Culture & Conversation

Elektra’s digital torch shines bright

Elektra 2013

Another week in Montréal, another festival to break new ground. The Elektra International Digital Arts Festival (May 1-5) wrapped up its 14th year on Sunday, and its central place in the creative fabric of this city grows more certain with every year.

The highlights of this year’s edition were the nightly audiovisual performances held at the magnificent Usine C, which simultaneously served as the festival’s hub. Artists from Québec, France, Germany, Sweden and Japan delivered a range of (mostly) live performances axed on creative and cutting-edge audiovisual works, with the sound component serving most often as accompaniment to the digital ephemera melting off the screen. The ambience was more art-house than all-out live show, with the decontracted crowds standing or sitting in silent awe as the 2-hour lineup moved from piece to shiny piece.

In this sense, one might consider Elektra the flipside to Montreal’s MUTEK festival, where the visuals generally play a supporting role to the music. At Elektra the focus is reversed, with the soundscapes only rarely aspiring towards something we might term ‘musical.’ That being said, the lines can get blurred: the final performance of the festival was a screaming exception, with Japan’s Keichiro Shibuya and Evala sparking a dance party with their highly original and high-energy industrial brand of percussive electronica.

Numerous video projections and installations were also exhibited both at Usine C and at art galleries across town, most notably Occurrence, SKOL (in the Belgo building), and Old Montreal’s state-of-the-art Centre PHI, where an especially alluring multisensorial installation was presented by Québécoise artist Philomène Longpré. Her work, Céréus: Reine de la Nuit (on until May 18), is a highly absorbing and impacting piece inspired by the myths of the Papagos Native Americans. You can still catch most of these exhibits for another week or few beyond the festival’s official closing date, and Longpré’s in particular is highly recommended – especially if you haven’t been down yet to check out the glittering new Centre PHI.

Having just returned to Montreal after a year and a half, the Elektra festival seemed the perfect welcome back. With its experimental and cross-media showcases exploring the eclecticism of contemporary digital creators and innovators, Elektra is the kind of festival that seems to sprout from the cultural soil of its geographic milieu. Quite simply, you couldn’t do this everywhere.

The local and international performances which headline Elektra are wildly conceptual, heavily unconventional, and at times can even seem downright inaesthetic: the snowstorm hiss of a digital distortion; the high-pitched squeal of amplified feedback, and so on. Yet here the inevitable winces from the audience are a central and accepted part of the performances, and the works are appreciated for being always intriguing and authentic – and far be it for this festival to apologize for not playing it safe.

There are many places where a festival like this couldn’t fill a large venue like Usine C on a $20 ticket price, but that seemed the furthest thing from organizers’ minds. Indeed, in a city where the avant-garde can sometimes seem astonishingly mainstream, Elektra offers a distilled glimpse into the creative soul of an ever-emerging Montreal.

Don’t take my word for it though. Just ask Tourisme Montréal. Québec’s metropolis, says the official tourist body, is the North American capital for digital arts, with between 1,200 and 1,500 digital artists living and working in the city. Along with graphic and industrial design, circus arts, contemporary dance, and indie and electronic music, the digital arts are one of this city’s core artistic domains.

This is what explains why Elektra is far from Montréal’s lone bearer of the digital torch. Along with local institutions like the Société des arts technologiques (SAT), the city plays host to a growing number of international rendez-vous of digital creativity, including the new Biennale international d’art numérique (or BIAN, second edition coming in 2014), and of course, the iconic MUTEK festival of electronic music and digital arts (May 29-June 2 this year).

As with Elektra, so with Montreal, since I’ve always felt this was a city where boxes are made to be broken. But then I guess that’s all simply to say: it’s good to be home.

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