Crafting the Weird at Gothic Manchester Festival 2015
Laura Ager speaks to Kolyn Amor, ‘artist in residence’ at Salford's Sacred Trinity church and contributor to the Gothic Manchester festival, about the darker side of Manchester’s cultural scene.
Gothic Manchester is an annual festival presented by the Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies in the Department of English at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU). The festival is now in its third year and its programme is a diverse and ever-changing set of events; over the course of the three years this has included guided tours of graveyards and libraries, book readings, discos, pub quizzes, film screenings, art shows and more.
The festival format represents an innovative way for a collegiate group of university researchers and lecturers in the history of fiction, film and society to present their work to the public and respond to the city itself, but the Gothic Festival doesn’t just focus on central Manchester venues, it reaches out its dark tentacles into Salford as well.
On a quiet morning at Sacred Trinity Church on Chapel Street I met up with artist and regular festival contributor Kolyn Amor to find out about the Manchester Gothic Arts Group’s forthcoming exhibition ‘Crafting the Weird’ (which is the opening event of this year’s Gothic Festival and includes the work by Kolyn pictured above) and to ask him how he became involved with researchers at MMU.
The space inside the historic Salford church is frequently used for music events and exhibitions of art work organised by the local community. It was here that I first met Kolyn at last year’s Gothic festival, when I called in to the Sacred Trinity church to see a group show called Aerial Burglars of Cottonopolis.
This exhibition was a collective response to the festival’s theme of ‘Steampunk’ by a group of artists calling themselves The Corpse Collective. With some funding from MMU, they had produced and assembled an exhibition of large scale photographs, digital collages, paintings, sound-based pieces and installations which made excellent use of all the atmospheric spaces inside the church. While there I discovered that Kolyn also runs a monthly Goth clubnight called ‘ArA’ at the church, named after the Latin word for altar. A flyer for the club promotes it as ‘a sanctuary for the alternative’ and for over ten years this regular meeting place has been an important node in the Gothic networks of Manchester.
“I’ve been told we’re now the longest running Goth night in Manchester” he said “I was looking round this place and I thought this would be such a cool place to have a Goth night. It’s never going to happen but I’m going to ask anyway”. To his amazement the vicar said yes and they set up the ArA nights with the unusual aim to marry Christian principles to the iconography of Gothic culture, interested in where and how they connect and to find out what happens in the interstices. ArA is one of many social events that brings the gothic community together, including members of the gothic research community at MMU. From the friendships and conversations that ArA initiates, a few people sometimes just decide to have a go at doing something.
Kolyn, Matt and another friend Liz formed the Manchester Gothic Arts Group (MGAG), first exhibiting their work under the title ‘Unmasked’ in the church in 2007 with the support of the Arts Council. He says the process that got them here has been so random and organic that he has trouble pinpointing exactly how they came together in the first place, yet the group’s involvement with the church goes deeper than simply use of space. What the members of MGAG share Kolyn can only sum up as a sense of “Gothiness, artiness and some sense of spirituality”.
“We were all feeling quite frustrated” he says, “we invented ourselves as Manchester Gothic Arts Group”. Despite acknowledging the material insecurity that comes with being an artist he says what he feels is freedom to create. “As long as I can remember I’ve had some drive to do something creative.” It’s a slightly annoying need, he says, but he’s naturally a ‘people pleaser’.
Kolyn rents space at the church to produce his work and is happy to spend time talking with unexpected visitors when they drop in, he tells me he has a background in social care too. “I continue to choose to put myself in fragile and vulnerable situations” he says, and he worries about how long you can legitimately run a Goth night for before you’re officially too old, but he tells me he was encouraged by seeing John Lydon play with PiL in Manchester recently.
This comment reminded me of an exhibit in last year’s exhibition which referenced the famous 1976 Sex Pistols performance in Manchester’s Free Trade Hall. This, and certain other unique aspects of the history of Manchester have helped to shape its urban cultural identity to which the festival can creatively respond. The city has provided a background setting for atmospheric films such as the noirish police thriller Hell is a City (Val Guest 1960) or horror film The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue (Jorge Grau, 1974).
