Alain Mongeau: “The focus will be on trying to support our artistic ecosystem both in Montréal and abroad”
The 21st edition of MUTEK Montreal festival happened between the 8th and 13th of September in Montreal and way beyond in the internet. Like most other festivals and cultural events in 2020 MUTEK was effected quite heavily by Covid-19. But instead of thinking small in response to the pandemic Alain Mongeau (the founder and General and Artistic Director of MUTEK) and his team decided to think digital and came up with a very impressive MUTEK edition.
Alain Mongeau was so kind to answer some questions by Thomas Venker
Alain, MUTEK just got awarded with the 35th Grand Prix du Conseil des arts de Montréal.
This award honours your work in 2019 – how does it feel to be awarded for something which now must feel like a signal from another world?
Haha, that’s a good question. It touches something that crossed my mind a few times in the past weeks. The award ceremony was supposed to happen on March 19th and because of the pandemic, it was postponed to finally happen virtually on November 12th. I sometimes wonder if in March the jury would have also selected MUTEK as the Grand Prix winner, or if the eight months delay induced a form of nostalgia for real-life events.
But ultimately, I know that whatever the case, in all objectivity (!!!) MUTEK did deserve the award as last year we celebrated the event’s 20th anniversary and it was a quite extraordinary record-breaking edition, swept by a wind of freshness and renewal. I was nonetheless surprised to win, I really didn’t expect it since we had already won 10 years ago. In the 35 years of existence of this award, never did an organization win the highest honours for a second time. So it’s a very unique feeling, for sure. Of course I’m very proud of the whole thing, and during my acceptance speech I dedicated the prize to the artists and to our public, as MUTEK is only an enabler, facilitating the dialogue between incredible artists and a very appreciative, attentive and caring audience.
How did you personaly experience the 2020 edition of MUTEK Montréal?
It was a bit surreal on many accounts. The festival took place September 8-13, after six months of pandemic during which I only went to the office just a few quick times. I worked most of the summer from out in the countryside 90 minutes away from Montréal, so the festival also marked my return to mingling with urbanity and people. As we were applying very strict sanitary and social distancing measures, our audience was very limited, most of the time masked, so the whole thing certainly lacked the warmth and fluidity of exchange that is characteristic of an event such as MUTEK.
For me it was even weirder. Usually during the festival I book a hotel room so that I’m closer to the centre of action with artists and guests, knowing I won’t be sleeping much, etc. This time we didn’t even have a hotel, so I skipped that part and ended up spending most of my days working/interacting remotely from my bed, sometimes until mid-afternoon. On Friday evening, I already started to have the impression that the festival was over. And by the time we got to the last night, on Sunday, it felt as if the weekend had been composed of three back-to-back Sundays. So all in all, the biggest challenge was actually to feel I was in a festival mode during the week, since all the action was online, on our virtual platforms.
It was great, however, to be back in a semblance of action, getting to see some shows in real life, with good immersive sound and images, running into the regular and seasonal team members. It was sometimes surprising to meet some of the new staff in real-life for the first time after many weeks/months of remote interaction, not knowing their body mass and hardly recognizing the masked faces – it was a bit like being on a ski hill where everyone is hidden under heavy winter gear and you’re not quite sure who you’re bumping into!
How was the feedback from outside: from artists, their teams and audience?
Many great comments from the artists grateful to have performed and happy with the streaming of their performances, from the speakers able to connect to a responsive audience online, from the Festival’s audience and the Forum’s attendees who appreciated our choice of platform.
Some quotes if you want…
“The online platform is a true success! Even if we all missed the actual physical presences and encounters, it was thrilling to follow the full festival from the comfort of home and chat live with friends from other continents. It is an awesome response to the challenges of these times!”
Alexandre Saunier, artist
“We really appreciate all you have done for artists, and for the culture and art, in this very strange and uncertain year.
You really showed that MUTEK is not just a festival. The interaction that takes place in a network of social relationships is as important as the media and artwork presentations.”
Honey and Max Pazhutan, artist
“Please extend my immense gratitude to the whole team! Your months preparing, adapting & executing the festival demonstrate the enormous efforts of the MUTEK team, and has been exciting for me to experience both as an artist and as a spectator.”
Alex Tibbitts, artist
Alain, do you remember when you first heard from Covid-19?
