I Love My Country, Both of Them

britain-and-americaThis weekend Boris Johnson, the darling of the Brexiteers and our illustrious Foreign Secretary told EU leaders to stop the ‘whinge-o-rama’ over Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election. Apparently some people, barely a week after a man who has told his supporters to punch protesters, refused to release his tax returns, has frequently used derogatory language, if not blatant sexual assault, against women, intends to build a wall between America and Mexico, has been bankrupt several times, doesn’t pay his contractors, accuses Hispanics of being drug dealers and rapists, doesn’t believe in global warming, has never had a job in government before and has never served in the forces (although he doesn’t have a problem with judging the family of a fallen soldier or describing a POW from his own party as a coward), mocks the disabled, and has really, really small hands (yep, I said it), are still complaining! How very dare they!!

Of course we shouldn’t be that surprised that Donald’s British hair twin is telling people to forget about lies and racial overtones winning a vote – Johnson was one of the Brexit trio who used those very same techniques during the EU Referendum campaign earlier in the year (yes, it was only in June!). 27553185253_398e664d2d_z

Full of their own overblown self importance, Johnson, Michael Gove and Nigel Farage became the poster boys for our leaving Europe in another ‘shock’ vote that seemed to illustrate just how divided both the UK and the US are. Unsurprisingly, Farage now seems to see himself as the self-appointed UK ambassador to the Trump administration and Johnson, who a few months ago was ‘worried’ by the idea of his presidency, doesn’t feel the need to attend a meeting with other EU countries to discuss the situation – even though we’re not out of the EU yet and due to the clusterfuck of a job our government is making of it, we won’t be for a while!

For those of us who voted remain and who find this new gift from 2016 pretty abhorrent, one question keeps rolling around our heads and it’s probably why we haven’t stopped whinging yet – why?

Now that’s a really big question and one that I definitely can’t answer. But to this lay(wo)man, it seems a couple of factors have surfaced that to apply to both Brexit and Trump:

All hail the new anti-establishment – the establishment

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One of the arguments leveled against both Hilary Clinton and the remain campaign was that they are the establishment and that by voting against them you are taking your country back. What doesn’t seem to occur to voters, or they just don’t care, is that these people are also the establishment – some might say even more establishment than the people they’re attacking. Both Gove and Johnson are old Oxford boys, Farage was a merchant banker before he entered politics, and Trump was the son of another successful real estate developer, and who, by most accounts, helped his son get going with possible investments totaling millions of dollars. The idea that these men are ‘for the people, of the people’ seems a little incongruous – however, that’s the trick they’ve pulled off. My point here is not that the establishment always produces bad politicians or even that people in business cannot make good politicians, my point is that these white, middle-aged, very rich and/or upper-class men trade on the idea that they are anti-establishment when they are not. In fact, I would suggest that far from Trump being the blip, Obama was really the anomaly. What ever you think of them, his administration has brought in and encouraged major changes in American political society including the first legislation on healthcare since the 1960s and the legalisation of same-sex marriage across the country.  Even Bill Clinton fell into the line of economically and socially conservative American presidents (except when it came to what happens in the Oval Office! Am I right???). The real radical in his administration was Hilary and she’s still suffering from that.

Tell it like it is… at least until you win

The day after Brexit, we were all a bit shell-shocked, including it seemed Johnson, who  looked like he’d suddenly realised that perhaps he should have had a plan after all (this brilliant Downfall parody captures what may have happened). When President-elect Trump visited the White House to meet Obama (for the first time! How does that even happen???) some commentators suggested that even he finally felt the gravity of the situation and not just because Joe Biden was looking at him funny (for more of this hilarious #joebama meme see here or basically anywhere on the internet right now!).

