Recovery position

Artists from more than 20 countries have produced original work for this year’s Manchester International Festival

Hero image

Right from its first edition in 2007, the global aspect of the Manchester International Festival has been central to its identity.

Every two years, the festival takes over the city with an adventurous programme of original new work from a diverse array of artists, performers, actors, musicians, dancers, DJs and poets from around the world. Remarkably, this year’s MIF is no different, in spite of the difficulties and ever-changing restrictions on international travel caused by the pandemic.

“Other festivals have understandably chosen not to work internationally this year, but it was really important to us that we maintained that focus,” says MIF artistic director and chief executive John McGrath. “We kept those connections alive and we found new ways to work with artists. One of the things that I’m most proud of with this festival is that it is as international as it is.”

Running 1-18 July, this year’s MIF features work and live performances from more than 70 artists and creatives from over 20 countries across six continents. Among them is Swiss curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, Nigerian afrorave star Rema, South Africa’s Kemang Wa Lehulere and Argentinian conceptual artist Marta Minujín, who will be installing a colossal 42m replica of Big Ben made out of 20,000 books in Piccadilly Gardens.

Other standout names on the bill include British musicians Damon Albarn, presenting his latest solo project, and Brit-nominated singer Arlo Parks, performing live alongside a string section from the Royal Northern College of Music. There’s also a rich programme of visual arts, headed by the world premiere of All Of This Unreal Time – a film and immersive installation starring Peaky Blinders actor Cillian Murphy and featuring music by Jon Hopkins and The National’s Aaron Dessner and Bryce Dessner.

For theatre lovers, Rae McKen directs Notes On Grief, based on the book of the same name by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the acclaimed author of Half of a Yellow Sun and Americanah. The Patience of Trees, a new concerto for violin, strings and percussion by acclaimed British-Bulgarian composer Dobrinka Tabakova, offers a timely reflection on the healing power of the natural world.

“We have a festival that for me feels very responsive to the times that we’re in,” says McGrath. “We’re all going to be at different points this summer in terms of emerging
from lockdown or celebrating or grieving so we have tried to create a festival that is joyful, but also thoughtful and able to cater to those different needs.”

On a practical level, the pandemic means that next month’s festival will look and feel very different to previous editions. In line with Boris Johnson’s recent announcement that Covid restrictions are to stay in place until 19 July, one day after MIF ends, safe distancing measures will be in place at all indoor and outdoor live events, including limited ticket numbers, visitor bubbles and Covid-19-compliant seating.

Festival Square has been moved from its traditional home in the heart of the city to Cathedral Gardens due to restoration work to the Town Hall and will be entirely seated. There will also be one-way visitor systems and sanitising stations at all MIF locations.

Although organisers had hoped restrictions would be dropped in time for the festival opening, plans for a Step 3-compliant event were put in place months ago. Alternative arrangements can be made if the health situation deteriorates and further safety measures need to be introduced.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

“We have been running scenarios for each project and for the festival as a whole since autumn of last year. Every single project initially had five different versions according to degrees of potential lockdown and different travel scenarios,” explains McGrath.

He says a decision was made early on to move a number of large-scale performance-based projects to the 2023 edition of MIF, while a number of events taking place this year have been adapted or modified in line with government guidance. Two concerts by American singer-songwriter Patti Smith have been cancelled due to travel restrictions. Despite the logistical challenges of producing an inner-city festival during a pandemic, McGrath calls it “a real privilege” to bring the event to fruition and help get “Manchester strutting its stuff again”.

“If there’s anything that we need after being locked down for this past year, it is a festival. It is to be inspired. It is to engage with the spectacular,” agrees poet Lemn Sissay, a long-serving artistic adviser to MIF.

For this year’s event, Sissay worked with Obrist to create Poet Slash Artist, an exhibition that spills out from gallery walls onto city streets and showcases work that blurs the boundaries between poetry and visual art. Tracey Emin, Etel Adnan, Friederike Mayröcker and Japan’s Gozo Yoshimasu are just a few of the names taking part, while singer-songwriter and BBC Radio 6 Music DJ Cerys Matthews curates a day of spoken word and live music at Homeground, Manchester’s summer-long open-air stage close to Home cinema and arts venue.

“In seeking poets who are artists and artists who are poets what we found is the power of messages that they bring to the world,” says Sissay. “It is a time now more than ever for us to say what we mean and mean what we say – whether we say it through metaphor or art or our physical contact with each other – and that’s what this exhibition is about. I’m so proud of it.” Elaborating on the theme, he calls Poet Slash Artist “a joyous exhibition of artists
firing with ideas and wanting to connect with the world”.

