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SAT : The SAT Odyssey
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The SAT Odyssey
An epic journey through the Canadian digital culture scene
by Virginie Pringuet, translated by Ron Ross

Now situated at its fourth location in seven years, the Society for Arts and Technology (SAT) seems to share Montrealers' penchant for moving. But, whether voluntary or not, moving is never the trivial affair it may appear. Relocation invariably occasions profound self-questioning, and for this artistic organization, it has occasioned a reassessment of its identity, mandate, and field of influence. The SAT has always managed to transform "new beginnings" into the kind of incredible group momentum that has helped it to materialize projects that might have seemed hypothetical, even utopian, until that point.

In charting these four relocations, we'll follow the SAT's epic journey through the Canadian artistic and cultural scene. Behind it all is a vision inspired by the artist's role in an increasingly technological society, and an adamant desire to place creative production and research at the heart of major political and industrial policies concerning Montreal's cultural, economic, and social development. From its very inception, SAT positioned itself not just as a reservoir of ideas, but also as a linchpin between the political sphere, powerful high-tech industries, and the world of academic research in all things dealing with the development of an information society and communications technologies.

Since its foundation in 1996 in the wake of ISEA95 (the International Symposium on Electronic Art), the SAT has assumed a mandate of stimulating and structuring Montreal's ever-bustling digital arts scene - which was until then poorly promoted and supported, and otherwise little known. The SAT aimed to become a veritable incubator of projects employing new creative and distributive media emerging at the crossroads of art and science. Having taken stock of the importance of the World Wide Web in 1996, and of the general public's appropriation of new communications technologies, the SAT has since promoted a particular vision of transdisciplinarity, forging links between art and industry, between independent creators and research labs, between digital art and the general public.

After the tremendous success of ISEA95, these two complementary organizations devoted to electronic media - ISEA and SAT - have become part of Montreal's cultural landscape. An annual interdisciplinary gathering of the international electronic arts community since 1988, ISEA is the physical meeting of an entire virtual community formed through the network. For eight days, Montreal is immersed in all forms of digital culture (performances, installations, network art, conferences). Exchanges and projects merge; the turnout is spectacular; and the symposium's impact is considerable.

Marché Bonsecours
Propelled by its effervescent director, Monique Savoie (also director of ISEA95), SAT version 1.0 set up office at Marché Bonsecours in Old Montreal, right next to ISEA - the Inter-Society for Electronic Art, an international umbrella organization that initiated the symposium of the same name, and which was previously situated in Rotterdam. At the time, ISEA had an international mandate, while SAT had a local one of assisting in the research and creation of digital art in Canada.

The SAT quickly organized a series of artists' presentations - informal gatherings that allowed Montreal artists, researchers, and scholars to share their work on a regular basis. It initiated a program for assisting creative work and, thanks to artist residencies and technological assistance provided in SAT spaces, helped produce some of Quebec's pioneering Web art. For example, 1997's Eugénie (www.sat.qc.ca/eugenie/), produced by Julie Méalin, Valérie Jodoin, and Eric Mattson, was the first virtual artificial insemination laboratory on the Internet.

In 1997, the SAT was actively involved in developing the Souillac Charter, a framework for reflection on collaboration between art and industry, drawn up by a study group composed of internationally renowned artists and scientists (it was led by Don Foresta). Its objective was to establish a dialogue between artists, the telecommunications industry, governments, and international institutions. It focused on the importance of artistic creation in the field of new technologies, and on original applications of telecommunications.

St. Catherine Street
After settling into another suite of new spaces on the sixth floor of a St. Catherine Street building in 1998, the SAT further defined its plan for a digital arts creation and production centre, following the main guidelines of the Souillac Charter. A report presented to the Canadian Heritage Department in 1999 made a case for the development of a genuine new media industry in Quebec, with direct support for content creators.

This report, known as the "SAT Report", set the theoretical and practical basis for everything the SAT has become today. It stated that, "Young movie-makers had the NFB as a centre for research and experimentation; video-makers had PRIM, the GIV, and Vidéographe, to mention only those; at the SAT, we have created the Digital Culture Laboratory to support research and experimentation in digital form." Through this lab, the SAT wished to explore art as a reflection on communication and technology, and to position media arts as a form of R&D (Research and Development) in the industry. Thus the SAT's Art and Industry Liaison Office was born, with the mandate of initiating and harmonizing grant programs, and establishing unequivocal support for artistic research labs - the same kind of support afforded to labs in the scientific fields.

The SAT also clarified its role with respect to universities and industry, managing a committee that represented all four Montreal universities. This "On-line Meta Lab" was meant to stimulate creative projects that used high-speed networks, and to facilitate collaboration between professional artists and students.

Many projects by Quebec artists are hosted by the SAT, either in its dedicated spaces or on its new server, WEBER, which is devoted to hosting artists' Web sites and Internet art projects. In a spirit of "positive contamination", artists and groups such as Luc Courchesne, Le Corps Indice (Isabelle Choinière), Joseph Lefèvre and Martine Kourtnouyan, D. Kimm, [The User], alongside occasional foreign artists, have all enjoyed the SAT's spaces, and its human and technical resources.

In 1998, the SAT supported the Web audio (and cd-rom) fiction project Liquidation created by Agence TOPO, an organization that produces and disseminates multidisciplinary works integrating photography, literature, and new media. Liquidation received many "new media" awards and toured the festival circuit while expressing a highly critical approach to the multimedia industry. Whereas cd-roms are almost all designed using a single commercial program, and are expected to demonstrate optimal interactivity, Liquidation works thanks to "in-house" software specifically developed for the project. This software arranges the narrative, audio, and visual sequences following aleatory parameters, and places the "interactor" back into the role of spectator.

