• Rachel Connor

A call is a direct address, a challenge. It is also an act of naming, and a bringing-into-being. The final event in the Manifest Arts calendar did both these things, being simultaneously a making visible the breadth of visual arts across the North-West, and an invitation to an audience to witness it.

‘Manifest Calling’ - a series of talks that give a flavour of the work of a range of the region’s artists - has become an intrinsic part of the festival. This year, gathered in the lecture room of Manchester Art Gallery, there were presentations from ten practitioners, each with their distinctive medium, space, practice and process – from painting to performance art. Yet, despite the differences, some common themes emerged.

Collaborative practice

Collaboration is at the very core of Manifest Arts. So, it was apt that the first speaker, Rutaka Skudraite spoke about the vision and aims of the Europia Arts Collective. Initially made up of seven artists from different parts of Europe, Europia seeks to promote awareness of cultural difference and their riches at a time of political turbulence when national identity seems precarious, even threatened. Ruta spoke about the questions that prompted Europia’s inception. Some of the concerns of its members were: as a non-British national, will I be accepted? Will I find collaborators? The collective produced an installation of textile art, ‘Ornamentika’, which was showcased in the window of Fred Aldous using traditional folk ornaments from across Europe. They also put together ‘Kukuryku’ – a showcase of performance art (dance, music and visual installation) in the atmospheric, old, deconsecrated church. Leading the audience in a call and response Lithuanian song about beer, Ruta’s talk showcased the very collectivity and cultural diversity that Europia represents.

The base for Europia, and its birthplace, is Old Bank Residency – the old Co-operative Bank building on Hanover Street, in the heart of NoMa. Speaker Neil Greenhalgh is the director of the Old Bank residencies based there, and spoke of how the building has become a community resource. Deeply rooted in collaboration, Old Bank is the home of a coffee shop, artists’ spaces and residencies. It houses meetings of organisations, charities and Extinction Rebellion. An important hub for creativity in the city, it is a place to share stories and slow down and the pop-up cinema showing experimental film.

Overturning hierarchies

A striking feature of some of the work discussed during ‘Manifest Calling’ was the desire to challenge hierarchies of varying kinds. Amanda Sutton outlined the work of Hulme-based studio, Venture Arts, which empowers people with learning difficulties and disabilities.

Amanda spoke of the work of the artists in the studio; she also outlined the residencies supported by the Whitworth and Castlefield studios, as well as the ‘Conversations’ mentoring scheme they had run that interrogated the meaning of so-called ‘outsider art’ – in which those with disabilities and able-bodied artists were paired together on an equal footing.

In a different vein, Rachel Goodyear of Islington Mill spoke of her work as challenging ways of looking, of exploring the precarious balance of power in constructions of identity, of her aim to further women’s voices and identities.

The studio, for her, is a walking scrapbook in which she explores myth-making and collage, and ideas of the uncanny and the human psyche. Recurring motifs like obscured eyes suggest alternative vision rather than blindness – an altered state that combats the linear and the rationale that is often associated with the masculine.

Creative expression

Both Jude Wainwright and James Roper spoke about their art practice being a way to counter anxiety. For Wainwright, painting is a source of comfort and compulsion. Like Rachel Goodyear, she is also fascinated by eyes. For Wainwright, the experience of painting evokes strong emotions, and painting her family and friends is a way of writing things down, like diary entries. The self-portraiture of her harlequin figures is a means of therapy.

Like Wainwright, James Roper paints to combat depression and anxiety. For him, art works where CBT and drugs failed. His semi-abstract oil paintings take on exaggerated sculptural forms. He sees the internet as a manifestation of the collective unconscious, in work that is strongly influenced by Jungian theory. Sunsets and sunrises in his work represent heightened states at different stages of day and night.

Experimentation and play are often manifestations of creative expression, and this is an element of the work of Rogue Studio’s Lucy Ridges. Ridges’ love of analogue photography and desire to explore the female form come together in her work, which draws on the process of solarisation, in which light is introduced to the images.

This, and the technique of double exposure (in which photographic images are overlaid onto each other by shooting with the same film at different times) introduces an element of chance which she says is key to her artistic expression and process.

Interdisciplinary practice

Artists Emma Lloyd, Richard Shields and Mike Chavez Dawson all spoke about the interdisciplinary nature of their work, crossing over from the visual to the performative, or from the visual to text.

