VIA Festival Is Booking Some of the World's Most Diverse Lineups Without Trying Too Hard
The founders of Pittsburgh's preeminent celebration of avant art open up about the process of their exciting programming.
A previous instance of VIA's unusual bookings, photo courtesy of the festival.
Pittsburgh's VIA isn't like other music festivals. But even thinking about the Steel City's preeminent celebration of avant garde music, visual, and installation art in that light sorta seems to be missing the point. In bringing together a host of live acts, DJs, artists and technological forward-thinkers together under one roof in their adopted home of Pittsburgh once a year, founders Lauren Goshinski and Quinn Leonowicz are aiming for something grander, more ambitious, if a bit amorphous.
To hear Goshinski and Leonowicz speak of the festival, the very idea of a specific group of people coming together with a specific group of artists in a specific place constitutes an unrepeatable, wholly unique experience—and one to be treated with a level of seriousness. The singularity is there even in the festival's name, as Goshinski points out on a late August phonecall. "[The name suggests that] it's a confluence center," she says. "It's like a coming together of these things and they only happen at a particular time—we don't do the same thing every year, we don't book the same artists every year, and we're not even in the same spot every year."
In truth, few festivals share VIA's dedication to one-of-a-kind experiences. Each October, the festival's organizers build the event from the ground up, at a new location, with a new program of performers and installations. It's a far cry from simply slotting the newest crop of buzzbands and legacy acts into the same desert year after year, and according to Goshinski and Leonowicz, the deliberate unpredictability and constant retooling allows them a sort of creative freedom that many other festivals don't have. That approach also lends itself to bills far more diverse than you often see in mainstream fests, both in genre and in demographics.
Past installments of VIA have featured black metal bands and abstract rappers on the same bill, and this year's showcases some of the more innovative electronic acts going—like Shock Value's Juliana Huxtable, NON's Chino Amobi, and Rabit—alongside needly punks Aye Nako, post-punk icons ESG, and Rakim performing his legendary collaboration with Eric B. Paid in Full, in full. Each year, there's also visual artists that showcase their latest work—which often includes video pieces that are responsive to the music, and this year, counts a salon of VR films games and interactive artworks among its slate. Per Goshinski, they "headline in the same way as musicians do," crafting visual pieces that go beyond the usual LED or graphical displays that most people think constitute "live visuals."
But in addition to all the stylistic hopscotch, VIA has also consistently put together a bill that showcases artists from outside hegemonic, straight, white, male perspectives. It's not part of their branding, or even anything that they consistently bring up in their press, but in their efforts to craft something a little more special than the average fest experience, they've been able to support—both financially and otherwise—voices that are more often marginalized in these contexts. This year alone, more than 50 percent of VIA's lineup identify as female or non-binary. While stats never tell the whole picture, in a festival landscape that overwhelmingly favors cishet male performers, that means something.
Prior to 2016's fest—which runs from October 6-9 at Pittsburgh's Ace Hotel and a number of satellite venues, theaters, and clubs around town—Goshinski and Leonowicz spoke at length with THUMP about the labor of love that is VIA, and how they've been able to book such a diverse fest just by staying true to their own interests. The below interview is comprised of that conversation, as well as some emails traded after the fact, which included an answer credited to both Goshinski and Leonowicz.
THUMP: How do VIA's booking practices differ from that of your average festival?
Quinn Leonowicz: You can't ignore that finances are at the top. There's limitations. We'll never be able to book Frank Ocean or Grimes. The population of Pittsburgh doesn't exist to make that money back.
Lauren Goshinski: We aren't incorporated like a megafest. We aren't owned by one of those massive companies. I wouldn't say that we don't want to have Frank Ocean here—that would be amazing. But that's not something we dream about or try to find crazy ways to make possible. We're kind of bootstrapping it, you know? Your restrictions make you more creative—not having infinite money and infinite possibilities makes you creative.
I think we always put together the program every year based, number one, on the reality of where we live. You know we're speaking to and for and with Pittsburgh. A lot of the bookings we do, it's because most of the artists have never been here before. [So we] take some chances and put a certain program together that maybe challenges Pittsburgh in a certain way. Maybe we can turn people onto something that they don't know.
