Stepping into the Manchester Street Poem exhibition is an overwhelming experience. It is not simply entering a creative space but entering into the pages of an anthology of stories that so often go untold. The entirety of the long, low room is covered in painted cardboard. Walls, columns, beams, floor, they all tell the stories of individual experiences of being homeless in the city, providing a voice to the people who need it most.
Manchester Street Poem was created by Karl Hyde and Rick Smith from Underworld. The pair’s ethos according to Artistic Director and CEO of Manchester International Festival, John McGrath, was to ‘address the issue [of homelessness] with great sensitivity – and real humility’.
The project centres on interviewing members of Manchester’s homeless community about the circumstances that led to them living on the streets and creating a platform for their experiences to be expressed. Its impact lies in its honesty. The sheer scale of the work exposes the massive social problem that is rife in so many of Britain’s cities. Each narrative is written onto the crudely taped up cardboard with a paintbrush and emulsion. The accidental drips and stains created with the work add to its rawness. There upon the flattened discarded boxes so often used by the homeless are the stories of a city’s discarded people.
It is impossible not to be affected by the things written there. Mental health problems, abusive relationships, drug addiction, unemployment; they are all catalysts for homelessness heard so many times before that they fall on deaf desensitised ears. But these stories could so easily be our own had our circumstances been less favourable. None are justifiable reasons for members of our community to endure the hardships painted on these walls. But yet they do.
The simplicity of Manchester Street Poem is part of its power. The gravitas of its content is easily accessible to anyone who enters. Recorded interviews play continuously through speakers, layered over music providing a tender rhythmic heartbeat. The voices talk frankly and honestly about their times on the street. There are audible cracks and stutters as they recount their experiences. Their accents, tones and pain are there for all to hear. And with that their humanity cannot be denied. The reactions of the public who engaged with the exhibition were profound. Many entered the space as intrigued passers-by, only to find themselves consumed by a world so challenging that some were moved to tears.
In the pamphlet for the exhibition, McGrath explains that Hyde and Smith ‘…were passionate in their belief that artists with their kind of reputation and reach should engage with society’s challenges and help ignored voices to be heard.’
It seems clear that the artists have achieved that. Manchester Street Poem is a powerful installation, a project that has drawn attention to the needs of so many people suffering with what it means to be homeless and allowed their experiences to be told with the dignity and respect that they deserve.
Manchester Street Poem, UNFEAR, Manchester.
6 July 2017 – 14 July 2017.
Nathalie Mayer is an artist and writer based in Yorkshire.