SXSW Interactive Goes Retro: A Celebration of Analog at a Digital Fest

Techies show up to SXSW Interactive on the hunt for the next big gadget or app. But on the fest’s second day, digital was pushed aside during a celebration of the analog, the hand drawn and the physical

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When most people think of South By Southwest Interactive (see TIME’s full coverage of SXSW 2012), minds drift to emerging technologies, the soft launches of new products and the street-level beta-testing of the hippest, latest app. All of which makes the sidebar I attended on the festival’s second morning seem that much more remarkable. Organized by a quartet of artists committed to the value of physical objects in an increasingly digitized world, “The Present of Print: Paper’s Persistence” panel was a defiantly retro twist to be found at one of the world’s most forward-looking gatherings. About the time that posters were being passed around the room, demanding that attendees set aside their smartphones to recognize the tactile power of an advertisement that was composed as a work of visual art, it became clear that not everyone at SXSW adheres to the mantra that newer is always better.

In fact, numerous panels at this year’s festival seemed preoccupied with the question of what’s been lost to society among all these technological advancements. Several of this year’s panels focused on the uncertain future of libraries, and the push to redefine and reenergize a book-oriented institution in an e-reader world. Another panel on Occupy Wall Street addressed the ways in which social media has fundamentally altered the process of protesting. And yet what’s so refreshing about South By Southwest is that, in almost all these cases, a large number of brilliant thinkers are already pondering how to redefine these institutions that are being altered by technology. There’s less a sense of decline in Austin than an eager push to envision the new library of the future.

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Similarly, in the case of “Present of Print,” the focus was less on the decline of print media than on the new, profitable ways that printed advertisements, physical maps and material photos can be used to rise above the digital fray. Which brings me back to those posters being passed around the room: Frazier Fritz Blaw is the owner of Austin’s Motorblade, and he drew a stark contrast in his presentation between the most common means of advertising and promoting an event online – the flat, cumbersome pop-up ad – and the dying art of distributing artistic posters throughout a community. Not only do these full-sized, meant-for-public-admiration advertisements look and feel fundamentally different, designed both to convey information as well as to grab attention through artistic flair, but they reach the end consumer in places like concert halls, coffee shops and transportation hubs — all centers of community activity. Pop-up ads, in contrast, assault a viewer when they are typically trying to get work done. Blaw sees the elegant and communal being savaged by the clumsy and the automated.

Similarly, Nathan Kreuter, an assistant professor at Western Carolina University, addressed the evolving nature of maps. I, like most people nowadays, rely almost exclusively on a smartphone application developed by a corporation – Google – for my directions and detailed views of the surrounding landscape. But Kreuter is passionate in his praise of hand drawn, human-created maps; not only do they bring a different perspective to the countryside, but many have been created with a style and elegance that cannot be matched by computer renderings.

Travis Hartman, of Please Shoot Yourself, has also developed a decidedly modern twist to the old-school concept of the photo booth. Using a digital camera that can be set up at weddings or special functions, guests can shoot as many of their own (often madcap) portraits as they desire. Soon after, the party planners are given full access to this extensive digital library of informal photography, able to then curate and share the images with others online. It’s a unique evolution of the traditional photo booth, which would print out snapshots on the spot. And while the Please Shoot Yourself proofs are indeed easily shared as a series of digital links, Hartman is passionate about the value of going through one’s digital photos, curating the best of the lot and printing them out as a tangible object of one’s most cherished memories. As someone who has personally been dismayed by the loss of photos with the breaking of an iPhone, or the difficulty in finding old vacation photos on an external hard drive, this focus on physical copies that can be preserved, held and displayed resonates with me.

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Beyond the purely philosophical, all three speakers pointed to thriving businesses that have resulted from this push to preserve — and celebrate — the physical. Blaw says posters are now not just short-lived marketing materials but cherished masterpieces that sell at concerts at premium prices. Kreuter says old maps are now being sold as their own works of art, representing slices of a community’s history that are to be celebrated. And Hartman, who launched Please Shoot Yourself as his own small business, has seen newlyweds rapidly respond and recommend the service to others, adding the most memorable of these digital asides to their physical wedding albums.

Call it a push for preservation, a renewed interest in the past, or the latest creative strategy to make a serious profit, but “The Present of Print” made a strong case for why we all should look beyond the immediate, trendy allure of the latest digital fad.

Steven James Snyder is a Senior Editor at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @thesnydes. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page, on Twitter at @TIME and on TIME’s Tumblr.