When it comes to music and art festivals, the United States has long claimed to uphold the gold standard. And I’d be lying if I told you that self-confidence wasn’t rooted in at least some truths: the combination of American audiences’ relatively high spending ability, the strength of the record/creative industry, and the general quality of infrastructure and support services means that the U.S. has dominated the concept it pioneered – or at least made famous – with the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. However, being first doesn’t always make you the best, and and my experiences at MUTEK Mexico a few weeks ago prove that the rest of the world is catching up – and in many cases, surpassing – what the States has to offer when it comes to curated multi-day art experiences.
First of all: despite lacking much by way of mainstream name recognition in this country, it’s important to recognize the deep legacy MUTEK has around the globe. Originally launched in Montréal, Canada in the year 2000, MUTEK has now expanded to seven cities around the world, and describes itself as “a platform dedicated to create a sonic space that can support innovation in new electronic music and digital art”. The avant-garde festival was celebrating its fifteenth edition in Mexico City with a week’s worth of programs across town, in spaces ranging from private galleries to the festival closing at the Museo Tamayo, one of Latin America’s leading contemporary art museums. As the final weekend coincided with the Thanksgiving holiday, I decided to fly down and check out some of the performances for myself, purchasing tickets for the “Nocturnos” – the night-time programming on Friday and Saturday. And I am so happy I did.
These performances took place in a massive warehouse space – allegedly a former Ford vehicle factory – about 45 minutes North of the Condesa neighborhood we were based in via Uber (yeah, Uber works in Mexico, and it’s cheap as hell). They began at 9 p.m. and ended around 5:30 a.m., although crowds were only at their peak between midnight and three. The location was perfectly suited to accommodate three music stages, several interactive art installations, four bars, and a half dozen food trucks and tents on the outer ring, all within a self-contained area that felt safe and inviting. It was small enough that you could walk from stage to stage to stage in under ten minutes, but also have enough space to dance, enjoy the art, or just space out. Despite the fact there were likely over three thousand people in attendance, you never felt overwhelmed by the sheer number of people. It certainly helped that the audience seemed slightly older; people weren’t as interested in elbowing their way to the front or jockeying for position. They were also superbly dressed and stylish, and I was hardly surprised when I saw that Hennessy and Adidas were the two principal named sponsors – both brands were savvy enough to recognize that this target audience was exactly their kind of ‘cool’. It was the intersection of fun, respect for personal space, and civility, all in amazing contrast to previous experiences at festivals in the U.S. And all for 600 pesos, or approximately US$30, per night.
It’s worth acknowledging that the programming at MUTEK generally attracts a more mature audience (late 20s to early 30s) – or at least one with more sophisticated (read: obscure) taste in music and art. Generally speaking most of the billed acts were names I’d heard in passing but wasn’t particularly familiar with, although I seemed to be in the minority given the raucous reception most received during their sets. Mexico’s AAAA and Itaro Yasuda from Japan performed Anaesthesia, an hour long live audiovisual set that was closer to an electronic séance than anything you’d dance to at Flash; Berlin-by-way-of-San Francisco producer Avalon Emerson mixed a sparkling two hours as the massive, multi-tiered 4K screen behind her projected lights and visuals that overwhelmed all of your senses; composer and digital artist Myriam Bleau launched lanterns embedded with motion sensors about an inch from my head and used the projectiles to create a one-of-a-kind soundscape performance. And yeah, it was fucking cool.
Each of the three stages was expertly curated: Stage A generally featured the more mainstream performers and biggest production values, while Stage B showcased artists performing a lot of avant-garde music that constantly challenged listeners. Stage C – where the aforementioned lantern was hurled at my giant face – was built under a makeshift tent and was home to the quirkiest left-field performances that didn’t really make sense in larger spaces. This room could only hold about one hundred people at a time, and performances were quasi-mystical in nature: fleeting, mercurial, and surreal.
Finally, a word on safety and organization: I’m certain many eyes widened when I mentioned the fact that MUTEK.mx takes place all over Mexico City, and even more so when reading that the Nocturnos take place 45 minutes outside of the friendly confines of the city center; some people in our group expressed their reservations prior to arriving. Reassuringly, from the moment we arrived it was clear the festival organizers are seasoned veterans who take everyone’s safety and security very seriously. (For the first time in my life) I was happy to see a reasonable amount of police and emergency services present outside and in the vicinity of the venue. However, what most impressed me was the fact that throughout the evening I did not see a single person in distress or receiving emergency medical attention; in fact, I don’t think I saw police or security harassing anyone inside the venue either. It was a case of an audience having a good time without ever going overboard. Drink and food purchases were done by loading credits onto a chip on your festival wristband, and lines for food, bars, art installations, or porte-potties all moved with remarkable efficiency. This was without a doubt the best organized music festival I have been to yet.
The truth is that there’s so much more to Mexico City – one of the planet’s true megalopolises – and the city’s homegrown art scene stands at the global epicenter of the avant-garde and the daring. As such, it should be no surprise that a city with over 20 million inhabitants can pull off a festival of this caliber. On the basis of this evidence, there’s quite a lot we can learn from our friends in Mexico City. I’ll definitely be back at MUTEK.mx in the near future.