SXSW Online 2021: Wild, Weird and Wonderful

Dayramir Gonzales performing at the SXSW Music Festival showcase presented by Soy Cubana: Music from the Movie during SXSW Online on March 19, 2021.

COVID-19 has forced all kinds of industries to adapt worldwide and some changes have improved accessibility to a larger audience. Film festivals have adapted to the new normal by hosting digital screenings. South by Southwest Online 2021 (SXSW) prepared an accessible lineup which included thought leaders, visionaries and creators. These luminaries gather annually in self-described “weird” U.S. city Austin, TX for the iconic festival and conference also known as “South By.”

Jordan Peele and Lupita Nyong'o on laughing and taking a picture in front of SXSW signs.
Lupita Nyong’o and Jordan Peele – “Us” premiere – SXSW 2019. Photo by Ismael Quintinilla/Getty Images for SXSW.

SXSW takes place annually in the USA but the themes always reflect global trends and groundbreaking technology; SXSW has always had the reputation of being on the cutting edge of technology, music and film. This year, the festival continued in that tradition with incredible virtual content accessible with a VR headset. Early adopters of tech typically enjoy attending SXSW. Artists from a variety of backgrounds enjoy the exposure and opportunity to network with industry power players.

International & Intersectional Collaborations at SXSW

Man, Dayramir Gonzalez playing an electric keyboard.
Dayramir Gonzales performs at the SXSW Music Festival showcase presented by Soy Cubana: Music from the Movie during SXSW Online on March 19, 2021.

Public-private partnerships centered around art and technology will be integral to the survival of the planet and the human species. SXSW is an observable microcosm of international, intersectional collaboration. It was also a wonderful reminder of the power of art and connecting even when we can’t physically be together. If people feel a sense of belonging and community when working on projects; they are typically more collaborative and productive, regardless of cultural backgrounds. Conference sessions, and politically conscious music and films around diversity, equity and inclusion reflected this cultural shift.

A woman and man astronaut talking and laughing on the space station.
Astronauts Kate Rubins and Victor J. Glover, Jr., speak from the International Space Station at the featured session “Space is for Everybody: Insights from NASA Astronauts” during SXSW Online on March 16, 2021.

Virtual Vs. Real World at SXSW

The online platform that SXSW used was robust. The bonus feature, still accessible after the close of the festival, allowed participants to continue the conversations and collaborations that began in a virtual space. Some people differentiate real life vs. online life. The truth is, our virtual worlds are as real as our offline lives. Quarantining demonstrated to humans how much we actually need each other and how love can be a powerful motivator and give us the strength to sacrifice. Many people haven’t seen loved ones in person in over a year. Apps like Clubhouse have been filling in the gaps. SXSW has a club and used the space for ticket holders as well as the general public. It was also used for press to take questions and Q&A sessions with creators.

SXSW Online 2021 was based around seven themes that beautifully illustrated a global mindset.

Global Mindset

The plights caused by the global pandemic have amplified issues like racial injustice, poverty, nationalism, and the climate crisis. A New Urgency sessions included panels and conversations with global thought leaders working towards a better world for all people. The “Bridging Cultures through Narrative” panel was moderated by Roy Wol, TCK and producer of the highly anticipated cross-cultural romantic comedy “Americanish.” Ainslee Robson was one of three speakers and her film “Ferenj” was an official selection of SXSW 2020. “Ferenj,” to quote the creator, is “an immersive graphic memoir representing key moments from the director’s own ‘tezeta,’ getting lost in liminality, learning how to make sense of her Ethiopian-American identity in the diaspora.”

“Ferenj” Trailer

Art & the Human Condition

Art has always been part of the human condition — rudimentary cave paintings and sculptures prove the existence of the pre-historic human trait of storytelling and remembering through oral and visual arts. Future humans may look back on today’s amazing virtual reality and consider it completely primitive. However, they will know that their ancestors strived to tell and record their stories for future generations.

One challenge of virtual festivals is the plethora of choices. With so many incredible sessions, films and live musical performances, it can be difficult to choose. Networking is of great importance to those who attend SXSW, and the festival’s architects included an interactive platform for festival pass holders as well as limited Zoom sessions with breakout rooms. Thought-provoking panels and discussions varied from how to mine space gold, to how to design AI that is not racist , to exploring psychedelics as a mental health treatment.

How to Navigate SXSW Online info graphic
How to Navigate SXSW Online Info Graphic

The mentor program was a highlight for those looking to have an authentic connection with leaders in a myriad of industries. Cutting edge performer Militia Vox, a Black multiracial woman, is known for being a standout in the rock scene. Connecting with young women and being a role model for them is important to Vox. Like many women who break barriers and rules, Vox is glad to be one of the first, but doesn’t want to be the last, to inspire women around the world to do art on their own terms.

Woman in profile eyes closed artistic smoke all around.
Militia Vox SXSW Online 2021 Photo Courtesy of M. Vox 2021 Mentor

The Future is Female

Women were featured prominently in the festival. The conversation between Hugo Award-winning author N.K. Jemisin and American political activist Stacey Abrams revealed that women will be saving the world and that Abrams has a new fiction book coming out, “While Justice Sleeps.”. Panels and discussions included recognizing the impact the global pandemic had on women, their work and their future in a variety of industries.

Cover of a book with a young plack woman with a faux hawk Titled How Long Until Black Future Month?
N. K. Jemisin is the first author in the genre’s history to win three consecutive Best Novel Hugos for her Broken Earth trilogy. Her most recent novel is the New York Times-bestselling THE CITY WE BECAME. She is a 2020 MacArthur Fellow. She lives and writes in New York City.
Screen shot of a zoom with two women in conversation Stacy Abrams and N.K. Jemison with sign language interpreter at the bottom.
In addition to sharing how women will save the world, Stacey Abrams discussed her own romance thriller novels with Hugo Award-winning author N.K. Jemisin. Abrams revealed her next book comes out May 11.

Futurist Amy Webb, professor at NYU Stern School of Business and founder of the Future Today Institute (FTI), gave an overview of FTI’s annual emerging trends report while being clear that SXSW isn’t a one-time event, but a global community. The pandemic is not over, the climate crisis is looming and it will be months and possibly years before people will be able to return to their pre-COVID lifestyle.

Digital events have not replaced in-person events but they will undoubtedly continue to bring people together as we navigate an uncertain future, only knowing that human collaboration across cultures is the future. Typically SXSW runs for two weeks, although this year the virtual festival was only five days but stayed in the spirit of SXSW: wild, weird and wonderful.

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