Yoko Ono invited members of the public to gather in Manchester’s Cathedral Gardens to “break the sky” with a mass ringing of bells for the opening event of Manchester International Festival 2019 (MIF).

Although the 86-year-old artist was unable to attend the participatory artwork in person, she was present in a pre-recorded film in which she issued a set of instructions preceding the mass bell-ringing, titled Bells For Peace.

The instructions included telling the crowd to look up and “name each cloud”, whereupon there was an outbreak of giggles as heads were raised to the blanket grey of Manchester’s skies. An estimated 4,000 bells were rung for several minutes, with most people ringing specially-made hand bells, although many brought their own.

The performance ended with John Lennon’s anti-war song Give Peace a Chance. Earlier, there had been spontaneous applause during a live link after one participant told a BBC journalist why she was ringing a bell for peace. Her daughter, she said, had been at the Ariana Grande concert at the Manchester Arena when the venue was attacked by a suicide bomber, killing 22 people.

The biennial arts festival, now in its eighth edition, lives up to its name of being a truly international two-week cultural event. Headlining artists, performers and musicians are invited across continents, often to present work commissioned for the festival.

MIF artistic director John McGrath says that the festival aims to highlight works that cross artistic boundaries, often integrating theatre, digital technology, music and the visual arts.

This year, the artists who are referenced in the visual arts strand have crossed several disciplines of their own. American director David Lynch has been painting, printmaking and making sculpture for decades. The Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks director originally trained as a painter.

His artworks are featured in a darkly humorous survey at HOME titled ‘My Head is Disconnected’. The thematic exhibition engages with macabre aspects of folk tale, Americana, and fictional dystopias, including referencing his own film work.

The earliest work in the exhibition is a sequence of tiny, meticulous drawings on the inside of unrolled match boxes. The diptych drawings were made while Lynch was an art student in the early 1970s, with each work featuring a window, a door or other portal, suggesting the possibility of other, possibly darker, worlds. We even find two hilly peaks.

Among Lynch’s most recent mixed-media paintings is Philadelphia, which recalls his time as a student living in America’s most violent city. A grotesque figure stalks the city, a barrage balloon-shaped emanation growing from his nose, on which the word ‘Philadelphia’ is scrawled. This flayed, faeces-coloured personification of the city is shown clutching a human heart.

Cuban artist and activist Tania Bruguera has taken an ambitiously pedagogic approach to the festival, with a rolling programme of free classes at the Manchester Museum. School of Integration has invited 104 Manchester residents, hailing from 53 countries, to deliver classes, which range from an exploration of Kurdish culture to hair-braiding and the history of tea. Her interest is in the untapped knowledge that migrants, immigrants, refugees or the stateless can bring.

Ghanaian artist Ibrahim Mahama’s Parliament of Ghosts at the Whitworth Gallery is a three-part installation looking at Ghana’s colonial and post-colonial past, focusing primarily on the British-built Gold Coast railway. Featuring extensive archives, objects, frayed furnishings and schoolbooks from the period, it’s a deeply evocative work, as its title suggests.

Even more ambitious, technically at least, is the work of Mexican-Canadian artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer. ‘Atmospheric Memory’ at the Science Museum is an immersive, interactive installation, staged in a custom-built structure made with shipping containers.

It’s inspired by Charles Babbage and his interest in phantasmagoria and the belief that the air we breathe is a ‘vast library’ of all the words ever spoken. With its vapour trails and 360-degree projections, it proves a rich departure point for the obsessions in our own time with surveillance and biometrics.

Manchester International Festival 2019 continues until 21 July

1. Ibrahim Mahama, Parliament of Ghosts, MIF19. Photo: Michael Pollard
2. Bells For Peace, MIF19. Photo: Jon Super for MIF
3. David Lynch, ‘My Head is Disconnected’, exhibition view, HOME, MIF19. Photo: Lee Baxter
4. Tania Bruguera, School of Integration, MIF19. Photo: Michael Pollard
5. Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Cloud Display for ‘Atmospheric Memory’, MIF19. Photo: Mariana Yáñez

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