The cultural magnetism of Manchester International Festival has proven a compelling force since launching in 2007. It consistently pieces together a colourful programme of music, arts and film, one that stands out on a national scale – not simply in the North. With the help of a talented team of curators and guest curators, the festival places innovative commissions on a platform beside emerging artistic practice, evolving year on year to light up the rapidly expanding Manchester cityscape. This summer’s edition follows suit. Brand new experiences featuring Skepta and David Lynch are just some of the highlights on the line-up.
Over the years, MIF’s future focussed sensibilities have helped carve out a relationship with BBC Radio 6 Music’s MARY ANNE HOBBS, who returns to this year as a guest curator and creative advisor. Previous incarnations have seen Mary Anne curate her own Dark Matter series in 2017, as well as collaborations with The Warehouse Project. For 2019, Mary Anne will be taking over the O2 Ritz on Saturday 20th July for a one night only audio visual showcase headed up by academically astute sound designer HOLLY HERNDON. Looking ahead to the show, Elliot Ryder spoke to Mary Anne Hobbs about her latest showcase.
So, this year you’ll be returning to MIF with Queens Of The Electronic Underground. Can you tell us a little bit about the project?
Queens Of The Electronic Underground is essentially a creative statement with feminism imbued within. The greatest thing about MIF is they give you a licence to dream, to destroy boundaries, to do something that is pure. This event aside, on the full line-up there’s a great selection of hugely influential women, so it’s great to be working alongside Laurie Anderson, Maxine Peake, Janelle Monáe, Yoko Ono. For this event itself, we’re going to black out the entirety of the O2 Ritz and build and eight-metre AV screen across the back wall. With this, artists can premiere new visual work, as well as the sound that they’re bringing. Holly Herndon, JLIN, AÏSHA DEVI, KATIE GATELEY and KLARA LEWIS – these women are going to show you what the future looks like.
I think it’s really interesting where you mention that these artists will show us what the future looks like. Do you think there’s an argument that we’re on a steady trajectory for these sounds and concepts to more heavily influence mainstream artists in the next few years?
What’s really fascinating, if you look at the work of Holly Herndon, who’s released a serious contender for album of the year with PROTO, you’re looking at an artist who is building a whole new relationship with machines and AI. I think she really understands the value of integration with technology. She is creating high art in new ways by teaching and mentoring machines. As for Jlin, she’s breaking new ground in a way that no other artist really has. Her rhythm patterns at the moment are second to none. With these two women, they’re not just pushing the boundaries of music and the mainstream, they’re asking what music even is.
With the eight-metre AV screen, there’s going to be a strong visual element to the show. To what extent have you been involved with the visual design of the shows? Is this something you find frees up another side of your imagination away from radio?
In terms of my involvement, visually, I’m just a catalyst for things to happen. I’m creating a bridge for an audience that’s hungry for this new sound, bringing them into a space where they can see the most incredible all women line-up. The creative element is given over to the artists themselves. Aïsha Devi is working with a Berlin-based visual artist named MFO. She’s a really unpredictable, radical artist, and she’s going to be premiering that show for the very first time at the festival. I have absolutely no idea what it’s going to look like, but my belief in her is absolute; I trust her implicitly to bring something that’s going to absolutely blow people away. The first time I’ll see it will be in soundcheck, which I’m completely fine with. I need that rush of seeing something brand new, you know? For me, just investing in an artist and the visual aspect is a really exciting process.
Looking at your role as a DJ compared to your freedom as a curator, do you feel there are any barriers to your remit to testing the boundaries of a listener in the daytime hours?
I think finding a balance is really important. Personally, I’m a child of the underground; I grew up as a disciple of John Peel. When my dad smashed up all of my records, he didn’t find this tiny little transistor radio that I had that I would listen to in the dead of night. Peel, for me, stood at a gateway to a complete alternative universe. As much as the world has blossomed and changed with the coming of the internet, I still feel like I carry his torch. I feel like the pendulum has swung so far in the opposite direction to when I had my transistor radio, where we now we have oceans of sounds online. I think it’s very difficult to navigate through; you need a trusted guide to get through it, in the same way John was my trusted guide as a kid. So I feel passionately about that role. And still, in my heart, it’s the avant-garde that excites me the most. I think if you listen to the daytime show and the things we’ve played in the short space of time we’ve been on air, such as premiering the new Sun O))) album, you can start to hear elements of the avant-garde making their way onto the radio in the daytime hours. Many people will be listening with a vast musical knowledge, and they’ll be coming to me to discover something they don’t know. It’s a joyful task to bring elements of the avant-garde forward and infuse them into daytime listening. Ultimately, it’s about reimagining what you can do with daytime radio.
You’re also involved in the curation of the really exciting David Lynch exhibition, which covers everything from film, art, and music. What role did you have in this side of the project?
I was there to help select the artists that David wanted to work with throughout the programme. I think I put together a list of maybe 100 artists at the outset with an understanding that he really wanted to work with local artists, as well as British and international artists. The first message I got back was that he loves them all, but can you please narrow it down a little bit. But, really, it was an incredible honour for me to be involved, even in just a small way.
As for the programme, it’s his first major show of visual art. Unbeknown to most he’s a highly skilled painter and sculptor, and the curators at HOME have been able to bring together some of his most extraordinary pieces. They’ll be going on display as part of a free exhibition, but there’s also a brilliant cinematic element. There’ll be an archive of his work shown in some of Manchester’s most beautiful cinemas. The music element will also take place in a theatre space – a setting that completely fits with the whole Lynchian vibe. It’s a beautiful backdrop with three-tiered balcony. It’s been put together with the help of a specialist set designer, with further input from lighting designer Stuart Bailes, someone who I’ve worked with on many occasions, including Dark Matter.
It’s going to be exciting to have David Lynch’s influence pervading Manchester throughout the summer. And it’s great that the exhibition will be free. For me, it’s almost miraculous that we were able to bring him here and create a programme that reflects all the different elements he’s excited about.
In terms of the festival’s cultural magnetism, a couple of weeks back there was a widespread campaign by northern newspapers for greater power in the North. With festivals like MIF and the new Keith Haring exhibition opening in Liverpool, do you think that there is a strong argument for equal arts funding to be spread through the country?
I think there is a real appetite for boundaryless creativity in the North. But, the North’s really exciting because the North is going to do it anyway. It won’t wait for something to be given and to be told to get on with it. People will always just find a way. I think there’s a real sense of ingenuity and a real desire to make things happen – and that’s a beautiful thing. Obviously, we would love to have more funding, which may well be forthcoming, but we’re going to do it anyway, aren’t we? With or without anyone’s approval, with or without anyone’s purse, with or without somebody’s sanctioning. The North’s always been that way. There’s an organic audience who will gravitate towards these events. Artist experiences up here have always created an incredible sense of communion with an audience, whether it be in the back room of a tiny pub or to a full crowd at Old Trafford cricket ground. The symbiotic exchange of energy for artists is so important, and you find it in abundance when anywhere in the north. The proximity between some of the main cities, Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, provides so much opportunity. If we can encourage people to move between them all, support one another’s events, the future should be really exciting.