Montreal’s Flourishing Cyberculture

Decades in the making, the francophile city is capturing the attention of the art and technology worlds.

Buckminster Fuller’s Biosphere (Photo: courtesy Naquib Hossain).

When Buckminster Fuller erected a massive geodesic dome, dubbed Biosphere, for the United States’ pavilion at the 1967 World Exposition in Montreal, it marked a watershed moment for the cross pollination of architecture, art, and technology. More than 50 years later, the dome’s legacy lives on in the Francophonic city that sits on the bleeding edge of new-medium arts. Bolstered by world-class institutions, artist-friendly government policies, and a thriving electronic music scene, Montreal has emerged as one of the global leaders in digital creativity.

Mexico City–born Rafael Lozano-Hemmer is one of the many new-media artists who have made Montreal home. His large-scale interactive projects have transformed New York City’s Park Avenue Tunnel into a giant microphone (“Voice Tunnel”), dotted the Abu Dhabi skyline with a series of heartbeat-powered signals (“Pulse Corniche”), and facilitated a globetrotting digital flash mob (“Body Movies”). It was Fuller’s Biosphere, along with a multidisciplinarity ecosystem, that first inspired Hemmer to relocate to Montreal. “It’s the city where animation and immersion were perfected in the pioneering works of the National Film Board,” he says. “The music scene is powerful. [Jazz legend] Oscar Peterson grew up here, as well as masters of electro-acoustic and contemporary classical music, jazz, electronic, pop, noise, and sound art.” Homegrown tech-influenced musicians, from Stars and Grimes to Tim Hecker to experimental collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor, marshal what is considered to be a mecca of electronic music, as seen by the perennially packed calendar of digital festivals (Mutek, Elektra) and art spaces (Arsenal, Phi Centre) hosting experimental performances.

French-Japanese audiovisual performance duo Nonotak at Mutek (Photo: Trung Dung Nguyen).
Also at Mutek, artist Myriam Bleau created four spinning tops with sensors that capture motion data and trigger sound algorithms in “Soft Revolvers.” (Photo: Trung Dung Nguyen).

Cyberculture is propped up by the institutional pillars ingrained into the social fabric. The Société des Arts Technologiques is a celebrated school, event space, and platform for multimedia artists. Its Satosphere theater has hosted works such as “liquid architecture,” a collaboration between Wiklow, Diagraf, and Ewerx that projected 3-D buildings and landscapes into a physical environment, and “Hyperform,” an immersive audiovisual experience that blurs the line between digital painting and film. Grants offered by organizations like Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec (CALQ), Conseil des arts de Montréal (CAM), and the Canada Council for the Arts have cultivated rich conditions for smaller incubators such as Studio XX, a feminist, artist-run center that provides resources, studio space and equipment, and technical training to up-and-coming LGBTQ and gender-nonconforming artists.

Michela Pelusio partnered with video artist Glenn Vervliet on “Spacetime Helix,” a suspended sculptural object animated by light, sound, and touch (Photo: Ashutosh Gupta).

Alain Thibault, the director of Elektra, cites the government’s investment as a central reason for Montreal’s evolution into an art and technology hub. “The policies really helped to create a community of talented artists willing to develop a body of work,” he says. Ying Gao, a fashion designer known for interactive garments that respond to external stimuli, credits the city’s progressive attitudes with helping her to press beyond conventional boundaries. “Montreal gave me the freedom to think and experiment,” she says. Bucky would be proud.

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s “1984x1984” is a grid of thousands of random numbers extracted from addresses photographed by Google Street View (Photo: Franz Wamhof).
Experimental electronics artist Rehab Hazgui working on a piece during her residency at Perte de Signal. (Photo: Emylie Bernard)
Ying Gao’s interactive dresses are equipped with eye-tracking technology that is activated by an onlooker’s glance (Photo: Dominique LaFond).
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