Visual Art at VIA Music and New Media Festival

[uds-billboard name=”via”]With the backdrop of Occupy Wall Street murmuring in the New York distance, and the heat rising on the 2012 presidential race with numerous Republican candidates jockeying for position, it could perhaps be considered a kind of Holy Delphic Peace that a participant of VIA 2011 in Pittsburgh could enjoy five straight evenings of audio/visual entertainment without interruption. VIA’s short burst of intensity represents a kind of ceasefire with the outside world, to the politics of estrangement and opposition that can be so present in our everyday lives.

The producers of VIA — a small group of dedicated Pittsburgh musicians, DJs and artists, are now in their second year of presenting the multimedia festival of musicians, visual artists, video programmers, filmmakers, and performance artists. VIA is self-billed as a “a new look at the synchronicity between aural and visual riff-makers,” and experimentation is highlighted in the pairing of musicians and visual artists, sometimes creating surreal mash-ups of sound and image on stage. Key performances by Four Tet with visuals by Abstract Birds, AraabMuzik with light staging by Thunder Horse Video, and Austra with visuals by Goat Helper summarize the successes of this kind at VIA. These internationally renowned musicians’ live performances were not just punctuated by the visual accompaniment, but were aggressively collaborative experiences for both performer and audience.

Four Tet is well-known outside the festival circuit as an electronic musician who produces original music as well as remixes for bands as varied as Tegan and Sara and Radiohead. Four Tet’s improvisational nature was heightened by the visuals provided by the Italian duo Abstract Birds, whose primacy to the live experience was evident by the presence of all three artists on stage at once. This equalization of the presentation mimicked the live format,  as the visuals were clearly being “programmed” with an intensity and spontaneity in tandem with Four Tet’s audio.  Abstract Birds, premiered their use of the graphical programming software vvvv, which enables the user to respond in a real-time environment to audio input. Abstract Birds’ presentation was filtered through the aesthetics of geometry and a self-described interest in artists like Wasily Kandinsky and Paul Klee, with the result like some kind of long rope pulled continuously for almost two hours across the screen, morphing and vibrating with the music.

If the Four Tet/Abstract Birds collaboration was elegantly mesmerizing, Araabmuzik’s set, with an on-stage light installation by Thunder Horse video, was like a cinematic drive-by shooting. With a bank of horizontal lights flashing and pulsing with the staccato beats of Providence’s Araabmuzik, you couldn’t help but think of scenes from westerns and gangster movies like The Wild Bunch and Scarface, where gunfire perforates the bodies and screen. This onslaught of light appellated the senses like a caustic tanning bed, a perfect answer to Araabmuzik’s punching sounds. Keep a lookout for Thunder Horse Video, whose recent work at PS1 in conjunction with the Warm Up series and Ryan Trecartin’s exhibition (where AraabMUZIK also performed) signals a deepening interest by the blue chip art world in how the added dimension of light and sculpture can actualize the live performance experience. Thunder Horse Video showed this off during other sets throughout the weekend, including gauzy white silk parachutes eerily lit and obscured by fog during TransAm’s performance of the seminal early record Futureworld at the Brillobox on opening night and Light Asylum’s transfixing performance on the main indoor stage, with giant industrial fans and beacons of light piercing through fog — another cinematic reference, this time perhaps to Bladerunner.

A few of the performing acts mixed their own visuals into their performances, creating succinct blends of the emerging field of the ‘a/v set’.  Extreme Animals and Battles (both including members who at one time lived in Pittsburgh), along with Peanut Butter Wolf, delivered live experiences that maximized imagery in direct collusion with audio content.  Battles’ oversized twin LCD screens looked like image coffins pressed behind the band on stage.  Extreme Animals riffed on found GIF imagery, similar to the aesthetic of Paper Rad, the visual arts collective of whom frontman Jacob Ciocci was a member. Interspersed with found videos like politician Christine O’Donnell’s infamous “I am not a witch”, and a promise to present the alternative ending to Harry Potter film series, the crowd went wild with excited confusion when the Extreme Animals set was punctuated by the dramatic inflating of Halloween pumpkins bearing the slogans “Never 4get” and “No Fear.” These videos of forgettable internet confessionals by teenagers across the world became monumentalized in the performative context, and feverishly juxtaposed with seemingly disparate musical references from REM to Miley Cyrus.  Delicately chopping up pop culture, politics, and a “try and fail” impulse, Extreme Animals offers up something more celebratory than a critique of media, seeming to encapsulate a spectacle, where the audience just can’t look away — from ourselves.

