AUSTIN – Monday morning saw the second of two major guests appearing via satellite at SXSW. On Saturday, I wrote about Julian Assange’s virtual visit from London. Today, it was Edward Snowden’s turn.
The event was hosted by the American Civil Liberties Union, who beamed Snowden in from Russia. Because the connection had to be run through seven routers, he was a little hard to hear at times. But when he spoke, the auditorium full of tech developers leaned in to listen to the man who last year exposed so many of their worst fears.
Early on, Snowden was asked if mass surveillance is effective. Not surprisingly, he said no. But he did say that he understood why intelligence officials thought it was genuinely a good idea.
“No one had ever done it before – at least publicly. So they went, ‘Hey, we can spy on everyone in the world all at once, it’ll be great, we’ll know everything.’ But the reality is, when they did it, they found out it didn’t work,” he said.
Which would be one thing if, he says, one failure hadn’t led to another.
The 2014 South by Southwest Interactive conference, held this past weekend in Austin, was heavy on new technology as expected, but has also heaped attention on the issues of privacy and digital security, with appearances by Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, among others. KERA’s Alan Melson, who has been blogging along with other KERA staff from Austin for Art&Seek, joined Anne Bothwell to discuss some of his takeaways from the conference.
Listen to the conversation:
Anne Bothwell: So, Alan, any new tech trends that emerged during this year’s conference?
Alan Melson: One subject that kept coming up was 3D printing, a process where machines lay down multiple thin layers of material to build things in whatever shape you need. You may have heard reports about 3D printers being used to make furniture, or even guns, but here at South by Southwest the end product was a little more fun. The makers of Oreos set it up where you could go on Twitter to suggest whatever flavor sounded good to you, and then watch the machines actually print your cookie. A lot of conference attendees tried them out, and most said they tasted just like ones you’d buy at the store. Besides the Oreos, there were well over 100 sessions discussing different aspects of 3D printing, and the general takeaway is that the technology is becoming easier and cheaper every day, and is expected to expand rapidly in the next few years for a variety of uses.
AB: What about new gadgets?
AM: There are always a slew of companies that make the trek down here to Austin, hoping they’ll be the breakout sensation of that year’s conference. It doesn’t usually happen that way, but I did come across a few pretty interesting products.
One is a device called Narrative. It’s a plastic thing you clip to your shirt with a tiny camera inside that takes a picture every 30 seconds. The goal is to capture your life as you live it, and then upload it all to your computer to help you remember where you went, what you did and who you met. Apparently it works pretty well, but it does raise questions about privacy, although its creators say it’s really no different than tools people already use like the FitBit, which measures how you exercise.
There’s also a company called LittleBits that makes pre-assembled circuit boards that do all kinds of things, and then snap together with magnets. The goal is to make it really easy to build your own electronic gadgets – something you and your kids can do at home. The company was founded several years ago by Ayah Bdeir, an MIT Media Lab graduate and TED Fellow. She spoke Monday afternoon at South by Southwest about how her product and others are part of a larger digital world that’s becoming known as the “Internet of Things.”
AB: So what is the Internet of Things, exactly?
AM: Well, that term refers to the whole ecosystem of devices that connect to the Internet in some way – your smartphone, your TV or even your thermostat . I heard quite a bit this year about making those devices easier to use, but also making them more secure. You may want to be able to use your data from those devices however you see fit, but you don’t necessarily want other people or companies to have access to that data, and industry leaders and lawmakers still haven’t figured out how to manage all those expectations.
AB: Privacy and security were big topics of discussion going into South By Southwest this year, with sessions featuring remote appearances by Julian Assange and Edward Snowden. Those discussions can often be serious and somewhat negative about our digital future; did you hear any other strands of conversation with a more positive outlook about technology?
AM: Sure, there were actually a lot of really great conversations about collaboration. We heard from media panelists like Bill Simmons and Nate Silver from ESPN, talking about the importance of teamwork and experimentation to create stuff that people will find interesting. There was also a fascinating session about how museums are trying to shed their stuffy image through careful use of marketing and social media, and giving visitors more input – in fact, one panelist said museums no longer have audiences – they have infinite curators. I liked that quote a lot.
AUSTIN – A documentary at this week’s South by Southwest Film Conference attempts to find the Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin Guzman – better known as El Chapo. But just as the filmmakers were closing in on him, Mexican and U.S. authorities arrested him last month. We talked with the director of The Legend of Shorty to find out what it’s like to suddenly have the end of your film rewritten for you:
KERA Radio interview:
Art&Seek: Your mission in The Legend of Shorty was to track down El Chapo Guzman and talk to him. What were you hoping to show in documenting that search for him?
