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Meet ICAS—The Secret Weapon That's Keeping Independent Festivals Afloat

As experimental festivals proliferate around the world, a cadre of like-minded organizers are helping them keep the party going year after year.

by Greg Scruggs
Nov 4 2015, 6:05pm

Play 2 at Mutek Mexico 2015 (Photo by Esstro9)

What do Pittsburgh, Rio de Janeiro, Berlin, and Krakow all have in common? No, they haven't hosted the Olympics, and they're not known for making delicious sandwiches. These cities are all members of International Cities of Advanced Sound (ICAS), a loose network of curators dedicated keeping smaller, independent festivals alive. ICAS is a secret weapon for the likes of Seattle's Decibel, Montreal's MUTEK, and Rio de Janeiro's Novas Frequências—helping them stay afloat, benefit from each other's work, and keep the party going year after year in a climate that is often less than welcoming.

The network originally started in 2008 as the European Cities of Advanced Sound (ECAS), following the nascent efforts of a handful of festivals to formalize their relationship for the purpose of a European Union funding grant. They were anchored by Berlin's club transmediale (now CTM), the doyen of contemporary weird music and visual arts festivals on the continent that began in 1999.

But kindred spirit MUTEK, which started livening up the Montréal early summer festival scene in 2000, sought to "get ECAS out of its Eurocentrism," according to MUTEK founder and director Alain Mongeau, who felt that there was a global movement afoot. At a 2008 meeting of the minds on the sidelines of that year's MUTEK, a cadre of avant-garde festival organizers hashed out the basics of ICAS as a concerted effort to mutually support like minded events happening in different corners of the world.

The ICAS team at Nexsound Festival 2013 in Kiev (Photo via ICAS)

In a practical sense, the ICAS network is a way for the shoestring organizations behind the world's most cutting-edge festivals to share ideas and information about venues, artists, performance concepts, and anything under the sun. When Krakow's Unsound had trouble with city hall in 2009, the ICAS roster rallied and wrote letters praising the Polish festival, which just wrapped up its 13th year this past month. (Though perhaps another round of letters is in order after a bizarre accusation of Satanism forced the relocation of several Unsound shows.)

Even in music meccas like Montréal and Berlin, Mongeau feels better knowing he has comrades-in-arms across the globe through ICAS.

"In our own environment we can feel a bit isolated, but we're on a mission," he explained in the loft of MUTEK's headquarters off Montréal's bustling St. Laurent Boulevard, where preparing for next year's festival is a year-round endeavor. "[ICAS] created a sense of community and solidarity among festival organizations."

Over in Europe, the high density of clued-in clubbers, hip cities, and cheap travel options has made the continent a veritable paradise for the discerning music fan, underground artist, and visionary festival organizer alike. Europeans make up over two-thirds of the ICAS membership, and have even banded together to secure funding from European Union culture grants for their project SHAPE, which will select 48 musicians annually that will cycle through ICAS's Euro festival circuit to perform, lecture, and give workshops.

Why Can't America Have Nice Things?

On this side of the Atlantic, the scene is admittedly less fervent, though hardly dormant. From its home base in Montréal, MUTEK has helped launch affiliates in Santiago, Mexico City, and Bogotá. Unlike Sónar, a commercial operation also making a big South American run this year, MUTEK is a non-profit entity with an open-source model for using its name. (They've even hosted a Barcelona edition at the invitation of the local music community, who feel increasingly disconnected from the Sónar cash cow.)

Chico Dub is a Brazilian music curator who runs Novas Frequências in Rio, which brings challenging, heady music every December to a city better known for its rough-and-ready funk scene. "The importance of ICAS for us is gigantic," he says. "Allowing exchanges with related international festivals that have already been doing this for years is really significant for the festival."

An ICAS planning board at Mutek Montreal 2008 (Photo via ICAS)

ICAS really flexes its muscles for far-flung affiliates when it lands on native soil. In 2011, a cadre of Euro ICAS members brought some international firepower to Montevideo's SOCO Festival, stacking the lineup with debut performances in the South American country. "The event was a milestone in the Uruguyan scene," says director Martin Craciun. "Never before had so many foreign artists attended a music festival for advanced sounds in Montevideo."

In North America, the festival scene could likewise use a boost. Boulder's Communikey was home to an ICAS invasion à la Montevideo in 2014, but this year held its eighth and final edition. (In a statement this spring, organizers said, "Communikey did not begin with a festival and it will not end with a festival. We wish for Communikey to be an ever-evolving vehicle for our projects and ideas, for individuals to connect, grow, and learn.") New Forms, an affiliated festival in Vancouver, announced this year that it's going on hiatus. While ICAS was "therapeutic" for Decibel founder Sean Horton, who described it as "sort of like a union, a safety in numbers mentality" during a September interview, he just decamped to Los Angeles, leaving the future of Seattle's marquee festival in doubt.

Decibel Festival Stays Defiantly DIY Despite Seattle's Changing Tides

But there are bright spots. Pittsburgh's VIA Festival—which celebrated its sixth edition earlier this month—joined ICAS in 2012, and co-director Lauren Goshinski is enthusiastic. "We needed to talk to our peers," she said. "Being a part of this conversation has been invaluable. It helps us figure out where we fit into the global and national landscape and how we can do our part in supporting forward-thinking artists and audiences." Already, Via has drawn on the ICAS network to pluck artists like Mexico City's NAAFI, a staple at MUTEK MX.

Via has also taken a typical page out of the ICAS playbook by expanding (in its case, to Chicago last year). MUTEK has its aforementioned Latin American editions, Unsound came to Toronto for the first time this year, and Tomorrow's Art is heading to Japan. In Mongeau's estimation, "We cooperate and compete at the same time."

Experimental festivals that take over a city's existing venues predate the recent surge in arena-sized raves and corporate branded campouts. As a result, they are poised to follow the rising tide of electronic music's popularity as they find it sustainable to branch out. "In the same way that electronic music is the soundtrack of globalization, we are now operating on a more transnational level," Mongeau said. "With the network, everyone came to perceive of the world as their playground."