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MIF: How Was It For You?

Jonathan Schofield looks back in three chapters at The Good, The Bad and the Utterly

Written by . Published on July 20th 2011.

MIF: How Was It For You?

The Confidential overall festival rating: 16/20 Originality 4/5; Performances (acting, singing etc) 4/5; Audience delight: 4/5; Production 4/5

The Good

REGRET comes in many forms.

Often it’s the childish regret of staying in when your mates are playing out.

That was the case with the Alina Ibragimova gig at Chetham's School of Music for Manchester International Festival (MIF). I was sat at home, fists clenched in frustration thinking I wish, I wish, I wish I'd seen this, when Lo! like Willy Wonka with a golden ticket the MIF people secured me a press pass on the third to last performance of the Russian genius.

It was a beautiful event, with beautiful music, in a beautiful space, from a beautiful musician. Ibragimova stood in a bronze dress echoing the red/buff sandstone of the old building and played as though she had eight hands and four violins. The hairs rose on the back of my neck. 

It was a classic MIF event: original, moving, surprising in its setting. This is why on our rating system we scored performances with marks for 'originality' and for 'audience delight'. MIF is different and needs new scoring models.

General opinion was that in its programming and in its countless venues, galleries, theatres, concert halls, containers, stations, marquees, parks, places of worship and elsewhere, MIF did well. For the committed Festival goer it was a grand time. As one of these folk said after seeing the Albarn, Wood and Staton shows, "We're being spoilt aren't we?"

Personal highlights were Dr Dee, The Crash of the Elysium,  The Infinity Machine by Tony Oursler at Whitworth Park (to which Confidential took coachloads of people), and Alina Ibragimova. 

Dr Dee as QE1 rises in goldDr Dee as QE1 rises in gold

Of course this being a festival of pioneering performances some gambles didn't pay off. Even at the Ibragimova, a video by the excellent Quartet Brothers, to back the musical performance ended up as a distraction. Given the lovely surroundings, clever lighting and the talent of the artist, the Nosferatu-like, Expressionist silver screen presence wasn't needed.

The inclusion of stadium names such as Snoop Dogg was problematical. As our reviewer Lynda Moyo pointed out (click here), the Snoop gig seemed incidental to MIF, shoe-horned in for reasons hard to fathom. Snoop didn't even bother to mention MIF during the performance. The festival is more comfortable when it brings us one-off events, clever collaborations, surprises.

Maybe if Snoop had co-written a production with, say, Victoria Wood, it would have felt better. Dogg Pound Gangster Crips meets Dinner Ladies and Acorn Antiques perhaps? 

MIF can be as good as it gets at arts festivals when it keeps to the shock and awe of Marina Abramovic, the power and the glory of Candi Staton at the New Testament Church of God, the voices in your head leaving you dazed and confused at Piccadilly Station with Lavinia Greenlaw's Audio Obscura - or even Dave Haslam's cosy chats with Bernard Sumner and Paul Morley.

The Bad

Most of the bad this time round - aside from a weak Johnny Vegas show - concerned the Festival Village in Albert Square. We criticised the food here and the terrible drinks offer - which along with Mark Garner's personal tirade against the way MIF is run, click here - was about all we did criticise.

MIF went all Soviet on us in the face of these opinions. One high up official in the MIF hierarchy even went so far as to ignore us in the Pavilion, saying of Confidential "you're always so negative".  It was as if only approval were allowed in the Village Compound - our name for the city centre festival focus in 2011.

Anyway here's more criticism. Many felt that the Village Compound simply didn't have the magic of 2009. Even in decor its stark white was chilling, with fewer brightly coloured tables and deckchairs jollying things up. 

Howard Sharrock, man about town, and a regular at MIF performances (he stayed until 2am at the Village on at least three occasions) told us: "The special atmosphere of milling around, bumping into people from all over the city and from all walks of life wasn't the same. The weather was worse than 2009, certainly towards the end of the Festival, but not hugely worse. Where were the performers this time mingling with the punters?

"Then there was the addition of the Glasshouse - that bungalow with a roof terrace," continues Sharrock. "This was poor. The roof terrace was fine, when you could get on it. But the space below seemed corporate. And all those fences about the place dampened the atmosphere. There was definitely more of an 'us' and 'them' feel about the place. It felt more exclusive than inclusive."

