Weekend essay
Art
Culture
9 min read

Wonder walls: will Manchester’s creativity save the city?

Manchester newcomer, and new bishop, Matthew Porter is bowled over by the city’s enrichening creativity.

Matthew Porter is Bishop of Bolton, in the diocese of Manchester. 

Looking down on a man walking across a grid of large black and white portrait photographs of people's faces
The 'Inside Out: This is Manchester’ installation.

Manchester is the place to be. So thinks fashion house Chanel. It recently hosted its renowned annual Métiers d’Art show in the British city, billing it as ‘one of the most effervescent cities of pop culture and an avant-garde one, whose bands, spanning all genres, have changed the history of music.’ So thinks the English National Opera, who have just announced that Manchester is to be its new home. And so, think the investors who have pumped £242mn into Aviva Studios, a stunning new arts centre, billed as the most important arts venue in the UK since London’s Tate Modern gallery. 

Cultural mix 

Having recently started as new bishop in the Diocese of Manchester, I feel like I’ve arrived at a time of exploding artistic vibrancy, with the city and region rising to new cultural heights. The mix is rich and potent, edgy and interesting, young and confident, strong and loud. And yet not far from the coolness and affluence it brings there are still many areas of urban dreariness and scruffy social housing, often linked with deprivation and deep poverty, telling a different story of those who feel they’re being left behind, deficient in ambition and lacking in hope. Manchester is a real cultural mix. 

Despite these contrasts, you can’t ignore the fact that much of Manchester is humming. The symbol of the city, the ‘Manchester Bee,’ feels apt and has rightly been revived, for it represents hard-work and industry, something the area is becoming known for again. But it’s a new kind of industry. It’s not the hard factories of the cotton mills but the softer artistic endeavours that are reclaiming the spaces and setting the tone. Astute and celebrated, the Mayor of Manchester Andy Burnham recognises and champions this, declaring recently that it’s the creative industries that are now the fastest growing sector in the city. 

As a newcomer to the region, I’ve been wondering what I should make of all this artistic entrepreneurship. Is it good? Is it important? Is it helpful? To help answer these questions I decided I needed to see what all the fuss was about and so I visited the newly opened Aviva Studios. 

 Nestling in the heart of the city, on a riverbank, the venue is located in the renovated Granada TV studios building and provides a vast space for creativity. It’s already the home of the Factory International music label and the Manchester International Festival. I was keen to understand the vision and understand why so much time and energy and money has been invested in such a space. I wanted to know if it really is a landmark space for contemporary arts in the UK, especially in the North of England, and whether I’d be back. 

So, I visited on the first day of the venue’s official ‘Welcome’ to the general public. There’d been a series of soft launch events which included Free Your Mind, a large-scale, interactive hip-hop dance reimagining of The Matrix, directed by Oscar-winning film-maker Danny Boyle. But this was now ‘open to the world’ time. I turned up with grown-up members of my family who work in various creative sectors and who were keen to explore, aware that the warm-up events had already garnered great acclaim from The Times to Aesthetica magazine. We entered and took in the aroma of fresh coffee and the bustle of noise, as a small crowd of diverse ages gathered round a pop-up stage enjoying the creative reading of a children’s story. The foyer stage was transformed every hour into something new: first a space for musicians, then actors, then artists and dancers, all entertaining and encouraging participation. It was fun and vibrant, with an intriguing and inviting family-feel, drawing people in. 

Connective art 

Good art does that. It attracts. It reels you in, not just to observe, but to get involved. I experienced something of that as we stepped outside and enjoyed an installation called ‘Inside Out: This is Manchester’. It was a simple black and white portrait-display of two hundred Mancunians. The large photos were set out in a group on a concrete floor, creating what looked rather like a giant board game. The idea was you walked over them, standing on them, in and among them. So, into the photos I walked, and to my surprise I soon discovered the experience to be visually arresting and intriguingly immersive. After a few minutes of wandering among the faces I stood to one side for a breather. I asked my family  which face they found most interesting, and I pointed out the one that had stood out for me. At that very moment, I noticed that a woman walking among the pictures had stopped at the one I’d chosen and was crouching down. As I looked again, she appeared rather like the woman in the photo. ‘Hi. Is this your photo?’ I asked. ‘Yes, it is’ she replied. ‘I’m Carmen. I’m just here for a short time today and wanted to see it.’ ‘It’s my favourite’ I said, ‘It’s a really great photo. I love the way it’s captured you pulling such a strong face!’ ‘Thanks’ she smiled, going on to explain how the shoot had been taken, but that this was the first time she’d actually seen it. I was thrilled: the person behind one face out of two hundred that had caught my attention, happened to turn up at the exact moment I was there! It made me feel strangely connected to the installation and with the people of Manchester they represented. Such is the connective power of art! 

Such art does what cathedrals of old have done, enabling us to look out and look up and see beyond ourselves into a greater vista. They are deeply valuable and enchanting spaces.   

