Thursday, 10 April 2014

‘Manchester: In Residents’ … #28 Bren

'It was an enchanted place and although no longer as it was, the vintage fittings and humidor cigar counter long gone, replaced by rows of Pot Noodles, I still visit in my mind’s eye.'

What’s your name?

What do you do?

There is something delightfully, incurably wrong with my head, fuelling a compulsion to create, dream and conjure the most ridiculous and absurd of activities, events and installations. I am powerless to resist the flow of ideas. In other words, I do stuff. I make things. I ask people to help me out and very often they do. On paper, I am a producer, curator and artist-maker, currently the Visual Arts Programme Manager at Cornerhouse and HOME, Manchester’s international centre for cinema, theatre and contemporary visual art. My background is in a mixture of arts production, including ten years at the BBC. In my day job I support an international roster of emerging and mid-career artists, covering experimental film and video, installation, live performance and public participation.
         It’s been a bumpy but incredible eighteen months following the relocation of a close friend to the lure of sunny Oz, coupled with an abrupt finish to a relationship. There’s a term I use, ‘raft building’, to describe the process of lashing myself to an all-consuming project to carry me through rough waters, when swimming isn’t enough to keep from floundering. Fortunately, it was at this exact moment I was asked to produce my first feature-length movie. Jamie Shovlin’s Rough Cut is a hybrid of fiction and documentary capturing the process of recreating/reimagining a 1970s horror movie that never actually existed. I even appear in it myself, as a polo-necked villain, and as a pair of hands inside a fog-wreathed cabin in the woods…

The project was reviewed in the leading cinema press – from Sight and Sound to a full-page feature in the Guardian Guide to Empire and Total Film – and selected for the Rotterdam International Film Festival, and continues to screen on the international festival circuit, most recently in New York. I’m exceptionally proud of what we achieved, and the memories of tramping about the Lake District, doubling for Argento’s Italy and slasher-camp America, will stay with me always: plagued by clouds of razor-fanged midges, clambering through quarries and caves, blowing up scale models on the moors and slathering a giant, monster worm with buckets of sexual lubricant for slime.
         I also squeezed in some projects of my own, including That Dame Upstairs, a noir-styled monochrome life drawing class and performance with The Sisters Gorgeous, and Nicho Nativity, a Mexican-themed Christmas grotto in the basement of Oklahoma, the latter thanks to a grant from The Paul Hamlyn Foundation. I kicked the year in the nuts with a sell-out 300 seat screening of my recurring Scratch and Sniff Cinema series, this time for The Wicker Man, with odours ranging from village orgy (crushed rosemary) to burning virgin (roasting meat). I did say I was compulsive…
         All rafts sink by the nature of their transitory purpose, so there always needs to be another one waiting. Before I reach The Other Side, I’m aiming for a personal best score. We only get one attempt at this game. There are no start-agains.

Where do you live?

In leafy Old Trafford, the nearly-Chorlton but most definitely not-Hulme neighbourhood where you get more square foot per butt. It’s close to the city and I prefer old Victorian housing stock to charmless, city-centre shoeboxes, plus I’m around the corner from the Hong Kong Chippy. They make the best chips and gravy in South Manchester with a free side of highly personalised criticism delivered in Cantonese.

Tell us the story of how you ended up in Manchester.

I’m from here, raised in Rusholme and Salford, though no one seems to believe me. I lack the requisite accent (even though my vowels are distinctly Northern) and right from the playground I was accused of being ‘posh’. What this actually meant was that I loved to read, and because I was partly raised by my surrogate television family (Floella Benjamin, Derek Griffiths, Johnny Ball, Fingerbobs, Bagpuss) I unconsciously imitated them, particularly when called upon to read aloud, or at bedtime, hence ‘posh’.
         Somewhat incredibly, I’ve been attending Cornerhouse for over twenty years. This attendance was initially prompted by an older woman – we’ll call her Sylvia – who drove a Porsche and had a husband stashed in the attic. Sylvia befriended me at the video rental shop and would drive my friend Moira and I to watch French people shout at each other and have miserable sex (which describes about 80% of independent cinema, then and now). I last saw Sylvia when, as an asexual young adult, I was turned out of her house when her husband accused us of having an affair. ‘You’d better go,’ she urged, ‘I’ll call you tomorrow’. To my relief she never did call.
         Around this time I took a self-funded gap year to work as a teacher in Varna, on the coast of the Black Sea, which wasn’t as edifying as I’d hoped, underscored as it was by a diet of stale bread and Nutella. On returning to England I moved to Newcastle to study literature, working at Northern Stage as an usher and spending summers with the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Office. From there I went to Belfast, a lonely period in which everyone seemed to return to their hometowns at the weekend, leaving me to wander around Belfast Zoo where more frequently than not I would be pursued by a rogue Pelican that took a dislike to me and would wait, hissing, around the corner of public footpaths.
         I’ve been back in Manchester for a long time now, and I think if I were to relocate again, I’d make it a big one – across the sea and far away. But Manchester will always be the soil that clings to my roots.

