Saborítmico: A Report From the Dance Floor in Mexico
Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (Mexico)
McMaster University (Canada)
Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (Mexico)
RGGTRN (pronounced reɣɣaeˈtɾon), originally an electroacoustic and mixed music duo founded in 2012 in Mexico City, has evolved into a collective that engages in algorithmic dance music and audiovisual improvisation informed by the Latinx context that revolves around its members. This text is a first effort to document our journey as a nomadic group interested in music such as reggaeton, cumbia sonidera, and tribal. This article discusses: 1) the interaction between the performer, the audience, and the technology; 2) the multiple layers of exclusion that live coding communities exercise towards gender and division of labor within the audiovisual performance; 3) the collective musical culture of the members of RGGTRN, the communities they belong to and for which they perform.
In 2015, we, RGGTRN organized a gig at the hackerspace Rancho Electrónico in Mexico City. This event, which included the participation of TristeTren and Alias616, was our first gig in which we shared the stage with both live coding and non-live coding musicians—Alias616, for example, makes techno with modular synthesizers. This gig was notable for us as a considerable amount of people (around forty) showed up, and most importantly, they had fun. All this gained us an invitation to perform again one year later at the anniversary of this same hackerspace.
When this new gig arrived we noticed that in the lineup we were the only live coders. This party, though, was completely dedicated to dance and was divided into three large stages: one for rock, one for Latin music and a third for DJs and electronica. This gig, then, presented some challenges for us as described as follows. First, there was only one projector available at the venue, making it impossible to project everyone’s code (we were two audio performers and Elihú Garret, a guest visual artist). Secondly, the stage was brightly lit and the projector was set up too close to the wall so Elihú’s visuals passed almost unseen.
As we are neither a live band nor DJs (but something in between), the organizers were not sure which of the three stages to put us on, so we ended performing along with the salsa and cumbia bands. At that time, our performance felt more like a set of songs produced by a traditional live band than a DJ set, however, in this stage—destined to Latin music—the liveness of our music and the fluency of our improvisational techniques were distant from what a Latin band can actually do.
When we arrived at the event—just ten minutes before our performance—people were so engaged with dancing to the rhythm of salsa and cumbia that, of course, they did not want to stop. And there we were, on stage, with computers instead of congas, brass, keyboard and other instruments conventionally associated with tropical music, throwing out patterns that poorly resembled the music they had been dancing a couple minutes ago. Tropical music made with acoustic instruments is usually danced in couples, and while RGGTRN’s music alludes to this style of music, the straightness of our automated beat suggests an individual dancing approach, which, in that occasion, caused discomfort to some people from the audience.
After this party, we started to wonder which would be the traits that distinguish RGGTRN from a live music band and a DJ. In this regard, we think that working with code gives the possibility of expanding the musical thoughts of each member of the collective as we consider that our live coding approach is directly related to an arrangement of experiences that are expressed in our lines of code. These musical thoughts are not fixed in a track but constantly modified and executed according to the flow of the performance and the choices from the performer in turn.
The intentions of each member of RGGTRN is revealed by an individual and deliberate use of their previous experience that ultimately blends into a unified audiovisual improvisation. The results of each set are defined by a mixture of multiple individual contributions. The latter enables us to individually express, experiment, agree and disagree during performance. Each of us code in individual non-shareable IDEs and documents but the interventions of each participant are made explicit in the code projected.
This approach presents some drawbacks as, now and then, the technical possibilities of venues do not permit us having a projector for each one of us (sometimes, there is not even a projector). To agree on turns, ongoing changes, and other details, we use verbal communication. This system of turns allows us to maintain a stream of music with continuous changes and varied personalities.
Each performance serves as a public action where we uncover issues connected to our practice. The relationship between the audio and the video, for example, has generated discussions that transcended the technical and relates to divisions of labor (discussed in the following section). Visuals tend to be relegated to the background, becoming an accessory and are excluded from this space of recognition, agreement and dissent.
In 2016 we began to problematize the relationships between the audiovisual performance and gender. During that time, we were in Colombia collaborating with the Algo0ritmos, a collective based in Medellín, whose activity revolves around the development of code-based musical interfaces and education through creative programming. A workshop and an algorave were carried out in collaboration with them at Platohedro, a Colombian organization focused on culture and education, and whose activities focus on the creative and critical use of software.
During this tour, concerns about gender were raised by the two female members of RGGTRN: Jessica Rodriguez and Marianne Teixido. It was originally intended that Marianne would document the tour and Jessica would make visuals for the algorave in Medellin. Coincidently, Alexandra Cárdenas organized another algorave in Manizales a week later and invited us to play there. She asked under which name we wanted to appear in the flyer, and Jessica answered that we would all appear as RGGTRN—Jessica and Marianne were usually listed as guest artists on flyers. In the end, they both made visuals at Manizales’ algorave.
