Mutek moves in with Montreal’s Society for Arts and Technology
Robyn Fadden - May 12, 2011
In its 15 years of building stronger ties between what might often seem like separate communities, Montreal’s Society for Arts and Technology now has a physical space where the digital, the virtual, the intellectual and the creative are truly free to roam. The renovated SAT building in downtown Montreal – its pièce de résistance, a 15-metre-high multimedia dome called the Satosphere – is also MUTEK’s new home, a move that further solidifies the SAT’s commitment to investigating the many ways that art and technology meet and function together. For the SAT, the technical doesn’t dominate the creative and the practical doesn’t stand in the way of the social – they work together in a process of invention and collaboration among researchers and artists in Montreal and much further afield, sharing ideas and knowledge in the pursuit of critical, culturally informed advancement.
Technology, like art, is always somehow connected to the cultural environment it exists in – a reflection, a product, a commentary on who we are, what we need, and why we even need it in the first place. Considering how quick and numerous our advances in digital technologies have been in the past 20 years, it would then seem logical that us flesh-and-blood humans are advancing too. While we’ve yet to sprout USB ports from our foreheads, we do continue to come up with new technological solutions in every field, from communications to space travel, and that technology affects us, just as we affect it. Call it advancement or simply call it change, it’s a complex process, and Montreal’s Society for Arts and Technology, the SAT, investigates it every day.
The SAT is all about asking questions about the complex ways that technology and society intertwine, and then diving right into brave new ways to answer them. Uniquely situated at a crossroads of artistic creation and intellectual rigour – not an artists’ centre and not an academic institution, but with elements of both and a commitment to building community – SAT functions with technology at its core.
“Everything spins around technology,” says SAT co-founder, CEO and Artistic Director, Monique Savoie, referencing both the function of technologies themselves and theories of how technology plays out in our lives. “It determines where the creativity, art, research and collaboration happens. It’s a kind of accelerator.” And while technological innovation is almost by default part of the SAT’s mission, the organization itself remains non-profit. It’s an environment set to spur creativity and research alike.
The concept for SAT began in earnest in 1995, when Savoie and Alain Mongeau (now MUTEK director) co-directed the 6th International Symposium of the Electronic Arts (ISEA95), a conference that began in Holland with a goal to create new, tangible ties between thinkers, organizers, researchers around the world. In Montreal, at a time when email was still nascent and the home computer barely on the verge of becoming ubiquitous, the symposium’s thought-provoking presentations and exhibitions were hosted at conference centres, art galleries, museums and educational centres such as the Biosphere. Savoie and Mongeau wanted to emulate that international exchange paired with city-wide integration of the arts and technology After much discussion, the SAT was created in 1996.
“The arts have always been there when as technology advances, since the beginning of humanity,” says Savoie. “So having this name, the Society for Arts and Technology, made sense because we knew at this time that though we were absolutely within digital culture, maybe in the 23rd century we’d be dealing with the photonic or some other kind of technology – this is a name that can stay alive for a long time.”
Now, 15 years later, Savoie has an even deeper understanding of how technology always changes. “We can see that the young people we’re working with we are what we call the ‘digital native,’ a new crowd, artists who are born with digital technology around them – it’s motivating to work with them. In 1996, we were working with a lot of architects and designers whose work mixed technology in as a tool – it wasn’t so integrated into their lives. This new generation sees the power of technology in media and for democracy, as a way to change the world.”
While many organizations prioritize the experienced professional over the enthusiastic newbie, the digital native is essential to the SAT, which not only offers educational programming in visual arts, audio production and digital interactivity, but total involvement in research and development.
“For us, society is very important – we’re always looking at what is always moving and changing,” says Savoie. “The question for SAT is how we can be a benefit for society, what is our mission in society. We’re here to help crystallize and present what’s happening in Montreal in these artistic and research areas and at the same time to help students when they finish university, give them places to go with their ideas. It’s also where they can decide if they want to be an artist, what fields they’re interested in, whether they want to go back to school for more education in a certain area – it can be a place where they decide the future of their lives. ”
While giving students and emerging professionals the tools to make new projects happen, as well as a supportive community of professionals, not to mention employment fully related to their fields of study, the SAT has formed numerous associations with industry – companies who notice who works there and on what projects. “SAT is kind of an urban hub,” says Savoie. “We have this job of reception and emission.”
