Never What You Think It Is
by SARAH WAMBOLD
I am not a lover of crowds. Or networking. Or the hype. So I have never gone to AWP. I don’t mind every community having a national gathering to celebrate themselves and I do not even care if they are smug about it. I am not originally from Austin and because of this I have never felt like I could really be critical of our own crowded, networking, hype-fest South By Southwest. Plus I end up participating in some fashion and always enjoy myself without ever buying a badge or a wristband.
This year I decided to start my South By experience earlier than usual, attending a panel entitled Platforms for Haunting: The Talking Dead. I occasionally contribute to my friend Caitlin’s website about death and dying because I want to open a funeral home in Austin and I thought this would be a good thing to write about. I was happy this panel made it into the festival; I started imaging really smart conversations about what death looks looks like in the 21st century, particularly with technological intervention.
SXSW interactive badges started at $695 and mid-festival can be picked up for $1150. Music and film badges mid-festival are between $650-$800. The Interactive festival goers are the tech-world’s finest or its hopefuls. Many of them have start-ups. Most of them are men. A few of them paid for their badges with their own money. Regardless, they all understand the internet and how to share information on it much better than the rest of us.
I received a free t-shirt on the train downtown because I listened to a promoter explain how to use a rewards card for Belly. I have no clue how to use it and I never got the e-mail I was promised would explain it.
When I got to the hotel ballroom where the panel was being held, I realized I had a half an hour to wait and decided to enjoy the river view from the hotel’s TGIF bar. I eavesdropped on a group of pilots having a most disgusting conversation about bathroom malfunctions mid-flight while they got bombed on ‘ritas and Miller Lights.
I took my time because I knew I would have to wait until all the badge holders got in. I knew this from all the times I went to film screenings or music shows without a badge or wristband-you must wait until those who paid more have gone in and if there are still seats, regular folks who merely bought tickets are granted attendance. As I trudged up the steps to the ballroom, I saw there were many miles of rows of seats still open. I crossed the threshold into intellectual superiority.
Two steps later I was greeted by a lackluster SXSW volunteer who promptly told me Interactive is different and you don’t get in anywhere without a badge. WTF and beyond? "Because they are so expensive," he said.
As this kerfuffle happened at the door, the panel started to talk death. “I should be in there!” I think. So I hover near the door to listen in. All was not lost!
John Troyer introduced the topic and mentioned how they want to explore ways to connect the present with the past through technology. There were about 20-30 people scattered throughout 200 seats. Two girls rushed by me, flashing their badges only to realize seconds later I am not a volunteer, just a grunt with no cred.
The first panelist, Tim Cole, described his work. Something to do with mirrors and historical spaces and using the mirrors to see ghosts or something while they film or photograph it. I could not quite make out the details as I straddled the threshold between the educated and total darkness.
Lucy Heywood, the second panelist, took the podium. She spoke louder, so I caught her telling the audience that she loved old things for their stories and liked them much more than new things but was excited by the possibility in new things. She also prefers non-digitized archives and her work tries to make digital archives as much like the real thing as possible.
At that moment a man in a red GoogleDocs jacket walked up and asked which panel this was.
“Death,” I said in a low tone.
“Death,” he whispered back wearily, “It is death.” He flashed his badge and reluctantly entered.
Ms. Heywood was still talking about her idea, which from my dim perspective looked like a microfiche reader but had a slower pace, like looking through a real archive. Just then, GoogleDocs jacket appeared again, this time with a friend, both looking relieved, nearly running out the door and down the steps.
I asked the slack SXSW volunteer if they might be recording this so that I might be able to listen to it for free on the internet.
“I have no idea,” he said, complete with an eye roll and head shake.
Now the fourth panelist spoke, who I believe was David Kirk. I could hear him slightly better and I made more of an effort because I liked what he was talking about. There is a toxic man-made lake in Slovenia underneath which is 500+ bodies who were put there after the Red Army slaughtered them during WWII. There were some survivors, who returned to the spot and attempted to mark the surrounding trees with symbols indicating it is a bad space. Mr. Kirk’s project sought to commemorate the space and digitize it. From the slides, it looked like a sort of walking tour of the mass grave.
Finally Mr. Troyer began his portion, which was just like his TED talk which I had thankfully listened to before so I did not have to endure any more peasant embarrassment while the nobles talked on.
I left the hotel and walked back toward the convention center wondering how I would ever write about the panel accurately. I could barely understand what the discussion was about. I gathered that people seem to bristle at digitizing death. Each of the historians gave disclaimers of using technology in the most respectful way possible or insisted they loved what is old. They all wanted the past to come alive again.
I decided to just cobble some information together and put it on the internet, where other people who couldn’t attend could access it and maybe think differently about death and run with it.
Sarah Wambold is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Austin. You can find her twitter here. She last wrote in these pages about Grant Wood. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.
Photographs by the author.
"At Midnight" - The Besnard Lakes (mp3)
"And Her Eyes Were Painted Gold" - The Besnard Lakes (mp3)