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SAT : Interview with Monique Savoie
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Interview with Monique Savoie
SAT's Director talks about being well situated in Montreal and upwardly mobile on the international scene
by Sylvie Parent, translated by Bernard Schütze


Monique Savoie is founder and director of the Society for Arts and Technology (SAT). She was kind enough to grant HorizonZero an interview to discuss the SAT's current and upcoming projects. The videotaped interview took place at the SAT on September 23, 2003. Viewers are invited to watch the video clips or to read the following transcript.

Part 1: Recent relocation of the SAT

Monique Savoie: The relocation of the SAT (Society for Arts and Technology) is obviously something worth talking about. And I'd say yes, it could be compared to turning vinegar into honey. We received an eviction order in April. As everybody knows, there is this big project in Montreal to build the new space for the symphony orchestra. We therefore had to find a place to relocate to. It didn't take long to realize that the urban context - that is, the downtown area and rue Saint-Laurent - are obviously very important for the SAT's development. So, at that time we looked for something in the neighborhood of where we were on St. Catherine Street, and we found the building on 1195 rue Saint-Laurent. It was an old abandoned market - rather difficult to visit as it was filled with dead pigeons. So, it wasn't obvious at first - this place had almost disappeared from the Montreal imaginary, since it had been shut down for over ten years already. It is a reinforced concrete six-storey building that could use a face-lift. We can't use the full volume of the space at this point, since we were only completely satisfied with the first three storeys. But we now occupy these three storeys with a research and production centre dedicated to the development of digital culture.

When you enter the SAT now, you find yourself in a public space. With this new building, the SAT is now more accessible to the non-initiated. Also, we still have the large room and the research studios. Eventually we would like to develop international studios for artists on the upper floor, a little along the lines of PS1 in New York. Artists from different countries could come here to participate in exchange programs and artist's residencies, so they could in one a way or another benefit from these exchanges. This is, in a way, how we would like to inhabit the space for now - the 36,000 square feet spread over the first three storeys - though we would also like to occupy the two upper storeys. So, now when you arrive on St. Catherine Street, what you more or less see is this horrendous shoebox. On a more positive note, we had the good fortune and great pleasure of discovering - after breaking an entire wall - that on the other side of this wall there was this magnificent park "designed" by Melvin Charney. And on the other side of the park there were the Résidences du Prêt d'honneur and the Monument National.

So something is beginning to emerge in the neighborhood, something that one could perhaps call the crossroads of cyberculture, because the Université du Québec is also right around the corner. So we are surrounded by young people who were born with new technologies. Maybe we are bringing a new and complementary color to this marginal neighborhood that is, let us not forget, the red light district. I would say that the SAT is now maybe like a gateway to Montreal, since we are situated at the corner of René-Lévesque and St-Laurent. Almost at the other end, but maybe also a gateway, is Ex-Centris [a gallery]. There is certainly an axis emerging here. But it is also part of an ongoing dialogue, since the upcoming Montreal New Cinema and New Media Festival (FCMM) will present its "New Media" section at the SAT.


Part 2: Partnerships with new media events and organizations

MS: I could emphasize that the SAT has perhaps become a dream partner since it occupies a very specific niche. We are quite different, I believe - in Canada, and even elsewhere in the world - because we came long after many others who had a long life as artist centres. This allowed us to hook up with different festivals, events, and organizations that already existed. It is in this context that we developed partnerships. These partnerships often make it possible for organizations who would like to - or who, before we came along, would have liked to - get involved in new technologies, but who didn't have the technical resources or the place that could host such events. I am thinking in particular about the International New Dance Festival (FIND), with whom we have been working for several years, and for whom the SAT is a dream collaborator since we have absolutely no problems in receiving proposals of this nature. Also, one can say that dance is a medium that increasingly makes use of new technologies. We thus have a lot of choreographers among our artists in residence, such as Benoît Lachambre, who has been in residence for over two years. Dance is a particular milieu. I would say that we are also increasingly developing ties with design. The Institut de design de Montréal has worked with us this year. We have beeen pursuing this collaboration and have also developed one with architect groups. This relation to space, time, and the body necessarily addresses these technologies at different levels of the work process that range from production to distribution. One sees artists taking an interest in how technologies can be integrated into the different production steps.


