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Montreal Revolutions
Quebec's DJ and VJ Scenes Spin a Remix Renaissance
by Étienne Côté-Paluck, translated by Timothy Barnard

Over the past few years, electronic music culture in Montreal has experienced an unprecedented boom. As a crossroads of electronic music in the Americas (alongside New York and San Francisco), Montreal and its artists are finally coming to the fore after years spent in the club shadows.

Montreal has long been considered a city of every excess. A pivotal link in the trade of alcohol during the U.S. prohibition in the 1920s, it was home to a red light district where brothels, bars, and contraband of all sorts could be found. Montreal's feverish lifestyle was known across North America, just as the nightlife of Paris was known and recognized around the world. Montreal's nightlife, therefore, has fashioned its history to this very day, bequeathing the city with one of the highest per capita ratios of bars in North America.

St. Lawrence Blvd., which divides the city in two, has long represented the symbolic border between English and French speakers. Once very poor, today the street embodies the city's rich diversity, incorporating Chinatown, Little Italy, and Old Montreal. This is also where some of the most chic and most tumbledown clubs can be found.

Like every large city on the planet, Montreal was inundated by waves of house and techno in the late 1980s. Numerous warehouse parties were organized in the city's lofts, with an extremely dynamic gay culture as their driving force. In the early 1990s, raves brought together an eclectic crowd, where young and old, artists and students, rubbed shoulders. A variegated sample of the city's working population could be found at these barely-legal parties. This was also where, for the first time, people discovered the community spirit and the trance that repetitive music can induce. Now it became possible for men and women to dance alone, isolated from the crowd in imaginary journeys fuelled largely by drugs.

By the mid-1990s, early experiments in electronic music had made possible the first recordings of the genre in Montreal. Supported by clubs, DJs became producers or entrepreneurs, founding a number of labels that today still serve the DJ community (eg. Turbo, Ascend, Bombay). Montreal then experienced a period of musical refinement with the founding of electronic festivals such as Elektra, M.E.G., and especially Mutek. Since the beginning of the third millennium, Mutek has been attracting former ravers with its less danceable and more abstract music - a more mature music, some would say.

Thanks to Mutek 's dynamic quality as a festival, a new wave of producers has moved to the fore in Montreal, giving new impetus to local creativity. Marc Leclair, who has been involved with the festival since its early days, is greatly indebted to this event. His project Akufen premiered at Mutek in the festival's first year, and was followed in 2002 by an album of Montreal-made electronic music called My Way, which remains to this day the best selling album of its kind in the world. The Akufen project has also lent its hachured house adroitness to some big names in pop music - notably Massive Attack and Craig David - through a number of remixes.

"Mutek - and I can't say this often enough - made it possible for the Montreal scene, and I'd even say [for] the Canadian scene, to move on to a higher stage and to find itself in a privileged position on the international scene," says Leclair. "Not only has the festival built a bridge to the rest of the world; it has, above all, made it possible for artists to become aware of the great number of musicians working in techno. Mutek has created solidarity between them."

It is also noteworthy that Montreal has attracted numerous producers of renown to establish themselves in the city. These include Mike Shannon from Toronto, and Amon Tobin from England (and originally Brazil). Also, the German music label Force Inc., which opened its North American offices here following the lead of the British label Ninja Tune (which did the same in 1995). There is a spirit of mutual assistance and cordiality in Montreal that is very conducive to artistic creation - something that seems to please these new arrivals. For a long time, creative activity was constrained by a lack of resources, confidence, and infrastructures. But it is finally beginning to emerge from the shadows with the support of several new record labels, such as Oral, Intr_version, and Alien 8.

Fusing art and new technologies, Mutek has consecrated the use of laptop computers in the field of music. As a result, the festival is also beginning to interest the "new music" community. Yet Mutek is only the bright side of the moon for a few days per year. The ongoing presence of other organizations, such as the Société des arts technologiques (SAT), has made it possible for Montreal's electronic community to breathe all year long. In fact, this organization is at the centre of Montreal's technological avant-garde - in universities, industry, and the arts. SAT develops and hosts various projects (Mutek, Espilonlab, Néon), and has rapidly established itself at the heart of the electronic community by organizing evening events that attract up to 800 people to an industrial and flexible decor.

The SAT's evening events have become weekly gatherings where many players in technology are able to meet. The organization's mission is to create a network among people who work in the digital culture milieu. As a physical site, the SAT has become a home base for many artists.