This sparked several debates about the division of labor in RGGTRN’s performances, and the invisibility of women live coders in Latin America. The main criticism about the division of labor relates to the fact that it is "common" in the Mexican live coding scene to find women coding visuals, and men coding audio. Maybe this situation cannot be applied to other parts of the world, but in Mexico it is the trend from what we have experienced so far. Sometimes the visual artist does not appear on the flyer which implies that their work is less valuable than the work of the audio live coder. In performance, sound can be more dominant than video because it is more pervasive to the senses than image. In an audiovisual performance, sound is everywhere, but visuals are often limited to a fixed space. If you want to watch the visuals you have to face towards the projection screen and if you close your eyes or look to another place the visuals lose their importance. The predominance of the sound over the video is a manifestation of these gendered power relations established under a mutual, silent and harmful consensus.
A few months ago, Marianne interviewed the Mexican live coder Malitzin Cortés regarding her participation at Mutek MX 2017. She mentions the difficulties experienced as a female audio performer where people, most of the time, assume she is a visual artist. She recounts that when she arrives at soundchecks and starts setting up, people often ask surprised: "Do you play music? Really?" (Teixido 2017). Despite these barriers, Malitzin has gained space in this practice and is, along with Libertad Figueroa, now one of the Mexican live coders with most international recognition.
These hierarchies also play out in where the visual artist is able to locate themself. Venues usually have little or no accommodations that guarantee the technical conditions for visuals to happen. Usually, the projector is far from the stage and because HDMI or VGA cables are often short, the visual artist is forced to position themself near to the projector and therefore, away from the stage. Although sometimes not being visible on the stage is the visual artist’s decision, the absence of the minimum technical requirements does not leave room for that choice to exist. The visual artist, then, is often off-stage, displaced to the periphery of the performance space and less visible.
This lack of visibility of video performers (usually assumed to be women) replicates women's struggle for visibility in the field of music technology. Despite an active participation of women in the creation, interpretation and development of electronic music, often male names are the ones that survive in archives and historical retellings. An example of this is the documentary I Dream of Wires (Fantinatto and Amm 2014), which retells the story of electronic music and the synthesizer. However, it omits the names of the women like Suzanne Ciani, Laurie Spiegel, Joan Tower, Ellen Dale Lerner, Bebe Barron, Else Marie Pade, Pauline Oliveros, Delia Derbyshire, Alice Shields, Eliane Radigue, Micheline Coulombe Saint-Marcoux, Ruth White, Daphne Oram, among others, who collaborated actively in the process that the filmmakers intend to document. The invisibility of women in the history of electronic music also extends to live coding practice to some extent in Latin America in terms of live performance and software development.
Discussions around visibility, struggle for space, and reconfiguration of the division of labor are important in Latin America. The challenge is to consider the decolonial feminist perspective within the electronic art, particularly, in live coding. It is necessary to start looking to women live coders from Latin America such as Libertad Figueroa, Daniela Moreno Wray, Viviana Ramírez, Mitzi Olvera, Karina Álvarez, Olivia Jack, Valerie Rejas, Malitzin Cortés, and Karen del Valle. It is also important to promote the appropriation of live coding and other art-oriented technologies among Latin American women to foster their sorority ties and individual expression, increase their access to computer technologies, and promote technological self-defense in order to counter a strongly macho and violent Latinx society.
The work that Joanne Armitage, Norah Lorway, Alexandra Cárdenas, Shelly Knotts and Miri Kat (Bolt 2017) have done to achieve visibility within the live coding scene is very important. Nevertheless, alongside the gender perspective, we should also consider other factors of exclusion and invisibilization including geographical location, language and economic and sociocultural status; we should be aware that these intersect, generating barriers of double or multiple exclusion.
RGGTRN—formerly known as ~ON—was born in 2013 as an audiovisual duo at the National Center for the Arts in Mexico City. Being born within this institution and influenced by its music traditions led RGGTRN’s first performances to happen inside a scene dominated by contemporary, electroacoustic, and acousmatic music. At that time we had some uncertainty as to what type of music and visuals the duo should make in order to fit into the niche of live coding—we thought that live coding was all about contemporary music and abstract visuals. Moreover, we were wondering if contemporary music was the real goal of live coding and dance music a side effect of it.
Although, in 2012, the duo played a set of dance-ish dubstep music at the symposium of music and code /*Vivo*/, it was not until 2015 that we decided to experiment with dance music influenced by tribal-guarachero and reggaetón. One year before, nevertheless, we made a small tour in Europe. In Bilbao, after our first gig, a couple of drinks, and some jokes, we proposed to the other people who had performed to continue partying at a reggaeton dance club located nearby. Thor Magnusson, a live coder, tired, commented that he did not feel like dancing "reggeatron" and went back to his hotel followed by the rest of the performers. This fortunate mispronunciation (i.e. "reggaeton" with an "r" inbetween the "t" and the "o") in addition to our new interest in making electronic music informed by Latin dance genres, gave birth to the current name of the collective.
We think that the name of the collective represents some kind of glitch that happens when translating words and practices from one language, culture, or environment to another. For us, this glitch that is multidirectional and both positive and negative, presents constantly to us in different ways when composing and performing with English-derived programming languages like SuperCollider. Examples of these include misunderstanding functions, mistranslating and transliterating concepts and appropriating inbuilt sounds and synthesizers, among others. All of these makes us feel a bit of discomfort during the process of composition and result in musical hybridization and sometimes just musical assimilation.
