It’s a little past 11 on a Wednesday night. I’m standing with one hip cocked to the side in the back-middle of a dance floor inside an art museum in Montréal, but no one’s dancing. I take note of this fact and remember how yesterday a curator at the virtual reality panel was talking about “a false dichotomy between art and rave.”
The niacin and taurine from the Red Bull Summer Edition (dayglo-lime green can, kiwi flavor) I just drank is making my skin crawl a little and producing a mild tachycardia in my chest; in combination, the symptoms are indistinguishable from those of being “moved by art.” I wonder for an instant if I am being moved, if I am indeed witnessing a moving, profound work.
The crowd around me is clad in grayscale and serried in small concave formations, leaning over to make comments in one another’s ears, presumably in French. I see mostly blankness on the faces I can make out, either intense concentration or disinterest covered over by preoccupation with something not in the room.
Ferns are everywhere. People actually dance to disco records here, the same old two-step. From the museum to the rave, the same old two-step. Everyone I meet runs a digital agency, works for one, or consults for one. Or I meet them and they promptly walk on stage and deliver a gesture. We’re smoking on the steps of the Museum des Arts Contemporain, riffing about “garbage bags full of ambient synth tapes.” Post-rave detritus is what’s on the tip of all our tongues, as if our bodies, fatigued from years of actually dancing, are the garbage bags that have collected in the museum commemorating the rave. I’m walking home alone at 4 AM with the phrase “false dichotomy” skipping over and over again in my head.
The SHAPE’s Q&A talk between Lorenzo Senni and Alexander Iadarola seems humble enough, Lorenzo with water bottle, Alex with Soylent bottle — a conversation between musician and writer intersecting at their interest in human excitation within narrative time in electronic music. Computer music, EDM — normative or otherwise — the conversation meanders around how power and excitation become intertwined in the clubgoing context, specifically regarding Senni’s move from midi-synthesized “pointillist trance” to hardstyle sample arrangement, his alignment with straight edge hardcore scenes, his use of carefully exposed liquid nitrogen tank blasts and strobe to critique and humanize the often disembodied spectacle of the drop. Senni’s critique accelerates niacin, taurine, and glucose to wrap around human membranes and nerve-cells — a literal human hyperactivity through charged thought being vaulted across the Canadian plain. Earlier, I’d taken a train for 10 hours across the Adirondacks from NYC to a seemingly infinite Canadian landscape, a swathe of it submerged in a strange French-Canadian culture sphere. The ride up hugged Lake Champlain through small towns and dramatic vistas. Rockfaces sidled closer to the tracks until they sloped over the cramped train cars. I was stopped at the border. That early in the morning, a mist was tiding in.
I’m too vacant to be moved by the Love Streams of Tim Hecker’s set. I’d seen him five times before, and was brought to tears by a few them; yet, somehow, this time, I’m unwilling to “go there.” Maybe I’m aware of the excitation and systemic techniques Senni had pointed out earlier in his talk, or maybe city life has hardened me. Regardless, I let the tones settle. I figure I’m close to something new, “as a person.” A couple of times, I doze off the ambient vistas to chill in mind-plots where I walk around the white houses spotted along Mont Royale, arranged in right-angled ideals. Exploring Hecker’s semi-exhilarating sound plots is akin to exploring incongruous strips of grass — homespun cemeteries.
Visiting Montréal is a bit like hanging out on a cloud whose slight radial disparity in position from the earth’s surface gives it an imperceptibly small differential in time-scale, birthing the specific possibility of a limited, but productive meta-language for talking about life on Earth. The tall buildings downtown house high-concept digital production companies whose logos and street-facing projections draw my focus to the slippery un-situatedness permeating Old Montréal’s euro-simulation, Chinatown’s unfurling layers of mostly empty dim sum banquet halls. Physical mass is not what’s being cultivated here; maybe time-mass instead.
Despite Montréal’s lux twilight hours, I force myself to sit in for MUTEK’s A/VISIONS segment during the magic hour. A triple-screened installation occupies the stage while massive projections of slowly morphing, abyssal rings drone — suspended in the prism of the multi-screen set up. The effect is visceral, as dark ambient bass and synth soundtrack thin, white, spindly strands of light that wrap around each other to form expanding ovals. This was Dasha Rush & Stanislav Glasov’s “Dark Hearts of Space,” apparently an audiovisual performance exploring the poetic and metaphoric implications of black holes. The poetry covers miles of ground in reminding me, “I do love the spectacle.”
