South by Southwest responded to criticism Thursday that its artist agreements for its music festival included language that indicated it reserved the right to call immigration authorities on any international artist(s) who performed at an event or venue outside of the festival’s own showcases.
Early Thursday, Told Slant frontman Felix Walworth tweeted a screenshot of a part of the performance agreement that informs international artists that performing at an event outside of SXSW showcases could be grounds for “immediate deportation, revoked passport and denied entry by US Customs Border Patrol at US ports of entry.”
Walworth said in the tweet, “After looking through this contract sent to me by sxsw I have decided to cancel Told Slant’s performance at the festival.”
Rolling Stone reports that Walworth, who is from Brooklyn, N.Y., went further and said the following:
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 and people’s safety. 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 and 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.
The story spread across the internet, and, of course, social media was full of outrage. Other artists got involved in the fray, and a group of them even sent an open letter to SXSW, asking its officials to remove the clause from its contract and “cease any collusion with immigration officials that puts performers in danger.”
SXSW co-founder Roland Swenson first told the Austin Chronicle that Walworth had cut and pasted together two images from two different parts of the agreement “in a way that is misleading and out of context.”
Walworth then responded by posting a video showing the contract being scrolled through, and proving that he had not cut and pasted anything.
Swenson then emailed the Chronicle and said that “he mistakenly thought an artist agreement had been altered, when, in fact, Walworth was referencing the ‘invite letter.’”
And that’s all well and good, but in his earlier interview with the Chronicle, Swenson acknowledged that the language was in the contract and has been for five years, but that SXSW has “never had to enforce” it.
From the Chronicle:
“We’ve had these restrictions in the agreement for about five years and never had to enforce them,” Swenson said by phone today. “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 fuck up for us to do this stuff.
“What people don’t understand is that we’re already talking to immigration about all these bands,” he continues—referring to the hundreds of international artists that SXSW books annually. “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.” Prior to Walworth’s viral tweet, followed by other tweets denouncing SXSW for using an “imperialist model” and suggesting that all like-minded artists should bail at once, at least one manager of an international band showed evidence of fearing that artists would lose their visas if they played an unofficial show in Austin during SXSW.
“Some of this about playing shows other than their showcase, which, if they come in on the kind of visa that most of them get—they’re not supposed to do that,” confirms Swenson, pointing out that SXSW never threatens international artists with immigration over playing extracurricular shows. “All this stuff in there about getting deported and immigration—that’s just us telling them this could happen if you’re doing this other stuff. It’s not us saying we’re going to try and have you deported, it’s us warning them that if they violated the terms of the visa that got them here, that’s what could happen.”
Swenson brushed off the Told Slant controversy and told the Chronicle that it’s just a way for an artist to get publicity.
But is it really? We have a president who has decided to use immigration policy as a weapon with which to hold people down and push people out. It is a method of oppression, and the wording of the SXSW contract as posted on Rolling Stone does not read as a warning; it reads as a veiled threat:
1.4. Foreign Artists entering the country through the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), B visa or any non-work visa may not perform at any public or unofficial shows, DAY OR NIGHT, in Austin from March 10-19, 2017. Accepting and performing at unofficial events (including unofficial events aside from SXSW Music dates during their visit to the United States) may result in immediate deportation, revoked passport and denied entry by US Customs Border Patrol at US ports of entry.
It doesn’t say, “Hey, here’s a heads-up,” or “Be careful of this.” It says, “You may not do this, or this will happen.”
But Swenson, if he were to read this, would say he thinks I’m wrong. He told the Chronicle, “It was still a misunderstanding on [Walworth’s] part in thinking that the deportation threat is from us, not just the consequences of of violating the terms of the visa. It was also out of context.”
The Chronicle asked Swenson later Thursday if SXSW would consider revising its contract for future years.
“Yes, the contract could use some work,” Swenson said. “But no matter what the contract says, it’s easy to jump to conclusions when you pull a couple of paragraphs out of context.”
I thought that we already established that’s not what happened here?