The thing is that now he has to deliver and even if that doesn’t scare the shit out of him, the reality is that he simply won’t be able to, at least not enough to satisfy his most rabid supporters. As with Brexit, the practicalities of ‘what happens next’ are scarce. Even being looked after by experienced politicians in the oldest democracy in the world, leaving the EU is a complicated business which has led to Teresa May having to continually placate us with the phrase ‘Brexit means Brexit’ while not actually giving us a clue about what that means. It now looks like even when they do figure it out, the plan will have to be debated in Parliament which will further delay any actual action. Basically, it could take years despite the fact that the EU are telling us to just go already. In the States, Trump has the advantage of a Republican House and Senate and a conservative Supreme Court but even with those, things take time and lets not forget the mid-term elections are only two short years away. Sure, they can probably dismantle Obamacare but he’s already said he wants to keep some elements, and the ‘wall’, that may now have elements of fence-like activity in some parts, is highly unlikely to get built within the next four years plus it’s simply not possible for him to do some of the other things he promised because of a small thing called the Constitution (NPR have a round up of how and what he can achieve of his first hundred days promises here).

donald-trump-rainbow-flagAside from this he’s already uncomfortably courting the LGBTQ community saying he doesn’t want to overturn equal marriage even though his VP believes in conversion therapy, he’s emphasizing deportation of criminal illegal immigrants over those seeking work, and denouncing the hate crimes that have risen significantly since his election despite having used inflammatory language in his campaign speeches and hired an alt-right, white supremacist sympathiser as chief strategist and senior counselor. Do I think all this means there won’t be that much damage? No, there will be, but it probably means he’s more in the realm of George ‘Dubya’ Bush than Hitler  – as I’ve said, I believe he will prove to be a conservative, establishment President who will do what helps him and his pals keep making obscene amounts of money and keep most of the country dreaming of the trickle down economy while the people who will really suffer will be the ones that always have – minorities, women, the poor, and those of different sexual orientations.

It’s not me, it’s you

One of the main reasons media has given for the success of both Brexit and Trump is that the ‘liberal elite’ live in bubbles of their own creation where they neither know nor care about the rest of the country and assume that everyone loves soy lattes; that it’s only at times like these that we are forced to look beyond our quinoa salad and realise that a lot of people in the country are suffering, left behind, and feel un-listened to. This is the same media, by the way, that is sometimes unashamedly partisan, and sometimes a tasteless gruel that gives both sides of any argument equal time and credence even if one is proved to be on factual shaky ground. brexit-busThe headline from the Brexit camp was that £350 million a week could be plowed into the NHS if we left which was found to be erroneous at best but was still plastered all over The Daily Mail and on the side of Boris’ bus. The culture of American news media in particular relies much more on opinion than fact and the idea that what you feel is more important than what’s actually true (for more on this see the concept of ‘Truthiness’ here). Of course, this does lead most of us to live in an echo chamber, following and reading people and opinions that chime with our own. I freely admit that I am part of that ‘liberal elite’ – a humanities post-graduate, living in a middle-class suburb of a vibrate, culturally rich city and working in a museum surrounded by people pretty much the same as myself. However, there are two points I’d like to make about this ‘bubble’ idea: Firstly, these are really big bubbles; In the EU Referendum 48% voted to remain – that’s not exactly a rout! And in the US Hilary won the popular vote and continues to add votes as they keep counting in larger states like California. So these ‘bubbles’ represent about half the country and they are vastly skewed towards younger voters meaning that a. if they continue to be engaged, it’s likely that they will win more votes in the future and b. that for the younger members of society, progressive social politics is a good thing. Secondly, why is it always us that are accused of not reaching out? The wonderful thing about global communication is that we can now have access to news from everywhere and on everything. In my ‘little’ bubble in a whole other country I knew about Hilary’s problems and they did give me pause to think but I also knew about Trump and his multitude of issues that were far worse than hers. Over Brexit, I knew and felt, that the EU is far from perfect but I didn’t trust the trio of Johnson, Gove, and Farage to have our interests at heart and felt it was better to work from inside rather than throw ourselves out. I’m not saying that I’m perfect, I’m just saying that access to these stories and facts are available to pretty much everyone. Can Trump voters claim to not know about his attitude towards women and immigrants? Surely not. And this is where it gets difficult, because while I’m willing to agree that not all Trump supporters are racists and misogynists, some are, and those people who aren’t have still put their hat in that ring. With Brexit, both campaigns were so woeful, it’s understandable (just) that some didn’t really know what they were voting for… but not 52% – they saw UKIPs shrouded and not so shrouded racism and Boris’ lies and still voted for them. Trump supporters held their noses and voted for somebody who has re-tweeted the KKK  and rates women on how likely he is to sexually assault them. And that’s not even the policies! My ‘liberal elite’ have our problems and yes, maybe we should take more notice of what others in our country think – we should fight for better journalism and better politics but we should also fight for our values and our vision and people who are truly moderates need to make sure that they are heard too and don’t be so ready to vote for ‘your party’ no matter where they seem to be going.