Quality design 

From there we went on an architectural tour. The stairwells, the corridors, the foyers, and the meeting spaces were cleanly and elegantly designed, using strong but simple materials, emphasising curves and city views, encouraging you to walk on and see more. We were told how many spaces, especially the foyers, worked really hard, being multi-functional and could be transformed for different uses. The two main venues were impressive and huge: the Hall is a 1600-seat concert venue, and the Warehouse space could host 5,000, thanks to vast walls that can be opened to create one massive space. The quality, the design, the versatility and the technology was hugely impressive, all set up and ready to be a northern centre of artistic excellence. 

Enchanting spaces 

So what did I make of it? And should such creativity be funded in Manchester? In short, I liked it. In fact, I absolutely loved it. It made me realise how much we need good art, good artists and good artistic spaces. They enrich us and our environment. They touch us deeply not just in our minds but in our souls and cause us to ponder and wonder. Such art does what cathedrals of old have done, enabling us to look out and look up and see beyond ourselves into a greater vista. They are deeply valuable and enchanting spaces.   

The experience was significant for me, and extremely positive. Not only do I want to go back but since visiting I’ve mentioned it to quite a lot of people and am finding myself to be a bit of an evangelist for the place! I didn’t expect that. It reminds me that good spaces produce good conversations. The fact that it cost so much might be controversial to some, but it’s hard to put a price on stunning. If it inspires people to great visionary endeavours and lifts people, especially those lacking in hope, to see beyond their horizons, then it’s money well spent. If it causes children and women and men to dream dreams and imagine new futures, then I’m behind it. If it helps people see beyond their present dilemmas and laugh heartily and cry deeply and love compassionately, then I’m a supporter. 

I believe passionately in encouraging artistry and innovation whenever and wherever I can. For the God I serve is the great Creator and the inspiration behind all true creativity. 

Deeper understanding 

My visit to Aviva Studios must have been good, as it’s made me want to support and encourage the team working there. I found myself thanking everyone, and even took a leaflet about becoming a member. As a bishop, I feel on behalf of the church and city that I want to cheer on Aviva Studios, commending it and its boldness to the Greater Manchester area, for I believe passionately in encouraging artistry and innovation whenever and wherever I can. For the God I serve is the great Creator and the inspiration behind all true creativity. Not only has he made the universe and planet Earth on which we reside, but throughout history he has given artistic gifts for human beings to foster and share.  

 

I agree with Japanese artist Makoto Fujimura, that ‘Art is fundamental to the human search for deeper understanding. Art, by extension of this reasoning, is fundamental to understanding the Bible,’ which itself is a beautifully and uniquely-crafted literary work combining human artistry and divine inspiration. Creativity then, is at the heart of God, and of his human creation. We need to express this creativity in all sorts of places, including our workplaces. Artist and crafts pioneer William Morris rightly says that ‘without dignified, creative human occupation people become disconnected from life.' But surely this is true not just of our jobs but of our homes, and especially of designated creative spaces. Without such creative places, like gothic cathedrals, beautiful parks, art galleries and now Aviva Studios, we can easily become disassociated from the wonder and joy of life. We need good spaces to stir us and send us.  

Innovative leadership 

As a bishop who wants to see our churches growing and communities thriving, I welcome the new Aviva Studios as part of the cultural landscape of Greater Manchester. I want to enjoy it, visit it and share it. I also want the church to learn from it, for churches are meant to be places of Christ-centred worship and mission that are indigenous, reflecting the good things of their cultural environment. Manchester’s burgeoning creative culture is a good challenge to the church to be similarly creative, and not just in a reactive, but proactive way.  

Churches have often been centres of creative excellence in the past, which is often when they have been most vibrant. They tried new things and become breeding grounds for creative people and innovative leaders. Interestingly, despite many churches struggling in the UK today, I see more signs of vitality and pioneering cultural leadership now than I did ten years ago. Most days I come across entrepreneurial church leaders who are brimming with fresh thoughts and renewed vision for their communities. Some even have bold and brash ideas that are being turned into reality, like purchasing, at considerable cost, an old army barracks in the centre of Manchester. Once renovated it will be a stunningly creative space for young adults, to serve the city and from which many new churches will be planted in the future. I’m all for it. Let creativity arise! 

Creative people 

Aviva Studios is an impressive building, designed to be a modern cathedral of contemporary cultural creativity in Manchester. It confidently declares a positive future for the arts, shouting loudly and proudly that Manchester is the cutting-edge city for creativity in the region and, should anyone be unsure, it really is the premier metropolis of the North. But perhaps more importantly I hope its impact will not just be the vast and impressive multi-million pound building, but the greater creative legacy it leaves in people, in those who are shaped by its art.  

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who was Chief Rabbi from 1991 to 2013 expressed something of this when he said: 

 'We are shaped by our environment, but we can also shape our environment as well. We are created, but also creative.’  

My prayer is that Aviva Studios and the other new artistic ventures will release more creativity across the city and region, across all ages, social sectors, and ethnic groups. Not only will this lift our sights, but it will stir our souls, and cause us to wonder at the Most Creative One, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. 

Review
Culture
Film & TV
5 min read

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: 20 years on

Memory and the meaning of suffering.

Beatrice writes on literature, religion, the arts, and the family. Her published work can be found here

A coupe sit on outdoor steps against a blue sky. One holds a plate and the other looks towards them.
Carrey and Winslet as Joel and Clementine.

Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind came out in 2004. Twenty years on, its stubborn insistence that the memory of pain gives meaning to our lives is as relevant as ever.  

I first watched Gondry’s cult classic earlier this year, in the midst of recovering from postnatal PTSD. When we are faced with heartbreak, it can be easy to wish that we could retreat from painful memories, hiding them away until the initial pang has seemingly died down. That was my experience, at least. But I quickly learnt that the traumatic memory of my daughter’s birth would continue to resurface until I processed it and accepted it as part of my life. Just so, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind teaches us that being vulnerable to suffering is a gift, that suffering itself is necessary to our moral growth, and that our ability to remember the past is an invaluable faculty of the human mind.  

The film begins simply, with a meeting between its protagonists, Joel Barish and Clementine Kruczynski. As Joel and Clementine start making small talk, they seem immediately comfortable, almost familiar with each other, and yet the atmosphere is eerie. Soon enough, we discover that Clementine was a patient at Lacuna, a clinic which erased every memory of Joel from her mind after their two-year relationship ended in a painful breakup. When Joel finds out, he asks Dr. Howard Mierzwiak, the director of Lacuna, to do the same for him. As viewers, we now start to wonder: was that meeting we witnessed their very first, or have they met again after their memories were erased, unaware that they loved each other in a ‘past’ life? 

This tone of disorientation continues throughout the film, and that’s what makes it so special. As Joel’s memories of Clementine are erased one by one, he realises that the removal of one’s painful experiences is in itself a kind of trauma; what promises to be a relief, turns out to be nothing more than loss.  

We experience this sense of disorientation and loss alongside Joel as we jump through snippets of his and Clementine’s happiest and saddest moments together, trying to piece together in our minds a linear narrative of their relationship. While this is happening, the film’s subplot focuses on Stan, Patrick, and Mary, three young people working for Lacuna. As Stan and Patrick, the ‘technicians’, work on Joel’s memory removal, Mary, Lacuna’s naive receptionist, muses on the beauty of their mission. She begins quoting aloud the passage of poetry which inspires the film’s very title, taken from Alexander Pope’s verse epistle Eloisa to Abelard (1717): 

How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot! 

The world forgetting, by the world forgot. 

Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind! 

Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d. 

Mary has an idealistic vision of her work: she believes she is helping suffering people experience the kind of ‘eternal sunshine’ that only a ‘spotless mind’ can achieve. But the human mind is not so simple. Joel’s desire for forgetfulness quickly turns nightmarish. As he realises he has made a mistake, he starts fighting to retain the memory of his love for Clementine, but his is a hopeless quest. Dr. Mierzwiak’s intervention ensures that the procedure is completed.  

Left alone without Stan and Patrick, Mary confesses to the married Dr. Mierzwiak that she is in love with him. It is at this point that her idealism crumbles down. He reveals that they’ve already had an affair in the past and that she agreed to let him erase its memory from her mind. Mary is devastated. She decides that what Lacuna is doing is unethical - even if Mierzwiak technically has the patients’ consent to the procedure - and releases the clinic’s files back to the patients. It is this decision which leads Clementine and Joel, just a few days after they ‘meet’ again, to discover that they’ve already loved each other in the past.  

Accepting suffering and holding it in our hearts, not with bitterness, but rather with courage, requires endless patience and infinite hope. 

Although the script of the film doesn’t spell it out, Mary’s story emphasises that the absence of painful memories is in itself experienced as a painful loss. What’s more, it shows that, without the memory of the suffering which we have inflicted on others, and which others have inflicted on us, we are incapable of moral growth. Thanks to the knowledge of the past, Mary is able, this time around, to resist having an affair with a married man. Just so, the final scene of the film, which sees Joel and Clementine vow to renew their relationship, is hopeful not in spite of the fact that they have regained the memory of the ways in which they hurt each other in the past, but precisely because of it.  

Accepting suffering and holding it in our hearts, not with bitterness, but rather with courage, requires endless patience and infinite hope. But that is what we were made for. Each one of us is called to endure pain in imitation of Christ, and, out of that pain, to discover a greater capacity for sacrificial love. We make meaning out of pain: that’s what human beings do.  

The very last lines of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind perfectly express the fruits of this Christ-like acceptance. As Joel reassures Clementine that he can’t see anything he doesn’t like about her, she expresses her doubts and anxieties: ‘But you will! But you will.’, she repeats, ‘You know, you will think of things. And I’ll get bored with you and feel trapped because that’s what happens with me.’ Joel and Clementine look at each other, and, after a pause, they simply say to each other: ‘Okay’. Their ‘okay’ is not an indication that they are doomed to repeat old mistakes. Rather, it signals a new choice: this time, when their relationship becomes difficult, they won’t just run away; this time, they will face discomfort, heartbreak, and disappointment, armed with the knowledge that seeking a sense of permanence by loving another person completely is an inherently valuable pursuit. In accepting the most traumatic parts of our past we grow closer to God; and in bravely deciding to look ahead to the future with hope, we catch a glimpse of the unadulterated joy which we will finally experience in God’s eternity.