Brand Manchester, the spectaculised city: all slogan, no soul.
Manchester 2017, reboot mark2, #northernpowerhouse…
Note to reader: Winter 2017, the city reels from the shockwaves of the biggest property boom in decades, decrepit warehouses and industrial wastelands once home to artists, graphic designers and musicians now sold, smartened or demolished for global investment portfolios, its social housing stock sold to carpetbaggers courtesy of local authority machinations and hastened by the promise (or threat) of HS2. Add the gradual impact of Mediacity , as its staff settle from London to Salford, for what some northerners see as the final death knell to its tradition as ‘radical, independent city’.
Situationism becomes spectacularism as civic and creative sectors collide and collude in brand new ‘cultural’ district First Street , its cultural anchor and uniqueness hijacked by global dominators Nandos, Pizza Express, Starbucks, a predictable hotel chain or two and a Sainsburys (even artists need groceries, right!). It is a landscape as soulless and identikit as the city’s last ‘world class’ leisure, retail and shopping district, Spinningfield, built nearby on Deansgate before the 2008 crash, but has declared its cultural and historical credentials by shoehorning in those most notorious twin peaks of resistance, Tony Wilson and Engels, wickedly commodified without a hint of irony – Tony Wilson Place anchored, tamed, tethered by a post soviet toppled monument to Engels, a recent MIF commissioned artist installation of either genius or gullibility .
With homelessness, poverty, demolition hitting the headlines daily, my indignation borders on outright naivety, given the situation has been simmering unnoticed for a decade. A dizzying merry go round of a city, fast paced, hard edged and ever booming with mega developments for offshore bucks, perpetual boomtime has always been Manchester’s ambition. And we, the ordinary citizenry, have been proven time and again to have no power in determining any alternative. Even with a new mayoral influence (if we suspend our cynicism that former Labour politician Andy Burnham just saw a fiefdom ripe for claiming outside of Westminster) and a new chief exec at the town hall, there is no system for appeal, critical debate or exercising meaningful grassroots alternatives and hard to envisage how this can ever change. Especially against an almost unparalleled tabula rasa policy currently bulldozing its way through all sides of the city and its borders.
Rereading this fragment from the bluestocking archives stands as a timely reminder of how this all started…
Manchester 2007, reboot mark1, #originalmodern
Note to reader: winter 2007, ten year anniversary of a radical redevelopment across city centre Manchester in the aftermath of the 1996 IRA bomb and the incremental loss of its post war civic and public realm into piecemeal private ownership. Kickstarting a wholesale reinvention of a typical northern manufacturing town in slow decline, this reboot was radical and untested, a revolution every bit as drastic in its social, cultural and economic ramifications as the original industrial revolution, a turning point for the ailing fortunes of the city. It was to become a blueprint across the north of England in the following years.
Manchester has always been a situationist city. The death of ‘factory records’ supremo and professional maverick Tony Wilson (a homegrown Malcolm Maclaren, the situationist devotee behind the Sex Pistols and the birth of punk, or at least its notoriety and packaging) and the inevitable retelling of those early factory years prior to the hacienda nightclub which famously ‘had to be built’, got me chewing over the impact of the Debordian tactics and ideas, as interpreted by Wilson and all those anglo-situationists, on the subsequent reshaping of the city by a young generation of movers, shakers, maestros and money makers. All roads in Manchester lead us to Debord, whose insights have long influenced aspects of counterculture and the liberal left as well as the rise of punk, anarchism and the ‘adbuster’ generation.
Reading ‘society of the spectacle’ is still for many a road to damascus revelation, its style visionary, even biblical, and for me his manifesto created a totally different interpretation for both pre and post bomb Manchester.
I recognize that the city, any city, in both symbolic and geographical terms, is always becoming, a soft city. it is a continuous process, overlapping and interwoven, a veritable palimpsest with many stories to tell. it is never a finished product, it is always transitional, never whole. I understand that the desire to protect certain nostalgic or historically specific parts of a city can be sentimental, contradicting the inherent porous and progressive nature of the city, creating a mausoleum, a pickled herring city, its aspic stifling the possibility of becoming anything else: its future. Of nuance, discourse, diverse narratives and possibilities.
