Friday, April 03, 2015

Cornerhouse Memories

The Cornerhouse closed its doors for the last time yesterday (excluding a ticket-only event this weekend). So farewell a constant presence in the thirty years I've been visiting or living here. When all these Joy Division documentaries go on about grim Manchester, or city leaders talk about the renaissance after the bomb in 1996, it doesn't equate to my memories of the city, and a big part of that is the Cornerhouse.

Coming from a small village, visits to Birmingham were exciting as a teenager, though I can't say I did much art, just mainly music and shopping. When I went to university at 18, the small town of Lancaster was a great place to be, but lacked the big city attractions, so regularly we'd get on the train or share a car to Manchester. "Blue Velvet" the film that was the audience-choice closer last night, was one I watched at the University film club, I think, so it was probably "Sammy and Rosie Got Laid", a raw, northern British comedy which was the first movie I saw at the Cornerhouse. I've seen quite a few films there over the years, though less so of late, though that's as much my changing habits as anything else. For some people the Cornerhouse was always primarily a cinema, but I remember going to see the BT Contemporaries there in the 1990s with Damian Hirst's "pickled shark" on display, so I've been a regular visitor to its art over the years, though the quirky three gallery space has always been a difficult space for an exhibition to truly own, particularly as more multi media art became fashionable in the new century.

Then there's the bar - most people I've spoken to have forgot what the bar used to be like before the makeover in - when was it? - 2002? I used to like that old bar, it was a bit of a quiet hideaway on a Saturday night if you were meeting someone for a quiet drink. I was a regular for a year or so at a Monday night quiz where I went with members of a few bands I knew. Through work, since 2005 or so, I've got to know the Cornerhouse staff, and Dave Moutrey, its longstanding manager, and have used the extended spaces of the extension for plenty of digital events. Though the one time I actually "performed" there was before then - when I was asked to be part of a film/poetry night organised as part of the Manchester Poetry Festival (as it was then). Three films were shown, and the poets associated with each did a short reading. It was probably my first poetry reading, come to think of it.

When we started a little magazine, "Lamport Court", over half of our sales came from the Cornerhouse bookshop, and its worth noting that despite the film and the art, that the Cornerhouse has for a long time been the unofficial headquarters of the Manchester literary scene, a place where writers could easily sit on there own, with a coffee, writing the next thing. I imagine its had a cameo part in quite a few books and stories over the years. In the inevitable business plan for the exciting new multi-arts venue down the road, that its moving to, Home, I do hope that literature isn't forgotten, just because it doesn/t require the same kind of institutional investment as theatre, art or cinema.

The new place will raise the bar for a multi-arts venue, extra cinema space allowing more varied programming, two theatres rather than Library theatre's one, including a flexible studio space, and a new purpose built gallery space. I suspect that the artistic things I loved about the Cornerhouse - collaboration, festivals, serendipity - will all be enhanced at Home, which has the opportunity to be much more than "just" a programmed venue. What will be lost, of course, is the brilliant location, just beside Oxford Road Station, on Oxford Road, so almost always encouraging me to pass by or drop in, just for a coffee or a browse in the bookshop or in the hope of bumping into someone. The thing is, such serendipity is less about buildings or investment and more about people; so I'm not so hung up on the change - the world moves on. Coming from South Manchester on the tram, the new site is nearer to Deansgate-Castlefield than the old one was to St. Peter's Square, so I'm thinking I'll be popping by nearly as regularly.

Inevitably, the last few nights the bar and restaurant was packed, a sign of how many personal memories are wrapped up in the place. The Manchester I came to in the mid-80s had its ramshackle elements, but the Cornerhouse was a symbol of its modernity, at a time when film was going through a periodic renaissance, and there was a wide enough audience hungry for an emerging popular avant garde. I'm not sure if its ever shown any superhero or Tolkein movies - I hope not - but I'm sure it showed comic book adaptions such as "Ghost World" and "American Splendor". In many ways the art cinema defined taste for my generation - dark American independent movies such as "Blue Velvet" alongside startling European films by directors like Aldovomar. Manchester has never had a major film festival (though Cornerhouse's Viva - Spanish and Latin American film is a regular niche highlight) but in many ways, my memories are that the Cornerhouse programme was always a film festival, just as the art and music scene in the city may be enhanced by Manchester International Festival, but aren't replaced by it.

They had a giant pencil unstallation in Cornerhouse the last few weeks for people to put down their memories, and if I didn't partake it was partly through an uncertainty about nostalgia, but mostly because my memory of the place is so wide, so fragmented, covers so many different aspects of my life over the last thirty years. The news is that the building will be used by MMU for the next three years, before inevitable plans are made around the refurbishment of Oxford Road Station, and its not clear whether there will be any public aspect to that. Its sad that both the name and the building will disappear into memory, cultural institutions are grown not built, after all, but it is a different world now - with digital film projection, an internationalised art scene, and technology taking its place in theatre as well as other spheres. Goodbye, Cornerhouse, its been lovely having you around.

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