Long Stories Short
- The chancellor announced an £8.6 million funding boost for Edinburgh’s festivals, £7 million of which is set to be spent on new headquarters.
- The National Gallery’s visitor numbers fell 55 per cent in 2022 compared to 2019, the largest drop of any museum, according to The Art Newspaper’s annual survey.
- Cheltenham Festival traditionalists said the removal of the formal dress code had been a win for “mediocrity”.
by Liz Moseley
SXSW, the annual boondoggle for tech bros, musos and advertising dudes is back to its pre-pandemic glory in Austin, Texas this week, defying in extravagant style the shadow of the Silicon Valley Bank meltdown.
SXSWhat? South by Southwest, or just “South by” is a ten-day, souped up trade show for the film, music, advertising and technology industries. Highlights of this year’s programme, which attracted around 300,000 people, included a surprise appearance by Barack Obama, the premiere of Keanu Reeves’ John Wick: Chapter 4, an interview with Greg Brockman, co-founder of OpenAI and a live performance by New Order. Anna Kendrick (pictured above), Ewan McGregor, Elizabeth Olsen and Robert Downey Jr also pitched up.
South by So What? Fair question. It’s 80 per cent puff, 20 per cent proper. Like the World Economic Forum at Davos, much of what happens in Austin stays in Austin, not because it’s scandalous (although SXSW has had its fair share of iconic moments and controversies – see below) but because it’s specialist. Unlike Davos, the hot air and hype can at least be fun. South by delegates may not be policymakers but their tastes are influential. SXSW was first to take the Daniels (Kwan and Scheinert) seriously, awarding them the top music video prize for Battles’ My Machine in 2012. Their seven Oscar-winning smash Everything Everywhere All at Once premiered at SXSW last year.
The lure of Austin
A hippie town with liberal licensing laws, a politicised university and a booming music scene when SXSW launched in 1987, Austin is now a thriving tech city, home to myriad start-ups and major venture capital funds. A number of tech giants – notably Tesla and Oracle – have relocated there, lured out of Silicon Valley by its relaxed business regulation regime and lower cost of living.
The lore of Austin
2007: The festival’s biggest claim to fame is that Twitter picked South by for its launch event.*
2014: The high watermark for SXSW notoriety came when Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower, gave his first interview via Skype at SXSW, Kanye West and Jay-Z performed for just 3,000 people and rapper Tyler, the Creator was arrested for inciting a riot.
2016: Its credibility peaked when then President Barack Obama gave the keynote speech.
*Unfortunately, this is a myth. Twitter launched in 2006 but bought so many billboards around the convention’s corridors the following March that SXSW 2007 is widely accepted to have been Twitter’s Big Reveal. Notably, Elon Musk’s Twitter did not have a presence at this year’s festival.
By the numbers
1,400 Music performances across 77 stages.
112 Countries represented in 2022, although 82 per cent of attendees were from the US.
285 Total screenings in the Film and TV tracks.
$280.7 million Economic impact for Austin from 2022’s event. 2019’s was $355.9 million.
40+ UK “Trade Mission Companies” feature in UK House, which is not a dance music genre but the Austin base of the UK Department for International Trade delegation. It promises to showcase “UK creative expression at its finest” in advertising, gaming, virtual and live experience design services.
SVB X SXSW. South by loves an acronym – see also AI, DEI, LLM – but SVB is one the Austin faithful would rather forget. Staff from Silicon Valley Bank kept calm and carried on with their planned dinner on 9 March, the evening before the world learned of the bank’s imminent collapse. Jake Chapman, a partner in Marque Ventures with the enviable Twitter handle @vc, live tweeted from Perry’s Steakhouse & Grille that he hadn’t “been asked to go Dutch yet”. Founders have been anxiously checking their phones for cash flow updates, even while participating in panel discussions. Journalist Jessica Quillin tweeted: “It’s honestly somewhat surreal to be @sxsw in the aftermath of the SVB fallout. It half feels like everyone is dancing on the Titanic as it’s going down.” The LA Times reported that one of major exhibitors at SXSW 2023, streaming and hardware company Roku, had $487 million – about a quarter of its cash – in SVB.
SXSW 2023 need to know
NFTs are over. Or at least conspicuous in their absence. Tech-wise, Austin is now almost-singularly obsessed with, and bullish about, AI. Future Today Institute’s trend report, always an Austin must-see, says, “In nearly every industry, AI will serve as a force multiplier for growth, bringing efficiencies, better tracking, business intelligence, and assistance with decision-making.”
