Friday, July 17, 2009

Manchizzle Summer Vacation

That's me, my brother and my cousins at the New Jersey shore. And that's where I'm going right now, to relive the summers of my youth, followed by Vermont and NYC for some intensive accent retraining. And a complete blogging blackout, so if you're looking for something interesting to read I'll direct you to those industrious folks at the right. I am now officially on vacation and won't be back until mid-August. Don't break anything while I'm away.

Manchester International Festival: De La Soul

The 20th anniversary of 3 Feet High and Rising? That can't be right. Man, this album was the soundtrack to my college years, along with the followup De La Soul is Dead. So this makes me, let's see ... yep. Offically old. Shit. How did that happen?

3 Feet High didn't really sound much like the hip hop we knew before it came out, but pretty much everything that came after sounded at least a little bit like it. It was that influential. It was also pretty important for me personally, because this music was the gateway drug that eventually got me hooked on the deep funk source tracks that they were sampling. If you really, really like Me Myself and I, you'll love the song's venerable direct ancestor, (Not Just) Knee Deep, recorded by Funkadelic in 1979. From Parliament/Funkadelic and their whole crazy conflagration of splitoff projects it's a short hop to Bootsy Collins, James Brown and The JBs, Issac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield, The Meters and the rest of the soul/funk explosion. So I owe De La Soul a lot.

What I miss about this music is its friendliness, the De Las willingness to be silly and lyrically real on top of actually making good music. There are people making great hip hop today that does all of these things but you mostly do not hear them on the radio.

So you can imagine how excited I was when I heard De La Soul would be coming to Manchester for the festival. And they put on a wonderful show. Believe it or not I had never been to the Ritz before. It's definitely seen better days but I was pretty happy with the venue, which was the perfect place for a gig like this.

The De Las and Prince Paul gave us a gig that was a seamless good time. Sure, they might be a bit older (and, in some cases, living very much larger) but there was no doubt that these guys still have it. Sometimes performing as a full band, and other times stripping it back to how it was in the very beginning, three men and a machine, they played the hits (A Roller Skating Jam Named Saturdays, Me Myself and I etc), but also revisited some less well-loved tracks from their back catalogue that actually held up extremely well.

The night had a wonderful vibe. The band seemed to be having a great time and the crowd sure was - everyone was dancing. I've never encountered a friendlier audience in Manchester. For me it was a great close to what has been a really fantastic festival. Roll on 2011.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Creative Tourist arrives in Manchester

This week sees the launch of Creative Tourist, a wordpress-based online magazine about our fair city's arts and culture from the Manchester Museums Consortium.

And what a time to launch, eh? Manchester is positively stuffed to bursting with fabulous cultural encounters, life-changing art experiences and can't-miss performances. I don't know about you, but my art-appreciation muscles are getting tired. My critical faculties are so exhausted that I'm being forced to take myself off to New Jersey for a restorative week in which my most challenging cultural experience will probably involve getting past the windmill in mini golf, or maybe deciding what flavor of water ice to order. (Actually, this is a serious matter which I am already working on. Root beer or cherry?)

Issue 1 features Jeremy Deller, Ansuman Biswas (better known as the Manchester Hermit), Marina Abramovic in conversation with Whitworth Art Gallery director Maria Balshaw, Andrew Shanahan's guide to the best videogames ever, and Dea Birkett writing and ranting about children in galleries, among other things.

Creative Tourist's main features will be published monthly but the idea is that the website, blog and twitter feed will keep up a steady stream of interesting content. I will be helping out Editor Susie Stubbs with the words, cruisin' the local blogsphere for tasty bits to link to and commissioning guest posts from Manchester's finest culturebloggers.

If you're one of them, please don't be shy. Get in touch and let me know what you're doing and you may be linked to in a blog roundup or be asked to pitch in and write something, like Katherine Woodfine of Follow The Yellow Brick Road, who wrote up Procession for the Creative Tourist blog.

Anyway, back to work: Root beer or cherry?

Iain Sinclair and Corridor 8 launch at Urbis

Ever wondered whatever became of that whole SuperCity thing? Ah, doesn't the very phrase make you yearn for a faraway time when Manchester's urban march seemed unstoppable? When the pots of money to build fantastically coloured and fancifully designed buildings upon acres of scorching urban blight seemed bottomless? When people camped out overnight to simply have the chance to buy an upside-down terrace or a scandalously overpriced flat in an aged tower block with a twee ladies' name in Salford and it seemed perfectly normal? Well, almost.

