This post is the first in a series by DevoCulture in the North PGR Policy Correspondents. DevoCulture in the North aims to provide a critical space for civic, cultural and academic partners. It allows them to discuss plans and ambitions for arts and culture in times of changing governance, funding and accountability.

Observations on Manchester – Bob Dickinson

I had intended to write something different. Normally I would use this blog to reflect on my academic research. But this past week has been anything but normal. Since Manchester became my home in the late 1970s, I have experienced violence – more than one IRA bombing, more than one outbreak of rioting – but nothing like last week. Think about it the way I am thinking about it, from a research perspective: how can critical writing’s relationship with contemporary art, of all interactions, be of any help to a city reeling from the impact of a suicide bombing, targeting music fans, teenagers and children, their parents and guardians? What does art, and art writing, offer at a time like this?

Ironically, I was not in the country when I saw the first reports about the bombing at Manchester Arena.  The morning after it happened I was watching TV, in a hotel room in Sarajevo, a few hours before my return flight to Manchester. I had been visiting friends, many of them artists, whom I’ve come to know over the past few years through reporting as a freelance journalist on the rising contemporary art scene in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Just a couple of days earlier I’d been talking to Enes Zuljevic,a young artist from Mostar whose latest work focuses on his father, a soldier in the Bosnian army who was killed in the siege of that town during the conflict of the 1990s. Many of the current generation of Bosnian artists, who grew up surrounded by that violence, and experienced similar traumas, have transformed their experiences into art. In 2011, Manchester International Festival premiered 1395 Days Without Red, a film by Sejla Kameric, a survivor of the siege of Sarajevo, in which she showed the defiance and inventiveness of that city’s people as they crossed the city every morning, literally avoiding snipers’ bullets as they traversed open streets. Somehow, and not in an exaggerated way, the artist made an act of survival look like a performance.

As human beings, artists make work from what is immediate. From the comical or the exciting, at one extreme, to the unbearable or the horrific at the other, artists use whatever is to hand. It doesn’t even need to be new. Here in Manchester, one of the first artistic responses, receiving a huge approving reaction from crowds at the massed vigil in Albert Square last Tuesday night, was the poem ‘This is the Place’, by Tony Walsh (better known as ‘Longfella’). Since that event, I’ve noticed copies of the poem adorning the city’s bus shelters, as if to underline it’s genuine street credentials.  Talking about it on BBC radio the morning after, Longfella pointed out that although the poem was not a new one, the circumstances on Tuesday more than justified its recital – more like a declamation – for that vigil’s dignified and still-shocked audience. Longfella’s decision was a smart one, based on experience and knowledge of the performative act, and of how words written one day can, on a later day, find themselves capable of packing a newer and far more powerful meaning.

I am not claiming that art on its own can cure all ills. I think the most important resource that any traumatised city possesses is a sense of community, expressed in the immediate aftermath of the Manchester atrocity by random acts of kindness, such as offering hospitality, or free taxi rides to survivors stranded in the city centre. As Manchester’s newly-elected Labour mayor, Andy Burnham commented whilst thanking the people of Manchester for their response to the attack: “They opened their doors to strangers and drove them away from danger”. These acts reflect what many refer to as the city’s “character”, “spirit” or “soul”.

It is not easy to imagine how artists can set to work addressing this, or follow it up. It takes time.  But, like everyone else, artists will go on working through times like this in Manchester in the same way that they kept on working, making art, and building creative networks after the IRA bombing of Manchester in 1996. Whether you make art, or you write about it, you are involved in the culture of the place you live. And Manchester’s culture, as politicians like Andy Burnham will be the first to admit, is at the heart of Manchester’s future.

Bob Dickinson is in his first year of PhD research at Manchester School of Art (funded by the NWCDTP), where is examining Critical Writing’s relationship with Contemporary Art in the Northern regeneration economy. Bob’s background is in journalism. He is a regular contributor to art journals including Art Monthly, the Double Negative, Corridor 8 and a-n News. Previously he worked as a producer for BBC Radios 1, 2 and 4, and at Granada Television, BBC Television and Channel 4. His MPhil dissertation, previously completed at MMU, looked at the history of the alternative press in the north of England.