Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Manchester Old and New

This is the last week of URBIS, before it closes for a considerable period for refurbishment and transformation into the National Football Museum. I managed to drop by for an hour or so yesterday to catch their valedictory exhibition "URBIS has left the building." It's not really an exhibition, actually, more of a post-script to the speed at which these changes have happened - with two other shows, the excellent Homegrown hip hop exhibition, and nostalgic Ghosts of Winter Hill continuing on the other two floors. After this week, that's it though - Cathedral Gardens will be handed back over to the Moshers. I've already written on this blog about URBIS's closing and why it's a shoddy decision; but going back again for the last time (I'll unfortunately miss their closing party); was a reminder of it's successes, and, yes, its failings. This final exhibition doesn't celebrate the whole of URBIS's life, but the last few years when it has reimagined itself in terms of pop culture. There were some absolutely highlights; for me the graffitti art show Ill Communication; Homegrown itself; the Hacienda exhibition and Videogame Nation. I was less convinced by the visiting shows of Chinese and New York artists; these were a million miles away from being contemporary Armoury Shows transforming what the city's artists think about art. Manchester, though it has plenty of good artists, and plenty of good shows, remains, at least in my view, incoherent in its approach to modern art.

I also remembered that there was a time when URBIS wasn't a place when I would naturally visit. That it was TOO corporate, TOO architectural, TOO sterile, TOO consumerist. It has done a lot over the last few years to include the city's artists and artistic communities, as well as the wider public. I'm wondering if they'd embraced these communities when they'd opened how different things might have turned out? Despite its proximity to the creative hotbed of the Northern Quarter it may as well have been in a different city. All of that changed, slowly, over the years, and one thing that hasn't been mentioned - as far as I can remember - in all the change-of-use furore is what happens to the "Best of Manchester" awards, which seemed to becoming a highly valued prize within the city? It would be a real shame if it disappeared with the rest of the building.

I was in town because I was visiting a little bit of Manchester's future - albeit tinged with a knowingness about the past - at the Manchester Modernist Society, a newish art collective space on Salford's Chapel Street. It's seven years since I worked down there at the University, and the glacial pace of regeneration means that it's hardly changed a jot - though a massive gentrification plan is in the offing. It's a perfect place, then, for the Manchester Modernist Society to set up shop - with a passion for the urban environment that seems almost diametrically opposed to the idea that we should build a white elephant first, then decide what it should be. I was there for the launch of LoneLady's debut album Nerve Up, which, recorded in a deserted Ancoats factory, manages to sound stunningly contemporary, whilst echoing with the ghosts of the city's musical and non-musical past. Videos of Suicide, the Buzzcocks and Joy Division flickered on the walls as we talked and drank.

I've been writing about Manchester, or rather, I'm approaching writing about Manchester in the same way as I approached the city; from afar, edging nearer. Manchester's portrayals, whether Cold Feet or Shameless, Queer as Folk or Cracker, rarely seem to take in the whole city. There seems something skewed about these cliches of portrayal. Walking through the city - the two cities, since we were in Salford - we talked about the Manchester music legends, the true stories that will probably never escape from the myths, and how the self-myths of artists remain as true as any (auto)biographical account. URBIS will not disappear from the landscape, its sleek lines dominating a certain part of the city's real estate, but it may as well be an office block or more apartments in terms of the city's cultural life, which continues, as ever, as the night falls, as the drink flows, as the music throbs.

1 comment:

Richard Frost said...

For me, the best Urbis exhibitions were newer ones like Videogame Nation and Ghosts of Winter Hill. It was just getting started really.

Still annoyed that it's being shut down. As you say, hopefully Manchester's creative sector will keep bubbling away regardless.