Little things irked so much you felt like screaming. Or laughing. I almost did both on the last day of MIF while wandering into the Festival Village to attend the Vertical City event.

I'd innocently bought a Starbucks coffee and in doing so I'd become an evil transgressor. In the Pavilion in the Compound I was surrounded by security guards and made to stand outside the perimeter fence in the rain like a naughty child. 

It might have made commercial sense for the approved Heathcotes Catering concession to monopolise the consumption of single cups of coffee in Festival Village - even though Albert Square is a public square - but it made a bloody mockery of the spirit of the occasion. 

Evil coffee banished from the CompoundEvil coffee banished from the Compound

A final curiosity was the lack of a finale.

Festival devotees were unable to seek closure for the demise of 'eighteen days of extraordinary events'.

This is where our argument for running Manchester Day during MIF would have reaped rewards - click here. It would have made a gorgeous community cortege. The whole city celebrating MIF and itself in one vast parade.

The Utterly

Still as stated above, much that MIF 2011 did was utterly right. It underlined how in a mere three seasons it has become a festival force to be reckoned with. It already has an enviable national reputation, the luvvies love it - can you imagine the media coverage next time, given the BBC move to MediaCityUK?

I personally felt real pride in my city as I walked up an animated Oxford Street to the Albert Square Compound after loving Albarn's Dr Dee. That personal aspect is important. 

Festivals such as this are all about the individual. As punters we want to see things we’ve not seen. The attitude should be, ask not what you can do for your festival, ask what it can do for you.

So let's forget the big policy stuff (we'll cover that later this week or early next week in any case).

Let's forget about using the festival to build city reputation and boost inward investment, let's forget about it drawing in non-arts aware audiences into New Century Hall or luring in Hale to high heel it into Manchester Art Gallery. Let's concentrate on the personal.

After all, art carries no baggage except that which we give it. Gerrard’s Infinite Freedom Exercise (click here), with its choreography of death, may make you think about the big themes, in this case what impulses drive nations to war. But that’s for you to decide, that's for you, solely, personally, to do.

Forgive me if this sounds like something from Private Eye's Pseuds Corner, but the best of MIF made me feel clean, or rather, purified. It's as though the soul was purged of all the minutae of detail that clogs my days like the grease gathered in a fast food aircon vent.

At Dee, Ibragimova, the Infinity Machine, I was dissolved in ideas, my senses were opened. I walked away with a daft, contented grin on my face. Therein lies the power of art. 

So because of that, I personally can't wait for the 2013 programme to be announced. Just let's get that Festival Pavilion working as it did in 2009 please. And take the criticism without getting too upset. Now what about Snoop - can we get that collaboration with Victoria Wood moving?

You can follow Jonathan Schofield on Twitter here @JonathSchofield

That Say We Sang - Victoria WoodThat Say We Sang - Victoria Wood

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19 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

Calum McGJuly 20th 2011.

In terms of mingling, I saw Victoria Wood and Damon All Bran drinking in Albert Square. (Pity he didn't want anyone coming up to him to congratulate him - he was too busy sat with his luvvies.) Also saw two of the Dragons Den crew, there to watch Johnny Vagueness (whose performance I liked!)

1 Response: Reply To This...
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Fret BoredJuly 20th 2011.

My favourite was the Alina Ibragimova as well. The buildings were beautiful, but she broke my heart. She loves me back I'm sure, she just can't admit it to herself.

Mark GarnerJuly 21st 2011.

Abramovic was outstanding. That employee of MIF didn't keep quiet when I was there later Jonathan, I got a right bollocking!

AnonymousJuly 21st 2011.

Interesting article and actually goes to show that there is something in MIF for everyone. Arts critics should be IGNORED - who are they to tell anyone what to like or not? There's no right and wrong and we all like different things and shouldn't be criticised for doing so.

I for example HATED Marina Abramovich (load of self induldgent twaddle) although I had a beer with her and Willem Defoe in a boozer in Salford which was strangely nice and sexy. But writing a story about your life and putting on stage? This woman has done nothing noteworthy to write about. But, that's just my humble opinion.

