MUTEK and Feminism :) By Sophie Le-Phat Ho
_Underground Resistance in Montreal for the first time during MUTEK 08! (Photo: Sophie Le-Phat Ho)
The other day, at the launch of a new social centre and squat in a gentrifying working class neighbourhood in Montreal, I bump into a friend, GeneviÃ¨ve, who tells me she will be DJing at the party that was going to take place later on in the evening. She also tells me how her DJ name came out of a joke and how she became a DJ only recently, and somewhat serendipitously. At a previous event, the organising committee she is part of realised that the line-up included only male DJs. It only took that collective realisation for her to volunteer to be part of the line-up, although she had not done it before, but had the interest and the confidence to try it out.
_Canadian premiere of Underground Resistance (US) featuring Interstellar Fugitives at the SAT, May 28, 2008. (Photo: Sophie Le-Phat Ho)
That story came at an interesting moment as I had been spending several days thinking about this difficult question of electronic music & gender after attending the ninth edition of the MUTEK festival, from May 28 th to June 1 st of 2008, in Montreal. As I was covering the events for Studio XX's .dpi , promoting a feminist perspective was a no-brainer. However, there's nothing very exciting about no-brainers. A few issues confronted me with a complex puzzle with regards to electronic music & gender. First, post-modern feminism, which attempts to go beyond an essentialist notion of âwoman' (via the cyborg, for example), 2 further problematizes the question of ârepresentation of women'. Second, the under-representation of women programmed at electronic music festivals being evident and nothing new on the radar, one feels compelled to surpass that observation before it becomes an old broken record, and yet, it obviously needs to continue to be disseminated somehow, for the rate of change is embarrassingly slow. But how could I address all these complexities within a tiny column? I can't. And I won't. I experienced MUTEK 2008 through unscientific fragments, micro-observations, impressions, samples and bits. Here they are, in conversation.
+ mutek2730.AVI (VIDEO)
The above being said, I will start off with a blatant generalization: women like to dance. The 2008 edition of MUTEK started on a great, and unusual, note â referencing the afrodiasporic origins of techno â with the Canadian premiere of Underground Resistance (UR) at the SAT (Society for Arts and Technology). Interstellar Fugitives was being featured, including one of UR's founders, Mike Banks, along with four other members. This event was by far one of the best performances of MUTEK within what I was able to attend, an impression confirmed by various colleagues and friends. UR's Detroit techno simply sent out supra charged vibrations, which lasted long enough to hit a couple of days later by reaching the first of two piknic Ã©lectronik , which took place at the SAT due to rain. In a pitch black, steamy SAT, Kode9 and the Space Ape (UK) titillated the subwoofers another year in a row with outerspace dubstep, all of which was preceded by an equally energetic Flying Lotus. The night before, at the Metropolis, it was Modeselektor (GE) that electrified our bodies through their clever mixes of genres, along with in-your-face visuals by the Pfadfinderei team. (Although the SAT could use two or three ceiling fans, Modeselektor's MUTEK debut there in 2006 is still the most memorable performance. Perhaps it is the smaller size of the venue, or the related quality of booking âriskier' artists there, that makes events at the SAT somewhat more affective.)
_Ben Shemie (CA) and musicians at Coeur des Sciences, May 29, 2008. (Photo: Sophie Le-Phat Ho)
_Kid Koala (CA) at Metropolis, May 30, 2008. (Photo: Sophie Le-Phat Ho)
Speaking of dancing, while we were chatting at the SAT, my friend Rachel noted: âIt's weird to see so few women when you think that they probably represent 70% of the crowd at regular clubs.â According to my own observations, the audience at MUTEK was composed of about a third of women, and this seemed to be the case throughout the festival, except maybe for the larger, clubbier, evening events at the Metropolis. Of the women attending MUTEK, a fair proportion also appeared to be from the press, i.e., people who also have other reasons to attend. To be sure, Alain Mongeau's team counts a fair number of women behind the scenes as well, while the number of women featured at MUTEK varies from year to year. This year, out of all the live electronic performers listed (almost a hundred) and according to my own limited knowledge of pseudonyms, I was able to identify three women, apart from those who were participating in the panel discussions or in Le Placard / Open_Lab series. Indeed, there were more women featured in the experimental/sound art section of the program. Focussing here on the âintelligent dance musicâ programming, I was particularly interested in speaking with ChloÃ© (FR), who was part of the line-up of the last Nocturne event at Metropolis, but an interview never panned out unfortunately. Furthermore, reporting back from her trip to this year's Detroit Electronic Music Festival (DEMF), Movement â08, DJ Cyan told me that she only saw around four women out of the hundred DJs lined up. Indeed, the lack of representation of women in electronic music circuits clearly goes beyond MUTEK. To follow up on Anna Friz's article published in the first issue of this very magazine in 2004, 3 I would like to evoke again the question which turned the issue on its head: Why so many men?
