2017 was a troubling time. While we couldn’t have imagined then the events to come in the years ahead, the huge political shifts of 2016 – including the Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s election – already created a widespread sense of instability.
That year’s Festival featured some joyous work that reminded us all of our humanity and our imaginative capacity – not least in our opening event What Is the City but the People?, which starred over a hundred extraordinary ordinary people, and New Order’s glorious collaboration with artist Liam Gillick and an orchestra of synthesiser players from the Royal Northern College of Music. Nonetheless, many of our artists, as they created their work in the year running up to the MIF17, were also responding to the political and social climate.
Last and First Men, the late Jóhann Jóhannsson’s hallucinatory film and music composition, featuring Tilda Swinton and performed by the BBC Philharmonic, leapt far into the future to observe humanity from a distance across galaxies and millennia. It certainly put our concerns in perspective.
Meanwhile, two other film and performance projects stayed closer to the current time, but with equally big visions. Phil Collins’ Ceremony followed the journey of a decommissioned statue of Engels from the former Soviet Union to the philosopher’s adopted hometown of Manchester, welcoming Engels back with an event where the statue was installed in Tony Wilson Place outside the doors of our co-producers, HOME. Meanwhile Yael Bartana’s project, What if Women Ruled the World?, brought together a range of female experts in fields ranging from international security to environmentalism, meeting within a re-creation of Doctor Strangelove’s war-room to debate women-led ways forward for our civilisation.
Both these projects were unusual, though not unique, for MIF in that not only were they entirely new works, like most of MIF’s shows, and not only were they interdisciplinary, like many of MIF’s shows, they were also stages on a journey to another piece of work. As well as being artistic events in their own right, they were shoots for films that would be released after MIF17 was over.
Collins completed Ceremony soon after with the film showing on BBC Four in November that year, and also in a rich retrospective of the artist’s recent projects in HOME’s gallery in 2018. Bartana’s Two Minutes to Midnight continued to be created through further iterations of What if Women Ruled the World? in Aarhus and Berlin.
Fast Forward to 2022 and both films have taken on a new resonance. Bartana’s work is set in the context of an imminent invasion by a nuclear power, and debates the potential for defensive, aggressive and pacifist responses, with a bold and moving outcome. Meanwhile, Collins’ film starts in the statue’s original homeland – Ukraine – where it was installed in Soviet times before being decommissioned after independence, a resonant example of how Engels’ legacy was co-opted for a state narrative.
To acknowledge the current impact of both these works, HOME and MIF have arranged two special screenings, accompanied by discussions with the artists. Whilst at the same time, Collins has collaborated with Ukrainian filmmaker and writer Oleksiy Radynski to re-contextualise Engels with Intervention, using the LED strips to bring messages from Ukrainian artists, writers and thinkers directly into the statue’s embrace.
The screenings of the films promise to be opportunities to reflect on the rich and complex ways in which art works can address our political realities through journeys of reflection and enquiry. I hope to see many of you there.
John McGrath, MIF Artistic Director and Chief Executive