The making of Manchester
Jeremy Melvin, 26 July 2021
‘How do you read a city?’ This apparently innocuous question was first seriously posed to me by my old professor David Dunster writes Jeremy Melvin. It prompted all sorts of collective and individual thoughts which might have been resolved in a book, though that never happened. Instead, it remains part of the mental equipment that activates when visiting a city, especially one I do not know well.
This came back to me with some force a few weeks ago, when I went to Manchester to review some of the city’s International Festival programme. Like other cities founded on commerce, many (but by no means all) of Manchester’s defining characteristics lie close to the surface, which means its essence is starkly and often legibly inscribed in its built fabric. The vertical layers of transportation and storage around the Great Northern Warehouse are a good example: this speaks of Manchester’s history as a centre for manufacturing, which could shift and store imported raw materials and finished goods for export in vast quantities.
Another feature that urban fabric evokes also connects to the guiding spirit of the festival. This is a willingness to embrace ‘the new’. Manchester became the world centre of manufacturing by combining new technologies for production and new commercial opportunities (exploitative though they may have been), with a zeal that quite literally swept all before it, including whatever built fabric already existed. That spirit, somewhat sanitized for the 21st century, survives in the festival’s policy of only displaying new work, often commissioned for the purpose.
It also survives in the ethos of ‘the Factory’ the industrial artspace now taking shape to designs by Ellen van Loon of OMA on the former Granada Studios site; slightly controversially, it references the legendary Factory Records of the late 20th century, whose promotion of new and emerging musical talent put Manchester once again on the contemporoary cultural map. Founded as part of George Osborne’s ‘northern powerhouse’ and intended to allow the international festival to operate continuously outside its biennial schedule, the Factory was the setting for one of the commissions, ‘Arcadia’, by Deborah Warner.
Deborah Warner's Arcadia Installation at The Factory site. Photo: Andrew Brooks
This promised to be the first glimpse into the 13,300sqm building which will host any medium of art in a setting which advisory group member Hans Ulrich Obrist claims is a realisation of Cedric Price’s Fun Palace. In its incomplete state that claim is impossible to substantiate, though it is unlikely it will have the same cybernetic ambitions. Arcadia comprised a tableau of rural landscapes, supposedly based on a painting of Manchester by the 19th century artist William Wyld. He depicted Manchester as a series of smoke-belching factories across a strangely insipid pasture-like piece of land, and the steel framed background to the tableau, as well as the acro-props supporting the layer of soil and tree roots, on which a languid couple did not quite cavort, did suggest an affinity.
Deborah Warner's Arcadia Installation at The Factory site. Photo: Andrew Brooks
Outside this setting, the tableau itself evoked more strongly (to me at least) Giorgione’s ‘The Tempest’, long ‘in restauro’ and so hidden from display in Venice’s Accademia Gallery. While the city it depicts is decidedly pre-industrial, its depiction of a young couple – the girl suckling a baby, suggesting fertility and sexual activity – and the looming menace of the thunderstorm of the title has far greater power than anything Wyld could depict.
This strangely haunting scene can only be reached by navigating a grid glowing with dome-like tents while hearing poetry read by Simon Russell Beale, Jane Horrocks and David Thewlis among others. Some of the poems were familiar, others not, but the one which seemed to me to pinpoint the tension between industrial and rural settings was Edward Thomas’ ‘Adlestrop’, a reminiscence of being on a train that stopped, apparently pointlessly (‘No-one left and no-one came’), at a Cotswold station, with the steam’s hissing giving way to ‘…willows, willow-herb and grass, / and meadowsweet, and haycocks dry…,’ and the singing of ‘… all the birds / of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.’ It seemed to enhance the surreal juxtaposition between tents, industrial scale steel structures and idealised landscape.
Smoke, or more broadly air, was the main subject of ‘Cloud Studies’, an installation by Forensic Architecture at the Whitworth Gallery. Closer to reportage than art in any conventional sense, it is a compilation of instances across the world, but especially Israel/Palestine and the US, where commercial, military or political interests have made air toxic. One of these examples is an area of Louisiana known as Cancer Alley, where a plethora of petrochemical companies are located, to markedly greater disadvantage to African-American communities than white ones, thus continuing the injustice of slavery by other means.