Drugs aren’t. Amidst talk of the “cannabis recession”, Democrats and Republicans from Congress pushed for federal cannabis legalisation, arguing Biden carried Arizona because cannabis was on the ballot. A new, two-day dedicated psychedelics content track made the case for mainstreaming a “values-driven, purpose-built, patient-focused” industry for drugs including psilocybin, the main active ingredient in magic mushrooms.
Anything else? The CIA, in Austin on a recruitment drive, appealed for private sector help on surveillance and social media manipulation. Fresh from signing a trade deal with North Carolina, Andy Burnham joined New Order at the launch of a new music conference called Beyond the Music which will take place in Manchester this October.
Best bit Disney Parks demo’d a real lightsaber.
(News in brief)
Why are Priscilla Presley and granddaughter Riley Keough feuding over Graceland? Surely the King of Rock and Roll earned enough for everyone and Graceland is just a house? Well, no. Elvis left just $5 million in his will after spending heavily and selling off his catalogue in 1973. Daughter Lisa Marie inherited but trustee Priscilla rebuilt the business, opening Graceland to visitors and creating, by 2005, a $100 million empire. Lisa Marie then squandered the lot in what her lawyer called an “11-year odyssey to financial ruin”. She sold 85 per cent of the estate – known as Elvis Presley Enterprises – to Authentic Brands Group which also owns the estates of Marilyn Monroe and Muhammad Ali. The remaining 15 per cent, including most of Graceland, remains in the family trust. Priscilla is now claiming her late daughter removed her as trustee in 2016 without telling her. The accusations are flying – Priscilla notes her name is spelt incorrectly on the document removing her and thinks Lisa Marie’s signature “looks wrong”. It’s also been suggested, although this has been denied, that Priscilla’s been locked out of Graceland. She kept quiet at the premiere for Agent Elvis – starring Matthew McConaughey as a superspy version of the King and Priscilla playing herself – which launched on Netflix this week. A little more conversation and a little less legal action might not be a bad idea.
Few have had quite as dramatic a year as Gerard Piqué, the former Barcelona and Spain footballer. His 11-year relationship with Colombian pop royalty Shakira came to an explosive end in June last year and he retired from football in January. Throughout his career he’s been prodigious in his off-field business interests, from food to sunglasses and Esports to sports drinks. His latest venture sees him return – in some ways – to football. Last year he launched a new football league called “The King’s League”. Put simply, it’s indoor football for the TikTok generation. Streamed on Twitch, it consists of seven-a-side, 40-minute football matches, with alternative “wildcard” rules to those of “normal” football – like being able to eject an opposition player for two minutes. Will it become the norm? That’s unlikely, but the early signs are good. Its most recent round of matches achieved 4 million views on the league’s Twitch channel, which already boasts 2.2 million followers.
The incoming boss of English National Ballet ruffled a few tutus last weekend when he told The Sunday Times that he wanted to dispense with ballet’s stereotypical skinny dancer image. “Body type is not a standard I’m looking for,” said Watkin. “The different make-up of someone’s physique can be celebrated.” Young people “want to see something on stage they could relate to”. But will Watkin’s vision attract new audiences, and what does a “relatable” prima ballerina really look like? Some dance insiders worry Watkin could be playing fast and loose with his pas de chat. Mark Monahan, dance critic of the Telegraph, writes that “relatability in terms of body shape is where alarm bells start to ring”. He explains that classical ballet, as opposed to other dance forms, demands “a constant sense of head-to-toe physical proportion and poetry”. Baroness Bull, former principal at the Royal Ballet and Creative Director of the Royal Opera House said if Watkin is indeed intending to use the full range of “healthy, strong and danceable bodies, rather than operating at the stick-thin end of the spectrum, then I’m delighted”.
It touched us
In good company
Former US president Jimmy Carter, 98, went home for the final time in February, returning to Plains, Georgia, where he was born and raised to receive hospice care in the house off Main Street that he’s shared for decades with his wife Rosalynn. His devoted community have been keeping vigil ever since and, this week, current president Joe Biden revealed Carter had asked him to deliver his eulogy when the time comes. The two have had an enduring friendship since Biden became the first elected official outside of Georgia to endorse Carter’s 1976 presidential campaign. Worth a watch: Carter taking the time to shake the hand of every passenger on a flight he caught back home in 2017.
