Each year in March, a strange and wonderful mix of people descend on Austin, Texas, for the two weeks of madness known as South By Southwest – or SXSW to aficionados. (Tickets just went on sale this month for 2014.) If you’ve heard of SXSW, it’s probably in relation to the legendary music festival, or in more recent years, the interactive festival where designers and developers launch “unheard of” ideas which grow to dominate our digital landscape, like Twitter and Pinterest.
SXSW is also known for its legendary parties, it is true. So what was I doing there earlier this year in my professional capacity as Chief of Education and Interpretation for PEM?
Well, it’s much more than music, parties and internet geeks, although it is all those things. In the space of two weeks, Austin hosts four conferences and two festivals, which all overlap and blend into one another. The conferences are for education, music, film and interactive, and everyone who is everyone in those businesses arrive to discuss, meet, launch, promote – and party. Who could have all those film and music people in town without there actually being film and music to watch and dance to? So there’s also a music and film festival. And of course, because all these great bands and movie stars are available, they are booked not just for the festivals, but also for conference events – the 2013 closing event for the Interactive conference attendees was a free Vampire Weekend gig.
One of the most surreal moments I encountered this year was outside the famous old Paramount Theater on Congress. Stevie Nicks from Fleetwood Mac was emerging with Dave Stewart from the Eurythmics after a screening of their documentary In Your Dreams, along with Dave Grohl from the Foofighters. Simultaneously, Snoop Dogg was arriving to promote his new film and indeed whole new persona, Snoop Lion. These events were both part of the film conference, but all these artists would also be performing later in the week as part of the music festival.
SXSW is not a conference as you know it – or rather, it is, but it is more. Yes, you can follow a “normal” conference schedule of 9-5 lectures at the convention center, but there are also meet-ups, hang outs, breakfast launches, mentor sessions, or even a start-up “village” during the interactive section – and these take place 24/7 all around the city. All of these have once-in-a-lifetime speakers – and also usually a great DJ, or a famous band slumming it acoustically, and at least a free burrito or good ole southern BBQ. Every meeting room, seminar room, lobby and garden in all Austin’s hotels are booked out for the festival. There is one street where all the residents turn their homes into temporary bars; every spare inch of the city is filled with giant tents and more to explore.
This year I found the MIT Media Lab showing off electronic pianos made from bananas, in a muddy car park opposite the famous Ironworks BBQ and nearby, the most exciting new product launch that everyone was buzzing about, Leap Motion was demonstrating in another muddy tent. But Google really excelled themselves by buying out an entire restaurant situated exactly across the entrance to the convention center and turning it into “GoogleVillage” for the duration. Only available to interactive conference attendees, you entered a world of Googleness including an indoor obstacle course to try out their new wearable technology, free PB&J and coke floats, old fashioned board games and an artisanal coffee bar.
How much “conference” can you fit into 24 hours?
SXSW anxiety – the fear that you are missing something not just good, but groundbreaking which is also probably the most fun you’ve ever had – sets in early, usually around four hours after you receive your official entrance badge which will allow you into whichever section(s) you have booked for, plus a lot of fringe unofficial stuff.
If all this sounds exhausting, it is, and the key is not only to pace yourself, but to go with the flow, talk with people and keep your ear to the ground. That’s when you really find out which talk / hang / meet-up / launch is buzzing – for example the muddy tent showing off Leap Motion, new gestural technology that allows you to interact with your computer screen without using a keyboard, mouse, pen or similar – just yourself and air.
You can attend just the film, or just the education, or just the music conferences if you like – or you can get a badge that allows you to attend all the conferences and the festivals; the only thing limiting you will be your stamina. Even if you “limited” yourself to, say, the education section only, there is so much blending between the different disciplines that you will not be deprived. This year, the film festival organizers put on a specific program of education documentaries for the education section.
Education ladies vs technology geeks
This year was also the first that I attended both education and interactive conferences, which meant that I was in Austin for nearly two weeks. Kicking off with the education conference and staying to watch as it segued into interactive was interesting. Education was definitely the most low key, although that’s all relative – the film festival was in full swing and the education speakers were fantastic, culminating with a certain Bill Gates as the closing keynote speaker. As he was giving his remarks, interactive was rolling into town.
The Googlevillage popped up, the weather perked up, the attendees got distinctly younger and hipper. And as the conference progressed, the town geared up even more for the arrival of the music business people, and the rumors (later confirmed) that Prince would be playing the final gig of the festival.
It’s important to distinguish between the conferences and the festivals, because the conferences are serious business, and there are major deal makers and breakers in town. I had a most pleasant surprise when I found that an old childhood friend, Benji Rogers, was listed as a star speaker in the interactive conference. He was actually in town for the music conference – and was listed under their programming too – an ultimate demonstration of the porous boundaries between the disciplines. The last time I had seen him, a starving musician, over a pint he told me about his brilliant idea for a crowd-sourcing music funding website. Roll on four years and here he was at SXSW, being feted not just by the music business for his amazing project PledgeMusic which Nielson research says could be the savior of the music industry, but also as a start-up guru. He was being chased for advice by all the interactive folk with new ideas for digital engagement. It was pretty difficult to get onto his calendar for a catch up!
But despite all this excitement it’s also vital to remember the best thing about SXSW – it’s truly inspiring, and every year you come away overflowing with new ideas, having been exposed to a world of new possibilities.
Editor’s Note: Juliette met MIT Media Lab’s Janice Wang at SXSW in the Muddy Tent. Wang will be featured in one of our Creativity Labs during PEM’s Future Creativity Gala on Nov. 9.