MUTEK 2022 Reflection by Matthew Raymond
© Bruno Destombes
In 2022, MUTEK returned in full force. In what follows, I hope to offer some thoughts on what this return might mean. It is important to note at the outset that “to return” is a dual movement. It requires that we return to the past, encounter it, and transform it on the path towards the future. So how can we characterize what it was that returned this year, what we returned to? MUTEK’s last two editions (2020, 2021) were nominally termed hybrid, but they were out of necessity more virtual than physical. A great experiment, these events were defined by a synchrony across great distances, and a reliance on complex networks of digital mediation. It is in this way (and many others), that digital media rose to the challenge of the pandemic by articulating new forms of sociality and collective habitation.
The imaginative potency of the digital was one of the key motifs of Forum this year. Consider, for example, Felix Koberstein’s work on the Beyond Matter project, a multi-year research endeavor which re-imagines historical exhibitions as immersive VR experiences. The effect of this work is a vision of a possible world, where art history becomes a form of art geography and space itself, its modulations and sensory chromaticisms, enter into the archive. This kind of work challenges the reliance of art history on more static forms of record-keeping (writtens script, photos, libraries) and allows “users” to encounter this history as a dynamic and responsive virtual environment. This type of challenge, in which traditional ways of knowing and being vaporize into a transformative digital ether, has occurred across the fields that Forum investigates. Luckily, not everything in this world asks to be considered so seriously. These technologies can also be a source of simple collective joy, like when Forum audience members joined the Fractal Fantasy Club Simulator in the middle of Sinjin Hawke and Zora Jones’s demo. The virtual club space was soon overrun with laser eyes and robot twerking. This project, surprisingly conceptualized before the pandemic, exemplifies how in the last few years digital spaces have become a medium for the expression of our deepest social needs: to gather and connect, to play, and to share.
Sinjin Hawke, Zora Jones, Greg Smith demoing the The FRACTALFANTASY Club Simulator
Despite the euphoria of digitality that these new mediums so often engender, producing an aura of transformation that at its worst moments can become a kind of collective mania (see: the darker regions of cryptocurrency, corporate metaverses), the social experiences of virtuality that defined the pandemic were also incessantly marked with a sense of absence and distance. There was perhaps no theme more dominant this year, at both Forum and the festival itself, than a reflection on overcoming this absence. It served as a constant measure for the experience of the festival in both explicit and implicit ways.
In my reflection on the 2021 hybrid edition, I emphasized an ever-present claustrophobia of mediation, and concerns about the increasing prevalence of abstraction at the heart of social experience. In a very stark contrast, my experience this year was determined by an encounter with something more wild and ancient. Whether I was at Forum or at the Festival, I noticed myself engulfed in some elusive human element, consistently losing myself in the rhythms of conversation and movement. In this context, Bogomir Doringer’s aerial footage of dance floors is illustrative. Captured in his work is a microcosm of sociality-in-formation, the fluidity of call and response, and an incessant movements of bodies and their chaos. From my perspective, at stake here is the nature of what Mourad Bennacer referred to as collective immersion. It is the emergence of a shared constellation of attention and experience, an immersion of the self in the social. One can feel a primal sense of “togetherness”, in which individual durations are synthesized and carried along by a collective rhythm. The Latin term, festus, from which our experience is derived, has a broad etymology that ranges from feast to holiday. At the core of its meaning we find a sense of joyful and lively interruption in the flow of everyday time. If we follow this etymology deeper, we find connections in Indo-European that resonate across the meanings of godhead, shrine, temple: the manifestation of sacred space-time. This indulgent journey through etymology is not, despite appearances, merely an academic exercise. At one point during Forum, participants were asked to recollect one of their first festival experiences, and I heard a description that oriented my whole week: “it’s so big and grand and you get consumed by it”.
Crucially though, this return to the world of bodies should not be confused with the various naive calls for a “return to normal”. It was evident throughout the festival that the norms of our world have shifted, and that the difficult learnings of the last few years are still waiting to be truly processed. Many of the conversations at Forum reflected this fact, but it was singularly crystallized in the Imagining Future Festivals workshop, which laid out three fundamental challenges for the festival’s future:
How can future festivals address climate change while at the same time relying on flying in hundreds of people in fostering cultural exchange?
How can future festivals critically deal with emerging technologies while becoming increasingly dependent on and enmeshed in them?
How can future festivals deal with equity, diversity, and inclusivity while continuing to profit from existing structures of domination and exploitation?
These questions are difficult, and articulate a field of responsibility and urgency that reaches far beyond the confines of the festival. In the context of MUTEK however, it is a matter of a community of practice beginning to “make its transition” to the altered landscape that is our future. In this transition, it will be necessary to engage new capacities, experiment with forms of gathering and assembly, and alter our practices as one small locus of response to a changing world. As Frankie Decaiza Hutchinson claimed in her deeply moving keynote: “Even though this is just a micro-version of the world, it is what the world could look like, and I don’t take that for granted at all.”
With this image in mind, I would like to highlight a small but crucial moment of the festival this year. On opening night, Max Cooper & Architecture Social Club’s MTELUS performance unfolded shimmering waves of light and sound. After about ten minutes, the power supply for the visual component failed and the room was blanketed with a slightly confusing darkness. It only took a few moments for the sense of this interruption to be transformed, as the crowd responded with waves of cell-phone flashlights, collectively reigniting the crystal lattice above. This moment is packed with resonances: poetic, promethean, and it must be admitted, slightly cheesy. But from it perhaps we can derive a crucial insight: when things don’t function, when all the tech breaks down, something simple and human can rise up into the void.
Words by Matthew Raymond
Forum photos by Valérie Lacroix, Northern Wild Done