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It's vast, it's beautiful — but does anyone know what Manchester's £210m venue is actually for?
Aviva Studios is the biggest cultural investment this country has made in decades. But so far, its aims appear vague
Manchester has an enormous new arts venue that cost around £210m to build and is receiving press coverage around the world. I’m an arts journalist who grew up here, lives here and has spent more than a decade writing about culture. But the thought of this new venue, Aviva Studios — to be honest, even just the thought of thinking about it — fills me with a powerful boredom.
It's probably because of this that despite being in charge of The Mill's cultural coverage, I've tried to get this article reassigned to anyone else at least three times. But my editor thinks that my allergy to this topic is interesting in itself. Why do I care so little? Why am I so unengaged?
I’m forced to mull these questions over as I prepare to interview John McGrath, the venue’s Creative Director. Is it because Aviva Studios has been built as a permanent home for Manchester International Festival, or MIF, an event that has been running since 2007 — but that I’ve never really thought much about? Is it because I’ve found most of the media coverage so far has been about budget overspends (the costs have more than doubled in the past few years), estimated economic impacts and things that have nothing to do with art itself? Is it because so many details beyond the architecture and the money seem amorphous and hard to pin down?
McGrath is also in charge of commissioning for MIF as the Chief Executive and Creative Director of Factory International, which, confusingly, used to be the name people used for the new venue that has sprung up on the old Granada Studios site on the Irwell but is now the name of the organisation that sits behind MIF and Aviva Studios. That’s why you will see phrases like “Aviva Studios, the home of Factory International,” being used in marketing materials and why the MIF website is factoryinternational dot org. Unfortunately, this is not where the confusion ends.
In the lift on the way to The Mill’s offices, McGrath and I chat about his job — the best job in the world, we both agree — and I feel like this might be fun. But when I cut straight to it — “What is Aviva Studios about? What is it?” — and he starts talking at great length about the layout of the building, my heart sinks.
McGrath seems lovely. He has a low, velvety voice and if the creative director thing doesn’t work out, he could plausibly make a living narrating audiobooks. The one challenge, given his role as mouthpiece for the organisation, is that communication is fraught. I ask him something and his answer only glances at the question. This means asking him the same question – reworded – two or three times, to get closer to what he means. Much of the conversation is rendered in abstract jargon. Anyone who has spent any time trying to decipher the online descriptions of shows at MIF will probably know what I mean.
Here’s what I do establish, after some effort: Aviva Studios will be a multidisciplinary arts venue where, much like MIF, they will commission entirely new work. Their calling card will be genre splicing: a dance show that is also a photography show; a music performance with mixed reality. They will tend to put on large-scale shows and artworks, since that’s what the venue lends itself to, but it’s also possible that there will be the odd more intimate work.
There will be about eight big shows a year which will form the spine of the programme, alongside other smaller attractions and a commercial music programme, booked by Jane Beese, the former head of music at the Roundhouse in London (wide ranging in terms of genre but “music that maybe is more new than nostalgia”). He mentions that permission has been obtained to serve drinks until 3am, so I ask if that means Aviva Studios will host club nights? Not exactly. "We don't want to be a nightclub, not on a weekly basis,” McGrath explains, but they do want to be able to host “great moments that are club-based.” (Translation: one-off club nights).
Does this commitment to putting on work that mixes genres, alongside their tendency to describe shows in foggy language, help to explain why MIF has struggled to gain widespread appeal in the city, despite running every second year since 2007? I ask McGrath whether he feels MIF has created a deep connection with the people of Manchester, and I find it revealing that his answer is about the impact it has had on participants in one of the shows (he mentions “100 amazing Manchester people” who took part in a huge yellow fashion runway in Piccadilly Gardens) rather than talking about audiences.
I ask again – this is a festival that receives millions of pounds of council and national government money and which has the potential to connect whole new audiences with original artworks. I’m using the word deep because I saw McGrath quoted in the New York Times the week before saying that in its early days, “there was a sense that the festival wasn’t necessarily connecting in a deep way with the city.” Is it doing so now?
