What Is the City but the People?

What is the city but the people? This was the question posed by the opening performance of the 2017 Manchester International Festival. Inspired by an idea from contemporary artist Jeremy Deller, it reflects his desire for artworks that are ephemeral whilst also living on as a kind of “folk memory”. This juxtaposition of the humble and the mythic is at the heart of What is the City but the People?

The show consists of a catwalk of people from the city, a fashion show that is more about the models than their clothes. While the participants strut their stuff, enormous screens tell their life stories through twitter-esque sentences. The result is a deeply moving presentation of the tribe of Manchester; a city that is egalitarian, diverse and defiant. In the words of one participant interviewed on Radio 4’s Front Row, “even though we are different, we are all the same”. In the wake of the attack at the Manchester Arena in May, this attempt to define the city cannot help but feel intentional, or at least, tragically appropriate.

Jeremy Deller says the term “ordinary people” “sticks in his throat” because “everyone is extraordinary and a bit mad”. Participants were chosen for having done “normal but amazing things.” They are “normal” people – bakers, florists, ministers for transport -  but most have overcome amazing circumstances. Participants included those who had been homeless, a Syrian refugee and a grieving mother and daughter. The second participant to appear is also a mother – pregnant in the photos on the tv screens, but entering with the baby in her arms. Then there were lovers - Shakar and Shabnam Hussain, whose romance spans decades. Two brothers, Shaneer and Shaquille, often mistaken for twins, who were the breakdancing Romulus and Remus of the evening.

The show passes no judgment on the participants, but its emphasis on survivors can’t help but cast its characters in a heroic mould. The participants become exemplars or archetypes of human experience. Manchester in turn becomes a city of heroes. Whilst deeply moving, this is not without its problems. The participants who had been homeless, now have rooves over their heads, the criminals are now repentant. They are “reformed” somehow, presented as different from those who are currently homeless, many of whom joined the crowd to watch the show. When we tell the folk-tale of Manchester, which Manchester will we sing about? What happens to sufferers of homelessness and grief when we idolise those who overcome these things? (CG)

- Ciaran Grace

Links relevant to this diagnosis:

Jeremy Deller

Jeremy Deller on Front Row

The bee as the symbol of the ideal society - Virgil, Georgics, 4.453-527

Social Facilitation

Cultural Survival


What Is the City but the People? // Hannah Ross

How to take a city, slice 100 people from the prism and get a cross-section suitable to be walked down a suspended catwalk whilst having their image displayed on towering screens in its centre? How to defend against those who are keen to whip out accusations of tokenism (as if representation is distasteful), without creating pastiched narratives about citizens as though they’re part of a saccharine version of Propp’s character theory? Post-election - mayoral and general - it feels apt to put a lens on at least a handful of local folk who make up the electorate, not only upon the renowned figures who feature in the festival.

Deller’s design is like a live art remodelling of Lowry’s 1954 ‘Piccadilly Gardens’, which hangs only a stone’s throw away on Manchester Art Gallery’s ground floor and similarly depicts a procession of people with an adjacent fountain in the very same location. Deller’s motifs of ordinariness and public space were, too, to be found in his 2009 MIF piece ‘Procession’. He must have maintained the same interest that he previously had in showcasing ‘The Big Issue sellers’ for, in the 2017 work, one such seller opens the work before us. It is static but for the flow of chosen ones along the elevated catwalk, oscillating between two screens that show pre-prepared shots of each person, plus snippets of candid biographies to boot. As the screens face each other, there's a sense of mise en abyme, mirrored further as people watch not only the procession but also the reactions and anticipations of one another in the Very Ordinary crowd. A foot before me stands Mancunian screen legend Julie Hesmondhalgh, later to be hugged by Boltonian wonder Maxine Peake in a Corbynista lock (a micro-spectacle of its own). The stage provides the expected unexpected - there's Bez, gently gyrating! There's that lovely woman who whizzed me around Bury North as we canvassed, and look, she’s got a baby with her!

There is one man in a wheelchair, a lady nearly a centenarian who has a walking aid. Walking, lingering, parading, protesting - as you ambulate through the vocabulary, words like these can become politically charged. What is it to march, or to stand up, and who can do this? What is ‘a movement’ in essence? The Manchester Activist Group take the spotlight and call protest ‘an expression of desire’. But when we think of a city full of people, celebrating a glorious exposure of variegated humans - can we talk about how this could remain inaccessible to some, with certain people’s experiences inexpressible (though, granted, the piece makes efforts to speak of homelessness, and MIF’s Festival in My House has gone some way to bringing events to a greater variety of areas)? About a recent public endorsement of forced institutionalisation, and the people whose city is often barred to them? Even with the inevitable and forgivable partiality that comes when trying to represent a large metropolis through a comparatively small set of individuals, we ought to keep stoking this discussion. The square flickers with pop-colour electronic posters asking the rhetorical title question of the show. May it be a city of people in their full variety, where resistance and optimism equitably uphold all. (HR)

- Hannah Ross


MIF - What Is the City but the People?

Propp’s Character Theory

LS Lowry - Picadilly Gardens 

Jeremy Deller - Procession

Mise en Abyme - A Gallery curated by Fedebrique

MIF - Festival in my House

Election 2017 - Tory disability minister endorses forced institutionalisation

What Is the City but the People? // Amanda Dunlop

Piccadilly Gardens is sunny and crowded. Friends bump into each other and strangers talk for the first time. Above us is an 80-metre raised walkway, two giant projection screens and a stage. MIF17 opens with a single figure parading down the runway to the pounding beat of DJ Graham Massey and assorted local buskers and musicians. The same man closes the show. He is homeless and sells The Big Issue. 

In between, 149 other city dwellers strut their stuff. Dog walkers, lovers, drag artists, protesters and famous Mancunians. The taxi drivers who turned off their meters on the night of the recent bomb in the city. A brand-new baby and a Mancunian in her 100th year. Different cultures, creeds and social stratas. Manchester. This is an artistic statement that celebrates diversity and community.

Manchester is one of the most ethnically diverse districts in the country, and the only authority outside London with residents from each of the 90 detailed ethnic groups listed in the census. The city is growing rapidly, with the population is expected to exceed 550,000 by 2021. It is a city which prides itself on welcoming new people, but it is also a city with rapidly increasing numbers of rough sleepers, up 41% in the last year. Some of our newer residents struggle to find a home and have to be creative with hidden, disused spaces. Organisations such as Coffee for Craig, The Booth Centre and The Brick Project are all doing great work to address the problem. Andy Burnham recently pledged 15% of his salary as Lord Mayor to an appeal intended to end homelessness by 2020.

After the attack on 22nd May the city feels kinder and more empathetic. Manchester values call us to focus on what we have in common and how we all contribute to Manchester– those who are newly arrived and those who have always lived here. We should remember that taxi drivers of all religions turned their meters off and homeless men cradled injured children and carried them to safety.

Let’s hope that Deller’s vision on the walkway remind us all to be a little kinder and practice empathy. The walkway took several weeks to build but overnight it was removed after the ceremony. It could have been a great temporary roof for Manchester’s rough sleepers to rest under as well as walk over. (AD)

- Amanda Dunlop

Links relevant to this diagnosis:

MIF - What Is the City but the People?

Homelessness - Manchester Evening News

Coffee for Craig

The Booth Centre

The Brick Project

Andy Burnham Salary Donation - Guardian