"Creating a network has become just as important as the works themselves," explains SAT director Monique Savoie. In her work she sees the reflection of a new culture - one that is transforming our still too Cartesian ways of perceiving the world. "Digital technology changes our ways of creating and thinking, and encourages interdisciplinarity," she says. "The SAT is an integral part of this change. We're in the process of penetrating every discipline, not just in the field of technology but also in the social sciences, the arts, and engineering. Right now, we're also extremely interested in high-speed networks, like those using fibre optics. We're trying to see how we can create and use network events. Put another way, [we're trying to see] how we might interact on a daily basis with other places in the world, in order to create work together, or simply to open a window onto other cultures. What we're witnessing, therefore, is a sort of shattering of our point of view and our understanding of society. This era is comparable to that of the Renaissance, which profoundly modified point-of-view in painting with the development of perspective. We are confronted with a new way of addressing content, because every discipline is redefining content with its own tools."

In this regard, the SAT fosters another art form - one that emerged from the rave scene. This art form, which is based on video, has become known as VJing. Music's poor relative, VJing has seen a boom since the arrival of digital technology, which made the required equipment more lightweight. Since the invention of the camcorder, and the Korean artist Nam June Paik's work on rhythmic images in the late 1970s, VJing has been in a state of constant growth, though it has always existed in the shadow of electronic music events.

"There is an important video tradition in Quebec," explains Savoie. "Independent video has always had a very strong niche here. In fact, VJs are video-makers who produce a work of video art in real time, just like musicians. The SAT is thus attempting to promote video, in order to create a real dialogue between DJs and VJs. Their work must be seen, and it shouldn't be considered wallpaper."

The VJ Scene
Like DJs, there are many different kinds of VJs: from the most amateurish (who string images together without any artistic vision), to those who use this form of image dissemination to express themselves artistically.

Thien Vu Dang (aka VJ Pillow) is a former video-maker who now works in the Montreal after-hours club Aria. He is also a founding member of the Mix_Session VJ collective, currently at the forefront of the Montreal scene. "Some people use images without really thinking about the result," says Pillow, "while others really concentrate on the images' effects on the music. A new generation of artists has discovered, in Vjing, an extremely interesting and new way of disseminating their work. The strength of the VJ lies, above all, in linking the rhythm of images with that of the music. Beyond that, the images chosen are of fundamental importance. You have to ask yourself how people will receive the images. You have to encode them and explore the different ways they are understood. You don't control the sound, so the images really have to be at the centre of your concerns."

"The scene is still very young," he continues, "but VJs are being called upon to work in every field of art and communications, whether it's advertising, video, or simply opening up different musical genres, which is what is happening in Japan and England. In any event, apart from San Francisco, New York and Montreal, there isn't much happening in North America. It's not by accident that the SAT is in Montreal. And it's centres like the SAT that are also supporting the scene in San Francisco."

The Situation in Quebec
In addition to having a rich artistic history, Quebec is recognized for its financial support of its artists - a reflection of its dynamic cultural policies. Rents are also among the lowest in North America, and the independent artist has a highly respected status. Nevertheless, the digital culture movement is not limited to Montreal. The very definition of digital culture is based on the abolition of borders. DJs go everywhere, their records find buyers all over the world, and now DVD is opening the same doors to VJs.

"We're used to looking at the international stage only in terms of distribution," comments Monique Savoie. "Distribution and dissemination occur at an international level - but now production is taking place at the same level. More and more projects are being developed that have recourse to various places in various centres in various countries. The project The User, for example, started out at the SAT. But it then left for Finland, and eventually California. Certain structures and interest groups are stronger in some countries than others, and some artists find a way of taking advantage of this. The networking culture is also developing in this direction. With projects happening around the world, the production stage is already assured the possibility of international distribution and dissemination. Our playing field is much greater than Montreal - although obviously Montreal has a specific character."

This specificity is highly cultural in nature, though it is difficult to summarize. Leclair traces it back as far as the Refus global, which set Quebec's Quiet Revolution in motion, while Savoie sees evidence here of both cultural mixing and resistance to Anglo-Saxon culture. But both agree that it is tied to a kind of North American cultural diversity that has grown up in a liberal, French-speaking setting.

Étienne Côté-Paluck is a music enthusiast who, for the past three years, has contributed a column to the cultural weekly Voir Montréal. He is also a correspondent for a number of electronic media organizations (radio, television, etc.,) and for three years hosted the popular radio program "L'oreille bionique" on CISM 89.3 FM.

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