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Just another day at the lab: MUTEK A/Visions 2012

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photo: unknown8bit

For the last 13 years the end of May has signalled a global convergence of electronic music enthusiasts in Montreal for a week of performance, networking and revelry. It is no small feat that the MUTEK festival has grown far beyond its humble roots as an ‘inside baseball’ showcase of the rosters of boutique experimental labels into a robust platform for the promotion of techno, house and more experimental fair with widespread popular appeal. While MUTEK may flog the fact that it has become a bonafide tourist attraction (it has drawn crowds of more than 10,0000 in recent years), don’t let the rhetoric fool you – the festival still has very sharp teeth when it comes to adventurous programming. Nowhere is this fact more clear than within the A/Visions stream, an event-series dedicated to imaginative, integrated audiovisual performances that was launched in 2006 and has consistently served as the locus of innovation within the festival. So, how did the 2012 edition of A/Visions measure up? Quite excellently, and in looking beyond some minor programming hiccups, this was clearly the strongest showing of AV material ever featured at MUTEK. Even more encouragingly, this year marked a welcome expansion of the AV programming into other event streams yielding an almost overwhelming amount of shows and screenings to choose from.

The following review is an attempt to identify some of the prominent themes in the A/Visions program and point CAN readers at some of the more noteworthy projects/performances featured this year.

Andrew Pekler & Jan Jelinek play Ursula Bogner, MUTEK 2012
Andrew Pekler & Jan Jelinek play Ursula Bogner, photo: unknown8bit

Some of the most compelling work at A/Visions 2012 welded engaging musical performances to the presentation of historical and aesthetic mythologies. Berlin’s Andrew Pekler and Jan Jelinek crafted droning, transcendent soundscapes out of the compositions of the late Ursula Bogner, an obscure German electronic musician active in the 70s and 80s who was headlong into fringe science. Drawing on the idiosyncratic legacy of their might-be-fake-but-completely-plausible muse, the duo positioned themselves perpendicular to the crowd with a camera clamped to a mic stand filming their clinical interactions with their analogue kits. This live feed sat alongside a deadpan slideshow that cycled through various biographical photographs of Bogner, her family and celestial diagrams. The sight of Pekler and Jelinek cooly constructing space jazz against a backdrop of musty photographs proved beyond a doubt that the world is ready for a hybrid Wes Anderson/Sun Ra multimedia aesthetic. The key takeaway from this performance: the mytho-biography of Ursula Bogner is the most compelling cosmology in electronic music since Drexciya.

Not every performance at MUTEK trafficked in long-forgotten fringe musicians, we also saw some artful homages to 70s and 80s video and atomic warfare. Video artist Sabrina Ratté teamed up with Le Révélateur (aka Roger Tellier-Craig, formerly of Godspeed You! Black Emperor) to present a lo-fi, dreamy AV performance that wed the “chromatic aberrations” of abstract colour fields and landscapes with idyllic ambient. Ratté displayed mastery of a number of classic video transitions and effects to provide a retro, thoroughly authored series of vignettes that perfectly mirrored Tellier-Craig’s compositions. Veteran producers Biosphere and Lustmord teamed up to present Trinity, a cinematic exploration of the landscape and technology surrounding the first detonation of a nuclear device in 1945. Like Jelinek and Pekler, the duo deployed a range of archival photography to stitch together a narrative of inference. Comprised of vignettes focusing on the texture of affected terrain, portraiture of the scientists and military personal involved in the detonation and some classic nerdcore fetishization of (military) gadgetry and infrastructure. The ominous set waxed and waned between the blistering intensity of a death march and more restrained atmospherics, and while it felt unfocused at times, so be it, as it was undeniably live.