Things are rather different now. But here comes Corridor 8. It's an arts annual billed as "The new cultural voice of the north." It will showcase "the best in contemporary visual art, architecture, writing, photography and more." And issue 1's theme is ... wait for it... SuperCity. And as much as I don't really dig the whole SuperCity concept, I very much dig what writer and psychogeographer Ian Sinclair wrote when Corridor 8 commissioned him to create "a literary documentary that explores the ordinary and extraordinary lives and landscape of the North."

I got a sneak peak at this piece the other day and I have to say, it is just wonderful. It made me want to go out and buy everything he's ever written (if you have the same reaction, a friendly Sinclair scholar I met recently says to start with Lights Out for the Territory). It's the best kind of poetic ramble through our city, through the idea of Manchester and through Sinclair's mind-bogglingly overstuffed brain: ‘Wandering Deansgate was like finding yourself in the middle of some dark fantasy for which you had no instructions. Cliffs of unreason. Deansgate as a river of human traffic, the Irwell its liquid margin.’

And the really good news is that Sinclair will be talking about the work at the Corridor 8 launch at Urbis this Thursday at 6:30 pm. Places are limited, to register email si at Though a little bird told me someone might be liveblogging the event if, like me, you can't make it. What's more, a modified version of the piece is available as a podcast you can download from the Urbis website, and listen to on the hoof. A route map should be up there shortly I'm told.

So now I'm looking forward to reading the rest of Corridor 8. Look out for it later this month.

Young bring the bling

Oh, and several people have asked where I got this blinging new masthead. Yes, it's a reference to the Snoop Dogg-inspired orgins of this blog's name. It's exactly the way I pictured it. And the designers Pete and Geth, who operate under the name Young, whipped it up for me with the greatest of ease. I don't know how they do what they do. You'll have to ask them.

Having a new masthead is great, by the way. Like buying a new pair of sneakers. This one will need to be broken in - still a bit pinchy around the ankles, and too-bright white clean. But already I feel 100 percent bouncier. I highly recommend it.

Manchester International Festival: It Felt Like a Kiss

I was trying not to look like I was eavesdropping, but I was straining to hear every word. The couple a few tables away were totally absorbed in excited conversation. A few tantilizing phrases floated over the drone of the cricket announcer and the scrape of cutlery:

"... a broken toe"... "completely isolated"... "it was pitch black"..."chainsaw"...


I had maintained a scrupulous information blackout regarding It Felt Like a Kiss, dutifully tuning out reviews and telling my gobsmacked friends I didn't want to know. They all seemed to NEED to talk about it afterwards. I remained in a state of pristine expectation. Still, sipping the recommended stiff drink fifteen minutes before go time at Quay House, I suddenly wondered what the hell I was getting myself into.

A mixed bag, as it turns out. If you haven't seen it yet, look away now.

Adam Curtis' experimental documentary film, orginally made for the BBC but never shown, is the main attraction at the heart of It Felt Like a Kiss, and lends the whole production its title. Like the walk-through theatre experience built around it, is both fascinating and deeply flawed. It aims to pinpoint the moment where the picket-fence-painting, hula-hooping America of the fifties and early sixties climbed to ideological dominance and then curdled, tipping from something big and wonderful and glittering and too powerful to be denied into something sinister, whose long evil fingers reach forward into the present day.

Curtis starts out with the bad shit the CIA got up to during the Cold War and loads on a smorgasboard of conspiracy-theory greatest hits: electroshock therapy, serial killers, military dabblings in LSD, the origin of AIDS, the Black Panthers, BF Skinner's mind control experiments, the Kennedy Assasination and more dodgy US-backed coups and clandestine interventions than you can shake a stick at. While all these fragments successfully build an unsettling mood, they fail to knit together into a cohesive statement of any real power.

It's like that guy in college who liked to get high and talk about the freemasons a lot was given an unlimited budget and turned loose in the CBS archives. It stops short of actually saying the CIA's germ warfare research and imaginative assasination techniques were responsible for the AIDS epidemic, but only just. It is a triumph of suggestion and style over substance.