All things must pass and the cities i most love are often the product of previous ruthless and controversial planning or demolition. Every city inevitably renews and invents itself for its own age, but some wisely or accidentally can’t quite abandon former skins of their ‘old town’; a forgotten, neglected corner or other. This is how the pelt of the palimpsest is constantly scratched out, amended or obscured, a new hybrid form created out of the sum of all its parts – a frankenstein city perhaps, a little gnarly but sentient and dynamic nevertheless.
My worry for Manchester and other British cities is that in their desire to create their city of ‘now’ they are forgetting the very thing they habitually accuse backward glancing heritage advocates of – that the city is always becoming, it is never resolved. Manchester seems to have embarked on an unstoppable mission to create a total city, from scratch. This is as flawed as attempting to safeguard its past forever in a sugary chocolate box package, a folly of ‘painting the forth bridge’ proportions.
Manchester the commodified city…
Debord articulated his attacks on the Spectacle in terms of the damage being inflicted on cities and city life, a common cry in post war Paris, as the wholesale reconstruction of areas like Les Halles, the movement of people and eradication of old districts took their toll on the old city landscape. The parallels to the current rapid redevelopment of British cities, and Manchester in particular, couldn’t be clearer.
Since the 1950s the story of the British city has been one of dereliction and deterioration, losing its manufacturing bases, its traditional industries, the wholesale displacement of people from the inner cities and a consequent crisis of identity. It has been a long slow death for some, and those which have recovered have had to readjust to new global industries and economic conditions, grabbing a stake in the emerging leisure and service industries, often the only practical opportunity for creating new employment and attracting vital investment to rebuild and restructure the decaying fabric of the deindustrialised, decanted city core.
The story of Manchester can be seen as part of that trend, readjusting to a long period of decay and neglect with an upturn kick-started ironically by the bomb blast of 1996, which blew a hole in the centre of the city, but provided the opportunities and investments needed to entirely restructure its landscape and public spaces into a series of distinct marketable quarters or villages, effectively commercialising all aspects of the ‘city experience’. This is part of a wider trend globally to repackage our cities and Debord would argue, our personal lives, into commodified packages for consumption rather than ‘living’ in any tangible sense.
Debord’s manifesto, the Society of the Spectacle, is acknowledged, particularly amongst social and cultural geographers such as Michael Dear, for outlining a number of themes which are helpful to an understanding of the modern city, such as the spectacularisation of the contemporary city; the expansion of capital into realms of leisure and everyday life; and the opening up of urban spaces for visual consumption and display.
Debord was especially vocal about the changes that had been wrought on Paris and the displacements of people and places brought about by its post war reconstruction, feeling that Paris, the Paris of his youth, of the old neighbourhoods and ways of life, no longer existed. There are parallels here with Manchester’s ‘post-bomb’ reconstruction and its effects on the citizens who live in this new type of urban space – he saw the destruction of the cities and urban life as being part of the wider transformations of capitalism and state bureaucracies that he associated with the ‘society of the spectacle’, where all of human life is subordinated to the demands of perpetual economic growth.
In his book ‘the post-modern urban condition’ Michael Dear argues that the global political economy has brought about enormous restructuring and instability in the old order and a shift towards new spaces, associated with de-industrialisation, as well a move away from government / state investment in the public built environment towards public – private partnerships, brought about by lack of state financial resources. His description of Los Angeles as ‘a collection of theme parks where privatised, partitioned spaces exist for all tastes – communities of industry, leisure, sexual preference and so on’ – could just as easily describe Manchester, at least as its branders, this brave new worlds planners, would have potential investors, tourists and residents believe.
These «packaged dreamscapes» can be seen in the trend towards the «quartering» of Manchester – the gay village, the curry mile, the northern quarter, the millennium quarter, the green quarter, the oxford rd corridor: the result of a new type of ordering or mapping of the city, not in an overall structured whole, but as a series of experiences, for shopping, for living, for leisure. Debord would see this trend as part of the spectacle’s knack of selling us our lives back as commodities, and represents the spectacle fully realised in a way he envisioned but hoped could be challenged and destabilised in the acts of resistance possible through identifying and championing so–called ‘counter-sites’: non-spectacularised, marginal places, which resist and contest gentrification.
When viewed within this reading, Manchester can now be seen as more a brand than a place, with its own agency ‘marketing manchester’ dedicated to marketing the city as an investment opportunity for developers and global corporations, highlighting all the consumables of the city. It has a year round, calendar strategy, arranging conferences, festivals, street markets, sporting activities, bidding for various circuses like the commonwealth games, generally ensuring that the whole city and its businesses is marketed and profitable all year. This is Manchester’s new business – providing never-ending leisure and service industries, entertainments and consumerism. Like its most famous football team, Manchester is a global enterprise and brand, self serving and all consuming.
