MUTEK.MX 2016

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  • The most striking thing about MUTEK.MX is its setting. This year, the weeklong festival held its club nights at Casino Metropolitano, a 19th-century palace hidden in Mexico City's Historic District. Their seated audiovisual shows took place at the nearby Teatro De La Ciudad, a neoclassical opera house with a gilded interior, while the closing party filled up the tree-lined plaza outside Museo Tamayo, at the edge of Latin America's largest urban park. The main event, a two-night program that balanced avant-garde electronics with straight-ahead house and techno, was spread across four floors at the sleek new Foto Museo in Cuatro Caminos—just far enough from the city to make as much noise as they wanted. Franco-Ecuadorian producer Nicola Cruz took top billing for the opening night at Casino Metropolitano, pairing rustic South America sounds with tough modern electronics. His foundation of heavy low-end and smart drum programming provided an anchor to all of the flute sounds, plucked strings and easygoing vocals. Mexico City local Me & Myself played live before him, fusing apocalyptic drones with techno and breaks. They were entirely different sets, but they shared a cinematic spaciousness. The two-night program at Foto Museo was impressive simply in terms of scale and production. The main stage—a concrete box with a capacity of maybe 1500—had a big-budget lighting display that was grandiose but not cheesy. It managed to feel more like a massive warehouse party than a stadium show. Rrose was a perfect fit for the stage, matching its size and intensity without resorting to big room tropes. The Field played tougher than you might expect from his albums, serving up hypnotic, muscular techno.
    The smallest stage, reached via the rooftop patio, hosted ambient music in a room lined with cushions. It was at capacity both times I tried to get in, so I spent most of my time in Room B, where the focus was on heavy, leftfield electronics. Swiss singer and producer Aïsha Devi channeled Björk's freewheeling vocal style over high-definition synths and thick sub-bass for one of the standout performances of the week. Imaabs, a Chilean producer and key member of Mexico City's NAAFI crew, played a live/DJ hybrid set that spoke to the strength of the so-called "experimental club" scene. He swerved elegantly between mutant reggaeton, bare-bones grime and a slew of unreleased dubs that defied categorization. MUTEK.MX, with its tendency towards tasteful minimalism and data-heavy art projects, has always had an academic bent, but these sets felt refreshingly visceral. Thursday night's theater show was a mixed bag. The highlight was Japanese dancer and multimedia artist Hiroaki Umeda, whose choreography interacted with projection mapping and abstract computer rhythms. Italian installationist Michela Pelusio, who opened the night, was less impressive. She performed SpaceTime Helix, which consisted of a cable strung from the ceiling to the floor that spun in circles, creating waveform-like shapes. These shapes shifted according to audio tones modulated by Pelusio from a controller. While watching it I was reminded of the iTunes graphic visualizer—a sequence of pretty, colorful shapes with no substance. Similarly, SpaceTime Helix felt like little more than a light show.
    Many music festivals now purport to cover the intersection of music, art and technology. But each of these is its own universe, and programs like this often throw all their weight behind one of them, letting the other two fall by the wayside. MUTEK.MX sometimes came close to treating all three with the rigour they deserve, but more often than not the art and technology aspects felt like a gimmick. Take Pelusio's SpaceTime Helix—without conveying any messages, feelings or truths, it was just technology as a party trick. MUTEK.MX still offered a handful of meaningful musical moments. DeWalta and Mike Shannon's live set at the outdoor closing party was a delight, their bass-heavy minimal house a welcome respite from the darker, more intense programming that made up the rest of the week. Sophisticated and party-rocking, they struck a balance the festival must continue to strive towards if they want to want to hold on to what makes them unique.