Pittsburgh’s VIA Festival has, in the past, released grandiose statements of intent, in-depth press releases explaining the ideology and methodology of the annual weeklong, city-wide series of events. This year, organizers were tight-lipped, using brief swaths of terminology from past years’ releases, phrases like “Festival as Laboratory” and “what’s next in music,” though this year’s description provides “art and culture” as an addendum to the audio side of the futurist festivities. It makes perfect sense that VIA feels less of a need to explain itself. This is its fourth year, and if you aren’t familiar with VIA by now you probably aren’t its intended audience.
Culture is an amorphous, slippery term, and one that serves the VIA festival well. The organization to some extent emphasizes technology, primarily through music, yes, but audio is usually presented as a component of a more ambitious whole. During brief pauses between sets, VIA volunteers spend at least as much time constructing and networking visual accompaniments — multiple projection screens, 3D body scanners, portable gaming devices, virtual supermodels and more — as they do hooking up the on-stage instrumentation. In that way, VIA minimizes the weight of music, making sideshows of their impressive and well-curated performers. This year’s lineup included Actress, Pharmakon, Adult., Sasha Go Hard, Wise Blood, Jacques Greene, and many others. From what I saw, few people stuck around for the entirety of a set, milling about the grounds instead, investigating which events, activities or installations they might have missed on their last lap around the community center.
Interactivity is key. The artists are important at VIA, but only as much as they relate to the experiences of those in attendance. The spaces VIA uses for events often encourage playful engagement. The Friday and Saturday nights of the festival were held pop-up style in a vacant commercial property in a quickly gentrifying part of the city. Last year’s venue, a bank in a former life, featured one stage at the center of a single, large room. This year’s festival was held in a former youth community center, with two rooms and a maze of corridors connecting them. And, for the first time, in my experience at least, the festival held concurrent events, inviting exploration, personal engagement, and in some significant ways, a deficit of attention, though the latter is a natural effect of an event technologically oriented as VIA.
As exciting as it is to dive headfirst into sensory overload, the mood of the festival is celebratory. Engagement with technology only extends as far as stagecraft and installation design. Despite the experimental nature of many of the performing artists, there is nothing radical, at least in the political sense, about the festival itself. To attend VIA is to be subsumed by idealized representations of the now and the soon-to-be. To attend VIA is to submit to culture, a thing an individual holds no claim over; to dance, to sweat, to play among a largely homogenous cluster of others, like you, dancing, sweating, and playing. In the moment, you cannot unpack what it is you are taking in, but as with all festivals, deconstruction usually follows.
[Disclosure: Tiny Mix Tapes was a “media sponsor” of the 2013 VIA Festival]
The Rex Theater, across the river from the city proper, in Pittsburgh’s South Side, is a small club with a grand, old fashioned marquee, and has hosted VIA events in the past, most notably Four Tet and Battles in 2011. Unlike the subsequent nights’ events, Thursday featured little in the way of art installations, aside from the tall stacks of glowing cubes that backlit the stage. Those cubes — a piece entitled Transmission by artist Ian Brill — shifted colors throughout the night, brightening and dimming as if to match the mood of the music. It was hardly interactive, at least from the audience’s perspective, but at least in this instance the visuals served as a supplement to the music, and not the inverse. The audience was sparse, only a fraction of the venue’s capacity, but they were focused and responsive. More importantly, they were dancing.
Natasha Kmeto, a Portland-based vocalist/producer, was the first, and perhaps best, performer of the night. With a strong voice that falls somewhere between Rihanna in ballad mode and Natasha Bedingfield without the British accent, the unfilled space served Kmeto well. Mixing her music as she sang, headphones held to one ear in stereotypical DJ style, Kmeto maintained an impressive level of energy throughout, dancing and multitasking as if it was nothing more to her than a fun time. “I’m going to play you a new song,” she announced toward the end of her performance, and when the audience cheered, she added, “That’s good, because I was going to play it anyway.” Her colorful blend of tasteful pop-house and contemporary R&B played well in the room, getting the crowd warmed up for the next two sets, when the party-proper began.
Jason Burns, as Kmeto, performed a similar variety of music, substituting pitch-shifted samples for live vocals and leaning a heavier on the recent history of his genre: two-step garage beats, deep bass, strobing synths, etc. He hearkened to the pre-brostep era, when dubstep implied both a sound and a rhythm. Early in his set, Burns performed a remix of Sampha’s “Too Much,” and the crowd went wild. Seeing as how I was unfamiliar with the first three acts, I was relieved to not be the only one excited by a sense of the familiar. Burns wasn’t innovative or complex, but he understood what the audience wanted, and gave it to them.
