The Unpleasant Lair Of Spank The Monkey first appeared on the internet 25 years ago today, on July 14th, 1998. Which means that it’s time for the annual anniversary post, which in recent years has meant a quick reference to the anniversary number as depicted in pop culture, followed by a few links to how we celebrated it in previous years. (See the 24th birthday post as an example.)
But to be fair, a silver jubilee deserves better. So how about for a change, we mark this occasion with some actual content rather than a mere bit of self-congratulation? This site’s been there for every Manchester International Festival since they started in 2007, with the exception of 2009 when we had to be somewhere else for an eclipse. The Belated Birthday Girl and I were there for four days over the last weekend: here’s what we did. (Or at least the first half of it: more to follow soon.)
The big news for MIF 2023 is that their new site is ready! Well, more or less. The building they were calling Factory International until a couple of weeks ago is now going under the more tediously corporate name of Aviva Studios. We took a brief peek at it back in 2021, and it was a building site: now, it’s still a building site, but the main building is at least in a good enough state for people to be let inside it. It’s got a concert hall (which we didn’t see), a huge exhibition space (which we did see and we’ll get to), and a decent sized bar/diner area where the slices of black pudding pizza make for a nice welcome to the place.
Aviva is, among other things, the starting point for the walking tours at this year’s MIF. So it seems fitting that the first event we attend this year is Manchester: A Pioneering And Changing City, in which our old mate Jonathan Schofield takes a group of people on a two hour circular stroll around Castlefield. It means he can start off with a sneaky chuckle at the delays encountered in building Aviva, and comparing them with some major construction projects located close by – notably the world’s first railway station – noting that back in 1830, an overrun was never considered an option. (Even though, because it was the first railway station, nobody had a clue what it should look like.)
Compared with some of Schofield’s walks in previous MIFs, this seems less driven by an overarching theme and more by the route he’s taking. But for those of us who’ve been on those earlier walks, it’s fun to see him come up with new variations on topics he’s covered in previous years. His love of the city’s architecture, both old and new (including an alarming aside about how the glass windows in the Hilton on Deansgate have special braces on them these days to stop them falling out and decapitating people - what do you mean, these days?). His anger at the incompetence of the city officials, such as the ones who’ve hidden the one remaining bit of original city wall inside of a car park. And it wouldn’t be a Schofield tour without his fun tales of Marx and Engels hanging out in the city. He suggests there’s a play that could be written where Karl and Fred go to the pub, bump into their Free Trade ideological opposites Richard Cobden and John Bright, and a fight breaks out. I’d be tempted to tell him to write it himself, but I don’t want anything distracting him from running tours this entertaining.
Having said that, Schofield isn’t the only one running MIF walking tours now. For the last couple of festivals, there’s also been a series of alternative walks around the city by a woman calling herself Skyliner. (If you book one of her tours, you’ll find out her real name on the welcome email, but as she doesn’t give it out to the public I won’t do it here.) Her tour The City Imitates Art has an interesting premise, even more so given that she claims her original plan was to take people around all the corpse disposal sites used in Cracker. Instead, she’s offering a tour of key locations associated with 80s and 90s northern telly, and using them to discuss how the city’s been depicted during that period, as well as how close that depiction is to the truth.
There’s an element of bait-and-switch in that description of the tour: as she says at the start, this isn’t going to be a cosy look at places you’ve seen on TV. Actually, it’s more of a social studies lecture with a nice walk attached – although it would have been nicer if a) it hadn’t been raining and b) one of our party found out the hard way how crappy wheelchair access is on the streets of Manchester currently. The list of programmes referenced has a narrative thread running through it: starting with a detour out of Manchester for Boys From The Black Stuff and Brookside (justified by another visit to the old railway station, where the trains for Liverpool used to go from), then moving back to Manchester where Brookie writer Jimmy McGovern made his name with Cracker. Skyliner doesn’t skip over McGovern’s key flaw, which is that he’s only interested in working class men, and has a palpable dislike for women.
Finally, we head up to Canal Street for some talk about Queer As Folk, combined with a look at how Manchester’s Gay Village has been one of the targets for intense gentrification ever since. Skyliner's final stop is at a set of glorious old warehouses which the council gave permission for conversion to ‘family housing’, except they only ever went on sale in Hong Kong and are now all Airbnb properties. With perfect timing, as she's telling us about this, an obviously not-family group of half a dozen twentysomethings emerges from the apartment we’re standing in front of, scowling as they do so. And they say this festival doesn't do comedy.
