I have a pretty set routine that very delicately balances work and school, sandwiching meals and sleep somewhere in the nooks and crannies of my schedule. So my friends and colleagues were pretty caught off guard when I told them I was hitting up South by Southwest (SXSW) for spring break this year.
The lure of a festival that combines my three great passions — interactive media, film and music — was just too great to ignore, but I wasn’t sure if I could afford either the time or the cost. Though I started planning months in advance, I was ready at any moment to cancel the flight and refused to pack until the night before. It didn’t really sink in until I got off the plane, touched down in Austin, Texas, and shed my winter coat.
In order to waive the registration fees for a badge that lets me attend interactive and film events, I had to volunteer over 60 hours during the festival. Basically, I worked the equivalent of a full-time and a part-time job during my supposed vacation. But shaking hands with Bill Plympton after his panel on the plight of the indie animator made it all worth it. Not even awkwardly handing him a twenty for his autograph on a sketch of a cow could ruin that magical moment.
Tons of amazing indie films have premiered at SXSW, but I’m definitely partial to the music documentaries. This year’s Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye by the brilliant Marie Losier did not disappoint. Losier self-produced and shot footage of Genesis Breyer P-Orridge and wife, Lady Jaye Breyer, over four years and deftly edited it into a cohesive arc. She was able to complete the project thanks partly to a successful Kickstarter campaign.
The film tidily summarizes Gen’s transformation from Neil Andrew Megson into the father of industrial music and an icon of controversial art. But the strength of the film is in its exhibition of the love between Gen and Lady Jaye, who passed away unexpectedly in 2007. The film fully cements Gen’s wish that they not be remembered just for the hate and controversy their art often incited, but rather for a love affair so great that two souls agreed to literally become one.
Sadly, I couldn’t be there during the Q&A when Genesis Breyer P-Orridge explained their “pandrogyne” project to a mixed crowd of hardcore fans and middle Americans who never heard of Throbbing Gristle. But I heard second-hand from a Texan that Gen was quite charming and behaved like the sweetest British grannie you ever did meet. I guess I’ll have to roam the East Village and stalk them here instead.
In the beginning, I was disappointed by the interactive portion of the festival. Instead of being awed and inspired by creators of new media, I found myself surrounded by schmoozy drunks with too many business cards. But soon I found a group of artsy drunks and happily spent some quality hangover time with them. One of the last interactive panels I got to attend was coordinated by Nick Hasty, Director of Technology for Rhizome and an alumnus of my program. He presented on emerging trends in internet art and invited three superstars to present their work: Aaron Meyers, Petra Cortright and Ryder Ripps.
Throughout their presentation, attendees could comment through Twitter using the hashtag #netartsxsw. But the stream was mostly a recap of the talk, serving as proof to friends at home that we were getting thoroughly cultured at SXSW and not just thoroughly wasted. Once in a while there was some mindless criticism, as expected from the internet. One person felt so compelled to complain he stood up and told the panel he was disappointed they wasted his time. He sat back down and stayed the entire Q&A as other questioners often chided him for not respecting the panelists. But sometimes these remarks also felt ingenuine and was another excuse to schmooze and act impressive. Sadly, though the topic was interesting and the panelists were talented, I don’t quite think SXSW is ready to discuss whether the internet is art.
I think part of the problem is that many of us self-identify as artists. We live in an age of unstructured and unbridled creativity. It takes less than an hour to find and download a cracked version of Photoshop and start fiddling with paintbrush tools whereas years ago, the cost of paints prohibited painting as a leisurely activity for everyone. If one makes a mistake with creative work done on a computer, it takes a simple click or keyboard stroke to undo and forget about it. Even badly played musical instruments can be digitally altered. We all create now, and sometimes we create things that we call art. But that doesn’t make us all artists. Moreover, people who work in interaction often fall into the trap of creating cool and interesting things just for the sake of creating them; students of my school are definitely guilty of this. That most definitely does not make an artist.
It used to be that those who can, do, and those who can’t, criticize. But these days, those who can’t, still do, but they do so in a mediocre way. The documentary Press Pause Play, which also debuted at SXSW, explores the positive and negative aspects of the new media revolution. It’s a very well done film, with interviews of some of the most brilliant folks in the creative field. But at times, it felt like a reality shot I didn’t want to get. The feature excellently asks the question: is it a problem that being creative is no longer an elitist activity? And the answer I gathered was: it only is if you want to make money from your creativity.
I couldn’t, however, worry about that too much in Austin. The cost of living is low, the people are genuinely nice, and the weather in March really helps my tan. But whenever I saw a scene of the New York skyline in a movie or whenever I find myself walking for miles after a 2 a.m. last call, I was bawling on the inside out of homesickness. It was a lovely time away, but I’m glad to be home now to slip back into my beautiful routine.