Jimmy Edgar followed, and his brand of amped-up, stripped-down minimal house proved most exciting, at least at first. Heavy on a metallic, hi-hat-embracing drum sound, the loudness of his set meshed well with its spare, but hardly austere, nature. But by that point in the evening, we’d all been dancing for a few hours already. The repetition and predictability inherent, not only in his music, but in that of the previous two performers, became something of a nuisance. It’s a challenge to dance to the same rhythm for hours at a time, a challenge I and many others were no longer up to. The crowd of smokers grew larger outside, and inside the Rex’s cavernous performance space, the audience began to dwindle.
It was past 1 in the morning when Actress appeared. The cubes beside and behind him faded to an appropriately faint pulse of light. I wish I could say his was the most transcendent performance of the night, but unfortunately, it was a work night for me, and I had to catch the last bus back to my neighborhood. Such is the danger of holding an event on the other side of a many-river’d city, especially one with such woeful public transportation as Pittsburgh.
What I caught of Actress’ set was dependably haunted and idiosyncratic, a solid performance of the kind of intellectual headspace music featured on 2012’s R.I.P. and his most recent Silver Cloud EP. The steady, danceable rhythms of the other bands gave way to a visceral gut-churn of bass, a fractured and ghostly form of ambient house. No one was dancing, at least not at the time I left. Those who remained looked glued in place, curious but not riveted.
The next night, I heard a pair of kids talking about Actress outside the public bathrooms, in this case a short row of Port-a-Johns. One admitted to being previously unfamiliar with the British artist, but neither were thrilled. “He was the headliner, but I wish he played first.” “Yeah, I just wanted to move,” his friend replied.
The festival succeeds, wildly, as a reflection of the cutting edge of contemporary culture, but it nevertheless fails to capitalize on the opportunity to take an active role in pushing that edge ever further.
Those kids were in luck, because Friday’s digital bacchanal was sure to be more to their liking.
The night — or perhaps more accurately, my night — began with Banjee Report, a queer hip-hop collective who embrace post-modernism, their work extending beyond mere music, “a party, a podcast, a mixtape,” according to their own definition. While their mixtapes fit snugly into the post-cloud rap, post-gender queer framework made popular by fellow VIA alumni Mykki Blanco and LE1F, Banjee Report were disappointingly conventional in performance, the sonar bleating of their mixtape beats swapped for booming, traditional instrumentals. The confrontational aspect of their performance was most interesting. Donning a dusty black miniskirt and drawstring knapsack, frontman 1wo worked the crowd, alternating between prostration and domination, moving around constantly, sexing up the whole room while rapping typically hypermasculine fare. But despite 1wo’s best efforts, the music and performance were all too familiar: uninspiring lyrics about supermodels, blow jobs, and rap itself. “This is the illest shit I ever spit,” the trio — including MisterWallaceii and acebOOmbaP — bellowed with more conviction than that hoary chorus deserved, while three-dimensional projections of CG wrestlers trotted in the background.
There’s a transactional element to success in the rap world, some intellectualized artists feeling the need to dumb themselves down to suit the imaginary demands of the public. Banjee Report were never less than compelling, but their live performance was a disappointment in comparison to their recorded work. By the time the visual accompaniment shifted from nudity to violence, a downpour of bullet shells raining behind Banjee Report, their music reminded of no one more than Beautiful Struggle-era Talib Kweli. Fleetingly topical, exceedingly polished, and just a little bit dull, Banjee Report were a disappointment for what they promised more than what they delivered.
In the other room, a game of Joust was taking place. Not a LARP-y chivalric battle, nor the ostrich-fighting Atari classic, though that would hardly have been out of place at so retro-futurist an event as this one, but instead a game in which multiple participants held glowing orb rods and attempted to tap one another out of competition until only the victor remained. Despite the rods, which looked like modified Playstation Move controllers, or maybe a luxury-brand vibrator, the game was a needlessly complicated variation on Tag. The rods — which appeared to warp the music, as players tangled with one another, at least until I noticed the DJ in the corner of the room, that is — were somewhat inessential to the basic nature of the game, other than that they delineated the spectators from the participants.
