Once every two years, Spank The Monkey returns to the city of his birth for a weekend-long culture binge at the Manchester International Festival. Here’s what he saw this year.
In our last episode, you’ll recall that the Artistic Director of the Manchester International Festival, Alex Poots, left his post after successfully navigating the event through its first decade. Of all the innovations he brought to the Festival, perhaps one of the least commented on was the artistic equivalent of what people in the computer industry call vapourware: events that were announced in the programme, but which had to be withdrawn once it became apparent they’d be physically impossible to stage. In the last two festivals alone, we’ve had Romeo Castellucci’s The Rite Of Spring, which floundered on the logistics of replacing ballet dancers with clouds of powdered bones: and The Age Of Starlight, a three-way collaboration between Kevin MacDonald, Brian Cox and Oculus Rift, where only two of the collaborators were ready for primetime. Thankfully the new Artistic Director, John McGrath, has played it safe by not calling any of this year’s events The Something Of Something.
The closest McGrath got to vapourware is the MIF’s first online commission, a computer game by Nina Freeman called Lost Memories Dot Net. In it, you play the lightly fictionalised role of Nina herself as a teenager back in 2004. The date is important because the environment in which you’re playing is a reconstruction of a chatroom of the period, where Nina is navigating her friendships with both people she knows from school and those she’s only ever encountered in cyberspace. As a side task, you’re also building anime fan websites in a separate window, using graphics you’ve acquired from your chat buddies.
It’s possible that the description of this as a ‘game’ may give people the wrong idea: Lost Memories is more like a teen romance novella that you read through a chatroom simulator. It’s a compelling enough story, and keeps you clicking through for a couple of hours to see what happens next: but you’re just clicking through. You occasionally have to choose what Nina says next, but those choices never take the story in a significantly different direction. Also, your enjoyment of the game may depend on your tolerance for teenage online slang and text emoji. I suspect there’s a certain type of millennial for whom this would push all the nostalgia buttons perfectly, and it’s left as an exercise for the reader as to whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing.
Freeman herself turned up as one of the guests in Interdependence: We Need To Talk About Technology, one of a series of half-day discussion sessions in the much larger meatspace section of the Festival. I warmed to her work a little more after hearing her talk about it, particularly as she described the importance of the website design sub-games. They don’t have any bearing on the narrative in the slightest, but they accurately invoke the way the amateur web used to look back in the early noughties: and as most of those sites vanished following the collapse of Geocities, Freeman wanted to celebrate something that’s been, well, lost from our recent history. Again, it doesn’t match with my own experiences – by 2004, I was coding pages with raw HTML in Notepad – but her desire to produce something that’s explicitly a period piece is interesting.
Freeman’s chat with games critic Laura Kate Dale was merely the middle section of this two-and-a-half hour gabfest. The main event at the start was an enjoyable natter between Laurie Anderson and choreographer Wayne McGregor. Both artists had fascinating views on the divide between the human body and the virtual persona in art – McGregor wanting to smudge the boundaries between the two, Anderson keen to remove the human element completely if possible – and it’s a shame that partway through the discussion got disrupted (to use the trendy term) by Icelandic politico Birgitta Jónsdóttir and her own concerns regarding online freedom. The final part of the session had its own disruptive element, as three academics held a panel discussion about how AI could change the future, only for one of them to win the debate the moment he pulled a rabbit-shaped companion robot out of his bag. As befits a session about the use of technology to connect people, the whole thing can be watched online until the end of the festival: given Laurie Anderson’s amusement at the times when tech fails us, try counting all the times when the radio mics conked out.
The Interdependence session was held in Manchester’s brand spanking new Stoller Hall: it’s nice to see that MIF’s tradition of celebrating the city’s architecture, both past and present, is still a priority. This applied even more to Music For A Busy City, a series of six musical commissions played every hour in a selection of public spaces. You might just stumble across them by accident, or actively seek them out: if you’re doing the latter as we did, you get to recognise other people on the same scavenger hunt as you are, all revelling in a secret game the other passers-by aren’t aware of.
Frustratingly, we only managed to hear five of the six, not being able to get to Canal Street at a suitable time to catch Philip Venables’ evocation of the gay district. The ones we did get to hear all interpreted the brief in surprisingly varied ways. Olga Neuwirth incorporates a ticking clock into her music for the departure board at Victoria Station, and raises a smile as it crossfades into the clock effect from 24. Huang Ruo’s piece is the most ambitious, requiring you to walk around one floor of the town hall to fully appreciate its mix of Eastern and Western influences. Anna Meredith channels Brian Eno with her music for the lifts at Selfridges: Mohammed Fairouz adds a strange air of unease to the calm of St Ann’s Square. But for my money, it’s Matthew Herbert’s recreation of the factory sounds that used to fill the Great Northern Warehouse which works best for me, although to an unsuspecting listener it must just sound like the escalators there are really badly maintained.
