As one of the most anticipated festivals to happen in Montreal, could it be that Mutek is the actualisation of the title “Montreal: Digital Arts Capital”? A hub for electronic music and digital creativity, Mutek welcomes close to one hundred local and international artists each year to create an immersive experience that’s far from the norm. From the Metropolis to the Musée d’Art Contemporain, passing through the Phi Centre among others, the festival invades the city for five consecutive days — and has done so for over fifteen years. Who is behind this cultural window, and what are the values that drive them? To answer this question, we met with the festival’s artistic director, Alain Mongeau.
What was your journey that lead you to ultimately become Mutek’s general and artistic director?
I was a communications student at UQAM, where I created a few interactive pieces that were shown abroad. I then taught in order to complete my PhD in communications. My studies found their ultimate purpose at ISEA, or the International Symposium on Electronic Arts, in 1995 where I became the artistic director. This is also when I first began working as an events organizer. Also in 1995, I founded the Société des Arts Technologiques (SAT) [Technological Arts Society]. I left in 1999 to work at the Festival du Nouveau Cinéma [New Cinema Festival] on the new media category. I did this for five years. That’s the same year that Mutek was born.
What were Mutek’s foundations?
I often repeated in the 90’s that electronic music saved my life! (Laughs) As a teenager, without really knowing why, I had a love for long instrumental pieces and when the first underground warehouse events and raves came along, I felt totally in synch with what was happening in my era! Somewhere inside, I was bored in my academic path and it’s events such as the Love Parade that I went to in 1994 that really interested me. But then, when the scene was taken over by more commercial forces, I was saddened because it felt as if we were losing the essence of the thing. Mutek is like a desire to give back to the scene what it gave me, all while breathing a creative and artistic flame into electronic music.
Can you explain what is the festival’s artistic direction? Has it changed?
We’re starting from the idea that an artist who creates dance music is as intelligent as one that works with experimental music… In fact, we can find cross-pollination in the two artistic approaches’ ideas. In terms of the larger picture, we’re trying to unearth those artists that are the most surprising in their own universe and uniting them in a creative dialogue. We’ve always kept the same equation since the beginning, I would just say that it’s amplified.
How could electronic music be considered a form of art?
Electronic music is, according to me, an artistic practice as valuable as any other. At our beginnings, we actually wanted to give these high-brow allusions to this form of creation. I think we should look at it in a larger way: some artists are more conceptual than others, but it’s more a question of a particular emotion. There isn’t a practice that is better than others, which is why we cover a variety of them and why we don’t take up any discursive or more set positions. Concurrently, we’re trying to bring about work that is pedagogical and democratic. That’s why I find it so interesting that we’re at the museum: Mutek is connected with a generation of creators and a public that wouldn’t necessarily find themselves in museums.
What’s different about Montreal compared to Mutek Mexico and Mutek Barcelona?
Montreal is simply the source. There are many who’ve gotten to know us in order to find inspiration in what we do. It’s now 13 years that the festival has taken place in Mexico, and it’s taken on a large scale. Barcelona is entering its sixth edition. It’s smaller, but I get the impression that they’re trying to keep the essence in tact by making an ensemble from a community of local creators.
What does it mean to view Montreal as the digital capital?
It’s a great project and objective! But we have to look into what that means. There’s a lot of work to be done and it’s not a given title. However, we’re really lucky in the North American context, as there’s no shortage of artists and festivals. I’m somewhat getting the impression that the stars are aligning for the Montreal Digital Spring and even more so with 2017 (the city’s 375th birthday) that’s fast approaching. An interesting convergence is in store.
What do you think is the future of culture given current politics?
Precariousness: we’ve been living with it now for fifteen years and it’s something we have to work with… and be a little crazy to do so! (Laughs) What could become the problem is the risk of exhaustion. Our work does seem to garner a certain amount of recognition and we even won Tourisme Montréal’s Ulysses prize last month. I feel that we won’t be given up on, even if, like many others, we’re getting major cuts in our financing. But I think young people will have the most trouble: bringing Mutek to life was hell, and it’s still a fight to keep it going today! So I have difficulty imagining how another festival like this one could come about.
What do you think of the local emerging scene?
I don’t think we can talk about a single emerging scene, but many emerging scenes, since Montreal is burgeoning everywhere, not just in electronic music. I’ve always compared this city to Berlin: it’s the most bohemian city where artists can come together and have a certain quality of life. Our first few years, people would often say that the festival was reflecting an ephemeral phenomenon. Sixteen years later and we’re still here! Our biggest challenge? Re-synchronizing ourselves with what’s emerging. That’s what would be my advice.
And finally, what would you consider to be your most inspiring day this year?
I think 2015’s festival is well calibrated. Last year, with the collaboration with Elektra and everything that was going on with the museum, we had to make a lot of compromises. We had to be careful as it was a fragile context. This year we’re more concentrated and the five nights at the museum will be really interesting ones. So, I don’t really have a preference… the gears are in motion and those who have followed us throughout this week won’t even know what happened to them! (Laughs).
Translated from French by Ania Szneps