It’s now one week into Manchester International Festival (MIF) 2021, and the city centre is brimming with cultural activity for the first time in what feels like a lifetime. But beyond the simple fact we have 18 days of world exclusive art, performance, music and dance to go at, there are important lessons being taught throughout this year’s showcase.
Of course, we’ve already got to grips with the daring work of controversial game designer Robert Yang, who created a ‘queer gardening simulator’, and explored the rest of MIF’s digital side. However, we’ve also been out and about IRL, and from what we’ve seen there’s much to discuss.
Several pieces directly react to the ongoing pandemic. Not least the heart-wrenching ‘Notes on Grief’, based not the essay by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which is now a book. Front and centre, it’s about the death of a father and the difficulties of going through that pain when you can’t be with your family. Fundamentally, though, it’s about all our loves, losses, and memories.
Posters across the city make up ‘Poet Slash Artist‘, including a piece by Tracy Emin. Curated by Manchester-born prose don Lemn Sissay, and Hans Ulrich Obrist, contributors were allowed to submit existing designs, but as we learnt at last Thursday’s launch many created new imagery for the series during the COVID-19 crisis. Hence relevance to the emotional and psychological fallout, and recovery. Work is also on display at HOME.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of MIF 2021 is how much of it challenges us to imagine a better world, at a point in history where it feels like a new age is dawning. Take ‘EART: A Manifesto of Possibilities’, for example.
A highly technical exhibition at the Dantzic building, helpfully located on Dantzic Street, it’s a three-part presentation of ways in which we can all think, act and be more creative in everyday life. Heavily focused on solutions to tangible problems, the case study of a micro city is worth a look alone. However, it’s the pop-up store around the corner on Hanover Street that really caught our attention.
Basic household staple products are available to buy, all packaged with minimalist design. They look beautiful, but the concept isn’t about aesthetics. Instead, Pakistani artist Rashid Rana wants to show us how much better off we might be without branding, simultaneously lowering prices for shoppers without effecting staff wages. It’s a powerful way to deliver the message.
That giant plastic wrapped rocket thing in Piccadilly Gardens probably hasn’t gone unnoticed. ‘Big Ben Lying Down With Books’ is exactly as it sounds, a 42m effigy resembling the clock tower at London’s Palace of Westminster. The seat of UK power, where politicians make (and frequently break) the rules, this reimagined version is partly made from 1,000 books considered to be among the most significant in British socio-political publishing.
It’s the latest in the ‘The Fall of Universal Myths’, a series by Argentina’s Marta Minujín, whose portfolio dates back to the 1960s. She first explored this idea in 1983, placing a replica of the Parthenon in Athens, Greece, on the busy Avenue 9th of July in Buenos Aires. The structure recreated what is widely seen as the birthplace of democracy, and contained 20,000 books that had been banned by the South American nation’s military dictatorship at that time.
When the installation was removed, the texts were given to the public for free. Suffice to say, the UK has rarely felt more politically volatile or hopeless, lost in its own isolationism and at the mercy of kleptocrats, so transferring this idea to the corridors of power in our own country makes sense right now. Again, the books will be given away at the end of the festival.
The Whitworth has opened its temporary exhibition halls to one of the most important organisations in civil and human rights. Forensic Architecture use digital animation and rendering to recreate how atrocities, accidents and tragedies happened. Their efforts have included painstakingly recreating the Grenfell Tower fire to get a better understanding of how the building’s fabric fuelled the blaze.
For MIF, the team present ‘Cloud Studies’. Centred on what’s known as Cancer Alley in the US, we learn how climate and environmental racism is a modern form of colonialism. Predominantly Black communities housed on old plantation land live in toxic conditions thanks to the huge number of chemical plants in the area. Poor health and terminal illnesses are rife.
Forensic Architecture show how the air itself is weaponised and becomes a tool of oppression. They also offer other examples, such as Israeli planes crop spraying harmful chemical at the Gaza border early in the morning, knowing the wind direction would blow poisons into the neighbouring territory. We’re then told how resistance movements also employ clouds to protect themselves, such as the use of mass fires to create smoke cover.
Highly respected Manchester journalist and author John Robb recently wrote an excellent piece for his Louder Than War platform on the UK Government’s mistreatment of the music industry. With almost 65,000 at Wembley Stadium in London for Wednesday night’s Euro 2020 semi-final, while gigs remain largely off limits and venues teeter on the brink, it’s not hard to see why he’s asking “why does our government hate music and culture so much?”
Perhaps the answer is that arts of all kinds have an enormous capacity to create alternative discourses and facilitate new ways of seeing. In its vivid depiction of our capacity to envisage change, MIF 2021 proves art can and is genuinely impactful.
Take a look at the full MIF 2021 programme here