Still, I enjoyed watching it. It's mostly an unhinged procession of gorgeously edited archive material, a complete pleasure, with a few moments of sheer genius. Some brilliantly selected fragments from a Doris Day movie. And a section where footage of middle-class couples doing The Madison is woven into an explanation of the single bullet theory, complete with diagrams, made me laugh out loud.

The promenade experience surrounding the movie screening was deeply unsettling. It's awash with evergreen fairground creepshow tricks that will not fail to make the most hardened heart pound. I was surprised that there weren't as many actual actors involved in the production as I'd expected, but the dummies were certainly effective enough, if not really very lifelike. The music throughout from the Kronos Quartet and Damon Albarn was solid horror-movie stuff, pulse-quickening but completely overshadowed by the pop songs featured in the film.

It's great having a set you can poke around in at your own pace, a mystery you can actively engage with. Punchdrunk paid attention to smells, which are very important. But there was a lot they didn't pay enough attention to: A weatherbeaten address book full of Clapham and Lewisham, too many books about walking in the Pennine Dales lurking among the Reader's Digest Condensed Books and Phillip K. Dick. Yes, it's tricky to source the right props when mounting a production about the USA in the UK, but surely not impossible. Worst of all were the packs of American Spirit cigarettes littered around the sets. The name is appropriately ironic, but they didn't start making American Sprits until 1982. Lucky Strikes would have been a better choice. Okay, yes, pedant's corner, but it's this lack of attention to detail that erodes your faith in a production while you're in it.

As an AmericanI will doubtless have a different point of view here than most of the punters. I didn't know much about Adam Curtis beforehand, like what his nationality was, but I knew he wasn't American after watching the movie, though I couldn't say exactly why. This could have been a point in his favor: sometimes we can't see ourselves as clearly as an outsider can (ask the many Americans who devour the Guardian's excellent US coverage). But here Curtis seems both tin-eared, like he never really got America, and hung up on hammering home a very particular point, one that is neither new nor very interesting to me, and I sit in the front row of Curtis' political church choir. Like Michael Moore's stuff, it is basically high quality pinko porn. When I was 18 I'll bet I would have adored it. But frankly, I was hoping for more.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Art in Bury, Margaret Atwood and Flax wants you

Not at this Address is an exhibition at Bury Art Gallery opening Aug 1 (private view Friday 31 July at 7pm). It features an interesting group of folks including one of my favourite Manchester artists Rachel Goodyear, a master of the deliciously uncanny. That's her Fawn with Hand above.

The Literature Festival is now taking bookings for a trailblazer reading by Margaret Atwood on Tuesday Sept. 1 at 7pm in the august surroundings of the Manchester Cathedral. MLF describes it as "a unique literary performance with music to launch her new novel The Year of the Flood. Set in the same dystopian world as her previous novel Oryx and Crake, it tells the story of God’s Gardeners – a religion devoted to the preservation of all species." Book quickly, I reckon it'll sell out.

Meanwhile, Flax is looking for submissions from bloggers. Yes, you read right. A respected literary house recognising the sterling work of many online writers.

Well, I'll be. They say:

The next Flax anthology will be a creative non-fiction anthology. Bloggers can submit work under the title of your blog and use this as an opportunity to widen your readership.

Full details on submission here. Note they're looking for up to 1000 words of prose which is NEW WRITING that hasn't appeared on your blog or elsewhere previously, submitted between 19 June - 26 July 2009. If you're a blogger who's been wanting a chance to stretch your legs creatively, this is it.

Abandon Normal Devices launches with a bang

Abandon Normal Devices is a festival of new film and digital culture which is part of WE PLAY, the cultural programme linked to London 2012. It will move between Liverpool and Manchester in alternate years, with organisations in Cumbria, Lancs. and Cheshire contributing to the mix. The inaugural AND takes place in Liverpool 23-27 September. On tap: film screenings, art exhibitions, online projects, public art, debates, workshops and live events.

