Nazma’s had an amazing Festival. As MIF took over the city, it took over her social life for the month, including her fourth stint as a festival volunteer. She’s written a review of all she did, experienced and enjoyed.
I first volunteered with Manchester International Festival (MIF) at their 2017 festival and it was the highlight of my summer that year. It’s a bi-annual festival, taking place across 18 days in the summer, in Manchester, every two years.
Before this, I was pretty disengaged with the arts and through volunteering I discovered that I loved being a part of the shows, events and exhibitions, meeting artists and creatives and I found the volunteer community to be a very welcoming space. After that great experience, I’ve been involved with them ever since!
In 2019, ahead of their festival that year, I took a more formal position by joining their community committee The People’s Forum. Still a voluntary role, I was working with them in between festivals acting as a “critical friend” and crucially being in the know about what was coming up.
My festival volunteering and serving on the People’s Forum were a big part of my decision to leave the commercial world of Digital Marketing and take my skills to the arts sector. I have also been known to hot-desk in their office since joining Cog!
Ok so that’s my back story with MIF, let’s get onto the 2023 festival and a rundown of all the things I did, experienced and enjoyed.
Test Event at Aviva Studios home of Factory International
Sunday 25 June 2023
My MIF23 journey started around a week before the festival, with an embargoed “please don’t share on social media” visit to the brand new Aviva Studios building. I’ll spare you the debates around Aviva Studios, from the name, to the cost and overspend, to the design. Instead I will tell you about the excitement of being one of the first audiences in a brand new arts venue. The plush yellow seats (that didn’t look very stain-resistant!), the steep stairs of the circle. The planned fire evacuation and show stop. Testing out the toilets. It was all good fun and a great way to prepare us for the festival that was about to begin.
Risham Syed: Each Tiny Drop
Thursday 29th June 2023
The festival opening took place outdoors at Manchester’s newest city centre park – Mayfield Park. This was a free event and we were blessed with a beautiful sunny evening and a gentle breeze.
We were invited to follow the path through the park, collect a tiny clay pot, fill it with water from elaborate water dispensing stations – water which had been brought here from the Soan River in Pakistan, then take it round the park with you, eventually leading you to give the water to the River Medlock. Along the route, well-hidden speakers played calming music and at one point in the journey, you could stop and listen to the live choir groups singing.
For me personally, this became quite the social occasion, an opportunity to catch up with people from my “MIF family” which included people I’d volunteered with in the past, people I’d worked with during my time in the arts, MIF staff I’d got to know over the years and lots of people I know from the wider creative community in Manchester.
After we’d delivered our water to the river, we spotted the main artist behind this event, Risham Syed, alongside her daughter sitting on the grass with mats laid out either side of them forming a circle. Drawn into the space, we joined the circle and enjoyed a lovely relaxing meditation session listening to their soothing voices singing, before heading off to the opening night party.
MIF23 Opening Night Party
Thursday 29 June 2023
Taking place in the Festival Square space outside Aviva Studios. This social event was an evening of catching up with MIF friends – producers, artists, creatives from the Manchester community, MIF staff, other People’s Forum members and our counterparts the Young People’s Forum. We were treated to music, entertainment, food and just after they kicked us all out at around 1am, whilst in good spirits, posing for photos I spotted a shiny silver coin in one of the planters – treasure from The Find.
Yayoi Kusama: You, Me and the Balloons
Friday 30 June 2023
My first volunteer shift interacting with the public was Yayoi Kusama’s You, Me and the Balloons. It was also the first day the exhibition was open to the public and I’d chosen this shift specifically because I wanted a first look!
I donned my blue volunteer tshirt and chose a pair of polka dot trousers especially for this occasion.
The exhibition fills the Warehouse space in Aviva Studios and is the largest collections of Yayoi Kusama’s work. You begin by entering a square room filled with yellow and black tentacles floor to ceiling. After taking this in you go up a staircase and find yourself on a viewing platform overlooking the rest of the exhibition. This was a real WOW moment for me. Seeing the size of the Warehouse space in full use. I spent the start of my volunteer shift on the viewing platform seeing the amazement on people’s faces as they reached the top of the stairs and hearing them audibly gasp in surprise and delight.
A separate staircase takes you down into the exhibition where you will find a whole world of inflatable polka dot structures including a giant pumpkin, bowling-pin shapes, couple of dogs and dolls, with a projection of Yayoi Kusama overlooking us all. I couldn’t quite tell what she was saying but she’s up there in her pink wig, wearing pink with black polka dots.