Now, Johhny Vegas? I laughed until tears rolled down my face, was in sheer awe of the talent of Alina and Dr Dee quite simply stunning. Manchester's own Halle were outstanding with Wagner and doubtless have opened themselves up to a whole new audience with The Madness of An Extraordinary Plan and Bjork's choir - sublime.

Ok so it rained and maybe the catering in festival square wasn't that great but honestly what an amazing 3 weeks we've just had!

Critical acclaimJuly 21st 2011.

Arts critics are paid to judge work. They shouldn't be ignored, they should be disagreed with perhaps, but usually what they say comes from a close observation of the arts for a number of years. They have more terms of reference then the normal punter. They are a guide to quality.

Big fanJuly 21st 2011.

I thought it was a magical eighteen days. I wish Mif were every year

Callum MaconieJuly 21st 2011.

Good piece and a good way of looking at it. I was at both the 2009 and 2011 pavilion events frequently, and it's right to say that the spirit wasn't as good there this year. But the overall programme I thought was much stronger. A great eighteen days as Big Fan says.

AnonymousJuly 21st 2011.

I think with the festival square it sort of depends who you are with. I thought it was beautifully designed, and personally thought the glass house was lovely. The pic-a-nic tables and deckchairs were all very jolly. But the real reason I enjoyed it was because the times I was there was with friends and colleagues. I'm more interested in having a nice time and less concerned about bumming and blowing about what sleb I'd seen or which member of the Manchester mafia/chattering class I was able to pontificate with (I think they should all be given their own festival pavillion down in, I dunno, Spinningfields or something). So the festival pavillion gets a thumbs up from this anonymous ranter.

Oh, except the beer selection was horrific. Coors Light might be OK in the soulless hostelries of London, but discerning Mancunians prefer a decent selection of beers and, for that matter, spirits. Gordon's Gin and Barcardi hardly fit into the spirit of MIF.

1 Response: Reply To This...
AnonymousJuly 21st 2011.

Apologies for that poor pun in the last sentence, which I've only just noticed.

Jonathan SchofieldJuly 21st 2011.

Anon, how could you like the Glasshouse? It was all right up top, but the space below was devoid of charm, a horrible place to sit as opposed to the Pavilion wigwam. A prefab glass and panel rectangle of unbelievable dullness.

Jane BaxterJuly 21st 2011.

I agree with Callum, the programme was superb. I loved everything I saw at the festival. There were some really innovative and unusual events - Amadou and Mariam in the dark was really moving and as were the sacred sites events. Candi Staton in the pavillion was great too. Just too many things happening to be able to get round them all.

AnonymousJuly 21st 2011.

Punchdrunk's Crash of the Elysium was one of the best things I've done in ages! I mean, getting chased around a crashed spaceship in the dark, going back in time AND getting to put the key in the Tardis - amazing!!!

CitizenandrewJuly 21st 2011.

I thought it was a great festival. A good variety of events. I liked Alina Ibragimova but not as much as most others seem to. I thought she looked a bit fed up all the way through. Dr Dee was interesting. I agree that Marina Abramovic was a complete load of self indulgent nonsense (but that was amusing in itself) but probably one of the most visually stunning things I have ever seen. I loved the Sacred Spaces event at the central synagogue, Mor Karbasi was mesmorising and a great introduction to a cultural heritage I know so little about. My favourite event by a long way was Audio Obscura at Piccadilly Station, so simple but so amazing. Shame Snoop Dog was anywhere near the festival.

Shifty EdJuly 22nd 2011.

Thanks for mentioning the wines were from a local Manchester company

Christine KilbyJuly 25th 2011.

MIF - Loved Johnny Vegas' new play - very funny and great performances from all the cast. A bit disappointed by the lack of things to do in the pavillion afterwards - we found a poor selection of overpriced wines in a half empty marquee, a couple of guys selling The Guardian and MIF banner bags and a lacklustre barbecue so we made our way to a lovely local restaurant which was a missed opportunity for MIF. Loved Victoria Wood's play and hope this transfers elsewhere. The Opera House is a scruffy unwelcoming place though, not a patch on the RX. Overall I would give it 75%. The bad weather was a real shame.

CBAugust 1st 2011.

I was going to go but then realised a couldn't park on Albert Square for the full 3 weeks for free so I went to the Trafford Centre instead.

Old Orleans food quarter was put together by Punchdrunk I believe

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