Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Best of 2013

As I write this I'm coming to the end of the first year of my PhD (technically I'm still at the MPhil stage), which is exciting but also quite terrifying as I don't know where the last twelve months have gone and I feel like I should have more to show for the year. It's been a big challenge going from three years of working almost full-time to being a full-time student without the structure and company of an office job, but it's also been stimulating, exciting and eye-opening. What I wanted to get out of doing a PhD was a challenge, and to be challenged, and I definitely feel a lot less certain of myself and my place in the world now, with certain assumptions of what I was good at (writing, organisation, time management) turned upside down. It's become increasingly apparent how many things I need to improve at.

Nonetheless, having more energy (in theory) because of being able to spend less time in an office, I've been able to get a lot more involved in Islington Mill Art Academy throughout the year, taking part in regular crits, reading groups and outings, which has provided both a really good support network and a receptive audience to talk about and present what I've been working on. When I found out I was going to be a student again, I was also looking forward to being able to join a university orchestra, but my university doesn't appear to have one. Luckily, a short google search revealed that Oldham Symphony Orchestra has the same conductor as the orchestra I was in as an undergraduate. Joining has been another big challenge as I've not played violin regularly for at least five years. It's been a great way of continuing my musical education, though, as not coming from a background immersed in classical music I've always found it difficult to get into a lot of the classical music cannon without actively playing it.

I also spent more time in London in 2013 than I have ever done before, much of it alone. Taking to the streets on foot, with an A to Z, has really helped me overcome my phobia of the city. After many years of finding London grey, grimy, overcrowded and depressing, 2013 is the year I finally found some things to like about it. Mainly, the food-related delights of Drummond Street, Euston Tap (cider branch) and, above all Hampstead Ponds. At Hampstead Ponds the water is warm and calm and there is plenty of space to swim, but best of all student entry is only a pound! I can eat curry and drink cider in Manchester any time, but as far as I know Manchester doesn't have any ponds I can swim in and the liberating experience of swimming in Hampstead Ponds is by far the most enjoyable thing I have ever done in London.

Also in swimming-related news, I finally braved Salford Quays for an open water swimming session in Ontario Basin, once the water temperature had crept above the 14 degrees required to swim without a wetsuit, and it was one of the best experiences I have ever had in Greater Manchester. At 21.7 degrees the water was warmer than the sea, and surprisingly fresh and clean. The 500m course is quite a long way to swim, but feels a lot less monotonous than laps of a pool; it's strange to swim underneath huge cranes, with trams constantly going past. I found the distance of the course to present a mental challenge as much as a physical challenge: being surrounded by a vast stretch of deep, black water, not knowing what's beneath, is quite a lonely experience and a test of endurance, although the atmosphere of the facilities was very friendly and the regulars were a diverse bunch of people.

Some other things I have enjoyed in 2013:

Music 

A good chunk of the last few months has been soundtracked by my standout album of the last couple of years, Light Up Gold by Parquet Courts. A classic punk rock band who channel the spirit of the Saints, etc, and bring to mind Pavement in their slower moments, listening to their record reminds me what a great motivator rock music can be: sometimes it's the only thing that makes you feel like you're fully alive, have blood in your veins and actually want to get up and do something. Highlight: Stoned and Starving.

I've also been enjoying Thee Oh Sees' solid album of spaced out rock, Floating Coffin, particularly Night Crawler. Low's latest album, the Invisible Way, was also a surprise delight. After losing interest in Low around the time of their last album, Just Make It Stop reminded me why I spent so many years bewitched by Mimi's voice and their distinctively sparse sound.

This year I've also heard the best band to emerge from Manchester in a while, Denson, who make really beautiful, dreamlike electronic rock with a slightly surrealistic edge. Unlike most Manchester bands I've enjoyed in the last few years, it's not grounded in the here-and-now (and doesn't hark back to the 1960s) but appears to be transmitted down from another planet altogether and belong to an entirely less-familiar world. For fans of Sleeping States, Cryptacize and Broadcast, my favourite track is Milkismurder.

For the same reasons as above, the best gig of the year was Parquet Courts at Gorilla. They're definitely a band to jump up and down to, and I took part in a mosh pit for the first time in several years, leaving the gig soaked through in sweat.

An early highlight of the year was Dinosaur Jr at the Ritz. I love Dinosaur Jr for the way they make music that is undisputedly noisy, but at the same time incredibly beautiful. J Mascis's unparalleled control of his guitar and the way he makes quite complicated music appear effortless is a sight to behold. It's just a shame that the gig took place at the corporate behemoth of the Ritz, which immediately put my back up by confiscating my bottle of water at the door. As a lone female, I also felt outnumbered by a ratio of around 25:1 by pairs/groups of men of a certain age.

Also enjoyable was ice queen-like, impossible impeccable-looking Molly Nilsson's mournful dance music at Islington Mill in Salford and Franziska Lantz (Saydance)'s weird, atmospheric electronica performance at the Anthony Burgess Foundation to launch the Cacotopia exhibition.

