It doesn’t take long for the transformative power of Manchester International Festival to sink in: every two years, a unique atmosphere takes hold of the city for 18 extraordinary days. Radiating out from the buzzing Festival Square in front of the Town Hall, the world’s first festival of original, new work and special events occupies spaces and places across Manchester: at previous festivals, commissions by the likes of Punchdrunk, Marina Abramović, Björk and Kenneth Branagh have unfolded in theatres, galleries, railway depots, churches and car parks around the city.
Spend a weekend exploring MIF17 and you’ll be among the first to see more than 20 world premieres from over 30 international artists – shows that will travel to cities as diverse as Hong Kong and Vienna. The first Festival under Artistic Director John McGrath, MIF17 positions itself as remarkably responsive to current world affairs: many of the events that make up this year’s programme have evolved in a reactionary way to the seismic, global changes that have occurred over the last 12 months. It’s a remarkable, ambitious programme, broken down here into an itinerary of highlights – a cultural trail through the opening weekend of MIF17, if you will.
MIF is one of the best ways of discovering a city rich in international culture, with lively bars, acclaimed restaurants and vibrant, independent shops bringing new life to the industrial heritage that’s still evident in its buildings, canals and landmarks. Straightforward to navigate on foot, Manchester is connected up by trams and buses, including three, free Metroshuttle routes that begin at Piccadilly station and cover much of the city. With direct rail links to London and cities across the North, it’s an easy place to get to – and, with this MIF17 itinerary, simpler still to get to know.
Friday 14 July
Begin delving into Manchester by experiencing an alternative view of the city through MIF’s Manchester Street Poem (9am-6pm, 10-14 July, free) in the Northern Quarter, an installation that gives voice to those who find themselves homeless here. If you’re taking advantage of MIF’s deal with The Principal Manchester*, the Official Hotel Provider for the Festival, step out from the terracotta front of this stunning, Grade II-listed building – which dates back to 1890 – and you’re only a 15 minute walk from the United Footwear shop on Oldham Street. Rechristened UNFEAR for MIF17, it’s where Underworld will spotlight the stories of those who find themselves homeless in the city in Manchester Street Poem, canopying the walls with phrases drawn from the streets to a soundtrack of recorded fragments.
Next, make your way back to the MIF17 hub at Festival Square via two locations for Music for a Busy City (8am-8pm, 30 June – 16 July, free), an installation that brings extraordinary new music out of the concert hall and into the public realm. Inside the walkway between Selfridges and Marks & Spencer, you’ll find a new piece by award-winning Scottish composer Anna Meredith, one of six new pieces of music written in response to specific city-centre spaces and designed to introduce unexpected sounds to familiar places in Manchester. Continue on to St Ann’s Square for Mohammed Fairouz’ composition, part of the same project and, once there, take a look inside the Royal Exchange Theatre, the UK’s biggest theatre in the round and the setting for Fatherland (7.30pm, 1-22 July, tickets from £16.50). For refreshment, the fresh, authentic Spanish tapas at Lunya in the beautiful Victorian Barton Arcade just off the square is a great option for an evening meal – or, if you’re not yet hungry, you can order one of 42 wines by the glass from Salut’s unusual Enomatic wine dispensers on your way back to Manchester Town Hall, where you’ll find a Huang Ruo’s Music for a Busy City composition and MIF’s Festival Square.
Here, take your pick of Indian street food, wood-fired pizza, bistro food or British classics from the four resident kitchens, and round out the night with ‘Colombian break salsa’ from nine-piece band La Mambanegra in the Pavilion Theatre (7.30pm, tickets £12). Alternatively, use Festival Square as your jumping off point for the final night of multi-layered production Returning to Reims at HOME (7.30pm, 5-14 July, tickets from £18), a world premiere from world-renowned director Thomas Ostermeier, or a 9pm performance of Jane Horrock’s Cotton Panic! at Upper Campfield Market Hall (7.30pm and 9pm, 8-15 July, tickets £20 preview / £25, standing only).
Saturday 15 July
Breakfast presents the ideal opportunity to explore Manchester’s buzzing Northern Quarter, where the former textiles warehouses with their New York-style fire escapes are now frequently used as filming locations. Keep your eyes peeled for the public art dotted around the area as you head for a New Zealand-style brunch at Federal Café & Bar, beautifully fresh food at Evelyn’s or a classic fry-up at the legendary Koffee Pot. Also not to be missed is the Northern Quarter’s excellent range of independent shops, including Oklahoma with its brilliantly-chosen, quirky gifts, Piccadilly Records, which has been open since 1978, and Manchester Craft & Design Centre, where you can buy direct from the makers in 18 different craft studios.
