From March 16-20, 2021, South by Southwest (SXSW) transformed into an online universe that aimed to replicate the in person experience of this multi-sensory Austin extravaganza. Yes, I greatly missed the in person socializing, not to mention the lack of Texas BBQ courtesy of Stubbs, Franklins, or Salt Lick. Virtual events like Cheesin’ Around with Nick Offerman (courtesy of #SXSWisconsin), Seedlip’s non-alcoholic cocktail class, and the Great Belgium Beer Giveaway (presented by Flanders Investment & Trade) spoke to some of the more whimsical elements of SXSW.
However, watching this frivolity online made me nostalgic for in-person connections. Hence, I found myself drawn to those sessions that spoke to ways of re-imagining the community and connections that I long for in a post-COVID world. For example, in “Life in the Vast Lane – Living Life on Four Wheels,” Bob Wells, who played himself in the film Nomadland, offers practical guidance and hope for those interesting in adopting a nomadic lifestyle. Check out his work at HomesOnWheelsAlliance.org.
Seminars like “Did Tech Save the Events Industry?,” “Keynote: Priya Parker (author of The Art of Gathering) with Anand Giridharadas,” “Leading Safely + Motivating Emphatically,” “Live Music in Venues: What’s Next?,” and “We Want Shows Again! Concerts in a Post-Covid World” educated me as to the possibilities of public gatherings in a post-Covid era. The majority of those surveyed do not seem eager to congregate in large groups. Customer requests for private spaces have led to a rise in requests for in-room dining, as well as the addition of yurts and tents that offer private dining spaces.
In light of these consumer preferences, expect to see a rise of hybrid virtual events ranging from cooking classes, wine tastings, and beer festivals to sporting events, theatrical shows, and music concerts. These events will likely be curated to attract smaller local crowds for more an intimate in person experience, while also exploring ways to provide when applicable a virtual component designed to appeal to a more global audience.
Also, while most of the health seminars focused on the latest research into vaccines, the seminar “Pushing Our Bodies and Minds Beyond the Limits,” hosted by the Texas A&M Space Lab presented the ongoing research as to how extended periods of time in space impacted astronauts’ physical and emotional wellbeing. This research spoke to the need to address not just the science behind vaccines but also the physical and emotional effects on our bodies as we come out of this current extended period of global isolation.
SXSW Online 2021 - Film Festival
With a reduced online viewing schedule, catching even a sampling of the films presented at this festival proved to be an impossibility. Following are a selection of films that caught my eye in particular.
1. Demi Lovata: Dancing With the Devil, which drops on Lovato’s YouTube Channel on March 23, 2021, delves into the realities of a child pop star’s struggles with addiction without the usual PR spin that tends to paint celebrity stories of addiction with a rose colored brush.
2. The Hunt for Planet B (World Premiere) is a character-driven documentary captures the real life as a group of female scientists plan to use NASA's new high-stakes Webb Telescope in their search for life beyond Pluto.
3. Once Upon A Sea from 360 Films featured an immersive experience of the Dead Sea. In addition, those with access to a Oculus or a PC could view a wide range of VR films and experiences available throughout the festival.
4. The Oxy Kingpins (World Premiere) connects the dots between pharmaceutical manufacturers, distributors, street criminals, and retailers and the sale of pills to pharmacies, hospitals, and pain management clinics across the country. Log on here for updates regarding this documentary.
5. Sasquatch: A 3-Part Documentary Series from Emmy®-winning Duplass Brothers and director Joshua Rosé depicts the 25 year journey of investigative journalist David Holthouse as he followed the story of an alleged Bigfoot attack in the Emerald Triangle. The truth hidden within this area called the Napa Valley of Cannabis points to a convoluted path that leads to a truth far more terrifying and distributing than any mythical creature. Debuts on Hulu, April 20, 2021.
6. United States v Reality Winner (World Premiere) tells the story of Reality Winner, a 25-year old whistleblower whose saga never got the press of fellow whistleblower Edward Snowden.
7. We Are As Gods explores the many sides of Stewart Brand, a founder of the modern environmental movement, a member of Ken Kesey’s “The Merry Pranksters,” and creator of the Whole Earth Catalogue.
8. We Work: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn unpacks Adam Neumann’s vision of a community-centric people-first ideal of collaborative co-working, and serves as a cautionary tale of following any hippie-messianic leader. Debuts on Hulu April 2, 2021.
9. Witch Hunt (World Premiere). This fictionalized account of a modern America where witches are real and witchcraft is illegal follows the travails of a sheltered teenager and her mother as they assist two witches seeking asylum in Mexico. #witchhuntmovie
SXSW Online 2021 - Music Festival
As expected, SXSW featured some of the latest technology designed to enhance one’s virtual digital experiences. Qobuz, a certified Hi-Res music streaming and download service, offers users a free trial for those looking for an elevated streaming service.
In an ironic twist of sorts, Texan native Willie Nelson made his first appearance as a keynote speaker at SXSW 2021 Online. Once again, his stories embodied a life of an artist following their own path and not the whims of corporate culture.
Throughout the conferences, I found myself grateful for the creative ways musicians presented their wares. For example, London promoter Jazz re:freshed and producer British Underground created a virtual showcase at Abbey Road Studios featuring musicians from the UK's explosive emerging jazz scene. Without the live audience connections that complete a concert experience for me, I felt more drawn more to viewing on my screens documentaries and sessions that afforded unique takes on musicians’ creative processes.
Among the music themed offerings that caught my eye included: “Brian Eno & Stewart Brand on Film, Music, and Creativity,” Disintegration Loops (examination of avant-garde composer William Basinski’s infamous work tied to 9/11 from a contemporary perspectives in quarantine as we approach the the 20th anniversary 9/11), Poly Styrene: I am a Cliché (story of a punk icon whose story was previously unknown to me), Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free and Under the Volcano (exploration of the artists who frequented George Martin’s A/R Studios in Montserrat).
My preview guide for navigating SXSW 2021 Online contains links for those interested in exploring the myriad virtual programming selections with the hope we can all gather in person for SXSW 2022.