So where do we go from here? My main issue with all of this is not policy – as I’ve said I think Trump will prove to be a conservative Republican and Bexit could take years and let’s face it, we’re still going to be able to buy brie. My fear is that Trump and Brexit have legitimised certain attitudes that I had hoped had faded into the past. These attitudes range from wishing the world would stand still or return to a time when people knew where they stood to all out fascism. Many people are scared by the rapid social change both here and across the pond, including some of us liberals. While we may agree with the progression of gender and civil rights the era of globalisation has brought, the unbridled global capitalism that prospered the banking crisis and huge conglomerates are certainly not on my wish list. But whether we can have one without the other is a question for another time. Right now us liberals need to not give up in our feeling of loss – in or out of Europe or with Trump as president, we can promote what we want to see through our own actions every day – if you see racism or harassment, stand up to it; keep or get engaged with politics and encourage others to do the same; vote; volunteer; donate; talk about your values and how you see the future – you don’t have to shove it down peoples throats but be sure in your conviction that to make the world a better place it needs to be more inclusive not less. For moderates, try to understand that you can make choices and that choice is better for everyone; fight for your voices to be heard in all parties and arguments; don’t be so scared of those who are different from you; if you don’t know, find out; vote based on your beliefs not just party affiliation; do some research – it’s out there but you have to find it (that’s kind of what being a citizen is about).

Do I think a lefty utopia is just around the corner? No, and that’s not even what I’m suggesting. As Winston Churchill said:

Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…

So, if like so many other things in our world, Democracy is the best idea we have at the moment, lets give it a proper go in both my beautiful, diverse, messy countries and maybe, just maybe, we can all learn to get along a little easier.

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Heroes at the Museum Pt. 2 – Team GB Parade — Museum of Science and Industry

In the heat of Rio, Team GB’s Olympians and Paralympians did us proud, winning 214 medals over both games. On Monday 17 October, they brightened Manchester in a spectacular parade through the city streets that started right here at the Museum of Science and Industry. We were thrilled to have all of these amazing athletes…

via Heroes at the Museum Pt. 2 – Team GB Parade — Museum of Science and Industry

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Heroes at the Museum Pt. 1 – Tim Peake — Museum of Science and Industry

When Major Tim Peake blasted off into space in December 2015, he took the nation with him. He became the first Briton in space to be funded by the country, and after his fantastic flight, a 6 month stay on the International Space Station (ISS), and a successful return home, he now stands as an…

via Heroes at the Museum Pt. 1 – Tim Peake — Museum of Science and Industry

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Truthiness & Lies in American News

A great man once said that truthiness is not based on mere facts. No, instead truthiness is what you feel to be true. That great man was Stephen T. Colbert (pronounced Colbear but definitely not French), a late night pundit who seemed to personify the American news media‘s obsession with opinion. His ultra-right-wing views were familiar to anyone who had the misfortune to come across Fox News while zapping through the myriad of channels on American TV but with one crucial difference – Stephen T. Colbert wasn’t real. His “Colbear Repore” was a comedy show that was so close to the real thing, I heard people ask ‘…but it’s a joke, right?’. Colbert even made it to the White House Press dinner and to this day I’m not sure if then President George ‘dubya’ Bush got it.

