In a screening room in Manchester Art Gallery, the 1.5-metre-high shaven head of a white male in his mid-30s looms over the audience. His lips tremble. His eyes are moist and evasive. The star of Ed Atkins’s installation Performance Capture mumbles: “It often felt, to me, like my, um, body – its potential to pronounce itself, to perform and embody the possessive singular, in all its abjectly encumbered ways – is not ‘this’…”
He speaks without stopping, for hours. He is never very coherent – a condition brought on, perhaps, by the busy, bafflingly overconnected medium in which he lives. He is only digital, after all.
Don’t let the detail fool you: his stubble, day by day more visible; the bags that darken, hour by hour, under his eyes; the burst capillaries. The man is dead, as only a man who has never lived can be dead. “Something that can suffer without suffering, perform without performance, and be without being,” says Atkins.
Next door, in a room humming with half a million pounds’ worth of servers, modellers from the Manchester animation house Studio Distract work around the clock to make the head real. They will not succeed. “The technology’s failure is our victory,” says Atkins, whose international career has spiralled since he graduated from the Slade School of Art in 2009.
And next to the render farm, a steady stream of visitors arrive to have their performances captured with a 3D camera. Over the course of the festival, 104 people will each deliver a one-minute performance, reciting an addled, sometimes conspicuously nasty monologue composed by Atkins. Software will reduce and abstract their performances so that in the end, nothing of them will remain except their gestures, expressions and intonation. The head will replicate these faithfully. Bjork’s scowl. Damon Albarn’s smile. (The festival’s A-listers are all queuing up to be rendered.) Also the volunteer who hands out programmes in front of the gallery. Also the cleaner. “It’s a concentration, an essentialising,” says Atkins. “The essence that appears at the end requires a murder, more or less.”
Atkins imagines digital media as a realm of the dead. Damon Albarn and the makers of the new musical Wonder.land, at the Palace Theatre, disagree. The digital for them is Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland, and Aly (the lead character, and a strong performance by Lois Chimimba) is swiftly dispatched there, sucked in through the glass maw of her mobile phone. (The conceit is a good one: Lewis Carroll did, after all, once try to buy the forerunner of the modern computer from Charles Babbage.) Alas, Aly’s reports from Wonder.land are hardly more coherent than those that Atkins’s head delivers from Hell, not least because of a script that reduces Wonderland’s polymorphous perversity – Carroll’s Alice could and did become whatever she wished – into something wearyingly close to a school counselling session.
Like Wonder.land, Mark Simpson’s oratorio The Immortal has a lot to say about wish fulfilment, and like Performance Capture, it has a great deal to do with death. Also, in an odd way, it shares with those other festival commissions a fascination with the digital uncanny – in this case of the early 1900s.
Half a century after its publication, society was still was reeling from the blow of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, which dislodged our species from any privileged space in nature, and corroded any easy belief in divine providence. In 1901, Frederic Myers, president of the Society of Psychical Research, died. Some years later, mediums in Britain, the US and India all reported receiving spirit messages from him.
Simpson, a 26-year-old clarinettist whose extraordinary career has landed him the role of Composer in Association with the BBC Philharmonic, brilliantly evokes the fear of new technology at the turn of the 20th century. Together, the orchestra, the Manchester Chamber Choir and chamber choir EXAUDI recreate in frankly terrifying musical terms a world of invisible rays, radio and telegraphy – media through which it was sometimes supposed that the afterlife might be accessed. Across it all Myers himself, channelled by baritone Mark Stone, expresses, in narrow chromatic runs and glissandi laden with horror, the anguish of a man whose life, spent grieving a long dead sweetheart has convinced him that the material world is insufficient.
Manchester is deep in a programme of regeneration as fundamental and iconoclastic as any in the UK since the second world war. Whole vistas rise and vanish, streets disappear, unexpected sightlines emerge. It is an uncanny place, and the festival’s major commissions this year all acknowledge the fact. In The Skriker, Caryl Churchill’s malign, eponymous character cracks free of her hidden realm to entrap two sisters; Reggie “Roc” Gray’s shamanic troupe of flex dancers contort themselves into impossible avian shapes, the better to accommodate their human agony. This year’s festival is rich and strange: every new work has made a highway for faerie.