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The Problem with MIF

This month's Manchester International Festival shows how the city's cultural industries too often provide a gloss to its growing inequalities.

There is a particular stink bomb you can let off in the circles of the creative class—and that’s to be a party pooper, to fail to have fun. As the historian Raph Samuel once observed, the whole “emotional economy” of the new middle class has been steadily transformed by the historical rise of a consumerism to which they have had disproportionate access. Instant, rather than deferred, gratification is now the order of the day, whilst pleasure has become “the very field on which social claims are established and identities confirmed.” 

Thus the “intimate Glass House” that currently occupies Albert Square for the duration of Manchester International Festival (MIF) plays host to the sold out Lazy Lunch, in which top regional chefs serve four courses “over a relaxed two and a half hour setting.” The word “indulgent” is used twice in the short blurb. The price—not including wine flight of course—is £50.

To stake out a critical distance from MIF’s fab ‘n’ groovy happenings is uncomfortable for some. After all, it risks the recognition that as things stand, the pleasures of the few are more often than not bound up with the exploitation and neglect of the many. 

In Manchester, this made abundantly clear by a recent report entitled Manchester Transformed. Analysing the consequences of the neoliberal regeneration strategies pursued by local and regional government over the past three decades, they conclude that the city region needs an urgent policy reset. Concentrated private sector development in the centre has created “exclusive growth” that has failed to benefit outer boroughs like Oldham and Rochdale. Inequality and poverty remain as stark as ever—and not just at the fringes, Manchester is one of the most deprived local authorities in England. Despite the endless spin, overall economic growth has not exceeded that of other comparable city regions. Job creation has been “dismal” and work is often low paid and part time.

What has MIF got to do with all this, you might ask? The festival is inseparable from the Manchester model of regeneration, once characterised by academics Jamie Peck and Kevin Ward as “talking up, making over and trickling down.” It’s an example of Manchester’s famous romance with cultural industries that actually account for a relatively small proportion of the city region’s output. Of course, that’s hardly the point—it’s the glamour the sector provides that is the selling point of the festival. 

But the cultural industries aren’t glamorous for everyone, in fact they are notorious for poor remuneration and precarious work. Their role, more often than not, is to attract investment in property development and retail. Principally funded by the city council, MIF is an instance of that shift in public sector budget priorities away from welfare and towards greasing the wheels of business. Inflated claims of innovation have hung over Manchester in a self-congratulatory haze ever since the braggadocio of Factory Records’ Tony Wilson inadvertently provided cover for this spreading miasma. But it’s certainly true that the city’s administration were pioneers of ‘pump priming’ the private sector back in the late 1980s, under pressure from Thatcherite attacks on municipal budgets and powers. 

These circumstances sit uneasily with MIF’s invitation to direct our social conscience into worthy entertainments, such as waving a bell around in the name of peace, as a crowd who joined Yoko Ono did to mark the opening of the festival. Symbolically, Ring For Peace took place only steps away from the site of the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing. Despite Ono’s lifelong commitment to fusing art and protest, it’s unclear how a bit of polite tinkling might even begin to address the complex geopolitical conflicts and vast global asymmetries of wealth and power that underpin Islamist terrorism and imperialist war.

Cheeky Spectacles

Here’s another awkward consideration. Amongst the worthy entertainments, it’s notable that in a working class city like Manchester, those who built the city and continue to be its lifeblood are underrepresented. There’s ‘A Drunk Pandemic,’ you may say, an installation which reflects on the outbreak of cholera that swept the city’s industrial slums in the 1830s. Only what “cheeky and fun” Japanese art collective ChimPom have chosen to do with this gambit is set up a pop-up craft beer brewery on the site of a mass grave. Why, you might ask? Because—wait for it—some of Manchester’s proletarians survived by drinking ale instead of water. The £5.50 beer’s name? ‘A Drop of Pandemic.’ 

It sounds like the work of Chris Morris without the parody and is only doubtfully dignified by an accompanying public seminar. There is a risk here of trivialising the fact that ordinary people were, and often still are, considered so disposable that they were denied the human right of hygienic living conditions. Imagine the justified uproar if a similar art project had been staged on a site with links to slavery, the suffering of women or LGBTQI people, for example. 

