SXSW Looks to Artists to Get People Off Their Phones and Interacting

Participatory Art to Get People Thinking and Interacting Without Electronics

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SXSW has a unique problem: the bigger it gets, the less it becomes about the film, music, technology or the festival itself and more about the ad agencies, brands and marketing pap that surrounds it.

But there are some SXSW employees who are fighting to redirect attendees' eyeballs away from the marketing side shows and back to the Austin Convention Center where the "actual" festival is held. Further, festival organizers would like attendees to actually "be" in the convention center and not on their devices.

Otis Kriegel
Otis Kriegel

That's partly why SXSW brought in New York City artist and educator Otis Kriegel this year. As one of the festival's several artists-in-residence, its his job to use art to distract attendees from their smartphones and precipitate face-to-face interaction.

Mr. Kriegel, co-founder of New York-based public art collective Illegal Art, spent Friday installing one of group's signature interactive art projects, "To Do." The project, which Mr. Kriegel has previously conducted in New York City and New Hampshire, involved littering a wall with nearly 5,000 Post-Its to spell the words "TO DO" over the course of seven hours.

When passersby encounter the wall on Saturday, they will be encouraged to write tasks on one of the slips of paper in the hopes that someone else will pick it up and follow its instructions.

"[SXSW] wanted to have more of a gravitational pull, to have people actually participating in the actual festivities in ways that aren't tech-based," said the wiry Mr. Kriegel as he worked four SXSW volunteers to arrange the pink and yellow squares.

Mr. Kriegel hopes the notes induce serendipitous meetings between art projects participants. He will be replacing the Post-Its throughout the week as they are taken and (hopefully) carried out.

Mr. Kriegel will also be working with fellow Illegal Art member Michael McDevitt for another art project called To Me that will be installed at the Blackheart Bar in Austin. Participants will write themselves postcards that will they receive in the mail in six months. The postcards are meant to help participants reflect upon who they are now and ultimately serves as "a memorial to your past self," SXSW said.

Morgan Catalina, saleswoman for SXSW's special projects, said that providing surprises is part of a marketing strategy that separates SXSW from other cavernous, monotonous tech festivals.

In addition to Mr. Kriegel's To Do installation, Ms. Catalina has solicited similar projects that lie at the convergence of film, music and technology including an installation at Republic Square Park that will use a series of lights to make the park appear to be a tidal pool.

Ms. Catalina said the marketing side shows that occur within SXSW's orbit don't bother her. She is, however, adamant about making the certified event as engaging as possible.

Whether her artists will be able to get attendees to look up is uncertain.

"I'm literally putting my life in their hands," Ms. Catalina said.

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