This year, at my jubilee tenth SXSW attendance, I was focusing much more on the people than on the events. It’s because of that feeling of missing everything once you have the badge and the madness starts rolling.
People queue for hours, in weird roundabouts. How do they manage to understand the geography of the Austin streets and theaters? Sometimes I had to ask people in lines the name of the event they were about to attend, or even the name of the theater. The crowds knew much better than the paper programs, in tiny print, written by volunteer staffers with too many tasks on their hands.
While sharing moments of vicinity with strangers, we talked over the event, the program, the organization…and the dozens of thousands of musical interactive and film tourists, lovers, performers. I was all of that and one of them.
I enthusiastically watched the SXSW keynote of Paola Antonelli, the Italian American design curator of the New York Museum of Modern Art. Paola Antonelli told the geeks what is new under the sun, confronting the new movers and shakers of a different world, with a very Italian-style passionate speech, but with American precision and pragmatism.
I also hugely enjoyed Koert van Mensvoort’s lecture about Next Nature, and how the borders between natural and designed by man are rapidly eluding our imagination. The Dutch futurist visionary talk was an artsy prank and performance, I don’t know which, but I was buying every word of this extremely urban and scientifically oriented presentation. Beware what future you wish for, you may get what you want!
Again following the crowds, I hoped to find an Arab princess lecturing about women’s rights, but instead found myself at a different keynote entirely, a transgendered, transhumane , post-human and post scientific and postreason rant that the crowds hugely appreciated and that made me shiver. I was gullible enough to believe that this transgender star was in fact an Arab princess, a supposition that stretched my imagination even more than the substance of the speech.
However, after about ten minutes, when Ray Kurzweil was mentioned as the guru of this speaker, I realized that I was witnessing a mystical new wave of religion plus technology plus hacker scientism… a wacky combo that no Arab princess would ever care to deliver. Since every woman is a princess, myself included, I left the hall wondering at the enthusiasm of the SXSW interactive crowds and distrusting their judgment as never before.
Instead I chose to meandered into rooms where only few were attending. I was gratified with a extremely serious, almost academic, lecture about 3D printed fashion by Dutch designer Pauline van Dongen, which was by the way beautiful. I was ready-to-wear anything she created, in a wave of enthusiasm I rarely experience with fashion brands.
I saw a great MIT panel, also for an exclusive few, about biohacking. It’s a shame huge crowds weren’t there to understand how hard it is to something like that, and what an ethical mess biohacking can be.
Nelly Ben Hayoun’s science documentary, “Disaster Playground,” had its movie premiere. It’s about asteroids possibly striking the earth, and cheerfully tackles the huge political problems that would be posed by any genuine planetary disaster. Nobody in charge to battle real asteroids; all we can do is answer one another’s red phones and discuss the technical prospect of somehow saving humanity.
Then came a documentary about Ross Ulbricht and his Bitcoin drug empire, the “Silk Road.” As usual, the documentaries at SXSW much outwit the normal American fare of horror films and thrillers: zombies, comic-book heroes, and extremely complicated paranoid thrillers which completely lack political awareness and exist only to frighten the audience and make them feel stupid.
Bewildered by film and high technology, I started clubbing, and that was the best part of the event. Live bands were all over town, one after another, one better than another, off and on stage of SXSW: never mind, nobody was perfect, but they were all awesome. Especially after a good “Mexican martini” with tequila and olives, which ought to be the ultimate bonding material for all the splintered music tribes of blues, punk, country, rock and electronica.
I didn’t manage to cram myself inside the packed venue for Gary Clark Jr, a kid from Austin who has become the blues rock critic’s darling. My friends knew his father: and many years ago, Gary’s father had told them, watch out for my son, he will be big some day. And he was good: singing like Jimi Hendrix, a psychedelic blues very elaborate and intellectual, but emotional and honest!
I was content to stand outside the barred gates of the club together with many young bluesers who some day will be big too, because they mean to keep Austin weird so the blues can never die… The police and bouncers were all over the huge crowds this year, herding the crowds like cattle, while the Uber and Lyft drivers, notwithstanding their controversies all over the world, however managed to get us through the blockaded roads.
As we fought traffic, I remembered the prophesy of Google expert Astro Teller, lecturing us on how high-tech robot cars will be outsmarting the ever-more-sloppy human drivers. The social and political conflicts between man and machines — nothing new there! Dr Strangelove could be anybody nowadays; he doesn’t need a nuclear arsenal, just a billion dollars and a startup garage.
Love it or not, SXSW is no longer about computers. No, it’s all about mobiles now, handheld, wireless devices, with scarcely a laptop in sight. If they can’t meet their needs with a mobile app, it scarcely seems to be a human need at all.
Last but not least, I sang and danced as usual at the annual EFF Austin party thanks to Jon Lebkowsky: whistle blowers were blowing their brave news, bourbon was freely flowing through our veins, what can a woman want more from SXSW !