Manchester International Festival: Massive Attack v Adam Curtis

Louise Bolotin

Bristolian trip-hop collective Massive Attack collaborate with Adam Curtis at MIF for a provocative visual and musical experience.

In what promises to be an event that majors on sensory overload, Adam Curtis makes a return to Manchester International Festival – although it’s not the first time that the experimental documentary filmmaker has worked in Manchester. His last outing here, in 2009, was with It Felt Like a Kiss. Then, a disused office block formed the backdrop to an immersive (and at times unsettling) theatre production inspired by The Crystals’ 1962 hit, He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss), the performance created in collaboration with Damon Albarn and theatre company Punchdrunk. This time, however, Curtis will blend the dreamy, rhythmic and dark music of Massive Attack with his own talents. He describes Massive Attack v Adam Curtis as “musical entertainment about the power of illusion and the illusion of power.” Robert Del Naja of Massive Attack, meanwhile, known as much for his intense visual artworks as the band’s music, reckons the event will be akin to “a collective hallucination”, one that mixes film, music and politics into an imaginative ride through the dreams and hidden realities of our “strange, anxious age”.

There are other ways of looking at the world: beautiful, enchanting, frightening

The choice of Mayfield Depot as a venue is an apt one. Tucked behind Piccadilly Station, the Victorian railway station was formerly a terminus for freight and local commuters, then used by Royal Mail as a parcel depot before closing for good in 1986. Derelict ever since, this will be the first time that the public has been allowed inside in almost thirty years. It is an eerie, atmospheric space of wide platforms, crumbling, tiled hallways and overgrown tracks, a place partially reclaimed by nature that Iends itself perfectly to this son et lumière, an art form that traditionally takes place at night and outdoors.

Massive Attack’s trip-hop sounds and on-stage lightshows and visuals have brought them an enormous global fan base since they formed in 1991. Robert Del Naja is also a political activist who joined the Occupy movement to play a gig with Thom Yorke in the deserted UBS Bank in London in 2010, while both band and Curtis will be supported by Es Devlin, the award-winning stage and costume designer responsible for the London 2012 Olympics closing ceremony, and Felix Barrett, Punchdrunk’s founder and artistic director.

As for Adam Curtis, the politics of power and how power works in a society is a recurring theme in his work. His best known film, The Century of the Self (2002) explores the unconscious and its use in PR and advertising. “The way power works inside people’s heads is something we want to reflect on,” said Curtis at the festival launch in March. “Not in a talky-talky way but in an emotional and environmental way. We are going to suggest that there are maybe other ways of looking at the world: beautiful, enchanting, frightening. We are going to suggest that maybe there is something else out there.”

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