To facilitate this we are witnessing an era of almost unprecedented change, the much parodied ‘craney city’, undergoing rapid and massive redevelopment all over the city centre and increasingly on the outskirts as well, with the invention of so-called ‘villages’ and ‘quarters’, providing the obligatory luxury loft apartments, alongside a proliferation of bars, nightclubs and restaurants, a huge array of cinemas, casinos, and ‘retail experiences’. After a decade of this there is little evidence of a slowing down, let alone an end to this phenomenon. This policy is no flash in the pan, as the recent unveiling of the euphemistically named ‘Left bank’ or ‘Spinningfields’ – a failed ‘business quarter’ (there were no financial institutions left solvent enough to move in upon completion post crash) turned leisure and luxury shopping district, illustrates.
Entertainment complexes such as the Printworks, a redevelopment project inside the former newspaper complex Maxwell House, boasts a multiplex cinema, a luxury gymnasium, several bars, nightclubs and half a dozen restaurant chains, as well as retails outlets. None are local or independent in any sense, none fostering any home-grown entrepreneurism, any intrinsic Mancunian character to the area. It lies on the outer edge of the new millennium quarter, the manifestation of the new post-bomb  brand, the new spectacular vision and future of Manchester as a tourist attraction, complete with the MEN eye , our very own faux ‘London eye’, provincial branches of London department stores Harvey Nichols and Selfridges, a flagship Marks & Spencers, plus apparently and inexplicably, the biggest Next branch in the world! All this and a revamped Arndale shopping centre ensures the entrapment of visitors from all over the region for shopping and entertainment, which in turn attracts capital investment and more global brands to base themselves in the city, as well as repackaging the city as a night time economy too, a 24 hour licensed party, a Las Vegas for the UK. The recent and unexpected failure to secure the first super-casino around the edges of the commonwealth games site, must be something of a sock in the jaw to this ambition, crucial as it is to the continuing marriage of private globalised investment with urban regeneration and tourism.
Reading marketing manchester’s ‘where to stay guide’ reveals the extent of the spectacularisation of the city at all levels; «shopping isn’t the arduous task it once was. shopping is the new leisure activity and wherever you choose to go, look out for events, celebrations and festivals with live music, street entertainment»,
To Debord leisure is merely a delusion, coercing us to play our role in the consumerist system, buying our leisure through these various activities, hotels, bars, clubs, cinemas, shopping arcades and department stores like the Triangle and the Printworks, not to mention ‘Cathedral walks’, a whole street which as reconstructed after the bomb, is no longer a street but an outside mall, pedestrianised, lined with aspirational stores, and filled most weekends with market stalls, festivals, seasonal packaged activities, moving us cleverly from one shopping zone to another.
‘on this spot nothing will ever happen – and nothing ever has.’
Debord said this in reference to Paris’ planned new towns of the post war reconstruction, but this motto could easily be transplanted on to Millennium Square, a place seemingly packed with people and things to do, but I would contend, that as a packaged, spectacularised space, nothing actually ever happens here apart from our passive absorption and essential alienation.
‘Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation’ perfectly sums up the square and especially the Big Screen, where we passively watch television in the open air, rather than engage socially with each other.
Pre-bomb, the old corn exchange was a bizarre ramshackle place, a hub for hobbyists, geeks, mystics and undesirables, as well as housing a plethora of creatives, publishers, designers and tiny local businesses – a ramshackle, accidental ‘souk’ of Manchester, not branded or marketable in any corporate sense. Even when first reopened as ‘the Triangle’, it began to be colonised by sub-cultures galore; goths, Emos and skate boarders, idling, lolling or wheeling and speeding about. Before long the space had been broken up with the insertion of bollards and shiny metal ‘handles / obstacles’ presumably to prevent any unruly skate boarding or lolling, and thereby any actual use of space by people for their own unsanctioned entertainment. Soon after, the ‘big screen’ was put up, a veritable facilitator of Debord’s lonely crowds: «from the automobile to television, all the goods selected by the spectacular system are also its weapons for a constant reinforcement of the conditions of isolation of ‘lonely crowds’.
