The cavernous space stretches out beyond eyesight; ambient light shines from outside brightening the droll and dilapidated interior of the industrial building. Darkness creeps around every structural pillar and corner as dust rustled after decades of rest clouds the scene in a cascading haze.
Up and down the procession of people a thuggish figure partnered with a German Shepherd stalks the perimeter of the filed crowd. A few amongst the mass halt to snap photos of the goon and his dog provoking the animal into a sensational display of angst and anger as it barks ferociously back, held at bay by a sturdy leash and stern grasp.
Rubbish is strewn across the floor; the walls are striped and barren. The once active railway building, Manchester’s Mayfield Station depot, had seen better days in decades passed.
Yet in early July, the depot played the part in a new breed of artistic presentation. Its decayed inner infrastructure providing a well-fit atmosphere for the dystopian sentimentalities of both Massive Attack and Adam Curtis.
Opening the season of the Manchester International Festival, Massive Attack v Adam Curtis with special guests Horace Andy and Elizabeth Fraser both captivated and confused the crowd with a multi-sensory dialectic on modernity and systems of power; “about the illusion of power and the power of illusion,” as Curtis described the performance.
Presenting their pessimistic views in a collaborative effort of a world gone wrong and mismanaged by those seated in power; activist and musician Robert del Naja of Massive Attack along with acclaimed documentarian Adam Curtis welded their respective talents through music and film into a competition of whom could present that motif better, hence the “v.”
What they succeeded in presenting was a view of the world going according to plan based on a new paradigm of power, a managed world; but a plan that was doomed from the start as the system set-up to manage the world could not manage everything.
However, the avant-garde spectacle was anything but simple enough to be described singularly. As there was light which permeated the desolate atmosphere of the abandoned train depot, so did optimism permeate the show, if not sarcastically.
In short, the remarkably esoteric performance combined visual, musical, and textual media that was purposefully vague to provoke thought in the audience about the world as we know it rather than lecturing the audience.
Their collective message was not spoon fed, but teased relentlessly as a marketplace of ideas throughout the 90 minute show.
Those that were seeking a musical gig performed by Massive Attack with Curtis offering a broadcast background to the show were in for a disappointment; those keen to a zeitgeist of dystopian reality wrought by the superimposition of a fake and 2-dimensional world were in for a treat.
Moreover, their target was not necessarily this perceived new paradigm of power itself; but rather how the world and events within it are presented to the masses via broadcast media; the prescribed 2-dimensional world.
The main train of thought being fact and reality and how they are shown to the masses through a fixed perspective crafted by media; a perspective distorted, not of holistic fact and reality but a fabrication, a tailoring.
Visually Curtis’ contribution is a visceral and bombastic collage of chaos and cacophony, raw and loosely edited with lightning-quick cuts for the sake of verboseness in reality rather than a devised arrangement of fact that is concise but hollow; poking fun at sublimination that is anything but subtle through a barrage of text at times vague yet poignant.
Robert del Naja performs “Vyso Idyot po Planu” by GROB.
Conspiracy-laden and spiced with conjecture, the visual aspect of the show in Curtis-style through chapters runs the gambit of what the trailer clued us into. Though not a cast of characters, as the trailer teased the talking points of the show.
Featuring Donald Trump loosely connected to the death of Japanese real estate magnate and high-stakes gambler Akio Kashiwagi, to Wall Street bankers Goldman Sachs betting on the collapse of a debt-ridden economy, to Hamid Karzi and his half-brother Ahmed Wali an alleged drug kingpin whom aided his brother’s election by rigging polling stations in Helmand province, to the untimely death of Siberian punk movement icon and out-spoken critic of the post-Soviet government Yegor Letov unexpectedly at the age of 43 due to heart failure, back to Donald Trump and his modern day facade selling his name as a brand to real estate developers.
Terse and charged one-line statements of context flash across both raw archival footage and broadcast footage relating to the events or individuals in question; only offering a glimpse of the ideas veiled behind the fabric of Curtis’ contribution.
Musically the performers provided the score for Curtis’ video essay playing mostly covers reflective of the times or individuals presented on screen. Songs such as “Baby It’s You” and “Sugar Sugar Candy Girl” performed by Horace Andy or “The Look of Love” and “My Light Sorrow” performed by Elizabeth Fraser feature more utopian yet satirical footage dashed across the large screens; while “Vyso Idyot po Planu” from GROB (translated to Everything is Going According to Plan) and a performance of “Karmacoma” featuring Daddy G act as cues to the ideas and messages both Curtis and del Naja sought to conjure the audience into questioning their own knowledge and understanding of the events highlighted on screen.
Massive Attack performs “Karmacoma”
In the end, the prevailing narrative began to take shape out of the vague and translucent ideas flickering on the multitude of screens shadowing the stage; as our world becomes more digital, as our sensory perception and understanding of the present become more dependent on visual sensation, so does our 3-dimensional reality capsize onto a 2-dimensional past. In this 2-dimensional world the course of our future is trapped by a twisted and revolving rudder spinning us around the past; if we are complacent with that course, humanity is sailing closer towards a toxic sunset rather than a new horizon.