Culture & Conversation

The underground comes up for air

Montreal' Metametric and Maotik play the Nocturne 1 at the MAC. Photo by Caroline Hayeur.

Montreal’ Metametric and Maotik play the Nocturne 1 at the MAC. Photo by Caroline Hayeur.

Elektra and MUTEK, you’ve come a long way, but more importantly, MAC, so have you.

The opening nights of the combined EM15 festival sounded the signal of a tipping point in the city’s creative life. Standing in Salle 2 of the Musée d’art contemporain, eyes riveted to the screens blanketing the walls, chest pounding to the feel of the throbbing bass rattling the room, I could only inhale amazement at what Montreal’s cultural establishment seems in the process of becoming.

Because let’s call it for what is: the establishment has embraced the underground, and elevated the margins to centre stage.

There seems no other way to consider the adventure, thus far, of EM15. From exhibit to exhibit, the highly academic and experimental digital explorations for which Elektra has become known were now packing the museum – until 2am on weeknights, and for not-insignificant ticket prices – in the heart of the Quartier des spectacles.

Kangding Ray peforms at the MAC for the opening night of EM15. Photo by Caroline Hayeur.

Intimate immersions

Montreal sound artist and musician Tim Hecker performed his hour-long Fog Works twice on Tuesday night to overflowing crowds in the Salle Beverley Webster Rolph. Bodies carpeted the floor as people sat and lay, eager to immerse themselves in the intense sensory disruption of his ambient noise compositions, as an impenetrable fog masked the darkened air.

On Wednesday night in the same space, Italy’s Neel presented a gorgeous and engrossing work which fixed the dense audience to the screen in silent wonder, as his visual compositions slowly warped and wound their way through a wordless narrative. With an emotive score as gentle overlay, the visual forms – at times evoking biological and geological registers, at other times liquid and abstract – navigated a journey begun in ominous evocations of (say) a primeval forest, and eventually concluding on a note that felt inexplicably reassuring, even hopeful. A comment, perhaps, on the centrality of affect and emotions in human cognition.

And on Thursday night, Montreal’s phenomenally creative and talented duo Frédéric Laurier and Alec Stephani performed their captivating Projet Électro-Acrylique. As Stephani took crayon and paint to canvas with a performative flair that turned his tools into instruments, every motion and sound was amplified and digitally manipulated by sound designer and musician Laurier, as visual echoes of Stephani’s silhouette were projected onto the screen behind him. The final result was a complete melding of a live painting session and an audio-visual immersion. Truly inspirational (follow them on Facebook to catch the next performance).

When the Museum meets the night

Upstairs in Salle 2, the art-house experiments ran through one eclectic performance after the next, each testing their own multisensory media creations on the crowd. These are more audiovisual exhibits than music for the most part, though the distinction is often hard to draw. San Francisco-based Holly Herndon‘s beautiful performance was a perfect case in point: her work features multilayered signals, both visual and auditory, that get disaggregated into pieces that soar and crash into and over each other in repetition. As her sweetly affected vocals were chopped up into bitesize morsels, the (nearly) 360 screens launched multicolour objects in a 90s videogame-style hailstorm that embraced you in its loving assault.

From Québécois-German duo Jesse Osborne-Lanthier and Grischa Lichtenberger to France’s Kangding Ray, to Montrealers Metametric and Maotik, Australia’s Ben Frost and Britain’s Dinos Chapman (whose visual and installation art with his brother is currently exhibited at DHC/ART), the museum was transformed by the pulsing rhythms and enveloping ambience of these marginals and innovators come to play in the headquarters of Montreal’s cultural high brow.

You’ve never seen, or heard, the MAC quite like this. Indeed, since John Zeppetelli took over the reins of the institution last year, the word “contemporary” in its title seems suddenly invested with new life. The monthly Nocturnes hosted by the museum may have pointed the way and planted the seeds, but the hosting of EM15 has taken that embryo and brought it towards maturity. And we can imagine that this is just the beginning of the MAC’s reinvention.

On the Esplanade

Hawtin packed the Esplanade of Place des Arts for a surprise free performance. Photo by Caroline Hayeur.

Outside, on the Esplanade of Place des Arts, a spontaneous 5 à 7 free show was offered Wednesday afternoon by Canadian techno legend Richie Hawtin, whose incredible new audiovisual performance ENTER. was presented last night at Metropolis (Hawtin actually curated the entire Metropolis night, but more on that in my next piece). The outdoor site also hosts EM15’s free Expérience showcases of emerging musicians this year, a massive step up from past years in terms of both size and presence. Standing there in the open air with office towers peering down on all sides, the dance floor was flanked by the opera house in the background, the museum to the west, and the symphony hall to the northeast.

It’s not just the MAC that has been transformed by its embrace of EM15, but Elektra and MUTEK – or at least their popular perception and prestige – that are being transformed in return. In 2010, Elektra and MUTEK were jointly awarded Montreal’s highest cultural honour, the Grand Prix du Conseil des arts de Montréal (CAM), whose past recipients include the OSM, Musée des beaux arts, MAC and Cirque du Soleil. The award paved the way for the rapprochement between the two former rivals that ultimately gave birth to EM15.

Have Elektra and MUTEK become “high” culture, have the digital fringes been so elevated? In Montreal, are the margins becoming increasingly mainstream, or do they simply encompass enough people to fill the city’s core cultural institutions throughout the year?

Maybe it’s all of the above. Or maybe the conventional distinctions are becoming exceedingly blurred. What’s clear, however, is that the MAC, along with the city’s cultural establishment, is changing. And with this pursues Montreal’s fascinating evolution into an artistic mecca of this century’s avant-garde.

EM15 continues until Sunday June 1st. Tickets and full program info here.


Shawn Katz is Editor of Rover. His upcoming book on the Printemps érable will be released with Fernwood Publishing (date to be determined). Follow Shawn on Twitter @shawn_katz.

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