Don't rain on our parade

Katherine Woodfine

In the first of our monthly guest posts from arts and culture bloggers, Katherine Woodfine joins the goths, mill workers and dancing chips for a most unconventional Procession.

procession-copyright-tim-sinclairIt’s just before 2pm on a warm Sunday afternoon in July, and a crowd has appeared, as if out of nowhere, along Deansgate. They are here to experience one of Manchester International Festival’s most intriguing commissions to date: artist Jeremy Deller’s Procession. Billed as a parade with a difference, both a tribute to the historical tradition of processions and to Manchester and its people more particularly, it’s already generated excitement amongst the waiting crowd. ‘I’ve heard so much about it,’ Claire, 25, tells me. ‘It’s something we could all come along to.’

Inclusion is very much in the spirit of Procession, which has drawn together communities from all over Greater Manchester, from former mill workers to the teenagers who hang out at Cathedral Gardens, to represent what Deller himself has characterised as ‘northern social surrealism’. And as the event gets underway, there are certainly plenty of surreal contrasts to be seen.

First up is the 3rd Davyhulme Scout and Guide Marching Band. It’s followed by the first in a series of banners created especially for the event by Deller’s collaborator, Ed Hall. It reads ‘Last of the Industrial Revolution’ and is accompanied by a miniature city of smog-producing chimneys and a group of former mill workers waving proudly at the crowds. Next up is a vision of the future: Manchester as an underwater city, where people in silver suits ride turquoise dolphins. Greater Manchester’s mobile libraries trundle by, then black-plumed horses drawing a hearse decked with floral tributes to the Haçienda and other dearly departed city greats, provoking much amusement.

Deller envisioned an event that would be ‘part self-portrait and part alternative reality’.

Features of the traditional procession – marching bands, rose queens – effortlessly intermingle with the quirky and subversive, from a defiant assembly of ‘unrepentant smokers’ to banners imploring us to ‘Remember Ian Tomlinson’. But as the crowd applauds a group of local sporting mascots, a loyal clutch of Happy Mondays fans, carnival queens and then the city’s Big Issue sellers, the overwhelming feeling is one of celebration and pride.

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In this, Procession is a logical continuation of many of the Turner Prize-winning artist’s previous projects, including Acid Brass, an investigation of British vernacular art that was a blend of acid house, brass band culture and folk art. Deller’s generous, joyful, anarchic and engaging participatory work – here, as in Manchester – stands in direct opposition to the self-indulgent practice that characterised the YBAs, or the highly conceptual installations we find in so many contemporary art galleries.

Procession is art for everyone, and the crowd couldn’t agree more: ‘It’s a carnival of imagination,’ says Morag from Manchester.

As she speaks, the Adoration of the Chip float lumbers into view: a Technicolor cavalcade celebrating the world’s first fish and chip shop, in Oldham. Attendants wear crowns of chips in newspaper, or t-shirts bearing the slogans ‘I believe I can fry’ and ‘Things can only get battered’; they are followed by a choir and dancers in tabards and gold hairnets. Not far behind is a float bearing a full-size replica of the famous Valerie’s Café in Bury Market, carefully constructed by students from MMU complete with a full regalia of ‘nicotine stains, tea-stains and all the greasy trimmings,’ according to Tom Mills, an undergraduate who worked on the project. Then boy racers from Stockport rev engines to the booming bass of the Blackout Crew, followed up by the Shree Swaminarayan Gadi Pipe Band from Bolton – Asian-British Hindu pipers in full dress kilts.

But all good things must come to an end, and finally, Procession winds to a triumphant finish with a steel band playing Manchester anthems. As the procession dissolves to the sound of Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, the crowds themselves take to the streets in a final impromptu act of participation.

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Thankfully, though, it’s not all over: Procession: An Exhibition is now on at Cornerhouse, and brings together objects from the procession with a specially-commissioned film of the event itself, plus historical material that features everyone from Mahatma Gandhi to Jerry Lee Lewis. You can even tuck into tea and cakes at Valerie’s Café: the perfect way to relax after enjoying this truly Mancunian spectacle.

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Katherine Woodfine is a writer, blogger and critic. She writes about art, culture, literature and nice shoes at www.followtheyellowbrick.blogspot.com

Photos courtesy of Tim Sinclair/Manchester International Festival and Duncan Hay.

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