Final Cloud Studies 2008-2021 Single channel fim. Courtesy Forensic Architecture and the Whitworth, The University of Manchester © Photo: Michael Pollard
All of this deserves to be brought to wider attention and Forensic Architecture’s focus on how clouds can be agents of death gives it a focus that generalised protest might not. But without wishing to be dogmatic, reportage rarely, if ever, rises to the level of art. A bigger conceptual problem is that the underlying issues are far from new. Indeed John Evelyn noted the ‘inconveniencie of the aer and smoke of London’ to quote part of the subtitle to his tract ‘Fumifugium’, published in 1660. Indeed much of 19th century urban philanthropy stemmed from the health problems of pollution and other consequences of industrialisation. The means may be different now, but the urges have a long history.
Tear Gas in Plaza de la Dignidad, 2020. Single channel film + 5 channel video + print. Courtesy Forensic Architecture and the Whitworth, The University of Manchester Photo: Michael Pollard
For me, the most interesting part of this display was a prelude comprising works selected from the Whitworth’s magnificent collections, which were otherwise downplayed, hinting at the problems with the single-minded pursuit of the new. Here, a Ruisdael landscape was noted as one of the first depictions of clouds in art, before moving to Constable and Turner who, the latter in particular, wrestled with the visual consequences of emerging technology – just think of ‘Rain Steam and Speed’. Ruskin’s description of Manchester’s smog as ‘the devil’s darkness’ is also quoted. Somewhere in there is a richer and more satisfying but equally relevant exhibition than Cloud Studies.
Most graphic of the works I saw which helped with a reading of Manchester was ‘The Long Waited, Weighted Gathering’ by Laure Prouvost, a video work installed in the ladies’ gallery of the Portuguese and Spanish Synagogue, which now forms the core of Manchester’s Jewish Museum. The work narrates in female voices reminiscences of various female members of Manchester’s large and widely-drawn Jewish community, who would have sat in this gallery while their menfolk were broking power, money, religion and marriages in the synagogue proper below.
Laure Prouvost, The long waited, weighted, gathering. Photo: Michael Pollard
The Cheetham Hill district, where the museum is located, was once the hub of the community, with numerous synagogues serving other Jewish communities, philanthropic and social institutions like schools and the Jewish hospital, as well as the home of wealthy and not-so-wealthy members of the community. From this, all sorts of ‘ways of reading’ the city come to light. Manchester’s pre-eminence in textiles, especially cotton, established by the decidedly goy generation of Robert Peel (father of the similarly named prime minister), drew numerous immigrants. Some were poor and motivated by the opportunity to find work often to save money for the longer journey to the US, others from established business dynasties with interests in what are now Iraq, Egypt and Morocco, who could trade cloth in entrepot of Manchester.
One of them, armed with £20,000 in capital provided by his father, was N M Rothschild, who made his first fortune in textiles in Manchester before moving to London and the world of banking. At the other end of the 19th century, Marks & Spencer moved from a market stall in Leeds to a shop in Cheetham Hill. Manchester thus nurtured two of the UK’s most notable Jewish-founded business dynasties. Here too, before World War I, Chaim Weizmann lectured in chemistry (while Ludwig Wittgenstein was studying engineering) before moving on to become Israel’s first president.
So the successes and tribulations of this community give a fascinating insight into Manchester’s built, social and economic fabric. It reveals the plight of the poor refugee immigrants, relieved to be there but often in difficult circumstances, eventually attaining great wealth and privilege. Even more powerfully, it indicates how a particular, far-flung but more or less homogenious, community could use its commercial acumen in conjunction with the city’s own consolidated influence in cotton manufacturing and trading, offering international contacts which paralleled and supplemented the perfidious transatlantic parallels.
In terms of the traces from which one can read a city, few are more redolent.