Manchester Street Poem. Life stories in four hundred and fifty words.

I spent an hour (midst this time of MIF, Manchester Fringe and Manifest) at the old Bauer Millett arches, opposite the Britons Protection.

By Manchester's Finest | 17 July 2019

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For MIF that is the home of Manchester Street Poem. In weeks of high cost and often glossy production, Manchester Street Poem epitomises how simple and honest art can really be.

Karl Hyde – Underworld, contributor to the score of the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony and arch contributor to many other artistic ventures – created the concept and brought in Simon Leroux to help deliver the idea.

Following MIF 2017 the idea has expanded in scope, with artworks changing daily and on display in Festival Square. Simon and all of the contributors have been disenfranchised from society in their past.

Homelessness, mental issues, prison and addiction stories are standard fodder for the crew telling their stories each day on walls of cardboard, which are photographed each day and printed onto billboards for display in Festival Square overnight.

Quite a logistics operation which belies the seemingly simplistic concept. And on each billboard a QR code which takes you to and open, honest and moving stories of struggles.

Simon Leroux talked of his own mental struggles, before recovery, later university studies and his work helping people tell their own, almost always, harrowing stories. He did and still does this through short films as well as the spoken and written word.

At the end of the chat with Simon and the team I asked – as always – if I could take a few photographs. The absolutely standard reply that I usually get is, ‘I don’t like having my photograph taken.’

Not this crew, they smiled and lined up with unabashed pride at their work. Quite rightly, because in the midst of this intensified arts period in our City their work in its ultimate revealing honesty is real life.

Simon told me of gathering stories from around twenty contributors and then working with them to ‘edit’ into the required number of words to fit the space. I smiled as he described the typographic nightmare of fitting two stories onto each billboard with a calculation of nine hundred words overall.

Ergo: four hundred and fifty words (about) to tell each story. In the lead up to Manchester Street Poem he loses sleep about it he told me. He has been through a lot worse.

Tucked away on the physical fringe of Manchester’s Festival, a slightly obscure location has not impeded visits from Danny Boyle, Brian Eno and, Simon told me, Laurie Andersen, “Who had a really expensive coat on but was splashing paint everywhere.”

Karl Hyde and Simon Leroux are passionate about the belief that people opening up and telling their own stories is cathartic for people who have had their struggles – although cathartic is probably too posh a word to use. When I listened to some of the stories, Claire, Jamie, Norman, others, it was difficult to relate them to the happy smiley people that are revelling in the Manchester Street Poem workshop.

In the relatively short time that new billboards will be appearing every day in Festival Square get along there, have a look, have a read, talk to the artists who made them. And visitors are also welcome at the Bauer Millett arches to see work in progress – or get stuck into paint and brushes themselves.

Weekend at Bauer Millett also sees probably the best art sale in these MIF weeks. All the old cardboard finds its way onto a pile and can be bought for a fiver each – or more or less depending on what you think or can afford. All proceeds of course go to more story telling.

I couldn’t help thinking of the irony of that pile of cardboard – street art, street poems – when we are so used to seeing cardboard bedding for the homeless in our City. Street art and street poems and street stories told and made by happy, smiley people who have almost all experienced homelessness themselves.