I like riding the blue line. It takes me through stations I rarely stop at, past people I rarely see, carrying shopping bags from stores I rarely visit. The blue line is the scrappy, misunderstood line, the narrow, rocky path, the unrestored section of Montreal’s metro system — still functioning, but barely. Our new train cars are a metaphor for the 21st century world: shiny vessels hurtling through an increasingly crumbling infrastructure, a graphical user interface that conceals corrupt data, an exercise in perception management.
I’m headed to Never Apart, one of Montreal’s newer alternative art spaces, to spin records and talk turkey with musicians Dominique Alexander, aka buffalo MRI, Danji Buck-Moore, alias Anabasine, and Leticia Trandafir, who performs under the name Softcoresoft, and who also serves as Never Apart’s musical director. Dax Dasilva, the Montreal tech mogul and founder of the e-commerce company Lightspeed, established Never Apart three years ago in a lolling post-modernist mansion on the upper end of St-Urbain. The facility boasts an art gallery, a backyard pool, mezzanine rotunda and music room — a buttoned-down office area decorated with 1990s rave flyers, and housing shelves-full of classic techno on vinyl.
Never Apart regularly hosts exhibitions and events — like the recent DJ workshop for women, non-binary and LGBTQ artists — and is a co-curator with Mutek of two programs in this year’s festival. On off nights, the space is hired out to private functions. Tonight, Trandafir is chaperoning a skateboarder party. I’m the first to arrive. It sounds loud. I’m ushered up to the music room, where Trandafir is hiding out. She greets me warmly and immediately rushes downstairs to check on the festivities. Several people wander through, looking about as if everything were part of some seamless performance art piece. Alexander appears a few minutes later, followed by Buck-Moore, who carries a backpack stuffed with fresh vegetables. Soon, we’re drinking beer and mixing old records to drown out the do below.
Mutek and Never Apart have intertwined stories. Surely, Mutek is Montreal’s most firmly entrenched not-for-profit institution dedicated to electronic arts and digital technology, now with six international franchise festivals. Doubtless, Never Apart and places like it have benefited from being situated in a city that’s already familiar with, and friendly to, arts organizations. After 19 years, Mutek enjoys widespread official approval here, reaching all the way up to the Trudeau cabinet. In a statement on the festival’s website, the Minister of Canadian Heritage, Mélanie Joly, describes Mutek as a “springboard for our artists looking to break into markets outside Canada and reach international audiences.” More recently, though, Mutek has profited from upstarts like Never Apart, too — scooping up affiliated artists like Trandafir to fulfill their mandate of programming Québécois and Canadian content.
On Aug. 26, Softcoresoft will play the Hors Circuit Stage at le Virage in Outremont; Anabasine performs in the Savoy Room at MTelus on Aug. 24; although she’s sitting out this year’s proceedings, buffalo MRI premiered her cassette-tape-based live set at last year’s festival via an NTS Radio broadcast at Espace Danse. Other notable local inhabitants on the bill include CMD, aka Corina MacDonald, who hosts CKUT’s long-running Modular Systems, video artist and le Révélateur collaborator Sabrina Ratté and Hamilton-born producer and DJ Jaclyn Kendall. In addition to Mutek acting as a worldwide launching pad, local artists also operate as the festival’s bedrock of authenticity, the grassroots scenes that affirm Mutek’s — and, more broadly, Montreal’s — legitimacy as a unique hub for digital innovation and creativity.
Yet, despite its singular origins, Mutek is now just one event on a progressively more crowded calendar of well-intentioned festivals and future-facing functions. Now in its second year, OK LÁ organizes a series of experimental music performances in the Ethel parking garage in Verdun. DHC/ART in Old Montreal has previously presented high-profile artists like Actress and Björk. In 2016, Red Bull Music Academy brought its drone and noise sideshow to a disused warehouse in Griffintown. In an effort to join forces, Mutek partnered briefly in 2014 with main rival Elektra, which also puts on the BIAN International Digital Art Biennial. And last year, after 17 seasons of springtime festivals, Mutek rescheduled to summer’s end, a move that might have signaled a crisis of relevance.
Festivals at large are facing mounting challenges. Swelling competition means that audiences have more options — and fewer entertainment dollars — than they might have had in 2000. What’s more, attitudes have cooled toward big festivals, more generally, for three important reasons.
First is mounting resistance to the Spotification of the live musical experience, bundling what might be more-or-less popular into a duller, cheaper, curated program. In a recent article for Pitchfork, the musician and writer Damon Krukowski argues that seeing bands on smaller tours is a more responsible way to support our favourite artists: “You might want to think twice before plunking down big bucks for that next festival ticket,” says Krukowski, maintaining that less visible acts earn more, and engage more intimately with fans, by headlining their own gigs.
Second, the status of not-for-profit and publically financed festivals like Mutek attracts corporate suitors that identify strategic advertising opportunities by attaching their brands to readymade markets. What masquerades as philanthropy is in truth insidious infiltration by capital’s clutches — essentially, the privatization of public resources. And a growing number of people are wise to the ruse. In a smart polemic for Momus on Montreal’s unconventional art venues, critic Saelan Twerdy writes, “It’s clear that artists and curators from Montreal’s DIY milieu are being welcomed into established commercial spaces and enlisted to put their cultural cachet at the service of larger financial interests.” Big corporations are capable of throwing far more money at a cultural event like Mutek than government grants or tax breaks could provide. But these uneasy alliances produce artificial ecosystems that would struggle in the absence of corporate backing.
Third, a pervasive negative perception of digital technologies looms large right now. We have watched in disbelief as new media giants like Facebook have commodified and compromised users’ personal data. Spotify and the streaming model of music have come under fire for at once irreparably altering the ways that recordings circulate, as well as for systematically vaporizing the value of music and its surrounding industries. It is difficult to reconcile the technotopian, post-humanist optimism of the early 2000s with the contemporary failures of technology and its engineers to significantly improve people’s lives.
Later, Alexander, Buck-Moore, Trandafir and I retire from Never Apart’s office and decamp to Alexandraplatz for a nightcap. Our conversation turns from Mutek and music to the more pressing topic of how or if we are going to survive on this planet, as we sip orange wine with relative fortune on an oppressively hot summer night. To bleak nods, I remind everyone that making techno probably isn’t a sound long-term strategy. Buck-Moore and Trandafir talk passionately about permaculture, and imagine starting a sustainable vineyard. Mutek is privileged to have access to local artists like these, who make our particular festival a special one. We’d do well to support them both in and outside the festival context. Go see them at Mutek, yes. But also, go see them play at la Vitrola, or la Plante, or Datcha; listen to their radio shows on CKUT, or n10.as; and, most crucially, buy their work.
Finally, we part ways. I’ve missed the last metro, so I punch through the menu on a glitchy BIXI screen and glide home, thinking of the digital dreams Mutek’s founders once envisioned, hoping they endure. ■
See the complete Mutek program here.