As I suppose it was the case for most people, it only gradually appeared on my radar. For me then, it started to happen as I was getting ready to go to Barcelona for the MUTEK.ES edition that was to take place March 4-8. I was actually travelling there with a colleague who was already quite aware of what was unfolding but somehow appeared to me as an alarmist. She managed to induce a sense of unease that grew in me throughout the festival week, until I reached a kind of premonitory realization that we were perhaps living our last moments of normalcy in a public gathering. On Monday March 9th I was flying back home on a plane full of teenagers returning from a spring break trip, and I remember feeling a bit paranoid about being contaminated by the loud reckless bunch. The abstractness and the randomness of the threat stroke me then, as if I was dealing with a ticking bomb. On Thursday March 12th both the Quebec and the Catalunya governments made their first public announcements related to the pandemic. Had MUTEK.ES been held a week later than planned, it would’ve been cancelled. Back in Montréal, we ended putting all preparations for our August edition on pause for a while, until we could fully comprehend what doom had fallen upon us.
When did you realize that this will stay with us for longer – and by that for so long that it has a direct influence on your festival in 2020 (and maybe even 2021)?
After March, all the months leading to the festival in September were definitely like being on a roller coaster, absorbing as much information as possible about how things were unfolding both locally and abroad, trying to make sense out of it all and to understand what our options might be. Here in Quebec and especially in Montréal the pandemic hit pretty hard for the first few months – about half of the cases declared in Canada were linked to our region. Then during the summer things started to look better, and by August there seemed to be a clearing and events were able to resume under very strict capacity and sanitary measures.
That’s more or less the sequence of things. But it was pretty clear from the beginning that there was no possible way to save Plan A, that the so-called “normal” festival we had in mind for 2020 was never going to happen. That became quite clear as the closing of the borders started to get extended, preventing us from getting international talents to come over and perform.
The 21 edition of MUTEK was what we now call a hybrid festival, besides performances and editorial content exclusively produced for the net, you also did put on phyiscal shows in two venues in Montréal. You feel that this dual strategy worked out well?
When in May the MUTEK team decided to resume preparations and do a festival despite the pandemic, we opted for a « hybrid » format as a way to adapt and be flexible to the many different situations that could be prevailing when holding the festival in September. We had to be prepared for all options, ranging from the most optimistic scenario we could hold our activities in venues that could admit a limited size of audience, to the worst-case scenario where a strict lockdown would only allow us to film and stream the activities as if operating from a TV studio. One common denominator in all options was the fact that everything was going to end up as part of a virtual festival experience no matter what. In the end we were quite lucky as September turned out to be the only month where public events were briefly allowed to happen, so all of the performance programs we had intended to do managed to take place in front of real people. The audience was minimal, all distantly seated, so sometimes it seamed there was a lack of ambience, but in the end it created conditions for a better and more concentrated and religious listening experience, and each show ended in generous and sustained applause.
This hybrid edition of MUTEK Montréal seemed to me as extensive as the regular editions of the last year. Did you implement all scheduled events into the new outfit?
There was a lot of content this year, indeed. In the daytime portion that we associate to MUTEK’s Forum, we had a critical mass of activities and participants similar to last year.
For the artistic content of the festival it’s a bit different, I think we’re circling 55% of the performances we had the previous years. For the presencial side of things, programs presented in front of an audience in Montréal, we only had local artists performing (30 performances vs 50 last year). That content was then poured onto our virtual platform where we also hosted an equivalent number of performances presented in partnership with international collaborators.
I guess that the main difference this year was in terms of so-called ‘headliners’, which in MUTEK’s case means international artists that have been around for some time and end up being a bit better known than the others on the line-up. Since most of the international content was provided by the MUTEK antennas in Mexico, Buenos Aires, San Francisco, Tokyo and Barcelona, they proceeded as we did in Montréal, namely drawing emerging talent from their immediate artistic pool, in an effort to support their respective local scenes.
The festival is still digitally available.
Do you see a steady stream of interest in this archive?
When we were working on setting up the festival during the summer, we weren’t quite sure what kind of virtual festival experience we were going to be able to provide. We had to tackle a lot of things for the first time, and the learning curve seemed a bit steep to deal with in a very short lapse. Firstly, since we had decided to build our own custom-made platform, we weren’t really sure if and how we’d pull it off. We also wanted to make sure the performances would be filmed and streamed in interesting ways in order to fight the general digital fatigue that quickly hit people after a few months of pandemic. It’s with upmost relief that we ended up with amazing results on all accounts, triggering enthusiastic feedback.
