MUTEK MONTRÉAL 2019: Future Tense

Highlights from the festival's Forum_IMG, a symposium dedicated to the impact of creative digital technology

Though better known for its line-up of experimental musicians, MUTEK goes beyond the stage with Forum IMG, a symposium dedicated to the exploration of the practical and theoretical impacts of creative digital technology. It makes MUTEK a truly unique estuary of learning and experience, reformatting the festival concept from entertainment-only to a place for education. The program featured leading industry professionals and creatives presenting a wide breadth of new ideas, from experimental concepts for digital installations in galleries, to the complexities of defining authorship in the age of algorithmic art, to strategies for extended reality development.

Douglas Rushkoff, the highly influential media theorist responsible for coining now-standard terms such as “viral media” and “digital native,” set the tone for the week with his opening keynote, which focused on the urgent need to address rapid technological development without accountability. He further touched upon how we must create a new ethical standard for the industry at large. Altogether, _IMG showcased a remarkable collection of artists and professionals who are taking on that exact responsibility, and the festival should be applauded for promoting these important conversations. Here are some of the most interesting approaches presented over the week.

Frames screenshot courtesy of Screening Surveillance

Screening Surveillance by sava saheli singh

When Queen’s University’s Surveillance Studies Center asked sava saheli singh to create a public awareness campaign highlighting the negative effects of big data, they were expecting something traditionally academic—like an e-learning course that could be sent to schools, businesses and other institutions. Instead, singh took a novel approach by creating three short speculative fiction films that explore growing surveillant systems. Reminiscent of Black Mirror’s chilling near-future sci-fi, each film focuses on a different issue of data and privacy in a way singh hopes will compel audiences to reflect. “We’re often sold this [tech] as making our lives more efficient or more safe, like the Ring Doorbell is supposed to make you safe, but very often we end up at odds with this technology,” singh observes. “So each of these stories is about that. It’s about trying to live with surveillance while also having an actual life or trying to have an actual life with varying results most often unfortunate.”

The protagonists of all three films are women of color; “women, people of color and marginalized folks very often bear the brunt of a big data surveillance system,” singh explains, “and it can manifest in a place where we have no choice but to be surveilled and have that data used against us.” Blaxites, for instance, follows the story of Jai, a young black student who is denied access to vital anti-anxiety medication when her insurance flags her as non-compliant after she posts a photo of her having a glass of wine on social media. When she is forced to find access through other means, she discovers that the surveillance goes even further and has reported her for taking the medication without a prescription, banning her completely from healthcare. Other films A Model Employee and Frames respectively dive into potential problems with tracking devices used by employers to monitor outside activity and life within the growing trend of “live cities.” Both expand on how surveillance tech stereotypes, misrepresents, and ultimately harms the individual by taking them out of context.

Despite the “grim watching” as singh calls it, she argues against dismissing these ideas as made just to scare people. “These are not dystopian stories,” singh says. “These are things that are affecting people right now… If you want to say we’re scaring people, I guess we’re trying to scare people into waking up.”

Courtesy of Bruno Destombes

The Future is Trash and Counter Narratives by Ingrid Burrington and Tim Maughan

Continuing along the theme of possible futures, author Tim Mauguan and multidisciplinary artist Ingrid Burrington joined forces to present The Future is Trash workshop, designed to help people question power structures that shape our predictions and speculative narratives. “You can learn a lot from a culture based on what is decided is disposable, or what is decided is not worth repairing,” Burrington explains, bringing up an example of a group of scientists and anthropologists who were asked to consider how to communicate the danger of a nuclear waste disposal site to a society 10,000 years in the future—by speculating different possibilities of what that society could look like.

“I don’t think there’s anything happening at the moment that wasn’t predictable or predicted… So many of those fictional predictions were right—about the environment, about technology, about many of the horrors that are happening right now

“I think my favorite scenario is ‘a feminist world where women dominate society… 20th century science has been discredited as male arrogance and warnings about [nuclear] repository are dismissed,'” Burrington says, demonstrating how a speculation group dominated by white male experts could make assumptions about feminism so inherently misogynistic that it destroys humanity. Workshop participants were led through a world-building exercise in which they used junked objects to help define a similar post-disaster scenario, showing how alternative scripts can be created when taking the symbols and objects of now out of their current context.

Courtesy of Bruno Destombes

The workshop was a practical continuation of the Counter Narratives panel, in which Burrington and Maughan explained how creating parallel or speculative realities can help artists critique culture and promote different perspectives. Maughan—whose recently released debut novel Infinite Detail speculates about a world in which the internet is permanently switched off—is a master at using fiction to explore current and near-future scenarios by creating “alternate presents.” In bringing political, economic and social conditions currently being experienced in other countries to the Western settings of his fiction, he exposes the truly harrowing real-world repercussions of technology-based globalism to light.

“If I want to talk about this issue or that politic, I will adapt the existing world or build a new world where the rules of that world orbit around the point I want to make,” Maughan explains to us. “I’m going to be a broken record here, but science fiction is about the present, not the future.” Growing up on the cyberpunk novels and sci-fi films of the ’80s and ’90s, Maughan says, “I don’t think there’s anything happening at the moment that wasn’t predictable or predicted… So many of those fictional predictions were right—about the environment, about technology, about many of the horrors that are happening right now. We are scared about the future but not finding ways of dealing with it, and I think that’s the strength of science fiction writers.”

Courtesy of Theo Anthony

Plastic Anniversary by Matmos

Moving beyond the forum, social responsibility met MUTEK’s audio-visual showcase with Baltimore-based experimental electronic duo Matmos, who performed pieces from their most recent album Plastic Anniversary. Released in March on Thrill Jockey, the album celebrates the 25th anniversary of the pair (MC Schmidt and Drew Daniel) as collaborators and romantic partners. They used the occasion to bring awareness to the environmental devastation caused by widespread use of plastic—hence the title of the record, which was distributed using only recycled materials for both vinyl and CD editions. Continuing the duo’s tradition of creating music from unusual sources, Plastic Anniversary employs only the eponymous material for its sound—remixed and manipulated into a full track list of infectious dance music.

The live set was paired with video art featuring each track’s plastic origin object, making the statement of the album even more visceral. While performing “Thermoplastic Riot Shield” (which explores the expansive sound qualities of hitting, rubbing, licking and splashing liquids against a police riot shield) the duo played a video of their material exploration spliced with footage of the 2015 Baltimore uprising in reaction to the death of Freddie Gray. “Breaking Bread” visually explores an Animal Farm-like destruction of an environment. The song is composed of different sounds created by destroying and consequently playing broken pieces of a record by ’70s soft-rock group Bread, making literal the idea of the broken record through a breakbeat while critiquing the environmental impact of vinyl music distribution.

After the party, there’s always a crash

Daniel brought the night to a conclusion announcing that “after the party, there’s always a crash” just before diving into “Plastiphere,” which serves as the album’s harshest track. As homemade video of plastic ocean pollution and its deadly consequences streamed on stage—some footage from as far back as 1985—Matmos used plastic bags to compose a track which grows increasingly louder until it is nearly unbearable, in hopes of translating a world under unsustainable duress. While almost painful to experience live, it was a gesture of art in its truest form, forcing the audience to confront an uncomfortable—and in this case deadly—truth.

Hero image courtesy of Myriam Ménard