It tickled us
From 22 March, Brighton-based art-tech provocateurs Blast Theory are debuting an online experiment in AI’s ability to improve happiness in cats. It’s called Cat Royale. The three moggies, Ghostbuster, Clover and Pumpkin, will spend 12 days in a specially designed utopia, with an AI-controlled robotic arm instructed to increase the cats’ happiness. Blast Theory’s idea is to question whether a computer can measure or increase joy. Sounds silly? Not given the NHS is exploring using AI in human social care. Imagine watching a computer arm try to stroke three kittens. It’ll be like herding cats.
Thank you and farewell
A law unto himself
“My cup is empty… You win… I’m out,” wrote the celebrated fashion stylist Law Roach in a shock “retirement” post this week. He’s the man behind Hunter Schaffer’s single feather ensemble at this year’s Vanity Fair Oscars party, the iconic Cinderella dress worn by Zendaya to the 2019 Met Gala and Celine Dion’s dramatic fashion revival in 2016. “If this business was just about the clothes I would do it for the rest of my life,” he wrote. Fashion luminaries including Naomi Campbell and British Vogue editor Edward Enninful leapt to pledge their support. The 44-year-old Roach has made it clear he’s done with “the politics” but apparently not yet the limelight. By Wednesday he’d already made his own catwalk debut at a runway show for BOSS.
Not Notting Hill
by Stephen Armstrong
Rye Lane (screening now in cinemas) is that rarest of cinematic treasures, a funny, quirky, beautifully made rom-com. It’s the kind of British movie Richard Curtis excels at – although Rye Lane is almost the anti-Notting Hill. Set in Peckham, it follows bereft twentysomethings Dom (Industry’s David Jonsson) and Yas (newcomer Vivian Oparah) as they reel from bad breakups and deal with outrageous exes over the course of a long, colourful day that takes them from meet-cute to awkward restaurant encounters, through hip-hop karaoke to insane midnight scooter rides. The debut film from director Raine Allen-Miller captures the sizzling energy, mix of nationalities and inexplicable eccentricities of Peckham and Brixton while showing, as she points out, that people of colour don’t have to be gritty. “They have fun and are idiots and eat Greggs and wear pink Converse. It’s not a ‘black movie’ – an old white man in Texas can enjoy it.”
Is it really the anti-Notting Hill? Allen-Miller takes the odd pot-shot. Colin Firth appears briefly selling burritos at the (fictional) Love Guac’tually stall in Brixton Market, scorning Dom’s request for less spicy options. She’s as inspired by another Richard, with the couple’s stroll through South London streets evoking Linklater’s Before Sunrise.
Hollywood loves it. US trade press reviews were fawning after its debut at Sundance in January and this month Jonsson and Oparah were both signed by superagency CAA, home to Daniel Craig and Riley Keough.
But not everyone’s convinced. There’s widespread worry that this will complete the gentrification of Peckham and Brixton, squashing the very culture the movie depicts.
The whole world can watch it. Initially developed as a low-budget indie by the BFI and BBC Films, Disney’s Searchlight came on board to co-produce, putting the Mouse’s muscle and millions behind it. Searchlight’s track record with small British movies includes The Full Monty and Slumdog Millionaire, so the signs are good. It starts streaming on Disney+ and Hulu from 31 March.
Follow the money. The BFI has been channelling Lottery money into underrepresented film makers with mixed success. Charlotte Wells’ heartbreaking 2022 father-daughter tragedy Aftersun scored a best actor Oscar nomination for Paul Mescal, picked up a Bafta and was Sight and Sound’s film of the year. Reggie Yates’ 2021 comedy Pirates had good press but poor box office. The difference? American investment. Aftersun was backed by Ex Machina studio A24 while Pirates had UK indie Picturehouse Entertainment.
(Reviews in brief)
Furies: Stores of Wicked Wild and Untamed
In 1973, Carmen Callil decided the world needed a feminist imprint and founded Virago Press. Furies is a celebration of Virago’s 50th anniversary, bringing together new short stories from some of the biggest literary feminist names. “Virago” means a domineering, violent or bad-tempered woman; each chapter in Furies is named after a different female pejorative. Standouts include Siren, Margaret Atwood’s hilarious recounting of an all-female mythological creature social club – The Liminal Beings Knitting Circle – and She-devil, Eleanor Crewe’s graphic story on how chairs and overbearing mothers aren’t really so different. A collection of wild works by wild writers is the perfect tribute to Virago’s impact and legacy.
