A delightful aspect of the Manchester International Festival (MIF) is that it’s hard to anticipate what you can expect from the performances as the festival presents new work made by leading artists who have not previously worked together with one another. This year’s program included a collaboration between Massive Attack and documentary film-maker Adam Curtis, Neneh Cherry and the electronic music duo Rocket Number Nine, and the ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov and the actor Willem Dafoe in ‘The Old Woman’ directed by Robert Wilson.
Prior to their show, Massive Attack v Adam Curtis, the collaborators gave the media a sneak preview as to what their show was about. The founding member of Massive Attack, Robert del Naja, aka 3D, had announced that “we are going to be doing something we’ve never done before”. Curtis, director of ‘The Century of the Self’, who explores journalism through the medium of film, announced on his BBC blog that they share “an interest in trying to change the way people see power and politics in the modern world”.
The trailer of the show, which could be viewed online on the MIF’s website, showed disperate, grainy footage that ranged from dictators, entrepreneurs, the Neutron bomb, the Siberian Punk movement, the map of Afghanistan and text in caps like “In the past politicians wanted to change things… including you.” – accompanied by ‘Karma Coma’ and ‘Baby It’s You’ sang by The Shirelles. An intriguing teaser but it hardly provided a clue as to what the audience could expect from the show.
The show was hosted at Mayfield Depot, an abandoned railway depot near to Manchester’s Piccadilly Station. This raw, industrial venue, smelling of concrete, has a spooky atmosphere that seemed to align with the trailer. The audience was standing in a horsehoe shape surrounded by a number of floor-to-ceiling, transluscent, screens onto which Curtis’s unnerving film ‘Everything Is Going According to Plan’ was projected. At the arc of the horseshoe, the band was performing behind the screens.
Most of the time, the band was not visible, as footage was projected onto the screens of entrepreneurs including Donald Trump, Ted Turner, world leaders including Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Vladimir Putin, but also lesser known figures who have their own gripping story, such as Pauline Boty, Yegor Letov and Yanka Dyagileva. Some of the footage is accompanied by a voice-over of Curtis giving it a ‘1984’ atmosphere, or a disturbing text is screened, for example, that Mr Vladislav Surkov, an aide of Putin, allegedly was the mastermind behind the creation of fake opposition movements in Russia. Divided into chapters, Curtis covincingly tells a story about how a new system of power has risen up in the modern world to manage and control us. The stories appear to be well researched and there is some clever editing, but also some disturbing combinations, for example, whilst images are screened of the Taliban carrying out mass destruction, the band plays ‘Baby It’s You’.
The setlist contains a lot of covers with hardly any Massive Attack songs. The band included regular Massive Attack guest vocalists Horace Andy and Liz Fraser, but they didn’t perform ‘Angel’ or ‘Teardrop’. Instead, Andy sang ‘Baby It’s You’ and ‘Sugar Sugar’ and Fraser sang Burt Bacharach’s ‘Look of Love’ and sang ‘Yanka’s Song’ in Russian. There was a pulsating version of Lead Belly’s ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night’ with an overlay of Kurt Cobain’s voice; a synthesizer track from Twin Peaks by Angelo Badalamenti; ‘Dreams Are Like Water’ by This Mortail Coil; and ‘Just Like Honey’ by Jesus and Mary Chain. The few Massive songs that were performed were re-worked versions of ‘Karma Coma’ and ‘Safe From Harm’.
Since 2003, United Visual Artists has created the visually stunning four of the band’s world tours. On centre stage, a gigantic LED screens many unsettling facts and figures, such as the amounts of Iraqi soldiers killed, oil wells burned and weapons of mass destructions found (0).
With each tour, the band and UVA changed how the data and, political loaded, messages were presented to the audience. Whilst this kept the show fresh, there is a danger that the audience views the bombardement of these messages as earnest and to which they are being lectured. Although, the content of the Manchester show is still politically loaded, Curtis’s film, projected onto floor-to-ceiling screens with his journalistic credentials, provides a gravitas that makes the serious messages more digestible.
With this one and half hour examination of ideologicals of power, Massive Attack and Curtis challenge the audience to consider looking at it from another perspective. Also, the creators stimulate you to discover more about the lives of Pauline Boty, Clive Goodwin and Yanka Dyagileva.
Del Naja and Curtis are kindred spirits with Mark Boal, the screenwriter of ‘Zero Dark Thirty’, ‘The Hurt Locker’ and ‘In the Valley of Elah’ – all motion pictures that are based on journalistic stories. This show has brought journalism into a gig.
The afternoon before I visited the gig, I overheard a conversation between two Massive Attack fans commenting that “it wasn’t Massive Attack”. They were disappointed that the show contained hardly any of Massive Attack’s own material, clearly not meeting their expectations. That is not the point of this show, though. In these uncertain times, Massive Attack and Adam Curtis succeeded, in an engaging way, to provide some rationale about the world in which we find ourselves. Who could have expected that?
Written by Thierry Somers. Images 1 and 2 by James Medcraft
Massive Attack v Adam Curtis until 13 July at MIF. In August at The Ruhrtriennnale and in September at Armory Arts in New York.