TheDailyShow-2013-06-06-DamnYou,FozzieBear!The Colbert character was retired just before Christmas. His creator, actual Stephen Colbert, will be moving on to present the legendary Late Show in September. Colbert/Colbear got his break on another ‘comedy’ news show, the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and last week in another blow to funny that’s funny, Jon Stewart announced he was leaving that show to in his own words enjoy dinner on a school night with his family, ‘I hear… they’re lovely people’. Although the Daily Show also used fake ridiculous characters to satirize the real ridiculous characters of American news and politics, Stewart, as the anchorman, remained apart. His role was to point out the ridiculous, turn his acerbic wit on lawmakers to hockey-moms and shine a comedic light on hypocrisy. The golden age of the Daily Show was during the eight years of George W. Bush‘s administration. The show went from cult late night viewing for college kids to the essential news show for disillusioned Democrats, including the man who would become the next president. Partly it was because the show is simply funny but more than that, the Daily Show turned out to be a better source of news than a lot of real news on American TV. In my dissertation on the subject, I found studies suggesting the Daily Show, through it’s lens of satire, was more true to journalistic values, more informative & more willing to fact check than actual news. Coupled with this was Stewart‘s every man common sense of right and wrong. His delivery may have been that of a stand-up comic but his morals always shone through. I would maintain that he is the best political interviewer I have ever seen, wielding a perfected Socratic technique of giving his opinion strongly and articulately while somehow remaining warm and inviting. This often resulted in his guests, particularly those from the right-wing, shooting themselves in the foot, disarmed by video evidence and Stewart’s home-truths. The fact is that Stewart, as the Daily Show anchor, pointed out ‘truthiness’ in media and politics and pulled it into the light of what we like to call ‘fact’ (or at the very least intelligent, well informed opinion) and made it funny! Of course, Stewart always had that advantage – he isn’t a newsman. He is a comedian and never pretended to be anything else. Ironically, it was precisely this that made him credible,

grossIn a strangely negative version of Stewart’s fake/real credibility, last week also saw problems for actual news anchorman NBC’s Brian Williams and his ‘truthiness’. Williams has been suspended without pay for six months because an anecdote he told several times turned out to have become… let’s say ’embellished’ over the years. Now that might seem a little harsh – haven’t we all told stories where we got the girl or caught the ball? Maybe, but those stories don’t generally involve helicopters, rocket propelled grenades and the Iraq War. In 2003, Williams, reporting from Iraq, said he’d been on a US army helicopter when the one in front was hit by an RPG. While appearing on the Late Show with David Letterman in 2013, Williams said the RPG had hit his helicopter and in January this year, that version made it to NBC Nightly News. ‘Misremembering’ on a talk show? Bad. Telling that same ‘mis-remembrance’ on the most watched news bulletin in America? Worse, much worse, especially when some of the vets you were in the helicopter with are watching too and don’t quite remember it the same way. Whether Williams’ memory is on the blink or he blatantly lied to make himself the hero, the fact is that his entire journalistic career is now under scrutiny, including the Peabody winning coverage of Hurricane Katrina. The real dissapointment here is that Williams was one of the ‘good’ guys. Taking over the anchorship from the legendary Tom Brokaw, Williams has been compared to Edward R. Murrow and counts Walter Cronkite as a fan. If it had been Bill O’Reilly or Sean Hannity nobody would have batted an eye, mostly because they frequently stretch the truth as pointed out nightly by the Daily Show. But leaving Fox News’ beautifully blatent partisanship behind, NBC Nightly News is not an opinion show pretending to be the news or a comedy show pretending to be the news, it is the news, the fourth estate, the legacy of Woodward and Bernstein, an essential element in democracy, what Jefferson described as the only toxin of the nation. The fact that toxin has been sullied by journalists and politicians alike particularly over the Iraq War (among other things) is all the more reason America needs to rekindle it’s trust in its journalists and if those who, like Williams, seemed to retain that sense of integrity prove to lose it in their own self-importance, perhaps it is only through comedy that checking in on the truth might actually happen. Hopefully, even after Jon Stewart’s departure, the Daily Show will continue to do that (it’s certainly got a lot talented people to take over). In a further plot twist, there are rumours that NBC might nab Stewart to take over as the Nightly News anchor. The comedian becomes the newsman and the newsman becomes a joke? Welcome to the wacky world of truthiness.

In case you’ve never seen the Daily Show, here’s a good round up of Jon Stewart at his best (if you don’t mind the annoying MTV style presenter, sorry!)…

& here’s the whole of the 9/11 piece (be sure to have some tissues for this).