Most of the artworks understandably, you were prohibited from touching, but there was an area dedicated to cloud-like inflatables that you were welcome to lie on, providing you’d taken your shoes off first!
There was a real mix of audiences from people visiting with their tiny babies who seemingly loved the sensory experience, to couples who cuddled up on the clouds, friend groups, MIF staff and their guests, solo visitors, groups.
After spending 4-ish hours in the exhibition volunteering, I think perhaps the wow-factor has worn off a little on me. That, and an oversaturation of seeing everyone else’s selfies and photos on social media. It really is an amazing exhibition and a fun way to spend an hour or two. As the exhibition is on until the end of August, I’m fully intending to visit again.
Untitled: F*ck M*ss S**gon Play
Friday 30 June 2023
I took a little break after my Yayoi Kusama volunteer shift, had some Festival Square food, I got changed and headed over to The Royal Exchange Theatre to attend Press Night for Untitled: F*ck M*ss S**gon Play.
The Royal Exchange are Cog clients and their team very kindly offered me a couple of comp tickets for this performance.
What a great script! It was laugh-out-loud funny, but also made you feel just that right amount of uncomfortable, sending up all the stereotypes about South East Asia and in particular South East Asian women. There were so many “wow” moments, although towards the end there were points where it felt a little long, particularly as there was no interval. I had some interesting chats afterwards about the ending with different people, each of us taking away something different. I liked it so much I did a Vox pop for them and made it onto Royal Exchange’s social media channels.
I was in awe of the amazing cast, I saw some of them out and about during the festival and felt a little star-struck from afar. Overall I came away with lots of laughs and lots to think about.
Sonics, Stories and Scenes of the Diaspora
Saturday 1 July 2023
Seen Magazine presented a full-day takeover of Manchester Museum’s South Asia Gallery during the first Saturday of the festival with a focus on how the South Asian Diaspora is impacting the UK music scene.
As one of the co-curators for the South Asia Gallery, it was a proud moment to see an extension of the stories you will find in the museum and to see two organisations I work with collaborating in this way.
There were lots of activities happening throughout the day including DJ sets, film screenings and workshops – all free to attend.
I couldn’t stay for the whole day, but I partook in a henna workshop and really enjoyed the panel discussion “exploring northern stories, activism and the importance of archives”.
Ryan Gander: The Find
Sunday 2 July, Saturday 15 July
The Find was another free activity as part of this year’s festival. The artist Ryan Gander designed a set of three silver coins and had around 200,000 of them made to be hidden in Manchester for people to find!
Instead of finding a “heads” or “tails” your coin flips with these collectible coins are:
Speak or Listen
Pause or Action
Solo or Together
Throughout the festival, I played both coin-hunter with my nephew and niece and then later coin-hider (or “coin ninja” as the volunteer shift was officially called).
When coin-hunting with my nephew and niece, I found myself noticing different aspects of the streets I usually briskly walk past. Sometimes nice visually appealing things and at other times not so appealing, like the number of times I was tricked into thinking a beer-bottle top was a coin. Overall it was a fun way to spend an hour treasure-hunting with the kids.
When I turned coin-ninja, I was fortunate enough to have Ryan Gander there in person to brief us on the project. It was great to hear about Ryan’s intention of creating that moment of joy when you find something shiny and cool. He had us thinking about the value of these coins that you can’t spend and appreciating the thought behind the designs. We also had a discussion around the “coin-dragons” we’d spotted on social media hoarding the coins and their ebay value!
We had designated areas to hide them (all approved by Manchester City Council) and some rules (many from Manchester City Council!):
- Hide them at least 5 metres apart from each other, because in Ryan’s own words he didn’t want it to become like a “3 for 2 at Boots”
- Vary the height and positioning of the coins
- Don’t place of them the floor, where they could be mistaken for litter
- Don’t hide them near playgrounds
- Don’t hide them in or near water features
Feeling self-conscious at first, I soon got into the swing of casually leaving my coins on window ledges and street furniture during that Sunday afternoon in a busy part of town. I got through around half of the 150 coins I’d been given before it was time to head back to Coin HQ.
Later on in the festival, we had permission to hide them in local parks, which proved to be a different challenge compared to the city centre with all its street furniture. Thankfully there were lots of hiding places in the trees and on the benches. I even saved a few coins and brought them with me to Greenwich to hide in the Cog Studio!
