Manchester International Festival

This year’s edition makes a welcome turn towards community engagement, says Tom Emery

By Tom Emery

Susan Hefuna, ToGather, 2017. Photo: David Oates. COurtesy Manchester International Festival Yael Bartana, What if Women Ruled the World?, 2017, Manchester International Festival 2017. Photo: Tristram Kenton True Faith, 2017, True Faith, 2017, installation view at Manchester Art Gallery. Courtesy Manchester International Festival 2017 Liam Gillick, AC/DC Joy Division House, 2016, scale model of a social centre for teenagers for Milan 1993. Courtesy Esther Schipper, Berlin and Maureen Paley, London Mark Leckey, Dream English Kid, 1964 - 1999 AD, 2015, 4:3 film, 5.1 surround sound, 23 mins. Courtesy the artist and Cabinet, London Graham Eatough and Stephen Sutcliffe, No End to Enderby, 2015 (detail). Photo: Donald Christie. Courtesy Manchester International Festival 2017 Graham Eatough and Stephen Sutcliffe, No End to Enderby (still), 2017. Photo: Dressing room. Courtesy Manchester International Festival 2017 Samson Young, One of Two Stories, or Both (Field Bagatelles), 2017, part installation at the CFCCA, part radio drama broadcast online and on FM. Photo: Donald Christie. Courtesy Manchester International Festival 2017 Phil Collins, Ceremony, 2017, artist to transport decommissioned statue of Freidrich Engels from Russia to Manchester. Photo: Yevgen Nikiforov

The sixth biennial Manchester International Festival is the first under the directorship of John McGrath, who brings his earlier background in community engagement with National Theatre Wales to bear at MIF. There’s thankfully an absence of high-profile names, such as Marina Abramović, making repeat appearances and overall there is a feeling that the festival is making a fresh start, opening itself up to new ideas.

One of the unqualified successes of McGrath’s new tenure is Susan Hefuna’s ToGather (2017), a series of free performances staged over the course of an uncommonly sunny Manchester afternoon in Whitworth Park. More than any other work at MIF, Hefuna’s succeeds in connecting the local with the international, working with people from refugee and asylum-seeker backgrounds from countries including Iran, Pakistan and Sierra Leone, who have since become Manchester-residents. The performances, consisting of twenty-minute dance routines, were joyful to watch as the untrained participants confidently committed to their roles throughout. To perform as an untrained dancer at a high-profile event such as MIF is to put yourself in a position of real vulnerability, and it was moving to see the pride in the faces of the performers as they received the audience’s applause. The dancers came together and formed connections with one another throughout the performances, and so did the audience, with social groups overlapping in a noticeably mixed crowd – rarely do art events feel so inclusive. Whitworth Park borders Rusholme and Moss Side, two of central Manchester’s predominantly ethnic-minority neighbourhoods. Content, location, and that fact that the event is free and unticketed allowed the Whitworth gallery, and the festival, to engage these audiences where they usually struggle.

The dancers came together and formed connections with one another throughout the performances, and so did the audience, with social groups overlapping in a noticeably mixed crowd 

Yael Bartana’s What if Women Ruled the World? (2017) is similarly international, but grander in its focus and without Hefuna’s grounding in local connections. With an all-female group of actors and real-world experts, the event was part Dr Strangelove re-enactment (the actors play out scenes from the film set within a recreation of the war-room scene), part panel discussion, merging together as a fascinating mess within the striking setting of the former railway station of Mayfield Depot. For each performance, a different group of female experts from various fields joined the stage after the opening sequence, with the apparent goal of forming a plan for building a new utopian society in the aftermath of nuclear apocalypse. The premise wasn’t adhered to, and for the most part it functioned as a traditional panel discussion where we got to hear from women representing a broad range of political and cultural positions, such as Ugandan LGBT rights activist Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera, Icelandic anarchist MP Birgitta Jónsdóttir and Bradford’s Bara Gora, CEO of the Muslim Women’s Council.