It has been much noted that capitalist production has shrunk the globe, unifying and it so that all places are the same, drained of their distinctiveness and reproducing new forms of separation, ‘the spectacle is the technical realisation of the exile of human powers into a beyond; it is separation perfected within human beings’, crucial to any understanding and resisting of Millennium square, the symbol of spectacularised, commodified Manchester.
Arch Situationist and Professional Mancunian, Wilson liked to boast, ‘this is Manchester, we do things differently here’. How hollow, how ominous that sounds in retrospect.
Or, as a more melancholic Mancunian once noted , ‘Manchester, so much to answer for….’
 HS2 is the proposed high speed rail link from London that will also tear through the country’s last woodlands. https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/get-involved/campaign-with-us/our-campaigns/hs2-rail-link/
 Designed to provide a purpose-built home for creative and digital businesses and centred around a waterfront public realm area twice the size of London’s Trafalgar Square, the old Salford Docks, MediaCityUK is now a media hub with ambitions to be a northern Canary Wharf, complete with apartments, bars, cafés and restaurants. https://www.salford.gov.uk/mediacityuk
 The First Street regeneration zone was created by the amalgamation of two city institutions, Cornerhouse Art centre & Cinema with the Library Theatre, into a new build performing arts centre rebranded as ‘Home’, plus a new commercial district of leisure, offices, hotels and apartments. Read the usual overblown cliches and marketing bombast here
 MIF is the biannual Manchester International Festival, soon to have its own permanent site on the former Granada Television studios complex, a beautiful brutalist landscape sadly unprotected by conservation listing and recently demolished. This year it commissioned ‘The Engels project’ by installation artist and Turner prize nominee Phil Collins for its official closing event. The statue was ceremonially welcomed in front of the art centre HOME, as crowds gathered in the adjacent car park to watch the accompanying film, detailing its rediscovery in the Ukraine and subsequence journey ‘home’. The singer Gruff Rhys performed “Communism’s Coming Home.” https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/06/world/europe/england-manchester-engels-statue.html
Meanwhile poverty, rough sleeping and a chronic lack of shelters or social housing has reached critical and desperate proportions. https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/welfare/2018/01/squatters-and-rough-sleepers-taking-fight-against-homelessness-manchester
Local paper, the Manchester Evening News, recently detailed the unprecedented level of simultaneous redevelopment around all sides and borders of the city core. https://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/property/what-next-manchester-city-centre-13926805
 Anthony H Wilson, founder of factory records, the Hacienda nightclub, manager of New Order and Joy Division, was known as Mr Manchester, an accolade not always meant kindly. His influence on the city is detailed in this Guardian tribute. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2007/aug/12/tonywilson.
 Marketed self importantly as one of Europe’s most successful urban regeneration projects, creating an entire new quarter in the city, in reality it is merely a series of big brand department stores and burger bars. https://www.spinningfieldsonline.com/
 The 1996 Manchester bomb was the biggest ever blast the IRA exploded on the British mainland. Though no one was killed, the physical impact on the city was enormous, with shops, buildings and many businesses and jobs badly affected. http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/greater-manchester-news/manchester-ira-bomb-20-years-11425324
 Manchesters Big Wheel, or MEN Eye after the London Eye Ferris wheel, was an installation at Piccadilly Gardens, sponsored at one point by the local newspaper, the Manchester Evening News. The wheel was originally a smaller installation based in Exchange Square, first assembled in 2004. Incidentally, Tony Wilson hated the Eye, stating: «It ruins a perfectly good square and it’s a poor imitation of something London’s done a lot better. We shouldn’t be doing it». It was finally dismantled in 2015. http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/greater-manchester-news/manchesters-big-wheel-dismantled-three-8903500
 Suffer Little Children is a song by Manchester band The Smiths, from their eponymous debut album in 1984, sung by Morrissey, arguably the other Mr Manchester of the music scene.
NOTE ABOUT » WE ARE NOT FOR SALE» AS FIRST PICTURE. ‘We are not for sale’ artwork, Hilary Jack. Addressing the impending move is Hilary Jack, who has been with Rogue for 15 years since its move to Crusader Mill. Celebrated for her large scale works, she has creating a new piece that blocks out the view from her studio – the kind of view that had made the mill a desirable development. “We Are Not For Sale is a comment on the plight of artists in major urban centres,” she explains, “who are being used as cultural collateral and then moved out of the area when it’s desirable again.” https://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/whats-on/arts-culture-news/rogue-artists-studios-manchester-open-12014282
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