Lana del Rabies
Lana del Rabies at New Forms Festival Reylinn McGrath

On Wednesday and Thursday, the fleece-clad Pacific Northwest version of the masters of the universe will gather at the downtown Westin to discuss the future of the Cascadia Innovation Corridor. Coined three years ago to describe the sister city relationship between Seattle and Vancouver, BC, the backers of this concept believe that the two cities in particular, just 140 miles apart but separated by a pesky international border, have a date with destiny to power the so-called innovation economy.

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Indeed, while Silicon Valley is an airplane ride away, Seattle and Vancouver sit at opposite ends of the Salish Sea, so close you could float a bottle of legal cannabis from Elliott Bay to Wreck Beach if you timed the tides right.

The civic and business boosters behind the Cascadia Innovation Corridor believe this proximity of two glimmering metropolises where the mountains meet the sea has untapped potential for entrepreneurship. They envision high-speed rail with expedited border clearance whisking start-up founders from King Street Station to downtown Vancouver in time for morning coffee dates with venture capitalists. In reverse, tech employees fouled by restrictively nativist U.S. immigration policies could live in immigrant-friendly Canada but swoop in for an all hands meeting in South Lake Union or Redmond on a day’s notice. Microsoft already has its Canadian center of operations in fancy Vancouver digs, and Amazon is nipping at its heels with office lease-ups.

Microsoft has put its money where its mouth is, providing funding for a business case study on Cascadia high-speed rail that, at least for now, the Washington and British Columbia legislatures tepidly endorse. (Business studies are a lot cheaper than actually buying up expensive right of way and laying track, mind you.) And the Cascadia Innovation Corridor’s mission to speed up transportation between the two cities has already born fruit: Kenmore Air and Harbour Air, the region’s two seaplane operations, joined up for twice-daily round-trips from Lake Union to Coal Harbour—about as scenic of a shuttle flight as one can imagine.

But while two mayors, a governor, a provincial premier, and a handful of CEOs pat themselves on the back in a hotel conference room this week, I spent the last few days at New Forms Festival, immersed in the other Cascadia innovation corridor, the one that runs on carpools and bus rides to convey artists and musicians between two fervent creative scenes clinging for life amidst the cost-of-living havoc aided and abetted by the business and political elite.

The Vancouver-based New Forms Media Society has been putting on an annual festival of experimental music and new media art for most of the last 20 years. A kindred spirit to Seattle’s Decibel (RIP), which once anchored September in the Pacific Northwest as an annual pilgrimage month for worldwide fans of the experimental electronics, New Forms is now the flagbearer for the Northwest’s urban avant-garde. Simply put, it provides the most exciting programming within a day’s overland journey of Seattle for those seeking a heady mixture of modular synthesizers, immersive sound art installations, raucous DJ sets pushing the boundaries of global club culture, daring live visual projections, soothing ambient soundscapes, and punk-infused performance art. EDM, psytrance, and playawear need to apply.

Via App
Via App at New Forms Festival Reylinn McGrath

Out here on the upper Pacific Rim, we are a remote outpost of a world that orbits around Berlin’s techno temples, New York’s DIY sanctuaries, London’s club concentration, Tokyo’s obsessives for the obscure, and the dense concentration of the European festival circuit. In short, if you make weird electronic music in the Pacific Northwest, you are already out of the loop. A concentration of well-paying gigs, vibrant venues, and what loosely passes for an industry (booking, PR, media) in this obtuse world of uncategorizable subgenres are all geographically distant. In turn, the cascading impacts of vertiginous urban real estate prices are an omnipresent concern. A new venture by Lululemon CEO Chip Wilson booted New Forms out of its longtime home earlier this year—prompting a protest rave in front of his Vancouver mansion—which echoes the recent news about Re-bar’s uncertain future.

Those dynamics make the short distance between Seattle and Vancouver all the more vital for local creatives unwilling to trade Capitol Hill for Kreuzberg, but still looking to connect across scenes, book that first out-of-town gig, and join forces to set up dates for a touring artist. Indeed, hanging out at New Forms was a litany of familiar faces from Emerald City’s electronic underground all having made the trek up I-5 and past the Peace Arch.

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Members of female/trans/non-binary collective TUF were on hand to support their own in the form of CCL, who landed a prestigious role as one of New Forms’ guest directors this year, one of many recent feathers in the hat for a DJ and curator who has contributed immensely to both building a local talent pool and bringing world-class artists to Seattle.

Elsewhere, I spent time with the Kremwerk crew, always keeping a sharp eye and ear out for emerging talent that can fill the confines of our favorite subterranean den. In turn, I passed on tips about our local ambient luminaries to the folks behind Active / Passive, a music showcase on Galiano Island in the Gulf Islands that lie just beyond the San Juans, and learned that one of the modular synth purveyors at Patchwerks is a regular performer in Victoria.

All that economist talk about the power of cities to fuel innovation that you’ll hear this week at the Cascadia Innovation Corridor conference—it’s true. Proximity breeds fortuitous encounters, which benefit app developers and starving artists alike. The problem is when the six-figure salaries of the former crowd out the latter completely. But they don’t have to be mutually exclusive. How to implement agent of change policy, what kind of protections do cultural spaces need, where and how to source more public funding for the arts, what can a sustainable business model look like after the collapse of the music industry? Those are some Cascadian issues worth innovating on.