually works. This isn’t a usual year, though. With our planned foreign holiday kicked down the line for another year, we’re replacing it with a collection of short city breaks that don’t require us to leave the country. So this time around, we’ve spending a full five days (Wednesday to Sunday) at the Festival, although taking things at a slightly less manic pace than usual. The festival itself is an appreciably different shape to what it is normally – new outdoor and indoor venues to cope with social distancing requirements, a high proportion of online and hybrid content, a bit more public art than before – and so we’re going to be an appreciably different shape too. (Literally so, given some of the meals we’ve got lined up in the extended gaps between events.)

That plane I mentioned three paragraphs back is part of one of those public art projects I mentioned one paragraph back. It’ll all make sense in the end, probably – though bear in mind that this is a big enough festival to justify a two-part review, so scrolling to the end of the page won’t entirely help you.

Anyway, after our frustration at being taunted with the plane literally as we begin our festival, we’re off to start things off properly with a different piece of public art, one that’s huge enough to have been making headlines in the news. Marta Minujín's Big Ben Lying Down With Political Books is a proper bit of monumental conceptualism slap bang in the middle of Piccadilly Gardens: a 42 metre high model of Big Ben lying on its side, with an audio-visual installation inside, and 20,000 politics books attached to the outside with a couple of layers of clear plastic. It’s the ideal bit of art for these unprecedented times, as despite its sheer physical size they’re only letting one household or bubble in at a time, so you’ve got the whole thing to yourself for as long as you can take it.

Big Ben is an odd piece of work: from a distance its sheer scale is impressive, and close up the detail of the multiple copies of the 160 chosen books (everything from Thomas Paine to Marcus Rashford) is fascinating. Inside, though, it’s a little bit of an anti-climax, as if there’s a point in the middle distance where it stops being visually interesting. When you’re inside, your attention’s drawn to the video display at the front – a whimsical bit of animation about how Big Ben got here from London in the first place – and this initially distracts you from the multi-layered audio part of the installation: the video soundtrack at the front, an assortment of political speeches in the middle, and the titles of the books being yelled at the back. It’s a bunch of ideas that hasn’t quite found a way of tying itself together, but it’s enjoyable enough, and we plan to come back towards the end of our stay in Manchester to witness the final fate of those books.

So, now that we’re bedded in, how does this MIF compare with previous ones? Well, as far as we’re concerned, the 2021 edition is going to be almost entirely about art and music. In previous years we’ve done quite a bit of theatre, but to be honest the few dramatic pieces on offer – several of which are still available online till October – seem a bit grim. Maybe pretty pictures and nice tunes are all we can handle right now. For this festival, most of those tunes are being performed at Manchester Central, a gigantic disused railway station that’s normally the location of soulless megagigs for standing audiences of several thousand, now repurposed as a seated venue for a few hundred with loads of space between them.

This means that we effectively have front row seats for MIF x Salaam Festival. (And we’re sitting directly underneath the ceiling-mounted PA system, so the sound is terrific.) This event is really a trailer for something that’s coming to Manchester next year – a ten-day festival of Islamic art and culture, conveniently timed to fill in the gap between one MIF and the next. This is just a one-night sampler of what to expect, with MC and poet Muneera Pilgrim introducing two quite different musical acts. Sona Jobarteh is representing Africa on the bill, playing traditional tunes on the kora 21-string harp – and you presume the fact that she’s female is quite a big deal in the circumstances.

The same could be said for Abi Sampa, who sings with Orchestral Qawwali, who are performing Arabic folk songs but in a much less traditional way. Their set is easily the more dynamic of the two while you’re listening to it, but doubts start creeping in afterwards about how much damage their modern arrangements are doing to the music – the nearest comparison point I could come up with on the night was the gulf that exists between traditional Irish music and the Riverdance soundtrack. Actually, one of MIF’s own volunteers nailed it when we were chatting the next day – as soon as their ensemble included a Western string trio the idea was doomed, because they need all their notes written out for them, which kills the spontaneous improvisation that normally drives this music.

