More than a dozen Oberlin alumni, as well as two current students, made appearances at this year’s South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, Texas, an annual conglomerate of film, interactive media, music festivals, and conferences. Obie participants included an improviser whose sidekick is a robot with an iPad for a face; a vocalist and bassist for a punk rock band whose members just reached the legal drinking age; and a former editor of the Washington Post now exploring the intersection of virtual reality and journalism. Read on for a round-up of their appearances, which spanned every element of the multimedia festival.
Asher Rapkin ’04, “The Automated Assistant Revolution”
Apps like Facebook Messenger have revolutionized the way we communicate. As product marketing communications lead for platforms on Facebook’s Global Business Marketing team, Asher Rapkin is exploring the ways in which automated assistance can continue to streamline our interactions with one another, as well as with businesses. Rapkin joined panelists from Viber, We Are Social, and Twitter to discuss the latest developments in messenger technology and provide insight into the future of automated sales.
“Part of what makes messaging such an appealing space for businesses is that it can shorten the distances between an individual and what they want—whether it’s customer service or buying a movie ticket, upgrading their phones or ordering a sandwich,” says Rapkin. “Good automation is critical to making these types of interactions work, and we’re working hard to build products that make it easy for big and small businesses and organizations alike to take advantage of them in the coming year.”
As someone who has worked in the spheres of music, television, and tech, Rapkin is no stranger to SXSW—this was his 10th time attending attending the festival, although it was his first appearance as a speaker. Rapkin was a theater major at Oberlin and eventually found his way into television marketing, which led to marketing jobs at Apple and Facebook.
“It was actually a pretty easy transition—good marketing is good storytelling after all, and TV appealed to my love of theater,” Rapkin says. “If there’s anything I’ve learned over all these years it’s that we can be passionate about a great many things and, regardless of where we land, the skills we learn as artists in school—driving consensus, telling meaningful stories, following your passion and your beliefs—are extremely useful.”
Peggy Orenstein ’83, “Girls and Sex: Navigating from Shame to Joy”
Best-selling author and journalist Peggy Orenstein discussed her book Girls and Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape, which explores the “attitudes, expectations, and experiences of young women 15-20 years old and the ways they feel entitled to engage in sexual behavior but not necessarily entitled to enjoy it.” Orenstein’s presentation at SXSW was a more comprehensive, in-depth version of a recent TED Talk she delivered at TEDWomen 2016, titled “What young women believe about their own sexual pleasure.”
“If we truly want young people to engage safely, ethically, and yes, enjoyably, it's time to have open honest discussion about what happens after ‘yes,’ and that includes breaking the biggest taboo of all and talking to young people about women's capacity for and entitlement to sexual pleasure,” says Orenstein in her TEDTalk. Orenstein also explores the concept of “intimate justice,” or the idea that sex has political, as well as personal implications.
After her presentation, Orenstein held a book signing with members of the audience. “The most fun for me was doing the speaker meet-up afterwards, in which people sign up to come talk further about your topic in a less formal setting,” Orenstein says. “That gave me a chance to hear how the talk was received, what people were thinking about, and gave me ideas of directions to go next. My only regret was that I didn't notice that Donny Osmond was having his official festival picture taken right before me, so I didn't get a selfie with him.”
R.B. Brenner ’83, “Emerging Realities Meet-Up”
What if you could explore an 18th-century London art gallery that was a favorite haunt of Jane Austen? Or take on the role of an air traffic controller in real time? R.B. Brenner, director of the School of Journalism and the G.B. Dealey Regents Professor in Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, spoke at an interactive meet-up in which guests could participate in “immersive reality” exhibits that allowed them to experience both these scenarios.
Brenner, a veteran journalist who edited the Washington Post’s Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings, joined the UT Austin faculty in 2014. For the past few years, he has worked closely with the university’s Radio-Television-Film department, which houses UT3D, the nation’s first comprehensive 3D production program, as well as the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC), which boasts a virtual reality lab.
The event was billed on the SXSW website as wholly interactive: “no panels, no passive audience members,” read the description. “Last year we did a panel at SXSW Interactive showing off some of the work in [virtual reality],” explains Brenner. “This year we decided to do it more as a meet-up, meaning rather than having panelists talk a lot we wanted it to just be very hands-on, so we ended up having about three exhibit spaces for people to walk through and experience.”
The exhibits included a 360-degree video station, which featured a state-of-the-art camera system developed in the UT Austin film department, as well as an augmented reality demo developed by the TACC, which utilized real-time data from airplanes landing at the Austin airport. Using a Microsoft HoloLens, viewers could see the planes approaching the airport and visually assume the role of an air traffic controller. The third exhibit, called “What Jane Saw,” was a collaboration between the UT Austin department of English and the TACC virtual reality lab and reimagined a London art gallery that was destroyed in a fire more than 300 years ago. “They dreamed up the gallery virtually, so you could walk in and see all of the paintings that inspired Jane Austen in her time,” says Brenner.
Arthur Simone ’99, “Artificial Improvisation”
Arthur Simone, an artist, actor, and cofounder of Austin’s ColdTowne Theater, appeared alongside Dr. Bradley Knox and two robots for an “Artificial Improvisation” panel, where they discussed Italian Futurism, ubermarionettes, anthropomorphising, and social robotics, among other topics. According to Simone, the biggest challenge of the panel was convincing “a very tech-savvy crowd” of the authenticity of his robot Anabelle.