Meteoric young artist and composer Samson Young presents One of Two Stories, or Both (10am-5pm, 7-16 July, continues after MIF17 until 29 October, free) at the nearby Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art (CFCCA): this multi-channel sound and video installation from the winner of the inaugural BMW Art Journey Award explores how journeys last in the memory and are given meaning by the stories used to describe them. Inspired by now legendary tales of 17th century Chinese travellers making their way to Europe on foot, One of Two Stories, or Both marks the 20th anniversary of the UK’s handover of Hong Kong to China.
Alternatively, head for the city centre and towards Manchester Art Gallery for True Faith (10am-5pm, 30 June – 16 July, continues after MIF17 until 3 September, free), in which seminal cover designs, music videos and posters are combined with work by outstanding contemporary artists for an exhibition that explores the legacy of local bands New Order and Joy Division. Also at Manchester Art Gallery is an exhibition of images by radical street photographer Shirley Baker. Women and Children; and Loitering Men (10am-5pm, until 28 August, free) captures scenes of poverty and resilience during the urban clearances in Manchester and Salford from the 1960s onwards.
From here, admire the beautiful glass dome inside The Portico Library, which opened in 1806, explore the moreish restaurants and packed supermarkets of Chinatown behind the gallery, or head to King Street for lunch and shopping; the award-winning El Gato Negro serves up some of the best Spanish influenced food in the city. As the day turns into evening, return to Festival Square for a concert by acclaimed Rio-born, Paris-based singer-songwriter Flavia Coelho (7.30pm, tickets £12), or survival soirée Party Skills for the End of the World (2.30pm and 7.30pm, 27 June – 16 July, tickets £25 previews / £30), where you can learn to withstand the collapse of civilisation by adding ‘skinning a rabbit’ and ‘mixing the perfect Martini’ to your skillset.
Sunday 16 July
Your first MIF stop this morning is the Whitworth art gallery for not one but two MIF commissions – but first: breakfast. The Refuge at The Principal Manchester serves roasts throughout the day on a Sunday, with sides that include Vimto-braised red cabbage. Alternatively, Gorilla offers breakfast and brunch from 9am until 4pm, ranging from a granola fruit bowl to a full English, by way of buttermilk pancake stacks and shakshouka – while the simple brunch menu at arts centre HOME (available until 4pm) is a good excuse to drop into La Movida (12pm-6pm Sundays, until 17 July, free), a group exhibition exploring the socio-cultural renaissance in post-Franco Spain
Aim to get to the Whitworth in good time, however: the special event taking place here today only is unticketed, and likely to be extremely popular. Make your way down Oxford Road by either walking or taking the bus: The University of Manchester and Manchester Metropolitan University are both to be found here, boasting Hogwarts-esque buildings, the Holden Art Gallery and some serious alumni between them. If you’re on foot, drop into the Gothic, Grade-II* listed Manchester Museum to see Object Lessons (10am-5pm, until 20 August, free), a showcase of over 200 outstanding and rare science teaching objects – otherwise, continue on to the Whitworth to see two very different, but equally fascinating exhibitions.
No End to Enderby (10am-5pm, 30 June – 16 July, free), which continues on after MIF17 until 17 September 2017, is a tribute to Manchester polymath Anthony Burgess in the year of what would have been his 100th birthday. Created by director Graham Eatough and artist Stephen Sutcliffe, the installation features two new films that respond to Burgess’s ‘Enderby’ series, alongside the original sets they were shot in.
ToGather (10am-5pm, 30 June – 16 July, free), which also continues beyond MIF to 3 September, is the work of artist Susan Hefuna. This exhibition uses palmwood constructions (echoing the boxes that dot Cairo’s streets), personal objects, drawings, new digital work and glass cases to create a ‘mental map’ across several rooms in the gallery and parts of the neighbouring Whitworth Park, reflecting on migration and sensations of separation and togetherness. Worth a visit before heading back into town is the beautifully restored Elizabeth Gaskell’s House (11am-4.30pm Sunday, tickets £4.95 / £3.95 conc.) – particularly for tea and cake in what was the Gaskells’ kitchen.
Aim to get to the NCP Bridgewater Hall Car Park in good time, however: taking place here from 6pm is Ceremony, a free, ticketed event to mark the inauguration of a Friedrich Engels statue for the city, transported from the Ukraine to Manchester by Turner Prize-nominated artist Phil Collins. Part of an effort to return Engels – the radical thinker who spent 20 years documenting the plight of the working class in Manchester and who wrote The Communist Manifesto with Karl Marx – to prominence, Ceremony invites the public to help create a film at the car park, mixed with live footage from the inauguration. The celebration will be soundtracked by Mica Levi, who wrote the Oscar-nominated film score for Jackie, electronic duo Demdike Stare and Gruff Rhys of Super Furry Animals – bringing MIF17 to a close in typically magnificent style.
* 20% off the best available rate. Please quote “MIF” over the phone or enter the promotion code ‘MIF’ in the relevant section online when booking.