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