12 years ago, Manchester International Festival (MIF) launched its inaugural programme of events, showcases and presentations, spanning a huge range of artistic disciplines – from the visual to the musical and performative. Since then, the festival has played host to artists working across the vast spectrum of the arts, including Björk, Zaha Hadid, Marina Abramović, Robert Wilson, Maxine Peake, Wayne McGregor, Steve McQueen and The XX.
Taking place over 18 days this July, the artist-led programme unfolds as a series of gigs, workshops, performances, talks, activities, exhibitions and presentations, set against the backdrop of Manchester’s own rich artistic scene. The city’s plethora of cultural venues, such as its theatres, galleries and music venues, are joined by less conventional locations like churches, parking lots and railway depots, all of which weave the festival’s international appeal into the very fabric of Manchester.
One such venue is the Science and Industry Museum, which provides the setting for Atmospheric Memory, an immersive audio-visual installation and sensory performance piece by Mexican-Canadian media artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer. Having studied physical chemistry in Montreal, the artist typically creates works that bear the marks of his scientific training and approach – electronic installations that feature robotic, digital and computerised technologies. For his piece at MIF, in collaboration with FutureEverything, a Manchester-based digital innovation laboratory, Rafael presents a collection of what he terms “Atmospheric Machines” which deliver tactile, visual and auditory effects as products of the disturbances in the air caused by spoken language. Drawing on Charles Babbage’s notion that the atmosphere we inhabit contains every word that has ever been uttered, Atmospheric Memory conducts a sensorial depiction of an intangible, ghostly archive of the polyphony of past voices.
Turning from the past to the future, MIF’s artists-in-residence Laurie Anderson and Kemang Wa Lehulere are creating new works that visualise what art will look like and how it will be made in the years to come. Based in the newly developed cultural space The Factory in central Manchester, the acclaimed multimedia artist Laurie Anderson will be taking MIF’s visitors on a virtual lunar journey with an experiential installation and VR work. To the Moon, co-created with Taiwanese artist and filmmaker Hsin-Chien Huang, consists of a 15-minute VR expedition across the moon’s surface – both in flight and on the back of a donkey – which explores the fantasy-versus-real-life elements of a digitally created, immersive reality. Meanwhile, young South African artist Kemang Wa Lehulere is conducting research towards a future MIF commission in a residency at Manchester Central Library. Having previously crafted performance, sculpture and drawing works that confront South Africa’s collective socio-political history alongside personal history, the artist is sure to produce some thought-provoking work as a result of his investigative MIF residency.
From VR to gaming, a collaborative work developed by game designer Paloma Dawkins and with a pulsing soundtrack created by electronic composer Jlin takes players on a magic-realist, psychedelic adventure across a surreal landscape towards “Apocabliss”. Entitled Songs of the Lost, the game is free to play and available to download online. The game’s launch is accompanied by an MIF event, Interdependence: Life Hacked, featuring the Songs of the Lost’s designer in conversation with digital artist Dan Hett and visual artist Hardeep Pandhal. Composer-producer Jlin is also set to perform an experimental set at Queens of the Electronic Underground – an auditory glimpse into the future of electronic music.
In the realm of theatrical performance, renowned Irish actress Lisa Dwan, known particularly for her interpretations of Samuel Beckett’s works, dramatises literary texts by seven international authors. The piece, entitled Studio Créole, created by Adam Thirwell and Hans Ulrich Obrist, and directed by John Collins, stages a live translation of short stories by writers from Chile, Croatia, Iceland, Japan, Kenya, Martinique and Palestine. Incorporating a dual audio track fed to the audience through bone conduction headphones that simultaneously play the story in its original language and in its English translation, the piece unfolds as a performative interpretation of the spoken words by Lisa as she moves around the space, merging speech, language and gesture.
Alongside its consistent exploration of future states in technology, society and art, MIF also envisions the future of Manchester while acknowledging the city’s history. With its streets becoming the sites of three interactive works that draw respectively on Thomas More’s seminal text Utopia, the Manchester cholera epidemic of the 1830s and the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre, Manchester confronts its past, present and possible futures by involving its visitors and inhabitants in experiential site-specific installations. In Utopolis Manchester, Berlin collective Rimini Protokoll considers how a utopian city might be created; in A Drunk Pandemic Tokyo art collective Chim↑Pom invites audiences into a temporary brewery in reference to the surprising cholera-fighting properties of beer during the 1830s pandemic; and in The Anvil: An Elegy for Peterloo theatre company ANU hosts a day of commemorative performance, poetry and music.
This year’s festival promises a celebration of international creative innovation and contemporary culture, but also an active and engaged discussion around the place of the arts in confronting our past, grasping our present and building our future. Beyond the few we’ve mentioned, the events taking place range from the political, academic and literary to the absurdist, comedic and just simply entertaining – all equally, utterly compelling.