Holy Week: The story of a revolution undone
The week before Easter, known as Holy Week, is one of the most important in the Christian calendar as believers mourn the death, then celebrate the resurrection, of Jesus Christ. Holy Week is an apt name for the latest narrative podcast from the Atlantic which tells the forgotten stories of the week following Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination in April 1968. Over eight episodes, presenter and Atlantic editor Vann R. Newkirk II creates an intimate and eye-opening account of the civil rights movement and the goings-on inside President Lyndon B. Johnson’s White House. Featuring a blend of archive audio and the oral histories of the people who were there, including some of the last people to speak to King, it is a must listen.
If you like this, try: The Second Elizabethan Age, Richard Lambert’s podcast for Tortoise following the 70-year reign of Queen Elizabeth II.
Extrapolations, Apple TV +
Contagion writer Scott Z. Burns wants to alert you to the perils of climate change in this eight-part anthology, but the famous names are distracting – they include Meryl Streep, Sienna Miller, Forest Whitaker and Marion Cotillard – partly because the first two episodes take time to get going. Set decades apart, the stories intertwine. Episode one shows a genome startup aiming to save animals that, ten years later in episode two, employs Sienna Miller to find the last humpback whale, which speaks with Meryl Streep’s voice. Everything settles down – apart from the water levels – in episode three, and the future shocks are reliably bleak.
Berlusconi v Blair
This spring two political musicals – each about a former world leader – are set to open in London. Berlusconi, running from 29 March-29 April at the Southwark Playhouse Elephant tells the story of the former Italian prime minister’s time in office from the perspective of three women. Produced by Francesca Moody, the woman behind the original Fleabag, Berlusconi reminds audiences of the cost of electing populist “men of the people” to high office.
Then, on 15 April, Tony! [The Tony Blair Rock Opera] opens at Leicester Square theatre, charting Tony Blair’s ascent from the frontman of Ugly Rumours to one of the most successful and controversial prime ministers in British history. Written by Harry Hill and Steve Brown, the show received critical acclaim during its original run at the Park Theatre. Characters include Cherie Blair, Princess Diana and Saddam Hussein. Harry Hill has warned that for “anyone expecting a history lesson… it’s not really that”.
This week: An ode to the BBC/Gary Lineker debacle
At a Tortoise pace
Not by yourself but with yourself
Last month, Sebastian Hervas-Jones, 24, jacked in his job as a Tortoise reporter, binned his smart phone and set off on a renovated barge to spend 365 days discovering Britain. This is his second postcard “home”.
The mighty flight that is the Hanwell Locks lowers my boat nearly 60 feet, down to the Thames. It’s a back-breaking day of lifting, pushing and pulling for the lonely traveller or, as I found, a joyous day in the sun when two boats find themselves tackling it together. My companion was a boater called Neil, a local postman who has walked and delivered the same 10-mile route every morning for 30 years. He knows and greets all the towpath pedestrians. “Hey, since you’re travelling alone, how about joining me and some friends at the pub?“ says Neil as we finish our journey. “We will be talking about posty things, but it may be nicer than sitting around by yourself?” “I’d love to,” I say without hesitation.
for your diary
17/03 – Boujis, the infamous London nightclub and former playground for the rich and royals, reopens as B London nine years after closing.
21/03 – A-list hairdresser George Northwood – known for styling Alexa Chung and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex – opens his new salon at 13 Boundary St, London E2 with free haircuts for the public from 10am to 7pm.
31/03 – If Not Now, When? Generations of Women in Sculpture in Britain, an exhibition marking the culmination of a landmark feminist research project inspired by Barbara Hepworth, opens at Hepworth Gallery, Wakefield.
01/04 – The first major exhibition of British fashion designer Ashish Gupta, Ashish: Fall in Love and Be More Tender, opens at William Morris Gallery, Walthamstow, London.
04/05 – Hop in your X-wing starfighter and get down to Science Fiction Lates at Science Fiction: Voyage to the Edge of Imagination. The Science Museum has extended the run of its most ambitious exhibition yet until 20 August 2023.
19/05 – 29/05 – Charleston Festival’s lively programme of talks near Lewes is well worth a look.
22/05 – Entries close for the Martha Mills Young Writers’ Prize, named after the late daughter of former Tortoise Editor Merope Mills; winners are announced on 17 June.
26/08–The Charlatans and Johnny Marr co-headline a gig at “Yorkshire’s most important secular building” – The Piece Hall, Halifax. Tickets on sale now.
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Editor: Jane Bruton
Contributions from Tomini Babs, Andrew Butler, Sophie Fenton, Dolly Martin, Hannah Slattery, Sara Weissel and James Wilson