It’s not everyday that you see food trucks, giant works of art and big-name celebrities on the White House lawn. But South by South Lawn (SXSL), the White House’s first-ever festival of ideas, art, and action, brought food, demonstrations of new tech, music and a whole lot of creative people to the president’s backyard on Monday.
It also earned President Obama a new distinction, as “commander in cool.”
Modeled off the famed South by Southwest (SXSW) festival with film, media and music held every year in Austin, Texas, SXSL had panel discussions and exhibits on food sustainability, climate change and technology that could potentially improve everything from the justice system to cancer care. When the White House announced the event in early September, it asked people to nominate change agents in their communities who might be interested in attending. More than 20,000 were nominated.
“Earlier this year, the President traveled to South by Southwest, where he challenged tech leaders, creators and entrepreneurs to leverage the latest technology, the most innovative approaches to solve some of our country’s toughest challenges. And today, he’s bringing that call to action to the White House, to the South Lawn, to be precise, in the first ever South by South Lawn festival,” said Press Secretary John Earnest at a press briefing.
One exhibit, called 6’x 9’, created by The Guardian and The Mill, provided a virtual reality experience of what it is like to be in solitary confinement for nine minutes. Another exhibit hosted by Black Girls Code, a nonprofit dedicated to teaching girls of color programming and game design, and Sphero, a data driven sphere controlled by a smart phone, gave visitors a chance to play with robots.
MythBusters’ Adam Savage and a team of makers from Baltimore made the giant letters “SXSL” that lit up every time someone posted to social media using the hasthag #sxsl. Artist Nathan Sawaya brought his Park People, sculptures of people made entirely of Legos.
An impressive lineup of musicians performed, from Gallant, Black Alley, Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings and DJ Bev Bond to the show-closer, the Lumineers.
Stars of the hit show Stranger Things came out to present the winners of the White House Student Film Festival. Each of the 700 or so short films, produced by aspiring filmmakers in grades K-12, offered a vision of the future, and fit the contest’s theme, “The World I Want to Live In.”
The main event was a conversation, led by President Obama, on climate change with Leonardo DiCaprio and climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe. When talking about leaders taking on climate change, DiCaprio said, “I'm so very honored and pleased to be joined onstage with one of those leaders—a President who has done more to create solutions for the climate change crisis than any other in history—President Barack Obama.” Immediately following the discussion was the domestic premiere of DiCaprio’s new climate documentary, Before the Flood.
Press Secretary Earnest said of the event: “It celebrates the work of everyday Americans who are using cutting-edge technology, art, film and innovative thinking to shape a better future for Americans and across the globe.”