Three Years From Now…

At the end of an extremely challenging year for all, our Artistic Director, John McGrath reflects on where we might be three years from now.

Three years from now we – the MIF team, artists, supporters, community members, and hopefully the whole city of Manchester – will be celebrating our first year in The Factory.  While it’s risky to predict anything in these most unpredictable of times, I am confident that we will be looking back on many months of extraordinary activity as our new Manchester landmark, and its digital manifestations, establish a unique and resonant place in the cultural landscape. What I’m less sure of is how, from our new standpoint, we will look back on ourselves now, in 2020.

Will we see the often tragic, sometimes inspiring, definitely frustrating events of the past year as a turning point in our human story?  Will we still be dealing with the traumas so many have experienced? Or will the whole episode have faded into a strange mix of nostalgia for the quiet days of summer lockdown, and mourning for those lost?  Questions on that scale are probably beyond our capacity to address yet. They are certainly beyond my understanding.  But I have been thinking a lot about how, over these next three years, MIF will contribute to our journey of recovery and renewal.

First up we have our 2021 Manchester International Festival, taking place July 1-18 next year.  There’s still much that’s unknown about the situation next summer, but we announced several weeks ago that the festival will go ahead, and we’ve developed a whole range of versions and scenarios with the goal of ensuring everyone’s safety while maximising the range and ambition of the experiences we can provide.

We want the festival to be joyous, thoughtful and generous: a celebration of the thrill and necessity of being together, an opportunity to reflect and share ideas, and a way of supporting each other. In particular, we feel we have a key role next year in supporting our industry – all the technicians and artists and hospitality workers who rely on events like MIF for their livelihoods (and who have suffered so much this past year). We also want to be the best possible support for our city – helping to bring the city centre back to life, while also celebrating the diversity of our neighbourhoods.  There are a lot of challenges – not least in raising the money that we need to make the Festival happen on an appropriate scale – but we are confident we can pull it off, and convinced it’s important that we do!

At the heart of all this will be our artists.  I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that artists will be ‘key workers’ of our recovery.  Through the reflection, imagination, inspiration and challenge provided by artists – including those we will bring to Manchester next summer, and soon after to The Factory – we will start to find our way forward as a city, as a society.  Artists bring ideas and emotion, imagination and experience, together in unpredictable and enlightening ways.  They connect things we never imagined could be connected, they point to possibilities we didn’t know existed. They open our eyes.

After Yoko Ono created our opening event for 2019’s festival, I found myself on her Christmas Card list. Her card last December was, typically for her, simple black type on a white background: ‘Send a sound of a smile.’  Puzzling, amusing, thought provoking, I’ve kept that card on my desk during 2020, trying to imagine what it would mean, each day of this sad, tough year, to fulfil Yoko’s impossible suggestion. It wasn’t just the optimism that kept me returning to her provocation, but also the way it encouraged me to think in a new way.

If we are to come out of 2020 strengthened, not diminished, we will need to think in new ways. And artists can help us re-wire our minds and spirits to imagine and engage with fresh possibilities.

The Factory is being built to encourage, house and provoke such possibilities.  Neither theatre nor gallery, neither concert hall nor nightclub, and yet all of these, it is a place, in real and virtual space, where artists will be encouraged to work in ways that they haven’t worked before.  It is designed to encourage openness and generosity.  The creation process will be viewable whenever possible; young people will train on site; new collaborations between artists at all stages of their careers will be positively encouraged.

As we develop and open The Factory over the next three years, there’s a lot we will want to take from 2020 into our new ways of working.  We were already planning digital innovations like the Virtual Factory when Covid-19 happened, but the crisis of lockdown has certainly pushed our technological thinking, and it now seems clear that The Factory we are building must be a blend of physical and digital possibilities.  Our view of internationalism has also changed. We’ve been at our most isolated and yet our most connected this year in relation to colleagues and collaborators around the world.  While we look forward hugely to once again taking MIF shows around the world to audiences of hundreds of thousands of people, we want to do this in a way that is far more environmentally sustainable than in the past.

Our relationship with our locality has also grown in new ways. When lockdown happened, MIF pivoted a lot of our resources to respond to local artists, who were feeling in some cases isolated and unsure, in other cases full of new ideas, and sometimes both. Through drop-ins, remote residencies, and mini-commissions, we were able to get support out when it was needed. We also learned a lot.  Our community of local artists was inspiring, questioning, challenging and hopeful.  They will be at the heart of The Factory’s success.

And so, one very challenging year ends, and the next three begin!  Three years in which we’ll see Manchester take an ever more significant role in global culture. Three years in which we’ll invent the future!

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