April 10, 2009

Make It New

Manchester International Festival (MIF) http://www.mif.co.uk/ claims to be the world’s first festival of original, new work and special events. The Festival launched in 2007 as “an artist-led, commissioning festival presenting new works from across the spectrum of performing arts, music, visual arts and popular culture.” As I mentioned the other day, attending the media launch, my doubts from the first festival were confirmed for the second. Alex Poots, the Director, introduced the festival roughly with: this is the world’s first festival of original, new work and special events, an artist-led, commissioning festival presenting new works from across the spectrum of performing arts, music, visual arts and popular culture. He then handed the platform over to the first artist (I can’t recall which one it was now), who, after explaining his planned work, handed on to the next and then they had handed on to the next, etc. The first thing that stands out in this ‘presentation’ is that the director did not presenting any sense of a Manchester vision on the international stage, what Manchester contributes to the global dialogue which accrues in the circuit of biennials and festivals; admittedly partnerships with other international festivals were flagged up but that is not the same as saying something, that is membership of a club. The ‘vision’ becomes simply the concatenation of the projects – without over-arching aspiration the festival is the symplectic geometry of arriving at the same place at the same time. The absence of the vision perforce throws attention onto the projects themselves – is there an implicit position threaded through them? Well, no, not really; what there is is a sort of cultural parlour game: Damon Albarn/opera/Chinese theatre (in the first festival), Damon Albarn/Kronos Quartet/Punchdrunk Theatre/BBC Documentaries, Steve Reich with Kraftwerk, Elbow with the Halle Orchestra, etc. We can all play this game: how about the Gallagher brothers (Oasis) with Vienna Lippizaner horses performing at the Manchester City Eastlands Stadium or Madonna choreographing the Kirov with original music by the Malawi Children’s Choir. You have a go, it’s fun.

This might sound churlish, and don’t get me wrong, I am not critical of the individual projects per se (although some of them invite some trenchant commentary - the excerpt of the Rufus Wainwright neo-romantic elevator-music opera played at the launch was terrible) – I have already booked tickets for the Bach concert in the specially designed space by Zaha Hadid - but then again, how ground-breaking is Bach? I’ll probably also see the Marina Abramović curation at the Whitworth Art Gallery (although, I am drawn to this in the same spirit of the shopping list, the chance to see that many live artists in one hit); no here, I am more concerned by the MIF qua Festival, its underlying fallacy and the recurring issue of corporate language. Let’s put aside some of the peripheral ripostes to the ‘vision’. Factually, the world’s first festival of original new work would surely be the 1895, or in modern times, the 1948 Venice Bienniales. Moreover it is almost a defining characteristic of contemporary international arts festivals to be made up of new work and special projects, so claiming distinction on this ground only convinces people who don’t attend many real international festivals.

The glaring and operative word in all this is “new”. I am reminded of TV presenters who introduce a live performance broadcast from the studio with “Live and exclusive…” as if the artist could have achieved quantum uncertainty and be live somewhere else at the same time. So Laurie Anderson (who was terrible in Salford a few years ago) performing with Lou Reed might be new in Manchester but it’s not actually new. Anyone of a certain age and musical orientation would salivate at the prospect of Steve Reich and Kraftwerk playing in the Velodrome, but it is only the parlour game juxtaposition and venue which are new. I saw Reich in 1998 at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, and while the old classics that he performed were great, the later Hindenburg was very disappointing and it was clear by then that his creative powers were waning – that was ten years ago. To be fair, MIF does not claim a Poundian ‘Make it New’ but it certainly lays claim to newness and in some press communications to originality too. This is one of those Government-speak things, like ‘excellence’, which infect our cultural language. They offer up a category of partial newness or relatively new but not so new to challenge anything. A section of my next book seems to appropriate comment here:

Lines synonymous with their content in either order concatenation between
breathers and catalysis between breathers and catalysis worth nothing unless
they predict something new; non-trivial zeros except on the line iff it
redirects here if something is new to us it is new to everyone; people perceive
the existence of these risks and react by shopping or perseveration…

In MIF artistic risk is demonstrably missing. I felt this very clearly when the Whitworth Gallery curator was proudly recounting the challenging moment when Marina Abramović proposed that the Gallery spaces be emptied of the collection and replaced with her curation of live art performances. If you hear this empathising with endless storage problem of most galleries, you can read this as the Gallery breaking new ground, and to that extent it is. But I am reminded of when I was started working with Ulrich Rückriem; prior to meeting him, Robert Hopper the late Director of the Henry Moore Institute convinced me that Rückriem was one of the 5 great living artists. At that stage as a curator you know that whatever the artist proposes is what you are going to do, because if you don’t accept the proposal of artists of a certain status, you announce to the world that you are not committed to work of the highest quality. With Abramović’s status, the Whitworth is not actually taking an artistic risk.

This line of argument suggests at least some credence to the claim that the festival is artist-led. However, my perception is that, while it is well organised, it is not actually led in artistic terms. In the absence of an over-aching meaningful vision at its heart, MIF has an under-arching institutionalist market-orientation inertia. Classic proof of its privileging of institutions in comparison with its piecemeal attitude to artform and artists is the Manchester Open Commission. This year’s festival sought to commission a Manchester artist or arts organisation to create a major work. Remember this is in the context of the festival organisers trotting out the cliché about Manchester being characterised by its feisty go-for-it (madchester) city with attitude reputation! Out of many submissions, they chose the proposal from the Cube architecture gallery (http://www.cube.org.uk/) to commission Gustav Metzger. This projected work is an fallacious eco-stinker which I will return to analyse in future, but here I am interested more in the choice of the Cube as representing a Manchester artistic statement. Although its programme has improved in recent years, it is still a pretty uninspired node in the city landscape - limited as it is by the paucity of contemporary architecture in Manchester and the scourge of the Access Agenda. There are artists in Manchester who function on the international stage and some younger talents that soon will. But MIF went for Cube. This is the most telling statement of the festival’s inclination to institution before artist. Primarily the festival’s success is measured by fulfilling the requirements of its sponsors and the City Council’s tourism & marketing performance indicators, not artistic drives – and it shows in the programme.

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