It was a relatively low key announcement last week by the NSW Government, one that sparked both curiosity and a degree of apprehension. In what on the surface appears an act of shameless cultural appropriation Sydney has signed up to hold a version of the renowned South By Southwest Festival, held annually in Austin Texas. It came like a bolt out of the blue, a bit like Wollongong wanting to stage a clone of the Edinburgh Fest or Australia’s muddiest city putting up their hand to host Glastonbury.
With humble beginnings in 1987, South By Southwest (SXSW) has grown to be arguably the largest multi-arts festival in the world celebrating a ‘convergence of tech, film, music, education and culture’. Just how much Destination NSW will fork out to the US company that runs the Festival, in both naming rights and organisational input remains to be seen but it won’t come cheap, especially with an Australian dollar wallowing around 69 cents (US).
It could be fantastic and a massive boost for both the arts and tourism in Australia. The Daily Telegraph has already endorsed it, editorialising “that the best and most beautiful thing about Sydney winning SXSW is it’s the sort of event that Melbourne would kill for”. However, questions do remain how a cultural event that works so successfully in one part of the world, can be transplanted to another socially and geographically different region.
Unlike Adelaide which has a strong record in holding Festivals – like WOMAD, the Adelaide Fringe and the Adelaide Festival – similar events in Sydney’s have been largely hit and miss. Adelaide’s smaller, more centralised and intimate city environment has obviously worked well in its favour. There’s a strong parallel here with Austin, Texas – a compact city of less than one million that has long been a haven for the arts, a burgeoning music scene and a diverse population of creative and alternative folks.
Sydney on the other hand is a large sprawling amorphous metropolis (aka mess), where creating a centralised festival ‘buzz’ has always been a problem. If you are in Austin, Texas during SXSW, it’s impossible not to notice the almost non-stop festival activity and the influx of thousands of punters. Whether the Sydney event can duplicate this heady atmosphere remains to be seen – and let’s hope it does. There are a thousand different events scheduled for October 2023 and if you are a musician, visual artist, filmmaker or potential keynote speaker, applications are now open.
Personally I would love to see some acknowledgement of the roots of SXSW included in the Sydney clone. The iconic Austin Motel on South Congress, with its enormous phallic like neon, has long been a landmark in the hip Texan city, dating back to 1938. A so called ‘Mom & Pop” motel for most of its history, today it has undergone a transformational gentrification, with room prices to match.
Not so when I stayed there back in 1996 when the motel was like something out of a Kinky Friedman novel or Sam Shepard play. The rooms were very basic, clean but slightly shabby and I was not surprised when I found a crack pipe under my bed. During the day the motel was quite but at night it became a hub of activity with Mexican pimps descending on the parking lot to hawk the services of hookers working from the various rooms.
There was a never ending stream of ‘tricks’ driving through the car park looking for action, well into the wee small hours. Occasionally a patrolling police car would send all and sundry scattering but the activity was relentless – much to the shock of the unsuspecting family who had just booked in for the night. Surprisingly the ‘mom and pop’ who ran the motel seemed oblivious to the nocturnal activity.
It’s a real shame the old University Motor Inn, opposite Sydney Uni on Parramatta Road is no longer with us. It would have made a wonderful conversion during SXSW Sydney as a homage to Austin complete with a giant penis like neon. It could even have been granted a temporary bordello licence for the duration of the Fest. Melbourne has the Grand Prix, Brisbane’s got the Olympics but Sydney has a little bit of Texas – everything’s bigger in NSW!