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