TBC: Teknopolis - 10 Years of MUTEK

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As the MUTEK festival turns 10, it sheds its highbrow image for a diverse balance.

Over the course of its 10 years in existence, Montreal’s MUTEK festival has asserted itself as North America’s preeminent annual event for electronic music experimentation and collaboration. Whether it’s setting up an operating room for Matmos to fully perform A Chance to Cut is a Chance to Cure or hosting the monumental debut of Narod Niki (the eight-man techno live performance boasting the likes of Richie Hawtin, Monolake, Daniel Bell, and Luciano), MUTEK has not-so-quietly set the stage for other festivals like Decibel and Communikey to humbly follow in its footsteps. On the eve of MUTEK’s 10th anniversary, we spoke with founder Alain Mongeau about its philosophy and its impact.

XLR8R: What do you think MUTEK has achieved that no other festival in North America (or of its sort) has?

Alain Mongeau: The thing is, there aren’t so many festivals dedicated to electronic music in North America. Actually, when we started in 2000, we were pretty much alone—Detroit’s DEMF was created at about the same time, and Decibel, admittedly modeled after MUTEK, started a few years later.

One of the characteristics that was always different was the fact that the festival features like 98% of live acts, and only a random DJ here and there. By doing so, we wanted to put the focus on the creative process and on the artists themselves, trying to inject some form of recognition and credibility to their field of work. So the party factor wasn’t the main drive of the festival, it was more an attempt to keep the creative force at work in the early rave and techno years alive, inviting it to evolve also.

Our initial goal was also to establish a bridge with the rest of the world. Already then there was a sense that things were much more happening abroad, in Europe, and we wanted to reach out and connect by bringing some of the action back over on this continent. And for this same reason, the first MUTEK was done with an awareness that our target audience wasn’t only to be found in Montreal, but everywhere in North America. And that hypothesis proved to be right, as year after year, people from all across the continent have been converging on Montreal for MUTEK, the festival becoming, for many, a sort of yearly pilgrimage.

One of MUTEK’s successes is that it seems that just about everyone who’s dealt with the festival, be it as an artist or a festivalgoer, have developed a strong sense of attachment and identification with it. And I can’t really explain why; it somehow still remains a mystery for me. There’s probably a series of factors: a good seen of timing, the fact that we’re based in Montreal and that the city itself is quite unique, especially in a North American context (being predominantly French speaking, it carries a European touch), or maybe we’ve just been playing our cards right, maintaining a clear editorial line, with high standards of quality.

In any case a strong sense of community has developed around MUTEK that has helped us a lot in our determination to continue. And we’ve continuously been on the drive to expand our reach out of the continent, putting a lot of effort in branching out towards Latin America, doing consistent fieldwork in Chile, Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil, since 2003. We’ve been quite active on the international front, with some presence on about all continents (we even did a tour in China a few years ago), and that internationalism has become an intrinsic aspect of MUTEK. It’s like we’ve been casting our nets a bit everywhere, inviting people to converge on Montreal for our yearly event, the matrix of things, and it’s working well, as 54% of the festival’s public came from out of town in 2008.

Was MUTEK modeled after any other festival?

Not directly. It was inspired by a few things: the Interference Festival that took place in Berlin in 1994, for instance, which is the first time that I went to a techno event that focused on musicians instead of DJs. I started organizing festivals in 1995. My first try at it was an electronic art festival (I was program chair of ISEA 95 Montreal). Then I became involved with the Montreal Festival of New Cinema and New Media (FCMM), where being in charge of the New Media section allowed me to try different experiments that actually prepared the ground for MUTEK. During my first year at the FCMM, in 1997, I created a Media Lounge, and among other things we did a networked event in real time with SONAR, thus establishing a kind of connection with what the Barcelona festival was developing in its early years.

At what point did you discover there was a need for MUTEK?

My first draft for the MUTEK festival was made (on paper) in 1997, the same year that I started doing the Media Lounge with the FCMM. That first edition of the Media Lounge was magical, revealing the embryo of a community, because it brought together a lot of people that were all working in relative isolation in Montreal. A lot of it was driven by multimedia art and electronic music, which weren’t a natural fit within the context of a film festival like the FCMM. But I continued pushing things, continuing with the Media Lounge in ’98 and ’99, until the opportunity for putting MUTEK on the table showed up, when the Ex-Centris complex opened its doors. During the launch of Ex-Centris in June ’99, I presented a four-day event called LOGIN0.0, which turned out to be a sort of beta version of the MUTEK festival, with artists such as Pole and Porter Ricks performing. The rest is history.

What's happened philosophically to MUTEK over its 10 years?

I think the festival remained pretty consistent in its approach over the years. The main thing that we tried to avoid was to be pigeonholed, while also trying to broaden progressively the reach of the festival. When we started, we made a point of positioning the festival with a pretty sharp focus, which made it feel very serious, something that helped distinguish its content from what was being associated with club culture. We wanted to be taken seriously, and I think that we managed so well that we actually ended up scaring people off. So part of MUTEK’s karma has always been to fight this image of a highbrow event and to somehow reprogram its faith through reaching a kind of balance in diversity. But at the roots, the festival remains the same in its quest for creative talent, for tracking the mutations and evolutions of the field of electronic music and digital creativity.

How have you seen it grow?