Angus MacQueen: When we set out, Chapo Guzman was the head of the Sinaloa Cartel – in our view the most powerful drugs organization in history. And we were just pretty skeptical. We thought we knew probably where he was. And so it was a sort of proposition: If we could find him, why couldn’t they? And if that then followed that they weren’t looking for him what’s going on?
A&S: So about two weeks before the film was debut at South by Southwest, news comes down that El Chapo had been captured in Mexico. What was your first thought when you heard that news?
A.M.: My first response was probably a word I can’t use on radio. But actually, when we were making the film we were always conscious that he might get caught, he might get killed. He might get killed not by the authorities, but by a rival cartel, who, in some ways, for much of the period I suspect he was far more worried about the rival cartels than he was the Mexican or American authorities. But the end of the version that we finished first was a question that went: Do you think they’ll get him? And the lawyer in the film replied, “When he’s no longer of use.” And that, for me, summed – and sums – up the story and what the film is trying to get at. So once I got around the expense that we had to do of reversioning, in a way the film now has a full stop. Before it had a question mark at the end.
A&S: If you had been able to talk to him, what’s the question you wanted to ask him the most?
A.M.: That’s a great question, that. We had quite a lot of discussion about this, because we had various levels. Which is if he looks as if he’s in a good mood and he likes us, to, oh my God – “we’re a bit scared of him” level questions. So, the base-level ones were – I was interested in him as a businessman, to be honest. Drugs as a business.
A&S: So just to wrap up, he’s been in prison before and managed to get out. Do you think this is the last we’ll see of El Chapo in the free world?
A.M.: Do I think he’ll escape again, no? But the fundamental question you need to ask is: Chapo gets caught – did the price of drugs go up in the United States? If they didn’t, what’s going on? The evidence of the past 40 years is: You can arrest Chapo, you can arrest Escobar, you can arrest all the other less-well-known people. The demand is there, the supply is there and, critically, so is the money.
A&S: So it sounds like one guy’s gone, but the machine continues to work.
A.M.: The last line of the film is, “The king is dead, long live the king.”
I’m posting through Monday from South By Southwest Interactive, with updates on the colliding worlds of art, technology and human behavior. Reach out with your questions via Twitter – @amelson – or check out all of our ongoing SXSW reports.
One of Sunday’s morning sessions at SXSW Interactive was a surprisingly fresh conversation about a stereotypically stuffy subject: museums, the people who run them and how they will grow their audiences.
The panel, “Everyone’s a Curator: Do Museums Still Matter?”, consisted of four Bay Area museum staffers who have made strides in bridging the gap between traditional museum trappings (galleries, exhibitions, strong resistance to change) and the modern roles of social media and marketing to promote their offerings. They talked about the identity crisis inherent in their jobs: “Are we curators or marketers?”
Sarah Bailey Hogarty, social and digital media manager at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, said as an art history major, she was at first unhappy about her curatorial position being moved into the marketing department as her involvement in social media increased.
“In many curatorial circles, marketing is a four-letter word,” Hogarty said. “Curators think marketers dumb everything down; marketers think curators are overly scholarly and unintelligible to the general public. In some cases, they’re both right.”
One of her first steps was to change the museum’s social media policy from a one-sided approach explaining the museum’s “what, when and how” to a more open conversation that would actually generate audience engagement. Panelist Jennifer Yin from San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum agreed, citing her golden rule, “Don’t be a mouthpiece.”
Yin provided a solid case study, her museum’s 2013 Terracotta Warriors exhibition. Sensing that the marketing push needed a nontraditional approach, her team began with the hypothetical that one of the warriors had “disappeared” en route from China. She began a guerilla campaign of “LOST” flyers posted on street poles, with pull tabs that contained a web URL and Twitter hashtag. They built the website as a hub, using geotags to display hashtagged tweets on an interactive city map.
She then partnered with other museums, tourism organizations and civic groups to hold 50 appearances across the Bay Area with an actor portraying the lost warrior. Each time someone interacted with the ‘warrior,’ he would hand them a replica Shang Dynasty coin etched with the exhibition’s hashtag and social media links. The approach worked beautifully; the museum garnered massive interest and positive reactions on various social media platforms, generated stories from local media and seemed to translate that interest into higher traffic through museum doors.