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A Vision In White: Manchester’s Central Library #Reborn

Manchester's Central Library

Manchester’s Central Library

Four years in the making and at a cost of £50 million you’d be forgiven for wondering if, in this paperless utopian future, Manchester’s Central Library refurbishment isn’t a little redundant. Having visited today, on its opening weekend, I can assure you it’s not.

Having lived in Birmingham for some time I’ve also been interested in their new library, a completely new build to replace the early 70s concrete block that in turn had replaced  a glorious Victorian institution (for more and to marvel at what councillors chose to tear down in the name of progress see here). At a cost of £188.8 million (£50 million doesn’t seem so bad now does it?), the library is second in size to only The British Library and is said to be the largest public cultural space in Europe. When I saw it in the flesh a few weeks ago, I have to say it cuts a cutting dash,cantilevered boxes clad in linked chainmail and gold, towering over Centenary Square.

Library of Birmingham

Library of Birmingham

Having opened in September 2013, perhaps it had lost some of its young blush by the time I visited or maybe I was just looking with an adopted Manc eye but the building, despite its books being on display, felt soulless. I’d heard reports of it being airport like and I’d have to agree, with its blue lit travelators and glass lift (not working on the day I went!) it did feel like somewhere you travel through rather than to.

I can’t help but contrast this with today and Manchester’s central beacon of public learning. Maybe it is because I simply prefer a classical style for my institutions, maybe it’s because I’d been aware of its slow process for so long, maybe it’s because I live here now but walking through that columned portico and into the marbled hall felt like coming home even though I’d never entered the building before.

Manchester's Shakespeare window

Manchester’s Shakespeare window

The Shakespeare Room in Library of Birmingham

The Shakespeare Room in Library of Birmingham

Unlike the Library of Birmingham, that for all its glass still seems in constant shadow, Manchester Central Library’s  white marble shines even with grey skies. It’s central skylight and large municipal windows flood the building with natural light. Smiling volunteers hand out slickly designed maps that repeatedly use the circular motif that reflects the building’s shape. Your eye is drawn up to the contrasting wood panelled ceiling displaying the arms of the great and good, then to the ecclesiastical stained window not celebrating a saint of the church but a saint of literature, Shakespeare. In Birmingham, a city much closer to the Bard’s Stratford, the Library boasts the Shakespeare Room, the only bit of that beautiful original library that exists. However, this recreation sits uncomfortably at the very top of the block stack, hard going even for the fittest and most ardent of Shakespeare lovers. When I visited, this wood panelled cocoon was only being used by a group of teenage boys sitting playing games on their phones loudly. I almost told them how proud I thought Shakespeare would be to see them here, seemingly oblivious of his life’s work. On the other hand, Manchester’s library exalts Shakespeare but doesn’t pander to him. He made be central but he’s small fry in comparison to the municipal beauty surrounding him.

From this entrance hall you enter the main ground floor rotunda, home to not what you would find in the majority of libraries, literature, but to archives. The very layout of this library is making a statement of its place within the community. Despite its classical architecture, this is a place that celebrates local history for local people. This is Manchester, we are part of it and we are part of you. Unlike Birmingham where archives was hidden away on the 3rd or 4th floor, this is the central public space replete with the cafe and tech… A LOT of tech! However, despite the amount of screens the space doesn’t feel techy. While Birmingham’s architecture reeks of our contemporary world but with a confusing lack of obvious interactive IT inside, here the multitude of screens seem to merge and flow with everyday life, doing the all important job of bringing histories usually kept in boxes to life (a particular passion of mine!). AND they were being used! I spoke to someone I know who works in the Archives+ partnership and he said how worried they’d been but when they opened the doors people came in and immediately started looking at digital maps of WWII bomb sites and opening digitalised files of love letters. I’m a firm believer that it is through digital play and interactivity that archives can be opened up to the wider public and this is a perfect example.

