On its 14th year, MUTEK Mexico is an established event in Mexico City, bringing an array of electronic music’s brightest and best to the capital every year. In 2017, however, a tragic earthquake threatened to knock the festival out of commission. John Twells was on the ground to witness MUTEK.MX brush itself off and make its city proud.
On September 19 this year, an earthquake hit Central Mexico, killing 370 people and injuring 6,000, and collapsing buildings and infrastructure in Puebla, Morelos and in Mexico City. This tragic event occurred, unusually, only two hours after a national earthquake drill commemorated the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, where around 10,000 lives were lost.
It’s difficult for any city to overcome this level of challenge and while Mexico City was impressively prepared for the catastrophe, it still required time, funding and support to piece together a sense of normalcy after the disaster. Somehow, MUTEK Mexico, which was initially slated for October 11-15 – only weeks after the earthquake – wasn’t cancelled. The team behind the festival were vigilant, making sure they checked the safety of every venue and location being used, so that locals and visitors would be safe when MUTEK.MX was moved to November 22-26, and bookers scrambled to ensure the availability of their impressive list of artists. Thankfully, the re-booted program was just as enticing as the original one, with huge names like Nina Kraviz, The Orb and Squarepusher buoying riskier prospects like Upgrayedd Smurphy, Second Woman and Equiknoxx.
When I arrived in Mexico City I was surprised by how pristine it appeared to look. Mere weeks after a 7.1 magnitude earthquake, the city was bustling as if nothing had happened. Stationed in Colonia Roma, a notorious artists’ district lined with French-style former mansions and Neo-colonial shops and restaurants, I wandered around silenced by the district’s energy, only noticing the cracks after they had been pointed out. At the edges of most streets and buildings were deep striations and jagged holes, but built with this kind of damage in mind, the majority of structures were strong enough to hold, obtuse angles vanishing into the city’s erratic landscape.
By the time the festival began in earnest I was already in awe. The first location was a planetarium at the Papalote children’s museum, a large space that houses a huge IMAX screen; it sits on the outskirts of Bosque de Chapultepec, Mexico City’s equivalent of New York’s Central Park and one of the largest urban parks in the Western Hemisphere. Inside the dome, A/Visions 1 had already begun: Max Cooper and Maotik’s “Hyperform” was first, offering aesthetically pretty visual trickery tacked to a suite of music that could best be described as a journey through the greatest hits of IDM covered by a rudimentary AI. As the set moved on, the scale remained impressive even as the glitchy, Autechre-influenced beats began to blur into tech-house. Diagraf, Ewerx & Wiklow’s “Liquid Architecture” was more engrossing, with glitchy soundscapes – somewhere between Pole’s distorted dub and Burial’s storm-drenched shuffle – providing the backbone for epic, morphing cityscapes that amazed the audience.
Before embarking on next evening’s activities, I was impressed by the care the MUTEK.MX staff took to ensure festival-goers had the best possible experience in Mexico City. One of the biggest draws for tourists is the array of impressive cuisine – each day street vendors fill the city’s sidewalks, while some of the world’s finest restaurants are dotted nearby. To offer each visitor a proper taste of the city, a “Gastronomic Route” was provided by MUTEK that highlighted not only the best taco spots, food trucks and sit-down eateries, but also provided essential local knowledge: where you might need reservations and what’s the tipping etiquette, for example. These little touches weren’t necessary, especially in the face of the disaster, but were extremely welcome. It allowed visitors to feel a little more connected and purposeful in their exploration – relying on the knowledge of local experts rather than the crowd-sourced, context-free mess of Yelp.
A/Visions 2 on Wednesday was already looking like a must-see event merely from the lineup. Steve Hauschildt kicked things off with a selection of synth-drenched vignettes from last year’s Strands that filled Auditorio Blackberry, an ample venue that’s halfway in-between a movie theater and a stadium. By the time Carsten Nicolai, aka Alva Noto, hit the stage, the place felt full – the evening was sold out and heaved as Nicolai’s expertly-chiseled rhythms echoed through the hall, informing rapid-fire shocks of color that cycled on a huge screen behind him. This was material I hadn’t heard before from Nicolai, indicating a new direction: crunchy, ear-bleeding rhythms replaced the prettiness of the Xerrox series and the whole thing felt markedly more intense and driving than 2011’s acclaimed Univrs.
Lorenzo Senni, who had missed his flight and only arrived at the venue moments before he had to perform, had a tough task following. Alva Noto’s crowd-pleasing visual display was replaced with a PVC banner and Senni proceeded to animatedly bash through highlights of last year’s Persona and this year’s The Shape of Trance to Come. Dancing jerkily and confusing the audience at every turn, Senni caused an exodus at Auditorio Blackberry, but dedicated listeners were rewarded with a performance that highlighted what you can accomplish if you truly stick to your guns (or in Senni’s case, your Roland JP-8000). This was nostalgia inverted and transformed into something completely different – something almost entirely new, in fact.