Angelique Kidjo and Guests
Tuesday 4 July 2023
Angelique Kidjo had the honour of being the official opening act of the music programme at MIF23. This gig happened to fall on what would usually be our monthly People’s Forum Meeting, so instead of the meeting, we were treated to complimentary tickets for this show.
Angelique Kidjo wasn’t a name I’d instantly recognise before MIF23, but once she was on my radar I did my homework, listening to her tracks on Spotify and checking out her Instagram.
Wow she was a vibe! Her energy and dancing was infectious with great audience interaction throughout. What I really loved, as well as her performances, she had three local artists, Layfullstop, Ellen Beth Abdi and OneDa, her “little sisters” I think she described them as, who had the opportunity to perform solo for us and with her.
One of the criticisms often given to MIF is that they focus so much on international artists and don’t do enough with local artists. I will be using this as my example of showcasing local talent alongside established international performers.
I’ve been told the sound system in The Hall at Aviva Studios is a temporary one, and they will be installing a superior sound system when the building fully opens in September. To me, the sound was great, other than a technical glitch where it felt like speakers on one side of the stage had been submerged under water. There followed a short show-stop whilst they got everything sorted and we were back enjoying the rest of the show.
I was seated in the circle, and used the show-stop to head downstairs and take a peek into the stalls, by the time I reached there, the show had started again and seeing as there was one empty row at the back I decided to stay in the stalls, on my feet dancing for the final few songs.
Balmy Army + Guardian Live Talk: How do we create a movement for mental health?
Thursday 6 July 2023
The Balmy Army was a 9-month long project which culminated in an exhibition in the main Gallery at HOME Manchester and a series of accompanying events. The focus was young people and mental health. My first volunteer shift was a rehearsal for one of the performances, so I got a behind-the-scenes look at the gallery space before the public opening, and on Thursday 6th July after logging off from Cog, I found myself heading over to HOME for a volunteer shift at their Guardian Live talk.
With a super inspiring panel of speakers, including young members of the Balmy Army, artist Toni Dee who was involved in project, Patsy Stevenson, the women’s right activist detained at the vigil for Sarah Everard, and Lady Phyll, gender, racial and LGBTQ+ equality activist and co-founder of UK Black Pride. Hosted by Hannah Moore, with BSL interpretation by…well I don’t know because they didn’t credit the BSL interpreter or the live captioner which is a shame and my only criticism of the evening.
The exhibition itself is on until 17 September and I’m planning to visit again. It covers challenging and difficult topics as you can imagine but there’s also hope and joy and a celebration of having a space where these young voices can be heard. This is also the first exhibition I have ever been to where they are transparent about how much it cost to put this exhibition on – you will find on one of the gallery walls a full cost-breakdown of the exhibition.
Friday 7 July 2023
This sell-out show was the only one I paid full price tickets for! A mixed-reality concert featuring the legendary composer and musician Ryuichi Sakamoto in collaboration with Tin Drum. Ryuichi Sakamoto passed away in March 2023 from cancer and he created this work knowing it would be part of his legacy.
As with most MIF events, I wasn’t super familiar with his work, not consciously anyway. I’d heard from other volunteers and MIF friends that this was a very special show, with some people being brought to tears by the end of it.
The show took place in two studio spaces. Audience members are provided with headsets to give them an augmented-reality experience – which basically means you can see the room you’re in and the other people around you, and also the virtual images created in front of your eyes. The first room was a visual introduction to Ryuichi Sakamoto, with images of him projected onto the walls and a short film shown on a screen. It also served as a space for spectacled audience members to have the headsets adjusted to their prescription. I wore my contact lenses that day as the headsets for glasses-wearers were in limited supply.
Then onto the main room for the show itself. A space with atmospheric red lighting, chairs laid out in a huge circle and on the floor in the middle a “performance space” was marked out with white tape on the floor.
We were given our Magic Leap 2 headsets and once everyone was plugged in, the lights dimmed and the show began. In the centre of the room in the “performance space” a virtual Ryuichi Sakamoto appeared at a piano. Easing us into the augmented reality, with what looked like falling leaves (or was it snow?) slowly most of the audience began to move around the space, going up close to the performer and taking in all our surroundings. The really cool and freaky thing was knowing there was a person stood in front of you, but being able to see through them. I found myself constantly putting my hand in front of my face and marvelling at how the image seemingly in the centre of the room was visible through my solid hand!
