sxswi: Getting Folksy

Folkways, from the new mix tape to cockfighting knives

sxswi: Getting Folksy

Former UT graduate student and current Assistant Professor at Western Carolina University, Nathan Kreuter kicked off Friday afternoon’s panel Folkways These Days: Crafty Knowledge in Digital Networks with a definition of the term “folkways,” which is, broadly speaking, traditional behaviors of groups of people.

The panel’s structure was four brief presentations, including one by current UT grad student William Burdette, whose presentation was largely informed by his work as Assistant Director in the Department of Rhetoric and Writing’s digital writing and research labs.

Burdette stressed that in the DRW, they have been working with the idea of writing with images and with sound. While the cultural heritage of folk music is negotiating the tension between preserving culture and mixing culture, a new kind of folk music is emerging in the remix (think of Danger Mouse’s Gray Album, a mashup of the Beatles’ White Album and Jay-Z’s Black Album). Burdette argued that the RIAA is great because it forced us to come up with alternative ways to distribute music, and that social media and digital networks help us expand our “non-rockstar identities” from either consumers or criminals to producers and remixers and distributors of our own content. This situates us all somewhere on the continuum of corporate rock star and a busker selling homemade mix tapes. Hence: It’s all folk music now.

East Austin potter Ryan McKerley posed the question, "Do digital networks threaten or encourage craftsmanship?" and discussed the dangers of showing one’s work online: copyists. Magda Sayeg, the Austin-based artist who founded Knitta Please, a yarn-bombing graffiti group, said, “What happened to me could not have happened without the internet […] because there is something powerful via technology, it’s become less of my thing, isn’t just my art. As blogs covered it, as big as this world is, through social media, we all post and talk about it, there’s a community that has happened as a result. [People around the world have] incorporated what I started here into their own world.” (You can see photographs of Knitta’s latest project, 99 Trees, an installation at the Blanton Museum of Art, here.)

Finally, Kreuter tackled the digital divide in rural America and what’s at stake for digital access for rural artisans. Using a photo of a hand-made, serrated Mexican cockfighting knife set against an iPhone for scale as a trenchant visual example of the tensions between folk art and access to the internet, Kreuter argued that because “you can’t go to Wal Mart and pick up cockfighting knives,” access to digital networks is crucial to rural artisans. When artisans like luthier John Hamlett have to drive 15 miles to the local library to maintain their websites, it’s in our interest to bring fiber/broadband to rural outposts.

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SXSW Interactive, SXSW, Nathan Kreuter, Knitta Please, Folkways These Days: Crafty Knowledge in Digital Networks, Will Burdette, Magda Sayeg, Ryan McKerley

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