MUTEK 2009

June 24, 2009
Lori Napoleon

Creativity and experimentation in technology-based art and music once again converged in Montreal, Canada, at the annual MUTEK festival, May 29 -31, 2009. Celebrating its 10th year, MUTEK hosted five days of performances, workshops, and panel discussions aimed at showcasing a diversity of electronic expression. MUTEK featured 150 artists representing ten countries, with many exhibiting North American premieres. Since its inception in 2000, MUTEK has continuously supported dialogue between various modes of expression and styles, and this year's festival was no different. In addition to a smorgasbord of headliners representing various incarnations of electronic dance music, a large amount of programming was devoted to the experimental, with audio-visual fusions, electro-acoustic performances, and site-specific sound installations. Three outstanding performances included works by the group Artificiel, the duo of Christopher Bauder and Robert Henke, and artist David Drury.

Artificiel appeared in MUTEK’s recurring A/Visions series, where innovations in audio-visual synthesis were elegantly showcased at the Monument-National, a century-old theatre in the heart of the performing arts district. Artificiel’s performance was one of the most striking (literally and physically) to grace the Monument's sold out crowds. The Montreal-based new media ensemble featured Alexandre Burton, Julien Roy, and Jimmy Lakatos. Their piece, entitled POWEr, involved the manipulation of the sonic and visual properties of high voltage lightning emissions generated from a Tesla coil on stage. The source material was created in real time and set against the backdrop of a larger-than-life vertical projection that exploited the powerful visual nuance of each bolt and reinforced the impressive sonifications that filled the theatre with a resounding electrical presence. The audience was spellbound. As the composition evolved, so did its complexity, with live footage overlaid with collage of recorded loops, rhythmic and a-rhythmic sequencing, and dramatic moments of silence. Throughout the performance, images and sounds coalesced into a recombinant electrical storm that grew more monumental with each passing moment. POWEr, commissioned especially for MUTEK, is a project that continues along a path that Artificiel has been exploring throughout its career. Impeccably crafted and almost frighteningly visceral, POWEr successfully stands on the crossroads where materials and artful transformation intersect.

POWEr by Artificiel

Meanwhile, several screenings of another mind-blowing display of synaesthetic expression took place in the Place des Arts, entitled ATOM. ATOM is a collaboration between Robert Henke, also known as Monolake and the co-founder of Ableton Live, and interactive artist and designer Christopher Bauder. ATOM is a performable kinetic sound-and-light installation composed of a matrix of internally illuminated helium balloons, their individual heights adjusted via computer-controlled cables. As the performance began, the audience was seated along all sides of a centrally placed matrix of balloons. From this standpoint they found themselves gazing upon a constantly morphing tapestry of atom-like patterns, organic particle systems, and unified shapes, while a synchronized musical score, ranging from piano-like timbres and tinkling bells to thunderous storms, enveloped the room. It was evident that the spatial positioning of the visuals was made in relation to the placement of the audience, as most of the kinetic patterns flowed in such a way as to allow for each participant to experience the composition in its entirety. Perhaps most remarkable about ATOM was the precise balance between its mediums, with each concurrently-occurring sensory impression (the kinetic event, the sound and light) experienced as one fluid entity. It was no small feat to accomplish. On occasion a direct one-to-one relationship is observed, and other times a more organic connection; but in all cases, such impressions converged into a consistent, unified narrative that swayed and swelled before its transfixed audience, the airy white-lit balloons hearkening billowing clouds in one moment only to dissolve and recombine into precise arrangements of geometrical and molecule-like structures the next.

ATOM by Robert Henke and Christopher Bauder

Another welcome addition to the MUTEK repertoire was a grouping of works titled EXTRA_MUROS, which strove to bring festival-goers physically outside the performance space to enjoy site-specific culturally- and architecturally-driven projects. One particularly evocative example was David Drury's Hearing There, a self-guided sound walk. Hearing There came complete with a custom map of St. Laurent Boulevard and nineteen downloadable audio tracks, recorded from the interiors of an assortment of local establishments that one might normally pass by.

Hearing There map

St. Laurent Boulevard provides an intersection of rich cultural history. It has been the initial home of immigrants for decades, physically dividing the city into east and west, and it is the historically symbolic division between the predominantly French and English speaking regions. However, we might ask, how much of this is truly felt by passers-by or temporary visitors to the city such as the MUTEK attendees? While our experience of traversing a bustling city street is often dominated by what we see, for example painted facades, business names, and half-revealed objects enclosed in storefront windows, Hearing There invites and connects a visitor with life as it is lived beyond the architectural facade of the storefront. As we navigate the exteriors, the sounds of the interiors, normally obstructed or fleetingly glimpsed, are suddenly unlocked, revealing their stories with a sonic snapshot. Hearing There beckons us to take pause and pay attention. This is no ordinary walk through the city, where one is often absorbed in thought and insulated with their ipods. Instead, ipods are transformed into access points for the multi-lingual conversations that pepper the oldest deli in Canada, the chirping birds at the pet store, the reverb-laden shouts and splashes at the public pool (where the sounds themselves are potent enough to make us smell the telltale scent of chlorine and feel the water droplets as the next kid dives in), the coarse grinding and sanding of the local headstone-makers shop, and many more. Sometimes the managers of the businesses tell their stories, from the boisterous 80-year old woman at the suit-maker's shop to the slightly more dejected fellow commenting that the quietness of his fabric shop is indicative of dwindling sales. “The sound is the reality of the business nowadays ... three years ago, there were a lot of people in here.”

A recording of Animalerie Too Zoo: a pet store

A recording of Cinema Lamour

Hearing There elicited and presented an extreme variety of soundscapes and mental scenery from one interior space to the next—with the rather constant sounds of motors, footsteps, and voices passing by that blanket the exterior soundscape. I find that this project has a life outside and beyond Montreal as well. As I listen to the tracks in my Brooklyn neighborhood, I am transported back to a specific time and place. Simultaneously, I am inspired to peer with curiosity at the plethora of facades punctuating my own neighborhood streets and I am filled with a desire to know what life inside sounds like.