Upstairs there’s again the traditional library architecture of the Great Hall reading room, Proverbs 4:7 shining with

Moving shelves featuring famous Mancunians

Moving shelves featuring famous Mancunians

new gold leaf. This room seems purposely screen free, retaining its classical good looks under the dome and skylight. Throughout the rest of the building, modern glass mixes with marble and wood, screens mix with books. You can still look up US patents from 1872 or you can surf the web on your tablet with free the wi-fi at the touch of a button and everywhere the local. Even in the top floor reference section the moving shelves (great fun!!) are decorated with the area’s alumni, everyone from John Dee to Alan Turing.

Of course there are some things Birmingham’s library has done better. Their building uses the latest in renewable energy for their air conditioning meaning a lower carbon footprint. While we adventured round Manchester’s my environmentally minded friend was horrified at the amount of single pane glass and bad insulation in the windows. Another advantage Birmingham boasts is the terraces, allowing visitors unrivalled views of the city. Unfortunately, that city is Birmingham, in my opinion a skyline nowhere near as attractive as that glimpsed through the single pane glass in Manchester. Our need for an outside area (when/if it ever stops raining) will eventually be sufficed by the redevelopment of St. Peters Square into a European style piazza even with the trams rumbling through.

Manchester Central Library interior

Manchester Central Library interior

Manchester Central Library staircase

Manchester Central Library staircase

There have been bumps along the way (notably the favourer over 25000 books being destroyed even if they were copies or outdated manuals) and others still to come (mostly surrounding the enclosing of the pathway between the library and the Town Hall and the moving of the Cenotaph) but for now the signs are that Manchester has welcomed back it’s hall of Wisdom, exulting and embracing this reborn form as it reflects us back. At a time when we seem to be ridding ourselves of paper, it’s lovely to know that it can sit comfortably alongside our screens, speak to us through digitisation, and continue to mean something to our lives. Manchester’s Central Library proves that with good design and forethought old can engage with new in beautiful, surprising and personal ways.

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Maurice de Trafford: Hunter/Conservationalist?

Stories from the Museum Floor

Many visitors ask about our stuffed animals – where did they come from? Are they real? Some believe the museum itself is responsible for the animal’s demise. While the museum it now a bastion of conservation, it’s true that many of the fascinating items in our natural history collections date from a time when hunting was part of the lives for much of the British aristocracy and many of our displays were trophies these gentlemen had in their stately homes. For them it was a token of their status, proof of their manliness in a highly masculine society. For some it was also part of their interest in the natural world and their feelings of responsibility in enlightening those of a lower social status. This may seem patronising to us in 2014, but it’s important to bear in mind that a lot of our knowledge about such creatures has come…

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How To Make A Museum…

Stories from the Museum Floor

The Museum's Oxford Road elevation The Museum’s Oxford Road elevation

How do you start a museum? They seem like such amazing, impossible yet solid places, it’s difficult to imagine a time when they simply weren’t there!

Well, back in 1821 there was no Manchester Museum. That year several wealthy gentleman with the Victorian passion for science and nature, formed the Manchester Society of Natural History and bought John Leigh Phillips’ collection. By 1835 they had a rather grand classically columned building on Peter street. The only sign that it was ever there now is Museum Street.

In 1850, the collection expanded when they merged with the Manchester Geological Society who brought their prize item, an ichthyosaurus found at Whitby. The two societies weren’t exactly happy bedfellows. The Natural History Society were charging visitors a penny for admission while the Geological Society believed entrance should be free which just goes to show that questions over how…

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The Art of Social Intimacy: Nikhil Chopra – Coal on Cotton

How often do you watch a grown adult sleep? Maybe your partner, maybe a member of your family, maybe even a friend but chances are you very rarely catch a stranger in repose and even if you do, it is likely to be a fleeting moment rather than sitting in the same space, observing their shape, the way they turn, creeping past them, whispering with your friends so as not to disturb them – this would be a rare experience. And even if you did have such experiences you (hopefully) would keep the image off of social media… that is, unless it’s art.

