Often the best ideas are born from boredom and a burning desire for change.

When Pittsburgh native Lauren Goshinski and partner Quinn Leonowicz grew restless with DJing, they decided to do something they had never done before—organize a massive festival in only four months.

The first annual VIA Music and New Media Festival brought together more than 40 DJs, bands, and artists from around the world who specialize in new media, animation, and interactive art during one autumn weekend in 2010. With funding from a Sprout Seed Award, the VIA co-founders transformed the 31st Street Studios in Pittsburgh’s Strip District into a multi-stage venue with high-tech projections, video games, and electronic music performances. About 2,000 people attended over the course of three days.

The festival was considered a huge success, and gave the founders the confidence to keep VIA going year-round, as an annual festival and with smaller one-off shows, said Goshinski. Keeping VIA alive beyond the festival also meant the core group of six DJs who comprise the production team—Goshinski , Leonowicz, Matt McDermott, Edgar Um, Paul Fleetwood, and Aaron Clark—could continue working together.

“At the heart, it’s just six people learning as we go, taking risks and trying to do a festival in the coolest way we know possible. It’s a DIY endeavor, and it’s been gratifying to have people support to the level
they have thus far,” said McDermott, who relocated to Los Angeles but continues to help book music for VIA.

Now, two years into it, the VIA Music and New Media festival has morphed into a week of collaborative performances, installations, lectures, film screenings and workshops. Scheduled for October 1 through October 6, the pop-up style festival will take place primarily at venues in East Liberty, including VIA’s new permanent home at 6119 Penn Ave, as well as Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh Filmmakers, and the Warhol Museum.

The beauty of VIA is that no event will ever be the same twice, said Leonowicz. Although it’s becoming popular for musicians to tour with an A/V set, when musicians are booked as part of a VIA show, it might be the only instance in their entire tour when they perform with a selected video artist, he said. Playing matchmaker for audio and visual artists allows Leonowicz and Goshinski to create thoughtfully curated, one-of-a-kind shows.

Elevating Underserved Artists in Pittsburgh

A magical match came together at the 2011 VIA Music and New Media Festival.  While London electronic duo Walls played driving beats and dreamy melodies to a captivated audience at the Rex Theater, Pittsburgh artist Matt Wellins stood offstage creating abstract art with household items, such as shaving cream, baking soda, and paint. His work was streamed live on two giant screens behind the musicians. It was low-fi meets high-tech, but the result was “unbelievably effective, humorous and beautiful,” said Lauren Goshinski.

The decision to pair Wellins with Walls proved to be mutually beneficial—Wellins received international press, and Walls was so pleased that they commissioned the artist to create a video for their tour.

While VIA has booked artists from countries around the world, it was formed primarily to provide an outlet for Pittsburgh artists. Thirty percent of bookings include Pittsburgh-based performers, said Goshinski.  She believes there are talented people in the city who deserve to be on the stage just as much as international acts.

Wellins said VIA plays a crucial role in advocating for Pittsburgh artists like himself.  “There are opportunities for bands, people who do theater, and people who make films—but VIA is serving a type of artist and a type of audience that is otherwise unacknowledged.”

Partners make it possible

Goshinski and Leonowicz have grown VIA into a well-respected “festival as laboratory” that has earned international acclaim from Resident Advisor, Dummy Magazine, and many other national and local publications. Still, for all their success, the co-founders are humble, deflecting praise to the people who have helped them make it all possible—partners, sponsors, and volunteers.

“This programming wouldn’t happen without CMU, Vitamin Water, and the Sprout Fund. Outside of ticket buyers, these sponsors have allowed us to do what we want to do on this scale.”

To provide workshops and lectures during the festival, VIA partners with assemble gallery—a community space for arts and technology—Carnegie Mellon University, STUDIO for Creative Inquiry, and Pittsburgh Filmmakers. Workshops are free and all-ages to enable anyone to participate.

Both Goshinski and Leonowicz, along with their core team, have full-time jobs, and their paychecks help to cover some of VIA’s expenses. They said that their goal would be to someday create jobs and employ people.

For now, Goshinski said, “We don’t know how to thank people except to keep putting on good events.”

Written by Courtney Patterson