The Welcome

Leeroy New, Ming de Nasty, Ngozi Ugochukwu, Rebecca Lupton, The Mancorialist and Audrey Albert.
The Manchester International Festival and The Factory Assembly
Aviva Studios, Manchester

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This is Manchester Credit: James Speakman
Balete Spacecraft Credit: James Speakman
Under Construction Credit: Ming de Nasty

During preparations for Free Your Mind, the production which officially opened the Aviva Studios in Manchester, director Danny Boyle emphasised the need to ensure ongoing community involvement in the venue. The Welcome is a practical demonstration of this principle. Running over nine days and curated by members of The Factory Assembly, a diverse group of people aged 17–70 from across Greater Manchester, few of whom have a background in the arts, the event seeks to celebrate the region, its people and the Aviva Studios.

There is a determination to be accessible to all tastes and ages with a series of free events. Outside one entrance to the venue, there is a skateboarding workshop. In an enclosure within the venue, Skylight Circus Arts is holding a workshop in which young children are taught the basics of juggling. The idea of keeping children isolated in an enclosure is appealing; one hopes the venue extends the practice to include twerps who use their mobile phones during a performance.

The foyer, referred to as ‘The Social’, has a bandstand upon which vocalists, instrumentalists, DJs and bands perform. The main feature for the closing of the celebrations is scheduled to be Deep Flow—a mass group dance performance by Mancunians led by Company Chameleon.

A number of displays will run at the venue throughout the celebrations. This is Manchester comprises large-scale black and white photographs of Greater Manchester residents aged from 5 to 90 by local photographers Ngozi Ugochukwu, Rebecca Lupton, The Mancorialist and Audrey Albert. In a demonstration of hope over experience, the poster-sized images are not exhibited on the walls of the venue but positioned outside at the riverside entrance covering the floor of the Undercroft, which seems optimistic in a city known for inclement weather. Actually, the gamble works wonderfully; after weeks of persistent rain, the opening coincides with bright, cold weather so one approaches the exhibit in an upbeat frame of mind.

Mention black and white photos of Mancunians / Salfordians and the mind automatically turns to the iconic images captured by Shirley Baker in the 1960s and early 1970s. But Baker’s photographs are as much about the background / context as the individuals—unposed images of communities, decades after the event, still enduring the impact of the Second World War. This is Manchester on the other hand is more of a celebration or display of pride, vibrant portraits of individuals capturing the diversity, in terms of race and age, of Mancunians and serving as a defiant gesture towards a central government which treats the region with disdain.

This is Manchester is part of the global Inside Out Project which, over the past decade, has used portraits of more than 500,000 people spanning across 152 countries and territories as a way of promoting ideas and stimulating awareness about social and political issues. Nevertheless, you can’t help but feel the subjects in Manchester might not be keeping up to date with international events or to have walked through Piccadilly Gardens recently, seeing as they all appear very cheerful.

During construction of the building, photographer Ming de Nasty captured portraits of the workers. In a charming display, these life-size, full colour portraits are now erected in the completed venue close to where they were originally taken to allow ‘before and after’ comparisons and serve as a reminder of the physical labour involved in the building. As with much about The Welcome, the exhibit, entitled Under Construction, gains power from understatement. The dignified images are accompanied by a simple statement from the construction workers on the first live events or gigs they attended.

The central display in The Social is Balete Spacecraft by Leeroy New. Inspired by the unearthly root structure of the Balete tree of the Philippines and a fondness for science fiction, the display resembles a massive insect which has merged with a spacecraft. Unlike Giger’s "biomechanical" creatures, which blended human physiques with machines, Balete Spacecraft merges organic natural materials like hazel and willow woods with discarded plastics gathered in the locality.

The main body of the spacecraft is constructed from the organic woods, while the recycled plastics give a more sinister impression—creating spikes which might be defensive, or a means of attack, while insect-like eyes are suggested by plastic colanders and Chinese paper lanterns. In the manner of the intrusive heating ducts which sprawl through Terry Gilliam’s dystopian Brazil, recycled bottles form an overhanging and somewhat oppressive arc. Intended to provoke discussion on consumerism and recycling, Balete Spacecraft certainly serves as an eye-catching central exhibit.

The Welcome is a tad self-mythologising, hard to recall any other venue in the region that felt the need to record its opening in such an extensive manner. But you never know, hopefully the availability of such a wide range of free events, which feel uniquely Mancunian, will serve to attract to Aviva Studios and other artistic venues people who might not normally attend theatres and give them a taste of what they have been missing.

Reviewer: David Cunningham

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