Northern Voices: Artificial light in luminous nights

For most of 2020, a crane stood over Portland Street, there for the construction of the Clayton Hotel. Hanging off the crane was a sign that glowed white throughout the night. I would look out of my window at the moon, only to realise it was the construction company’s shining logo. It felt like a heavy-handed metaphor.

Dark Days, Luminous Nights was an audio-visual installation at The White Hotel in Salford, created by Manchester Collective in collaboration with artists Simon Buckley and Blackhaine. It features a score by Edmund Finnish, Béla Bartók and Wojciech Kilar, performed by Manchester Collective.

‘Angel Meadow’ by Simon Buckley

The film follows a strange dancer, glowing sodium-orange, as he pursues, accompanies or shepherds a trio of friends into the centre of Manchester, depending on your interpretation. He wields a single orange light, one of the only sources of warm light in the film. They wander from more natural settings, framed by trees and small buildings, to the growing skyline of the city centre.

Construction in Manchester is on the increase and much of it is vertical. Seven of the ten tallest buildings in the city have been built in the last three years. The CIS Tower, Arndale House and City Tower once stood out against a low-rise cityscape, now they are the seventh, twelfth and sixteenth tallest buildings respectively.

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These new buildings are mostly residential, providing housing for young professionals. That’s where the money is. At the same time, the capacity for social housing in Manchester has decreased by 16 per cent between 1997 and 2019 and the waiting list has increased by 98 per cent.

Greater Manchester Housing Action’s ‘Who Owns the City?’ report showed that the status of publicly owned land wasn’t always published or kept updated and was only accessible via freedom of information requests. Land was leased to property developers for just £1 in multiple examples.

Locked down in my flat, looking at that crane multiple times a day, I couldn’t tell you what the sign said. Who owns that hotel? Who built it? None of the companies listed in GMHA’s report were familiar to me. They don’t seek out familiarity or brand recognition. They become background radiation. We don’t engage with these new buildings as something that was built by a company for major profit, in the context of Manchester’s housing crisis. They’re just new flats. You should buy one. Think about the life you could have in one of those.

As the travellers in Dark Days, Luminous Nights reach the city centre, the mood changes. The dancer can’t keep up with the three friends and is left writhing alone in an underpass. His orange glow is dimmed compared to the glaring white lights surrounding him. Tower blocks are glowing monoliths in the night. Each little square of light, a new star, as if my crane has already taken the place of the moon.

‘Dark Days, Luminous Nights’ at The White Hotel, Salford
Photo: Drew Forsyth / Manchester Collective

Manchester city centre lacks nature. The canal path slinking under Oxford Road may be home to a heron and a few ducks, but the water is always murky. In Dark Days, the water of the River Irk is always shot to look ink-black, reflecting the artificial lights. When trees or bushes appear, it always feels like they’re in a losing battle with the city, only appearing in fleeting shots and often in silhouette.

In an interview, director Simon Buckley talked about the importance of the film moving along the Irk, a river originating in Oldham that joins the Irwell by Victoria Station in the city centre. It was formerly renowned for its sluggish black water and the fatness of its eels due to the fats and oils running off the adjacent mills.

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German philosopher Friedrich Engels wrote about the Irk in The Condition of the Working Class in England, publishedin 1845, describing it as brimming with animal stench from the tanneries and woollen mills. He was appalled by the cramped and unsanitary conditions in which people lived and worked. The river valley was barely populated for hundreds of years until Manchester sprung up all of a sudden in the 18th and 19th centuries as a great centre of industry. The rapid growth we’re seeing today isn’t anything unprecedented, it’s more of what’s come before.

Engels, alongside Marx, elsewhere wrote about how the contemporary view of economic relationships were perceived as between decontextualised ‘things’ rather than coming from the labour of people who made them, which he called commodity fetishism. It’s the same phenomenon we see with the crane sign, and all these new buildings.

‘River Irk’ by Simon Buckley

Dark Days, Luminous Nights doesn’t end with anything conclusive, but there is a hint of hope. Its closing shots show the dancer following the three friends into The White Hotel which is lit up by his orange glow. He finds a place that embraces and amplifies his warmth in a city that rejected him.

In 2003, The Irk Valley Project made an effort to clean up the areas around the river and water quality began to improve. Researchers from the project said that “the landscape carries the legacy of centuries of industrial development, both in its historical features and in areas of derelict and contaminated land and poor water quality”. This acknowledgement of the legacy of harm done to the natural land shows how we can understand modern day Manchester. Whilst incremental work is being done to redress its problems, the cogs of capital keep turning.

This feature was written in response to watching Manchester Collective’s ‘Dark Days, Luminous Nights’.

This is the second article in our Northern Voices series, commissioned in collaboration with Manchester Collective.