All Kyd Up and Everywhere To Go
Meet CMKY: technologically inspired, geographically isolated, experientially oriented, community based, eco-conscious, volunteer run, internationally networked and on the move
Patti Schmidt - May 05, 2010
The third edition of the Boulder based festival of electronic arts, Communikey, wrapped up April 18th, breaking all previous attendance records. A human scale festival held in an amazing locale, this year featured 19 different events running over 5 days and nights across 6 venues, including a planetarium - replete with workshops, a kids program, concerts, club nights and outdoor events. The festival balanced programming that cut across genres, like the samples and songs of the Books and the bio-interactive music of the Lucky Dragons, with the latest club sounds served by Brooklyn techno house, The Bunker, and a selection of new media art, including Tesla coil wielding duo Artificiel, from Montreal, in a program styled and named after MUTEK's A/Visions series.
Festival director Kate Lesta is currently on the road with the ViceVerse tour, a cultural exchange of artists put together by CMKY and Belgrade, Serbia’s Dis-Patch festival. Snaking across the continent in a 40-foot bus, the tour will visit 15 cities and feature more than 30 artists. The European leg begins right after the 9th edition of Dis-patch in mid-October, and will continue throughout Slovenia, Croatia, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey. The bus pulls up in Montreal June 5, when WOO+INCREDIBLE BOB, D NUMBERS, SMIRK , KONQUE , and ATTENTAT take over the Savoy room.
Talking to festival director Kate Lesta by Skype from San Francisco, where she was installed at the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts for three days of workshops, performances, parties and a kids program, she is positively sanguine about her next five weeks on the road with the Dis-Patch/CMKY ViceVerse tour. All of this is made more astonishing when you consider her recent schedule. The tour left Colorado right after the latest edition of CMKY, not a trifling event to mount. Just weeks before, she was helping coordinate the Unsound Festival in NYC, while also preparing for a months long curatorial job at the Denver Biennial in July. She is a perpetual motion machine, a poly festival force. She’s been all over Europe in the last couple of years, involved in several transnational collaborations and initiatives and she’s a founding member of a network of non-profit, electronic art and music festivals called ICAS (International Cities of Advanced Sound). These connections and networks are charged and humming, providing a lot of the power behind her recent endeavours. The seemingly incongruous cultural exchange between Belgrade and Boulder, at the heart of the ViceVerse project, actually had its genesis in Montréal at the inaugural meeting of the ICAS network, two years ago. “This collaboration happened because Alain (Mongeau, the director of MUTEK) created a think tank and put me and Relja (Bobic, the director of Dis-Patch) in the same room,” explains Lesta. “So, it’s entirely his fault! There’s no way in hell we would have met without that.”
Dedicated to promoting new media, experimental and electronic music culture to new regions and audiences, ICAS member organizations have been incredibly cooperative and proactive with each other. Lesta was embroiled in another recent trans-cultural, festival based undertaking, when Polish festival Unsound set up in New York this past February for 10 days of performances. A massive undertaking, it combined the curatorial personalities of the Krakow festival with Brooklyn and Manhattan based performance venues and programmers, notably, Bryan Kasenic and The Bunker. “I love working for other festivals, which is both a handicap of mine, a flaw and attribute," she laughs. "It was really exciting to be part of bringing Unsound to NY. Working in NY can be very difficult - it’s hard to break in there. And I’m excited to see it keep going. NY needs it. And there is a lot of incredible talent coming out of Eastern Europe that desires and deserves exposure. Mat Schulz (director of Unsound), is such an international liaison – an Australian writer living in Krakow producing a festival in NY full of Polish artists – like, what a weirdo!”
At first glance, Boulder, Colorado looks like a weirdo headquarters for a festival of contemporary electronic music and arts. Smack dab in the centre of America, it’s quite a bit off the usual route for international techno artists and national touring circuits, and outside the regular spheres of influence for new technology and art practice. Part of the former Wild West, the town is nestled at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, almost one mile above sea level, forged by the rugged spirit that characterises the American frontier. A haven for outdoor enthusiasts and the health conscious, it is as much about body as brains these days - home to the University of Colorado and a healthy share of powerhouse academics and artists.
It was this milieu that encouraged Lesta to start putting on events with a decidedly contemporary electronic music bent: “This kind of music has been in our blood, our community in Colorado, for many years - from a background in underground raves and parties in the woods. So much about the exploratory nature of music and art is happening in electronic music culture. There’s really so much innovation.”
CMKY parties and new media events started in winter 2004. Soon after, this group of organizers went to Montréal, and MUTEK, then one of the few electronic and digitally oriented festivals established in North America. “It was a beacon to us,” says Lesta, “this light at the end of tunnel, proving it was possible for these types of events and projects to manifest in North America where it’s so thin, otherwise. It really sparked us and gave us fuel to go home and bring Communikey forth.”
By 2007, the collective were ready to take things to that proverbial ‘next level’. Many thought the initiative seemed ludicrous. She recalls, “when I said to people, we’re going to do a festival, they were like, you’re out of your mind - it’s small, culturally isolated - how can we pull this off, who’s going to come? It was very much like wearing a blindfold and stepping off a cliff, none of us really knew.”
