Manchester International Festival, various venues, until 15th July 2007
Dedicated to the One I Love, Ashton-Under-Lyne Art Gallery, until 1st September 2007
A paradox of the way contemporary culture is funded is the perception that every new festival has to be born, as it were, fully grown. Backers like to put their money where the money is - corporate sponsors want to see a net financial gain; increasingly the public sector feels the same way - and what makes money is the usual recipe of marketing, celebrities, media sponsors and self-confidence. The idea that a new festival can grow organically, like Arles, Documenta or Edinburgh, or indeed the home grown Streets Ahead or Futuresonic, is probably redundant now for as long as funders value scale over depth.
In that context, and faced with the 'original modern' brief emanating from the city's cultural establishment, the Director of Manchester International Festival Alex Poots has done some rather clever things. Firstly appealed to the city's vanity by foregrounding music ('if I'd set up the world's most important visual arts fair in Manchester,' he says, 'everyone would go 'what are you on about?' But this festival is built on the character of Manchester.'). Secondly he's set the 25 new works in a predominantly temporally and spatially enclosed environment; everything has to happen within the festival's three week period, and almost everything is indoors, ticketed, in a theatre setting - so each piece seems the more self-contained and digestible. This might be a nod to Manchester's radical history - the traditional activist's belief that theatre is the ideal setting for cultural challenge was echoed by Peter Sellars in a Guardian Debate. Then thirdly Poots has raided the little black book of celebrities; where that's original is in making them do something out of their normal range. Damon Albarn writes an opera; the visual artists collaborate on a performance piece; Johnny Vegas performs in a small house. There is no fringe. There is little chance of encountering work in a public arena unless you're passing Rusholme Job Centre. There's a strong sense of a festival tightly controlled. And to save you the trouble of looking, there is no photography, beyond the rather fine pictures that present the work in the programme and website.
Does all of this add up to the celebration of public involvement in culture that Manchester City Council dreamt of after the success of the 2002 Commonwealth Games? To find out, visit Manchester before 15th July. But remember to book your tickets in advance.
For an alternative view of how a local council might encourage culture that combines high quality professional practice with genuine public participation, head out to Ashton-under-Lyne where the rapidly maturing photographic duo of Mishka Henner and Liz Lock present 'Dedicated to the One I Love'. This is an intimate portrait of young carers, aged between 13 and 16, talking about their lives around their central concern, which is caring for a loved one, a parent or sibling with long term illness. The photographers collaborated fully with both the carers and the local authority.
There is hardly a trace of pessimism, given the gravity of the carers' positions. Ethereal, uplifting portraits of the carers, and extracts from their interviews, are playfully framed in ornate gilt mouldings and surrounded by plants and flowers; an elevation in status for their enforced domesticity. Next door, pictures and videos made by the carers themselves tell a pointedly more grounded story. A dialectic is thus established, the synthesis formed in the viewer's mind, and we come away with a changed impression of life as a teenage carer. This is an exhibition that works on many levels, not least as a valuable addition to the debate on participatory practice and public funding of the arts. Highly recommended.
[review by Paul Herrmann]