Interview with MUTEK curator, Patti Schmidt

Patti Schmidt is one of 3 programmers for MUTEK Montreal, a nonprofit international electronic music festival that happens every year in cities around the world including Montreal, Mexico City, Barcelona and Bogota. She helps decide the artistic content and also works in English communications and as editorial manager for the festival, as it serves a large international audience and following. She is a strong voice for equal representation and has been an advocate for female artists in particular. I got a chance to speak with her in person about her career in the music industry, the process of curation for MUTEK, and the politics surrounding raising the visibility of female electronic artists. Please join us for this in depth conversation with a knowledgeable spokesperson who has throughout her career had the chance to develop quite a bit of insight on the inner workings of the electronic music industry.

Would you talk a bit about your work in the underground music community before MUTEK?

I started my career in music officially in 1991 when I did college radio at McGill University for a few years. Then, I got the best job in the whole world– I was programming music for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation national radio program, Brave New Waves which I worked on for 17 years. The show was 5 nights a week, 4 hours a night, and we would deal with a selection of indie rock, and a lot of electronic music, which became a real staple of the show, and also include all kinds of genres from noise to free jazz to sound art, metal….
Alain Mongeau, who started MUTEK in 2000, had been doing a thing called The Media Lounge for 5 years before which was an element of a new media film festival here in Montreal, so he was bringing Richie Hawtin in the late 90s and Thomas Brinkmann, trying to present this new form of digital creation on laptops, which were just becoming standard new instruments. I was collaborating with him back in the 90s as well, recording concerts and doing interviews with artists and things. He would often at the beginning of every festival cycle (when he started MUTEK), reach out to people in the community and ask for recommendations of what would be good to see in the program, and so he would consult with me and others. I started working in the programming group for MUTEK in 2008/9.

What is the curation process for the festival, and how do you go about finding new artists?

Everyone brings big lists. I probably bring the biggest list to the table and we usually start in August or so. We’ve started to make lists even now (in May) for things. There’s a lot of agent pitching that goes on, and then personal records and artists we like, and what we see. So there’s a lot of work going to other festivals, because live performance is a crucial component of the MUTEK mandate. What we are concerned about is how does this artist work in a live context? What is the actual live setup? Is it a good performance? Does it have some charisma? Those are some of the criteria we use to sort who we choose.

Do you look for people who use certain types of gear, or does that even matter?

It doesn’t matter. With a lot of sound artists it’s playback, but they are manipulating what’s happening live and the sound system is its own instrument, and so that’s ok. With audiovisual art in particular we have a particular criteria for what we define as “live” AV work. There needs to be an almost genetic code connection between the sound and the visuals. So it can’t just be someone’s music with an accompanying visual. It can’t be just ‘oh here’s my VJ’. There needs to be a real genetic link between the two functions for us to qualify that as an audiovisual work, and then it needs to unfold in realtime and have elements of immediate and present reactivity and performance to it.

I would like to talk about the politics surrounding the festival, and a bit about female artists in particular. I notice this year, that there is more female presence comparably to years past. But, what do you think accounts for the ongoing lack of female presence in this and other electronic music festivals around the world? Do you think that’s changing at all?

I don’t think that’s changing. There was an opportunity to put together a panel at this year’s festival that some very preliminary talks started on, and it’s sort of like just how we finished listening to the Karen Gwyer interview, where it’s just — well you can’t really put your finger on what the actual problem is, and I’ve just been saying that I feel like I’ve been on that [female] panel my entire life. And that there’s no way to solve it.
And with the guys who I program with, I am very harpy about female artist presence, and I prepare lists that are female artists and would like for us to have a policy that you know, if it’s not a full affirmative action 50% — that it’s not hard to find one woman to put on each major paying program. I don’t see why that is so difficult to do. We don’t have a policy. It’s a very difficult discussion to have. I think they get really fatigued by my constant harping about this. I look for articles and things that I pass around, and one of the things I wanted to say at the end of that Q&A (with Karen Gwyer) today was – and they were all talking around it – but it’s really the same thing, but it concerns an article about publishing, and how many female editors there are. And how many female writers have their pieces published in magazines, and how many books get published. It included a discussion of a sociological study that identifies a phenomenon called in-group dynamics— which is a big thing to unpack… it includes all these unconscious behaviors and organizations of gendered groups. In music and art, it starts with what the gender is of who is in charge of (content) booking the clubs, who runs the labels, who runs the festivals, who are the writers who decide by some consensus who the artists are that are going to be presented. Who hangs out with who? That’s where power is played out. And it’s not always exclusionary by design. It’s based on the subtleties that inform in-group dynamics. And the in-group dynamics in music (and many things) are dominated by guys.
I played hockey in a co-ed league, and I have to say that I got a number of jobs, and a number of things done by being in the dressing room with men. It’s not their fault that they have always had more casual professional networks than women have. And I think that’s what is going on. It’s a very difficult phenomenon to unpack and to change. And it is, what someone was saying, that you have to insert yourself in the process more. I think that you have to make rules and policies. It’s not fair how it is now, and so the argument that it’s not fair to have a policy, just doesn’t hold any water for me.

Right, I agree. Do you think it’s evolving towards that? Especially since the festival is funded in part by government grants, it seems like there should be a policy to make it more equal.

