No project in its eclectic portfolio represents the self-described “punks of the internet” at Akufen better than Dada-Data, a digital documentary launched in 2016 around the 100th anniversary of the art movement known as Dada.
Dada arose after World War I as an artistic assault against the national politics and conventional thinking that the disillusioned artists of the movement blamed in part for the war. In a display of aesthetic anarchy, they rearranged images and texts from newspapers, magazines and advertisements to create collages and photomontages. The visual barrage critiqued modern industrialization, including the rise of new technologies even as the artists benefited from advances in photography.
Québec filmmakers and writers Anita Hugi and David Dufresne wanted to create the first documentary in 50 years to celebrate the movement and tapped Montréal-based Akufen for the multilingual, video-free project.
Akufen creative director and partner Bruno Choinière says, “We asked ourselves, ‘If those artists were living today, how would they use the technology available to them? And if they were speaking to our audience, what would they say?’”
What the creative and web development studio answered with has won Akufen a slew of awards, including a Lovie Award, and taken the studio on a recent speaking tour about the project that stopped everywhere from Germany to Tokyo, where it organized a Dada-Data hackathon.
Dada-Data also includes an online “antimuseum;” an extension called Dada Block that replaces internet ads with Dada slogans; and a series of interactive exercises. One of the exercises has only become timelier in recent months; it urges people to “break free from” GAFA, aka the giants of the internet. “Because Google dominates knowledge, Amazon controls merchandise, Facebook keeps tabs, and Apple takes all,” reads the Dada-Data website, where visitors can link their mobile device to a marionette on the screen. (Dada artists also dabbled in experimental theater.)
As they manipulate the marionette, users scroll through a collage of images—like a rotting apple, falling “like” icons, and quotes from the founders of the tech companies that now come off as disturbing and disingenuous. Eventually, the puppet is freed from all four strings, which represent the internet giants. “Long live the open net,” the Dada-Data site declares in victory.
Choinière admits “we felt a little awkward” about taking aim at the internet goliaths, since a collage Akufen made for Dada-Data uses Instagram, which is owned by Facebook. But he notes that Akufen pushed the content through via a fake account of one of its developers, as getting Instagram to approve its API was taking too long. “In a way, we hacked into Instagram,” he says. “We haven’t sold out—we’re still punks.”
“Grown kids” is another way the Akufen partners describe their team, even though the company was incorporated eleven years ago and has a staff of 40. Indeed, there are signs of arrested development in the studio’s 6,000-square-foot office in an old textile and toy company warehouse: Tucked in a back corner of the office are a couple of beanbag chairs and a TV tethered to retro gaming consoles (Nintendo GameCube, Nintendo 64 and Xbox). An office corner is piled with random clutter. A foosball table stands in the middle of the office. And pet dogs roam freely.
This is the only working environment Choinière has known. The son of an ex–art director mom, Sylvie, and fashion photographer Pierre (who has shot campaigns for the likes of Christian Dior and Chevignon over his distinguished career), he’s always had a visual sensibility. “As a kid, I was always trying to go on shoots with my dad,” Choinière says. “Not to see beautiful women, but to see him work with beautiful women and beautiful men.”
While at his CEGEP—an acronym for Collège d’enseignement général et professionnel, Québec’s post-secondary college system—he caught the attention of Guillaume Braun during a portfolio night for design students in 2007. Braun had been an interactive designer at Montréal-based ad agency Sid Lee, which counted Cirque du Soleil among its clients. Braun hadn’t been looking to start an agency. But he needed a structure to help handle all the freelance work he was getting and “to do what I loved without having to report to anyone else.”
Choinière was the first hire Braun made and Akufen’s first employee. “Bruno wasn’t a star; his portfolio was OK, but not crazy. He had an eye for interactivity, and that is what caught my attention,” recalls Braun. “Rare was the designer at the time with digital-native reflexes, especially from designers straight out of school. After our first meeting, I knew we would get along pretty well, and we have been together ever since.”
“He told me, ‘I am going to teach you everything that I know,’” Choinière recalls of being hired. “It was more like the start of a friendship rather than a job.”