Connection is also at the heart of The Global Playground, a new live show and accompanying digital film from award-winning children’s company Theatre-Rites that mixes dance, music, theatre and puppetry. Partly inspired by lockdown, the play uses the camera as a framing device to tell its story of a group of dancers who come together to make a film.

“In the past year, nearly all of our experiences have been through the camera,” says director Sue Buckmaster. “I wanted to make a show that looks into how you have experienced that. When has [the camera] been your friend and connected you with your grandmother far away? Or when has it been a pain in the arse and been invasive in your life?”

Keen not to give too much away, Buckmaster says the production will appeal to audiences of all ages from eight up. “If you’re a kid, you’ll love the jovial aspect of it. If you’re an adult, you’ll see the politics. And if you need to reflect on something, maybe it’s been a hard year, there are metaphors that might help you,” she says. “It feels immersive but safe, lively but reflective.”

That same lively but reflective ethos runs throughout this year’s festival programming, explains McGrath, keen to stress the wider benefits that Manchester International Festival brings to the region. They include the hundreds of freelance artists, staff and technicians that MIF employs on a biannual basis. “Just on that very basic level, it’s massively important to get things going again,” he emphasises.

According to analysis from Manchester City Council, one of MIF’s principal funding partners, 2019’s festival brought more than 300,000 visitors to the city, generating over £50 million for the local economy. Funding for this year’s event once again comes from a mix of private sponsorship, ticket sales, Arts Council England and Manchester City Council. The council is additionally putting £50 million into the cost of the Factory, a new £186 million arts venue being built on the site of the former Granada TV studios, which will become MIF’s permanent home from December 2022.

Covid-19 means that audience numbers for next month’s festival will be a fraction of previous events, but McGrath believes MIF, the Factory and other cultural organisations all have a vital role to play in kickstarting the north’s economic revival as we slowly emerge out of lockdown. “What we do has a massive economic and social impact, but also on a deeper level makes a huge contribution to the happiness and wellbeing of people in the city,” he says, counting down to the days to the start of MIF 2021.

“In the longer term, we’ll be looking to encourage people from across the UK and across the world to come back to Manchester again. But for now, it’s first and foremost about being part of the recovery.”

Manchester International Festival runs1-18 July (

MIF 2021 picks

Sea Change
Previous MIF opening nights have seen Yoko Ono lead a hippy orchestra of bell ringing and Piccadilly Gardens transformed into a giant fashion catwalk. This year’s kick-off event, designed by French choreographer Boris Charmatz (above) in response to the pandemic, will feature over 150 Greater Manchester residents taking part in what’s been described as a huge human jigsaw that will slowly make its way down Deansgate in one single continuous movement. Exactly what that will look like is anybody’s guess, but given Charmatz’s previous pedigree in combining dance, ballet and performance in unique forms, it’s sure to be different from what you usually see in the city centre on a Thursday evening.

Big Ben Lying Down with Political Books
To be installed in Piccadilly Gardens for the duration of MIF, this monumental artwork is the first major UK commission by Argentina’s Marta Minujín and is a toppled-over replica of Big Ben swapping Westminster for Manchester. Covering the 42-metre temporary landmark will be 20,000 books that have shaped British politics, with audiences invited to attend a dismantling ceremony on the festival’s last day and take home a book for free. “It will be joyful, but also slightly provocative after all the north-south arguments of last year,” says MIF artistic director John McGrath. “I think people will really get a lot of pleasure out of it.”

Damon Albarn
A regular and long-time friend of MIF, stretching all the way back to a trailblazing concert by Gorillaz in 2005, Damon Albarn will perform a rare solo show at Manchester Central on 13 July, playing material from his latest project, The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows, inspired by the landscapes of Iceland. Helping the ever-restless singer conjure up evocative songs of glaciers, volcanoes, mountains and thermal springs – hopefully alongside a selection of past hits and possibly the odd special guest – will be a backing band (not Blur) and string quartet.

Portrait of Black Britain
Created by artist and campaigner Cephas Williams (above), founder of the Black British Network, this major public exhibition will feature 100 portraits of black people living in the UK today – around 50 from Manchester – on display in and around the Arndale Centre. Its aim is to question what it means to be black in England in 2021 and offers powerful, positive affirmation at a time when the Black Lives Matter movement has pushed the issue to the fore. “This is me taking control of my narrative,” says Williams, “and asking other black people to join me in the re-introduction of our presence and stories in the 21st century.”

If you liked this article, we think you’ll enjoy these:

Interact: Responses to Recovery position

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.