_Megazoid (CA) at Metropolis, May 30, 2008. (Photo: Sophie Le-Phat Ho)
mutek2781.AVI _Modeselektor (GE) with visuals by Pfadfinderei at Metropolis, May 30, 2008. (VIDEO)
One way of upsetting the usual feminist critique could be through the idea of desire, as suggested by Hillegonda Rietveld, for instance. 4 Do men, while in the midst of a so-called âidentity crisisâ, repeatedly seek for âan experience of self-destruction and redefinition as sacrificial cyborgâ? And women, while currently in a position where they are âdefining their embodied selves,â tend rather towards âa sense of communal soulâ? 5 Perhapsâ¦ But the problem with this line of argumentation is obviously that it switches gears in a way that obliterates the existing social, political and economic inequalities that subsist between men and women, as well as racialized groups. Not to mention that it expresses a rather superficial understanding of the âcyborgâ, which rather than one for closing down and reaffirming dichotomies/stereotypes/essences is a device that âopens up' by spawning âconfusion' in a positive, Donna Haraway, kind of way. On the other hand, when asked if she would like to see more women featured at electronic music festivals, Analog Tara notes: âI value being invited to perform or contribute to internationally-recognized forums because that represents a certain kind of validation of your work and an opportunity to present to a large audience. However, I have often found it much more meaningful to play smaller-scale, community-based events, where it is more about participating in a dialogue. Sometimes, at smaller events, there is a lot more communication of support for your work, from promoters as well as the audience.â 6
_A pitch dark SAT for da dubstep by da Kode 9 and da Space Ape (UK), May 31, 2008. (Photo: Sophie Le-Phat Ho)
+ mutek2784.AVI (VIDEO)
To continue with the idea of desire but from a different angle, DJ Cyan â who says she personally has never experienced impediments to being a DJ â points out concrete instances where work is presently needed: â To begin with, representations of women within the mainstream clubbing world are often hypersexualized, which probably doesn't help many women visualize themselves in the DJ booth or on the stage. There may also be a perceived âtechnology barrier' â there is always this question of âwhat's behind the laptop' [...] The fetishization of music technology does not promote its accessibility to women, or to anyone else for that matter.â 7 One would also wonder to what extent the ideas of âcommunal soulâ and âcyborgâ are actually mutually exclusive â as Rietveld's argument implies â when Cyan observes: âI do notice a different energy when there are more women in the DJ booth, and it is really nice to have that balance.â 8
_ChloÃ© (FR) at Metropolis, May 31, 2008. (Photo: Sophie Le-Phat Ho)
_Kode9 and the Space Ape (UK) present Bass Friction LIVE at Metropolis Le Savoy, May 31, 2008. (Photo: Sophie Le-Phat Ho)
In a nutshell, the challenge here is how we can address the real inequalities that persist while also asking how useful and how far thinking with ârepresentation' can lead us. The comments I was able to mix/match point to the idea of curating as a form of feminism. As Tara Rodgers indicates: â From a curatorial perspective, I think a better question is: Who is doing interesting work right now in electronic music and sound art, and how can that be reflected in the line-up of a festival or event? When the question is posed that way, I always find it curious and disappointing if only 2 or 3 women out of 100 people, for example, are on a program. To me, that suggests that the curation reflects a social network that doesn't look much beyond its own connections.â A statement that also reflects DJ Cyan's: âTo me, it's not a question of fulfilling a quota within certain styles, it's a bigger question of doing the research to keep things fresh and representative of the breadth of creativity that is happening in electronic music, which would naturally include a higher percentage of women.â
From that perspective, it will be interesting to see what comes out of the creation of ICAS (International Cities for Advanced Sound) during this year's MUTEK, the aim being to enhance exchanges of content between two dozens festivals in Europe and the Americas. 9 In the meantime, women getting more involved behind the scenes will be particularly crucial to improving the situation, as highlighted by DJ Cyan. Current networks, published work, and collectives work in that sense â in a similar way that the presence of collective support and consciousness provided the context for GeneviÃ¨ve to volunteer again to DJ at a party. Whether one talks about live electronic performance at an international festival or a DJ set at a squat, the same power relations are at work.
-- Special thanks to tobias c. van Veen, DJ Cyan (aka Corina MacDonald), and Analog Tara (aka Tara Rodgers), for their precious input and advice during the writing of this column.
1 The title is stolen from an email exchange with DJ Cyan (aka Corina MacDonald).
2 Haraway, Donna (1991). âA Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.â in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: the Reinvention of Nature . New York: Routledge, pp. 149-181.
3 Friz, Anna. âHeard but Unscene, women in electronic musicâ, .dpi, issue 1, August 25, 2004.
4 Thanks to tobias c. van Veen for this insight, and several others.
5 Rietveld, Hillegonda (2004). "Sacrificial cyborg and communal soul" in Rave Culture and Religion , ed. Graham St. John. London: Routledge, pp. 46-62.
6 Rodgers,Tara, interviewed via email, June 9, 2008
7 MacDonald, Corina, interviewed via email, June 8, 2008
9 MUTEK communiquÃ©, June 13, 2008.
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ComitÃ© de rÃ©daction :
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Â© Constanza Camelo, 2008. Photos : James Partaik