Lauren Goshinski and Quinn Leonowicz seem surprisingly relaxed.
VIA Festival – the cutting-edge music, new media and art festival the two began in 2010 – kicks off in less than a week. Most festival organizers would be in overdrive, scrambling to tie up loose ends, and yet the pair answer questions about this year’s installment unhurriedly, finishing each other’s sentences as casually as they share an almond croissant and drags off the same Pall Mall cigarette.
“We’re doing it over ten days this year,” says Quinn. “Everything has a chance to breathe, and we pulled in even more partners than previous years.”
“My general sense is, bigger local family, bigger global family,” adds Lauren.
“Family” may seem like a peculiar word to use when describing a music festival, but VIA has never been a conventional festival, nor have they ever wanted it to be. VIA is dedicated to supporting the music underground – artists are chosen by who is treading new ground and breaking down genre barriers, not who will sell the most tickets.
VIA is one of only five American members of International Cities of Advanced Sound, an international consortium of nonprofits dedicated to “advancing sound cultures, music and related arts.” To wit, each musician at VIA is paired with a visual artist to create a fully immersive environment that interweaves both sight and sound. Additionally, 70% of the event’s performers are of color, female-identified or lgbtq.
“I think we like to hit the edges,” says Quinn. “You hit everything right on the edges of that Venn diagram and you’ll get other people interested in new things that they weren’t interested in before. And really, at the end of the day, that’s what we want people to have: new stuff in their eyes and in their head.”
“It’s a carousel of emerging artists,” adds Lauren. “We’re like, this artist is doing amazing, crazy shit. And they’re young and they’re hungry. Get ’em out here. And I think people in Pittsburgh appreciate that mentality; it reflects the people who are here.”
This year, VIA is centered around a pair of events at Lawrenceville’s Spirit: an all-day block party Saturday, the 26th, and a main event the following Saturday, October 3rd. The former includes, among other things, a pop-up market, Women in Music roundtable discussion, and performances by the Girls Rock! 2015 Summer Camp, 1Hood, and two floors of local and international DJs; the latter, performances by Brooklyn female-identified DJ collective Discwoman, DJ Selecta, xxyyxx, Lower Dens and a “legacy performance” by headliner and hip-hop pioneer MC Lyte.
In addition to the events at Spirit, there are documentary screenings, a zine release, an indie video game salon, lectures, seminars on 3D printing, and of course more genre-blurring performances from up-and-coming local and international artists.
“We don’t ever have a theme per se,” says Quinn, when asked about the overall feel for this year.
“But,” adds Lauren, without missing a beat, “we have a curatorial vision.”
The pair’s chemistry, as well as the event’s success, is as much attributable to that shared vision as it is six years’ worth of year-round collaboration with a small but passionate cadre of like-minded volunteers.
“While we have our particular aesthetic and vision, and we throw our own events and we curated this platform, everyone else’s vision is feeding into that as well,” says Lauren. “And we’re trying to move that vision forward. [VIA] is just the platform for that.”
“We were just a bunch of people from a local radio station [WRCT] who loved to DJ and throw parties at Shadow Lounge,” says Juan Augusto-Lafontaine, VIA volunteer, Detour DJ and founder of MISC Records, another new local electronic label with a VIA showcase. “We wanted to do it more often, so VIA gave us our first home, at [East Liberty pop-up venue] 6119. It was because of them that we were able to get going with that first party.”
“That’s what we want,” says Quinn, “kids to stay here and live here and build their own stuff. We just want to build an umbrella at the end of the day.”
Another volunteer, Christina Lee, who does design work for VIA, came to Pittsburgh from California to study at CMU in 2010, the same year VIA began.
“I never thought that I would end up in Pennsylvania in my early 20s,” she admits, “but I’ve enjoyed it a lot, and I think a lot of it has to do with VIA.”
“They’re not just bringing these great acts into Pittsburgh,” she continues, “but they’re fostering a really great local music scene. And it’s nice to go out in Pittsburgh and not go to an ’80s night or a ’90s night. We have the option to go to a great house or techno night, and it’s all local. That makes it even better.”
What makes the event’s success even more incredible is that Lauren and Quinn both work day jobs – she as marketing director for Carnegie Mellon’s art school, he as a freelance web and graphic designer. And while VIA is undoubtedly a labor of love for all the volunteers, both Quinn and Lauren muse over the event’s long-term sustainability.
They hope to attract more funding from nonprofit organizations down the road, and their goal is to have revenue come from an even split between ticketing, sponsorships and grant money. But without more funding, Quinn fears the event, at least it in its current form, may only have a few years left.
“If it stays the same that it’s at this year, then I’d say two more years. Financially this year should be a little bit better. But yeah, we need to start paying ourselves and getting these kids jobs and stuff.”
“Are we confident that it can become sustainable,” he wonders? “Yes. That’s the short answer. But can it be kept up? That’s the thing. Without being paid it’s really hard. It’s a whole other job that we’re doing while doing normal jobs. That’s not a sustainable thing in life.”
But for now, the only concern seems to be ensuring that this shared artistic vision comes to life over the next 10 days. “The festival is about being a creative roadmap for the city,” says Quinn. And that roadmap extends well beyond next week.
“We have our first show booked for 2016 already,” Quinn mentions offhandedly. “That’s how early it starts.”
VIA runs from September 24 – October 3. Many events are free but others require admission. Visit the VIA ticketing page for full details.