The latest from our team at South by Southwest in Austin

SXSW: Kleon, Silver and Simmons on collaboration, vision and the ‘genius myth’

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Categorized Under: South by Southwest

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.

Crowds filled the Austin Convention Center for this weekend's sessions at SXSW Interactive. (SXSW)

Crowds filled the Austin Convention Center for this weekend’s sessions at SXSW Interactive. (SXSW)

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.

ESPN's Nate Silver (left) and Bill Simmons at SXSW, Saturday, March 8, 2014.

ESPN’s Nate Silver (left) and Bill Simmons at SXSW, Saturday, March 8, 2014. (via @AdamHermsdorfer)

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.”

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SXSW: How Technology Can Help Reshape The Museum

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.



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SXSW: Julian Assange Beams Into Austin

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Categorized Under: South by Southwest


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 »

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SXSW: Keeping data secure, possible ‘killer apps’ and more

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Categorized Under: South by Southwest

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?”

Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt at SXSW, March 7, 2014. (Greg Swan via Flickr)

Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt at SXSW, March 7, 2014. (Greg Swan via Flickr)

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.

New app Frontback.

New app Frontback.

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.

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Little Green Cars Park It At The Four Seasons for On the Road Video

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.

Check out two other On the Road videos from South by Southwest:  Thao Nguyen of Thao and the Get Down Stay Down and Night Beds.


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Thao of Thao and the Get Down Stay Down Sings “Holy Roller” for On the Road Video

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Categorized Under: KXT, Music, South by Southwest

Thao Nguyen of Thao & The Get Down Stay Down gets the On the Road treatment today. She met up with the video crew at Lou Neff point on Lady Bird Lake in Austin during South by Southwest  to play “Holy Roller” off  her album We The Common.

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. Check out their other recent production, Night Beds performing “Borrowed Time.”

Look for the third in the series tomorrow!

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Night Beds Get Back to Nature for On the Road Video


It’s the return of the On the Road video series. In this first of three installments from Austin at South by Southwest, Night Beds met up with the On The Road crew on the banks of Lady Bird Lake. They played “Borrowed Time” off of their album Country Sleep.

Thanks to our video producer/editor Dane Walters and his team in Austin, Stanton J. Stephens and Lacey Dowden, for their work on the mean streets – and parks –  of Austin.

Look for more On the Road goodness tomorrow.


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Video: Public Radio Rocks Day Stage At SXSW

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Categorized Under: KXT, Media, Music, South by Southwest

If you missed tuning in to hear the Public Radio Rocks Day Stage broadcast live on KXT last Friday during SXSW, you’re in luck. Our public radio partners over at WFUV in New York have posted video performances from all the bands that performed. Here they are in the order of the line up:

Divine Fits:

Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell:

Iron and Wine:

Charles Bradley:



Vampire Weekend:

WFUV is still posting more performances today, so subscribe to their YouTube channel to see more.

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SXSW Music In Photos: Day 3 & 4

Categorized Under: KXT, Music, South by Southwest

A look at the highlights from our media teams coverage of the final days of  SXSW.

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SXSW: The Musical Highlights

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Categorized Under: Music, South by Southwest

On Sunday, I spoke with Greg Kot about the new artists he discovered this year at South by Southwest. You might know him as the music critic of the Chicago Tribune and the co-hose of Sound Opinions. You can listen to our conversation below, where I’ve also posted music by the artists he mentioned.

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