Willa Koerner, assistant manager for digital engagement at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, launched the SFMOMA Tumblr site under the radar to give her museum more of a dynamic digital presence. Within weeks after the initial 2011 launch, she started receiving submissions of readers’ work.
“People were sending me their artwork, the same way that people used to send slides in a manila envelope to a museum, hoping a curator will discover them and throw them an exhibition … which never happens,” she said.
But Koerner’s initial resistance soon gave way to an epiphany: “You can put anything up there as long as it fits in with what your brand does.” She quietly launched “Submission Fridays” where such uploads were encouraged (and in some cases displayed online); three years later, the project has become a staple of SFMOMA’s Tumblr presence, with more than 50,000 submissions. It has also helped sustain the museum’s public presence during its recent closure for renovation, and increased visibility for traveling exhibitions of pieces from the collection.
Kathryn Jaller of the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco discussed #SFphotohunt #SecretSpaces, a 2012 contest built around photo submissions chronicling surprises in their city. They received over 300 submissions in a short period of time, and some were featured in gallery displays in their museum. Jaller said the effort highlighted the reality museums face as digital engagement goes everywhere.
“We exist in real space, we exist online and we exist in between,” she said.
Panelists said the spotlighted efforts, both individual and collaborative, helped them change internal feelings about marketing in a world that can be maddeningly slow to adapt. Hogarty said her museums are now experimenting with putting hashtags and digital calls to action on gallery walls alongside works of art. They have even trained museum staff to recognize how visitors are holding their smartphones: Are they taking a forbidden “art selfie,” or following the museum’s encouragement to post on Twitter or Facebook about the exhibit?
“The prohibition of photography forced our visitors to find more interesting things to say, (and) sometimes these kinds of restraints can foster creativity,” Hogarty said. “This made our visitors process what they were seeing and come up with something worth sharing to their friends.”
The late Walter Hopps, a veteran museum curator whose career included a stint at Houston’s Menil Collection, once likened the curator’s role to an orchestral conductor trying to establish harmony between the works. Hogarty said that’s an apt metaphor for the panelists’ continued striving to bring the voices of museum visitors and fans more directly into the conversation.
“Museums no longer have audiences,” she said, “they have infinite collaborators.”
UPDATE: Here’s the fun little video they showed at the session, featuring a number of different responses to the question “what is a curator?”
CORRECTION: The original version of this post contained a quote from the session that contained an incorrect word. The quote has been updated to reflect the exact wording the speaker used.
I’m posting through Monday from South By Southwest Interactive, with updates on the colliding worlds of art, technology and human behavior. Reach out with your questions via Twitter – @amelson – or check out all of our ongoing SXSW reports.
A recurring theme at 2014’s SXSW Interactive is the idea of using creative collaboration, openness and transparency of process to accomplish greater things. This applies at the most micro level – friends getting together to make something, let’s say – or on a massive scale, as corporate media behemoths join up to try new experiments. Opening keynote speaker Austin Kleon and ESPN juggernauts Bill Simmons and Nate Silver used their sessions this weekend to approach this topic from each of those angles.
Kleon has made a career out of writing about such joint efforts in Newspaper Blackout, Steal Like an Artist and Show Your Work. The author told a packed exhibit hall on Friday that he takes issue with the “genius myth” – the idea that a lone wolf locks himself in a studio or bedroom and waits for lightning to strike, then churns out revolutionary work so we can “gawk in awe at his achievements.”
In this approach, he says, the artist often doesn’t share his progress and isn’t open to others’ input to shape the evolving work – and the inherent solitude may encourage stagnation, along with reactionary “terrible behavior” as others line up to heap praise (or ridicule) on the individual’s work.
He also spotlighted two personality types detrimental to collaboration: The “vampire,” who sucks the energy out of everyone around them to fuel their own singular creativity, and “human spam,” characterized by Kleon as someone who wants a one-way dialogue of sharing own thoughts and work – who “wants you to listen to their story, but they don’t stick around to hear yours”.
The solution is for creators to focus on what Kleon calls the “scenius” approach – a term coined by musician Brian Eno.
“It’s creativity and good ideas birthed in a scene of artists, thinkers, theorists, tastemakers – an ecology of talent supporting each other, looking at each other’s work, copying ideas and suggesting ideas,” Kleon said.
This approach relies on that continued transparency and sharing of process, and birthed influential scenes like early-20th-century Paris and 1970s New York City – and possibly even SXSW.