Part 3: Artist residencies at the SAT

MS: When one mentions residencies at the SAT, what one usually sees is people who arrive with an idea. I'd say that the SAT is there to make sure that a project can at least reach a prototype stage. The first step is to be able to bring an idea to fruition. The SAT is this first level, which allows artists to work with an idea and to present it to an audience at least once. In our domain, interaction with the public has an impact upon what a work will become, and how it will be worked on. The SAT offers a space for this. What is also interesting is that, more and more - one is familiar with exhibition tours, but we are dealing with production tours. So often projects get started here, and then go on to other countries or other centres where they are further developed on a production level, and then they return to us through an exhibition network. I call this the "touring residency program" of which Thomas McIntosh's latest project Ondulations is a good example. The project started at the SAT with a two-month residency. It then went to Helsinki, and then to California for the sound component. We hope to present the project sometime between now and the summer of 2004. There are projects that come into existence and find their resources in terms of a range of offers - of what can be made available by each of the centres, of what they can bring to each stage of the project's development. This is a way to work on the level of residencies - on the way artists are received in their SAT residency. I'd say that we also do "customized" work. We don't work on a "theme of the year" basis. Each project is received on its own terms. We have provisional deadlines, but since one is always juggling with the different grant programs of the Canada Arts Council and the Fondation Daniel Langlois - which supports several projects - we decided to receive projects year round. The success of the SAT, dare I say, is based on good ideas and good projects. We can't afford to let these pass us by. We have a very flexible committee that considers each project, as the ideas and propositions arrive, and finally retains only those that are within our capacity and that can be supported by our resources.


Part 4: Partnerships with industry and the academic milieu

MS: The SAT likes to call itself a transdisciplinary centre. Now, this idea comes from the fact that we are grounded in the artistic domain - so much is certain. However, we are also situated between the scientific milieu, the engineering milieu, and even the industrial milieu. And the SAT tries to build bridges, to have a transversal attitude. Because, as one says, innovations are born from the meeting between science, art, and technology. To this end we have a liaison office that works at creating links between these different milieus. It is very important for us to have this linkage, this complementarity that connects the different fields.

For example, at the SAT one often encounters young adults who have just earned a bachelor degree and don't really know if they want to go on to do a masters degree or not. And then they stay here for a year with a project of their own. Afterwards, it happens that they go back to university with a different orientation and a particular motivation. The SAT provides a space for "transgenerational" encounters between young and old, the accomplished and emerging artists who are perhaps the up-and-coming generation of creators. Another thing worth noting is that the SAT is fighting to encourage a new generation of content creators that may just be able to free themselves from being mere consumers of technology. This is a cause we stand behind, and opening a space for this new generation is part of the SAT's mandate.

This explains the link with the educational milieu. At this time we have an agreement with seven universities around the world, among which five are Canadian. And this has been working out quite well. We have established partnerships with industry - but there too, we are not bogged down by production deadlines. That is to say that SAT artists do not produce for industry, but they may occasionally propose presentations of their work during demo parties. As for myself, I believe that it is up to industry to see for themselves if there is a potential for collaboration and exchange based on the work that we do. For the time being, we have sympathy capital; we have good relations in the sense that they lend us equipment. I'd say that the intention is excellent. Some of the SAT youth are active in industry. We now have the SIGGRAPH event, which we present on the second Tuesday of each month. Those who attend are mostly young people employed in the sector, for example at Discreet Logic, Ubi Soft, and other companies that work a lot with video games. But there are also young engineers who have their own individual research agendas, so that they enter the industry with well-defined personal interests. What I find pertinent is how scientific, artistic, and engineering cultures can all of a sudden come together around a good project. There are maybe less preconceived ideas now then there were in past generations. And with a good research proposal, I think that it is quite easy to get everybody involved. The other thing, and this needs to be said, is that they all dress the same, they listen to the same music, and often they look at the same girls or boys. So they have similarities on the level of social behaviour, and I'd also say on the level of social codes. In my opinion, they all belong to this digital culture which is starting to take shape.


