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after party for the american century

dan mackinlay: sxsw 2010, austin, texas

Xiao Hei, SXSW 2010 Xiao Hei, SXSW 2010
courtesy the artist

First, some terminology. South By Southwest is more usually written SXSW and pronounced ‘South By.’ It’s a 23-year-old umbrella event encompassing several specialist media sub-events. It attracts, they say, 25,000 people every year. It has an enormous program, comprising exhibitions, film screenings, panels, yet-to-be-classified online happenings and a huge number of showcase concerts.

In some art forms—music, film and interactive media—the event has a serious global profile. I’m here for the latter. SXSW has become the favoured venue for turning your latest networked interaction venture into an instant fad using the power of champagne and a well-spruiked launch. It’s where you go to meet up with Big Names, to make it clear that this season’s innovations include you. It’s here the myopic vision of the American public just might snap into focus on your new idea. If you work in locative and networked worlds you might, like me, recall it as the place where Twitter debuted; where geosocial networks hold treasure hunts; a hotbed of geocaching where augmented reality-layers quilt the city. A place where cyberpunk technoaesthetic fantasies precipitate from the hyperbole-supersaturated air. An embassy of the American future towering in the present.

In Australia, where we have our own special kind of myopia, it isn’t on the map. SXSW may tower in the US, but it is invisible over the Pacific horizon. Sheer geographical accident plants me in the path of the wagon train to Texas in the lead-up to the festival. I don’t resist, head spinning with half-remembered buzz and rumour, and futuristic hype. I fire up the browser and see what’s scheduled. There are endorsements from the Cocteau Twins, Village Studios and a half-dozen Silicon Valley startups on the festival’s web-page, dammit! What could go wrong?

The first SXSW project to engage me can be found without joining the throng in Austin. London-based Reality Jockey (RJDJ) have packaged up a custom mobile app for the occasion called Hijack SXSW using your phone’s microphone input to create indecipherable algorithmic remixes of the audio content of your environment. An accompanying website helps attendees share generative remixes of the sounds of festival events. The soundscape algorithm is painstakingly produced, harmoniously incorporating every conceivable input from motion sensor to GPS. It’s beautiful, mysterious and no doubt transgresses intellectual property rights; in short, it has everything to make it a viral hit at the kind of festival that I wish I were at. It’s a promising start—and incidentally, just the latest in a long line of interactive pieces from the mobile interactive music startup, which freely distributes tools to assist reactive music composers.

Unfortunately, while RJDJ makes SXSW look good from afar, the experience of actually walking through the door is less alluring. The dizzying hype of SXSW is matched by the vertiginous expense of entry: at US$1350 for a full ticket it’s closer to the price of a high-level professional conference than an arts event. It’s either a sign of arrogance or a promise of excellence to charge as much as the Sri Lankan per-capita GDP for a week-long event. It’s also a pretty steep rate for Americans in the midst of severe recession. Coming overland to Austin, my train rolls across a landscape of alienation and poverty. Trailer parks, bail-bond loan offices and abandoned strip malls, sun-baked and silent desert prisons, public toilet queues clogged with doped-out drug users. I’m no expert in the political economy of the USA but I cannot help see the abysmal income divide here.

A steam punk fairy godmother at Plutopia A steam punk fairy godmother at Plutopia
photo Dan MacKinlay
My first few physical encounters with the festival are unexciting: performances that claim to be ‘innovative’ because they play music with synthesisers as well as guitars; a ‘game art’ exhibition that is nothing but framed concept sketches for a manga-themed shoot ‘em up; and fliers telling you to sell your music in Guitar Hero. Soon enough, I gravitate to the fringes, where the interesting things are hiding—like Plutopia, a one-night anarchic, psychedelic counterculture celebration. The whole thing is cloistered away from the Convention Centre crowd at the Mexican American Cultural courtyard by the river. On one side, a local produce shop and on the other, microbreweries and distilleries. In the middle, roving troupes of steampunk designers, circus performers and dorkbot delegates showcase their wares. A bustled Victorian grandmother hawks interstellar neutrino machines made from washing machine parts. Geeks in labcoats are tending a giant glowing brain. On the main stage sits Chinese artist Xiao He in a straw hat, working up a variegated soundscape of custom digital delays and reprocessed vocals in one of my favourite performances of the whole program.

