'Wonder House' makes its debut at SXSW

Wonder House

An artististic rendering of the "Wonder House," which will debut in Austin at South by Southwest.

The University of Arizona is bringing "Wonder" to Austin.

The university's "Wonder House" will make its long-awaited debut at the 2022 South by Southwest Conference and Festivals, offering three days of speakers, musicians and immersive experiences.

Misha Harrison

Misha Harrison

It's a vision that has been evolving for the better part of three years, according to Misha Harrison, executive director of experience in UArizona Marketing and Brand Management.

"To say we're excited to finally debut everything this incredible team has worked so hard to develop would be a massive understatement," Harrison said. "I'm just so proud to be involved with so much inspired creativity."

The name "Wonder House" represents the University of Arizona's brand: WONDER. As a humanistic brand, it encourages people to engage with and develop relationships with the university through authentic articulations of the university's contributions to the world.

The "Wonder House" will be open March 11-13 from 11 a.m. to midnight each day at the Fogo de Chao restaurant, located across from the Austin Convention Center. The more than 20 discussions that are planned match the university's primary areas of expertise with the SXSW conference tracks, which include climate change, health and medtech, and tech industry.

From in-depth examinations of climate resilience to high-concept gourmet insect dishes to the awe-inspiring power of a simple walk, Harrison believes the "Wonder House" has something for everyone. The current list of speakers and a schedule of events and entertainment are available online.

The "Wonder House" will also be home to several immersive experiences. They include "Ripple Effect," an art installation designed by Dorsey Kaufmann, a multimedia specialist in the Department of Environmental Science, that visualizes water quality data through sound, light and water, and "StellarScape," a combination of music, dance and cinematography blended with state-of-the-art data visualization and astrophysical simulation that allows a person to witness the birth of a star.

In 2019, after Harrison attended her first SXSW festival, she and her team began brainstorming what would become the "Wonder House." Founded in 1987, SXSW is internationally renowned for celebrating the convergence of tech, film, music, education and culture.

"South by Southwest tends to be a culture definer for the nation and the world," Harrison said. "If we want to be at the forefront of these cultural conversations, we need to be at South By."

Initial planning began in early summer 2019, with the team's wish list of speakers and events and ideas for incorporating virtual reality and the university's expertise in the arts. The "Wonder House" was set to debut at the 2020 SXSW but the festival was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With the 2021 edition of SXSW entirely virtual, it was unclear whether the "Wonder House" would ever happen as planned.

Harrison never wavered.

"It was so heartbreaking in the moment, but it really did give us an opportunity to critique and reevaluate what we had planned for 2020 and make some tweaks for this edition," Harrison said. "We realized that our speaker program and our arts program could be more robust. We were able to generate two-and-a-half times as many speakers across more disciplines and fields of study."

Wonder in Austin

What does Harrison hope to accomplish with the "Wonder House"? In a word: connection.

"On a larger scale, I hope we can build a connection so that people associate the University of Arizona with people who are doing things that are unexpected and challenging," Harrison said. "I would love to see our name associated with the world's big thinkers seeking to solve big problems. We are not scared to try something new, exciting, different. We are a force to be reckoned with."

For those unable to visit the "Wonder House" in person, Harrison and her team will be sharing highlights via social media using the hashtag #UArizonaSXSW and on the university's SXSW website. The team will also be conducting several interviews with university experts and conducting behind-the-scenes tours. Full talks will be available for viewing the next day.

Those who want to be involved in planning future editions of the "Wonder House" can email sxsw@arizona.edu with suggestions.

"Planning for 2023 South by Southwest starts March 15, the day we get back," Harrison said. "This is only the beginning."

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