IMG_20130707_004731The initial question was asked by Maria Balshaw, director of Whitworth Art Gallery, at the official opening of both the summer season and Coal on Cotton, a 65-hour performance piece by Nikhil Chopra taking place at the gallery as part of Manchester International Festival. She, and other foolhardy devotees had been at the gallery from 4.30am on Friday to witness the start of Chopra’s opus to Manchester and Mumbai’s industrial connections through two materials that put the cities on the world’s stage. Chopra, known for portraying characters throughout his performance based art, started as ‘the Farmer’, sleeping on bales of locally woven Indian cotton for the first 40minutes, watched by the small, exclusive crowd. The first I (and probably most others) saw of it was through photos of this intimate scene posted on Twitter by the press, marketers and the gallery. Although Balshaw spoke of the profound silence that descended as Chopra slept, this reverential moment was already being spread throughout the city and the world.

I arrived much later, stepping through a fire exit door, into a half constructed corridor bathed in summer sun. Another aspect to the piece was that Whitworth Art Gallery are closing in September while a new £15million extension is completed. Chopra’s performance would be based in what will be the new landscape gallery but at the moment was open to the notoriously fickle Manchester weather. ‘The Farmer’ had combated this by constructing a large tent from the cotton bales he’d slept on then dragged through the galleries earlier. As I stepped in to this private/public space, I was first struck by how beautiful it was, like a communal cocoon of diffused light, the smell of the material evoking memories of camping trips and Bradford cloth stops. Chopra himself was now in his second incarnation ‘the Mill Worker’, dressed in Victorian style, monochrome, trousers and shirt that reflected the charcoalIMG_20130705_195611 drawing he was deftly inscribing on the wall of the tent. His face was covered in chalk giving him the appearance of a ghost among the pale shades surrounding him and us. The overall effect was one of serenity and acceptance. If seeing a stranger sleep is a rare event, seeing them in the act of artistic creation is probably even rarer. Yet, we weren’t an intrusion, despite his forced non-interaction pierced by occasional accusatorial stares in our direction. We seemed to share in this job of work, peace descending as we watched him draw, stride to his reference photograph and return. We sat against the far wall, examined the photograph ourselves, peeked out of the window cut roughly in the side, talked quietly with friends and strangers alike, and ubiquitously recorded the experience in real time through our smart phones.

Although there was official documentation, this amateur recording over the three days will no doubt prove the more interesting. I, for one, felt compelled to capture the progress of the drawing, the beauty of the space, the small collection of bundles containing his possessions for the three days. Speaking to one of the visitor assistants, at first they’d assumed cameras would be banned but Chopra had been happy for his ‘guests’ to share the piece with those outside the gallery. Rather than the negative experience iPads at gigs can be, this sharing seemed respectful, beautiful, intimate. I felt that by sharing my experience I was preserving it, as much for me as for the gallery or the world, capturing it and sending it like little bottles of insight on the ocean of Twitter, that I could retrieve and feel a little of what I felt watching this man work.

The last day was fervent with activity. As I arrived he was transforming into his last character, ‘the Boss’, clean shaven except for an impressive handlebar moustache, dressing in bright green to the jarring sound of looms recorded at the area’s last working steam-driven mill. The space was filled with excitement and portent, suddenly loosing it’s lazy, serene nature as our protagonist transformed. The first sound I heard him make in the three days I’d been visiting was a whistle to bring in several workers in hard-hats and luminous tabards. Ripping the tent apart with precision, Chopra quietly gave orders, pointing, gesturing, animated. Gone was the quiet, introverted ‘worker’, replaced by magnet, all business, calling us out of the collapsing tent and into the white heat of the roofless, concrete, half-built gallery. Fascinated, we stayed watching his construction descend, his persona fully finished with a beautifully tailored jacket and exotic flower boutonniere. We followed his every move, like a pied piper’s rats as his minions carried the wrapped cotton through to the front of the gallery, continually recording the breakdown of our former sanctuary.

IMG_20130707_210252By the time the drawing was hoisted roughly across the brick entrance, there was perhaps a hundred strong crowd watching Chopra peacock, an artistic superstar, in charge of these closing moments and seemingly the sun itself as it descended behind the city. We spread his image, simultaneously, no longer his equal as we had felt with the ‘worker’ but his sub-creatures, mythically transformed by his achievement as he had been. When he eventually left us, simply stepping down from the table he used as his stage and walking away, few followed. We had our place and now it wasn’t with him. Our power remained in the procreation of his image, the one flying through the air. Chopra may have been speaking to Manchester’s industrial past, its great innovation that caused such hardship to those who flooded to its factories, a process repeated in new industrial centres such as Mumbai now. But we used new innovation to share that experience, his and ours, a new collective that brings with it joys and woes, a new tool that we strive to make our own and retain, celebrate, preserve a little creativity of our own.

