The Manchester International Festival opened on Thursday 29th June with What Is the City but the People? 160 participants walked, biked, danced, jogged and ambled along a raised runway in Piccadilly Gardens. People who might not usually be together were given the same platform, each having the same experience and sharing the same applause, from a Big Issue seller to a dance group, a taxi driver to a university chancellor. Being outdoors by a transport hub meant that it was not only highly visible but easily accessible. And breaking a Manchester tradition it didn’t even rain.
Each participant was accompanied by a streamlined narrative, conveyed through photographs and text projected onto large screens, creating an effect like flash-fiction. The text summarised a choice moment from their lives, a struggle, event or experience that they had lived through. Many were survivors, and such personal and sometimes traumatic experiences gave an intensity to these micro-narratives. This in turn gave the impression that we were seeing the participants’ souls laid bare, that we could know them deeply in that short moment. There was choreography to the event, orchestrated to retain attention and fit into its narrative framework. Several participants had stories that converged, like the man who was joined by his blind date on the runway. These vignettes give an impression of a bigger story beyond the event, a choice that led here and a relationship continuing into the future.
But we were only observers. It was impossible to see everything, because it was all done in such quick succession. As one person walked along the runway, the next participant’s pictures and backstory flashed up, and too much time looking at the screens meant missing the person in front of you. Did they wave? Were they happy? Normally, we get to know people by talking and sharing experiences; it’s a two-way street. As the event drew to a close, audience members seemed to be turning to one another and asking themselves; “Who is this standing next to me, this stranger, and what is their story?”
We will never know everyone’s history and sometimes even our closest friends and family surprise us with a story we’ve never heard before or a viewpoint that we didn’t know they held. But every one of the thousands of people that stream past us every day has something meaningful that they could tell us, that would make us laugh or think. We live insular lives, always watching screens with our earphones plugged in and sometimes we need to unplug, to speak to the person at the bus stop or ask the shopkeeper how their day was. Even if we only pass through each other’s lives briefly we can still have a meaningful conversation. To break down the walls between people we need to ask each other questions and really listen to the answers. (TP)
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