Despite building reputations for work under their own names, a “scenius” of smart, creative, hard-working colleagues is exactly what both longtime ESPN blogger Simmons and entrepreneurial data journalist Silver sought when building their personal digital brands into something bigger. The pair engaged in a lively discussion Saturday morning at SXSW.
“When you lead a life as a ‘public intellectual,’ you don’t learn that much,” said Silver, who traveled 180,000 miles last year speaking around the world. “The ratio of talking about things to doing things gets totally askew.”
Simmons, who rose to fame on the strength of his Page Two column and other projects for ESPN, is the creator and editor-in-chief of Grantland, a digital presence for sports journalism launched in 2011. Silver announced last year that he is moving his wildly successful FiveThirtyEight blog about statistics, which made its home at the New York Times for nearly four years, into the ESPN stable as well, with plans to launch the revised site on March 17. Both said being part of a massive for-profit enterprise like ESPN has actually helped them, because they have been given the resources and latitude necessary to make their projects work.
“When you create something with a bunch of people, it’s so much more satisfying than when you’re on your own,” Simmons said. “… I would have failed if I had to do this on my own.”
After Silver compared running a digital staff to having a bunch of kids, Simmons quipped, “(As boss) you are the dad, but it’s more like the dad on an ‘80s sitcom … you have to teach a lesson every so often.”
Simmons said the collaborative effort on a project like Grantland works as long as the leaders and staff are OK with constant, gradual change.
“You have a vision for the site, and people are trying to create things that fit that vision, but in the midst of that, another vision emerges,” he said. “Don’t become who you are – keep innovating.”
Both Simmons and Silver advocated for “slow journalism” – the opportunity for reporters to spend more time on stories. Simmons said some good writers become great writers and do lasting work “when they have more time to think” about a story. They also stressed the importance of hiring sharp people even when you don’t yet have a specific role ready for them, rather than narrowly defining a role first and then going out to find a fit for just that specific position.
In his keynote, Kleon also challenged the audience to chase high-impact, lasting projects – things that can make a difference both in your own creative community and beyond. And what better source of inspiration than a daily read of the local newspaper’s obituaries?
“They are near-death experiences for cowards,” Kleon said. “Reading them is a way to think about death while keeping it at arm’s length – and makes me want to live, and go out, and do things that matter.”
Leslie Wolke spoke today during the SXSW interactive session Tech & Art: Digital Innovation in the Art World. She works as a way-finding technologist, someone who builds tools that help people find their way in complicated environments like malls, hotels, and airports. But before her career in human herding, she studied art history. These two skill sets got her thinking about how people experience museums. It hasn’t changed at all in last 25 years, she says: printed maps, ancient audio guides, captions on walls. Gallery walls hold only one or two pieces of art. It is a very formal, abstract presentation.
The way we MAKE things has gone through revolution in the last quarter century; we’ve gotten used to using fantastic new tools to create all forms of art. Yet the way we SEE things hasn’t changed at all.
In the 16th and 17th century, curators plastered walls with art. Every usable inch of wall space was covered. This helped people see relationships between different works. So what is missing in today’s experience?
Concept of PLAY: We learn about new things by playing with them. The iPhone, she says, “doesn’t come with a manual, you play with it and learn.” Art museums today are too formal for that, generally.
Context: The more you learn about the context of a piece, the more interesting it becomes.
Gallery One at Cleveland Museum of Art, which was launched with a generous grant, embraces both these ideas. She cites two installations in particular:
Strike a Pose is an interactive space where you try to match a pose of an image shown on a screen. When a match is detected, a new pose is placed on the screen. You can also make faces or strike poses, and the computer will find works in the collection with similar faces or poses. Wolke says this helps us get over the stodginess of the museum.
But the museum’s “best feature” is its interactive Collection Wall. It’s an 80-foot, touch-sensitive screen loaded with 3500 pieces of art. Each work has been photographed in high resolution and is tagged with tons of metadata, so it’s easy to search and browse by many different attributes of a piece. You can also tap items you like and create a personalized tour.
Wolke says the wall is reminiscent of work by contemporary painter and art historian David Hockney. In a research project and book, Hockney organized European art by region and date, and realized that people learned quickly how to render objects beautifully and in 3D – in Netherlands in 1600s using new lens technology of the day. Putting art in context makes it more interesting, not just for amateurs, but for professionals too.
Wolke says four innovations are changing the way people experience art:
Google Glass: As odd as it is for me seeing people walking around SXSW interactive wearing these things, they help put things in context in real time and are a great way to add missing context to a museum experience.