Meanwhile, back inside Aviva Studios, let’s take a look at that exhibition space, a gargantuan room called The Warehouse. Manchester now has its own equivalent of the Turbine Hall in Tate Modern, and they’ll need to find massive things to put in it. Which is where Yayoi Kusama comes in. It’s always worth repeating this site’s first namecheck of Kusama, from back in 2010 when we visited her hometown of Matsumoto, and I wrote this sentence: “In less traditional style, pop artist Yayoi Kusama has gone splendidly nuts outside the gallery with his giant flower installation.” At this stage I don’t think she had quite the same worldwide appeal that she does now, and that’s my excuse for misgendering her at the time. Not that that’s likely to happen these days, of course: everyone knows Kusama and her polkadots and her pumpkins and her mirrored infinity rooms. It’s why You Me And The Balloons (running to August 28th) is the hottest ticket in this festival that doesn’t involve Maxine Peake. (You’ll have to wait for part 2 for that one.)
At the age of 94, Kusama is still ploughing her usual furrows with a few extra quirks thrown in: on this occasion, her preferred medium is the 30 foot high inflatable structure, but those structures are still pumpkins and polkadots and models of herself. For someone who’s familiar with her work, the size is the main thing that this exhibition has going for it, and it's just about enough: if you haven’t been worn down by her sheer omnipresence over the last decade, it'll be even more fun. Curiously, the one thing that’s undersized is the inevitable infinity room with the equally inevitable 30 minute queue to get in: once you’re there, it’s a little underwhelming. Paradoxically, close by there’s a kaleidoscope hidden behind a peephole inside a relatively tiny pumpkin, which is the most visually delightful thing in the room. (See picture above.)
Exhibitions are still going on in less ridiculously-oversized spaces: for example, at the Whitworth, which has a pair of totally unrelated contributions to the festival this year. When we first enter the gallery, we come across an almost empty room with a woman doing wheelies on a bike in one corner, and a man balancing a football on his ear in another. We don’t feel quite ready to take this on yet, so we head into the main gallery to catch Economics: The Blockbuster (running till October 22nd). It’s a big political piece, with ten sets of artists taking on the subject of economic systems and possible alternatives to the one we’re lumped with. The main central room is largely taken up with illustrations of how economics works. Some are simple and bitingly satirical, others are so bogged down in complex diagrams that you quickly lose interest. It’s telling that the sharpest piece in the room is a wall with a graph showing a simple upward curve, and a short note pointing out that every economic decision made on the planet is an attempt to recreate this shape. Everyone aims for constant growth without thinking about why they should, or about the longer term consequences. (Comparing notes with The BBG later, I’m delighted to discover that we were both thinking of the same brewery CEO as we read this.)
The other rooms concentrate more on what the alternatives are, with particular focus on how they could apply to the art world. There are displays relating to a couple of collectives producing goods for their community, from Wrexham collective Tŷ Pawb to the Indonesian group lumbung Kios. There’s a lovely bit of shit-stirring by CATPC, the Congolese Plantation Workers Art League, who document centuries of exploitation using clay sculptures that are subsequently recast in the chocolate that was their key export. The best bit of snark comes in Goldin & Senneby‘s piece explaining the concept of quantitative easing by taking a rare Dürer engraving from the Whitworth’s archives, creating a new set of plates using a laser scan, and running off hundreds of prints for sale in the gallery shop. Not all of the items on display here are as well thought out as that, but there’s enough to keep you satisfied for an hour or two.
Emboldened by this, we head back into the big room that scared us off earlier for This Entry (running to July 16th). This is the first in a series of artworks commissioned by MIF to explore the crossover between art and football. Artist Tino Sehgal has collaborated with ex-Man U midfielder Juan Mata on a piece of performance art with a simple premise – bring together four people with very different skills, and see what happens. So for the duration of the festival a singer, a violinist, a cyclist and – yes! – a footballer are spending ten hours a day in the same room improvising off each other.
Well, maybe that’s not entirely true: there are definite setpieces that they’ve discussed beforehand in the dressing room, Brian. They switch between working in pairs, singly, or as a full group of four – sometimes breaking into musical numbers, or showing off their various physical skills, or engaging members of the audience in unexpected conversations (which I think turns out to be our favourite bit).
That nervousness we felt when we first encountered This Entry melts away the longer you spend in the room with its participants. Crucially, there’s a real sense of play here, rather than a desire to make a grand statement about how doing keepy-uppies or wheelies can be art too. Everyone involved is having fun, most notably when the violinist starts riffing off the noises made by an unruly child. The whole thing turns into a conspiracy between audience and performers, which is one of my favourite types of performance: the room is located so that people coming out of the café may well suddenly find a football heading towards them and not have the faintest idea what’s going on, which makes it even more entertaining for those of us who do. (Before it came to the Whitworth, This Entry spent a week at the National Football Museum, and I would have loved to have seen people accidentally stumble across it there.)
So if we think of This Entry as being art rather than anything else, that’s all the non-performance stuff we saw at MIF 2023. Come back soon to find out about the music and theatre. In the meantime, this website has some candles it needs to blow out.