From such a position, the SAT’s network of research and project development is also continually expanding. Among its current projects is software, developed with the open-source community, that connects public space to public space via console operating boards, anywhere in the world – part of the SAT’s ongoing work in the area of telepresence. Another project merges the culinary arts with research on applied design and urban and rural networks.
“We don’t see technology as a tool to isolate people,” says Savoie. “We’re using this tool to connect the community and create new environments, new ways to live in a community – the idea is to take the virtual and put that in the real, and the real and put that in the virtual.”
The creation of art and the witnessing of it has always been a way to see the world anew, in a different light, from an angle we hadn’t previously considered. It’s a part of getting a grip, however tenuous, on the world as it changes. Immersive environments, especially what we now call virtual environments, are, if looked at from an artistic perspective, a multi-sensory way to gain perspective on our everyday lives. While it’s true that we are already deeply immersed in the world of the everyday, unlike the proverbial fish who asks what water is, we have the ability to explore our environment from different perspectives, and new ideas often come out of that experience.
The SAT has been working on immersive spaces since its inception. As the centre continually updates its artistic and intellectual consideration of new digital technologies, it made sense that the building the SAT calls home would be due for major renovations – 2010 saw a number of long-discussed plans put into action. The changes made to the building, located on a recently very-much changed block of Saint-Laurent Boulevard, now part of the relatively new Quartier des Spectacles, have effectively made it an urban centre for all things creatively high-tech. New production facilities, more lab space and large, customizable performance areas are among the changes, but perhaps the most lauded and most obvious addition is the Satosphere, a 15-metre-high, 18-metre-diametre dome on the building’s top floor. Equipped with eight video projectors and 157 speakers, the floor-to-sky Satosphere, designed by Luc Courchesne, director of the school of industrial design at the Université de Montréal and a SAT co-founder, offers a fascinating new immersive landscape.
“We’ve created this new space because the SAT is a playground to explore how to be in touch with content,” says Savoie. “The cinema started as an installation, a proposal of how to be in touch with content – a screen, chairs in front of it – and we’ve stayed with it for a 100 years. We asked ourselves how we could create an immersive environment to invite the public in and build community through.”
The Satosphere, which opens later this year, is an idea that began in 2002 (Savoie has the sketches to prove it), also required the development of new software, once again earning the SAT its standing as a “living laboratory,” where tools are created alongside artists exploring ways to express themselves in the Satosphere space.
“Because we are working with artists, who want to create life, we developed the software for them to do that with the specifics for the 360-degree screen,” says Savoie. “We developed tools in a pipeline of production, so they could use the tools they know and therefore make it simpler to produce for the Satosphere – we also teach people how to use new software, of course.” By the end of the year, 24 video artists and 24 audio engineers will know the ins and outs of this new technology an artistic medium.
“It’s a new level of immersion,” says Savoie. “When you are in touch with content, you’re in the middle of the experience, in touch with your entire body. For me, just having two stacks of speakers on either side of an audience doesn’t do enough with sound in space. The Satosphere is a new space for sound.”
“The association between MUTEK and SAT is about creating a centre for collaboration between Quebec and international artists,” says Savoie. “The SAT wants to commission 12 new pieces a year and at the same time, we want to create a school for creating work in this [Satosphere] format, a repertory to go along with the live performances. For Mutek, out of our 15-year collaboration, we’d like to see an international symposium on immersion, where content developed here has access to circuit around the world.”
So while popular understandings of art, even in our increasingly digital society, don’t often consider the role of technology of the fast-paced, high-tech sort, the SAT continues to push the boundaries of art and technology alike. What artists, researchers and engineers involved with SAT projects have shown over the years is that not only are those boundaries extremely fluid, but that art and technology are inseparable.
Robyn Fadden is into the wholly physical experience of sound, but also just simply listens to music sometimes, or dances to it. It's a good thing she lives in Montréal then, where she also writes (and maybe thinks too much) about art, culture, music, science and the intersections between them all.