The intersection of technology and art is a bit of a frontier: No matter how much it's discussed, it's still largely uncharted. This week, the third annual VIA Music and New Media Festival will turn Pittsburgh into a site for art-and-tech exploration. It's not just a music and art festival, but something more akin to a classroom with parties that happen after video-game class. You may have no idea who the hell Lafidki is, or how plants can make sound, but that's kind of the point — it's more about discovery than anything else.
"In our third year, we really wanted to take on the challenge of programming a whole week," says VIA co-founder Lauren Goshinski, "but doing it in a way that's digestible because we're realizing that there's a lot of people in Pittsburgh who have different comfort levels."
VIA's goal has always been to engage as many kinds of people as possible … although with headliners like Detroit house legend Moodymann and the spooky soundscape duo Demdike Stare, it can sometimes seem as if the roster of artists was chosen with only the investigative nerds in mind.
"At this point, not everyone will know every name on [the lineup]," says Tom Cox, a member of the dance-music label and performance group Pittsburgh Track Authority, which has performed at several VIA Presents events. "But I think the trust level has been built up so much. They're providing something that, even if you have no clue whatsoever, if you just show up, it's going to be something special."
While music tends to be the biggest draw for festival-goers, it's all of the surrounding activities that set VIA apart from other music festivals. Some of the non-music elements began earlier this week: Monday featured a 3-D graphics exhibit including work that's been screened at MoMA, Sundance and at the Ottawa International Animation Festival. Tuesday welcomed esteemed filmmaker and theorist Jonathan Walley, who gave a lecture at Carnegie Mellon titled "Not to Make Films: Dismantled, De-materialized and Unmade Cinema." And before the synths and mixers are plugged in and the monitors turned up on Friday, the first part of a hands-on arcade-game-construction workshop called Babycastles will take place. All of this for free, and generally kid-friendly.
"Whether you're a person with no money, whether you're a person who has kids, whether you're a person who wants to party for three days straight, every single person has an option," says Goshinski. "Even if you're a more heady academic person and you're not comfortable with people grinding around you."
Aiming for that breadth of programming doesn't just speak to VIA's goal of engaging as many people as possible; it also aligns with the organization's goals to educate a younger audience. Di-Ay Battad, a video artist who's been a part of VIA's A/V performances since its first year, is an arts educator whose students range from middle school to early high school. "No matter who they are," she notes, "I can say, ‘VIA: producers, DJs, arcade games, code, tech stuff.' I can throw out all those words and it would all appeal to them."
And as a CMU graduate who blended art and technology through a degree in electronic and time-based art and an academic concentration in computer science, Battad is all for championing VIA's unofficial mission: to demystify technology.
"There's actually a lot going on in Pittsburgh at Assemble [Gallery] and the Children's Museum where they're producing ways for people to access technology," says Battad. "It's not that hard. Technology isn't a mysterious black box that people make it out to be.
"And VIA is about connecting Pittsburgh to experimental scenes around the world. They're not just doing electronic music: They're about changing the atmosphere of Pittsburgh."
At least some part of the lineup will read like Greek to festival-goers. VIA is not about to cater to a fickle crowd with trendy musical acts. The substance is in the fact that you have to probe the program a bit, and maybe look a few things up.
"That's always the best way to get a knowledgeable fan base," says Cox. "If you spoon-feed them too much, then they're just following."
Look at it as a challenge, with really great parties for four nights straight. And in the end, the experience will have produced not a bunch of followers, but a crowd of curious people looking for more.
VIA FESTIVAL 2012 takes place in various location all week. Some highlights:
Wed., Oct. 3
Halloween comes early at Melwood Screening Room, where Demdike Stare will rescore the scandalous French horror film La Vampire Nue.
Thu., Oct. 4
Head over to 6119 in East Liberty for edgy club music offered up by Night Slugs' Girl Unit, who's known for flipping techno into pop remixes with unmatched skill.
Fri., Oct. 5
Planet Mu may have made it trendy, but juke and footwork have been around for a while. Spinn & Rashad will be offering the best of those frenetic styles of dance at 6000 Penn.
Sat., Oct. 6
The man, the myth, the legend — Detroit's Moodymann will be playing at 6000 Penn with some unlikely cohorts.