It matters to some funders how you deal with representing female artists and including them. But, it’s not the same criteria as the grants that we get that you need to have. [For example, they care more about] what’s your percentage of francophone artists, what’s your percentage of anglophone artists, what’s your percentage of Canadian artists, and women is not a category. So, maybe it starts at a superstructure level too. I don’t know that it’s changing at all, I feel like its the same. It’s been the same my whole life.

Well, I think it really interesting because like in the late 70s and early 80s there was a whole punk rock era where there was a larger presence of females involved and it seems like that was a great time, and it just kind of dropped off a bit. But now it’s coming back up because it seems like more women are making a concerted effort to work with each other and promote each other. Is it visible to you?

I feel like that’s been going on since the 70s too. I always have this sad/happy split about things like women’s festivals or women’s initiatives, or you know, women-centric production or beat makers workshops or whatever it is. There’s something about the ghetto-ization of that, that I really have an ambivalence towards. Political, and you know… I am a feminist. I am not afraid of that word, and lots of people don’t identify with that. But I don’t think amazing progress has been made at all. I really think it’s just power, and in-group dynamics. The men I work with are lovely men, and I love them. But there is just a ‘whatever, how it is’ kind of thing at play, that I don’t think will change.

In my time running this blog, I’ve had the opportunity to learn about other female artists that I hadn’t known about, a lot of which stemmed from a larger network that I am a part of called Female Pressure. I’m wondering if your group of organizers were to encounter some of these artists, what the likelihood would be of booking them for future festivals?

Well, it’s what is put in front of people. And what is deemed to be good. And there’s all of those structures of agents and festivals and best live performer lists that get shuffled into how a judgement is made. And lots of women don’t participate in the in-group dynamic that the boys have going on, (or get included) and it’s often not super fun even to even try to penetrate that you know? So, separate systems start to develop and that makes me sad. I don’t think that’s how things go forward. I think there’s something about a forced co-ed that forces things to become normalized and then people don’t care about gender anymore. Maybe. Ideally.

Is there anything else that you think would change this disparity?

Other than policy, and some kind of criteria that we would program with…like, there should be at least one woman on each major paying program. And we are doing ok this year in terms of representation, except for the weekend, we fall apart.

I agree that a policy should be set up as well. Maybe the reason it was difficult to follow through with it this year is partly because there are only so many females that are visible and can draw a big crowd, and you know, maybe they have other things going on…

Yeah, but not all the male performers that we program draw a big crowd, so…
On the Tuesday here, there was a digital music symposium that was put together by Oxford University. It was a 5 year study about digital music and mediation and one of the things that came out of that discussion was gender, and the genderedness of certain genres of music. Sound art and things like that tend to have a very high representation of women who participate in that, but music, which is another category, tends to be very male dominated. And so, there’s that. There were other numbers that they collected: enrollment in schools for sound and technology courses — and the percentages were crazy in music. It was something like only 18% women. In sound art and more arty pursuits (classified as a different genre and ie. ‘not music’) stats were reversed. So, there’s those things that are going on as well. Also, what Karen Gwyer was saying about how approachable music is, and how women just give up before they even start. Because there’s no in-group dynamic to go to.

Yeah, I thought it was interesting what she said about women being too responsible to just like take the time to get a drum machine and start messing with it, and take the time to explore their own creative process. That really stuck out, and I think that’s true. But, I also see that there are more women jumping on board, and doing the work, so I think its just going to take time.

Yeah, maybe its about the democratization of the tools too. There’s an accessibility to technology now, and there’s a whole generation who are not technophobic, because their entire lives are computer based, with interfaces, and all of these things that used to be associated with this idea of female technophobia or whatever… I think maybe that’s one of the things that’s changing. Maybe that’s where the opening will be.

I think that will be part of it. My last question is, what is on the horizon for you, and will you continue to work with MUTEK?

For the foreseeable future, yes. The other issue with me is that I’m going to be 47 next week, and there’s something about working in youth culture that always challenges your own sense of credibility and relevancy. But, in many ways I feel like I’ve become a much better programmer and evaluator. I think there’s some objective criteria that I have more confidence in expressing when it comes to programming things and being able to choose which artists have whatever that thing is and helping to cultivate them. I would be sad to have to leave that. So we’ll see how that evolves.

I would hope you continue this kind of work. Is there a chance you would work with other festivals to help them curate or program?

I have a very interesting opportunity with BANFF Centre. They have always been a very innovating centre, but their music programs have mostly been based on classical and jazz. They’ve started an indie rock program recently, and now want to delve into electronic music and audiovisual arts residencies.
The nice thing about this is that the new new vice president of arts at BANFF is a former colleague and executive of mine from CBC who I had a very good relationship with, and she knows all of my particular quirks and my beating the drum about electronic music, and how this is the contemporary progressive form. The CBC was always very afraid of it and they didn’t like it, and it doesn’t exist at all in their repertoire of programming. They don’t know how to deal with the whole genre of electronic music. So on her recommendation, I’m going to be the Artistic Director of this pilot program and I can’t wait. This is an extremely interesting opportunity that I really feel like I can contribute to.

Yeah, that’s awesome! I’m glad to hear you are moving into some broader territory using your skills and experience. Well, thank you so much for talking with me. I really appreciate it!

Thank you!