This year, the first US edition of long-running digital art and music festival MUTEK took place in San Francisco. Aux 88, Underground Resistance’s Galaxy 2 Galaxy, Derrick May and Moritz von Oswald led a charge of techno pioneers who headlined the event, alongside international favorites and exciting local names. FACT’s John Twells was on the ground to listen and learn.
The grim inevitability of accelerationism – the idea that capitalism and its technological developments should be sped up to enact large-scale social change – buzzes around San Francisco’s needle-strewn streets and glistening gilded superstructures. Here, vast inequality is as prominent and visible as artisanal coffee shops, co-working spaces and craft beer bars. The city’s status as a tech hub has seen it evolve into a functioning dystopia: luxury apartments and app-rented “hacker houses” are now peppered across the city, taking the place of family units that a only a few short years ago made up a rich, diverse – and famously progressive – community.
These houses are chilling, both conceptually and in practice, and remind me of childhood trips to a local living museum that highlighted the inequality and inhumanity of the industrial revolution, showing how families were forced to live as they struggled for financial liberty. In these tight, inhumane spaces, coders and young tech “entrepreneurs” voluntarily give up their dignity to live in virtual dorms packed with like-minded competitors fighting over the same lottery ticket. It’s the American dream in Python.
On the same block, you’re likely to find legal weed emporiums, boutique electronics stores, artisanal food trucks selling sandwiches for $15 and scores of lost souls, abandoned by a system that concentrates wealth in the hands of a new league of oligarchs and their hand-picked network of traumatized enablers.
It’s a sobering vision of America’s future, but the inevitability of the Bay Area’s insidious technocapitalism makes San Francisco the ideal home for MUTEK’s first US edition. The international festival, which started almost two decades ago in 2000 in Montréal, has long highlighted the influence of technology and its convergence with digital art, so where better to explore tech futures than at its grim nexus? This should be the place where the important questions are asked: we can see what’s happening if we care to look beyond the frosted glass, and we should certainly be talking about it.
Co-directors Miroslav Wiesner, founder of international booking agency Surefire, and veteran promoter and art director Gaby de Villoutreys certainly have a lot to prove. Joining a franchise so late in its development can make it difficult to impart a unique identity, and allowing the festival to reflect on the city and communicate with its community while acknowledging its faults is no easy task. “I just feel like this is the perfect vehicle to really change the cultural fabric of the city,” Wiesner explained to the San Francisco Chronicle in a recent interview. “This convergence of art, music and technology is the new cultural form. It’s what the kids want to experience.”
With a program of discussions, art displays, club experiences and seminars, MUTEK.SF attempted to connect many of the city’s threads, questioning certain concepts while solidifying the edition’s distinctly American dialect. Far from a loose patchwork of touring artists and shoe-in headliners, the festival was a carefully curated celebration of US electronic music, the contemporary global experimental scene and the Bay Area’s next generation.
After an evening of invigorating A/V displays, ambient music and seminars at The California Academy of Sciences, Mike Banks’ Galaxy 2 Galaxy headlined MUTEK.SF’s first night, fusing vintage Detroit techno with jazz. Banks released the self-titled Galaxy 2 Galaxy EP back in 1993, and has since developed his “hi tech jazz” sound into a powerful live show. At historic local club Bimbos, Banks was flanked by six additional players, adding live drums, electric bass, sax, synths and keys to flesh out the sound. The set was transcendent, if not groundbreaking; the dancefloor heaved and bobbed as sax flourishes squealed over familiar 808 backdrops, but this was the sound of a nostalgic, hopeful future.
On Friday, the day kicked off with another series of workshops bolstered by an impressive A/V program, with performances from Michaela Pelusio, Alexandre Burton & Julien Roy and Nonotak. Each artist used science and technology to shape and inform their art: Burton & Roy toyed with the idea of sequencing and visualization, Nonotak impressed with large, flashing architectural light structures and Pelusio took influence from quantum mechanics to forge hypnotic whirling colored light sculptures.
Over at Mezzanine, a large traditional performance venue in the city’s SOMA neighborhood, NAAFI’s DEBIT was an early highlight. She performed with Argentinian visual artist Giselle Zatonyl, who drenched the stage in golden light and odd projections – one looked like Ally McBeal’s “dancing baby” all grown up – as DEBIT performed highlights from this year’s essential Animus full-length. Brummie experimental mainstay Lee Gamble also pushed things forward with an A/V set that broke from his prior collaborations with visual artist Dave Gaskarth. Blinding lights flashed while abrasive breaks and dusty hardcore interludes filled the venue and deafened the audience and half-familiar words and phrases flickered on a screen center-stage. It felt like the entire festival experience pressed into resinous wax.
