The Manchester International Festival 2017 is in full swing. The festival specialises in commissioning new creative work and each year Manchester hosts world premieres of original work. At MIF17, the commissioned works have been based around four themes, one of which is ‘migration, movement and debate’. ToGather, Returning to Reims, One of Two Stories or Both, the Welcoming Party, What is the City but the People? all tackle issues of home, belonging, borders and identity.

As well as their international commissions, the festival has also commissioned 50 Manchester-based artists to produce short digital works which respond to the festival’s main programme. My secret life as a songwriter and musician enabled me to take part as one of the ‘Creative50’. This gave me an opportunity to combine my two main interests: migration research and song-writing. These two activities have always uneasily co-existed for me. As an early career researcher on a temporary contract, I realise that spending spare time on anything but writing journal articles is poor strategy. Nevertheless, this MIF commission gave me the chance to try both hats on at once, and to see if my artistic projects and research could combine somehow.

For my first commission, I made a poem and accompanying video in response to What is the city but the people? Through engaging with the research of those at UoM working on ‘home’, it was important to me to avoid romanticising Manchester. A home is not always perfect and Manchester has its flaws. In many ways, the negative stereotypes of the city do live out. Despite this, there is often a pseudo-divine out-pouring of love for Manchester which I wanted to explore and tenderly poke fun at. Similarly, there is an interesting ‘unplacing’ of ‘home’ in migration research and I wanted to play on this. In the poem, the places of Manchester are hidden in puns. This is partly a cheeky game but it also is my way of unsettling and playfully deriding the notion of ‘place’ as it relates to ‘home’.

Secondly, I wrote the lyrics and co-wrote the music to this response to ToGather. The beautiful video was made by another Creative50 artist and animator, Elisa Morais. The exhibition challenges the notion of ‘belonging’ and this resonates with my own research on diaspora, hybridity and identity. The illustrations at once call to mind DNA strands, topographical maps and social networks and I have taken these motifs through into the song. For me, ToGather shows how it is possible to deal with separation, to live in more than one culture/location and nevertheless ‘be one’ coherent subjectivity. At the same time, there is acknowledgment of the challenges and anxieties involved in doing so. I guess I was tuned into these ideas from having researched them so much.

Having made two creative pieces which are informed to some extent by migration research, I feel like I’ve made both of my interests work with – not against – one another. In this scenario, being a researcher made me a better song-writer but more importantly, the process of producing these works opened up new ways of seeing the issues I research and has uncovered new research questions for me. So maybe there is room for combining research and artistic endeavour?

Having been spurred on by this Creative50 process, I am also disheartened by the knowledge that academia is a line of work which is increasingly precarious and, because of this, increasingly publication-focused. Journal articles are like gold dust when it comes to applying for jobs and there could be several years of temporary contracts before early career researchers land a permanent post. Room for complimenting paper-writing with other innovative and enriching research activities is shrinking because publications are by far the best way to be competitive in the job market.

You obviously can’t REF a song and that’s not what I would argue for. Academics are rightly judged on research rigour first and foremost. Yet, I learned during the process of making these creative pieces that looking up from the books and taking a different perspective on research themes can be intellectually beneficial. Perhaps asking early career researchers to be paper-writing machines could, in some ways, be detrimental to their development as academics? Maybe the REF could be combined with broader measures of what it takes to be a ‘good researcher’?

Finally, if you haven’t already, I recommend that you check out the festival programme and all of the Creative50 responses. http://mif.co.uk