Unfortunately, there was too much going on for the panellists to adequately represent their work, while the cast remained present throughout, and the boundary between theatre and panel discussion became confused and awkward. Interjections from the cast at times made for cringe-inducing awkwardness with the panellists visibly uncomfortable, while seemingly irreconcilable views produced a few Question Time-like moments during the discussion.

True Faith, 2017, installation view at Manchester Art Gallery. Online review MIFTrue Faith, 2017, installation view at Manchester Art Gallery. Courtesy Manchester International Festival 2017

In spite of its ambition and political relevance, a confused format ultimately lets down Bartana’s work. The same can’t be said for True Faith at Manchester Art Gallery, a neatly packaged, conceptually unambitious nostalgia-trip of an exhibition, surveying the work of Manchester bands Joy Division and New Order, exhibiting artwork inspired by the bands, along with music videos, posters and other ephemera. The show is safely canonical, with contributions from the likes of Liam Gillick and Martin Boyce; the curators also include Mark Leckey’s Dream English Kid 1964 – 1999 AD (2015) familiar to local audiences from last year’s Liverpool Biennial and currently on display in Leigh at The Turnpike. For fans of the bands it is probably an important experience, but Joy Division and New Order are products of an over-represented part of Manchester’s history, and for those of us who don’t share the nostalgia, it is irritating to return to it once again.

For fans of the bands it is probably an important experience, but Joy Division and New Order are products of an over-represented part of Manchester’s history

Back at the Whitworth, Graham Eatough and Stephen Sutcliffe’s No End to Enderby (2015) continues the theme of local relevance; the pair have created film adaptations of the first and last chapters of the ‘Enderby’ novel series from Manchester-native Anthony Burgess. Burgess doesn’t loom as large in the popular image of Manchester’s history as the Factory Records era that True Faith focuses on; as such, No End to Enderby’s local relevance feels fresh rather than nostalgic.

Graham Eatough and Stephen Sutcliffe, No End to Enderby (still), 2017. Online review MIF 2017Graham Eatough and Stephen Sutcliffe, No End to Enderby (still), 2017. Photo: Dressing room. Courtesy Manchester International Festival 2017

The first film, Inside Mr Enderby, follows a school group on a trip travelling back in time from the future to visit the 1960s home of Burgess’s fictional poet Enderby. The second, The Muse, shows a future scholar travelling to a parallel universe’s Elizabethan England in search of Shakespeare. Both parts play with the artificiality of film, most notably in The Muse, where the Old Granada Studios setting (where TV shows such as Coronation Street were formerly filmed) isn’t disguised, but used to increase the confusion of the time-traveller, such as when his guide takes him through the make-up room where extras are having their period-appropriate hair done.

Samson Young, One of Two Stories, or Both (Field Bagatelles), 2017. Online review MIF 2017Samson Young, One of Two Stories, or Both (Field Bagatelles), 2017, installation, CFCCA. Photo: Donald Christie. Courtesy Manchester International Festival 2017

Samson Young’s One of Two Stories, or Both (Field Bagatelles) (2017), part installation at the CFCCA, part radio drama broadcast online and on FM, similarly plays with the artificiality of telling stories. The installation places items used by the radio drama’s foley artists to create sound-effects alongside a copy of the script, and a monitor showing footage of the voice actors and foley artists at work as well as imagery relevant to the narrative. Themes of travel and migration are enhanced by the cars and pedestrians passing by immediately outside, while the carpeted floor and request for viewers to remove their shoes create an intimate feeling, as though you are a guest in someone’s home.

The festival wraps up on Sunday 16 July with Phil Collins’s Ceremony (2017), where Collins is set to erect a reclaimed Soviet-era statue of Friedrich Engels in front of arts venue HOME. Collins returns Engels to the city where as a young man he managed one of his family’s factories, the experience of which informed Engels’s political writings on capitalism and the working class. MIF is about to enter a new age with its own Factory – a £110 million Rem Koolhaas-designed arts venue that will be managed by MIF – for which the groundbreaking ceremony took place only days ago. Aiming to host MIF-scale work year-round, The Factory highlights Manchester’s ambition to compete with London for cultural offerings and to outshine all regional rivals.

Published 13 July 2017