SXSW Online: March 2021

Flashback to March 2020: SXSW was abruptly cancelled just a few days before the conference was scheduled to begin. This was our first indication that the COVID-19 pandemic was a serious problem. Like most people, Bill and I had no idea how much our lives would change in the coming year.

Fast-forward to March 2021: Austin’s Stage 4 restrictions prohibited large gatherings, so SXSW pivoted to a five-day online event. Bill and I had deferred our 2020 passes to 2022, allowing us to attend this year, too. The online format had some advantages: less exhausting; no long lines; fewer decisions to make; watch on demand (mostly); pause and rewind capabilities. We also liked watching the movies from home. SXSW Film had an excellent selection of documentaries this year. 

However, we missed the excitement of the in-person conference: the live music, the celebrities, the pop-up displays, and especially the free noms (food). Except for 2021 Emerging Tech Trends, I was disappointed in most of the Interactive sessions. Zoom Fatigue, I suppose. I watched a few Music sessions, which seemed like scrolling through YouTube. We are definitely looking forward to attending SXSW in person next year. 

Here’s my summary of SXSW 2021 Online:

FILMS (all are documentaries)

Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free: Found-footage of the making of his 1994 album Wildflowers interspersed with current remembrances by band members, producers, and family members. Tied with Under the Volcano for my favorite SXSW 2021 film. 

Under the Volcano: George Martin’s AIR Studios on the island of Montserrat opened in 1979 and hosted many popular musicians during the 1980s. This film featured old footage from the studio and interviews with musicians and employees. Tied with Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free for my favorite SXSW 2021 movie.

The Last Cruise: A short documentary about the Princess Cruise ship that was quarantined for a month at the start of the pandemic. Definitely not an advertisement for the cruise industry. 

Demi Lovato: Dancing with the Devil: A docu-series about Demi Lovato’s overdose in 2018 and her subsequent recovery. Also watched the Q&A with Demi and the series director, Michael D Ratner. It all came across as kind of self-promoting. Although she insisted several times that she’s now telling the truth, I wasn’t really convinced. Scooter Braun is now her manager, making me wonder again about Taylor Swift’s feud with him. 

Lily Topples the World: Lily is a 20-year-old shy domino master builder. Always fun to watch dominoes topple. This film was also self-promoting, but had a better heart than Dancing with the Devil

Soy Cubana: The Vocal Vidas, an acapella female quartet, traveled from their hometown of Santiago, Cuba, for several performances in Los Angeles. I enjoyed the music, but the storyline wasn’t too exciting.

Twyla Moves: This was mostly a biography about dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp, interspersed with recent clips of her creating a dance using Zoom. For a 79-year-old, she has an amazing amount of energy.

The Sparks Brothers: I’d never heard of the band Sparks before watching this documentary. Brothers Russell and Ron Mael have released 23 albums, written almost 300 songs, and toured extensively. Known for their quirky and unusual pop songs, Sparks has influenced numerous musicians including Beck, Weird Al Yankovic, and Franz Ferdinand. This film seemed a little long, but was interesting and fun. 

United States vs. Reality Winner: Reality Winner was a whistleblower who leaked an NSA document about Russian interference in the 2016 election to The Intercept. Her story is told through interviews with family, friends, and even Edward Snowden. She received a harsh sentence even though the document is now declassified and no national security damage was ever proven. She will probably be released from federal prison later this year. 

The Hunt for Planet B: I tried to fit in one last movie before the Saturday midnight deadline. Maybe it was just late, but I thought this documentary about the Webb Space Telescope was boring. 

KEYNOTES

Stacey Abrams:  How did I not know that Stacey Abrams writes romantic suspense novels under the pen name Selena Montgomery? Abrams is very impressive, but this interview was not. A more politically astute interviewer might have helped. However, I loved the Janelle Monae music video Turntables that preceded the interview.

Willie Nelson in Conversation with Andy Langer: Andy Langer did an excellent job with this interview. Willie answered his questions, but didn’t give him much to work with. Willie’s next album is called Energy Follows Thought. Kudos to the ASL interpreter. Quotes from Willie (not all were created by him): “Take my advice and do what you want.” “It’s all cosmic. I’m not responsible for anything at all!” “You can’t make a comeback until you retire.”

Secretary Pete Buttigieg in Conversation with Jonathan Capehart: Former Presidential candidate (and friend of Austin Mayor Steve Adler) Pete Buttigieg currently serves as the 19th US Secretary of Transportation. My favorite quote: “Sometimes roads need to go on a diet.”

SESSIONS

2021 Emerging Tech Trends: Always one of my favorite SXSW Interactive sessions. This year’s top trends per Amy Webb:

  1. The You of Things: devices that we will wear or imbed: smart glasses, rings, earbuds, wristbands, rollable phones, Ooler (heated/cooled sheets), Somonex Sleep Robot, home-based health tests. However, she added that there are lots of security & privacy concerns with all these things. 
  2. Assistive / Diminished Reality (melding the digital & physical worlds): sound repellents, behavior activation video games, noise-cancelling windows, visual & audio DR modes, customized AI videos (synths), synth fashion  
  3. New World Disorder: drones enforcing quarantines, new digital ID systems, open source digital recognition (used after the Jan. 6 US Capitol incident), cloud neutrality, synthetic biology

Inspiring Faith to Climate Action: Less interesting than I expected.

Data Detectives: Building Hopkins’ COVID Dashboard: Four employees of Johns Hopkins discussed their challenges in creating, scaling, and maintaining their COVID dashboard, which has over 400 diverse data inputs. 

Time Machines, Museums, and the Future of the Past: Three curators talked about the future of museums: they will be much more tailored to individual experiences; exhibitions will combine physical and digital aspects. 

Space is for Everybody: Insights from NASA Astronauts: Two astronauts answered questions about life on the Internation Space Station. This seemed more geared to children than adults.

3D Printing Homes to Reduce Homelessness: Although I wholeheartedly support Community First Village and their mission to address homelessness here in Austin, I was disappointed that they didn’t really talk about the 3D tiny homes that were recently built there.

Drawing is for Everyone: Let Spencer Nugent Show You How!: Using Adobe Fresco with an iPad and Apple pen, Spencer Nugent demonstrated drawing techniques. He showed how to draw an object by first sketching it as boxes. “When in doubt, rough it out.”

Immunized: COVID 19 and the Race for a Vaccine: In this excerpt from an upcoming CNN series, Sanjoy Gupta interviewed two vaccine developers, one in the UK and one in Australia. Both had worked on other types of vaccines.

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