Google ArtProject: “Like crack for art historians.” An experience, similar to Streetview, of museums all over the world.
GoogleProject Tango: Souped-up Android phone with lots of added sensors. It creates a real-time 3D model of an environment as you walk through it. Once you have that basic model, you can overlay augmented reality any way you want.
Direct connection – RFID and Near-Field Communication, NFC could be used to provide a more custom experience for each visitor to a museum.
Wolke’s Challenge: Re-invent the art museum; make it a playful, captivating experience for all.
AUSTIN – Two of the biggest names at South by Southwest this year aren’t even coming to Austin.
In fact, they won’t be on the same continent. But let’s just say traveling for these two isn’t so easy.
On Monday, former NSA contractor Edward Snowden will participate in a live satellite interview from his home in Russia. And Saturday morning, SXSW linked up with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who’s still holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London.
One of the areas of focus for this year’s Interactive conference is data security – something Alan Melson wrote about this morning.
There were a few technical glitches in the Assange conversation, but overall things went pretty smoothly. Here are some highlights from the conversation (though the paranoid among us might want to shield their eyes. Assange paints a dire picture): Read More »
Good morning from rainy Austin, where I’m attending this year’s South By Southwest Interactive gathering! I’ll be posting here periodically over the next three days about emerging trends and topics from the conference, particularly about the colliding worlds of art, technology and human behavior. If you have questions or want to suggest a topic, let me know at @amelson on Twitter.
South By Southwest, the sprawling annual conference that crowds Austin and surrounding areas every March, is back this year with what may be its largest Interactive offering ever, drawing an expected crowd of more than 30,000 attendees (the film and music portions of the conference will bring another 40,000 or so next week). Austin Kleon, who writes frequently about creative openness and collaboration between artists and creators, used his opening keynote on Friday to sarcastically reiterate a frequent complaint: “Is (SXSW) over? Has it gotten too big?”
Despite (or because of) the conference’s size, there are plenty of fascinating sessions to check out. NPR’s Elise Hu wrote a nice primer on expected areas of focus for this year’s conference, including a number of sessions focused on privacy and security. This topic is of particular interest now, given the past year’s revelations about National Security Agency spying, as well as spying or hacking incidents attributed to a number of other countries.
NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and Wikileaks founder Julian Assange will be appearing separately via teleconference during SXSW to discuss their direct roles in uncovering supposed government intrusions (Editor’s Note: KERA’s Stephen Becker filed this report on Assange’s chat), but Friday’s early sessions featured a chat with Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, who delved into the company’s issues with governments trying to gain access to its data.
“We have strengthened our defenses in ways we have said publicly, and some other ones we have not disclosed,” Schmidt said. “We think your information is very safe from what we view as inappropriate actions by foreign and domestic governments.”
He urged attendees to be vigilant about maintaining their own data security, and vowed that Google will continue to advocate for protecting its users’ information, saying, “”You should fight for your privacy or lose it.”
Other topics that pop up a lot in the schedule (and that we’ll be covering here) include the concept of an Internet of Things – the proliferation of connected devices in our everyday lives, from smartphones and tablets to TVs and appliances – and the blurring of lines between branding and storytelling.
Besides the actual sessions, there’s plenty of hype each year around potential breakout products – fitting, given the conference’s reputation for helping new “killer apps” make it big. This year’s early buzz includes Secret, an elegant new app from former Google and Square employees that is singularly focused on sharing anonymously – like a Facebook or Twitter with no names. Given that your initial social circle in the app is built off of your contacts list, it remains to be seen how anonymous it really is (even without your name attached to posts), but it bears watching.
Other apps popping up in discussions around the conference include Jelly, an offering from Twitter cofounder Biz Stone that launched in January and encourages collective Q&A – a way to post questions and get answers, or as the company puts it, “A loosely distributed networks of people coordinating via Jelly to help each other.” And lastly, a fun app called Frontback, with a name that describes its purpose: It allows you to post photos using both the front- and rear-facing cameras simultaneously. A limited premise, but one that should still draw a lot of downloads – and has already drawn millions in funding.
Little Green Cars met up with the On The Road crew on the lawn at The Four Seasons in Austin, Texas during South by Southwest 2013. They play “Harper Lee” off of their debut album “Absolute Zero.”
This installment of the On the Road video series is produced and edited for Art&Seek and KXT 91.7 by Dane Walters, with an assist from Stanton J. Stephens and Lacey Dowden.