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Review: The Old Woman, Manchester International Festival

A couple of days ago I was given the opportunity to watch the preview performance of The Old Woman, a heavily promoted part of the Manchester International Festival line-up for 2013. I had actually been resisting seeing it as I kind of had an inkling of what I’d be in for. Suffice to say, it didn’t disappoint.

The piece is based of the work of Daniil Kharms, a Russian writer who died in a Stalin Gulag aged just 36. He is a creature of the 1920s, when the utter futility and horror of the First World War gave rise to an absurdist rebellion in the arts spearheaded by the Dadaist movement. Kharms, though not directly associated with Dada, shared many of their sensibilities. His ‘micro’ stories and plays celebrated nonsense while simultaneously commenting on the realities of life in post-revolution Russia and inter-war society.

Credit: http://www.mif.co.uk/Images/2013_Commissions/main_and_thumb_event_images/TOW_ProductionShot_ForWeb_v2.jpgThe Old Woman focuses on the comedic, pantomime elements of Kharms’ writing, displayed in the two clown-faced characters that carry the words and a set awash with primary colours and cartoonish props. However, despite director Robert Wilson’s assurance that we could laugh if we wanted, the entire experience suffered from an undertow of frustration and humiliation, not only for the characters but for at least this member of the audience.

Firstly, I have to say, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Willem Defoe do an amazing job. They are the only two characters and the piece is physically demanding with them almost constantly dancing/stamping/running across the stage while repetitively chanting Kharms’ words in Russian and English respectively. Their graceful double act was one of the few elements that kept me in my seat. The other was the production; the circus-like primary colours, the lighting tricks sending the protagonists from black and white to garish red and green with the flick of a switch, the musical patches of old-time jazz; All these parts could have made for a coherent, interesting, engaging 30 minutes maybe but the fact is that absurdist theatre can’t be stretched over the full hour and half that The Old Woman takes without losing its shock value.

It lost one audience member within the first 10 minutes with cries of ‘Do you think we’re all stupid in Manchester?’ For the rest of us who endured it was a mixed bag of reaction, although we all applauded in the end (mostly on my part for the actors and the design). For my group of friends each of us came away with a different interpretation, one seeing it as a comment on the procrastination of the artistically gifted, another just ‘didn’t get it’.

I came away with the uncomfortable feeling that I’d predicted long before seeing it, that the piece wouldn’t be so much about us laughing at it but about it laughing at us. As the fast paced mise-en-scenes glided past in a bewildering cacophony of words, actions and sound I fast came to the conclusion that there wasn’t anything to actually ‘get’, that this was an elongated joke being played on an audience who were expecting an epiphany of discovery at any moment. Now, I like that joke when it’s played by Duchamp and his urinal because his work allows its audience to step back and realise the absurdity of the situation for ourselves. It also encourages us to laugh at the authority we give art and in particular the arts people. Indeed, Kharms’ stories are themselves wonderful pieces describing these moments when we are able to step outside of our lives and see them for the nonsense they are. However, we only ever do this in moments and usually of our own fruition. Then we dive back in. The problem with The Old Woman is that by stringing these moments together, they lose all meaning. Life is absurd, we know this, we don’t need to be told it for 90 minutes! It is only the space around the moments of realisation that make the realisation meaningful. Maybe it would have helped if they’d simply put in an interval…

I enjoy challenging work and I believe it is important that such work is available across art forms and across the regions. However, I also believe that art needs to engage, it needs to empower its viewer to feel something and voice that. A work like The Old Woman, in my opinion, denies them that, instead leaving them in the wilderness while sniggering at them behind a rock as we turn directionless. Personally, I’d have rather watched the two men dance for the duration (both are incredibly graceful) than be bombarded with the constant confirmation that my existence is absurd. Quite frankly, I had enough of that in the pub afterwards…

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