Cultural Producer / Co-founder, VIA + DJ, BOO LEAN
October 8, 2016
interview by Madeleine Campbell
illustration by Maggie Negrete
What is VIA? How do you describe it to people? It’s clearly more than a yearly art and music festival.
Yeah. The structure of it changes. The language has evolved over time. With some people it makes sense to just says it’s a festival as laboratory. I think that gets across the fluidity and experimentation and chance taking that's going on at all levels. In other ways, I've told people it's a roadmap to Pittsburgh's creative scene, if you wanna get super local about it and how it functions within the landscape of Pittsburgh. We always pick a flagship venue. Some of them have been Willy Wonka scenarios, like going into the 31st Street movie studios our first year. No one had ever even been in there. Or the Union Trust building downtown in 2014. It's like a one-time chance to create something. It's not about something that can be replicated in the same field every year. That's not interesting. To me, it’s a contextually-based festival. If people are interested in the artistic component, we say it's a platform for the intersection of emerging music and digital art. I guess the bottom line is that it's always a platform. Whatever shape it takes can reflect it as a platform. Sometimes it's a physical platform. Maybe it could be a digital platform.
Could you talk about the birth of VIA? What were you thinking? What were you looking to do?
I think the biggest challenge was finding a shape and an entity for the thing that I wanted to do when that thing was so fluid. That makes it hard to come up with a structure. At first I thought I wanted to do a publication. I wanted to launch an online thing which actually started as a Sprout Fund Grant I got way back right after I graduated from college. It had all the synthesized parts you can kind of see in VIA. It was first interested in taking stock of everything locally but then putting it in the context of a bigger movement of things. It crossed all media - digital art, visual art, music. But that didn’t pan out. I came from a writing and art history background but I’ve always loved creating events. That was a problem because I didn’t fit in the box of writing or museum work. To me, it was too slow. By the time I could write about this thing or that I could program something in a museum context, it was over. It was dead. I thought about starting a residency program here but I didn’t have the confidence or knowledge. I was completely crushed by the idea of a physical space. I didn't feel like it was feasible unless I was rich. At that time, [VIA co-founder] Quinn [Leonowicz] and I were talking to each other all the time. It was a fusion of those two ideas. Kind of multiple iterations of the same network of people and things but taking different forms. I’d say it was a lightning bolt moment. One day we said, "We're gonna start a festival." And VIA started as just a festival. It was only intended to be a one-time experiment but then it just kind of metastasized very quickly and spawned off all these spores and turned into this series of events that kept snowballing. So yeah, it was really that the ideas that we had didn't make sense in certain forms but the idea of a festival was fluid enough and yet consistent enough to make sense for the kinds of artists and musicians that weren't being showcased or brought to Pittsburgh.
And the first festival was in 2010?
What was the experience of the first festival happening like?
Terrifying. Like "Oh my god, what have we done?"
Do you feel like…well, maybe this isn't a question, more of an observation. To me, you're someone who sees beautiful things in the fledgling state and can say "Yes, let's grow with that." Do you feel that goes along with the idea of being a platform?
Yeah. To me, it’s not as exciting to interface with artists when they're already said and done. There's a set parameter of expectations of deliverables. I'm not quite sure when people hit a certain point what it's doing to generate something new. I think that's a huge part of it. I like throwing down the gauntlet with challenges to people. Not in a negative way, like "let's see if you can do this…" but more like "hell yeah, let's see if we can do this!"
Do you think it's hard to generate something new with VIA?
Oh yeah. I mean, just financially it's hard. It's about risk-taking. At all levels, it's hard for people to take risks. It's hard for audiences to give money to something slightly unknown. It's hard for funders to give money to something that's speculative in nature. A lot of people's understanding of festivals is as a recap of stuff rather than something that generates new experience. Also, the expectation of when you tell people that you're generating something new, I think they automatically assume it's going to be janky, when actually, if you bring the right people together in the right place at the right time, it's a really high quality, high-depth experience.
So you're going into festival #7 now?
Yeah. That's nuts.
Do you feel like your goals and focuses have shifted since you started?
I think my goals are totally in line with what they started as. Every year, it becomes more itself. The programming doesn't expand just to have more of different things. It expands to get closer to the core of what it's trying to do. Again, you take chances. There have been some years where some ideas we test drove and thought "Ehhhh, we shouldn't have done that."
And the line between artist and curator - where is that? Is there one for you?
No. I think that’s another cultural construct that doesn’t have easy money attached to it so it’s hard to make a living. A lot of people have a severe identity crisis with the shape that your energy takes. What do you call it? If you call it one thing, you could be pigeon holing yourself. There are certain terms that work better, like cultural producer or cultural engineer. Cultural producer, to me, synthesizes a lot of things because maybe you’re treating it like a producer or a director for film where you have an artistic vision and you have knowledge of how things work from an artist’s perspective but you give it form and direction and it takes a shape that ultimately becomes more of a curatorial project. It’s entrepreneurial because it becomes something that people ultimately want to pay money to experience. So you’re like a cypher, really. I don’t know how to sum it up in a sentence.
