Text by Bob Dickinson.
The closure of Cornerhouse, soon to be followed by the opening of its replacement HOME in a few weeks, has been in the news for a long time. To mark the former’s passing, a two-part event entitled The Storming, conceived by the artist Huberto Velez, took place over the Easter weekend. Walking down a busy Oxford Street on Saturday afternoon, the noise of traffic was much worse than usual, because as well as the normal queues of cars and buses, loud traffic sound effects were being broadcast from speakers mounted in Cornerhouse’s open upstairs windows, in one of which a young man in drag was also seen waving. A taped-off area in the approach road to the railway station indicated where a growing audience had their tickets checked, and then had to wait. Above, in the former restaurant area, a mixing desk was visible, and a couple of performers wearing face-masks seemed to be manipulating sound. And on the other side of Whitworth St West, outside Sainsbury’s, more noise emanated from a demonstration by the Oxford Road Corner Campaign, which is protesting against proposals by Manchester City Council and Network Rail to redevelop the area around Oxford Road Station. Plans indicate the possible demolition of the Salisbury and Grand Central pubs, as well as both Cornerhouse buildings, although for the moment Cornerhouse will be leased to Manchester Metropolitan University as teaching space. Plenty going on, then, and The Storming hadn’t even started yet.
But just after 4.00pm, deep drumbeats heralded the arrival of the Manchester School of Samba, plus a group of people bearing pictures in frames – members of the Longsight-based St Lukes Art Project – collectively making a colourful procession up the side of the main building and up to the taxi turnaround area outside Java Bar, where they regrouped. A squadron of motor cyclists roared up, garnering further applause. Meanwhile another young man in drag, codename ‘Sister Gorgeous’, started the assembled multitudes chanting “Let us in!” – aiming these repeated demands to his mean evil twin inside the building, who stood and sneered. Bearing a loud-hailer, St Lukes’ Art Project’s Alison Kershaw spoke to the audience about ‘storming this palace’, and in so doing, democratising the arts in Manchester. The chanting started up again. Upstairs, the defence party were still looking unmoved.
At this point, it crossed my mind that if we, the audience, were attacking artistic elitism, why were we using Cornerhouse to symbolise it, after all these years of enjoying the place? Wouldn’t somewhere like Glyndebourne make a better target? Okay, it’s a long way to travel. So that thought was put aside – this was only a bit of fun, after all, just as much a tribute to Jacques Tati’s film Playtime as the Russian revolutionary mass action of 1920, the Storming of the Winter Palace. And the fun continued, with sirens wailing, followed by the noise of breaking glass. A kind of cardboard coffin was attacked by performers, and out tumbled balloons and pink paper tape. A window in the bookshop (covered in paper, and obviously not broken) was opened up, and performers poured inside. Soon after, Sister Gorgeous emerged clutching the shrunken head of her elitist opponent, held by the hair, and announced “We won, everybody!” By now, the kettled audience was gagging for refreshment, so barriers were removed and – pink wristbands authorising our admittance – everyone trooped into Cornerhouse, to the tune of the T Rex hit, Children of the Revolution. The mood remained jolly as soft drinks were served upstairs while the Samba band played in the downstairs bar.
Part Two of The Storming took place the same evening, and was, put simply, one big party. DJs in all the main rooms, and bars open, the building became a series of dancefloors. I sat on the balcony outside the annex, for a while, and thought about the old Film and Video Workshop, that once functioned in a building below, in the alley that runs between Cornerhouse and the Salisbury. And soon, perhaps, the whole kit and caboodle will be coming down. Dave Moutrey, Chief Executive of Cornerhouse and HOME, sat down near me and lit a cigar. And who can blame him. There is much to be sad about but much more to look forward to.
At some point, I picked up a printed flyer linked to The Storming, which read: OPEN THE ARTS. REVOLUTION IS CREATIVE. REVOLUTION IS POSITIVE. REVOLUTION IS SUBLIME. REVOLUTION IS MANCUNIAN. Well, I don’t want the arts to be elitist, any more than you do. And I am sorry to see Cornerhouse go. And all the other places around Oxford Road Station, I am sorry at the thought of them being flattened to make room for another hotel, or apartment block. But I am not sure where revolution comes into it, particularly in the arts, particularly on the eve of the General Election. Particularly at the (possible) dawn of what George Osborne and Manchester City Council envision as a ‘northern powerhouse’, ushered in by big cultural projects like HOME and the redevelopment of the old Granada studios site, which it’s said will include a permanent centre for Manchester International Festival called Factory Manchester. Part and parcel of an ambitious devolutionary programme, inevitably dubbed ‘Devo Manc’, that will enable Manchester (under the direction of an elected mayor) to control housing, local transport, health and social care, and welfare-to-work programmes. To state the obvious, all these politically-motivated changes are coming top-down, rather than as the result of any revolutionary insurrection. So I wish HOME all the best, and I look forward to visiting it regularly. And while I don’t yet hear the crashing sound of any elitist ivory towers coming down, around Media City for instance, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear bricks falling along Oxford Road pretty soon. These are exciting and rather weird times for Manchester.
Photography courtesy of Cornerhouse.
Bob Dickinson is a writer based in Manchester.
The Storming was the closing event for Cornerhouse following 30 years as an organisation in Manchester. Cornerhouse will now from May 2015 be operating as part of HOME, an international centre for contemporary visual art, film and theatre within the city.