Elie Katzenson interviewed MUTEK SF organizer Miro Wiesner about the complexities of putting together an interdisciplinary music festival and how San Francisco is entering a new era for cutting-edge arts and culture offerings.
Elie: I am Elie Katzenson and I am here with Miro Wiesner. Miro is the organizer of MUTEK San Francisco, which is a non-profit that supports and highlights digital art [which] can mean sound, music, audio/visual presentations. MUTEK originally started as a festival in Montréal in 2000 and the scene in Montréal is very interesting. I think of Jerusalem in My Heart as someone who does a lot of experimental work across the board.
Miro: They’re great, they were booked. We wanted them this year but…
Damn… On your website it says that the “MU” in MUTEK refers to mutation rather than music. MUTEK holds festivals in numerous cities and it’s not just festivals: there’s showcases and tours and I believe there’s some record label capability. This is the festival’s second year in San Francisco. In San Francisco it sounds like this festival not only [has] shows across the city but it also includes educational programming in the form of panels, there’s going to be some digital labs, and let’s just start by talking about some of the offerings.
Sure. So the core philosophy of the festival is a thread or trajectory through the whole week. Depending on the city and the year it ranges from a three day affair to Montréal having a six day affair for its 20th anniversary this year. That idea of a trajectory or thread is a hope that people will stay and try and attend every single thing. We work with different spaces in the city trying to bring culture and content into different neighborhoods, utilize some of the interesting architecture here. It’s all about contrasting the art against the architecture in a lot of ways. We will use standard live venue and club environments too but people get really excited about the unique spaces that we are able to employ for the festival.
What are some of the spaces going to be?
This year we are lucky to be using the Herbst Theatre again which is a gorgeous Beaux Arts soft seat theatre with velvet seats, beautiful murals, and we flip it by throwing futurist content in there. The programming is amazing. There’s an Italian studio coming out that is doing generative art work on translucent screens with a woman who’s dancing and she has sensors on her limbs that affect the graphics and it’s going to be a phenomenal piece. There will be some legends in the techno scene, Dopplereffekt for example, and someone that I’m really excited about is Kelly Moran who is a pianist known in experimental circles but her work actually crosses over really nicely. She just got signed to Warp records.
The festival is built into tracks, [with] DigiLab being one of them (the educational portion). Nocturne is our ode to the night, it’s the dance music side but still challenging, still very left-field. A/Visions is the bread and butter of MUTEK, it’s the differentiator from most other festivals that you’ll attend. It’s a little bit of everything for everyone and we’re excited to partner with Envelop which is an immersive spatial audio outfit that’s inside of the Midway. [It] holds about 45 people so they are doing some parallel partner programming during the festival as well including some workshops on spatial audio, including some performances.
What I really love about working with the MUTEK network is there are parts that are centralized to ensure that the ethos and philosophy are the same across all cities and then there are parts that are decentralized. They don’t want Barcelona to have to feel like they are San Francisco or for Mexico City to feel like Tokyo.
It’s about the rhythm of the location, playing into how the place feels.
Exactly. Catering to the community that the event is being held in which is very different from other portable festival brands where the experience is homogenous which is beneficial to the brand. In this case, MUTEK is now and always will be an emerging arts and niche arts festival that provides a platform for commissions, bespoke pieces, and upcoming artists.
Yes, I noticed that you had allowed local and new artists to apply to be in the festival.
You also run Surefire which is a music agency and I was curious how long you’ve done that and has that always been in San Francisco? I would think that by running an agency you would be privy to a lot of the connections that make running MUTEK easier and you would have an understanding of the infrastructure of music and space in San Francisco?
Surefire has been around for 12 years now and it’s always been in San Francisco. We started a lot more in the club and festival world. Since 2014 the roster has been a lot more horizontal, getting into live music and still with an electronic angle. We are toying with some jazz acts now and things of that nature but it’s really about good weird music. The MUTEK relationship actually came from Surefire as I’d been selling talent to Alain [Mongeau] in Montréal, the director of MUTEK, for a decade. One year we owned 25% of the roster. It was a banner year for all of us.
I came across this crossroads a couple of years ago where I realized that all of the work I was supporting didn’t fit so well into the music narrative and I was having difficulty selling it. No one has ever gone to a Surefire show and said “Oh, that was dreadful. I’m bored as hell.” Everyone is transformed after they see these artists perform. However, these are small rooms, a big room for us is often 1000 tickets. That’s changing a bit as culture catches up which is great but generally speaking, some of the acts were very hard to sell in a musical context. I shifted gears and started presenting them in an arts narrative in the concept of installation or commission or collaborations with institutions. A light went off and I realized that a lot of people that I worked with were better suited [in America] in this context while in a European context they fit perfectly into the festival circuit and live venue realm.
