“We tell ourselves stories in order to live ... We interpret what we see.”
Joan Didion The White Album
Incorporating a programme of music, dance, theatre and contemporary art, Manchester International Festival is expansive. With daily broadcasts by BBC 6 Music’s Radcliffe and Maconie and regular email updates on what to do at MIF landing in my inbox, it can be difficult to find one’s own way into and through the programme beyond the mediated story of the festival with its pervasive marketing and slick imagery. Yet perhaps this very mediation provides an additional facet to the theme of storytelling that seems to echo throughout MIF’s varied programme.
Opening with ‘What is the City but the People’, a performance directed by Richard Gregory after an idea from Jeremy Deller, the story of the city and its residents was positioned as the nexus of the forthcoming programme. One by one individuals walked along a bright yellow catwalk to the cheers of the crowd – a young mother, a doctor, a Big Issue seller, drag queens and hip-hop dancers. The staging made use of the digital advertising screens surrounding the catwalk to create pockets of colour and text amid the grey concrete buildings, visually framing the performers within the cityscape and giving them personal ownership of the public space. Continuing to combine the public programme of the festival with the personal experience of the city’s inhabitants, MIF’s ‘Festival in My House’ saw residents across Manchester stage day long festivals in their homes. Cheetham Hill resident Yatie Aziz curated a celebration of Asian, Latin American and African-Caribbean cultures and traditions for her friends and neighbours and Chunky and Thirty Pound Gentleman brought a range of DJ’s artists and MC’s from the city’s club culture into Chunky’s home in Hulme.
‘What Is the City but the People’ and ‘Festival in My House’ must be read in direct conflict with the Festival’s simultaneous efforts to associate the city with its star representatives – the exhibition ‘True Faith’ exploring the ongoing significance of Joy Division and New Order, who are also in concert at the Festival devised in collaboration Liam Gillick. The conflicting association of the city with its stars and its common residents brings to the fore questions over the different layers of narrative we hear of the city. Whose story represents Manchester? And who, indeed, is to do the telling?
Questioning the multifaceted aspects of any (hi)story, Samson Young’s newly commissioned work, ‘One of Two Stories, or Both’ (Field Bagatelles) tentatively reveals the different layers of narrative that combine to tell any single story. Based upon myths of 17th Century Chinese travellers making their way to Europe on foot, Young devised a five-part radio series broadcast on Manchester’s Unity Radio 92.8FM. Following broadcast, the recordings were installed within a small room at the CFCCA. Populated by musical scoresheets, scripts and the unexpected objects used to create sound effects (a horse’s saddle used as a drum, a freestanding door) the interior both reveals something of the process of the recordings and instils a sentiment of uncertainty — the familiar repurposed and retold. The layering of audio, imagery and objects further serves to reveal the various means by which histories – personal, international or communal, are mediated, from news bulletins to written texts and intimate recollections, inviting us to question the stories we hear of contemporary migration, journeys and mass movement and how our familiar surroundings and individual stories could be retold.
Alongside Young’s installation, the CFCCA’s current exhibition ‘From Ocean to Horizon’, curated by Ying Kwok, presents work by 7 Hong Kong based artists. Exploring the relationship between the ocean and the horizon line, an abstract yet ever present intersection between sea and sky, the exhibition presents a reflection on Hong Kong’s shifting position within both Chinese and British history. The young artists’ works reflect on place, identity and migration. A question of migration, whether forced or voluntary is a consistent concern in this years’ MIF.
Susan Hefuna’s solo exhibition ‘ToGather’ at the city’s Whitworth Art Gallery contains vitrines of objects gathered from different refugee and asylum seeker communities positioned among a series of palmwood structures inspired by transport crates regularly seen on the streets of Cairo. The sculptures populate the gallery space in the vein of minimalist sculptures, ‘performing’ with and alongside the figures of visitors. With the bodies of gallery visitors viewed through and within the crate-like towers, the work brings with it an undercurrent of mass transportation and slavery, pointing towards the darker side of contemporary migration.
As part of the exhibition, Hefuna devised a public performance in the park surrounding the gallery. Working with 30 individuals from refugee and asylum seeker communities who had recently made Manchester their home, as well as dancers from Wayne McGregor Studio, the performance bravely paired non-dance and dance professionals in a sequence of movements that abstractly mapped the participants’ journeys to the city. The small movements removed the barrier of language by using a gestural means of communication. Where Samson Young’s work presented a multi-layered audio of narrative accounts from the anecdotal to the conversational and musical, Hefuna’s performance of bodies moving, shifting and changing give a visual story of migration. It is also a story of the city and its diverse residents.
If you can peel away the ‘big names’, slick marketing and social media feeds, you can find works that sensitively and tentatively explore the question of how to tell contemporary stories – particularly stories of migration – and provide critical reflection on the representative and narrative processes involved as well as reminding us to ask whose story is being told and who is it doing the telling. In a programme that is so expansive it is also up to the audience to narrate their own fragmented journey through the various works, each account of the programme invariably mediated somewhat differently.