The most entertaining band I saw this year was undoubtedly Joyce D'Vision, a three-piece fronted by a man in a dress which plays joyous and surprisingly musically accomplished covers of Joy Division. I saw them in From Space, a small ceramics studio on Chapel Street, Salford, supporting fun American anti-folk band Cars Can Be Blue, surrounded by artist Liz Scrine's creations, and it was one of the best moments of the summer. Bristol bands the Nervy Betters and Two White Cranes played out the end of a long hot summer in a marquee in a Chorlton garden beneath a tree groaning with apples.

After many years of finding him annoyingly blokey and musically undistinguished, 2013 was also the year I sort of got into Billy Bragg, a bit, after buying my mum tickets to see him at the Bridgewater Hall as a birthday present. The rest of it I can take or leave, but I've now come round to the idea that Milkman of Human Kindness is one of the most perfect songs I've ever heard, beautiful in its simplicity and utterly affecting in its lyrics. I admit that the rest of Life's a Riot with I Vs Spy is pretty great too. Another late highlight of the year was Yo La Tengo at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill on Sea who, incredibly had just marked their thirtieth year of playing together as a band.

Film 

I thought 2013 was a very strong year for film. The year started with McCullin, a documentary about the great British photographer focusing largely on his work in war zones. The film is harrowing and incredibly moving, making you question everything around you and really putting things into perspective. The first ever Saudi Arabian film I've seen, Wadja, was also moving and inspiring. Equally uplifting and heartbreaking, it's a real eye-opener. Blue is the Warmest Colour definitely didn't feel like a three-hour film. While it wasn't always comfortable watching I found it to be a bold and honest depiction of love, obsession, adolescence and growing up. It was also good to see a depiction of female sexual desire which didn't present women as passive accessories to male sexuality but as sexual beings in their own right.

On a lighter note, the film I was looking forward to most this year, Pedro Almodovar's I'm So Excited, was everything I could have hoped for: colourful, silly, musical and hilarious from start to finish. 2013 was also the year I saw my first Studio Ghibli film, after many years of assuming they would be cloyingly twee, and I loved everything about Up On Poppy Hill from the style to the animation to the story to the music, which stayed just the right side of retro.

Woody Allen's latest, Blue Jasmine, was surprisingly sophisticated, and I found myself mulling over for a few days afterwards, along with tense American drama Breathe In which provided an unflinching portrait of ordinary human beings deeply flawed in their self-obsession.

I also enjoyed some of this year's documentaries, including John Akomfrah's multi-sided the Stuart Hall Project, which presented his ideas and writing through archive footage and Hall speaking in his own words. I also enjoyed Ken Loach's Spirit of 45. Although it wasn't subtle, I found many of the interviewees inspiring in their attitude and spirit.

I also thought that the annual Viva! Festival of Spanish and Latin American film at the Cornerhouse, which I often find really patchy, was the strongest one I have attended over the last five or six years (unless I have just become better at choosing films!). I enjoyed a moving if depressing documentary of the Chilean folk singer Violeta Parra, Violeta Went to Heaven, with a fantastic soundtrack, along with Spanish film Ali, a simple and touching tale of love, relationships and growing up. However, the stand-out highlight, which was also one of the best films I saw this year, was Catalan teen drama the Wild One, which built a sense of unease and suspense with great effect, before revealing a conclusion that was genuinely shocking, a rare quality nowadays.

Books 

I've hardly read any non-academic books in 2013, but William Mitchell's autobiography Self-Portrait: The Eyes Within, which arrived a couple of days before Christmas, was the best present I could have hoped for. As well as spending several decades at the forefront of artistic innovation and experimentation, Mitchell has revealed himself to be a great story-teller with plenty to say about not just art, but society.

Television and radio

After several years of only watching factual television, I finally found the BBC drama for me, Him & Her. I don't know if it speaks to me because I would quite like to stay in bed all day if I had the chance, or because the characters are so naturalistic and take delight in the mundane (and often gross) aspects of life and relationships, but it's an impeccably acted and cast show.

Grayson Perry's In the Best Possible Taste was an interesting experiment, although I found it a bit simplistic and impossible to relate to any of the class/taste 'tribes' he identified (the resulting tapestries, the Vanity of Small Differences, currently on display at Manchester Art Gallery, are immense, storytelling works of great beauty and detail which are well worth investing time in and bear up to repeat visits). I found Paul O'Grady's take on a similar subject, Paul O'Grady's Working Britain, more nuanced and enlightening. However, Grayson Perry definitely won in the radio stakes, with his series of Reith Lectures which were laugh-out -loud funny, insightful and provocative.

While I find that much of his writing and broadcasting often borders on incomprehensible, I also enjoyed Jonathan Meades' offbeat tour of my parents' homeland, the Joy of Essex, which made me endeavour to explore more of my own country.