AND just released its lineup which looks to be a veritable goody bag of tasty stuff. No surprise considering that it's headed up by Manchester's own Kate Taylor, co-creator of the Halloween Film Festival. The festival represents a partnership between FACT, Cornerhouse and folly, and is a welcome example of arts collaboration across what can sometimes feel like a very splintered region. Here's a roundup of what's in store:
  • Primitive, the first UK solo exhibition by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Godfather of independent Thai cinema.
  • Keep It Slick - Infiltrating Capitalism with political artists The Yes Men in their first European outing.
  • Dark Fibre, a provocative feature film mixing scripted fiction and documentary by Jamie King (Steal This Film) and Peter Mann, set in Bangalore, India's silicone valley.
  • Strange Attractors - The Anatomy of Dr Tulp by KMA, a new interactive light installation that will take place in Arthouse Square. Using light projected onto the ground, the project explores how our bodies mediate between the internal and external worlds, at a microscopic and global level.
  • War Veteran Vehicle, a new large-scale video projection by Polish artist Krzysztof Wodiczko for public spaces in Liverpool, which explores the situation of soldiers who fought during recent armed conflicts and are returning to civilian life.
  • DJ Spooky will create an audiovisual remix of DW Griffith's infamous Birth of a Nation, using the new Liverpool Museum into a gigantic cinema screen.
And there's an interesting chance to get involved: They're after cyclists to make an interactive game using all of Liverpool as the setting. At a workshop on 22 July, artist collective Blast Theory will take participants through the basics, using their acclaimed cycling work Rider Spoke as a working example.

If you want to volunteer at the festival, the closing date for applications is 17 August.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Blogging Business: July

I have genuinely been trying to get there for months, but never quite did. So I was happy to be able to make last night's Manchester Social Media Cafe held in the subtropical microclimate of the BBC cafebar. I especially enjoyed Maria Ruban's film The Joy of Ceefax and Tandot's wickedly-executed game of Ceefax bingo, both of which served as my initiation into the bewildering world of Ceefax. I actually got very nostalgic for the British childhood I never had. And I now understand the cultural significance of Bamboozle. Hooray.

There is another opportunity this weekend for those of the social media persuasion to enjoy chatting amongst themselves. Labour blogging guy Mark Hanson has organised a political blogmeet for this Saturday at 4:30pm at Nexus Art Cafe on Dale Street, in the red room off to the side.

Mark says: "This is largely social/informal but we also have an open invitation to ask for more help from HQ in terms of access/info/content as well as thinking of things we might want to work on together to create an impact." All are welcome.

I am working with a couple of potential sponsors to organise a regular old Manchester blogmeet this summer, but it looks like it won't happen until August now due to holidays and MIF-related calendar overload. Watch this space. Also have some riotously exciting Manchester Blog Awards news to announce soon.

Oh, that reminds me of one more thing: Dazed and Confused is getting into the Blog awards game with the first Dazed Raw Blog Awards. they say:

"The open nomination period has begun and will be open until July 31. You can nominate your own blog or it can be someone else's blog, as long as you think it's browse-worthy. Whilst we would love to feature blogs dedicated to heartclogging fast food, we have decided to restrict our blog categories to mirror the Dazed Digital categories; fashion, music, photography and arts and culture.

Dazed & G-Star will be shortlisting 15 blogs from each category which will all be put forward for a public vote. The winner of each category will be featured in the Dazed October issue and will also receive £500 worth of G-Star product."

Go on, don't be shy.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Manchester International Festival: Antony and The Johnsons

Hearing Antony Hegarty sing is like listening to God speaking right in your ear. If I were a religious person, I would appreciate The Almighty even more for putting this voice in the body of a 300-pound transvestite who uses it to sing songs about being beaten up by lovers and falling for dead boys. Who, moreover, chooses for his opening act a painted woman clad only in silver knickers and two strategically positioned strips of duct tape, straight out of an East Village performance art dive, who danced for twenty minutes to avant-garde noise. (The audience, which seemed heavy on nice middle-class couples, was slightly discomfited.)

Anyway, I'm here to tell you that last night's Antony and The Johnsons/Manchester Camerata concert at Manchester Opera House was a real experience.

In his flowing white gown, Antony Hegarty was an angel, big and wise and sad. He has that peculiar quality of otherness that David Bowie has - as if he is visiting us from another planet or another time, watching our downfall with a powerless sorrow.

And at the opera house, with the full powers of the Manchester International Festival at work, you really felt like you were seeing him perform in the best and most fully-realised way. The lights, the set, the whole staging of the performance was incredible.