There’s another depiction of Manchester’s industrial past in Cotton Panic!, a story of the cotton industry that’s described in the programme as an ‘industrial music drama’. I suspect there’ll be quite a few unsuspecting punters turning up to see Jane Horrocks off the telly in a gentle tale of life in the mills, not realising that it’s not so much a music drama about industry, more a drama with industrial music. Horrocks’ main collaborators here are the band Wrangler, the latest project from Cabaret Voltaire’s Stephen Mallinder, and he’s still as fond of filthy electronic noise as he always was. The show starts with Wrangler simulating the full-tilt roar of a cotton mill in operation, and never really dips in volume from that point onwards.
Cotton Panic! is one of those shows that frustratingly evokes the reaction ‘I can see what you’re trying to do there.’ The narrative thread is rather slight, despite the huge moral dilemma at its core – the collapse of the cotton industry in Manchester as a direct result of the emancipation of slaves in the US. It’s more content to hedge around that story rather than address it head on, with Horrocks singing her way through a series of tangentially related songs from music hall to Morrissey, often in aggressive contrast to the musical backing. Despite a couple of powerful moments where things are stripped back to a single voice, all too often the absence of light and shade in the piece stops an audience from really connecting to it.
Elsewhere in town, another unlikely theatrical collaboration sees director Scott Graham, playwright Simon Stephens and Underworld’s Karl Hyde pool their talents in Fatherland. It’s a verbatim theatre piece, culled from a series of interviews the three of them held with various men, asking about their memories of their fathers, and their own experience of being a father where appropriate. It’s a terrific way to examine topics like masculinity, Britishness and family from a diverse array of perspectives: or it would be, if it didn’t have so many other layers on top. A large part of the show is about the process by which the interviews were obtained: and throughout it all, there’s an interviewee called Luke who’s delivering a running self-critique of the production, constantly questioning the motives of its creators.
As with Cotton Panic!, the result feels a little too emotionally detached: in my head, there’s a version of this show that ditches all of its internal uncertainty about its right to exist, and simply presents the men’s stories. There are several moments where it does just that, and the effect is breathtaking: most notably when a ridiculously simple visual device is used to depict the moment when Karl Hyde’s dad expresses his pride in his son. But all too often, we come back to Luke and his objections, and we lose our connection with what’s happening on stage. Although it’s possible that in one aspect, Luke may have a point: out of all the men interviewed here, it’s the creative team’s memories of their own fathers which are the most affecting parts.
For all my grumbling about some of the individual events, we have to appreciate what John McGrath’s achieved here – he has taken the festival in some bold new directions while resisting the temptation to trash everything that his predecessor created. To that end, two of the most enjoyable parts of my weekend were variations on events I’ve covered in previous MIF reviews. Jonathan Schofield’s guided walks around the city are always entertaining affairs, and the one I went on – Migration And The UK’s Most Amazing Street – is an excellent example of the sort of thing he does. Schofield laid his post-Brexit cards on the table from the off, insisting Manchester couldn’t have achieved what it did without the people who came here from outside. In a two-hour dash along Oxford Road, he introduced us to the cotton barons who made their fortune here, the political thinkers who observed what was going on, and the scientists who took us into the future. He’s organising several different walks during MIF, and I have no doubt they’ll all be as informative and fun as this one.
And we finish off with what’s become an MIF tradition – the free DJ set by Dave Haslam on the middle Saturday night of the Festival. Haslam had the thankless task of entertaining anyone who happened to be walking through Albert Square at the time, but he also had the box full of proven bangers that a situation like this demands. The roars of joy that erupted when he dropped an old favourite – the opening vocal line of Good Life, or the piano riff from Going Back To My Roots – showed that he knows exactly how to play to the crowd. And when the dancing got too much, you could always relax with the festival beer: a collaboration between Victorian CAMRA stalwarts JW Lees and fashionable young hopbotherers Cloudwater. How many other arts festivals can you think of that can be perfectly symbolised by a pint of red ale?
Manchester International Festival runs until 16 July 2017.
Lost Memories Dot Net is currently available for download or can be played in-browser.
Interdependence has a final pair of sessions on Saturday 15 July.
Music For A Busy City continues at multiple locations until 16 July.
Cotton Panic! continues at Campfield Market Hall until 15 July.
Fatherland continues at the Royal Exchange Theatre until 22 July.
Jonathan Schofield is holding daily walking tours of Manchester until 16 July.