The introduction to Biosphere and Lustmord’s collaboration featured long meandering pans across photographs of the American Southwest as a lead-in to a creative interpretation of one of the darker chapters of 20th century physics. This was not exactly a surprise as landscape is one of the enduring tropes at A/Visions as there is a longstanding tradition of exploring place through film and experimental music. Two performances in particular, were delivered as extended meditations on the narrative potential of landscape, Roly Porter and MFO’s Akheron Fall and Nelly-Eve Rajotte’s cinematic scan of the American (and Canadian) West. The former fixated on the notion of ‘the dark forest’ as a setting for the majesty of Porter’s industrial-strength compositions and the latter mixed field recordings with Spaghetti Western samples to score a rolling, split screen landscape montage accented with a dash of cowboy datamoshing.

Jan Jelink and Andrew Pekler’s slide deck space jazz notwithstanding, I’d say the most successful A/Visions acts this year interrogated the space of performance. Robin Fox’s transformed the Ludger-Duvernay Theatre at Monument-National into a geometric playground where, in the purest sense possible, sound was used an as instrument to modulate the sweeps, scans and scribbles of a centrally located laser. Fox obviously tuned his performance to the dimensions of the venue and his array of beams carved up the thick clouds of smoke that wafted over the audience. The resulting experience was visceral and volumetric and the audience—blasted with light—was fully immersed in Fox’s arena. The Australian artist received a rabid ovation for both the overall tightness of his performance and for zapping the audience out of passive spectatorship.

Another noteworthy performance was Kode9, MFO and Ms. Haptic’s Her Ghost, a thoroughly moiré-d rethinking of Chris Marker’s seminal 1962 experimental film La jetée. Using stills from the original, this reconstruction took liberties with the fabled narrative of ‘temporally challenged’ ill-fated lovers and dove headlong into tweaking the look, feel and sequence of the underlying time travel, determinism and dystopian squalor. Better yet, the cinematic redux was ‘performed’ with Kode9 and company playing from the audience which was a very convincing reminder that, more often than not, the artists really aren’t needed on stage in these contexts. The gritty processed photography and illustration, Kode9’s rumbling sound design and the straight up gravitas of Ms. Haptic’s live narration made for a super-engaging performance that actually spoke to film as a medium rather than simply appropriating stylistic conventions from it.

There were several other acts on the A/Visions program, notably the final show in the series which featured Les Momies de Palerme and a collaborative jam by Tim Hecker and Stephen O’Malley – occurring within the cavernous interior of St. James United Church. Earlier in the week, Pierre Bastien and Espen Sommers showcased their eclectic Electric Folkways project, which leverages a table full of custom contraptions as the basis of an improvisational arsenal and Ben Shemie presented a live mix of Transmission 1, a work simultaneously broadcast across two FM radio stations.

At the beginning of this review I mentioned that the AV programming at MUTEK seems to really be influencing other streams, making this year particularly delightful for attendees ‘turned on’ to art and design. Outside of the material reviewed in this post, this year saw a projection-bolstered Jeff Mills mix that convincingly mapped out the relationship between techno and speculative fiction, an incredible 3D projections meets modular-synths showcase at the Satosphere (a dome perched atop the Société des arts technologiques) and a robust experimental media program at Recombinant Media Labs’ CineChamber ‘mobile immersive arts facility’ (which will be featured on CAN soon).

Given that MUTEK is now firmly within its second decade, there is definitely a desire to see the experimentation and cross-contamination across programs that has defined recent editions of the festival continue and amplify. Here’s hoping that A/Visions 2013 yields more media archeology, more provocations and more spaces for exploration and delight.

MUTEK


Sabrina Ratté, Blue Nuit

Bastien & Espen Sommer Eide's Electric Folkways, MUTEK 2012
Perre Bastien & Espen Sommer Eide’s Electric Folkways, photo: unknown8bit

A/Visions 4, St. James United Church – MUTEK 2012
A/Visions 4, St. James United Church photo: unknown8bit

Robin Fox's Laser Show, MUTEK 2012
Robin Fox’s Laser Show, photo: unknown8bit

Biosphere & Lustmord, MUTEK 2012
Biosphere & Lustmord present Trinity, photo: unknown8bit