It was a very cool experience, I wasn’t quite moved to tears, but I felt that something special in the room. I got my geek on afterwards chatting to the tech team about the technology and how the Magic Leap 2 headsets work. In case you’re interested…the virtual image was actually only a few cm away from your eyes but made to look as if it was in the centre of the room, which is how you could see “through” solid objects.
Benji Reid: Find Your Eyes
Friday 14 July 2023
This was it. My favourite show of MIF23. The concept was an intriguing one – a photographer creating his work live in front of an audience. I imagined some kind of live art-battle type scenario where we’d be stood up watching a crazy frantic creative process happening right in front of our eyes. This idea was solidified in my mind by the fact it was taking place in the venue Manchester Academy 1, a place I was only familiar with for sweaty standing music gigs.
Well I was wrong! What unfolded in front of my eyes was careful, considered, and frankly just beautiful to watch. We entered Manchester Academy and made our way to the unreserved tiered seating setup. My companion thought we should sit at the front, and whilst I’m usually in favour of being further back I’m really glad we went with her choice because we really got to feel the experience.
There were three desks on stage in front of us – one on each end and another in the centre, two big screens and some ambiguous set tables and walls in between. This sold-out performance was buzzing with chatter as people came in and searched for seats. Then the lights dimmed and the two desks at each end of the stage were occupied. Incense sticks were lit, a bell was chimed, Act One, and then Benji Reid came and took up the central desk.
Sitting at his desk, he set his camera up, and on the table behind him we saw a male model lying down. With a lighting assistant hovering nearby, he clicked the first picture and within a few seconds it appeared on the two screens in front of us. The model’s pose changed contorting his body as Benji’s lens captured a close up, next picture, on screen. There were three models and we got into the rhythm of watching these beautiful images being created right in front of us, with Benji himself checking the large screens too.
Act Two – portraits. We watched as the photography studio transformed and the lighting adjusted for portrait pictures. The three models lining up for their pics, taking direction from Benji and showing us their range from moody cool looks to smiles, and “photobooth-style” duos. So far, so fun, and then the smiley couple portrait photos turned to angst, despair and an uncomfortable vision of domestic difficulties.
As the show progressed, each photo setup became more elaborate, with the models showing themselves to be more than just good looks, with their impressive athletic abilities that had us wowed. There were matching songs for the mood and in many places Benji’s voiceover, his life experiences and often difficult personal stories being shared with us as we watched him creating this art.
After the intense emotions we’d been taken on through photos, through the movements of the models and through the lighting setups, the show concluded with a slideshow of all the images from the night and you saw the full story together – Benji’s story, told through his photos.
DJ Paulette at Festival Square
Friday 14 July 2023
After Benji Reid, I headed over to Festival Square as one of my favourite Manchester DJs was doing a set. It also happened to be my birthday, I had my sequin skirt and sequin trainers on and I was in the mood for dancing! With lots of volunteer friends out that night and some of my friends from the MIF team, I danced, I had my chilled out time inside the building away from the stage, I even sat in the spitting rain for a bit of fresh air for a part of the night. It was a lovely evening with good music, friendly faces and somewhere I felt comfortable floating around wherever my mood took me.
Saturday 15 July 2023
The final music show of the festival was a South Asian pop/RnB extravaganza. This isn’t the usual music I’d choose listen to, but I liked these artists enough to invite my friends along and call it my birthday part 2. Plus, Desi Factory was put together by a friend of mine – Sam Malik and I wanted to show my support by being there.
I opted for the stalls which had been transformed into a standing space with the seats removed. I had a great view from the back watching all the fangirls and fanboys right up at the front scrambling for the flowers and baseball caps being thrown out by headliner Zack Knight. One of the caps actually made into our direction and I’ve never seen my sister move so fast to grab it – much to the disappointment of the people around us!!
My favourite performer of the night was Ezu, his tunes had us all bopping around and singing along.
We Gather and Artist Social
Sunday 16 July 2023
The final day of the festival, I popped along to the Festival Square stage for a showcase from the community groups and artists MIF work with. There were lots of off-duty volunteers, People Forum Members and MIF pals around. I stopped for some food, checked out the entertainment and then waved farewell to MIF23.
MIF will return in 2025, and I’m planning to volunteer again. I’ll also be celebrating a special birthday in 2025 so hoping they’ll have something super fun planned for that day!
I’m not quite so sold on volunteering for Aviva Studios when it fully opens in October with Free Your Mind, but I’ll be watching eagerly and showing my support. It’ll be interesting to see how other artists, companies and commercial companies make use of this brand new building.