Thoughts on Massive Attack v Adam Curtis opening MiF

How did Robert Del Naja and film maker Adam Curtis's hit squad go down in Manchester?

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Manchester International Festival (MiF) kicked off its fourth biennial run last Thursday, staking its claim as 'the world’s first festival of original, new work and special events' and reasserting the city's status as the creative capital of the North. On the opening night, sell-out theatre productions Macbeth and The Old Woman went head-to-head with the untitled and altogether less definable creative sparrings of Massive Attack v Adam Curtis.

Cryptically billed as 'a collective hallucination' by Massive Attack's Robert Del Naja and as 'a musical entertainment about the power of illusion and the illusion of power' by filmmaker Curtis, the audience had no real idea of what to expect. Officially advised to wear sensible shoes and provided with chunky ear-plugs on arrival, showgoers may have been further bemused by a Twitter rumour claiming that stewards had been briefed on dealing with angry and irate customers.

Filled with anticipation, revellers were ushered in from the bright, balmy evening to a dark, expansive space behind Piccadilly train station, eager to find out how Del Naja, Curtis and their eclectic crew would mess with our minds. Here are ten thoughts on how it went down.

It isn't a gig

Billed as a redefinition of 'the gig', the event is staged in the cavernous underbelly of a disused, century-old railway station, the Mayfield Depot. Not dissimilar from The Warehouse Project's former home at nearby Store Street, the venue has the makings of proper Manc rave-up, but as we are shuffled into the projection-screen walled space, the vibe is more chin-scratching than sweaty dancing.

It isn't a documentary 

Curtis' brand of dystopian storytelling through unnervingly spliced archive footage is arresting stuff. His ability to seamlessly weave recent-historic geo-political and financial event reportage and pop cultural happenings with the hyper-personal, and often intertwined, affairs of their lead characters is engaging and hugely impressive. But here, completely surrounded by film projections, bombarded with thread after thread of information, it feels like you're always catching the tail end of an argument, snippets of points that might be good, but aren't necessarily coherent.

The partnership is a natural fit 

Massive Attack's dark, driving but glitchy beats neatly compliment Curtis's dizzyingly diverse assemblage of imagery, which flits from Cold War-era newscasts to beauty pageants, adverts and home movies. This isn't Curtis' first MiF outing; he was behind the mind-blowing 2009 mega-hit It Felt Like a Kiss, a collaboration with immersive theatre company Punchdrunk. The soundscapes for that production were developed by MiF regular Damon Albarn, who also worked on Massive Attack's latest album, 2010's Heligoland, and has become something of an activist-in-arms with Del Naja; in 2003, the pair joint-funded full page ad's in the NME to protest against the Iraq war. It was at a performance of Dr Dee, Albarn's 2011 opera for MiF, that Del Naja told MiF Creative Director Alex Poots of his desire to work with Curtis.

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But the sums don't add up

One of the driving arguments of the performance is that the analysis of historic data can rarely provide reliable predictions for future success. Unfortunately, this assertion is apt to describe the performance itself. Revellers looking for a Massive Attack gig will have been disappointed by the fits-and-starts of backing fanfare summoned solely to accompany the apocalyptic scenes. And Curtis fans may have felt somewhat short-changed by the underdeveloped, coincidental connections offered,used to his feature length works which put forward coherent and convincing arguments.

The audience seem confused 

Were we supposed to be getting into the groove? Dancing amounted to little more than a few bursts of head-bobbing, and other than a particularly good version of The Jesus and Mary Chain's "Just Like Honey", it was often hard to distinguish the live covers from the backing track. Were we supposed to read intently each of the sub-titled missives? For most, the lower lines of text were completely obscured by the crowd, which wasn't at capacity even on the opening night.

The special guests are special indeed 

Amid the frenetic chopping and splicing, talented guest singers provided the musical highlights of the performance. Regular Massive Attack collaborators, roots-reggaeist Horace Andy and former Cocteau Twin Elizabeth Fraser appeared in silhouette from the stage-behind-a-screen. Both should be applauded for creating palpable moments of engagement with the audience, but Fraser's fragile, emotive rendition of Yanka's Song in Russian was the stand out.

We are living in the 'managed world' 

'... suffocating in a sarcophagus of data,' according to expert phrase-coiner Curtis. The utopian social experiments of the late mid-century – model cities in Afghanistan and even New York – failed due to unforeseen consequences. Emerging from their ruins, a new idea took hold: we shouldn't try to change the world, we should manage it. By crunching historic data and predicting the future, risk could be minimised and we would all be much safer. Except you're more scared now than ever, aren't you?, the film taunts.

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I see dead people

All this 'ghost data' from the past is haunting us, we're told. Predicting the future from data collected in the past stops us from imagining and creating new possibilities, and because we believe that the future will be worse than the present, we have an unhealthy obsession with the past. The consequence of this, we are warned, is that we see dead people like Kurt Cobain singing and dancing in 2D. I don't know what this means. 

You are the centre of everything

But mostly a whole lot of confusion. 'In the past, politicians wanted to change things. Including you.' the subtitles silently shout. We want politicians to want to change things, right? But not us, yeah? 'The new system listens to you, observes you, understands you and gives you what it knows you want ... and nothing need ever change'. Sounds scary, in a kind of student-flat-at-5am conspiracy theory kind of way.

We could change the world

If only we stopped obsessing over changing ourselves. The performance is full of opaque, cautionary tales. We discover that British Pop Art painter Pauline Boty died after she refused cancer treatments that would have harmed her unborn daughter. The daughter, Katy 'Boty' Goodwin went on to study at Walt Disney's idealist art college, but she became obsessed with her appearance, developed an eating disorder, took heroin and died. It is often hard to see how we are to extrapolate meaning from these hyper-personal tales and apply them to the global political sphere, but the suggestion is that we should. The future is unpredictable and full of possibility, so perhaps if we all stopped worrying about our waistlines and ate a proper dinner, we'd have the energy to start a revolution. Unless we die of cancer first. 

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