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The City of Blades

Is Manchester merely a playground for tired Madchester myths, property speculators and discredited Osbornomics? Or is there a chance for something more radical to emerge from the controversial Manchester International Festival?

Image: Manchester, ziggurats and sleeping bags.
Manchester International Festival (MIF) has a new injection of money for culture, in the shape of an extra £9m a year for MIF and a new £110m Rem Koolhaas-designed cultural centre called The Factory. This is partly a legacy of George Osborne, who inaugurated the centre when he announced his Northern Powerhouse vision, in the Old Granada Studios that will be demolished to make way for The Factory. Last week Osborne’s connection to Manchester seemed reaffirmed when he was awarded an Honorary Professorship in Economics by Manchester University.

But these things arrive right at the moment when Manchester needs new, fecund myths, because the old ones are dried-out husks. The biggest evidence for this, actually, can be found in this year's Manchester International Festival.

Manchester’s tedious afterimage is the fault of the films 24 Hour Party People and Control. Walking the city, the little glyph under the ‘Haçienda’ occasionally flashes up in the periphery of your vision. This little accent is a hook that the city’s mythmakers have hung themselves on. The millimetre wide imagination of these mythmakers can be seen in the name 'The Factory', and yet another celebration of New Order at Manchester International Festival in 2017 (now with even more synths!) and an exhibition called Ceremony at the City Art Gallery.

A bizarre dimension of Manchester cultural life is that no article on the city can be written which doesn't mention Joy Division, yet the deep connection of, for instance, Napalm Death to Solihull isn't eternally present. Alan Erasmus didn't know about Warhol's Factory when he named the club night, that became the record label, that is now about to become the multi-million pound cultural centre. Manchester needs many things, but another glittering arts white elephant is not among them. According to insiders willing to talk, HOME, the arts complex that replaced The Cornerhouse, is struggling to be a success. The fact that the sign Erasmus named Factory after actually said ‘factory closing’ may yet haunt us.

A recent and damning LSE report shows how local government in Manchester 'has sponsored the transformation of the city by private property developers' for 'exclusive growth with gross internal inequalities’ which ‘cannot be changed by upskilling workers or adding public transport links to the deprived districts.' All of this cultural investment is happening as the homeless pile up in doorways.

The LSE report pulls no punches. It concludes that with '80,000 on the housing waiting lists of the ten boroughs, the first priority should be social housing; With so many on low wages, the first priority in transport should be much lower public transport fares; With so much employment in sectors like retail and hospitality, the first priority should be to ensure that all chain based operators in these sectors pay the Greater Manchester Living Wage.'

As Lara Williams in the Guardian wrote back in 2011, the Manchester International Festival effectively excludes the majority of Greater Manchester citizens. She suggests only inclusive ticket prices, an end to the reliance on unpaid work placements, volunteers and outreach, could mean 'the festival might just tap into Manchester's greatest resource', a 'city unified.'
Even as the 'I Love Manchester' slogans build up after the horrific MEN Arena bombing, the Manchester International Festival is for everyone except ordinary Mancunians. It is the glittering bauble offered to an international audience.

And what is the 'International' in Manchester International Festival? The word hovers over the city. There are buildings in Manchester that boast they are architecture of 'international quality'. Academics of 'international quality' are requested in job adverts.

What does all this mean? Manchester International Festival is appealing to the Saudis, to China, to Deloitte in America, all circling above waiting to invest for profit. Manchester City Council, despite its recent march against cuts, has in fact enacted 'austerity' all along, with savage cuts to council workers and services. At the same time it enthusiastically pulls in culture money assuming that it will 'trickle-down'.

But nobody believes in the trickle-down any more, or the miraculous 'connect-up', that simply by improving the trains a thousand new commuters will bloom. The LSE report on Manchester doesn't believe it either. Unless stagnating wages and public transport fares are not tackled a thousand commuters will only suffer. Andy Burnham, with his new-old Deputy Sir Richard Leese, seems bent on carrying on the same old public-private neoconservative game, despite a proclaimed social justice agenda.

The 'international' is another confusion that should be demolished. Here's how: At a recent Manchester Met event, ‘Manchester as Cosmopolis’, academic Saskia Sassen began by describing some cities of the global north, with their vast, visible luxury zones. These zones are examples of what Sassen calls ‘de-urbanisation’, cities as monocultures for the wealthy. Manhattan was given as an example, half full and for the rich. ‘A monster’ that crawls in and eats neighborhoods from within. London’s Docklands is another example, as is Salford Quays, although much more modestly so.

