Should There Be an Official Art Component at SXSW 2014?

Should There Be an Official Art Component at SXSW 2014?JMR and Shepard Fairey Murals Outside the VEVO Control Room / Photo by Mack Simpson

The annual SXSW (South by Southwest) festival in Austin, Texas is inescapable. Whether in the form of a trending hashtag on Twitter or a heavily-discussed topic amongst your friends and work colleagues, the 10-day technology, pop culture, and music event gets bigger (and more annoying) each year. After attending for three days this year, I can affirm that there's just too much to take in—from people to parties, panels, showcases, and screenings. Despite the seemingly endless lines to wait in and open bars to consume from, is it possible that SXSW could be missing a vital element? As people are becoming more and more conscious of art and design's role in in technology, pop culture, and music, it's not advantageous to think that SXSW's growth should include an art-focused layer of discussion.  

This isn't to say that 2013's festival didn't include gestures of art-making. New NYC-based startup, Indiewalls, commissioned Shepard Fairey and JMR to produce large murals outside of the popular VEVO Control Room. Inside the venue, art by AVone (who also did live painting) was sold using QR code wall labels. A few blocks down 3rd Street, they also set up the HGTV #LoveHome Art Wall with JMR, where visitors could paint a block of white brick wall with anything they wanted. Even Lupe Fiasco made a contribution.

From March 8 to 12, NYC-based creative agency Learned Evolution set up the interactive #FEED Powered by Twitter event, which explored creative collaborations at the intersection of art and technology. Their nightly party, cleverly named @NIGHT to correspond with their Twitter handle, brought DJs onto projection-mapped stages with interactive walls at the Austin Museum of Art at the Jones Center.

Design was the topic of many panels but never art explicitly. One of the biggest gestures was the Flatstock 38 tradeshow, exhibiting work by the world's top gig poster artists at the Austin Convention Center through a partnership with the American Poster Institute. Geoff Peveto, Shepard Fairey, and Ahmed Batista spoke on a panel about the global renaissance of the gig poster, arguing that posters offer artists an unprecedented opportunity in the digital age to represent their brands. It was an important debate, but it wasn't promoted as strongly as more repetitive industry conversations.

As a regular attendee of art gallery openings, fairs, and events, I've tried to understand why the larger art world separates itself from or isn't invited to larger cultural gatherings like SXSW. Art, as a reflection of our culture, history, and economy, belongs in this milieu, but only appears at events like SXSW in the context of bringing an audience into an unrelated conversation or boosting a brand's profile to more image-conscious millennials. Art is typically discussed in the distanced context of designing tech platforms or cars, as if only to provide brief, non-musical entertainment. Even at music festivals like Coachella, incorporating art feels forced, like an obligation to erect mediocre installations and sculptures. 

As more and more people realize the need to make art accessible and understandable, for both education and utility, giving it a lane at SXSW for artists, gallerists, technologists, and curators is imperative. Instead of treating art as an afterthought or a cute gesture, we should encourage more of what Indiewalls, Learned Evolution, and the American Poster Institute brought to Austin last week. Incorporating art into larger cultural discussion is essential to maintaining the validity of increasingly large, multi-media events, SXSW included.

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Tags: sxsw, art, festivals, vevo, vevo-control-room
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