Jamaican experimental outfit Equiknoxx were a necessary change of tempo. The core duo of Gavsborg and Time Cow were joined by vocalist and hypewoman Shanique Marie, who delighted an audience sorely in need of bounce. It was as animated as I’d seen local crowds yet; they hung on Shanique Marie’s every word, making it hard to move anywhere but up and down. When headliner Moritz von Oswald stepped up to perform his first ever North American solo live show, his restrained dub techno minimalism was relatively subdued, but while the crowd was less energetic, the set was endlessly engaging and best enjoyed with eyes closed tight.
On Saturday, Mezzanine was packed again for a busy, varied evening of music. Perera Elsewhere’s sizzling neo jazz was followed by a dancefloor-rattling set from Errorsmith, who played jagged highlights from last year’s Superlative Fatigue to a raging crowd. Then, Detroit electro pioneers Aux 88 suited up and performed a rip-roaring, robotic set of vintage electro, blessed with the kind of bass you used to hear buzzing from trunks across most major cities. But the duo that penned Is It Man Or Machine in 1996 were championing a vision of the future that has long since passed.
Keeping the Detroit flag flying, Derrick May followed, accompanied by composer and pianist Francesco Tristano. This was Tristano’s deal, as he made clear performing solo for what seemed like aeons before May arrived on stage. A more nourishing prospect could be found in the basement of the San Francisco Mint, a preserved national landmark that once held nearly a third of the nation’s wealth. Behind large vault doors familiar to anyone who grew up watching US TV were situated art installations, chill-out spaces and performance areas. Here, searing noise, abrasive strobe lights and punishing warehouse techno began to coax out a croak of rebellion that had been conspicuously absent so far.
In the labyrinth’s vast stone central area, Russell E.L. Butler, rRoxymore and ORPHX played sets that wouldn’t have been out of place in any number of gloomy warehouses during the late 1990s. This messy, life-affirming dance music, rooted in sounds that linked Detroit, Berlin, London, Chicago and Birmingham, pointed to a part of the dance music landscape we hadn’t been introduced to yet. Butler brought a heavy dose of rave energy with visuals to match from Ian Colon, rRoxymore impressed with her tangled rhythmic idiosyncrasies and ORPHX finished things off with some of the most ear-drum rupturing techno I’ve heard in ages.
Ears ringing, I wandered to the unofficial afterparty – a special edition of long-running local night Surface Tension with residents Jason Polastri, DJ CZ, Justin Anastasi and Nihar Bhatt handling the music and subset on visuals. Polastri kicked things off confidently with a set of contemporary bass-heavy club music before DJ CZ chopped out and snorted the soundboy’s ashes, inadvertently resurrecting breakcore in the process. After a long day of music, it was my cue to vanish into the ether.
The final day’s programming was crammed into one ample venue, a “creative complex” in the burgeoning Dogpatch neighborhood that sported an outdoor area, a bar and kitchen, a large indoor performance space and a series of small studios for art installations. In one, Portland-based light artist Craig Dorety had fashioned a display from rapidly-oscillating colored light intended to trigger hallucinations. It worked and, head still buzzing, I wandered outside to catch imaginative A/V sets from Article C and Braille & Chelley Sherman. But the unparalleled highlight of the afternoon – and the festival – was a pair of sets from Club Chai founders Foozool and 8ULENTINA.
Foozool, aka Lara Sarkissian, played a powerful set of clattering club music, backed by the best visuals I’d seen all week. After the slew of Max/MSP visualizations and complex 3D renders had begun to blur into a mass of vectors and texture-mapped globules, it was refreshing to see something a little more human. Sarkissian, a film graduate, used her own footage of Armenian landscapes and empty churches to evoke a thoroughly unique mood that sat somewhere between Andrei Tarkovsky and Sergei Parajanov. There was still technology on display here – not long ago, shooting high-quality visuals and projecting them this size was out of reach for most creatives – but it felt repurposed.
8ULENTINA followed and instead of projecting pre-recorded visuals, was joined by interdisciplinary artist Davia Spain who sung, danced and modeled a selection of outfits designed and hand-made by 8ULENTINA. Crimson and purple light drenched the stage as Spain commanded the space, engaging the audience and complimenting 8ULENTINA’s breathtaking selection of tracks. The energy in the room was noticeably different: more open, more honest and, honestly, more hopeful.
Miroslav Wiesner and Gaby de Villoutreys were smart to position this showcase on the last day of the festival. In doing so, they let Club Chai point to a future that was starting to feel lost completely. In San Francisco, technology has been hijacked to strengthen societal chains and, often without realizing, we’ve helped accelerate it quicker than we’ve been able to perceive it happening. We dreamed of robots and brave techno futures in the ’80s and ’90s and we got surveillance, state overreach and drone warfare. If MUTEK’s first US edition pointed to anything, it was that there’s still a future out there, but our hope is in identity. If we learn to accept each other’s humanity, maybe technology won’t keep mirroring our lack of it.
John Twells is FACT’s Executive Editor and is on Twitter.