The wealth of warehouse-style artist spaces a few kilometers from the city center feel like the fringe colonies of a newly-settled population, denoted less by geographical referent and more by time-transiency: all-pastiche everything, just hanging out. Buildings sculpted from masses of concrete and iron rebar, which used to house whitefish processing plants, are now home to the arbiters of messy techno cassettes and pirate radio webstreams, workspaces shared to digital production companies that transmogrify Fridays nights into the Facebook invite-only black-sites of psytrance raves. I’m hyper-aware of this sealed, microcosmic nocturne, as I’m ushered into a Melatonin sleep-cave at 5:30 AM, peripherally registering 148 BPM in the loft a few floors over and down. I smile and think again of Lorenzo Senni, thankful this experience has come to me grinning, slinking away from its context.
Earlier, or later, I watch Moritz von Oswald play a muted DJ set absentmindedly; I see the ghostly apparition of his legacy and my preconceived respect for him slowly and elegantly drain out of the performance. A gentle bump and some semi-soaring pads are gentle enough to soundtrack my thumbs scrolling feeds. I’m aware of this, but I’m almost effortlessly not embarrassed about it. The set is expressive and tonally rich — a far cry from the cold clicks and chill-steps of the producers who were ubiquitous in droves throughout the festival. I’m nonplussed by any attempt to contextualize anything. But, through this, I enjoy the whole thing.
I don’t know if “spectacles” and “experience” are false cognates in French, but the park that hosts MUTEK’s “EXPÉRIENCE” events resides in a part of the city specifically designated as the “Quarter of Spectacles.” EXPÉRIENCE (parts 1 through 3) is the sole facet of MUTEK that does not feature live visuals or some kind of immersive environment, unless you consider the world itself to be an immersive environment, or consider “people socializing and dancing in a field” to be a live visual. The people in this park are having, I consider as I approach from afar, an experience, one they will remember and categorize in their respective memories as meaningful.
Montréal-based Riohv is playing a set of what the festival website describes as “scruffy net-house,” whose squirms and squiggles resemble glyphs in their playful incomprehensibility, their anti-signification initiating a refreshing conviviality wherein shade-throwing would seem a ridiculous gesture. As I integrate myself into the crowd and begin to bounce a dumb little two-step, I smile at the fact that no one knows me and realize that playful incomprehensibility describes in sum my experience of the event. I don’t know who here is an alt and who is a normie; I don’t care. I don’t know who is an artist and who is a spectator. As a SoundCloud-discovered producer wafts fermented psyche through the Parterre du Quartier des Spectacles, the crowd subsumes whatever “outside-ness” I feel into the joy of disembodiment; we’re goofing off in the broken promise of the “democratizing power of the internet.” I make a mental note to classify the experience as “meaningless,” then withdraw from the impulse, self-cringe, feeling a little too edge-lordy.
At one point, I see my hosts, the owner of a local record label, and one of its artists, stationed along the fence funneling into the side of the stage. I walk over and am greeted with a hug from both. As I enter the scene, the DJ who’s about to go onstage says some parting words to my hosts and walks off with a polite wave. Once he’s out of earshot, I ask, “Who’s that?” playing the unhip, clueless out-of-towner.
“Just our friend,” says my host, the artist.
“Who is he, though?” I say, needling, secretly having read over the DJs bio on the MUTEK app a mere five minutes ago.
“Oh, I don’t remember his name.”
“I have to get my passport picture taken again,” says my host, the Airbnb lordess.
Or maybe I had no host. Someone shelled out a tiny room cheaply, as if out of grace. We saw each other once and I tried to be quiet ambling home at 4 AM each morning. I never saw Peder Mannerfelt, but the name was stuck in my head each night, and I was chuckling childishly.
Jlin is a frieze of intense focus or otherwise uncontrollable glee, her rhythms coalescence on a downbeat as she raises one fist parallel to her chest and makes the universal “pump” gesture, like when you want a trucker to blast their horn, and she performs this gesture with equal zeal whether she’s in the spectacular quarter, cultivating “experience” through a DJ set, or playing a meticulous live set in the swallowing atrium of a museum. If there is a false dichotomy between art and rave, this is what it sounds like when the two ideals refuse to compromise. I’m dancing furiously. I’m also alone. Held, suffused, but irreducibly isolated.
My experience of MUTEK can’t help but become metonymic at the narrowest level of focus, for Montréal as a zonal interchange and for the experience of being alive right now. MUTEK leaves nothing like the indelible imprint of an epiphany or a spiritual breakthrough in my mind, but if experience is defined by the conspicuous traces of what is absent from it, being in Montréal for the festival stands out because it might never have happened, might be a dream masquerading as a memory. The texture of my experience there feels wholly ambient (the Latin ambo meaning “on both sides”), because it sits that way in my memory — not in time, but around it. Memory resides there, in the Park of Spectacles or however that translates, just hanging out as the sun sets through that eternal holograph of cloudcover.