The set featured a white kite-like structure suspended above him where he stood at the centre of a multilayered set with a series of scrims that went up as the night progressed, only revealing the orchestera near the end. The lighting did something different for every song, weaving facets, veins and bouncing prisms of light. Hegarty explained it as the manifestation of "my dream of what it's like to live at the centre of a mountain." The overall effect was weirdly powerful.

I hadn't heard any of the songs in The Crying Light before, so it's a testament to Hegarty and composer/arranger Nico Mulhy that I found every song completely engaging. And this was a million miles away from the soupy arrangements you often get when pop singers do the orchestra concert thing. The Camerata provided a lot more than a musical backdrop, at times working as a surprisingly complicated foil to Hegarty's melody, at other times creating something very different on its own.

Hegarty strayed from the new material to give us a joyous For Today I Am A Boy and an intense Cripple and The Starfish. And we had the unexpected pleasure of a gleefully deranged cover of Beyonce's Crazy In Love, reimagined as a dirge of doomed obsession.

But, for me, the high point was Another World, when he stood against a dark background studded with red pinpricks and flares of light like a starfield. Against a sustained drone, as if emphasizing the emptiness of space, Hegarty sang words chilling in their simple truth: "I need another world. This one's nearly gone." Listening to him, you feel like he's more than halfway there.

(Photo by Flickr user black_celt)

Manchester International Festival: Kraftwerk

Before Thursday night I would have told you there was bound to be nothing exciting about watching four catsuit-clad pensioners sway gently behind their laptops. I mean, sure, music was playing, but for all we know they could have been messaging dirty jokes to each other or doing their grocery shopping online up there. I didn't really care, in the end. Because the whole spectacle, the show Kraftwerk put on to launch the 2009 Manchester International Festival was completely absorbing.

There was something monumentally right about seeing Kraftwerk at the Manchester Velodrome - not just because of Ralf Hütter's well-known cycling obsession but for the shape of the place, the long slow curve of the banked track hugging the audience like some giant gear casing.

It's a tough one as a music venue; Opener Steve Reich's piece seemed sadly diminished in the giant space. But it was just right for the main event. The sound was great, and you couldn't beat the view. From my perch up on the battlements, the scene resembled some weird postmodern rally, like a scene out of Metropolis, the crowd sparkling with the blue lights of a thousand mobiles recording. They went wild when Kraftwerk came on with Man Machine, four streamlined figures outlined with elegant brutalism against a giant screen flashing up propaganda-poster style text. And they totally lost it when cyclists from Team GB took to the track during Tour De France.

There were hiccups. The event started late, probably because it took everyone longer to get up to the Velodrome than they thought, which is, like, really far from the city centre (and next to what someone told me is the biggest Asda in Europe on the walk to the bus stop.) They ran out of 3-D glasses at some entry points whilst others had extra. And then there was the heat. Sweaty doesn't even begin to describe it. Everyone's 3-D glasses were fogging up.

The best bit for me came during the 3-D section, when the launched into Radioactivity, the stark menace of the names Chernobyl, Harrisburg, Sellafield, Hiroshima flashing up on the screen, that voice instructing us with the cold precision of roentgens to STOP RADIOACTIVITY. This was the Cold War-era vision of the future as certain nuclear apocalypse. It made me almost nostalgic for the time when I went to bed at night and listened nervously to the drone of planes overhead.

So maybe we don't travel by hovertrain or have cyborgs running the country (yet! though there are a few I have my doubts about), but musically, at least, their vision of the future was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Their songs don't sound cutting-edge to us anymore simply because Kraftwerk was so influential. Even leaving aside the warring tribes of Electronica who owe their very existence to these guys, Kraftwerk's haunting melodies have turned up in some pretty unlikely places. You have to wonder how many people heard Computer Love last night and went, "wait a minute... that Coldplay song."

Whoever did the visuals earned every bit of their fee. The much-anticipated 3-D section surpassed the hype, with numbers and drug capsules and radioactive symbols bouncing off the screen at you with spooky immediacy, even from as far back as I was. I devoutly hope nobody there was foolish enough to have taken hallucinogenics; none were needed. Just being there was more than enough to bend your brains.

(Picture by Catharine Braithwaite.)