“Deep's an interesting word, deep isn't something which happens in one moment, it happens over time,” McGrath replies. “But excitement and thrill and joy can happen in one moment and those are things that I think a festival can and should be about.”
But what I’m driving at is whether those moments of thrill and joy are being experienced by a broad range of people across this city region or whether MIF is appealing to a fairly narrow group of mostly middle-class people who are drawn to shows that ask questions like: “How might artists inspire us to practice our economic life more equitably, radically and sustainably?” (more on this show in a minute). I remember speaking to a senior arts figure in Manchester who loves the festival but talks about how every year she texts her friends asking if they are going and often gets replies like: “What’s MIF?”
I send my colleague Mollie and our intern Maya to Deansgate. The plan is that they’ll ask approximately 50 passersby two questions: have they heard of Manchester International Festival? And if they have, have they been? But Mollie and Maya go rogue — frustrated by how few people have heard of MIF in their first hour of interviewing, they decide to skew the sample by proceeding to only stop people who look like the kind of people who might have heard of it – people with “arty glasses”, as Maya puts it. The results get markedly better.
Out of the 53 people they stop in this incredibly unscientific exercise, 23 people have heard of MIF. Out of those, 17 have been, which feels a respectable figure — a little less than one in three. Out of those who had heard of it, some are very enthusiastic but overall, opinions skewed negative, with some arguing that it “appeals to quite a small audience” and others calling it “hit and miss”.
I sense that McGrath realises this problem towards the end of our interview when I ask him what the worst thing is about doing his job. “The most frustrating would be if,” – he pauses to think – “if you feel that people aren't getting the message around what you're trying to make happen. They don't necessarily know yet, because we're all doing what we do because we feel it's joyous and worthwhile and exciting and you want to share that with people, so whenever they feel like barriers or stuff gets in the way, that can be frustrating.”
I can’t help but feel melancholy when listening back to this point of the recording of our chat. After all, McGrath clearly wants his festival and his new venue to connect. He’s passionate about what he does and he’s made an effort to put accessibility at the forefront of the plan for Aviva Studios. There will be lots of £10 tickets, even for the huge Danny Boyle show reworking The Matrix in dance, music and visual effects, which is coming up later this year when the venue is completely finished. Pints will be cheap for a city-centre arts venue at £4 a pop, and John tells me you can bring your own sandwiches to shows. They want to create the next generation of arts workers in Manchester, and that’s what the Factory Academy is for.
Plus, MIF does attract lots of people, including huge numbers who come to Manchester in order to see its shows. For example, the 2017 MIF recorded a 300,000 visitor count (that’s not necessarily 300,000 separate people, of course) for its 380 performances and events over 18 days. And there are plenty of things programmed for the coming days that are very accessible – the free and ticketless music at the Festival Stage just outside Aviva Studios, for example, and crowd-pleasing work like Yayoi Kusama: You, Me and the Balloons, an exhibit in the already-completed warehouse area of the new venue.
So there’s plenty to build on. With a few tweaks to its online copywriting, an easier-to-navigate festival website and some decent programmes (someone at the desk at Central Library complains that they have nothing useful to hand out to members of the public), there’s no reason why MIF and its vast new home shouldn’t connect with the general public. But there’s a way to go, I think.
On Thursday this week, a couple of days after my interview with McGrath, I walk into Aviva Studios for the first time for a press preview and everything changes. I’m making my way across motorway roundabouts and suddenly there it is, peeking out from amongst the skyscrapers. It reminds me of Piet Blom’s Cube Houses in Rotterdam — there’s the same playfulness, the same futuristic quality. On entering the building, I feel suddenly and undeniably good. I feel more certain about Factory International and Aviva Studios than I have at any point so far, which is, I suppose, what a £210 million building will do for you.
I get chatting to the lead architect, Ellen Van Loon, who tells me how Aviva Studios is a project that her firm has always dreamed of doing: an art space that entirely caters to the needs of the artists, with moveable walls, so the areas can be as big or small as the artist requires.
