Audio-Visual Immersion: The Case of Montreal’s Mutek + Elektra

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The 16th edition of Montreal’s Mutek festival of electronic music and arts has just begun, running 27-31 May 2015.  After living in Montreal for five years, Mutek has become a personal highlight kicking off the summer festival season, alongside the more political hybrid programming of Suoni per il Popolo’s liberation music.  Mutek offers great art and contemplative audio-visual experiences, but ultimately it is a celebration of the dance floor.  The blurring of these realms can lead to Mutek greatest successes as well as its most awkward failures.  Since I no longer live in Montreal and won’t be at the festival this year, I though it’d be a worthwhile time to reflect on the festival more broadly.

Last year, Mutek joined forces with the digital art festival Elektra for EM15, a celebration of both organizations 15th editions and in recognition of their joint roles in nurturing Montreal’s electronic arts communities.  The joint festival used  Montreal’s contemporary art museum, the MAC, (or Montréal’s Musée d’art contemporain) as its headquarters, on neutral ground not previously associated with either festival.  The idea seemed to be to have a space which would allow the two to overlap. For me, the result instead felt like a splintering of what was otherwise a cohesive festival, and I especially found myself missing the SAT (Société du Arts et Technologie), which in previous years has been integral to the festival.  Not only did its industrial chic space suit the music well, but it was augmented by the recent addition of the SATosphere, a 360 degree projection dome which featured cutting-edge productions and has hosted the Boiler Room and other events.

The festival again returns to the MAC this year, and one can only hope the atmosphere will be improved and the programming adjusted.  The main stage set in a large gallery space just isn’t conducive to the events held there.  The proper theatres provides much better conditions for audio-visual work (such last year’s Lumiere from Robert Henke [or at least the first half], or Nicolas Bernier & Martin Messier’s machinic theatre) and the soundsystem and actual dance floor of the Metropolis make the museum’s de facto job look pale in comparison, no matter how great a set Kangding Ray or Holly Herndon put on there.   That said, the basement performance space, which hosted the incredible fog-diffused-din of Tim Hecker as well as many other remarkable sets by locals, was well suited to its task.   There were some free shows in the space as well, highlighting local talent, but we still missed the environment fostered by the free shows of past years in the basement of the National Monument or in public on Place des Art.  More importantly, the carefully themed curation that went into each evening didn’t seem to be there last year, perhaps because of the complicated task of producing a joint festival.  Whereas in past years nightly programs might be organized around contemporary South American electronic music, or dark analogue soundscapes, or drug-infused psychedelia, 2014’s edition was much more tenuously organized.

Will this year’s post-EM solo edition return to the expectations of old or cement its new status?  The line-up is typically awe-inspiring. Highlights of include Andy StottMoatik Metametrik, Kode9, Kiasmos (Ólafur Arnalds and Janus Rasmussen), FDG (Hobo Cubes), Boundary (Poirier), Martin MessierRrose, Pole, and Tyondai Braxton‘s HIVE.

So maybe the chances are good that this year will account for the curatorial and architectural mishaps of the joint festival.  Below, my friend Max Lauter uses those mishaps in order to reflect on the broader issues at work regarding audio-visual immersion in electronic arts.  I’m reminded of Francisco Lopez’s essay “Against the Stage,” in which he writes:

There are indeed possible integrations of sound and image (and this is also another whole issue), even to the point of not making sense to separate them. But this doesn’t mean we need to have some ‘visuals’ or reinforce the performance aspects of music-making to make the live presentation more appealing. It really gets tiring to see so many instances of this in the electronic scene. It is a kind of slavishness to mainstream media culture. Multimedia is a possibility — it has always been a possibility — but considering it a step forward in a sequence of technological developments and social aesthetics shows an ignorance of history of gigantic proportions.

(Joseph Sannicandro)

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EM15: Sites of Audiovisual Immersion

by Max Lauter

With the concatenation of the Elektra and Mutek electronic art festivals, Montreal’s pioneering artistic communities wrangle a hydra-like event with EM15. This year’s festival spanned a gamut of audiovisual practices and contexts, marked by the shifted foci of the festival from the Société des Arts Technologiques to the Musée d’art Contemporain de Montréal, Metropolis, and Impérial venues. From the austere installation of Ryoji Ikeda’s film C4L to Richie Hawtin’s industrial spectacle, the new civic organization of the festival offers programming for a spectrum of potentially divergent audiences. The access provided comes with several curatorial caveats, as spaces that traditionally host a balanced series of experimental, ambient, and dance-oriented events is merged within space for fine art. As a festival that prides itself on the cutting edge integration of live sound and image, the spatial assignment of audiovisual performances becomes an important point of entry.

