72 freaky hours in Austin

Diversity, drones and TikTok at SXSW 2022


Mark Terry-Lush



Kinky Friedman is exactly the kind of person you hope to bump into in Austin – a Texas cowboy, hat and boots, swaddled in an embroidered shirt, harbouring a penchant for barbecued food. Friedman is an American singer, satirist and novelist who, I think, wrote the coolest book about Austin, the location for SXSW

Exactly where I am right now.

I got my first taste of Kinky’s Austin in 2016, when I cut my teeth on the SXSW Interactive Festival. It was an almost spiritual experience, fuelled by VR, AR, MR dancing robots and late nights meeting tech entrepreneurs, infamous musicians, the odd screen star and a spy from British Intelligence.

In 2019 I got 10 times more out of my experience by reading Kinky’s “The Great Psychedelic Armadillo Picnic” before I stepped off the plane. His insider’s guide to Austin is a timeless gallop in a slightly insane, practical, and kick-ass guide to the coolest city in Texas.

So attending this year’s South by Southwest, of course, was an absolute essential.

I come to SXSW to recharge my creative batteries. The larger-than-life city of Austin is once again transformed into a vibrant vivacious got-to-be-there-to-believe-it epicentre of chaos and cool. I’m already in so deep my jet-lag is no match for my exhaustion – catching what sleep I can amidst this dazzling diamond.

Because you have to be physically and emotionally up to the challenge of every conceivable and unconceivable reality SXSW throws at you. 

It’s Bitch O’Clock

One moment I’m in Kinky’s Austin, trying to work out where to get the best free barbecue – and then, turn a corner and run across Lizzo, the award winning entertainer and body positivity empowerment icon promoting her soon to debut reality TV show Watch Out for the Big Grrls on Prime Video. As with everything Lizzo touches, she’s a reverie to representation, wrapped up in her search for backup dancers, inflaming body positivity for all of us watching. 

From meta to motor via synthetic biology

NFT interest is clear at SXSW, with some of the longest lines leading to activations like Fluf World and Doodles. Fluf launched last year with rabbit-based NFTs, and its fairground attracts like a moth to a Meta flame.

But it’s not all optimism in the Metaverse, futurologist Amy Webb paints a picture of AI now makes decisions for itself, alongside an apocalyptic web3 where mis-information is rife, videos and content are produced by AI and our data is harvested by third parties and re-sold with impunity – how will we cope when data is stored on spare DNA?   

The technology already exists to replace facial recognition with heartbeat and breath recognition, are we soon to see a biological fingerprint industry countered by wearable and make up-based blocking technology? Intertwining our lives with technology will see the advent of the motorverse where autonomous, electric vehicles become second offices, even alternative bed or living rooms powered by VR.

TikTok, Boom

But there’s no time to ponder such metaphysical musings, there’s 10 things to take in at once. I move on and am prompted to wonder, has TikTok really won the content war? Aside from candy coloured seminars and creator meet-ups, as part of the Film Festival I sit down to watch TikTok, Boom, a documentary that chronicles the paradigm-shifting good, bad and geopolitically ugly of the world’s favourite video sharing app.  

Step back into the light and oh, look – immersive art, let’s go shopping in Meow Wolf’s Omega Mart or take a trip from the Convergence Station its unique brand of weird and wonderful. An example of how storytelling that’s just plain freaky captures our sense of child-like adoration, creating memories that’ll stick with me for years to come. 

Is it a bird, is it a plane, no it’s a QR code

On Sunday evening a marketing alien invasion took to the sky in the form of a 400-drone swarm that formed a twilight-backed QR code to promote Paramount’s new sci-fi series “Halo,” based on the popular Xbox game about a warrior fighting off an alien invasion. Reactions to the dystopic stunt ranged from jaw dropping respect to utter terror as some people dialled 911 and dived in doors for cover.

The best thing is, I know I’m just getting started. It’s these WTF moments that I love. I know the rest of my time here will be a whirlwind of inspiring sessions, film screenings, meetups, early morning tacos, music showcases, exhibitions, competitions, late night tacos, ample opportunities for networking, and hey, tacos?

I have no idea what tomorrow will throw at me. And I can’t wait to find out.

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