At the White Hotel
‘The Festival of Great Britain (and Northern Ireland)’ was held at the White Hotel, a night club and arts centre in the middle of an industrial estate in Salford, on the night of 31 October. ‘Don’t worry,’ the posters said, ‘it’s in our hands.’ The programme mimicked the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s press release for a ‘major nationwide festival showcasing the UK’s unique strengths in creativity and innovation’, announced last year and scheduled for 2022.
The entrance to the White Hotel, decorated with barbed wire, Union Jack bunting and toilet paper, resembled a border checkpoint. To get in you had to fill in a landing card. The guards were dressed in coveralls, anti-pollution masks and flak jackets with Sooty and Sweep puppets peeking out. We were separated into two quarantine pens. (‘It’s just as well,’ one man said as his companion was led away.) After about an hour the pens were opened and we were ushered into another waiting area. At last a whistle blew. A Morrissey lookalike appeared and sang ‘Everyday is like Sunday’.
The government’s plans for the 2022 celebrations were inspired by the Festival of Britain, held in 1951 to mark the country’s recovery from the Second World War. The scene in Salford evoked not postwar optimism but wartime anxiety: there were bins on fire outside and a low rumbling noise inside. We were herded into a bar but not allowed into the next room (at least that’s what most of us thought; as it transpired later, no one was actively prevented from going in). The artist Stanley Schtinter, acting as the festival director ‘Winstanley Schtinter’, strolled around in high boots, a flight suit reinforced with knife-resistant sleeves, and a white peruke. The wig aside, he looked like Joseph Beuys in one of his performances mythologising his Second World War plane crash. You felt that a live coyote or a dead hare might appear at any moment.
Most of the ‘activities and attractions’ on the programme – including ‘welly wanging’, ‘FREE face painting (camouflage only)’ and ‘Second Referendum’ – were cancelled. The Funeral of Princess Diana 2.0, a film documenting another piece by Schtinter, was supposed to be shown on a cracked screen in a toilet cubicle, but that didn’t happen either. ‘Brexit means Brexit,’ someone in the audience shouted when the rumbling stopped and the place went strangely quiet. ‘Put the music on!’ But there was no DJ; just waiting and uncertainty about what might come next.
Someone suggested that there might be a ritual going on in the other room, possibly a tribute to Viennese Actionism. Another item on the programme was ‘pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey (with a REAL donkey)’: perhaps the donkey was in there. The conversation turned to Morrissey and his support for the far-right For Britain Movement. ‘Borders bring order,’ he said in June. ‘I can’t see how opposing Halal slaughter makes me racist when I’ve objected to all forms of animal slaughter all of my life.’
The impersonator came on again: ‘Why do you come here? And why, why do you hang around?’ Finally, we went through to the main space, dark, cold and empty except for an oil drum and a couple of tinfoil trays with some revolting-looking food (a few people tucked into it nevertheless). The singer told me that he still loves Morrissey despite everything and that he voted Remain because he ‘didn’t want a Tory Brexit’. Schtinter said the work wasn’t about Morrissey or Brexit: ‘I wanted people not to think, which is something we usually do too much of.’ I was reminded of Beuys’s belief that ‘we have to revolutionise human thought’ before we can ‘revolutionise time’.
Afterwards, waiting outside for a taxi to take them to another club, a group of youngsters talked about their impressions of the night. They had expected something more hard-hitting, like Morrissey dressed as Hitler. ‘This is the quietest I’ve ever seen this place,’ one of them said. ‘Guess it’s because Brexit got delayed.’
This post was corrected on 29 November. The earlier version misquoted Schtinter in the penultimate paragraph as saying the opposite of what he actually said.