Before that, Manchester was famous for its dark and satanic mills, reminders of that period of particularly rapid growth in the early phase of the Industrial Revolution in England. The city witnessed a number of 18th and 19th Century industrial British history ‘firsts’, summed up in a report in 1999 as “Britain’s first industrial ‘true’ canal, Britain’s first mainline, inter-city passenger railway and the country’s first industrial suburb based on steam power” (DCMS 1999 p.46). The high Victorian splendour of the John Rylands library and the Town Hall in the city centre complete the picture.
In 2014 the former Liverpool Road station, now home to the Museum of Science and Industry, provided a fitting location for the Gothic Festival’s ‘What is the thing we call Steampunk’, a curated day of events, papers and performances. Not only this, but in the same year this museum was where the Chancellor of the Exchequer made his notorious Northern Powerhouse speech. Heritage assets like these, restored and made accessible for reinterpretation as “emblems of Manchester’s commercial prosperity” (Nevell 2010 p.19) show clearly how culture and history are always suffused with politics. John Ruskin said “Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts: the book of their deeds, the book of their words, and the book of their art.” However in Ruskin’s opinion, only the last one of these is ‘quite trustworthy’.
Gothic writing, art and music opens a window onto a darker side of history, as the centre director Dr Linnie Blake recently explained “the Gothic isn’t simply a popular mode of entertainment. It is a powerful form of storytelling that tells us something about our deepest and darkest fears, about who we are as people and how our society works” (Blake 2013). Kolyn suggests that what fires the Gothic imagination are the things that ‘lie beneath’ the everyday world, it’s a subterranean metaphor that embraces the idea of multiple historical ‘unknowns’ as well as real hidden spaces in Manchester’s symbolic urban landscape.
The festival this year kicks off on Thursday 22nd October at the Manchester Gothic Arts Group’s exhibition ‘Crafting the Weird’, which opens with a party from 5pm at Holden Café Space in the Grosvenor Building on Cavendish Street, Manchester, M15 6BR (book free tickets here).
The centrepiece of the festival is the annual Gothic Manchester conference, a day-long event at No 70 Oxford St (the former site of the Cornerhouse Cinema) with four panel sessions of research papers on works of fiction, film and theatre including a perspective on the ‘psychogeographical exploration of Manchester Canals’. This last session is presented by Morag Rose, a regular contributor to the Gothic festival and MMU's other regular festival of the Humanities HiP.
On Friday night it’s time for Sacred Trinity’s monthly goth club night ArA, which on 23rd October will be special festival edition TentaculArA SpectaculArA! running from 9pm till 2am, with a live performance by MMU Professor of Art John Hyatt's band Glamogoth.
On Saturday evening, established Manchester horror film enthusiasts Grimmfest present Reanimator and From Beyond, two Lovecraft-inspired 80’s horror flicks, with the producer of both films in attendance to answer questions.
Dr Linnie Blake and Dr Xavier Aldana Reyes have also curated an exhibition of illustrations, books and artworks from Special Collections held at the John Rylands Library, called Darkness and Light: Exploring the Gothic it is open daily and runs until Sunday, 20 December 2015.
The festival weekend is rounded off with a trip to the Hold Fast Bar for the Cthulhu Pub Quiz.
After two weeks in the Holden Café Space at MMU (opening times here) the ‘Crafting the Weird' exhibition then moves to Sacred Trinity church for the whole of November – the church is open 12 till 3pm on Tuesdays and for services on Sundays.
- DCMS (1999) World Heritage Sites: The Tentative List of The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. London: DCMS
- Blake, L. (2013) A degree in Twilight: University launches course in Gothic horror to cash in on popularity of vampire fiction, Daily Mail Reporter
- Nevell, M. (2010) 'Dark Satanic Mills? The Archaeology of the World's First Industrial City', Current Archaeology, XXI, No. 2, Issue 242, pp.12-19
- Ruskin, J. (1877) St. Mark’s Rest: The History of Venice
'Sacrifice Your God' (2015) by Kolyn Amor
Laura is a freelance event organiser and film programmer who became interested in the politics of the cultural economy after running a small co-operative clubwear business in the late 90s and early 2000s. She is currently a PhD candidate at the SURF Centre, School of the Built Environment, University of Salford Manchester, on the AHRC Cultural Intermediation project. She is researching how universities interact with urban creative economies, with a particular focus on the role of festivals as networks of creating and distributing meaning and value.