Theatre 

Arthur Miller's All My Sons was one of the best productions I have ever seen at the Royal Exchange. It could have backfired, but I thought the all-black cast worked really well and added a whole new dimension to the play.

Art 

The stand-out highlight of the year was Tino Sehgal's installation This Variation at Mayfield Depot during Manchester International Festival. I thought I knew Sehgal's work reasonably well, but was genuinely surprised by the immersive, unexpected and surprisingly intimate performance he pulled off. It didn't hurt that Good Vibrations by the Beach Boys, an a capella performance of which featured in the installation, is in my view the peak of twentieth century pop music.

Dan Graham's Past Future Split Attention was also a highlight, as was Graham's post-performance talk in which he offered entertaining insights from his polymath mind on everything from the Shaker movement to psychology and rock music. The other highlight of the International Festival was the Biospheric Project, a mind-bogglingly innovative initiative using an old industrial building and outdoor site to explore sustainable ways of growing fresh, local produce in urban settings.

An unexpected London highlight was Souzou, the Wellcome Institute's exhibition of Japanese outsider art, comprising drawings, paintings, textiles, sculptures and models, much of it made by residents of mental institutions. Much of it was bizarre, imaginative, tactile and intricate, but above all it was bright, colourful and beautiful.

Also in London, Schwitters in Britain at Tate Britain provided an interesting overview of the artist and his life and work: several of the works I found most affecting were those made out of unlikely materials in prison camps (also with camp magazines), representing what can be made with all that is to hand.

An early highlight of the year was Carl Andre: Mass and Matter at Turner Contemporary in Margate, which showed how powerful simple materials and forms can be, regardless of concept.

One of the most effective projects I saw was Maurice Carlin's Performance Publishing at Regent Trading Estate in Salford, a printing project and art installation on a grand scale that reconfigured the artist and viewer's relationship with an otherwise bland and vast former warehouse building, and transformed the previously empty space into a carpet of colour.

The Piracy Project at Grand Union in Birmingham was a show that was greater than the sum of its parts: a growing collection of artists' books exploring notions around copyright, appropriation, ownership, authorship and meaning.

Manchester's Bureau Gallery made some interesting use of their new space in a Spinningfields office building, notably Matthew Houlding's miniature, colourful, architectural-style models, which played off the transparency of the space, and the repetitive motifs of Evangelia Spiliopoulou's dot paintings, which revealed more the more you looked at them. It was also a good year for Castlefield Gallery, particularly Nicola Ellis's delicate drawings, Sam Meech's film Noah's Ark, where music complemented archive film of seaside towns to great effect, in Spaceship Unbound, and Joseph Lewis' old-fashioned-looking and furniture-fitting-esque instruments in the current show, Radical Conservatism. Another highlight from one of Manchester's smaller galleries was Anthony Hall's fun and inventive Tabletop Experiments at Untitled Gallery, which brought together science and art to great effect.

I loved the Museum of Everything theme at Venice Biennale, which blended art with anthropology, and felt that it was a far less ostentatious and more subtle and effective event this year than in previous years. Highlights included the Starry Messenger, Bedwyr Williams' immersive film and installation which took visitors on a strange, Jan Svankmajer-esque journey through the off-site Welsh pavilion, as well as the films and wallpapered surroundings of the Slovenian pavilion, based around the unfortunately-named 'failed national icon' of the Anophthalmus hitleri beetle, exploring place, politics, architecture and monuments, as well as Ed Atkins' deadpan exploration of Andre Breton's home, the Trick Brain.

Architecture 

The most impressive new building of the year was the Co-operative's long-awaited new headquarters at 1 Angel Square. I was lucky enough to go on an architect's tour shortly after it opened, and to hear about all the sustainability measures which have been built in to make it one of the most environmentally-friendly buildings in Europe; these encompass not just environmental and technical elements such as the air circulation system for heating and cooling the building, but working practices such as paperless offices and hot desking. The open plan nature of the building means it can easily be adapted for future uses and clients, and the forward-thinking vision behind the building, and consideration of its legacy, particularly impressed me. It was interesting to hear how the architect drew on the Co-operative's architectural and symbolic heritage in the area, from the steel and glass of the 1960s CIS tower to the curved structure of the beehive with its associations with both the co-operative movement and the city of Manchester. Seeing the building from the outside really doesn't prepare you for the scale of the building; apparently the atrium is big enough to park a Boing 747 (should the need ever arise). The building has fantastic views over Manchester and really utilises its position with roof terraces, however the thing which lets the building down is its over-the-top, self-consciously quirky d├ęcor, which is probably meant to feel fun and informal but comes across as piecemeal and jarring and I imagine will date very quickly, from the abundance of tea cup-shaped, pop art-style seats to informal meeting areas themed around palm trees. Another design flaw, in my view, is the apparent lack of microwaves in any of the shared kitchen areas: being able to look forward to a big bowl of steaming leftovers at lunchtime is one of the things that gets me through the working day.