Originating at the SAT in 2000, [The User]'s Silophone project offers a good example of the organization's role as a producer. The interactive audio installation - at once in situ (located in an abandoned silo in Montreal's old port) and online (www.silophone.net) - required considerable bandwidth to broadcast streaming audio twenty-four hours a day. It also required an intensive collaboration with the research labs at Bell, in order to develop a one-of-a-kind teleconferencing interface that connected users to the installation by phone or by Internet (this was necessary in order to allow people at remote locations to communicate with one another inside the silo). Calling up a distant past in which Bell still hosted artistic residencies, the Canadian telecommunications giant became a major partner in an experimental artistic project once again, thanks to the SAT's initiative.

In a triennial plan produced in 1999, the SAT reconsidered its mandate and objectives, announcing its intention to increase means and resources five-fold over the 1999-2002 period, and to relocate its activities to public spaces with street access. The report was presented to all three levels of government, and although the requested support failed to materialize, the SAT succeeded in generating close to eighty percent of its revenue independently, through special projects that allowed it to reach the goals set out in the plan.

The results were exhibited upon the SAT's reopening, in its new window space on St. Catherine Street, in October 2000. Set up in an old bank, the SAT broadened its promotional mandate, taking advantage of the extraordinary visibility afforded by an extensive window-front and direct access to the street (one of the busiest in Montreal). With the occupation of this new space, the SAT became a real venue for the dissemination of digital art for both specialized and general audiences. The exhibition and performance space (notably designed by the Montreal group kezaco; www.kezaco.ca) was entirely modular. A cafe was launched, and the SAT's offices were set up in the window like a laboratory that people could watch at leisure from the street.

During the Montreal International Festival of New Cinema and New Media (FCMM), the Transdisciplinary Showcase project presented nine installations, seven of which emerged from the artist residency programs at the SAT. Spectators discovered Luc Courchesne's Panoscope 360 and Portrait no. 1, vitrine Silophone from [The User], Coldspot from mmebutterfly.com, La Suite Mongole by D.Kimm, La Salle des Noeuds 2.2 by Jocelyn Robert and Émile Morin, Nicolas Reeves' Architectones Informatiques, Jocelyn Fiset's Rituel nomade, and L'espace du chaman by Joseph Lefevre and Martine Koutnouyan (an installation of banners and paintings referring to symbolic shamanic objects, mixed with a multimedia environment to create an enchanting space, which garnered the festival's award for best digital work).

The phenomenal success of the FCMM was very inspiring for subsequent events. Still, the SAT's economic situation remained fragile. However, under Bruno Ricciardi-Rigault's guidance, and thanks to some more festive nighttime programming, the SAT quickly became an essential venue for experimental electronic music and VJ performances on both the local and international scene, and this provided the organization with some additional income. Many Montreal festivals partnered with the SAT, alternately reinventing its space as a lab (FIND), as a media lounge (FCMM), and as concert hall (Mutek).

The SAT's residency program soon increased in scope, and many artists benefitted from workshops set up in the basement and in the exhibition hall. Also, the SAT was increasingly addressing a more diverse audience through the production of site-specific projects, such as Rendez-vous sur les bancs publics, created in 1999 by Luc Courchesne and Monique Savoie. This was a telepresence installation set up between two park benches - one on the esplanade of Montreal's Musée d'art contemporain, and the other at the Musée de civilisation de Québec in Québec City.

Faubourg Saint-Laurent
The SAT had to move its activities to new premises a fourth and last time, after the announcement that a megacomplex was to be constructed on Montreal's Balmoral city block. This would eventually house, among other things, the Montreal Symphony Orchestra concert hall, and the Conservatoire de musique et d'art dramatique.

The SAT set its sights on a huge vacant building at the heart of the trendy and revitalized neighbourhood of Faubourg Saint-Laurent. And this time, thanks to the support of the Government of Quebec and the city of Montreal, it became owner of its space. The SAT was moving into an ultramodern venue. Friendlier, more functional, and more spacious (24,000 square feet on two floors, and another 8,000 square feet of basement), this new place could serve many functions: that of technological showcase (for exhibition and interpretation), documentation centre, cafe, SAT offices, residency spaces, and rental space for the temporary use of organizations working in the field of culture and communications.

The SAT's international dimension is today undisputed, as evinced by exhibition projects abroad: in Geneva, Lille, and Paris-La Villette. But for the SAT, international ambitions are always accompanied by an indispensable local mission - to exist as an up-to-date "new media" cultural centre which nevertheless remains very much in tune with the neighbourhood and its residents. For example, in July of 2003, a breakdance competition was held to draw the attention of youth from the neighbourhood and elsewhere who would not normally visit the SAT, and to introduce them to equipment that they could potentially use, free workshops, and so forth.

At present, the SAT is launching a new applied research project - Territoires ouverts / Open Territories (http://tot.sat.qc.ca). This initiative encourages cutting-edge research and experimentation to take place in new creative spaces, using high-bandwidth networks in the fields of multichannel audio, video broadcasts, digital video mixing, telepresence, and immersion.

The SAT is unique in that it reconciles artistic independence with institutional recognition from both business and universities. It is one of the most active digital arts centres in Canada, and one of the most recognized internationally. It now seems to have everything needed for successful and sustained flight - which may take us all the way to an ISEA symposium in Montreal in 2006.

Virginie Pringuet has worked as a curator and artistic coordinator since 1997. Accustomed to walking the borderline between new media, contemporary art, and architecture, she has coordinated numerous events and installations for various organizations, such as the FCMM, Quartier Éphémère (Montreal), and the City of Paris (where she was in charge of the "visual arts" section of the first Nuit Blanche in 2002). She is now working for Lille 2004 - Capitale européenne de la culture dans le domaine du design et des arts vivants.

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[The User]


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