Gaming was a larger presence this year than it had been in the past. In addition to those I noticed wearing Los Santos and N7 hats, there were a few courageous VIA volunteers who wandered around the grounds with a portable video arcade machine strapped to their backs. Sometimes you’d notice them, hunched in the middle of the audience to watch a set, and eventually an attendee would come up behind them and play a couple rounds of Run, Jesus, Run, or some warped, entropic Asteroids take-off, until they got tired of the games, and returned their attentions to the stage.
I listened in on a pep talk between two nondescript men in their 30s, one giving encouragement to the other’s dream of becoming a professional DJ. I was amused by the presumptuous absurdity of the conversation, until I realized the man giving the pep talk was none other than Kink, the Bulgarian DJ performing later that evening.
Concertgoers milled from room to room, checking out the various games in the lowly and neon-lit “Brick Room.” With carpeting from red brick wall to wall, the room resembled a laser-tag arena, or the basement of a dot-com millionaire’s suburban home. I watched them come and go, until it was my own time to leave.
When I returned to the main stage room, Sasha Go Hard hit the stage wearing a sea-green tank top with mom-ish looking jeans. SGH’s frequent boasting was dissonant, albeit in an aloof way. With a professional, no-frills performance, Sasha Go Hard impressed simply by virtue of surpassing live rap expectations. It wasn’t as if there wasn’t a prerecorded track playing in the background of every song, because there certainly was, and it wasn’t easily ignored, especially when the barely drinking-aged Chicago rapper skipped whole bars, letting the track do the work for her. But what she lacked in polish, she made up for in enthusiasm and confidence. She drew largely from this year’s Nutty World mixtape, and invited a handful of young women to climb on stage and “get turnt up.” By this point the audience didn’t need any extra encouragement to go wild. One curly haired young woman started awkwardly spitting out an invisible wad of money, before Sasha took center stage again.
Sasha Go Hard
It was at this point that the VIA festival’s emphasis on play began to take on additional resonance for me. The young crowd was eating SGH’s set up, turning up more and more. The designer drugs were no doubt kicking in by this point, and the audience was getting sweaty, losing their self-consciousness, giving in to the music. As much as I appreciated the set, I was acutely aware of the difficulty inherent in trying to be, in a sea full of other people trying to be. Pittsburgh is not Chicago. By certain metrics, we’re one of the most livable cities in America, and according to others, we also are one of the nation’s most racially segregated metropolitans. I couldn’t help but notice the audience was not especially diverse, but I tried to focus on the positives, on the idea of VIA as a safe space for young people to role play unrealistic, but relatively benign, ghetto fantasies. By the time Sasha Go Hard ended her set with a reprise of “I’m The Type,” walking off stage not even halfway through the song, letting it play out without her, I was mostly just filled with admiration for the rapper’s unflappable and freewheeling attitude.
Lapalux was up next, performing the sort of aggressive, spring break forever music that I was hardly expecting, considering his Brainfeeder affiliation. The crowd ate it up. I lost myself momentarily in the visual projections, replete with splashes of Frank Miller blood spatter, but felt disconnected from the proceedings. I tried dancing, but after receiving a countless number of elbows to my ribs, I decided that it was time to take a break and exit the panopticon. I went outside and hung out with friends at the bus shelter on the corner opposite the venue. We watched Sasha Go Hard enter a nondescript sedan and smoke some weed. I killed time until Wise Blood were scheduled to perform.
When I returned, Jacques Greene was playing in the main room, but I passed through quickly. Still, I resolved to stick it out for the duration of Wise Blood’s show in the Brick Room. I was curious to see the homegrown singer/producer, especially considering his near-invisibility in local music culture. A few of the concertgoers I spoke with hadn’t even known he was from Pittsburgh, which makes for an interesting brand of incognito at a festival like VIA. Most of the other local acts were relegated to opening status, but this was a prime showcase for local talent.
Wise Blood did not disappoint. His half-rapped, blues-bap, one-man tent revival felt borderline religious by that point in the early morning. With rusty-sounding electronics, almost like early 90s Beck with more ones and zeroes, there was a beautiful, downcast energy to his performance that was lacking in any of the evening’s other performances. The singer occupied only a tiny corner of the space allotted, alternating between poses, spending the duration of his set kneeling before his sound board with his back to the crowd or shambling among the audience with mic in hand. The rest of the space was taken by the audience, many of whom took it upon themselves to make it their performance, twirling around and breaking it down gracelessly. This was an interactive festival after all, and as much as some of the more shameless dancers put me off, I admired the fluidity of the push-pull of interaction.
When Wise Blood’s brief performance was over, I made my way home for the night, relishing the uncurated noises of the early morning, crickets and cicadas calling out, as analog a sound as I could hope for.