What’s great about this city?

It is a city in its truest sense, indifferent to human suffering or achievement, built on opportunism, greed, poverty and wealth, the unremarked-upon lives of the many, and marble-hewn egos of a few. It is an ill-planned, clumsy, mismatched patchwork of pre-war Victoriana and post-war concrete, dotted with boom-and-bust glass-walled hives of hipster drones. There are enough ‘quarters’ to create more than one whole, no skyline to speak of, and we are baptised nightly in bodily fluids as the populous knock back their over-priced cocktails and finish with a bollock burger on the way home. Despite, or because of this, Manchester is at the very least authentic; an ugly truth, a beautiful lie, and so forgivably flawed. It is a city of human scale that refuses to stop playing and come in for tea.

Do you have a favourite Manchester building?

There’s an unassuming shop front in the warrens of Rusholme that will always be a symbolic beacon for me. It’s my parent’s old newsagents, which I lived above as a child. The last time I paid a pilgrimage there it was dilapidated and near ruinous… the windows plastered with discounted phone card adverts. But the refuse sacks that litter the adjacent streets appear, to me, like a black-capped fairy circle, hinting at the residue of magic within. It was the late 1970s when we lived there, before the rash of supermarkets and out-of-town shopping centres, when corner shops were also the local toy store, and the stock changed according to season; rows of eggs at Easter, monster masks at Halloween, and ‘Standard Firework’ selection boxes in the run up to Bonfire Night. At Christmas I would sit on towers of Quality Street tins, reading about the application of natural yogurt as a cure-all in the problem pages of Just Seventeen. It was an enchanted place and although no longer as it was, the vintage fittings and humidor cigar counter long gone, replaced by rows of Pot Noodles, I still visit in my mind’s eye.

Do you have a favourite Mancunian?

My twin sister, Katie. She would never turn her back on me, nor I her, no matter our documented attempts to kill one another (the first when we were two years old, and I maintain that she pushed me down the stairs first). We have a shared memory as infants of a lampshade swinging between our beds, seemingly by an invisible force. Read into that what you will, but cross us together at your peril, and beware sewing needles that mysteriously appear in wet facecloths. Come the apocalypse we will stand back to back, wielding kitchen knives, making a detour into All Saints for slimming survivalist fashion, all the while arguing furiously about who is having the harder time of it.

What’s your favourite pub/bar/club/restaurant/park/venue?

There’s a small swimming pool where I swim most lunchtimes that I’m not prepared to promote the existence of, for fear it will be invaded by people with better bodies. But I’ll happily give the thumbs-up to Fred Aldous, The Briton’s Protection, The International Anthony Burgess Foundation, TwentyTwentyTwo and the Ray Harryhausen-like mural and statue of a terrifying, anorexic Christ in St Augustine’s Catholic Church, built of WWII bomb debris… and really, who can live without Stitches off Deansgate for swift clothing alterations?

What do you think is missing from Manchester?

Ask not what your city can do for you, but what you can do for your city. There’s far too much white noise nostalgia for times past, coupled with a lot of ‘what-if’ but very little direct action. I love what the Manchester Modernist Society and Loiterers Resistance Movement are doing, aiding interpretation and facilitating engagement, not placing the past underneath a bell jar. They should be championed as civic superheroes, instead of marginalised as black sheep. There’s also a growing, infuriating trend towards ghettoisation amongst audiences for live events of any kind, sticking to one venue or scene instead of getting out there. I’ve had people complain to me that they didn’t know such-and-such a thing was happening because they were not directly invited via Facebook. People need to seek out and support a wider cultural ecology with exposure to new ideas and unfamiliar disciplines. It is each and every person’s responsibility to make your city a better place.

If I was Mayor for a day I would …

Give that guy who works at Cornerhouse the keys to the little shuttered-up shop under a railway arch facing Monroes, beneath Piccadilly Station, and allow him to use it rent free as a sit-and-drift reading room, along the lines of the Prelinger Archive in San Francisco. There would be books, photo albums, VHS tapes, music mix cassettes, redundant media players, records, part-completed Panini sticker albums and shoeboxes filled with the ephemera of others, curated and rotated with the sole intention of encouraging the mind to wander. A bank of cubicles with curtains would allow privacy for those who needed a little cry for whatever reason, with a 50p sob box on trust to help pay for the electric. Outside, a neon light installation and quote from Shirley Conran’s Lace would read, Which one of you bitches is my mother?

Who else would you like to nominate to answer this questionnaire?

Sharon of Sharon’s Flowers, next to Big Hands on Oxford Road, but you’d need to enter backwards holding up a mirrored shield. Do not look into her eyes.

Bren’s next project has been commissioned by the North West Central Film Hub, part of the British Film Institute Film Audience Network. In his first outing as director, a cinema audience will be plunged into total darkness for a filmic experience without visuals, instead wearing wireless headphones using binaural audio, a specialised method of audio capture that creates a 360º spatial soundscape, best described as a form of aural ventriloquism. The unfolding tale is that of a classic haunting...

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