When ‘the global’ sets in, stability rots at the core: Manchester is global and is preparing to shift up a level of velocity in the global game. That is why the city is a building site, its circuits are being re-wired. But these circuits are not being tested before they run. Manchester International Festival is the big department store window display illuminated with neon for global investment.
Jeremy Deller's MIF piece this year, 'What Is A City But Its People?' was in many ways extremely moving. A parade of Mancunians, some famous, some not, was given a real emotional gravity by the horrific arena bombing not long before it. But I heard from a volunteer in migrant homeless shelters that Deller was attempting to get hold of some stateless refugees to parade along with the local celebrities and 'ordinary people'. How very different, my activist friend asked, is this from the parade of pygmies at the nineteenth century world fair? For him, the local is fodder for the international gaze, and it is a buyer's gaze that will transform the local into a heaven for others that ordinary people in Manchester cannot afford.

Giles Fraser recently explained in the Guardian how his East London parish is being emptied by overseas capitalist investment. And a man of the cloth should be concerned: Sassen tells us that this business is ‘extractive’; but the injections of capital themselves, the buying of the properties, are also a potential cause for concern, as dirty money launders through property. None of this, to cut through the technical language, is good for ordinary people.

Sassen shows a list of the acquisitions of existing properties by national and foreign investment. London is right up there with a jaw-dropping 40.5%. Manchester is lower down the list, at No.23 globally, hovering by Miami, but this is astonishing in itself. Sassen also shows a map of the iconic buildings in London, owned by one Chinese investor. To ‘a mayor’, she says, watch what happens to the physical assets. You need to know how to handle them, ‘or it will eat you up’. Look at what is happening in London, she says, public servants cannot afford to live there.

All of the cities in the global game are in trouble, as they risk being ‘kidnapped’ by global finance, and Manchester is in that top 100. Buildings and streets that appear public are often owned by corporations. Potsdamer Platz appears public, but is private, as is much of Docklands London. And then there’s Salford Quays and the massive public-private fudge of the BBC and the offshore wealth of Peel Holdings and its shell operations.

Sassen tells us that ‘the law of urban land is often very old law’, but that the more creative lawyers are now creeping into public spaces. These compacts of legal advice, global speculation, investment and statecraft are ‘colonising the future’ of cities to ‘deal with the current electoral cycle.’ This permanent need, to deal with an eternally collapsing present moment, involves the same infinite deferral of judgement that led to 2008, a deferral of judgement that carried on after 2008 and continues to hang over us. It doesn’t just hover abstractly over some mystical place called ‘the global’ that we need not worry about, it hangs over Manchester, right now, in the form of roving giant blades.

These blades, hanging overhead, are Deloitte U.S. priming the ground for overseas investment in Manchester via cultural journalism that blurs into a tourist guide. It is the Chinese consortium CMC at Manchester City football ground. It is Peel eyeing up more infrastructure and opportunity. Sassen asks us to examine ‘who owns the city?’

This is not necessarily against the 'what' of overseas interest, but it is completely against the 'how' of capitalist investment that disenfranchises ordinary people of any ethnicity or background in Manchester. It is not against people of a multitude of nations visiting Manchester to check out its culture, quite the opposite, but it is against an arts festival that appears to actively exclude local audiences in order to grease the processes that will even further marginalise them long-term.

Of course, one might argue that cultural spend is separate from, for instance housing. But this ushers in a capitalist realism argument as Mark Fisher made it: Why is our imagination so limited? Culture doesn't need vast amounts of money. There is often a negative equation between quality and amount of money spent on it. $44 million didn't make ‘Heaven's Gate’ a good film. The smaller galleries in Manchester are very often the best. It would be hypocritical of me to say I wanted less money for the arts, generally, but the old urban game of culture and art to pull inward investment now comes with extremely convincing evidence of its ills.

But we do need new culture in Manchester too, not old: The literature festival is largely polite, middle class and Manchester can’t seem to produce a single decent radical independent bookshop at its centre, due to its 'Powerhouse Economics'. Similarly, the Manchester and Salford literary traditions swing between transgressive and straight, great and average. The terrible include the erroneously canonised De Quincey, who was a biological racist at core, along with the deeply conservative Mrs Gaskell.

Good things are happening of course. The Anthony Burgess Centre, also with its ‘International’ status, is a great hub for Manchester writers. But the things that spring up in the cracks of the pavement are just as important: The Other Room is an amazing particle collider for new experiments with words and sounds, which has its parallel in nights such as The Noise Upstairs at Fuel in Withington. These should be right at the forefront of what Manchester does.

