SXXXSW / 20 March 1999
I just read a magazine blurb about this French curator who held an art and science conference with “all the infrastructure of a conference — the parties, chats, lunches, airport arrivals — but no actual conference.” It was evidently quite successful and having just attended My First Real Conference, I can understand, with clean-room purity, why that is.
This is the South by Southwest dealie in Austin that I’m talking about, which I always thought was a music fest for unsigned bands and thus a massive black hole of unhappy and noisome young men, i.e., something I felt no obligation to participate in since why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free, etc. But then I learned that an “interactive” component has been added to the conference, allowing all the hot Web Visionaries to blind one another with their brilliance and bask in manufactured fame.
This was where I had to be, friends, there at the white-hot core of this thriving community of dreamers and poets.
So some kids from work and I headed on over to TX to see what exactly was what. We had a booth (a “zone,” rather) that we shared with Apple and Macromedia. They provided the iMacs running infinite loops of the Star Wars trailer (and so now I can quote it in its entirety, including a passable imitation of N. Portman’s weird Kevin-Costner-as-Robin-Hood accent) and Jelly Bellies (which made my head hum and my saliva pretty), and we provided the … oh … the stern countenance of authority, I guess. Or no, that peculiarly Californian brand of desperate malaise. Something like that.
We were supposed to lurk in our zone and “network,” I reckon, but mostly we just wandered around, heckled panelists, played with the rubber chicken, went shopping for cowboy gear, brought people down to our level, drank beer in bars, the usual.
I was very excited to see that there was a free copy of Entertainment Weekly in my conference-provided tote bag. Let me say, however, that there wasn’t nearly enough free booze, and the quality of the hookers was disappointingly low (can I please just get a full row of teeth? Is that such a luxury these days?). See, a convention, to me, is a bunch of paunchy men in striped ties laughing out martini fumes as they clap one another on the back, pausing for a moment to talk shop, and then getting back to ogling the woman in a bikini and high heels who’s draped over a Finish-Thompson Automatic Polypropylene Drum Pump. Instead I got battalions of goatees, new world records for misdirected fervor, and a deafening lack of eroticism.
Still, as that French curator figured, everything aside from the conference itself was A-OK. I had the curious experience of meeting people whose personal websites I frequent (Maura.com, Prehensile John, 0sil8 Jason, So Anyway Gregory, Rewired David, et alia, but, sadly, not Navelgazer Sarah, whom I have a text-crush on and heard was in the hood but never saw), getting that same feverish, vertiginous feeling I get whenever a celebrity of some sort enters my field of vision. Except, you know, divided by like six or seven. Some people knew of dear old Fireland, and said some very nice things, and were very nice as human beings, and this brought on an entirely novel form of neurosis for me (and isn’t that the most we can ask for in this day and age?), to wit: Will these people who like my writing like me in person? In other words, how long will it take them to figure out the Truth?
I dealt with this issue, as always, by pretending to have cerebral palsy.
Of maudlin significance, perhaps, is that fact that the finest moment of the trip was when our host, the mighty Tim Ziegler, had a barbecue in his backyard and, as the sun went down, he and his cronies broke out their instruments and played some bluegrass ditties and the rest of us sat under a tree and soaked it in, the dogs running around, the babies getting hyper, everyone turning beautiful in the disappearing Texas light. Then a freight train rumbled past, almost but not quite drowning out the music and it was, for some reason, unbearably fine.
I closed out the week by letting my mother talk me into trying one of those blackhead-removing nose strips.