The first festival went off in April 2008. Even with big city Denver, only an hour away, Communikey is the only event of its kind in the area, and draws people from the surrounding regions. They now have regular pilgrims from Seattle, Portland, New York, Tijuana and Santa Fe, not to mention the international connections and relationships that have been established, connecting CMKY to the global circuit. While she remembers the first year as surreal, and like “one leg was shorter than the other,” this year, she feels they are hitting their stride. Lesta explains they looked for bookings with a capacity to “speak to different ears, and focussed on the space between different genres and ideas of music – specifically the kind of DIY indie rock scene that’s very much still flourishing in the US, and of course, the electronic music scene. The way we programmed things was to bring in acts and artists that kind of slipped between the cracks. Then, we wanted to weave these different scenes together.”
Often this means taking risks, putting something in front of people that they’ve never heard of before, or something outside of their regular genre expectations. This year, mad scientist Xavier van Wersch, and the biofeedback, interactive, electro acoustic band the Lucky Dragons, exemplified this approach. “No one in the U.S. knows who Xavier is, and he doesn’t have any draw. That’s not the point. The point is to have something really crazy and challenging and really innovative and interesting.”
Presenting contemporary media arts also requires the ability to conceive and curate outside of the museum or gallery setting, and keep up with ever evolving performance practices. Lesta avoids working with artists who “just throw video up.” For her, they need to be working inside the context of the whole festival, and of the immediate space, which she admits, “has been a hard part of our programming. Those formats are being constantly redefined by new technology way more rapidly than music, in my opinion. Someone is always coming out with say, a way to do intelligent LED instillations or 3D video mapping, there’s new ways all the time.”
Unlike arts organizations and festival in Canada and Europe, Communikey doesn’t have access to nearly the same kind of cultural support and government funding. So, Lesta has developed close ties with the city of Boulder and partnered closely with the University, specifically their Tech Arts and Media, Art and Art History departments.“A lot of the programming we do is put in place specifically for the student body, because they make up such a big part of the community in Boulder. Then, we work closely with a lot of foreign cultural institutions. We’re also an all-volunteer based community organization. The only people who get paid are the artists.”
Lesta's gig as a curator of live programming at the Biennial of the Americas, was not volunteer wok. In putting together bills for the entire month of July, she has drawn again on her transnational contacts and networks to bring the contemporary sights, sounds and creativity of artists from Chile, Mexico, Argentina, Canada and America, to Denver. MUTEK’s director, Alain Mongeau has been instrumental in helping program some of the showcases, since, as Lesta points out, “MUTEK has already done a lot of this ‘bridging the hemispheres’ work in the last ten years.”
Held every year near Earth Day weekend, the other distinct feature of the festival is the twin commitment to technology-based lifestyle and the evironment. This year, zero waste programs were set up at all the venues, while bio–fuel ran the shuttle buses and outdoor generators, and they offered a free bike rental program. Everything is linked for Lesta. The way we think about creativity and innovation in art and music is related to how we understand and act in our everyday environment. Lesta says it’s all in “the way that we want to do things. Making events accessible, or creating events that are challenging, yet transformative. Showcasing people that no one's ever heard of. These things are not industry standard because they don’t make money. It’s the same way with bio diesel. I’m not saying that its some magic answer, but it wasn’t adopted by the industry because it’s inconvenient to switch over, to modify engines ever so slightly. But mass marketing of music that’s really challenging or experiential? I would like to know what it’s going to take. Where’s the tipping point for electronic music or new media art in the U.S.?
Lesta finds the festival context and construct enormously productive.“A lot of what we’re trying to do is hold space for a lot of generative - and almost in a way - evolutionary processes to happen for people on an individual and on a community scale. What you can do with a festival is create a zone, where you and a group of people very much become a part of -- you are the festival - along with artists, along with the spaces you’re visiting. That begins to take on its own organic form.” Curating in this context becomes a kind of moulding and sculpting activity, a way of designing change by accumulated experience and creating context for new social formations, achievable as much through dancing as multi sensorial or synaesthetic exposure.
This is not the sort of crafted context on offer at a typical rock festival, where familiarity and reassurance are the primary values, nor at any of the larger electronic-centric festivals like Sonar that seem to program everything all at once, in many different places. Lesta agrees, “I’m not interested in festivals where there are a 101 bands - and 5 stages, you just end up being torn. When a program is laid out so that you don’t have overlap, you can really experience it as a group, from start to finish. There’s a narrative that begins to be written in that process. You can see it happen at MUTEK and you can see it happen at Communikey. In the final days of the festival you can see people coalesce and begin to have this ecstatic shared experience, having gone through all these certain ranges of emotions together. I think that’s the goal.” She adds, “that ecstatic moment could last forever. You’ll always remember those times when all of your filters are down and you’ve experienced so much and you’ve done it with all these other people. It really starts to break down our standard perception of time, and what a shared experience can be.”
Lesta also happens to have some other big visions to keep her occupied. Among them: Communikey aims to acquire their own space, to build an international residency centre for new media arts, entirely off the grid. The master plan, is to be “actively working towards creating a sustainable infrastructure for the lifestyles that myself - and all of of the people with whom I share my life want to live. The centre is more like a lifetime goal than the immediate goal. The immediate goal with this tour and the festival - is how do we make them sustainable? Both projects are carbon offset. I’m pretty sure that’s not enough. The footprint on the tour is pretty big and on the festival. But I think the more we look at these things straight in the face, instead of trying to ignore them, the closer we can get to actually creating these symbiotic relationships be tween technology and the planet. I’m fairly confident that we can figure out how to make that work.”
All photos by Sam Campbell (www.arrowthree.com), used with permission.