Simone met Knox while teaching improv, and was immediately impressed by the breadth of the doctorate student’s knowledge about artificial intelligence. “At the time, I had been doing a one-man improvisational show with my dog and began wondering what ‘improv with a robot’ would look like,” says Simone. “It was a struggle at first to appreciate just how preordained and purposeful every movement or 'thought' was for a robot, so my concept for the Bot Party show became a bit about theatrical expectations, conventions and sleight-of-hand.” Together, Simone and Knox created the aforementioned Bot Party—a unique theater experience in which robots and humans perform side by side in the famously fast-paced setting of improvisational comedy.
Many of Simone’s experiences at Oberlin have helped inform his current work with robots. As a theater major, Professor Roger Copeland’s History of the Western Theatre course opened his eyes to Italian Futurism, as well as the idea of the “ubermarionette.” He also became “enamored” with Contact Improvisation, led by Professor Ann Cooper Albright. “I've always been in awe of how my body could move through space, gravity, and time, while also maintaining that critical in-the-moment awareness and connection to another human being,” he says. “It took a great deal of work under the hood to get to the point where it seemed seamless and organic. I guess that's where I feel so much empathy for robots.”
Igor Holas ’05, “Mental Health Crisis: New Technological Solutions”
Igor Holas, PhD, a published psychologist and cofounder of the health-tech startup Mentegram, co-organized and hosted a panel on technology in mental health care. Holas drew on his experience leading a technology startup and building software for bridging the gap between mental health providers and their patients. Holas joined three other company founders and CEOs to discuss the next wave of mental health care.
“The overall message of the panel ended up being ‘You're never alone, thanks to the tech in our lives,’” says Holas. “Technology allows people suffering through a mental health episode, or managing a long-term mental health condition to draw on a broader community of support, that helps them weather crises, and continue to grow and grow stronger.”
The panel touched on how technology can increase the access and quality of mental health treatment, as well as how it can decrease the stigma surrounding mental health and provide a means to establish community wellness.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology at Oberlin, Holas pursued an MA and PD in human development and family sciences at the University of Texas at Austin. A resident of Austin for eight years, this was Holas’ second time presenting at SXSW.
Daniel Schloss ’07 and Charlie Sohne ’07, “Independent TV: A New Road to Success”
Daniel Schloss and Charlie Sohne, co-creators of the independent television pilot Truth Slash Fiction, appeared on a panel to discuss the new vanguard of independent episodic storytelling. Truth Slash Fiction, a dramedy about high schoolers who write homoerotic fan fiction (“slash fiction”) about their favorite boy band, won Best Comedy Pilot and Best Actress in a Comedy at both SeriesFest and ITVFest, and is currently being optioned by a Hollywood studio.
Schloss and Sohne, who roomed together at Oberlin, were joined by Henry Proegler, creator of documentary series Five Star, and Randi Kleiner, founder and CEO of SeriesFest. The panel discussed why they felt their stories were better told as a series, as opposed to an independent film, and what the future holds for a new wave of creators taking this nontraditional approach.
“The television industry is new to us and we've learned a lot in the last year through the process,” says Schloss. “So we talked about our path from working together at Oberlin, to working together nine years later and making this pilot, to what we've learned in the TV industry so far.”
Schloss and Sohne just released a four-minute short promotional film for Dance Theatre of Harlem, featuring an original song written by Sohne and Tim Rosser ’06 and performed by India Arie. Sohne and Rosser are also about to premiere their musical The Boy Who Danced on Air off-Broadway this spring.
Music: T-Rextasy (Lyris Schulman ’18 and Annie Fidoten ’18) and Ami Dang ’06
SXSW may be the first major festival the “dashing dino dames” of T-Rextasy have played, but it almost certainly won’t be the last. T-Rextasy, which features Lyris Schulman on vocals and Annie Fidoten on bass, formed in 2013 when its members were still in high school. In the past few years their bold, funny, punk-rock songs have earned the admiration from the likes of NPR “Songs We Love” and MTV.
“SXSW was a really special experience and we felt very lucky to be there,” says Schulman. “We made new connections and strengthened connections we already had. It could be overwhelming and stressful, but it was ultimately one of the most fun weeks I’ve ever had.”
Baltimore-based musician Ami Dang performed her new song “Binaa Pyaar,” which means “Without Love” in Punjabi, at her SXSW appearance. Dang, who was raised Sikh, has recently spoken out against President Donald Trump’s travel ban and discussed how the current political climate has encouraged her to weave politics more deeply into her music. Dang majored in Technology in Music and Related Arts (TIMARA) at Oberlin Conservatory and describes her music as "East-meets-West, experimental avant-pop.”
Film & Television: Search Party (Sarah-Violet Bliss ’06 and Clare McNulty ’07) and Fits and Starts (Ben Sinclair ’06)
Search Party, the TBS dark comedy co-created by Sarah-Violet Bliss and featuring Clare McNulty, was represented at the festival by way of a pop-up shop, complete with programming, retail, live performances, and happy hour. Search Party has been described as one of the best television shows of 2016, and was recently renewed for a second season. SXSW holds particular significance for Bliss and McNulty—in 2014, Fort Tilden, a film written by Bliss and starring McNulty, won the grand jury prize for narrative film, and effectively launched their careers.
Ben Sinclair ’06 appeared in the film Fits and Starts, directed by Laura Terruso (Hello, My Name is Doris) and starring Wyatt Cenac (The Daily Show) and Greta Lee (Girls). Sinclair is the co-creator and star of the television series High Maintenance.