The old, bloated corpses still weigh heavily on the city: ‘Manchester, So Much To Answer For’ was a line that originally diagnosed the Brady and Hindley murders, but has since swollen to designate anything and everything that originated in the city region, brilliant, bad or plain evil.

We cannot allow our city to pivot on six words that once fell out of Morrissey’s mouth, that would clearly be foolish. But out come tired old New Order, and a Phil Collins artwork called Ceremony, named after the Joy Division track, and toe-curling images of an Ian Curtisalike on MIF posters all over town: It is embarrassing. We must drop the old stories and look for new ones. We need to make very particular, politicised new myths. The Haçienda and Madchester myths must go precisely because they sat on the highest curve of the Neoconservative rollercoaster.

Lara Williams stated that MIF has so far attracted big stars and 'deterred locals'. Smaller local press outlets are thrown scraps of returns and last-minute dropouts, undermining the chances of a critical or diverse reading of the festival in the media. MIF has 'done wonders in revamping Manchester's cultural brand', Williams states, yet 'the majority of the festival's events are financially inaccessible to the wider Manchester populace.' Williams cites former MIF director Alex Poots, saying 'I don't want to be a festival that attracts the same 15%, largely white middle-class audience.' So what went wrong? It's all pitched at people outside the city. It is all about seeing the city as a global product to be consumed, it is all part of the game that Saskia Sassen says will actually eat your city if you give it half a chance.

At the jazz festival in St Ann’s Square a couple of years ago I saw someone drinking Prosecco by a gazebo across from a homeless person drinking Tenant's Super in a tent. The homeless peoples’ tents had been outlawed by a Labour city council who were using health and safety to do social cleansing. All tents were equally illegal, but some less illegal than others. To be fair, this was not the fault of the Jazz Festival, and it does still feature a large amount of free performances.

Last week New Order played in the Old Granada Studios where Osborne announced his vision of the 'Northern Powerhouse'. Also last week the controversial announcement came from the University of Manchester that former Chancellor Osborne will 'remain chair of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership', which 'he set up to boost the northern economy', but he will also become a Lecturer in Economics at the University of Manchester, where 'he will give a few lectures and masterclasses a year', 'building on his work on the “northern powerhouse”', 'a project to devolve the economy away from London to Manchester and the surrounding area that he initiated as chancellor three years ago.'

The former MP for Tatton 'is also an advisor to Blackrock, the American fund management firm, where he works one day a week for £650,000 per year.' George notably recalibrated pension legislation during his time as Chancellor to allow scheme members to access their funds early, something that will potentially net Blackrock a fortune. His position at the University of Manchester will not simply be in Economics then, but in Political Economy of a very particular sort.

Because of George Osbourne's annunciation of the Northern Powerhouse there, it is possible to read New Order's MIF performance in the Old Granada Studios as a commitment to the old public-private culture and economics game that was actually begun by Manchester City Council in the 1980s, something that swelled into a whole school of statecraft now codified under the shorthand of 'New Labour'. But the LSE report on Manchester is clear that this old spectacular game has led to the disenfranchisement of ordinary citizens:

'The Brexit result is a warning to Greater Manchester politicians who need to reconnect with their voters by renewing the civic offer. Instead of relying on property development as the accelerator in the centre, they need to rely on the foundational economy as the stabiliser in all ten boroughs. Because the quantity and quality of foundational goods and services is the social precondition of civilized life, and in activities like adult care, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority could start out on the road of social innovation and radical experiment to benefit all citizens.'

MIF is part of this, it does not sit on top of it via some magical diplomatic immunity. With £9m a year coming in, the voluntarism should stop, ticket prices should drop, local journalists should be guest-listed again and a new era of open and inclusive culture can begin, no?

Lara Williams' dream of a 'city unified' is actually now within reach for MIF in a way it isn't yet for the NHS, so let's make it a forerunner for much wider city change. Or are you telling us that you are ignoring the LSE research because you don't know how to play any other kind of game than the one you are used to playing?

About the author

Dr. Steve Hanson works as a lecturer, writer and researcher. His first book Small Towns, Austere Times, was published by Zero in 2014. His second volume, A Book of the Broken Middle, is currently being finished for Repeater. He has taught at Goldsmiths, at MMU, the University of Salford and the University of Lincoln. He has worked as a research assistant for the University of Oxford and central government, and as an ethnographer on research for City University, London. He has written widely for publication, including Cultural Studies, Visual Studies, Street Signs, Social Alternatives and many others.


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