MUTEK, the electronic music and digital arts festival which has gained worldwide recognition for showcasing the most cutting-edge audiovisual performances for the past 23 years, is looking at the next chapter of electronic music.
Summer in Montreal, Canada, is vibrant. Emerging from a cold winter and slushy spring, music has made the leap from trickling out of open apartment windows, to the streets, parks and stages that fill the city’s many venues and outdoor areas.
This summer, festival goers were in for something entirely different as MUTEK showcased new mediums and artforms with the launch of its first Immersive Collection: three unique XR art pieces reimagined from live sets the artists previously performed at the festival.
Set up in a public space, there was a steady, winding line of curious attendees. Their eyes were fixed on those donning headsets plunged into synthetic realities, each XR piece embodying a distinct approach to the dialogue between sound and visuals:
France JobinCA/QC & Markus HeckmannDE/CA
House of Moiré
Chloe Alexandra ThompsonCA/US & Matthew EdwardsUS
Beginning the transformation of their live performances into XR last fall, the artists were connected with a developer and mentor to assist with every technical aspect of the creative process.
“We provided them with the resources they needed, we teamed everyone up with audio and visual technicians to compliment their areas of expertise, and offer consultation. We had an XR expert help with troubleshooting, and deciding on the compromises of the choices they had to make,” says Lola Baradi, Digital Projects and Partnerships Coordinator at MUTEK.
When I ask who the XR art pieces are intended for, Baraldi says, “headset household penetration was on the rise for a while during the pandemic. We don’t want to make the assumption these are gamers. There’s an audience that is curious about this medium. Are they curious about immersive, AV experiences? We don’t know yet.”
The time where every music festival has a gaming and immersive technology track or hub may not be far off. “Artists who come to the festival, a lot of them perform their first live set. We give them the space to really experiment and have a platform for that,” says Baraldi.
MUTEK, which stands for mutations in technology, seems like a natural home for this movement driven by emerging toolkits and technology, an intertwining relationship between music and gaming culture, and the new ways audiences are consuming content, catalyzed by the pandemic. “People needed to find a way to [consume art] alone. Artists were sensitive to that. There’s a new exploration to build a relationship with one individual at a time through an experience,” says Baraldi.
MUTEK sees this shift in content consumption as an opportunity to tap into new markets, and reach new audiences to bring greater benefits to their festival and the artists they support. As a producer of XR content, and publisher that releases immersive music content on Steam, they are pioneering a space which is historically dominated by the gaming industry.
“Value is still very much dominated by gaming standards and formats: interactivity, networked experiences, timing, replay value,” says Baraldi, “there’s yet to be a value created for artistic pieces that are non-gaming.”
“The [XR] experiences are more enveloping, immersive, and plunge the viewer into the artist’s world into something that’s unrecognizable. It can live independently from the original work. The pieces are also short, so if you see one short 10-15 min experience, then you have the ability to see one or two more,’ she says.
The decision to list the XR art pieces at the price point of $3.99 on Steam was not an easy one. It’s the benchmark for casual, non-interactive or moderately interactive indie content. “We don’t feel like the price accurately reflects the effort and art involved, but also want to be realistic and make sure it has reach,” says Baraldi.
They also discovered that more often than not, gamers gravitate towards their game of choice in traditional formats, not in VR. Immersive software and hardware is still clunky and the offerings oftentimes less compelling or social. On the other hand, while diving deeply into the data on Steam, MUTEK found in the most searched tabs that there’s a great interest in narrative and contemplative conten— a potentially underserved consumer market that craves quality content.
Each VR piece is deeply thoughtful and playful, stretching sound, light, time, and space as XR art pieces— a name carefully selected by MUTEK to accurately reflect the content— each one setting out to define a new genre of electronic music that bridges the gap between new mediums and live performance.
“Every step of the way, we’re asking why VR? Is VR the right medium for this project? Why is it the best way to demonstrate this form of art and not others? Each artist explored this in a way that made sense to them too,” says Baraldi.
Image: MUTEK Forum of talks, featuring the XR art pieces, and the artists who created them (photo credit: Valerie Lacroix, North Wild Media)
As we close the interview, Baraldi notes that all live music performances are immersive, even without VR or AR technology. Whether it’s a DJ set at The Midway in San Francisco, an AV set at MUTEK, or a band playing in a small bar up the street, XR is a natural extension of music which is already transcendent and immersive.
As for what’s next, it feels like we’re only at the beginning of an era defining moment. At MUTEK 2023, we may see the next chapter of electronic music unfold. “Especially having worked closely with the artists all these months, seeing how much labor they’ve all put into this. They’ve definitely caught the bug and will keep creating in this space. I hope to keep mediating to the audience to share this value of digital art, in the same way that people value physical art,’ says Baraldi.
Alongside the Immersive Collection, Crafting a Market for Independent XR was released as an initiative of Québec/Canada XR, in partnership with MUTEK, Québec, PHI, Festival du nouveau cinéma (FNC), and Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montréal (RIDM). The project was made possible by the financial support of the Canada Council for the Arts and the City of Montreal as part of their cultural funding agreement with the Government of Quebec.
The Immersive Collection, produced by MUTEK, with the support of the Canada Council for the Arts, will join the catalog of Astrea, the largest international distributor of immersive productions alongside XR works premiered at Cannes XR, Venice VR Expanded, Sundance Film Festival and Tribeca (BattleScar, Spheres, Madrid Noir, Gloomy Eyes…).
Cover Image Credit: Frédérique Ménard