BY Vanessa Peterson in Opinion | 30 OCT 23

Dispatch from Manchester: Can the City Move Beyond Its Storied Past?

With the opening of Factory International, the city endeavours to place itself firmly at the centre of the UK’s cultural scene

BY Vanessa Peterson in Opinion | 30 OCT 23

‘This is Manchester’, as the saying goes. ‘We do things differently here.’ The phrase is typically attributed to co-founder of Factory Records and the Haçienda nightclub, Tony Wilson, and frequently evoked as an unofficial slogan of civic pride. Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham has referenced it in tweets and speeches about the city. In reality, the line – written by scriptwriter Frank Cottrell-Boyce and spoken by actor Steve Coogan – originates from the Wilson biopic movie 24 Hour Party People (2002), a film that tracks Manchester’s music scene from its rise in the 1970s to its slow decline 20 years later.

It feels as if myth and legend supersede reality in the city in which I grew up. Where better to test out Manchester’s 21st-century capacity to do things differently than at the long-awaited opening of cultural arts centre Factory International, also known controversially as Aviva Studios after its insurance company sponsor – the name change took place a mere few days before its soft launch in the summer. The opening marks the largest capital investment in British culture since the opening of Tate Modern in 2003.

Aviva Studios, the new home of Factory International in Manchester, 2023. Courtesy: OMA and Factory International; photograph: Marco Cappelletti

The city is awash with investment. Manchester has long been the centre piece of Conservative government claims – sometimes of dubious substance – about ‘levelling up’. Cranes punctuate the skyline and there has been a marked increase in the number of high-rise towers. Factory International, designed by Ellen van Loon of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, sits at the centre of an estimated £1billion redevelopment of the St John’s neighbourhood, facing the river Irwell where the city meets its neighbour, Salford, home to what will soon be the city’s first Soho House outpost (jokes abound about whether the traditional rooftop swimming pool will be rain-fed).

Inside, the building is lined with familiar stripes – Factory International hired Haçienda designer Ben Kelly – across the sleek interiors. Speaking to the audience at the opening press conference, the venue director, John McGrath, and leader of Manchester city council, Bev Craig, extoll the venue's importance and insist on its being open to all. McGrath hopes that it will become 'a living room or town hall for Manchester’. Factory Academy, designed to support young people with training in creative careers, will offer opportunities that were painfully lacking when I lived in the city: the chance to build a career in the arts with economic support and infrastructure.

Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer noted that the opening was a ‘big day for the UK, not just Manchester’ with government, local leaders and local authorities all involved in the venue’s creation. Some who speak slip into the occasional cliche, with quotes from George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier (1936) (‘Manchester, the belly and guts of the nation’) and demands that the venue should be welcoming to ‘ordinary people’. This demotic register is reflected in the inaugural performance, a 21st-century reinterpretation of The Matrix (1999), ‘Free Your Mind’, directed by filmmaker Danny Boyle.

Danny Boyle, Free Your Mind, 2023, performance view. Courtesy: Factory International; photograph: © Tristram Kenton

I stuck around for the show. Inspired by Alan Turing, pioneer in modern computing based at the University of Manchester in the 1930s, it tells a story of the ills of contemporary digital culture. The space is enormous, with a capacity of 5000, and Boyle leans into the spectacle, with flying performers, and dancers dressed as the Facebook/Meta/Twitter/X verified blue ticks and Amazon delivery boxes moving across the runway-esque stage as other performers turn their phones towards themselves. The stage is lit up with strobes and flares, as troupes parade across it, reminiscent of Boyle’s London 2012 Olympic ceremonies. Later, we ease into traditional Mancunian nostalgia, with a slideshow of images including Wilson, Mancunian soap opera Coronation Street (1960-ongoing), Ian Curtis and Joy Division, 1990s raving dancers and factory workers. I note what is missing in this representation of Manchester. What would it mean to include references to the 1945 Pan-African Congress which was held in the city? What would it look like to visualize Manchester’s long and rich history at the forefront of social change in relation to LGBTQ+ activism, or to celebrate the likes of Olive Morris, who co-founded the Manchester Black Women’s Cooperative in the 1970s as a student? These histories are just as vital to the city.

Away from Factory International, earlier this year the Whitworth Art Gallery welcomed new director Sook-Kyung Lee, formerly of Tate and, more recently, director of last year’s Gwangju Biennial. It will take some time to see the fruits of Lee’s curatorial labour, but one hopes that the gallery could move towards a more experimental kunsthalle model. Elsewhere, Turner Prize-winning artist Lubaina Himid has curated a smart, concise show, ‘A Fine Toothed Comb’ at HOME, again using Manchester as its central focus. Humid turned a curatorial invitation into an opportunity to work collectively with artists based in the region, such as Magda Stawarska. Stawarska turns this localist gesture outwards, pairing the city’s omnipresent rotunda building Central Library in conversation with Łódź’s Karol Poznanski Palace, home of its Music Academy, in an exploration of sound, silence, and the connections between the two cities. Her elegantly-shot film fills the cavernous space with ease.

Magda Stawarska, Music and Silence, 2023, ‘A Fine Toothed Comb’, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and HOME; photograph: Michael Pollard

At Castlefield Gallery, I find a poignant UK solo debut show by Omid Asadi, with the centrepiece, Resonance and Remnants (2023), a tender, meaningful large-scale sculptural installation made of bricks from demolished houses, found objects such as an old Singer sewing machine and old CD players, offering a timely reminder of the power of place and memory in the context of war, political instability and displacement.

Driving back through the city, I worked through the possibilities of Factory International and its relationship to Manchester’s history. The Haçienda reference after which Wilson named his nightclub comes from Situationist International affiliate Ivan Chtcheglov, who states in his 1953 essay ‘Formulary for a New Urbanism’, that when it comes to the architecture of the future, ‘the Haçienda must be built’. And so it was. And then it was demolished and turned into apartments. If city leaders insist that they do things differently, they should leave myth and legend behind and look forward instead of backward.

Main image: Danny Boyle, Free Your Mind, 2023, performance view. Courtesy: Factory International; photograph: © Tristram Kenton

Vanessa Peterson is associate editor of frieze. She lives in London, UK.