The festival grew very quickly, exponentially, over the course of its first five years. Then it hit a kind of ceiling—actually it’s more that it reached a point of equilibrium, but at the time it felt like a radical hit, because things slowed down for a year or two and we ended up with a big deficit. There were 24 hours in September of 2006 where I really believed the adventure was over. But people in and around the team, namely the Board of Administrators, decided that we should fight back and continue, as it’s apparently totally normal for an organization to run into such difficulties once in a while. So, guided by everyone’s faith, we proceeded with questioning all aspects of our actions, reassessing the festival’s raison d’être, its drive. We started to reach out and connect more with our immediate environment, proceeded to get rid of our debts progressively (my credit cards are just about empty now), and over the last two years we’ve been targeting our 10th anniversary as an opportunity to push the festival to the next level. So, as such, MUTEK_10 will celebrate the end of a cycle while also launching the beginning of a new era.

MUTEK was often tagged as being avant garde-ish, ahead of its time—at least within the North American context. But we now feel that our surroundings are much more in sync with what we’re about. We certainly still have to fight about certain things, but we have less explaining to do, as we feel we’re more accepted, even cherished. For instance, just this week (March 24), Tourism Montreal designated MUTEK its regional winner of the 2009 Québec Tourism Awards in the category of Festivals and Tourism Events, which says a lot about the festival’s progress and recognition. So, all in all, running into difficulties seems to be part of the maturing process.

Are there things you would have done differently if given a chance to go back to its early years?

Not really. The only thing maybe would’ve of been to start MUTEK earlier than 2000, when I first thought about it in 1997. I think the general state of the world was more favorable to launch an event then than in the 2000s. MUTEK had it rough pretty much all the way financially. On the other hand, maybe it’s better when you can’t take anything for granted, as it keeps you on your toes, forcing you to revisit your deep motivations all the time.

Do you think MUTEK has influenced/inspired other festivals of its kind in North America? How so?

Well, MUTEK has inspired many people and festivals all across North America and South America, as we still have seeds in Mexico, Argentina, and Chile, where MUTEK-related events continue taking place on a regular basis (the MUTEK.MX festival in Mexico celebrated its fifth edition last October). In North America, festivals like Seattle’s Decibel and Boulder’s Communikey were launched mentioning the MUTEK example specifically. New York’s Minitek festival last year had some quite obvious references (the end result being very different however). And just last month the Forward festival in Washington also drew some parallels with us. How are they influenced? Hard to say for me, even if I did visit Decibel and Communikey. I think that just the fact that we manage to pull off something like MUTEK year after year is an inspiration in itself. I also believe that the dedication and craftsmanship that we put into the festival sets an example. We believe in leadership and were always very cautious about managing our image—or else how can you wish to draw partners, funders, and festivalgoers? And for us to see other festivals emerge and evolve was also thrilling and in turn a source of inspiration. It brought us out of isolation, feeling that we could relate to others moving along the same lines. We’re all very busy and festivals end up having different personalities, but over the years a real sense of community has evolved. We’re still getting to know each other, but I’m sure that we have an interesting future ahead of us, where collaborations and exchanges will become more and more a reality. For instance, last year, MUTEK hosted a meeting of festivals that led to the creation of a new network called the ICAS—International Cities for Advanced Sound and related arts. The official inaugural meeting of the ICAS will be taking place during MUTEK_10, in May. I put a lot of hope and idealism in this network, which is bringing together festivals from all over the planet for the cross-pollination of ideas and projects. Who’s influencing who now? It’s become more of a mutual process.

What's been the most important thing to remember or think about when overseeing a festival of this size for 10 years?

First of all, you can’t rest on your laurels. It’s all about remaining open and alert to what’s happening, looking ahead, avoiding nostalgia, etc… I think the worst feeling is bitterness, so when at times you feel you’re loosing control or are entering slippery grounds, you have to see it as a good thing, as a factor of change and transformation. Hum, this might seem a bit esoteric… What I’m trying to say is that basically, you have to keep faith in yourself, you have to remain grounded and connected to your interests. Again everyone around me is working hard, but at the end of the day we don’t feel empty, because we feel that everything we deal with is constructive. We’ve always been moving ahead, I have hardly ever felt we were regressing, and nobody can take that away from us. All in all, you have to be very patient, and a little zen, knowing and believe that things always fall in place in due time…

How has Montreal been central to MUTEK's growth?

There’s a real blend there. I remember that, when we started, I was a bit jealous of a festival like Sonar that had Barcelona as its background. I mean, who can compete with Barcelona’s climate and beaches and the whole of Europe at reach? But after a while we began realizing that Montreal also had its own personality and specific interest in the North American context, its history and dual-language situation making it special and unique itself. And when you start thinking like this, the list goes on and on: people are friendly here, cultural life is thriving, it’s very multicultural, life remains cheap, the bohemian factor is high, etc. So coming to MUTEK is also discovering an interesting city for visitors. We started to tap into that connection more and more over the years, and it’s been serving us well, with more and more support coming from the regional and provincial tourism bodies. Again, it has been a long process, but it’s quite rewarding because we feel that we belong to the city now, with the city, and in return we feel that more and more people are proud of what MUTEK represents and has achieved. We even came to act as ambassadors of the city or the province of Quebec on some occasions.

Could MUTEK have happened elsewhere or at a different time? How might it have been different?

Maybe, but it would probably be quite different. I think MUTEK is what it is now because so many things contributed to shape it. Again, if there’s one thing that I’ll never underline enough, it’s that MUTEK made it so far mainly because of the sheer renewed dedication of people who have been in the project and come back year after year for more. And after 10 years, we have an extended family of people (including the artists themselves) who still feel related to the festival, who care for it, who help spread the word and continue wanting to participate and contribute whenever possible.