Retrospective: Volunteering at the Manchester International Festival

A while ago, I was asked to write about my experience of the Manchester International Festival as a Project Volunteer in 2009 for the supercool,  Tim-Burgess-approved Same Teens zine, XOX.  (Manchester collective for young bright lovelies in Manchester under the ripe old age of 19.) Here’s how it went – and for everyone doing the shifts of MIF 2011: you’re gonna love it. Rock on.  What I’ve written here isn’t even the half of what happened in 2009!

2009 Manchester International Festival is going to be huge!

I worked as a Project Volunteer for the Manchester International Festival. The beauty of volunteering lies in the fact you can do as little or as much work as you wish – I found it quite shocking that people with 9-5 jobs would extend their waking hours with another 4 or 5 hours of volunteering work (!). Anyway, when the next festival comes around I can recommend the experience – it means getting cultured for free and being treated to one-off gigs in return for a tiny bit of hard graft.

My personal highlight was Adam Curtis‘ immersive film and theatre piece, ‘It Felt Like A Kiss’ – being a volunteer meant being thrilled and frightened by it before anyone else.


Now then, Marina Abramovic became something of a curious whisper amongst the volunteers and audiences alike – there was an expectation of extraordinary weirdness which was exceeded the minute you were asked to put on a white coat. A living, moving, 4-hour long art performance, Marina’s concept of ‘The Drill’ was to cleanse the spectator of the debris caused by modern, bustling lives. As she told us how to breathe, to stare into the eyes of a stranger and simply take in their features and to drink water so slowly that you start to only think about water it suddenly dawned that art should consume you, it shouldn’t be a clinical experience of believing what you’ve been told to think about art. Perhaps the white coats were ironic…

Jamie Isenstein in her performance Rug Rug Rug Rug Rug lay beneath three animal skin rugs, herself as a wolf, the wolf as a sheep, the sheep with the bear on top. Only occasionally moving her head, her stillness was almost deathlike. Across from Gallery 8 was Amanda Coogan, topless, with the rest of her body swathed in a canary yellow dress. She would climb the stairwell by means of a smaller, metal one attatched to it and, after groaning, sighing and widening her eyes she would jump from it, making an orgasmic howl as she fell onto a large yellow foamy mound. (Backstage rumours were that she has vertigo and so every jump was torture.)

Ivan Civic continued the theme of climbing in his performance Back to Sarajevo…after 10 years… in Gallery 5a. With giant pegs placed on the wall for him to climb upon, his spiderman-like body is illuminated with a projection of his home video of Sarajevo. Becoming the viewer of this very physical, suspended viewer really blew my mind away. I don’t  think Whitworth Art Gallery – or the audiences – will ever fully recover from the bizarre artistic lives pumped into them.



In the depths of the disused belly of Quay House on Quay Street, a nerve away from the beating heart centre of Manchester, was the horror-house den created by Punchdrunk, Damon Albarn and Adam Curtis. IFLAK. I chose this event as my preview ticket as a MIF volunteer: Adam Curtis is a personal hero of mine. When he walked past me with Felix Barrett from Punchdrunk, all I could was gawp, when the most appropriate reaction would have been to coolly observe and thank him for how his documentary serials have essentially served as the anti-textbooks to a societal-conditioned Century of Self upbringing – and what does he think about Michael Moore as a popular documentarian? …um, and like, does he want to grab a coffee? I can talk normally too. Alas: starstruck.

It Felt Like a Kiss is one of the most difficult experiences to describe. What will follow in the next paragraph will probably sound like I smashed some acid an hour ago for it only to take effect within the writing of the next few lines…

It’s tough to write about because, firstly, although it was a shared experience and essentially an interactive, extended multimedia political performance art piece (I know!), it was only ‘shared’ merely on the basis that groups of four people allocated to each performance-art slot; we may have known each other but we were still very, very alone and vulnerably open to interpreting the grotesque circus that was to surround us. Anyway. Here goes.

We went up in a lift. We were warned. It was to take 1hr 45 mins. We entered the performance.

From an immediately off-kilter, slanting entrance through the reddened womb of the space, we were immediately confronted by a phantasmagoria sound which gushed around relics from a plastic 20th century household; to a hippie squat and a museum-styled display about Phil Spector; the bizarre Legoland of the straight-line blocks and streetlights marking out neighbourhoods, like houses viewed from an alien ship.

All the while we were being escorted by Punchdrunk actors in dressed in authoritative black, welded by hand to their walkie-talkies; or infiltrated by an actor posing as another culture tourist who, shot through with an amazingly convincing fear, was seemingly unfit for the show and left the building. (There were warning that people who suffered from heart disease, depression, epilepsy and anxiety were advised to not enter the IFLAK – much like a rollercoaster.)

There were barren, white corridors reeking of bleach and formaldehyde. For five minutes, we were locked inside a 1950s American domestic setting. The guests became contestants, alone, with a screeching voice clapped quiet by a hideous silence, a warning blazing on the screen before the television switched itself off – we were suddenly being chased by a man in a gas mask and a rifle! The end is almost traumatic to recall: splitup form the safety of the touring group, we were running anonymously through a dark basement of corridors, cages and doorways like toys in an arcade machine, or electric signals down a phoneline…many, many people had to be taken out of the room – screaming and crying.

And yet the whole thing was in no way threatening. It was out own beliefs and ideas about what everything in the environment represented, which sparked a fear – and for most of us, sheer, hideous kicks. Herein lay a representation the lie of the 20th century, perhaps: we are all free to bustle through a commercial, regimented life and we are all free to garner what we want from it. And everything we expect, to a certain extent – is actually within our control (except the man chasing us down the corridor with a rifle) – be it fear, entertainment, shock…

An interactive, performance theatre in a multi-storey building: ‘tis is the stuff that real, modern circuses are made of.

It was only until afterwards that I realised how valuable my ticket was: it was already about £40 retail; but scalps on eBay were apparently selling them on for almost £200. In terms of volunteering – we were there for shifts to ensure safety and to stay on standby in case of First Aid; or for anyone who needed to be escorted out of the building. To be honest, it was simply an absolute privilege to be a part of it.

I cannot recommend volunteering at the MIF enough: it’s an unforgettable experience that allows you to experience things that can change your perspective on art and life completely. You can meet loads of new friends, get some smashing opportunities for the best cameraphone photos EVER, score some free food, meet the A-listers completely by accident (I meet Alex Poots!) and to be thrown straight in to the heart of production and events management.

Volunteering for Kraftwerk at the Velodrome
Numbers for Jeremy Deller’s ‘Procession’ event
Aww! Scouts’ brass band for the Procession.

Volunteering at MIF: Do it while you’re still cool

zaha hadid at manchester art gallery

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