The Impérial theatre offers visitors a seated, cinema-like experience. This was contrasted by the basement gallery at the Musée, filled mostly with more ambient and noise-based performances. An installation-like environment where festival-goers were free to enter and exit—often weaving through bodies strewn on the floor—it offered a serene, if not erosive sensory palate cleanse. Tim Hecker’s Fog Works, which filled the venue with a sight-inhibiting density of artificial fog and thick, long-tone bass, was a visually and aurally immersive experience of a type EM should explore further. The main room at Metropolis remains the festivals largest projection space (excluding previous years at the SAT).

Robert Henke’s Lumière was a performance that benefited from the seated arrangement of the Impérial, as the piece plays with principles of optics such as burn-in and after-image that are most visible when viewed from a static perspective. Laser projection is intensely bright, and these effects are potent with minimal gestures of dots and lines. Blinking one’s eyes, a sensation accentuated by the audible shuttering on and off of the lasers, induces arcs and trails at various angles. Seamlessly synced with audio, the aural vibration seems to create flickers with the variation of pitch. Rhythms emerge in the motion of the light, as triplets on screen hint at a silent breakdown. Rare but periodic releases of artificial fog reveals the brush strokes of the laser projection which address the foreground space of the audience, drawing attention as to shift the intended canvas from the screen to the hovering, virtual cloud in front. Beyond a perceptual ecstasy, the piece falls short with content, as text and color palate is limited. Number signs are used as formal elements, possibly referring to note names, midi numbers, or bits of code, but ultimately seem disparate. Following the use of a visual language of predominantly fundamental geometries, the projection of “LOVE CODE” on screen is an overt, if not heavy- handed reference to what could be the unspoken slogan of the festival.

C4L was screened with a massive, floor to ceiling projection, with viewers lounging on a carpet. The 37 minute film is a polemical narrative weaving together several previously exhibited projects, exploring familiar themes from Ikeda’s repertoire — data complexity, information obscuration, machine overload, resource destruction, obsolescence, and mental breakdown. Though recent works such as Transfinite offer a large-scale, abstract immersive interface for exploring similar parameters, the film is systematic, if not analytic and dogmatic in its presentation. Visual motifs such as labyrinthine forms— telecom networks and star charts—are accompanied by an information-based score of sound-signs hinting at aural display. In this type of work, shifting microtones not only feel, but mean as well, urging the viewer to listen to the information around them.

Before entering the performance space in the upper galleries of the Musee, festival-goers found a five-screen installation by one of 2013‘s strongest AV performers, Ryoichi Kurokawa. Speakers flanking the screens output a fairly quiet soundtrack to the slowly evolving, horizon-like video on screen. On the opposite wall, several screens with headphones displayed commerical-like, slow-motion bodies with various materials [EXPAND]. Amidst the clamor of the night events, these pieces were pushed to the wayside unless festival-goers return to the museum during normal hours. If Ikeda’s on-hours film and Kurokawa’s neglected installation become the offered gateway to experimental contemporary audiovisual art, what is the intended curatorial and institutional relationship with the Musée d’art contemporain? It is no doubt a productive model—major success is seen in events drawing artists such as Ryoji Ikeda and Carsten Nicolai, who have performed cyclo.id at both the Museum of Modern Art in New York and at Mutek years prior.

The selection of this review is by no means exhaustive—there were many exemplary visual projects across this year’s program. Occasional overlapping events, however, and the inevitable fatigue of a festival just shy of a week long are typical yet potentially remediable aspects of any such large event. As EM festival grows it may also consider its relationship with other cultural institutions in the city that present cultural programs and exhibitions with a similar focus on technology. The Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) has exhibited their Archeology of the Digital show for the past two years, open to the public simultaneously with Mutek. Institutional collaborations are difficult to manage, but as the festival looks to unite creative technologists, ravers, and art enthusiasts through a diverse multimedia programming across venues, there is a present opportunity to symbiotically frame these concurrent events within the city. Regardless of its affiliations, however, the combined forces of these festivals has proven Montreal’s diverse and engaging venues will continue to draw massive audiences.

About thenewobjective

writer | traveler | sound organizer | contrarian | concerned citizen

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