Robert Henke. Photo by Anna Katharina Scheidegger

MUTEK turns 20 with panache

New venues, new achievements and program highlights of the festival at the intersection of electronic music and digital arts.

The MUTEK Festival, celebrating its 20th year in Montreal, opened last night with Monolake’s performance at the PY1, the Old Port pyramid-shaped amphitheatre that looks like the LEGO Group collaborated on a quarter-sized Louvre and then painted the whole thing 18 per cent grey. Inside, the PY1 is smoky, frigid, and porn-theatre dark, but the people who made their way past the literally pushy club security outside compose a friendly MUTEK crowd: hot techno dweebs of all ages who seem like each and every one of them own a worn copy of Neuromancer.

Composer and engineer Robert Henke co-created the music software Ableton Live and co-founded Monolake both with Gerhard Behles, though Monolake is now Henke’s solo project. It was immediately disarming to see an actual engineer play a techno set at 7 p.m., grinning to himself like only a thrilled nerd can. The accompanying visual projections and laser show grew tired as the hour wore on, but the experience on the whole was one of pleasing free-association.

MUTEK is all about the intersection of electronic music and digital arts, so while this kind of early evening club ambiance is part of MUTEK, the festival is also characterized by a diverse selection of speakers, conferences and masterclasses. It is a daunting line-up. If you missed Monolake, well, there are 89 other performances somehow squeezed in, as well as VR experiences and various audiovisual installations — including the ISM Hexadome. The scope is decidedly international, with this year’s 172 artists coming from 26 nations.

MUTEK is a thoughtful fest, and after affiliating itself with the international initiative Amplify last year, achieved gender parity for the first time. This emphasis on the role of women and non-binary artists is not only reflected in the industry components of MUTEK, but also in the broader line-up. This year’s Digi Lab series also features a panel on the changing landscape of global diversity, a discussion integrating political and technological challenges in the electronic arts world and a workshop on immersive installations with Nelly-Eve Rajotte.

Meanwhile, of course, there are nightly immersive projections at the Satosphère, and plenty of late-night DJ sets in which to forget the day’s talks of gear and transhumanism. ■

MUTEK continues through Sunday, Aug. 25. The Expérience Series of outdoor shows, along with various labs, discussions and panels, are free, including a gear showroom at Never Apart. Individual tickets cost $27–$45; festival passes $100–$470; 15% pass discounts for students and groups of 5–10. See MUTEK’s program for their full line-up.