“Expect the unexpected,” laughs one of the commissioners of ChimPom in a promotional video on the MIF website. As in the world of Silicon Valley, concepts need neither be coherent nor ethical as long as they’re attention-grabbing—and billed as such. No surprise, then, that this year’s programme features the UK theatrical premiere of The Fountainhead (carefully framed as “controversial”) by the renowned charlatan Ayn Rand—an icon of Donald Trump and the US right, opponent of democracy and defender of serial killers. Or that MIF Director John McGrath specified in advance the awe that audiences are expected to feel about a mixed media adaptation of the work of author Italo Calvino: “There will be projects in this festival—I think Invisible Cities will be one—that will have that sense of ‘Oh my goodness! I can’t quite believe what I just saw!’” 

This spectacular, pick ‘n’ mix postmodern aesthetic now seems as dated and crisis-ridden as the free market economics that are its corollary. As the thinker Daniel Gerke noted: “Anyone who, in 2019, does not feel the swirl and swell of history all around them has had their sensitivity to events and their significance amputated.” Gerke goes on to observe the challenge this situation has posed to “the pervasive immaterialism of postmodern thought.”

The Arts for All

Fair enough—MIF is not all postmodern marketing. Each year, there are contributions about which the city can be justly proud. Anohni and the Johnsons’ otherworldly performance backed by Manchester Camerata; director Sarah Frankcom’s adaptation of Caryl Churchill’s bleak The Skriker; and moving exploration of contemporary masculinity Fatherland are just a few that spring to mind. 

There is no doubting the dedication and talent of the many whose hard work goes into making it all happen—including an army of volunteer labour. And that’s because “talking up, making over and trickling down” is not the only motivation here. There is a further strand to MIF, which can in part be traced to one of its other major backers—the Arts Council. Coexisting with the brashness is a desire to bring culture to the people and to facilitate their involvement, making the arts relevant to the lives of everyone. 

Hence MIF’s persistent concern with social and political issues—not to mention the employment opportunities and community training programmes it offers, which have surely changed lives for the better. This year, the Peterloo massacre is commemorated in song to mark its two hundredth anniversary, in an echo of Maxine Peake’s barnstorming performance of Percy Shelley’s Masque of Anarchy for the 2013 festival. 

It’s perhaps these progressive good intentions that account in part for how delicate and difficult it often seems to question MIF. To raise doubts is to tread on toes; it risks accusations of hypocrisy or ungratefulness; and it seems like a petulant middle finger to genuine attempts to improve the cultural life of the city. The accumulated impact of the festival over the past decade and a half has created an undeniably buzzy arts infrastructure with huge potential to expand access. Next year will see the opening of new festival HQ, arts venue and training academy The Factory. But unless we address the root dynamic of the structural inequality with which festivals like MIF are bound up, we have little chance of making urban culture more genuinely egalitarian, inclusive and diverse.

There was a time when critique, while necessary, seemed futile. In the absence of any viable alternatives for municipal policy, it could only come across as nostalgic miserabilism. But as history swirls and swells, so politics is transforming. Even in the teeth of a decade of austerity, Salford’s mayor Paul Dennett is departing from the neoliberal script. Recently, Salford Council has proven that austerity is a choice not a necessity by prioritising affordable social housing and beginning to take services out of the private sector and back in-house in a bid to create adequate, responsive provision and decent jobs. 

Admittedly, Salford’s cultural strategy is in many respects similar to that of Manchester—especially since the arrival of MediaCity and its tendency to set the parameters of the possible. Nevertheless, there is a commitment to shielding independent cultural institutions from being shunted out as property values increase. Proposed changes to the region’s cultural funding programme developed by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority have been robustly scrutinised by Salford Council, with calls for greater transparency and better monitoring of social benefits. 

Meanwhile, grassroots projects like Salford Community Theatre are springing up with the support of the council, recruiting untrained local actors to perform electrifying, politically engaged theatre. Its latest production The Salford Docker is a tour de force. Built on interviews with former dockworkers and their families, the collective labour and mutual support behind the play help to repair frayed working-class values of community and solidarity. Staged as a Brechtian promenade performance, it’s a deeply humanistic exploration of historical change, collective resilience and hope. The Salford Docker is currently playing at a community centre only a mile from MIF’s staging of The Fountainhead and its contrived paeans to selfishness and misogyny. 

These stirrings from the other side of the Irwell are small—and their promise could only truly be delivered by a left-led Labour government guided by current manifesto promises of public investment, bolstering the educational opportunities and bargaining power of cultural workers and better regulation of city planning. But they are a genuine attempt to do things differently, providing an example of how to begin integrating cultural provision with a fairer vision of urban development.