With one day left until thousands of locals and out-of-towners descend on VIA, Pittsburgh's most eclectic music and new media festival, co-founders Lauren Goshinski and Quinn Leonowicz are in a state of controlled anxiety. Today's mission: building a club from scratch in the basement-level bank vault of the Union Trust Building—a Gilded Age historical site in downtown Pittsburgh. Come Saturday night, a slew of buzzy acts will fill the pop-up venue for the festival's main event. (THUMP will be livestreaming the whole thing.)
"I love this building," says Goshinski a little breathlessly over the phone. "It's really posh. There's an abandoned department store that we're turning into a digital art gallery where you can take life drawing classes in Second Life."
For Goshinski and Leonowicz, who founded VIA in 2010, repurposing old buildings for massive dance parties is just one of the many joyful headaches they have to deal with before the weeklong festival begins. Sprawled across odd spaces and local venues across the city, VIA is a many-headed beast—including not just live shows cross the musical spectrum, but also educational conferences, movie screenings, visual art showcases and indie video games.
Since its inception, VIA has has been omnivorous in its tastes. This year's programming pits San Francisco black metal band Deafheaven against Parisian techno producer Bambounou, and Baltimore hardcore punk act Angel Du$t against Balkan gypsy brass band Boban i Marko Markobic Orkestar. Then there's Saturday night's main event, featuring L-Vis 1990 (founder of the ultra-hip London label Night Slugs), queer rapper Zebra Katz (of "Ima Read" fame), Chicago footwork producer Traxman, and our appointed "cunt queen of New York" Cakes Da Killa. Given the weight that VIA places on the visual side of things, experimental video art label Undervolt's A/V showcase is sure to dazzle in spades.
Although they go back and forth a lot, interrupting and prompting each other as they tumble through their thoughts, Goshinski and Leonowicz can agree on their biggest motivation: bringing Pittsburgh's diverse music and art scenes together into a single festival that becomes a highly-visible platform for everyone involved. In this way, they're positioning Pittsburgh as a viable place for more festivals of this sort, while nurturing an environment that will (hopefully) improve the retention rate for younger generations to come.
Before VIA, "there weren't festivals for us"— creative people between the ages of 20 and 35, says Goshinski. "We had big-box shows and great one-off loft parties, but they would never happen again."
Fittingly, 33-year-old Goshinski, a New Jersey native who moved to Pittsburgh for college and never left, met Leonowicz, a 39-year-old New York transplant, at one such party. It was the dead of winter, with three feet of snow on the ground—the perfect occasion for a roller-skating bikini party. "I showed up with a snow suit, a bathing suit underneath, and roller skates," laughs Goshinski. "She introduced herself to me because I'm not very good at that, and we just started arguing about music," continues Leonowicz. "It's been ten years of pretty much that."
The duo says they built their sprawling network, which extends deep into Pittsbugh's music and art scenes, just by going out frequently and "spying" on shows to see what was being done well. "We knew there were a lot of awesome people here, we just needed to figure out how to bring them together," says Leonowicz.
Joining forces with a core team of promoters became the first step—an effective way to tap into what was happening on the bleeding edge locally, nationally and across the borders. "People can come and go, and contribute on whatever level they can at any given time," says Leonowicz.
Even though the festival has received several sponsorships over the years, and frequently partners with institutions like the Carnegie Museum of Art and Carnegie Mellon University's School of Art, VIA remains a grassroots movement. "At the end of the day we're left holding the bill," admits Goshinski.
Regardless, the festival continues to grow with every iteration. This year will mark VIA's first off-shoot in Chicago. "Every year, the carousel of people involved changes, and the format of the festival changes a bit," says Goshinski.
In this way, the festival model stays "sponge-like and elastic"—an important way for them to keep growing as the industry shifts. As for next year—who knows? Maybe they'll completely switch the model up. "It doesn't have to be a completely physical festival," she says. Just as long as they continue to do what they've always done best—"get people connected to cool shit."
Michelle Lhooq is spying on everyone on Twitter - @MichelleLhooq
VIA runs from October 1 to 5, 2014 - get more information here. Plus, enter our contest to win a pair of weekend passes and festival shirts.