The first MUTEK Festival ever to set up in the United States begins Thursday, May 3 and runs through Sunday, May 6, at venues across San Francisco. Most culturally literate people know enough about a genre or two of electronic music to form an opinion, a bit of confusion remains as to what, exactly, MUTEK.SF is.
Although it’s had runs in Montreal, Barcelona, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, and elsewhere, is it a giant, weekend-long series of parties with glassy pupils and people finding their friends via paper-tube totems with Nicolas Cage on the end? Is it a commercialized clutch of touring brand launches? An inscrutable hybridized public-art performance?
It’s actually a weekend of music with art installations, audiovisual works, panel discussions, food vendors, and more. To get a better understanding, SF Weekly spoke with the festival’s director, Surefire Agency founder Miroslav Wiesner, who, along with Gabrielle de Villoutreys, has done much of the heavy lifting to make MUTEK happen. He spoke about what sort of programming decisions MUTEK makes, where the money comes from and why that matters, and the difficulty of managing expectations for something so ambitious and unfamiliar.
This conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
This type of music is difficult to get a firm grasp on via press release. People have preconceived notions but my understanding of this festival is that it’s not ordinary EDM.
Exactly. You probably heard that MUTEK is in seven cities with a centralized brand, but each edition is encouraged to represent itself individually. We are a series of artists, like Cadie Desbiens of Woulg & Push 1 Stop, who you already interviewed, so they’re essentially endorsed by MUTEK and they’ll play different editions. Michela Pelusio has produced the same project at four MUTEKs.
However, the focus on local and regional is a mandate of the festival, so within that knowing that San Francisco is a techno town, the last thing we want to do is bring something to the table that will just be here in six months. (We don’t want to steal opportunities from our friends who are running other crews and there’s a niche community here that’s relatively savvy.)
If we are programming anyone who’s a household name in the world of nightclub or dance music, you’ll notice they’re performing unique pieces, collaborations, special productions. The most obvious one in this lineup is the Derrick May. He’s essentially a household name and pioneer in techno music, a key Detroit figure, but rather than have him perform a standard environment which you might see at another night in S.F., we have classical pianist Francisco Tristano, who’s making waves in his own right as an electronic musician, and he’s coming with this amazing project of multiple synthesizers.
Every aspect of MUTEK is either about contrast or juxtaposition or heightened experience, less about spectacle and more about content. We’re in an age where the LED wall is kind of almost expected, thanks to a lot of the larger successful, corporate festivals — who, as a booker, I deal with all the time. It’s a great look for young kids seeking escapist culture. But MUTEK attracts an older, more introverted audience, and the content is stuff that we want people to walk away from scratching their chin or scratching their heads.
I’m not being judgmental; I love escapism myself. But there’s a multitude of outlets for that kind of community connectivity, people en masse with the same goal. MUTEK is about vibe, but also about bringing people experiences — and I use that term loosely, since everything these days is so quickly co-opted by marketing firms.
The genre has become victim of its own success, with expectations for the equivalent of the Phil Spector Wall of Sound to blow people’s minds. There can be so much more, but with the need to get butts in seats and make sure a venue recoups money, that can crowd that out. But you’re putting the art first, so to speak.
Absolutely. When we’re looking at having to fundraise — especially as a nonprofit, looking at how much fat do we trim — production and programming are the tender pieces you don’t want to touch. A friend of mine who’s not in the industry was like “Oh my God, that’s so perfect. Why hasn’t MUTEK been in San Francisco before?” And of course, it shouldn’t be in be in New York because you can’t swing a cat in New York 365 days a year without hitting something competitive. So yeah, “arts first” is certainly a mandate,
Getting butts in seats is still a concern because of these high production risks, but I’m dealing with a brand for who most of the editions are in cities and countries where public funding for the arts is actually a thing. I’ve been in the city for 15 years now, and I’ve seen the turnover — and my booking agency roster has slowly been losing Bay Area constituents to other cities as people get priced out.
But the part of the story I don’t agree with is the polarization and the sort of archetypal tech bro versus archetypal welfare artist. Six or eight years ago, when the Google tires were being slashed and people in my community were threatening to leave, there was equal animosity on both sides and I was stuck in the middle. It hurts me to see my artist friends be priced out, but equally, it’s not fair to the tech community to assume that everybody there is just a short-term opportunist.
Our primary donors are all individuals. We have no corporate sponsorships other than hotels giving us a hand. It’s all arts organizations and foundations and a small group of people who are choosing to make an investment in the community — and these are the new patrons. They’re aware that art is changing. They’re willing to invest in an entity like MUTEK that has global ideals but a local focus.
Beyond the logistical part, what is Surefire’s role in terms of programming?
We treat local talents with concern as we do the international headliners. We chose not to have a second room of just locals or “this night is local night.” We’ve got people interspersed from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. and everything in between, and it was a curatorial decision of where this person would sound the best and be the most well-received.
MUTEK is a meta-special project, in which we could program other special projects, a beautiful proof of concept. We were very reticent to pepper the roster too much with Surefire artists, so the ones that are there are only there because we truly feel they’re a solid fit.
Say someone comes up with an amazing piece but the production budget is $250K. Mutek couldn’t do that but if you amortize it over seven MUTEKs, then we have a conversation. And if one of the people has booking experience then we can route that through all these different countries with visas and all that. It really clicked for everybody to be able to bring these entities together.
I have an immense amount of support for 2019 — but in 2018 it’s a crunch. About 40 percent of the expense will be covered by tickets this year. Everything else has to be donated. I’m probably being over-optimistic, but if our poster just has consulate logos and a hotel, I’ve won.
MUTEK, Thursday, May 3 – Sunday, May 6, at various venues. $150-$450; mutek.org.