[THE SOUND OF A 9:21 ASPECT RATIO PICTURE NOT REALLY WORKING ON THESE PAGES]It’s interesting to note that this year’s MIF is being used as the launchpad for a few artistic endeavours. Salaam Festival is one of them, and the Manchester Jewish Museum is another. It’s been closed down for refurbishment for a while, and its re-opening neatly coincides with MIF, as they’re showing a site-specific artwork there as part of the festival. Located in the middle of Manchester’s old Jewish quarter on Cheetham Hill Road, the museum itself is a lovely piece of work, featuring a collection of items relating to the history of Jewish settlement in Manchester, starting with the peak of the cotton trade and going on to the present day. As The BBG notes, it’s more than just a big pile of old stuff – every artefact in here is personalised and tied to the story of a specific person or family, which makes it infinitely more engaging.

That approach extends to the artwork on display here, The Long Waited, Weighted, Gathering by Laure Provost. It uses the main building of the museum – a beautifully preserved former synagogue – as the setting for the screening of a twenty-minute film, tying tangentially-related visual images to the stories of Manchester Jewish women remembering the past. It’s sometimes plagued by that twee whimsy that passes for humour in contemporary art – comparing the women to migrating birds, by superimposing birds’ heads onto their bodies. But some of the symbolism has a nicely cutting edge to it, particularly in the decision to show the film in the synagogue’s upper gallery, where the women were traditionally hidden away out of the sight of the men. TLWWG makes the most sense as an imaginative variation on the themes of the main museum, and on that level it works just fine (it's staying in the museum after the festival, until October 3rd). It certainly makes you look at Cheetham Hill Road in a new light as you head back towards central Manchester, realising how many other buildings along there used to be synagogues. (We feel a bit daft that we didn’t initially spot the garment importer with a bloody enormous star of David in its window.)

Still, if it’s Manchester history that you want, for the last decade or so there’s only been one man to turn to at MIF – the walking tour guide Jonathan Schofield. It’s always a delight to go on one of his tours and learn something new about the city I grew up in. This time round, we’re on one entitled Manchester: The City At Play. “I feel like I should do a general tour,” he says as we set off from the Corn Exchange: but to be honest, this is as general as it gets, as he’s chosen a theme that’s ridiculously open to interpretation. It’s all really about Schofield and his endless array of anecdotes, all roughly tied to the theme of Mancunians and how they spend their leisure time.

Over a meandering route that crosses into Salford and back again several times, we hear about the pig chasing contests that used to be post-pub entertainment: the Xanadu swingers club, which allegedly contained the biggest waterbed in Europe: the Chinese tourists who visited Chethams library and wept over the books Marx and Engels touched: and much much more, including Schofield’s own personal stories of what it’s like to show fans of the Smiths and Oasis around town. Engels (who I think has made a cameo appearance in every Schofield tour we’ve been on to date) reportedly claimed that the main flaw of the English was that they couldn’t go three minutes without cracking a joke, but frankly it’s one of this guide’s strengths. His gag about the former name of Manchester United is glorious, but you’ll have to hear him tell it yourself. Its punchline is ‘give us an N’, if that helps.

[THE SOUND OF IT ALL MAKING MUCH MORE SENSE IF YOU CLICK TO EMBIGGEN]We are, of course, perfectly capable of walking around Manchester ourselves, if that was what we wanted to do. But it’s always nice to have some sort of excuse for heading in a particular direction, even if it’s not a specifically plotted route. Which brings us back to that plane I mentioned at the start, and the enigmatic image at the top of this page. Probably the biggest piece of public art attached to this year’s festival is Captioning The City by Christine Sun Kim. An artist who’s been profoundly deaf her whole life, she’s taken the idea of captions for the hard of hearing out of TV and film, and transplanted it to the outside world. For the duration of MIF, some twenty-odd buildings have had large print captions applied to them, imagining the sort of sounds you’d expect to hear in those locations – largely metaphorical, sometimes philosophical, occasionally with something to say about where we find ourselves a year and a bit into a global pandemic.

