"Since Real World Pittsburgh never happened, we're taking a stab at it."
VIA 2016 saw us return to the neighborhood of East Liberty, with the new Ace Hotel as our flagship venue. Our partnership with Ace provided a unique opportunity for a 24/7 hotel takeover with artists and attendees. As with previous years, site/context would inform how we approached building our programs, seeking a current zeitgeist.
At the cusp of the US presidential election, everyone was vacillating between hopeful and apocalyptic preoccupations: wrestling with surrealism as a new normal, wondering if and when our various motherships would leave or come back.
Our partner conference / exhibition WEIRD REALITY, an expansive program on independent visions in virtual, augmented and mixed realities at Carnegie Mellon University, rounded out our largest artist cohort to date. As the co-curator of both VIA and WR, I was challenged and excited to connect what most would consider two discreet worlds of music and tech. Creatively and socially these circles had long been interwoven (or at least admired each other from afar) and had merged with the release of 360 music videos, VR & visual albums, and new developments in spatialized sound. WR’s exhibition was arguably one of the first and largest of its kind. Presenters included longtime pioneers of immersive and interactive media such as Brenda Laurel; emerging artists and atypical approaches from Iyapo Repository and Jeremy Bailey to Rachel Rossin, Scatter.co, Omer Shapira and Yasmin Eleyat; renowned media theorists, curators, historians and critics; and developers from the likes of Microsoft, Oculus, and Daydream Labs. A recurring theme in WEIRD REALITY was actually how much people didn't like today's VR and its continued, misaligned promise of an "empathy machine". This cohort wanted to take the ship apart again.
Audio-visual performances acted as mirrors onto a world that often rejects its own image. Taking over the Ace Hotel’s grand ballroom, Shock Value for President riffed and ripped apart the 2016 US election media circus. A collaboration between members of the NYC party collective Shock Value (Juliana Huxtable, Lee Bannon, Abby, Anthony Dicap) and visual artists Sam Rolfes and Kevin Ramser, SV4P proposed a queer nightclub as the appropriate platform for political stump speech. Political tropes were appropriated, twisted, obscured; while bodies were celebrated for their infinite malleability. Alternately, Denver-based digital artist Chris Coleman and NON’s Chino Amobi presented a stark collage of surveillance footage and speculative forms of digital profiling/portraiture, questioning the “truth” in images that have ultimately oppressed the identities and freedoms of minorities and "targeted" populations. This collaboration was part of Coleman’s Secure Shell Copes Series which wondered “what we might become when our physical selves fully contain our digital selves”
While VIA has always been focused on the future, this year’s legacy acts provided poignant reminders of individuality and strength, with messages that returned us squarely to the present: Rakim’s full rendition of his album Paid in Full; the family enterprise that is ESG invoking the most sampled bassline in music history. And then there was Pittsburgh’s Betty Davis, who inspired Mothership: The Future is Female, a series that celebrated inspirational female and gender non-binary black artists - from ESG’s Renee Scroggins to Juliana Huxtable and Junglepussy alongside local creatives, historians, healers and activists - who shared first-hand stories and tactics for self care and survival.
The opportunities and challenges for VIA to be reflexive as a local platform should not be glossed over. Where and how the festival operates is just as important as the lineup. The return to East Liberty was a labored decision. Do we go back to the place that had seemed to fail not just us, but much more importantly long-standing residents and DIY venues. The developers didn’t seem to want any of us, but out of a development project (Ace) we are offered another seat at the table. Where does our privilege sit in this instance, and who are our partners. Is there a “way out” and what role do we play in this. With the resources we can acquire, who do we support.