Manchester Street Poem, the artistic project founded by electronic duo Underworld, first entered the spotlight at the 2017 Manchester International Festival. Working with a number of charities, Karl Hyde and Rick Smith created an installation displaying the life stories of those who’d been homeless and marginalised in the city.

These stirring first-hand accounts, hand painted on cardboard, highlighted the diverse conditions leading to destitution and the immense strength required to overcome it. The project is now in its second year and has developed in size and stature. We talked with senior project manager Simon Leroux about its origins, the power of narratives and the organisation’s plans for the future.

When Karl Hyde and Rick Smith founded Manchester Street Poem, what were their guiding principles for the organisation?

Their guiding principle was to not simply create an installation that was imposed on the city during a festival. Instead, it was important to consider the work’s lasting legacy. Another strong focus was on co-production, where decisions would be made by a group of local people with professional and/or lived experience of homelessness. Karl’s statement to the co-production group at the beginning was that he was open to being “hijacked”.

Karl’s performance art and Rick’s beautifully crafted soundtrack offered stunning and sensitive additions to the stories we collected. It felt like we were a big part in starting a conversation around art in recovery, which has continued to grow ever since. We now curate our content by running storytelling workshops so that contributors can engage with the process more deeply and continue their involvement, right through to painting their own stories at installations. This year, our core group has grown to twenty actively involved storytellers.

At the moment, we’re in the process of setting up Manchester Street Poem as a charity. Karl and Rick are still a big part of the team, but I think it’s fair to say the project has taken on a life of its own. We’re not reliant on Underworld; at the same time, we know they’re there if we need them. It really does help to have someone with a profile in your corner in terms of opening doors and making a noise. It’s just a bonus that they’re bloody good blokes.

Manchester Street Poem

These days, governments and corporations tend to use statistical data to ground their perspectives on issues. Why is storytelling an effective method for discussing homelessness and marginalisation?

Numbers don’t really tug on the heartstrings, do they? They also make it easier to “other” entire groups if they fall into this or that percentile. Time consuming it may be, but we feel problems are better solved on an individual level rather than making sweeping statistical assumptions. It’s our belief that in the current climate, it’s healthier to focus on what unites us than divides us. Storytelling is a great way to do that. Everyone can recognise something of the human condition in our stories and realise how close we all could be to ‘rock-bottom’.

You published a story about your own experiences of homelessness and marginalisation in Manchester. What was it like to air this perspective in public?

For a long time, my past and present issues felt like things I had to keep as closely guarded secrets. They were faults; they were failings. They would serve no positive purpose if put out in the open. I’ve come to realise that often the act of keeping secrets can be more damaging than the issues themselves. So now, I’ve spoken out in counselling, in group work, in writing, in short films, and in giant artworks posted up in the centre of town. And you know what I’ve discovered about those faults and failings? They’re actually strengths and experiences that have ultimately brought me to a pretty good place.

MCR Street Poem

Based on your work with Manchester Street Poem, are there specific regional or national factors that influence homelessness and marginalisation in the city?

We see some recurring themes – broken families, drugs, alcohol, childhood abuse. But then we’ll have a storyteller who doesn’t fit into any of those boxes, but has still found life collapsing around them. What it comes down to, for me, is modern life has no margin for error. Unless you have independent wealth, you need to be firing on all cylinders just to make ends meet. You can’t afford a wobble, however short. A brief spell of illness can result in debts, which will then spiral, further impacting health, and the whole thing snowballs. This can happen wherever you are on the pay scale. Until we address how much we have to spend on the absolute basics as a proportion of income – water, heat, food, a roof overhead – we’ll continue to find new stories of marginalisation wherever we look.

How does Manchester Street Poem’s collaborations with local charities, including Mustard Tree, Booth Centre and Back on Track, work in practice?

It’s important to be clear that Manchester Street Poem isn’t a support service. We work with people with a range of complex needs and have to be sure that they are accessing the support they need elsewhere. We wouldn’t stick a mic in the face of a rough sleeper, high on spice, and ask them to give us their story. It wouldn’t be ethical, and we wouldn’t be equipped to support them. We have found that by working in partnership with established support services around the city, they are able to identify suitable contributors and provide expertise where needed. An effective Manchester Street Poem contributor will have already taken some positive steps towards improving their lives, and their engagement with external services is a fair indicator of this.

In July, you created a temporary city centre workshop and installation for the Manchester International Festival (MIF), broadcasting life stories and showing visual displays. What did you set out to achieve with this work?

Our main installation at MIF was a billboard-sized work in Albert Square. This was created at our temporary city centre workshop and then posted as billboards on the square, changing daily for thirteen days. Our main aim was to keep raising our profile and have more people hear our stories. 165,000 people came through Albert Square during the festival. If just one in ten of those engaged with our work, that would represent a massive achievement for us.

We had storytellers posted at the square to answer questions and have conversations, and we decided to open the workshop to the public, because you can’t have too many spaces for questions and conversations, in our view. We met some amazing people. Everyone we spoke to was so positive about the project and really keen to find out more. It was a truly transformative experience for our storytellers, many of whom grew in confidence and self-esteem before my eyes.

Moving forward, I’ve just come back from Japan, with a view to exploring potential collaborations for an installation piece at an arts festival, staged alongside the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Nothing’s set in stone, but we made links with some incredible organisations out there. I also feel that our relationship with MIF could continue to flourish as they move into their new Factory venue.

How can people get involved with Manchester Street Poem?

All our stories can be heard or read on our website (mcrstreetpoem.com). There’s also a link where, in return for a donation of five pounds or more, you can receive a download of our original Underworld installation score. You can also follow us on Twitter and Instagram (@mcrstreetpoem), where you’ll be kept up to date with what we’re up to. Anyone who wants to tell their story, and who’s prepared for the commitment involved, can get in touch through Instagram, Twitter or email (simon@mcrstreetpoem.com).

Douglas Whitbread