Cool women keep bouncing up to me and engaging me in conversation with a self-possession that would be alien to my cramped and neurotic brethren, other journalists. Whenever I ask them who they write for, they laughingly admit they work at Factory International. It is entirely possible I am being handled, because I have gone rogue, am trying to flag down anyone and everyone for interviews. City council leader Bev Craig’s groovily bucket-hatted press aide more or less has to stave me off from cutting past her, and the press conference has not yet started.
I am overexcited! Everyone, ever, appears to be here. There is a cameraman and a TV presenter from South Korea, a duo from Radio 4, and, according to a reporter I befriend from The Telegraph (the Calcutta version), two American journalists from National Geographic Traveller. After McGrath and Craig speak, the chief executive of Arts Council England, Darren Henley, gets up. He says that this is the biggest capital investment in the history of Arts Council England, and that they have invested more than £106 million pounds of national government and National Lottery money, and that they will invest £30 million more over the next three years.
I have a brief chat with superstar curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, here to collaborate with Tino Sehgal and footballer Juan Mata on an artwork, then we’re ushered into the Yayoi Kusama exhibition, Me, You and the Balloons. This is what John has told me would be the one work to see if you don’t have time to see more than one piece. Kusama is in her nineties and makes strikingly accessible work, given its focus, about her life-long struggle with mental illness. There’s a long dark corridor and suddenly we’re spat out into Kusama’s world: a room of inflatable yellow sculptures with black polka dots, floor, ceiling, walls, all in the same pattern. Then you climb the stairs to a viewing gallery looking out over the most enormous room, filled with inflatables: an inflatable girl, the tentacles, her signature pumpkin, all with polka dots. You can descend to see it from floor level, and that’s more powerful. There are blow up clouds which you can lie on. It’s bracketed by a mirrored wall at one end of the exhibition and a video of Yusama talking in Japanese at the other.
It’s hard, seeing this huge space, to not think of the first time I encountered Kusama’s work, at the 2012 Tate Modern retrospective of her life’s work. It was the most magical show, with Kusama creating something entirely new for the retrospective, ‘Infinity Mirror Room - Filled With The Brilliance of Light’ (an artwork so popular that the Tate has now resuscitated this and put the installation back on display until next year), which was a mirrored walkway leading into a room of hundreds of tiny lights, that made you feel like you were stood inside a universe of stars. It was a great example of what large scale work can do: fill you with the same awe that you might feel in the face of breathtaking natural phenomena. I remember emerging blinking into the too-bright daylight, and everything feeling new. This, in contrast, feels flat. It’s all fine, aggressively okay. You could shoot a really striking picture for your Instagram and then leave and never think about it again.
Shortly after, we’re whisked over to another major work at MIF 2023: Economics the Blockbuster at the Whitworth. I wonder if this will be the inverse of Kusama: the underpromise of the title, the overdelivery of the work?
The engaging, accessible part is that there are tables with papers and pens and you’re encouraged to draw economic shapes. Economic shapes? Like a growth curve, the curator says, gesturing to an image of it. This is what the economy has traditionally been based around and we are now seeing the weakness of that ideology. What would be another economic shape well-known enough that the average non-economist might draw it? The doughnut, apparently — like the doughnut economy?
Unfortunately, things only get more mystifying from here. There is a piece of conceptual art that has such a complicated idea behind it that I struggle to take notes sufficiently quickly — something about imagining the gallery as a bank, and then the artwork, an image of an angel, is an asset, and they want to liquidate the asset (maybe? I don’t even really know what this means, since I am fundamentally uninterested in economics) by reproducing the image, and the company making the reproduction also makes banknotes. For some reason it is printed on 16th-century paper sourced by a paper specialist in New York.
There are going to be dinners on a table covered by a tablecloth made by artists from natural dyes, the dinners will be between people from local government and diverse members of the local community, and they will talk about food justice and then the artist will diagram their conversation on a blackboard and then take a photo of the diagram. There is a series of meditations on neoliberalism that you can listen to through headphones. I am struggling to think of anyone I know who would enjoy this.