Part 5: Territoires ouverts - the Open Territories project

MS: Actually, the SAT is fully equipped with a fiber optic network. We are on CA*net4, the CANARIE program. This technological facility is very, very important for us, and we are very privileged to have it at this moment. This privilege did not come easy. We had to fight for six years to have an opportunity to work with this high-speed network. Just like everybody else, we had to participate in competitions, to prove twice over that artists have a place of their own as researchers in this field. The SAT has just recently obtained its fiber optic infrastructure, and has also won a competition to which two hundred proposals where submitted from across Canada, and of which only five were accepted - and only one from an artist centre, the SAT. The project in question is Territoires Ouverts - Open Territories - which we also call TOT. We have different research axes. All the projects are developed with an open source system so that we can create a community of developers who assist with the artistic content and help tackle the engineering challenges - to adapt these technologies, or even tinker with them - so that they can serve the artist's needs.

The Open Territories program opens up different research fields, as I said, like the IP protocol, which is called the "Internet Protocol". This makes streaming possible - and hence real time recording with a sound and video quality that is equivalent to what we now have with broadcast. Data transmission is thus another element that we are involved with - for example, multiple point telepresence, and how we can develop realtime collaborations between different physical locations. This also includes immersion, since we are currently working on different devices - such as inflatable spheres in which we can integrate other SAT research areas, such as 360 degree sound and image rendition, which implies spatialization and teleoperation. In other words, how to intervene in different spaces from different integrated systems: the MAX system, for instance, if one wants to control the lighting in a space with a dancefloor lighting grid from another space.

This is the kind of research that takes place here. Right now fourteen people are working in these different research areas, among which three are senior engineers who are working full time at the SAT. This gives us a specificity that is well reflected in the SAT slogan: "positive contamination". The SAT is well positioned on the international scene, thanks to this research program that gathers people from different positions, different disciplines, and consequently promotes the intersection of various fields of knowledge and research. The TOT research consortium is made up of forty associations around the world. So it is a real research platform that we have set up here, which draws on everything we have developed since our foundation in 1996.


Part 6: The SAT[o_Sphere]

MS: Explaining the SAT[o_Sphere] is like taking off on a "balloon", or telling a dream-like story. Actually, what we have realized is that there is no space to receive us. And yet we are invited around the world. So we decided to set up a pilot project - what we call the "baby SAT[o_Sphere]". But ultimately the goal is to have our own [portable] space, a little bit like a "techno-circus". This would mean having our own room with a capacity of five hundred to six hundred people, in which we could arrive with our "SAT-mobile" and unleash all of our artistic content and proposals. What we have now is an inflatable demi-sphere that functions as a screen and viewing space, as well as a place where we can demonstrate the SAT's know-how. Right now we are working on calibrating the video projection and sound spatialization - because you have to understand that this is an enormous sphere. We will use it for events and workshops, as well as a listening space during the day. At this point in time we have received several invitations for this project, from La Villette in 2004, and from the Forum 2004 in Barcelona, which takes place at the same time as Sonar and Arte Futura. So this is like "SAT on the road", but I guess that this whole idea is intrinsic to the medium we are working with. That is to say that we work with a medium that is defined by movement and displacement - a funny thing considering that we just bought a place of our own. Our second idea is to leave... But I think that movement and displacement is as much part of our discipline as networking is. So the place will be like a bridgehead, a wave or a communicational knot, since it will also make it possible to integrate all the research we are doing on high speed networks, and to invite this immaterial, virtual place along for a trip so that we can bring all of these networks to this place that will become a temporary home, wherever it decides to settle.

Thank You.

Sylvie Parent is French Editor of HorizonZero.


Monique Savoie: A Short Bio
With an academic background in subjects as varied as biology, art, education, and administration, Monique Savoie has participated in - and indeed represented - the effervescence of avant-garde culture for close to twenty years. As a professional video maker in the 1980s, she participated in international events in Montreal, including New Music America in 1990, Festival de théâtre des Amériques in 1991, 1992 (Théâtre du Soleil), 1993, and 1997. She was director of the International Symposium of Electronic Art (ISEA95) in Montreal, and in 1996 she founded the Society for Arts and Technology (SAT). This is a transdisciplinary centre for the study, production, and dissemination of digital culture, which she continues to direct. Her own dealings with Montreal's art scene and cultural organizations are as significant as the many partnerships she has initiated as director.

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