Lauren, you originally reached out in the context of the gender breakdown piece we ran. Can you guys talk about how you approached booking to solve problems like that?
Leonowicz: The really short answer is that we book stuff that we really like a lot and it happens to be diverse—would you agree with that Lauren? That's kind of the starting point.
Goshinski: Quinn and I said to each other, "It's not hard to book awesome women artists!"
Leonowicz: At the very end [of the booking process], I think we were running the numbers [and realized,] "Oh there's like 65% or 70% not 'white male.'" You don't really have to put a lot of thought into it. I might not be thinking about something on a certain level because I'm a white male, but it's not really that difficult,
Goshinski: I'm hyper-aware of it, just by nature. Bottom line: we're booking artists that we and the people we work with are stoked about. We're not trying to tick boxes. A lot of the artists we care about are dealing with topics—whether it's really explicit or implicit—that are in line with our social and political beliefs.
Leonowicz: When did this conversation become fashionable? No one was getting called out in 2010 like they are now. I think the point is... We're pretty consistent with that and we're proud of it. But we're proud of it afterward, not as it's happening, if that makes sense?
So diversity isn't something that's a part of the conversation early on in the booking process?
Leonowicz: It would be wrong to say diversity—genre, gender, race, economic—isn't constantly part of our conversations. For eight months, we pass a lot of names and potential ideas for lineups by as many people that are willing to talk about it. Those opinions, combined with previous experience, are a huge boost. We don't feel it's our singular place to dictate "diversity," or to use percentages to try and fill gaps.
It needs be natural or it will looked fixed. We try to address issues of representation within the financial capacity that we have; that being said, we sometimes aren't able to meet our goals due to the price tag, or availability. There are a ton of South American or Eastern European producers we'd love to bring out, as well as artists from Africa and Asia. That's four continents. It's a little depressing to think of it that way, but the positive side of being mainly an American festival is owning that and exploring [that] from within, because there is so much work to do for how our own country values artists.
If it's so natural for you all, why do other festivals get things like gender balance so wrong?
Leonowicz: I personally could only guess that it goes back to the makeup of the organization putting it together. Your public-facing persona is going to be a reflection of who you are, and I think we have a really nice wide group of voices here in Pittsburgh that are putting things on.
Goshinski: It's economic. In my mind, what we value, what we put money towards, it's a problem that is systemic, and also a very American problem with how we fund [festivals]. [We have] this bifurcated understanding [of what] music festivals are supposed to be. Music festivals of a certain kind—where you see a ton of artists or you stay up late and get turnt—apparently are supposed to be corporatized. And festivals that get foundation money or get grant money, they're supposed to be very tame and family-oriented and feel-good. VIA is some hybrid beast of all these things. We're almost nobody's child.
There's a lot of other organizations like us, but they're small, and no one can grow and no one can get the money to take chances on booking—just because the economic wheel will just smack you upside the head. I think when you're operating at the super-corporate level, everybody has to answer to somebody. I don't envy people booking at that level, because you've got to make a dollar. But I don't envy us either—not because we're more pure or better than anybody, we're just trying to do things differently, and the economics are really messed up. That's why we have full-time jobs, so we can eat and pay our rent.
All that said, it doesn't seem like a coincidence that in 2016—when so much of the best electronic music is politically motivated—trying to book an exciting lineup has also resulted in a lineup that's really diverse.
Goshinski and Leonowicz: Yes, we would agree. We're forcing our own freedom to an extent, by forming our own language around what a festival can do and represent. We ask ourselves each year, "Why [a] festival?" This is a moving target.
Only a handful of the larger festivals that concentrate on cost-per-set-of-eyeballs are culturally progressive/successful anyway. Our independence from some of those constructs allows us to curate with more flexibility and care, which, to us, is an advantage. We've witnessed so many acts that would have been better served playing in a basement at 3AM, as opposed to a giant field at 3PM. In that sense, we are idealistic, and our primary concern is the artist/audience dynamic.
How do you feel about bigger festivals? Is that an experience you've ever been drawn to?
Goshinski: Sometimes really big experiences are great. It's about that spectacle of what people can engage in or consume. A lot of artists work really well at that level—that's the kind of show they give. I don't care what other festivals do, but it's hard to understand what that driving force is: is [a megafestival] what people want, or what people get?