Last Wednesday, Factory International, Manchester’s expensive new performance arts venue officially opened after its sputtering, Instagrammable Yayoi Kusama soft-launch over the summer. Except that’s not what it’s called – it’s called Aviva Studios, after the insurance company completed the UK’s largest private-sector naming rights deal for an arts organisation for a cool £35 million.
Nestled in the middle of glass and steel residential developments, including a new Marriott hotel, the world’s most technologically advanced tin pavilion named after an insurance company was supposed to be a break from the norm in Manchester – but the Manchester norm seems very much intact.
Consider: a performance venue with delusions of grandeur in an overlooked, unloved corner of the city, boxed into a sliver of land, with an L-shaped performance space and adjoining bar, catering to a crowd of damp, sniffling Manchester glitterati and associated tradespersons – all of whom have to walk long distances to get there due to an inconvenient lack of transport links. This all might easily apply to the White Hotel or Partisan, on the other side of the Irwell in Salford, as much as it does to their lustrous mirror-image Aviva Studios.
Nevertheless, the complex does boast some unique features. The main ‘Warehouse’ black-box performance space is truly enormous, apparently large enough to host a 747 aircraft, and boasts a very high ceiling. The adjoining theatre (sorry, ‘Hall’) is elegant and likewise state-of-the-art, but also not that different from state-of-the-art theatres in other cities. Other parts of the complex seem decidedly mundane. There is an area upstairs for conference breakout sessions.
Ultimately after £242 million Manchester has managed to acquire for itself… a shiny arts centre. Aviva Studios is reminiscent of the city’s other awkwardly-named arts complex, HOME, only with more advanced toys and rigs, a smaller bar, better toilets and no permanent art gallery. The vibe, though, is noticeably more commercial – a feeling that would only be intensified by the first dedicated show to launch the new venue: Danny Boyle’s Free Your Mind, a danced version of the Matrix movies.
A quarter of a century after its initial release, the Matrix has entered into collective cultural memory to the extent that audience familiarity with its story beats can be assumed, as with the classical and biblical myths that inspired it. Mostly wordless, this version of the story is told through dance and occasional voice-overs. Boyle has mined more obscure portions of the story’s lore, as well as its better-known sections, supplemented by a variety of improvisatory added episodes.
The history of the city of Manchester also has to be shoehorned into the production. This is achieved in the prologue, when Alan Turing appears on stage and informs us that Manchester was the birthplace of computing and machine intelligence, with his lecture fragmenting into ersatz glitch-EDM, supported by a corps of whirling dancers dressed as lab assistants with brown overalls and brooms.
From there we proceed episodically through the story’s famous bits – Trinity fighting off cops – to less famous bits – such as the trial of B1-66ER, the first machine to murder its owner. This latter episode comes from the Animatrix, a slice of lore that Boyle has obviously watched and enjoyed: in fact I overheard him talk about it to one of his guests before the show started. At the end of the first half, the sky is scorched black by a few swinging hanging baskets which flutter black confetti down on the audience. After this, we slowly decamp from the theatre through to the bar area, waved along by ushers dressed as white rabbits, to be greeted by a huge human crush: this venue is notably imperfect at handling full capacity crowds. From there, we slowly migrate to the other side of the venue, which has been set up as a huge white catwalk under a long LED screen.
In the second half the scenes become increasingly unhinged. Dancers are dressed as Amazon boxes, or as a giant blue check mark with Facebook thumbs-up for hands. The choreography and dance themselves are very professional throughout, but difficult to take seriously, given the setting and scenario. The music is grating and forgettable – and frequently cheap-sounding, utilising sample libraries instead of recorded instrumentalists (there were no live musicians). Unlicensed, watermarked stock footage ripped from Youtube, corporate logos, ‘live coding’, and some knock-off green Matrix code-rain all supplement the dance troupe who proceed through hundreds and hundreds of carefully rehearsed dance moves all of which signify… nothing, really.
In Matrix Resurrections, the 2021 film by Lana Wachowski, produced after years of pressure from Warner Brothers, Thomas Anderson is now a video-game artist, plagued by his highly-successful ‘Matrix’ video-game series and the constant need to wring whatever value remains from its IP with ever-multiplying new versions. The self-reference is already overwhelming – but it would have been even more brain-melting had we known that at that same moment, Danny Boyle was cooking up exactly what Wachowski was mocking in her own movie.
Morbidly appropriate given Aviva’s position on the site of the former Granada studios, Free Your Mind was something like a television ident blown up to evening-length proportions. Imagine the BBC had bought the rights to broadcast the Matrix movies for the first time, and commissioned a cohort of virtuosic dancers to re-enact bits of it in front of the BBC One logo. Well, there you have it. Except, that’s the sort of thing that might have been seen on TV in 2007. Why it was on the most expensive stage in Manchester in 2023 is anyone’s guess.
This production could of course have been mounted in another European city, but it would have been as a commercial venture, not as the main event of a new publicly-funded arts venue. For all of Manchester’s well-publicised garishness and vapidity, its creators should nevertheless be embarrassed about this show. After ten years and a quarter of a billion quid, this was the best they could come up with? In the audience was Marina Abramović, who’d turned up with Alan Yentob. One wonders what they made of it. (Sir Nick Serota, present for the press conference earlier in the day, had made good his escape by lunchtime.)
But then, the depressing cultural emptiness is not really Manchester’s. This is a national project. The British national arts policy is investment in high-profile spectacle – allied to community-washing and select grassroots organisations to cover over for long-term neglect. Aviva Studios itself promises this sort of community arts development with several schemes, and in November will throw its doors wide for The Welcome, a multifarious nine-day show curated by a committee of thirty Manchester locals.
I had arrived in Manchester for the Aviva Studios opening press conference on the train from Liverpool – and the contrast between this lurid, empty spectacle and the sensitive 2023 Liverpool Biennial could not have been more marked. Titled uMoya: The Sacred Return of Lost Things, South African curator Khanyisile Mbongwa was able to carve out in Liverpool a haven for objects and works created by indigenous and Global South artists, in a city deeply shaped by, and freighted with, the crimes of British imperialism. It was done with grace and with lightness, as well as with profound gravity. Meanwhile, Manchester doesn’t want for any of that – our destiny is big-ticket IP and Danny Boyle’s dumb ass spectacle.
Free Your Mind, Aviva Studios, Manchester, 13 October – 5 November 2023.
Lawrence Dunn is a writer and composer based in Manchester.
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