Emma Lloyd’s work, in the invitingly tactile yet fragile medium of paper, takes the content of books (the titles of which she has carefully selected) to create pieces that explore communication. It invites the viewer to ask what are the contents of the books and what is concealed.

Mike Chavez-Dawson’s practice is grounded in the intersection between performance, philosophy. His work shows a fascination with alter-egos and he spoke about his own alter ego Robin Nature-Bold) as being a commentary on the whimsical nature of contemporary art. Richard Shields draws together opera and performance with his visual work – including sculpture and mask-making. For both the latter, there are questions to be asked about contemporary culture – whether (in Shields’ case) the role of social media in our understanding of self and identity; or (for Chavez-Dawson) the importance of myths and histories of art discourse, and what he describes as ‘revealing the myth of the artist’s vision as against the audience’s reading.’

If ‘Manifest Calling’ was an event that invited the audience to engage with the multiple spaces and processes that take part in the city and beyond, it was also an opportunity to be present to Manifest Art’s own ‘calling’ it’s raison d’etre: the mission to weave, to bring together, to showcase and to celebrate.

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  • Rachel Connor

Updated: Jul 31, 2019

A woman playing cello in a deconsecrated church; dancers moving in the space where an altar would have been; writers in a refurbished cotton mill, sitting in a semi-circle and performing a scripted reading of work in progress. The Manifest Arts festival, this year, has expanded its offer to include more than just the visual. William Blake once said: ‘I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's…my business is to create.’  This year’s festival witnessed a celebration of multimodal creativity - with writing, music, movement and performance all woven into the rich seam of Manifest’s programme.

William Blake was a feature of much of the work-in-progress exhibition ‘Resilience’ at Pool ArtsAW (13 and 14 July).

Photo: John Lynch

Blake's creativity was itself multifaceted and - ahead of an exhibition planned for later in the year - the residents at Pool have been undertaking research on his life and reflecting on how it feeds into their own creative concerns. Blake's biography, as well as his artistry, is featured in some of the studio work, including images inspired by his poetry, like 'Tyger, Tyger'.

Across the city, at Hope Mill, the home of AWOL studios there is also a a breadth of businesses and practices: photographers, clothes designers and makers, writers’ groups (including Manchester Playwright Forum, who performed the scripted reading) and Comma Press – one of the most successful and established independent publishers in the north of England.

Photo: Roger Bygott

Photo: John Lynch

Manchester itself, of course, has long witnessed creativity in a range of modes: inventors, artists, activists, politicians, musicians and writers. AWOL’s exhibition ‘New Icons’ (Saturday 13 July) was located on the fifth floor of Hope Mill, which, with its long corridors, wooden floors and exposed brickwork remains a direct link to the tradition of manufacture and making.

Photo: John Lynch

But the symbols of bees, cotton and industry feel, perhaps, outdated now and 'New Icons' was curated in response to the question: what are the symbols of modern Manchester? There was a range responses, from Chris Clements' representation of Pomona, Jude Wainwright's ironic, sharp-figured harlequins and Felicity Meachem's large and colourful abstracts.

The nature of what it is to be an artist was the foundation for Richard Shields’ piece 'You Have to Laugh to Keep from Crying', which was performed on 18 July in the Baronial Hall at the historical gem of Chetham’s School. Shields’ piece showcased his multidisciplinary talent. The show was performance and exhibition in one, a highly engaging, tragi-comic, ‘multifaceted odyssey’ as the programme notes suggest, which wove together drawing, painting, sculpture, opera and - with a nod to the contemporary - an Instagram account.

Photo: John Lynch

Exploring the trials of an artist selling himself and his art, 'You Have to Laugh to Keep from Crying' was one of a number of performance pieces that were commissioned by Manifest for the festival with funding from The Granada Foundation. Others included Rowland Hill’s 'Interjectional Exercises' (15 July) that fused together British Sign Language, gesture and spoken word, and Sarah Macias’ 'Amarme' (16 July), an interactive piece that involved body art and incorporated the Japanese theatre dance Butoh.