I have pretty much lost hope in the programming until I turn up to the Ryuichi Sakamoto mixed reality concert, Kagami. Sakamoto, one of the most influential Japanese composers and musicians of all time, passed away in March of cancer at the age of 71. The event takes place in a circular room and we begin the performance in seats placed at the perimeter of the room. We are all given Magic Leap 2 headsets and an American-accented voice coming through the speakers promises that although this won’t be perfect, they want to “elevate what’s possible.” Through the headsets, we are able to watch a 3D version of the composer performing some of his songs on a piano in the centre of the room, encircled by a white shape on the floor. Initially, I am horribly underwhelmed. It’s a nice idea, but from where I’m sat, the graphics are vaguely 00s-computer-game level.
Ten minutes in, one audience member gets to her feet and moves closer to the piano, and it breaks the black magic keeping us pinned in our seats. One by one, we all get to our feet, move around the shape that encircles him, watching him from every angle. At this distance, the performance becomes an astonishing and breathtaking thing. The graphics aren’t outdated at all, they’re incredible — you can see every last detail, the way his hair falls, the crows feet round his eyes, every last facial expression. At a couple of moments, he says a few words. Even if an audience member stands in front of the piano, they are rendered transparent, you can see through to him. It is a strange turn of events: he has gone and we are here, but for all intents and purposes, we are the ghosts now. Graphics swirl above, behind and below him — footage of Tokyo, a grid of light, raindrops fall into the puddle floor, during “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” a tree, stripped of its leaves, is suspended above the piano, before the floor metamorphoses into thousands of wintry branches.
It is strange to think of him making this in the months shortly before he passed away, presumably knowing how ill he was. He died two weeks before it was completed, so he never got to see the finished version. It reminds me of the way that music isn’t just vibrations in space, music is the body in motion. I wonder if he wanted to immortalise not just his songs but the physicality of his playing, the little gesture he makes with his hands — not quite a praying gesture — after completing each song, the ducking of his head as he played. For the first time, that alchemy I hope for with art happens: I forget myself, I forget my own body, and I’m entirely swallowed up by what’s happening before me. Afterwards, some members of the audience stand in a daze, trying to collect themselves, while others cry and hug each other.
“How can it ever be a bad thing to have world-class, world-leading art and culture in your city that isn’t the capital city?” actor Julie Hesmondhalgh asked me, when I asked her for her thoughts on Aviva Studios. “It can only be exciting. It can only encourage people to experience art.” I don’t think everything I’ve seen so far is world-class, or even in the same postcode as world-class. But if even a tenth of their work reaches the same heights as the Ryuichi Sakamoto concert or the building itself, then Aviva Studios would begin to be a great addition to our lives.
How will we judge the success of Aviva Studios? What will prove that it’s been money well spent? In business, questions like that are easier to define. ROI. Return on investment. But it’s naturally much harder in the arts. Darren Henley form the Arts Council tells my colleague that they will measure how many people — and what kind of people — attend the venue using surveys. The city council will hope that it makes a whole new section of regenerated Manchester (christened “St John’s” by the developers) an attractive place for people to buy £320,000 two-bedroom flats. Bev Craig says it’s also about enriching the lives of regular Mancunians.
Or is it actually parochial to think too much about the local picture? “I think people keep missing the point,” says Dave Moutrey, chief executive of HOME, “that Aviva Studios or Factory, is actually a national project that’s happening in Manchester. That’s why there’s money coming directly from the government. So why shouldn’t we have national projects in our city?”
At the start of the week, I knew virtually nothing about this venue, and was left entirely cold by the prospect of it. Now, having visited, having spoken to the people behind it, read reams and reams about it, I’m excited — even cautiously optimistic. But of course, I was paid to write this article. I was paid to have all those conversations and visit the three shows I saw. The real test for Aviva Studios will be whether those outside of the media and the arts will spend their own money and time on these sometimes niche, sometimes powerful shows. Will you?
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