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Going for the Geek 

Preview: The HTMlles Festival

Picture a cyber geek, and a bespectacled teen or college-aged male is likely to come to mind. But girls can be geeks, too -- and Montreal's HTMlles Festival is doing all it can to help.

The seventh edition of the cyberart fest, May 18-21, presents works by women involving digital technologies. The fest's title is a play on words that combines HTML, the language of the Web, with elle, the French pronoun for "she." This year's theme, "Peripheries and Proximities," is intended to suggest the effects of technology on social relations and lifestyles. HTMlles is an initiative of Studio XX, a feminist art center in Montreal founded in 1996.

At that time, "new technologies were making their rise into the minds and onto the desktops of everybody," says festival co-director Karen Wong. "But there is very much a stereotypical idea that boys are more comfortable with machines and girls aren't."

The first HTMlles Festival was held a year after Studio XX opened, inspired by "the realization that even though all of this new technology was there and was available, it was not available in the same way to men and to women," according to Wong.

The current festival marks the first edition of HTMlles as an international bienniale. It features artists from 10 different countries, with women at the helm of some 30 performances, Web projects, conferences, interactive installations, workshops and concerts.

"There's a range of styles and aesthetics," Wong notes. "It's quite fun."

Constant, a Belgian group of cyber artists, explore "culture, work and the culture of work" with "Cuisine interne keuken." The project is based on 17 questions about personality, history and one's relation to work, Wong explains. "When they put it all together in the database, you get this very beautiful overall impression of how women work, earn their money and live their lives in different spaces in the world. Cultural aspects, like language and political issues, come out." Constant will interview participants in a Montreal workshop to collect more data for their project.

Media artist Michelle Teran offers "Life: A User's Manual," in which she acts as an urban Pied Piper, complete with wireless scanners and TV monitors placed in a grocery shopping cart. In past performances of the work, held in Brussels, Utrecht and Berlin, Teran traipsed about town on a nomadic journey as curious onlookers joined the entourage, or just watched the TVs. "Life: A User's Manual" explores notions of communications, surveillance and social ritual. In Montreal, Teran will begin her live excursion on Friday, May 20, at 7:30 p.m. from Monument-National.

Also on the HTMlles bill, Quebec artist Caroline Martel presents The Phantom of the Operator. Her first full-length film is part sci-fi feature and part documentary composed of vintage industrial films. Shown in atmospheric black and white, the film looks at telephone operators from a bygone era. "Not just 'voices with a smile', they were shooting stars in a universe of infinite progress," a press release says of them. The film had its world premiere at the Toronto Interna-tional Film Festival in 2004 and won the Best Experimental Film prize at the Brooklyn Underground Film Festival this year. The HTMlles screening is its Quebec debut.

The international trio Millefiore Effect presents "Front v3.0," an over-the-top project that garnered boisterous laughs at a recent sneak peek. The premise is simple: What if humans could wear a garment that would respond to the wearer's emotions? Inspired by animals that increase their size when threatened, Millefiore's answer is a wearable suit with inflatable airbags.

In "Front v3.0," we're told that animals, unlike humans, will only fight within their species to gain dominance, never to kill. During a ceremonial combat, the performers' voices growl in alarm, causing their offensive and defensive airbag compartments to inflate. The person with the biggest inflatable suit wins, and nobody gets hurt! This is a total hoot and welcome escapism. The official presentation is May 18 at Monument-National, but visitors can play with the suits throughout the festival.

Susan Kozel and Mesh Performance Practices present "Immanence," a world premiere, commissioned by the festival. Kozel is a Vancouver, British Columbia, artist who combines her degree in philosophy with interactive technologies and dance. "She brings the three of them together," says Wong. "What I really love about this festival is that there are a lot of women like that," she adds. "They are very prolific artistically, but they excel in the sciences, engineering and computer science as well."

Most of the events for HTMlles take place at Monu-ment-National on St-Laurent. Wong notes that the building has an unintended bonus. "We found out it was the first space where the Quebec feminist movement had its roots." Other venues for the festival include La Gallerie Centrale and CDEACF (Centre de documentation sur l'education des adultes et la condition feminine), which offer their own share of feminist history.

By using these spaces, HTMlles aims to map sites specific to women's history and cultural practice. And, perhaps more importantly, Wong says the festival will "speak about and present what women are doing now, today, with technology."

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