South by Southwest SXSW 2017 festival immigration

South By Southwest SXSW 2017: Festival Denies ‘Misleading’ Immigration Scandal

South by Southwest 2017 (SXSW) is the latest to suffer from the tense situation over immigration laws following the election of Donald Trump to the American presidency. One artist has withdrawn from the festival over promises to report performers to immigration authorities who do not stick to their contracts.

Felix Walworth of the Brooklyn indie pop band, Told Slant, kicked off the skirmish on Tuesday morning when he tweeted that he would no longer be participating in the SXSW 2017 artist showcase after reviewing the e-mail detailing the procedure for artists who “act in ways that adversely affect” the viability of South by Southwest.

“I’m not interested in aligning myself with an institution that interacts with immigration authorities as a means of controlling where art is shared and performed, and who makes money off of it. This festival uses an imperialist model and prioritizes centralizing and packaging culture over communities & people’s safety.”

In a follow-up post, he further clarified his statement by attacking South by Southwest itself for contributing to a widespread gentrification problem that has hit Austin, Texas, in the years since the festival has become an internationally-recognized arts showcase.

“It’s no secret that SXSW has played a huge role in the process of Austin’s rapid gentrification. The whole festival exists to the detriment of working class people & people of color in Austin. That they’re willing to threaten deportation is enough evidence for me that they don’t care about anyone including the artists that lend them their legitimacy when we allow our alignment with institutions like this to be our metric for success as artists we are seriously failing.”

Speaking with The Austin Chronicle, SXSW 2017 Managing Director Roland Swenson denies that the festival in any way seeks to create an environment uncomfortable for foreign performers, referred to by his critic as an “imperialist model.” He claims that the South by Southwest contract that was presented as evidence of such an attitude was stitched together out of the full document.

South by Southwest SXSW 2017 festival immigration
What is South by Southwest festival’s attitude toward immigrants? [Image by Rick Kern/Getty Images for Samsung]

Furthermore, Swenson says it does indicate any change in the policy that Southwest by Southwest has had for at least five years. A policy, he says, that has never had to be enforced and which he does not foresee coming into play at SXSW 2017. Rather, the rules are there to protect the organizers from any possible legal trouble that should arise from problematic performers.

“It’s intended for someone who does something really egregious like disobeying our rules for pyrotechnics, starts a brawl in a club, or kills somebody. You have to really f**k up for us to do this stuff. What people don’t understand is that we’re already talking to immigration about all these bands. Most of these bands are here because we sort of sponsored them. So if somebody did something bad enough that we had to enforce this part of the contract, we would probably be obliged to notify immigration that ‘Hey these guys are trouble,’ but we’ve never had to do that.”

In response, the Told Slant member has called “fake news” on accusations that he edited together two separate portions of the SXSW contract. As evidence, he posted a video of him scrolling through the message on his social media accounts.

Apart from the dispute with Told Slant, South by Southwest has made it clear what side of the recent immigration controversy they stand on. SXSW 2017 will feature a special showcase of artists from the seven countries banned by the Trump administration’s recent executive order on immigration. A statement from the event’s Facebook page underlines how important the organizers feel it is to harness the massive press attention garnered by the festival, especially considering how important cultural exchange is to the live music industry.

“We need to make it our mission to use whatever power we have at our disposal — the power of media, the power of capital, and the power of music — to promote diversity, empathy, and understanding. For those whose work it is to promote cultural diversity in America, its impact has been disastrous. Arts presenters are reluctant to risk contracting performers from these seven countries, for fear shifting immigration policy could scuttle a long-planned project, and all the costs and waste that that would entail.”

South by Southwest SXSW 2017 festival immigration
Some long-time attendees of South by Southwest claim that the festival has gone down the tubes over the last decade or so, replacing a commitment to finding new and exciting art with a brand-sponsored pop music showcase. [Image by Michael Buckner/Getty Images for SXSW]

Hosted in Austin, Texas, often considered the progressive heart of the conservative state, South by Southwest has been around for three decades. In the past few years, it has come under increasing criticism for contributing to the gentrification of the state capital and becoming much more commercial than was originally intended. In 2013, NPR reporter Andrea Swensson wrote an article explaining why she would no longer be attending despite fond memories of watching it come into its own.

“The rampant expansion I’ve witnessed over the last handful of years feels too glaring and incongruous to ignore. As the music industry continues to place more and more power in the hands of independent artists, SXSW seems to be driving in the opposite direction; the festival feels like the industry’s last-gasp attempt to prove that cash can, in fact, still be king.”

Do you think the South by Southwest festival’s immigration clause is reasonable, or should artists take a stand by ditching SXSW 2017?

[Featured Image by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for SXSW]

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