Thursday’s performance, again at the Auditorio Blackberry was entitled simply “Ambience”, and understandably took a more solemn, laid-back tone. Kicking off with Rafael Anton Irisarri, we were off to a good start as the US producer layered whimsical guitar tones over warm pads and processed field recordings, filling the room with dense, beautiful clouds of sound. But a few minutes into Tim Hecker’s set, I started to lose focus. I’ve seen Hecker play before and on this occasion, the setting may have undermined the performance – it sounded at times indistinct and lacked his usual power. The Orb followed and reminded me why I haven’t ventured out to see them in recent years. Their past innovation was all but forgotten as Alex Patterson, sporting a tee-shirt emblazoned with the immortal mantra “Keep Calm And Know That I Am God”, twisted tired samples snatched from a pile of CDRs as Thomas Fehlmann painted his ambient-by-numbers worksheets nextdoor.
The big guns, however, were waiting in the wings – MUTEK.MX had only just begun, as I discovered when I reached Friday’s venue, Fábrica, a repurposed textiles factory an hour outside of Roma. This was a risk for the festival; the venue wasn’t easily accessible and while it was impressively sizable, with art installations peppered throughout the warehouse and food trucks sitting on the outskirts, it was too new to be a reliable draw. Thankfully, as French techno producer Chloé lit up the main stage, the crowd began to grow, and by the time Kelly Lee Owens took to the stage in a puffer jacket (she’d caught Laryngitis and like a trooper performed anyway) the venue felt packed, but not awkwardly so.
Emptyset kept things fresh in Room B, capping a great year with a performance that pulled the best bits from Borders and Skin. Fuzzy, distorted visuals flashed behind the duo as they pummeled an adoring crowd with ear-splitting beats and precisely-engineered electro-acoustic drones. Elsewhere, across the boardwalk to Room C, local producer Jadir Zárate impressed with downtempo, glitchy soundscapes and hiccuping beats. The big draw for this evening though was Nina Kraviz, who commanded respect from her braying throng of fans as she rocked through a no-cheese-allowed selection of heavy techno that was impossible not to enjoy. As the reversed synths of ‘Red 1’ echoed across the dancefloor I almost regressed back to Birmingham, 1999 – at 3:30AM in a warehouse in Mexico City, that’s no mean feat.
Sadly, the Saturday’s Nocturne 2 was less impressive, where IDM veteran Squarepusher snatched the headline slot. While the crowd appeared to be wowed by the arch prankster’s silly mix of rapid-fire EDM squelches, wacky melodies and chopped amen breaks, I was left feeling completely lost. True, Kraviz’s stoic warehouse techno the night before wasn’t particularly groundbreaking either, but it was expertly paced and wasn’t simply an impenetrable wall of annoying tropes, conducted by a man in a fencing suit. Better was Room C, where Editions Mego’s LCC bashed through a gruesome set of industrial gloom and grinding 4/4 made even more impressive by the fact that it was handled by only one of the duo’s members – Uge Pañeda.
By far the highlight of the evening, and possibly the entire festival, was a jagged, inspiring set from Mexico City’s own Upgrayedd Smurphy, who appeared on stage flanked by three dancers that interpreted her fractured club music with the kind of fierce attitude usually reserved for the catwalk. It was a bold, colorful performance that illustrated Mexico City’s vivid artistic progression without descending into nostalgia for even a second. Second Woman rounded out this room for the night, but by then most of the crowd had vanished to ogle Squarepusher in the main room, leaving me to bask in the duo’s obtuse digi-dub almost alone.
It was easy to feel overwhelmed and exhausted by the time we reached Sunday’s free-entry closing party, which took place outside of Museo Tamayo, a contemporary art museum in the heart of Bosque de Chapultepec. But this was where I saw how the festival really interacted with the city. The crowd was markedly different – younger, less male and more diverse – and the music was squarely aimed at the party, a breath of fresh air after a week of pensive drone, austere techno and artistic posturing. Argentina’s Chancha Vía Circuito was an early highlight, and the crowd lapped up his dubwise, occasionally manic cumbia, dancing furiously as the sun set over the park. Then it was down to Jamaica’s Equiknoxx to guide us into the evening, where core production duo Gavsborg and Time Cow were joined by vocalist Shanique Marie, who added a sense of personality to the show, brightening up rhythms from Equiknoxx’s recent Colón Man LP with unforgettable vocal hooks and snippets from bonafides like Erykah Badu and Sade.
As the skyline disappeared into another night and Argentinan cumbia architects Klik & Frik impressed a still-dancing crowd with their LED-lit hoodies and dancehall-inspired productions, I already knew I would miss Mexico City. MUTEK.MX had achieved the impossible: the festival had survived an earthquake and thanks to an incredibly dedicated team and a city that genuinely seemed to never sleep, it was one of the most flawless productions I’ve encountered in two decades of festival-going. As I prepared to depart, I noticed that only a couple of days later there was yet another impressive-looking event in CDMX, a celebration of the pioneering GRM institute, with performances from Kara-Lis Coverdale and Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe. I’m still regretting not intentionally missing my flight home.
John Twells is FACT’s Managing Editor. Find him on Twitter.