Massive Attack v Adam Curtis open Manchester International Festival

Disturbing show is one of many premieres at the biennial event

The 2013 Manchester International Festival opened last night (July 4) with an audio-visual performance by Massive Attack v Adam Curtis.

Taking place in the long-abandoned Mayfield Depot in central Manchester, the event combined the musical and visual work of Massive Attack’s Robert Del Naja with the cinematic expertise of filmmaker Adam Curtis, best known for his 2002 film The Century of the Self.

The production between the two was also a collaboration with United Visual Artists (who have previously created visual shows for Massive Attacks tours) and featured appearances from Horace Andy and Cocteau Twins singer and former Massive Attack collaborator Liz Fraser.

After milling around in the dimly-lit former railway building, the large crowd was eventually ushered through a black curtain into the performance area. The room was flanked on three sides by 11 large screens, around 25 feet high. Vintage footage of a Siberian disco began to play on the large screens, intercut with Curtis’ trademark large font sloganeering and text commentary. A male voice commentated throughout, as the historical footage showed scenes from around the world, primarily from the 1970s to the present day. The commentator spoke early on of the ‘dream’ world, a utopia, being replaced by a new idea: a ‘managed world’ in which we are “controlled by the grip of the ghosts of the past”.

The accompanying music – which spanned from Siberian punk to a rave version of Sugababes’ ‘Push The Button’ – was underpinned by sound effects, as the noise of gunshots and bombs rattled the building. When the light of the projection on the screen allowed it, the musicians could be seen onstage. As Liz Fraser sang of ‘The Look Of Love,’ her face was projected onto the screen in front of the stage, and her diminutive frame lit behind it. Horace Andy sang towards the end of the performance; a version of ‘Sugar Sugar’, which spurred several couples to dance as the grainy cold war-era footage played out on the screens that surrounded them.

As the commentator began to talk about the end of the cold war, Massive Attack played one of their biggest hits, ‘Karmacoma’. Tonight was the first time that the band had played live in the UK since 2010 and the audience cheered each time they caught a glimpse of the pioneering Bristolians onstage. At the end, Curtis left a final message for the audience that read, in large lettering: “NOW FIND YOUR OWN WAY HOME.” Exiting the venue involved walking down a tunnel that was dark, except for a blinding searchlight that swept up and down the length of the passage. A large German Shepherd on a leash barked fiercely at audience members as they left the building.

A crowd gathered outside, reflecting on the experience. 23 year-old Glaswegian Murray explained: “I came down specifically for this… I had to come today. I’m a huge fan of Adam Curtis’ work. It was really good. It’ll take me a bit of time to digest it, it was interesting. The exit was really cool, I think I liked that even more. I wanted to stay for longer.”