Three things I learned at SxSW

SX isn't SW, interactive isn't interactive, and FREE! isn't free

Austin country blues outfit Down Home Texans play the streets

EVENTS/MUSIC South by Southwest is a mega-clusterfuck. Even its name is too crowded. Neither Austin's locals nor the festival's veterans have the time or patience to mouth the four syllables; they simply call it "South by" — dropping the more descriptive region designator of the two altogether. Given the rumor that Austin's population doubles from 1 million to 2 million during the 10-day event, this abstraction is befitting. Despite the few interactions I had with some of the locals — venue staff, college partiers, pedicab drivers, homo-projecting cowboys, and homeless beer can recyclers — I can't say I've seen Austin, only the spectacle they call SX.

The festival is sectioned into three categories: interactive, film, and music. Interactive and music never blend (not officially, at least), just as geeks and rock stars are like oil and vinegar. But film overlaps both. Each camp is roughly five days long, and each is jack-in-the-box-packed with all-day events ranging from industry-celebrity keynotes, to trade shows, to corporate-sponsored tent parties, to "Come as You Are Yoga" and other "stress-relieving" seminars. Having unfettered access to all three, including any unofficial events and parties I caught wind of, was equivalent to being handed a golden ticket to the Wonka Factory and told, "Eat up. Whatever you find, it's yours."

The problem, as with most sprawling, supersized festivals, is that there is too much to consume. Too many things are happening simultaneously, and too many sound enticing, so you end up spending the majority of your mornings trying to navigate the best-patterned routes by RSVPing to and marking down upwards of 20 events a day on three different schedules (there's a printed, online, and iPhone app schedule, each with varying levels of accuracy and event details). After you've lined up all your top-tier choices and fallbacks for the day and mapped out their requisite times and locations, you have to go do it, to experience everything the tech, film, and music world has to offer.

Herein lies the other problem. Hordes of other festival fanatics have this same golden ticket. They, too, are running around with intricately-woven agendas and too much on their plate. But due to logistical hangups — feeding and relieving the body, small talk with recognized faces, getting lost on Austin's manic Sixth Street or on the labyrinthine trade show floor of the Convention Center — these itineraries disintegrate like dominoes made of dust. You make it to a few events you planned for, if they aren't over capacity, and then you catch glimpses — shards, really — of several others throughout the day as you hopscotch around downtown Austin.

This isn't so bad. I got to see and hear a lot in 10 days. Approximately 30 panels, 10 films, and 40 music acts. For someone who eats his food too fast, this should feel normal — or at least somewhat familiar. But it doesn't. Not being able to digest any of the fragmented sensory input because there's always something beckoning around the corner, I now empathize with poor Violet Beauregarde. Revealingly, the majority of the discourse and conversation surrounding SxSW took place through Twitter feeds, thumbs up/down responses, and the words "awesome" or "lame" yelled or whispered in a neighbor's ears. The Q&A sessions for the festival's panels and films were cut short or canceled entirely due to rigid time constraints, and interviews or thoughtful debate were ransacked by over-stimulation that collectively crippled attention spans. Engagement, as it turned out, seemed to be hiding elsewhere.


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