VIA’s programming was not limited to the live stage. Over the course of five days, several roving performances, a few on-site workshops, and a video lounge augmented the visual art emphasis at the festival. Bass Rally II and Heal the World, projects by Aaron Nemec of Indiana and Matt Barton of Colorado, respectively, utilized parking lots, streets, and bridges throughout the city of Pittsburgh to activate public space, with an eye towards sound. Matt Barton, costumed as a wizard, performed Heal the World throughout the weekend at various sites and ended up at the VIA main stage on Saturday. In between sets by Zombi and Laurel Halo, the wizard jumped on stage to a recording of binaural tonal sounds, forming a backdrop as Barton lead the VIA crowd in a wizard-worthy chakra session, ‘healing’ the space and the crowd in a simultaneously comical and transcendent collective hokey-pokey. A festival of this size makes this kind of micro-performance possible and is a welcome intervention to the traditional festival circuit.

Collaboration through video was an aspect of the group of artists who comprised sl0ppy:sec0nds. Artists Michelle Fried and Ben Kinsley invited three other video artists, Jerstin Crosby, David D’Agostino, and Eileen Maxson, to play a game of digital telephone, whereby a thirty second video is passed to the second artist, who then chops it up and remixes the audio and visuals (keeping to the 30 second timecode), and then passes it on to the next artist, who does the same. The result is a clever articulation of the problems and opportunities of mediation, comprising a nice counterpoint to the more involved and extended projects throughout the rest of the VIA festival.

sl0ppy:sec0nds was presented in the annex space for the two-night main event on Broad Street in the Penn Avenue/East Liberty district of Pittsburgh. Also in the space, REWIRE: HACK LAB, run by Pittsburgh’s ReWire and students from Carnegie Mellon University, engaged VIA festival attendees in simple hands-on electronics and circuitry. Emphasizing accessibility through art and music, projects like DRAWDIO allow makers to draw an instrument on a piece of paper in graphite, and then ‘play’ the instrument (thanks to the conductive properties of graphite). Handmade Films, a workshop by the collaborative group Bellows, led an offsite workshop where participants could draw, scratch and manipulate actual film. The results, introduced during the Friday night after-party set by New York DJ Tim Sweeney, merged collaborative practices with the aesthetics of painterly video artists like Amy Granat.

Next door to the Friday and Saturday night indoor stage was the Warhol Museum and Carnegie Museum of Art Video Lounge. The space featured projected and displayed videos by Paper Rad, Andy Warhol, and collaborative duo Peter Fischli and David Weiss, culled from the collections of both museums with transgression and entertainment in mind. Two films by Warhol–Kiss (1963) and Mario Banana (1964)–were a cultural reminder of  the avant-garde atmosphere of Warhol’s Factory years, particularly resonant adjacent to the genre-mixing environment VIA proposes and one that Warhol made pass in the art world.

If the Delphic passage is a safe space where the Olympic games’ attendee could ostensibly journey without fear of ongoing political strife, then festival goers at VIA were quickly reminded of current events by the capstone Saturday night performance of UNDERGROUND RESISTANCE. The legendary political Detroit quasi-techno group presented selections from their 1998 recording Interstellar Fugitives. The group’s hype was largely preceded by the curiosity of their anti-capitalist business philosophy and refusal to be recorded, which somehow was suspended for their performance in Pittsburgh, as they appeared unmasked and also agreed to recording for those lucky enough to catch the live streaming VIA’s website. The scene was set as the musicians took the stage, uncovered, chanting “I am. . . you are. . .we will.. .RESIST,” engaging the crowd with simultaneous chanting, a potent reminder of Occupy Wall Street’s ‘human megaphone’ technique. Underground Resistance brought the theater of the world stage back home, to Broad Street in Pittsburgh, and they were the only musicians to not have a visual presentation in their live performance. The crowd was left to image(ine) their own projections on the empty stage backdrop, marking a unique moment where the absence of the visual at VIA provided a provocative spur for the mind’s eye.

Find out more about the festival and artists at:

VIA’s Flickr set

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