MIF have provided a big map of Manchester with the locations of all the captions marked on it. This, inevitably, looks to us like a challenge. We track down most of the captions in a single morning-long sweep from north to south, starting at Islington Marina (“[THE SOUND OF BIG THINGS GOING OVER YOUR HEAD]”) and walking across to Bridgewater Hall (“[THE SOUND OF PERFECTING HAND MOVEMENTS]”). The rest of our weekend is spent filling in the gaps, although we hit a couple of blind alleys along the way – mainly because there’s an online version of the map and a printed paper one, and the two of them are slightly different, with two locations marked on the printed version that aren’t on the online one. For some reason, we assume that the printed version is the more correct one, which is utterly daft when you think about it, and results in us spending time wandering around Chinatown and along the canal looking for two captions that aren’t there at all.

We’ve always been suckers for a good stamp rally – I refer you to the 72 episodes of BrewDogging as proof – so ticking off the captions becomes a thoroughly enjoyable thing to do. There’s the challenge of finding them all, given the very approximate information given on the map, and the way that some of them are hidden in upper storey windows (hello, Royal Exchange). There’s the chance to visit bits of the city that you wouldn’t normally get to see (such as the aforementioned Islington Marina, which didn’t even exist when I used to live here). And there’s the little burst of joy when you stumble across one of the captions by accident. The best example of that is the one appearing on the Free Trade Hall, which surprised us because it’s on the modern extension at the back rather than the traditional facade at the front. The caption there reads [THE SOUND OF ARCHITECTURE TRYING TO FIT IN WITH HISTORY], which is the sort of gag a smart resident of this city would make, so well done there to Christine Sun Kim. But did we manage to find all the captions before we left? Well, I've got to leave some sort of hook dangling to make you come back for the second part of this post.

But before we do that, one more piece of public art for you, because this seems to be one of the ways that MIF wants to engage with the rest of Manchester this year - leaving bits of itself lying around for people to find by accident. That's just one component of the exhibition Poet Slash Artist, though: the bulk of it is installed in a traditional bricks-and-mortar gallery, the Cornerhouse-replacing arts centre Home (where it carries on running till August 30th). It contains the work of twenty-five people who exist in the category defined by the title - poets who dabble in art, and artists whose work has a large verbal component (something I've been saying about Tracey Emin for ages now, and we get one of her neon pieces here).

For me, Inua Ellams - who's been mentioned in these pages twice before for his work at the Edinburgh Festival, with the possibility of a third mention on the way - works best here because he draws a literal physical line between the two disciplines: a diptych with a drawing in one panel, and an accompanying poem in the other. There are also good pieces from Adonis and Goro Yoshimasu, but they're kind of cheating: they're working in pictographic languages (Arabic and Japanese respectively) which, if you don't understand them, still work as a graphic element within their artworks. All too often, though, the attempts at combining art and poetry result in one, other or both of them suffering a drop in quality - which may explain why I responded better to the pieces where I couldn't actually read the poetry.

For my money, the best piece in the show isn't even in Home - it's outside in the courtyard, and displayed on a few other sites across the city, where the artists were each asked to provide one work for public display in poster form. Some of them just took a piece from the gallery display and reproduced it on a bigger scale: others took the opportunity to create something new. And Xu Bing's One Day In Manchester uses the space beautifully, creating his own pictographic language to tell a charming story with enough local references to justify its title. Click on the image above to see it enlarged - it's well worth it.

All of the above happened in about 48 hours. We still had another three days to go at this point, featuring more art, more music, and at least one thing that could be considered a superspreader event. More on that soon.


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