What are the biggest things you’ve learned since you started?
Ha. Oh god. Where do I start?
Well, if you could go back in time and talk to Lauren in 2009 or 2010, on the brink of birthing VIA, what would tell yourself?
Figure out your self-worth immediately and try to formalize that as much as you can because then when you engage with other people, no matter what level that is, there’s more of a formal checks and balances of what you can and can’t do. An expectation for the people that you’re giving yourself to. It’s like protection. Try and find a way to quantify and qualify yourself all the time. A lot of people get really caught up in the passion and the time-based desperation of making things happen. You just want something great to happen. People who truly care about the product are kind of blindly running towards the sun. I just wanna touch the sun, I just wanna make this happen. But in the process of doing that you can really risk losing the ability to protect yourself. Those are both in the short and long term. It doesn’t mean I’ve figured that out and know how to protect myself any better. I’m not an expert in that. That’s another part of it though - realizing you’re not an expert. Not letting people take advantage of your labor is a big one. I don’t want to make this a gender-based thing but when you are under duress in some situation and expressing it as a woman, I think it’s true that people doubt you. They think you’re just being emotional. That what you’re saying doesn’t have any weight. Somehow it has to do with your psychological or emotional state. Somehow people don’t take it as fact. That’s super frustrating. Even trying to make an argument for why something is valid. I think there are power structures at play that are far beyond me as a person. There are patriarchal structures in place at every single level that do trickle down and become apparent in the power structures of event planning or curating. I’m not alone in that. These are just my own version of struggles everyone is feeling.
I realize VIA is your child but I don’t want to neglect other things you do, too. Are you able to talk about your art collective Dadpranks? Dadpranks is such a feral beast. I love that about it. I’ve never been part of a girl gang before this. The Daddies are a very nebulous network. We do projects when we can or when we’re asked to. What I’ve always appreciated the most about how we all work is that in no way is it a job. We’ve definitely taken some commissioned-based stuff but it’s still not a job. We treat it like a sandbox. It definitely gets out certain visual art parts of me personally. I never had enough confidence in myself to say “I’m going to be a digital and new media artist.” But I could talk about these things or I could see things or direct things. I had ideas but I never had enough trust in my actual skills to make a thing. Working with the Dads has helped me personally say “Oh I can be part of an actual thing that looks like art.” In a way it’s a hard thing to talk about though.
Don’t feel like you have to talk about it!
No. I want to. We’ve also made a pact where we don’t over explain the dads. It’s the 13-year-old boy in me that totally gets off on the pranks we do and making the art we make. I think maybe we’re all on the same page about that. Even though it’s a collective of girls and a lot of the visual output reads as feminine, there are a lot of other elements of it that read as super Ren and Stimpy and feral and genderless. You only see our hands in our work. I like that it’s disembodied in a way.
And you DJ?
You totally just lit up!
Yeah. DJing makes me feel so good. It’s a rush. It’s empowering. I feel in control but also so connected to the people in the room. I wish I had time to do it more often.
I’m DJing for the first time next weekend.
Yeah? Where at?
That’ll be great.
Nah, girl. You got this.
Among all of your various projects, do you see themes among the kinds of spaces you’re interested in creating?
I’m interested in providing a safe space for people but I’m also interested in providing an untamed space for people. Certain bars are tame spaces in the sense that they’re milk toast. They don’t actually provide any cultural juice. Or doing things in galleries. It’s a tame space. You can put as many noise artists in a gallery as you want but it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re supporting underground culture in any way. It’s tame. It’s predictable. The power structures are completely at play. If you go into an untame space or a pop-up space like we did for the festival, or even Hot Mass is technically an untamed space, it doesn’t mean it’s an unsafe space. All these ways of identifying things are really interesting to me right now. I don’t want to go into a tame space. I want to go into a space where I’m excited and not sure what’s gonna happen. Sorry to walk you through my thought process.
No, I appreciate it. Keep going.
To say that you are providing a certain space means that it takes the onus off the people there to make that space possible. For example, Lauren is providing you with a safe space so now Lauren is to blame for everything that happens within that space. You don’t come into that space having ownership over doing what you can to make that safe space for yourself and other people. Where’s the understanding that no one person can make a space exactly what you want it to be? It then becomes solely the organizers fault. No single person can make a space what you want it to be. It’s on everyone to make that possible. We need to work together. If you enter into a safe, yet untamed space, perhaps the untamed-ness of it puts some ownness on yourself. How do I act right? How do I treat my neighbor? How do I respect everyone around me? Some people respond like assholes. Some people choose to think more critically about it. And I think people tend to think in these really dichotomous ways. Like “I work hard and I party hard!” Those aren’t necessarily two different things. My job is actually both. That’s some of the weird growing pains. Something I think about a lot lately is that it’s really important that so many funders focus on youth education but what about adult education? What about ongoing programming for adults learning how to socialize with people who are different than you? The festival has been a really interesting petri dish of learning how to try that on all different levels.