Before Akufen became a direct competitor to Montréal ad agencies, it did freelance projects for them, back when agencies saw web work as a sidebar and outsourced it. In between that and goofing around, Akufen focused its exuberance into its own website. Visitors to the first incarnation were greeted with a homepage of its then five staffers (girls and boys) side-by-side at urinals, seemingly relieving themselves simultaneously. A bar across the middle of the screen would track the “loading” progress to 100 percent—but it would never get there, dropping back to 0 percent following the sound of a urinal flushing. Viewers had to search around to find the navigation menu.
Soon, the industry in Montréal was buzzing about Akufen.
Among those who heard the chatter was Hugues Sweeney, head of French-language interactive media production for the National Film Board (NFB) of Canada. Sweeney had been tasked with reinventing the interactive documentary. He hired Akufen to create the web-doc A Journal of Insomnia, which was released in 2013. Akufen is now working on an interactive doc for NFB called Streamers that examines game streaming culture.
The studio also works with documentary filmmakers at the NFB to build online companion pieces to their films. This includes a geolocation web project for 2011’s The Hole Story that immerses the user in the mining cycle. Akufen also created an interactive graphic novel for The Wanted 18. The 2014 stop-motion animation film tells the real-life tale of the Israeli army’s pursuit of eighteen cows that were smuggled in by residents of a Palestinian town to start a small local dairy. Preposterously, the cows had been declared “a threat to the national security of the state of Israel.”
Sweeney says Akufen is “an interesting mix of absolute chaos and absolute order. Their creative process can feel quite chaotic at times—the atmosphere at their office, their process in terms of always taking the least expected path. Even their sense of humor is totally absurd. But they deliver quality production on time and always put in double the effort than expected.”
“Akufen is more than they think they are,” Sweeney adds. “They’ve often said that they’re content packagers rather than content people. But the interaction that people have with web design or an interactive element is part of the content. I feel like we’re getting back to the good ol’ days of ‘the medium is the message.’”
The storytellers behind Dada-Data also rave about Akufen.
“I am amazed and enchanted by their talent and fast pace in executing,” says Dufresne, who has since collaborated with the studio on phonestories.me, which features mobile reality-based stories that he developed. “Akufen always challenged our ideas and pushed our desire for the project even further than we imagined,” Hugi adds.
On a visit to the Akufen office, a large map of downtown London is sprawled out on a table. Replicas of English paraphernalia, including a John Lennon–signed photograph of the Beatles, are pinned to the walls. The agency is in the midst of developing a mobile-device-activated augmented reality experience for an exhibition about London for the Musée de la civilisation in Québec City.
Choinière believes that Akufen’s success has to do with its highly collaborative nature.
“A lot of studios think that the creatives and designers are the ones who conceptualize, and the developers are the doers. That is the biggest mistake,” he says. “When you put the minds of the developer and the creative together, that is when the magic happens. Only this way do we come up with all the possibilities for a project. Dada-Data is an example of something that everyone in the studio helped conceptualize.”
Not every Akufen client is a cultural institution or an arts gure.
Corporate clients have included hockey equipment manufacturer CCM and Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton (RCGT), the largest independent accounting firm in Québec. For the latter, the shop redesigned the firm’s website, creating intuitive navigational pathways based on whether the visitor is a small business owner or the vice president of a big company.
“A lot of people wouldn’t think we’d be behind the RCGT site; but for us, it presented the same exercise as some of the really creative things we do,” says Akufen’s new business lead and partner Eric Hamelin, who joined the company in 2008 from Cirque du Soleil, where he was in charge of licensing. “It is about how we can showcase a product and service in the most innovative way on a site. And what we often do is take what we’ve developed on really creative projects and apply it to our more corporate work.”
So don’t expect the team at Akufen to try and “grow up” anytime soon. They like exactly who they are and the unique position they’ve carved for themselves in the marketplace.
“It’s a funny place,” says Choinière. “We’re one of the biggest web studios in Montréal, but one of the smallest ad agencies pitching against those bigger firms for projects. It works for us.” ca