The inclusion of the Europia Collective in Manifest’s programme itself demonstrates an extension of boundaries, both creative and geographical. Europia is a group of European expat artists now living and working in Manchester. In addition to their piece ‘Ornamentika', which was displayed in the window of Fred Aldous for the duration of the festival - they put together ‘Kukuryuku’, a show to celebrate artistic talent of all modes from Europe. The title is taken from the sound made by a Polish rooster and the evening was indeed hosted by a rooster (one of the collective in costume), presenting a range of performance artists from the collective: hauntingly beautiful Lithuanian cello music from Kotryna Siugzdinyte; dance pieces from Matrafisc Dance; folk tale-infused electronica blended with digital technology from Romanian-born Paltin; and a digitally-based audiovisual project 'Otomatt' (from artists Aleksandar Brayanov, Federico d’Emilia and David Pani). With a secret location revealed only the day before, the audience gathered at St Wilfrid's, a former Catholic church in Hulme, which formed an atmospheric and sacred backdrop.

Photo: John Lynch

Europia’s aim is to promote cross-cultural understanding in its celebration of artistic endeavour across all forms, incorporating sight, sound and movement. In these times of turbulent political and social climate in the UK, Europia Art Collective is a resoundingly positive voice that – like Manifest itself - seeks to articulate the positive qualities of integration, growth and connection.

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Manifest Arts is many things: a feast of regional contemporary art; a forging of connections between artists; a celebration of creative community. The festival arts trail also offers, of course, a fascinating glimpse into numerous artists’ studios. To mark this, the programme this year included a talk at Saul Hay Gallery from art historian Sara Riccardi of Art Across on the history of the artists’ studio.

Photo credits: Roger Bygott

Space, as Riccardi acknowledges, gets little attention from art historians, who are generally focused on artists’ biographies. But the underlying philosophy of Art Across - and what Riccardi does so brilliantly - is to define the contemporary through the lens of the historical. Her talk, ‘Artists’ Studios: Myths, Stories, Lives’, presents the results of her survey of artists’ perspectives on their working spaces, weaving an interconnected thread between contemporary practices and the history of the studio since the Middle Ages. In so doing, it foregrounds how the past and the present reflect and refract off each other.

Riccardi selects her images carefully to demonstrate the history she explores. She homes in, for example, on Rembrandt’s ‘The Artist in his Studio’ (1628) and Eugene Delacroix’s ‘Michaelangelo in His Studio’ (1850). She discusses the origins of the myth that emerged through the Romantic period of the artist as solitary genius. This is at odds with the reality of the studio as a place of practical production that would have been populated with apprentices and visitors. An issue in both Delacriox’s and Rembrandt’s paintings, Riccardi says, is that they show artists thinking rather than working, reflecting the studio as a space of intellectual activity that has evolved since Medieval times.

For one artist in the survey, the studio is a ‘physical and contemplative space in which to work through ideas.’ Another feels it is a ‘a room to dream’, a place to be alone. Of the respondents to Riccardi’s survey, 70% work in a space that also has some communal aspect. ‘The studio connects me to an organisation or group’, one artist commented, words that echo Leonardo da Vinci’s statement that ‘if you must have companionship, you must find it in your studio’. Here, then, is the essential paradox for an artist working in a studio: the interplay between self and other(s), between the solitary activity of making work and an identity within a community. For some, it might be that being part of a collective gets in the way of work. As one artist says, ‘studio politics can affect artistic concerns.’ Opening the studio to visitors can be a point of contention, with some finding it a rich source of dialogue that feeds back into the work, while others may not be keen on the idea of having their workspace invaded. For visitors following the studio trail during Manifest, it is possible to see repeated patterns between artists in the same studio, rich crossovers in thematic concerns and preoccupations.

There have been challenges, over the years, to the notion of the studio – by some of the Impressionists, for example, who would paint in ‘studio boats.’

‘Post –studio’, avant-garde artists like Constantin Branusci or Louise Bourgeois actively subvert the studio system. Atelier Branusci, which is now preserved in the Pompidou Centre in Paris, is an example of this. Branusci used his studio as a backdrop for his art, creating new works that he called ‘mobile groups’ that stress the importance of the connections between the works themselves. For such artists, the space becomes completely and intimately connected to the art. Because, as one survey respondent put it, ‘studios can be works of art in themselves.’

We visit artists’ studios for insights into their creative processes. There are always pointers and clues along the way: the objects an artist has on their desk, the postcards or images that inspire them, the books they have on their shelves. It is common for artists to tidy up before an open studio, obscuring the mess or the reality of their process. In the end, perhaps, we can never glimpse the full truth of what goes on, the relationship between the space of the studio and its symbolic expression from the creative mind of the artist. Perhaps, in the end, we might have a peep into the artist’s studio but we can never fully inhabit their world.

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