I started the Surefire that is producing specifically these works for performing arts organizations or institutions. The perfect proof of concept for this idea was to organize a MUTEK. It allows us to show our ability and our understanding of how to build community through a festival presentation platform and inside of that we can debut missions or pieces that we’ve been working on as special projects with other artists. For example, last year, if we were to book Derrick May solo [in] for example, SF, in the last five or six years [it] has become a very good ticketing city so it was actually quite difficult in the past, especially the music we were representing.
Now that more people live in the city and the tech companies have put their offices here,those people want to go out.
-And those people are from all over the world. One of the benefits of that economy is-
-that they get the immigration visas-
-that they get the visas and they are looking for the best talent and it’s wherever they can find it. More Europeans means more club-goers. Amidst a lot of the negativity that you hear about the battles between the creative community and the tech community, that was actually a plus for the music community. The smaller shows started to stabilize and the people doing experimental work were able to really push the envelope and take on a bit more risk.
I interviewed Suuns earlier this year and by doing so I learned a lot about Montréal and how Canada funds the arts. MUTEK is a non-profit, how do they manage that?
That was a struggle for us in the beginning because Montréal is one of the most culturally well-funded cities in the world. The city’s behind them financially, in addition to the province and the country, as well as the French government, there’s a strong tie there too. A huge portion of the downtown of Montréal is dedicated to the Carte des Spectacles, a huge esplanade that has multiple performing arts venues [and] the Museum of Contemporary Art is there. They encourage busking and things of [that] nature. It’s really a welcoming city for the arts. You’ll also see a lot of music and video technology and animation technology companies that were either birthed there or live there now. There are huge incentives for people to move their business there so there’s a real attention to the creative class as having value.
Still, it is difficult when your parent or mentor comes from a heavily publicly funded country because in America it’s a much more difficult route. We align ourselves with consulates and we work with other nonprofit organizations. This is a very expensive city to put on something at the production level that is expected from MUTEK. We’ll very often make relationships with quite strong artists who are willing to perform at the festival instead of a higher paying show at a headlining position in a venue here because they know that the amount of care and attention and expense that will be laid out will give them the best presentation environment for whatever their special project is.
On paper it may look like we are getting a deal on an artist when in fact there is an extra thirty or forty grand being spent on projectors and screens and rigging.
The problem with the MUTEK model is twofold: one is that it’s very very expensive. You can never charge tickets what the actual festival will cost so offsetting that is difficult and the other side being that it’s a platform for emerging artists and leftfield, ticket draw is difficult. We need people to understand the positioning and the philosophy of MUTEK and really trust us.
It reminds me of when you are playing a board game with a group of friends for the first time and you have to explain the rules, like, “I promise this is going to be fun,” and when you talk about the festival tracks I realize that this takes a second to explain and it’s worth illustrating, there’s a huge payoff if you listen and give this a chance. Can you talk a bit about the ticket structure and schedule specifics?
Our edition is from Thursday through Sunday, May 2nd through the 5th. The official programming begins at the Cal Academy of the Sciences and what we do is co-present their Nightlife Series.
What were the lessons you learned from last year?
I think we were really pleased with the programming. Thinking about that trajectory, there were a few instances where the separate rooms in the venues were too contrasting and we divided our audience a little bit. We try to build a fluidity so that people who are a little more interested in challenging, cacophonous stuff are forced to listen to some ambient once in a while. That was an interesting lesson.
That you almost gave people what they want too much?
In a way. Accidental segregation. The reality was we pitched this idea to Montréal in August 2017 and they accepted it so we had to produce the festival by May 2018. To look at something from a higher level and how all these pieces intertwine was a really fascinating exercise that I hadn’t had to do before. At most I would be programming a single stage but now to be considering multiple nights and multiple stages.
What makes you happy about doing this?
I have a bit of a mission. I’ve been here 18 years now and [and] the transition speed in San Francisco is exponentially faster than in other cities in America. Things that might take a decade elsewhere seem to happen here in three years. One friend referred to it as living five minutes in the future which I thought was an interesting way to look at it. Because of the nature of this festival that is so high-tech and so high-production, I don’t want locals or visitors to come with a pair of blinders on and not experience what the rest of us see on a daily basis—the socioeconomic issues, the sociopolitical issues. Your listeners might be hearing Market Street in the background. We are in the middle of the Tenderloin because we are a music business and this is the last remaining affordable real estate in the city.
I believe that we are at a point where the old population and the new population have blown off the steam and are now aware that this is the way it is and we have to figure out a way to work together and be together. People need to dispose of the stereotypes on both ends of the spectrum:the lazy artist or the tech bro, we are all humans and ultimately I think that creativity and culture is enriching for the new population that lives here.
My hope then is that MUTEK becomes the platform for focusing the international lens on the rich history of the creativity community here. I’ve always been enamored at the combination of San Francisco’s size and its rapid transitional transient nature which births really exciting and innovative things while pushing people’s creative works to a high point of visibility that you wouldn’t get in a larger city or in a small town. I’m doing this because I love this art and this is another way for me to be able to support it but I also think it’s necessary for the city of San Francisco now more than ever.
Transcribed by Elie Katzenson
Edited by Chandler Le Francis