Futurist Bruce Sterling delivers a curious and rambling keynote speech for Plutopia, surveying digital fabrication, internet-facilitated regional cooperation and the potential for social media in sustainability. His opening statement crystallises the concerns that have driven me to the periphery of SXSW: “Tomorrow I’m speaking at SXSW, which is sponsored by Pepsi and Chevy. Tonight I’m speaking at Plutopia, which is sponsored by steampunk fairy godmothers who make cool stuff out of junk.”

Outside, the logos of those particular corporations are tessellated into ambient infomercial wallpaper across every surface. Branding saturates everything: presentation screens, the festival guidebook, social network sites, the pavement, passing cars, electrical outlets. It is a preview of a dystopian future of complete advertising domination, which is to say: something like living on the present-day internet. I feel like I have entered the world’s largest corporate marketing focus group. It is so suffocatingly intense that it’s hard to find space for anything not strictly commercial.

Back at the convention centre, stuff does manage to happen in the gaps between gimcrack promotions: panels featuring various Web 2.0 luminaries, trade shows, screenings. Queues for the overbooked sessions are long and entry is uncertain. When I manage to get into something it tends to be a presentation by a harried refugee from some shaky startup whose primary concern is not innovation in form or content but how to market their existing content in the middle of an economic downturn. Making your projects profitable is nothing to sneer at, of course, but as one panel after another turns into a group counselling session to allay fears of falling into the poverty chasm, I begin to wonder if there are any messages here other than boom year nostalgia.

The Austin Museum of Digital Art has at least harnessed the power of nostalgia for good. Their entry into SXSW is themed around naïve video art, 8-bit animation and digital primitivism hearkening back to the Reagan administration. A multi-headed video setup displays shifting mixes of single channel video works by Gangpol & MIT and Mato Atom. There are a number of excellent live performances, including a rhythmic aural streetscape by Pierce Warnecke. The stand-out is Austin local Party Time! Hexcellent!, who generates live visuals using custom software on an original Nintendo Entertainment system. Her minimalist algorithms and grimy television colour palette eclipse the hypersaturated phosphor colours of her peers as she patiently details her pictographic language in blocky squares and arrows. Compelling.

Eventually I wind up at a launch for the new book by Virtual Reality and reactive gaming pioneer Jaron Lanier, where the man himself eulogises the media business models of the past. Occasionally he punctuates an argument about the vacuity of modern digital arts by playing nameless woodwind instruments and challenging people to Google them. I don’t wholly agree with Lanier’s thesis—his book supposes that the digital status quo reifies and depersonalises creative labour, and that Web 2.0 practice is wiping out the potential for dignity in artistic life or individually expressive aesthetics. After five days of SXSW, however, I can’t remember why I disagree.

Lanier eloquently sums up the insecurities of his audience of digital creatives. Here we sit, self-identified digerati, at a festival made for people like us, and yet the day’s highlights comprised the chance to shove our business cards at a dwindling crop of future employers and mourn for lost security. We are here looking for the future; many of us feel we have been pivotal in building it, and yet we seem to have done ourselves out of the dividends. But if Lanier makes these regrets and fears explicit, the festival feels reactionary in many other implicit ways—the perennial dominance of good old fashioned rock music, the retro technology, the frenetic commercialism crowding out the art. This party might rock like it’s the height of the boom of half a decade ago, but its grip on that vanished past is fearfully white-knuckled.

SXSW 2010, Austin, Texas, March 12-21,

RealTime issue #97 June-July 2010 pg. 6

© Dan MacKinlay; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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