Since there was so much great content made available for just 6 little festival days in September, we figured it would make sense to reopen the platform for just a few weeks in November. After that, we’ll switch to the next virtual festival iteration in December, which will be a joint collaboration between our MUTEK seeds in Japan and Mexico.
Are you happy with the numbers in general – people attenting the events via website and social media and archive visits?
I ask as to me it seems a lot of well established festivals are having a hard time to attract their audience for the digital programing – which is totally understandable as they are primarly live events and not a media outlet.
It’s hard to say as we didn’t really have any reference point, so we didn’t have expectations in terms of numbers and reach. When we decided to go ahead with a festival edition no matter what, our first motive was to support the artists and cultural workers that have helped make MUTEK what it has become over the years. We also wanted to reach our public, of course, which is why the virtual festival’s content was made available for free. But our efforts in terms of digital marketing were very timid, as it’s a whole new territory that we need to master much more if we want to hope reaching our full capacity in terms of attracting a larger virtual audience.
Besides getting the attention of the people in the first place, the next and even bigger challenge is to keep them with you. One has the tendency to stroll from one stage to another or one venue to another at festivals, in the digital world we switch channels even faster. How did you experience the festival regards this?
It’s certainly true that people behave in a different way online than what you might expect in real life. I think we have an attention span that is much shorter for online matters, and since we’ve ended up spending so much time there during these past few months, it’s gotten even worse with the digital fatigue I mentioned before.
One of the reasons why we decided to develop our own virtual platform was to recreate the notion of a captive audience in one environment, as opposed to spreading the streams on different social media outlets. By having everyone converge onto the same online space for the same content, we offered the conditions of a shared experience. And by having chatrooms associated with each stage, where the people could interact with each other and with the artists involved in the festival, we reinforced the sense of community. We also did everything possible to keep visitors focussed within the virtual festival experience, minimizing distractions and excluding any link that would lead outside of the platform.
I don’t know to which extent we have succeeded or not. We’ll only be crunching the data in a few weeks, once the festival rerun is done with.
What are the learns from this years edition for you?
MUTEK’s sense of purpose is still intact. I think it’s good and important that a few key players remain active to support artists, and more generally the whole cultural ecosystem without which a festival like ours wouldn’t exist in the first place. All artists and cultural and technical workers we’ve dealt with were very grateful of the efforts we’ve deployed. It was a lot of work – actually in the weeks leading to the festival, some of my colleagues started to regret our decision to go ahead with doing something despite the pandemic since last year’s edition was already quite demanding and they had hoped that this year was going to be a bit more relax. But in the end I think it was worthwhile. And it definitely sets the ground from which we’ll be able to evolve and go further next year.
Do you feel supported well by the local and state politics?
Yes, no doubt about it. Most of the funding we usually get ended up being confirmed relatively quickly, and we were also able to tap into additional emergency funds that helped maintain MUTEK’s full workforce in place – there’s only seven of us full time, plus a few seasonal staff that join us when in production. I’m highly aware that by being rooted in Montréal, we’re quite lucky as we have access to Montréal municipal, Quebec provincial and Canada federal sources of support. When compared to many places on Earth, I know that we’re quite privileged. What we’ve witnessed here so far from all levels of government is a definite eagerness to keep the cultural ecosystem in place so that once the pandemic is over, we as cultural players could be on the frontline to help restore a sense of normalcy and wellbeing in people’s lives. This kind of support induces in turn a new sense of purpose and responsibility towards what we consider our scene, both locally and internationally. So I guess it’s a win-win situation!
You do ask for donations – is this working out in a substantial way or more likely symbolic?
It’s more symbolic for sure. It has always been one of MUTEK’s challenges to educate our local audience that what the festival offers has a value. And it’s been difficult because Montréal is basically a guest-list city where everyone feels some form of entitlement to get into events for free. For reasons I explained a bit earlier, since we decided not to charge for the virtual festival experience this time around, we didn’t want anyone to take things for granted. It’s always relevant to remind that as a non-profit organization, we’re merely a form of relay between the public and the artists.
I guess you do watch a lot of the activities of other festivals like Sonar, Unsound, Atonal, c/o pop…. Can you name some of the events / formats that catched your eyes? And tell why so? (Please drop links)
Did you get inspired for your own activities by some of them?
When we set to organize the virtual side of the Montréal hybrid edition, it was during the spring and there hadn’t been much done by anyone yet. All our team started to pay attention to the different initiatives popping here and there. We didn’t find any specific instance by which we could get inspired, except perhaps the Nexus Experience staged by MUTEK.SF late May and designed and built by the Currents.fm team. It was the first experiment we saw of a dedicated online festival platform with multiple rooms and different community enhancing tools.