Tribal was one of the first genres we addressed with a great welcoming from close friends and members of the live coding community. In 2016 we began to explore other Latin American musical genres such as cumbia sonidera which we performed in some algorave gigs in the UK with good success too. However, when we share, through social networks, RGGTRN’s cumbias to Mexican colleagues trained in academic music, their response is always a laughing emoji. This little laughing face, without any further feedback, conveys to us that the music made by the collective is not considered serious.
As a collective, we have observed a strong division between classical and popular music that is very explicit in Mexico City’s music scene. Moreover, classical is the most valued music, followed by genres like jazz, rock and techno, leaving Mexican styles almost at the very bottom. Mexican music genres such as Banda, Huapango and Son are persistently heard in the streets, on public transportation, at parties, bars and clubs. We, as Mexicans, are immersed in this type of music, we know how to dance it—at least the basic steps. It is part of our collective musical culture and it is associated with the festive character of the country.
Genres often heard at algoraves in Mexico include techno, breakcore, noise and experimental. On the other hand, electronic cumbia, nortech, tribal, nopal beat and other genres influenced by Latin folk music, commonly heard in the music scene in Mexico City, Tijuana, Guadalajara and Monterrey are rarely performed in algoraves. The aforementioned genres are more often explored through more traditional electronic tools such as DAWs and midi controllers. However, their exploration through code is interesting, as managing lines of text that represent sections of instruments that are orchestrated and have frequent fills represent compositional and interpretive challenges. This exploratory work has already begun in Mexico with MicoRex who use live coding techniques to compose, interpret and merge styles like Mexican bolero with electronic music.
As members of RGGTRN, we continue seeking to reaffirm our own algorithmic musical style, prioritizing Mexican and Latin American culture. In our exploration, we have found that problematics described by sound, image and software are representative of day-to-day aspects of Mexican society, namely women frequently constrained by assumptions of a lack of knowledge and expertise, a persistent devaluation of the country’s culture(s) and an intent of neocolonialization through foreign cultural products.
Our critique of the division of labor emerged from an observation of how we were approaching our work within the collective. Now that we are aware of issues regarding gender and visibility, we have started to revise our workflow and inter-group dynamics so to minimize inherent hierarchies within them. One way to do this is by making all of us equally responsible for RGGTRN’s intellectual and aesthetic direction. RGGTRN is an exercise in displacement with respect to the way we approach technology and its possible uses and looks to create a type of distortion/noise/dissent in counterpoint to the music usually heard in algoraves.
Stephanie Marianne Teixido Guzmán. From Mexico City, currently a student of Communication at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México specializing in audiovisual production. Her interests intersect with visual arts, live coding, performance, video art, mapping, experimental photography and live cinema. She collaborates with the "Images in Motion" department of the National Center for Arts (Mexico), the collective Chipotle, the experimental film collective La Ruina (Im)producciones, and she makes photographic essays on the alternative Mexican music scenes for the online magazines.
Emilio Ocelotl Reyes. From Mexico City, currently an MA Candidate in Music Technology at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. His interests are sociology, live coding, computer music, sound and interactivity. In 2013 and 2016 he was awarded a "Young Composers" scholarship from the Mexican Center for Sonic Arts (CMMAS) (Morelia, Michoacán, México). He is a member of the LiveCodeNet ensemble and the collective RGGTRN.
Luis N. Del Angel. From Mexico City, currently a PhD Candidate in Communication, New Media, and Cultural Studies at McMaster University, Canada. His research intersects with live coding, metacreation and software studies. From 2010 to 2013 he worked at the National Center for the Arts (Mexico) exploring live coding and Free/Libre and Open Source Software. He is a member of the live coding collective RGGTRN (Mexico) and the laptop ensemble the Cybernetic Orchestra (Canada).
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Paz, Vic. 2016. "A Look at the Latin American Influence in World Electronic Music: Exporting Traditional Sounds Ready for Fusion". Vice, October 4. <https://thump.vice.com/es_mx/article/vv8nz8/una-mirada-a-la-influencia-latinoamericana-en-la-musica-electronica-mundial> (accessed 4 November 2018).
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< https://www.imdb.com/title/tt3636334/> (Accessed 08 November 2018).
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<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kcynINPuuGY> (Accessed 23 July 2018).
 RGGTRN is Jessica Rodríguez, Emilio Ocelotl, Marianne Teixido and Luis Navarro Del Angel.
 The National Centre for the Arts hosts the Escuela Superior de Musica, which is a public music school focused on teaching both academic music and jazz music.
 Tribal-guarachero is a music style from center and north Mexico, and Reggaeton is a music style from Puerto Rico.
 Cumbia sonidera is a Mexican music style derived from Colombian Cumbia and the DJ culture. See <https://algorave.com/about/>
 For more information on these genres, see Paz (2016) and Stephens (2013).