The following interview is with Patti Schmidt, a longtime programmer for the MUTEK festival in Montréal, Canada. The interview took place during the final class session of the spring 2015 semester of the class that I teach about the role of sound in the media landscape at the Academy of Art in San Francisco. Schmidt joined us via Skype.
I frequently invite professionals — musicians, startup representatives, coders, sound designers, publicists — to speak in my class. Rather than ask the guests to prepare a presentation, I interview them in front of the class, and then have the students themselves ask questions. This is a lightly edited transcript of Schmidt’s appearance in class. The interview took place on Wednesday, May 13, 2015, just before the 16th annual MUTEK festival, which ran from May 27 through May 31.
Marc Weidenbaum: First thanks, Patti. I’d like to introduce Patti to the class. This is Patti Schmidt from MUTEK. She’s going be talking with us today via Skype.
Patti, these are the students in the sound class I teach here at the Academy of Art in San Francisco. The class is about the role of sound in the media landscape. This last five or six weeks, we’ve been focused on what we call “brands of sounds,” which is how things related to sounds “brand” themselves, how they express themselves in the marketplace. That followed six or seven weeks on the opposite subject, which was “sounds of brands,” about how things — objects, organizations, services — use sound to make an impression.
I tend to end each semester talking about music, and often I’ll have a music publicist come and talk about the challenges of the past 10 years as the record industry has changed, how streaming and other changes in the music and recording industries have shifted their attentions and skills and so forth.
Patti’s speaking with us in class actually began as the result of an interaction with someone in music PR, who reached out to me to ask if I’d be interested in writing an article somewhere about MUTEK, or cover the festival in some way. I replied that I don’t really cover festivals much. Then I suggested we do this, which is have Patti address the class in the form of a live interview, which I’d then edit and post at Disquiet.com, and the MUTEK publicist was enthusiastic about the approach. Patti, could you start just by talking to the class a bit about what MUTEK is and a bit about what you do there.
Patti Schmidt: MUTEK is an electronic music and digital creativity festival having its 16th edition this year. It started in Montréal in the year 2000. The director of MUTEK’s name is Alain Mongeau, and in the mid-’90s he was the president something called ISEA, an electronic arts organization that’s based in the Netherlands. ISEA was one of the first international organizations to really become concerned with the role of digital media and digital sound and digital art. So, he helped host the 1995 edition of ISEA here in Montréal, and his idea was that Montréal is a very unique and weird city in North America because there’s been all kinds of technology leading industries and arts here. The video game industry, Ubisoft [a French company], is based here; Soft Image, which was responsible for Jurassic Park, and all these very early special effects, was based here; and Cirque du Soleil, all this stuff. There are a lot of big spectacle, innovative, tech things that have come out of this province — that you would think might otherwise be isolated because of language, because French is the first language that is spoken here. But somehow through technology and technologically driven art and spectacle, including electronic music, Montréal has sort of distinguished itself in the world. Alain helped start a venue here in Montréal called the Society for Art and Technology, or the SAT, as we call it, and it’s become a real hub for a lot of research on immersive performances, visual works, sounds works.
ISEA was a way for Alain, in 1995, to attempt to really route this idea of innovation in music and performance in Montréal. He went on to program a component for a film festival that was concerned with new media, the Festival of Nouveau Cinema. They gave him a component called the Media Lounge for 5 years, where in the late 1990s he would bring in people like Richie Hawtin, who at the time was rather unknown and would be presenting minimal sound and interactive light installations. This was the beginning of laptops becoming an important tool not only for music, but for visual work. And it became possible to then compose on these brand new portable, reasonably affordable tools. So there was an explosion of art and music going on, all over the world, and so he programmed components of this film festival for a few years. Then he was given some seed money by the guy from Soft Image to begin the very first edition of MUTEK, which was hosted inside of a big complex dedicated to new media that this guy had also just started, called Excentris, roundabout 1999.
That was the basic background on MUTEK. A few years later, maybe it was 2003 or 2004, Alain also — because he has this sort of global view and a positive idea of globalization and technology — he started planting seeds for other MUTEKs in South America, and a “micro” MUTEK festival happened in Chile. Then a few years later — it’s now into its 11th year — Mexico City began its MUTEK franchise. This is all, like, “open source,” no money — we don’t receive any money from these festivals at all. It was more about the idea of inverting the axis of the music industry, which usually goes from North America to Europe, so horizontal, and instead, doing a vertical axis — Montréal down to Latin America — where these emergent economies and artistic communities that were also beginning to just use computers and digital technologies to make music, and to plug into a whole global circuit existed. Alain has a personal history in Latin America, which made this possible. He speaks Spanish; his father is a university professor. They were in Chile during the coup in 1973, and he is very comfortable working these angles. So now MUTEK Mexico is 11 years old — MUTEK Argentina has sort of moved to Mexico. We just started a version of the festival in Colombia. The ones in Chile are a little bit dormant. We also have an outpost in Barcelona, Spain, which is European but it is also a place where tons of Latin American expats end up. The festival has a real mission and mandate statement to always cultivate local audience and the kind of artists and communities that are left out of the regular global conversation that’s western-dominated about technology and music — and that’s an essential interest of the festival. And over the years, as well, MUTEK has cultivated a local community here in Montréal. A number of them, a big chunk of the local artists who helped start MUTEK Montréal, have since relocated to Berlin. And they have quite vibrant careers there, so we work this axis as well. And we still always try to cultivate and throw into our international network local artists who are innovative in using technology. There’s other interesting things to look at over the course of a 16-year history of a festival that takes technology as its important taking-off point, and this technology is constantly mutating, and evolving, and changing, and if you’re going to stay relevant you are going to have to stay on top of what those changes are.
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