It took us a while to decide what path we would take to go virtual. After listing all the characteristics we were looking for in relation to the Forum and its array of professional networking needs, we decided to opt for the Swapcard solution on one hand. And for the virtual festival experience, we decided to build a platform that could have its own MUTEK look and feel, with the idea that it could become and remain a central part of our future online presence.
Do you feel that you communicated more with the artists and their teams for this edition as in the past as they had to adapt quite dramatically with their artistic response?
Once we greenlighted things to go ahead with the festival, everything became quite straightforward with everyone involved. As we expected the situation to continuously evolve even as we were nearing the festival dates, we just informed everyone that we all needed to remain flexible and ready to adapt to different scenarios. Since we were mainly dealing directly with the artists – not so many artists are represented by booking agencies –, it was all very fluid. Towards the end, though, I started to fear that perhaps some artists or speakers of our daytime program might cancel out of discomfort for the whole context, since it was starting to happen in other events around, but that didn’t happen with us.
But I do feel that as the pandemic is dragging itself, for next year it might be a bit different, that we’ll probably want to interact much more in advance with artists to see what kind of new projects or new ideas they’ve been having, and see how we can be more creative altogether. I also think we’ll reach out to more established international artists again, those who’ve already performed at the festival in the past and who can be seen as friends of MUTEK, as I’m pretty sure many will be eager to reconnect.
For quite some time there is no such thing as the one MUTEK, besides the mothership in Montréal you have several satellites all over the world in Barcelona, Mexico City, Tokyo, San Francisco and Buenos Aires.
How did you experience 2020 regards the communication between the teams?
We’ve always been in touch on a regular basis with everyone within the MUTEK network, but this year it’s reached a new level of intensity and solidarity. When the Nexus MUTEK.SF experiment happened in May, even if it was very last minute, it pulled the network together to help promote the event, and the MUTEK.ES team even managed to contribute with a Francesco Tristano performance to be streamed as part of the virtual festival.
For the Montréal mothership event in September, all 5 international MUTEKs came aboard with exclusive content, relayed the event to their respective communities, and participated to the moderation of the online chat rooms operating in 4 different languages, English, French, Spanish and Japanese.
So behind the scenes there’s been a lot of exchange of information and of knowledge, bouncing ideas, gestures of support, it somehow managed to draw us even closer and realize how lucky we are to have such a “family” if I may say, in a period when so many feel isolated.
How different have been the rollouts of the festival been?
The next MUTEK iteration will be a joint collaboration between Tokyo and Mexico from December 9 till 13, 2020. MUTEK.JP is celebrating their 5th anniversary and Mexico will merge their efforts in a shared virtual festival experience. The platform we have developed for Montréal will be used and adapted for the purpose, and the other MUTEKs will again contribute with new exclusive content. For this time all the content will be available behind a paywall for a moderate price (10$US), and festival-goers will be able to go back and consult the archives on demand until the end of the year.
Then in March a similar joint collaboration will be happening between Barcelona and Buenos Aires, drawing on previous experimentations.
And now? How are you planning for 2021 – do the news of a vaccine and faster and cheaper rapid covid-19 test make you feel positive that MUTEK will be able to get back on the regular track in 2021?
To be honest we haven’t started to discuss 2021 yet for Montréal, as we’re still busy with the current festival rerun and helping out with the MX/JP collaboration. It’s going to take a while before we get back on a regular track, whatever that might mean in a post-pandemic world. I suspect that we won’t be able to reach last year’s heights before our 25th anniversary in 2024, that’s if we’re lucky. And if that’s truly the objective, it’s probably going to be a strenuous road. But at the moment I’m not even sure the idea will be to try recovering our past glory. It might not even be possible or desirable. We’ll see.
For next year, I think the focus will be again on trying to support our artistic ecosystem both in Montréal and abroad, try to maintain a sense of community and remain in touch with our audience everywhere, keep our networking reflexes in shape, and hope for a better world some day.
Last question, as music is the healing force in all of this: what is your favorite track / song in 2020 so far?
That’s tricky one. Just a few spontaneous hints then. “Meander”, taken from the Sounds of Silence album by Sibling and Heavenchord, has been a recurrent go to these past months.
I also love the new “Assemblage” album by Rhauder & Paul St.Hilaire
And just this week I stumbled upon the new “In Blue” album by The Bug and Dis Fig … a great piece of work.