If Friday night was the party, Saturday was the comedown. The crowd skewed noticeably older, nevermind the presence of Adult., the schedule slacker, and the overall mood was less frenetic than Friday.
A local act, Trogpite, was playing when I arrived. His depressed howling reminded me of a decaf Carey Mercer, or Suicide without rhythm. Trogpite might not have helped get the crowd amped-up, or even moving, but it was a nice change of pace from the EDM binge.
In between sets, I slipped outside to see what was happening. I listened in on a pep talk between two nondescript men in their 30s, one giving encouragement to the other’s dream of becoming a professional DJ. I was amused by the presumptuous absurdity of the conversation, until I realized the man giving the pep talk was none other than Kink, the Bulgarian DJ performing later that evening. I watched, perhaps uncouthly, as other festivalgoers stopped to talk with Kink, admiring his willingness to interact with fans with enthusiasm. I felt fortunate to take part in so intimate a festival as VIA, not just this year, but every year. The fans conversed with him about records he found at Jerry’s, a local rare-LP mecca. He said he planned on using those acquisitions during his set, lending an even more local feel to the occasion.
In the moment, you cannot unpack what it is you are taking in, but as with all festivals, deconstruction usually follows.
I stopped being a creep and returned inside, where Adult. were setting up their gear. The long-running Detroit electroclash duo, both sporting leather jackets and asymmetrical haircuts, made a severe impression, at least visually. It had been years since the last time I listened to Adult., and I was relieved and dismayed to realize how little the group has changed since the electroclash boom of the early 00s. Nicola Kuperus was the more loquacious of the two, and her sweet, appreciative interplay with the audience betrayed the gloomy severity of their music. More than the music, I was amused by the spare nature of the visual accompaniment, a digital replication of three horizontal fluorescent lights. I couldn’t help but think the real thing would have been cheaper to procure. Adult.’s set went long, but the audience stuck with them, bobbing along, and cheering politely.
Vessel were up next, and I slipped into the Brick Room for just enough time to catch another game of Joust. I started to unpack my feelings about the weekend, and the festival as a whole. Watching more groups of people chase each other around with those silly rods, I tried to articulate what it was that bothered me, exactly. The digital art, though frequently impressive, made me think about the unspoken undercurrents. Those screensaver splashes of blood during Lapalux’s performance, or that cascade of bullets falling behind Banjee Report, made me think of Carnegie Mellon University’s relationship to the festival, the amoral embrace of technology, and also the university’s involvement in weapons R&D and the significance of their DARPA funding. I wondered whether these glowing rods could somehow be weaponized. I wondered why, despite all of the interactivity of the festival, VIA only featured the same old ways to play games, shooting and running and tagging things.
I was probably reaching too far — still am, no doubt. But I still couldn’t help but think about our relationships with technology, how in many ways, a celebration of software is a celebration of the self, of matters wholly within our control. There’s nothing wrong with either, but I’d be more comfortable with art that engages the audience, not simply in a literal manner, but that provokes and challenges the audience’s preconceived notions. I didn’t find that at VIA. There was little in the way of irony apparent in the artwork, not wholly a bad thing in and of itself, but considering the growing influence of electronic movements that attempt to cement the gaps between art and commerce, music that addresses directly the homogenization and corporatization of the post-globalization world, the lack of commentary was disappointing.
Sitting in the Brick Room, tapping out notes on my phone, I decided to give up, watch the first half of Vessel’s set and call it a day. As much as I wanted to see hear what Kink dug out of the crates at Jerry’s, I wanted sleep more. And so I left, exhausted, but excited at the prospect of doing it all again next year.
Is it too much to desire a deep, conscious engagement within experimental culture? Is there anything wrong with simply having a blast, losing yourself in a crowd, in a trance, in a moment? To me, the greatest failure of VIA isn’t the lack of engagement, but the festival’s close proximity to such discourse, without ever broaching the subject directly. Discussions of privilege and dominant culture are difficult in any venue, let alone an electronic and avant-garde music festival.
VIA, each year, mentions the mutating state of the festival and organization. This year was radically different than previous years, and I can only hope that, as time passes, and the festival grows into new permutations, that they take more confrontational approach. Despite categorizing itself as a “Festival as Laboratory,” there isn’t much genuine experimentation taking place at VIA. The festival succeeds, wildly, as a reflection of the cutting edge of contemporary culture, but it nevertheless fails to capitalize on the opportunity to take an active role in pushing that edge ever further.