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PRINT Summer 2011

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the Manchester International Festival

Rehearsal for The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic, Teatro Real, Madrid, September 15, 2010. Photo: Antony Crook.

AMONG THE TWENTY-PLUS new works that will debut this July during the third iteration of the UK’s biannual Manchester International Festival, The Life and Death of Marina Abramović carries the most alarming title. But not to worry: Despite the artist’s past deployments of crossbows, burning gasoline, and loaded guns, the piece—a biographical play directed by the legendary Robert Wilson, starring Abramović and Willem Dafoe, and featuring music by Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons—will not put the doyenne in terminal danger. It may imperil simplistic historical constructions, though, insofar as it will inevitably highlight commonalities between Abramović’s ethos of presence and Wilson’s postmodern dramaturgy (not to mention the hypermediated productions of Dafoe’s experimental theater company, the Wooster Group). It also outs Hegarty and Abramović as performance artist–turned-superstar kindred spirits.

A highlight of the festival’s inaugural edition was Hans Ulrich Obrist’s excellent theater experiment–cum–group exhibition “Il tempo del postino,” in which time-based works by fifteen artists were presented in succession on the grand stage of the Opera House Manchester. This year, Obrist and MoMA PS1 curator Klaus Biesenbach will organize another art-theater hybrid, “Eleven Rooms.” Promising an exploration of “unmediated experience” (compelling enough to temporarily rebuff addiction to handheld devices?), they will install the show in eleven white-cube galleries of equal size, each one hosting enactments of scripted instruction pieces by artists including Roman Ondák, Tino Sehgal, Joan Jonas, Simon Fujiwara, and Cao Fei. The exhibition seems to owe a debt to Sehgal’s practice in particular, and it will be intriguing to see how his own degree-zero brand of objectless art practice will be elaborated, and whether the cheek-by-jowl juxtapositions in like mode will feel forced or, to the contrary, will illuminate shared tendencies in this diverse group of artists.

Like the Abramović play and the pieces in “Eleven Rooms,” every work on the docket in Manchester has been commissioned or expanded specially for the festival. The many groundbreaking commissions of the venerable nonprofit Artangel—which, in collaboration with the MIF, will present Anri Sala and Šejla Kamerić’s film 1395 Days Without Red at the Whitworth Art Gallery—have clearly been an inspiration to festival director Alex Poots, whose avowed aspiration is to offer artists “tools and support to produce large-scale events that disregard conventional boundaries between genres.” Blending sound art and the found poetry of everyday conversation, poet Lavinia Greenlaw’s Audio Obscura will be installed in Manchester’s Piccadilly train station; passersby will be able to listen on headsets to sound recordings of twelve voices, ranging from that of a lost child to that of a dying man, that lend narrative implication to the crowds in this everyday situation. Marrying aspects of dance and game design, artist John Gerrard used 3-D motion capture to create Infinite Freedom Exercise (Near Abdan, Iran), in which a lone, uniformed figure in a hyperreal virtual landscape performs movements developed by choreographer Wayne McGregor. Gospel songs, Sufi poetry, and other “genres” of religious practice will meld in the series “Sacred Sites,” programmed at Christian, Hindu, Islamic, Jewish, and Sikh places of worship across the city.

Other events will not be so exalted, but that’s not a drawback—the probing of the boundary between high and low is one of the most intriguing and innovative things about the festival, which has consistently brought mainstream comedians and musicians into the mix. An especially memorable event in this category was Kraftwerk’s 2009 concert in the city’s Velodrome, during which cyclists whizzed at full speed around the musicians and their machines. This time, raising the stakes again, none other than Snoop Dogg will perform within what is billed as a “unique multimedia experience” bringing together all the original featured artists from his echt-gangsta album Doggystyle (1993). Comedians Victoria Wood and Johnny Vegas will stage performances (in Wood’s case, a musical), while Björk will present the world premiere of the ambitious (to put it mildly) multimedia project Biophilia, whose accoutrements will include a digital pipe organ and a thirty-foot pendulum.

As a truly cross-disciplinary event presenting only new, commissioned work, the festival is unique in the UK, and arguably unique among other performance biennials. From a visual arts perspective, its strength lies in its displacement of artists’ projects into a context that is built of such diverse art forms. The MIF manifests a daring desire, in this regard, to step outside the art world to test art’s place within the spectrum of contemporary cultural activity, even as it segues into entertainment. Manchester is a city with a significant cultural history: It hosted the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition of 1857, an epochal show that included sixteen thousand works and attracted one million visitors; and it was home both to the first professional symphony orchestra in Britain, the Hallé, and, in the 1980s, to the legendary Factory Records and the Haçienda nightclub’s “Madchester scene.” The question, perhaps for the city itself as much as for the festival, is whether, as the MIF becomes increasingly established in the years to come, it will develop that kind of grassroots energy anew, fostering the sorts of activities that have made Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival a hotbed of innovative comedy and theater—energy that will ultimately feed and fuel the MIF’s high-end experiments.

Catherine Wood is curator of contemporary art and performance at Tate Modern, London.