One of the speakers at XOXO 2012, Chad Dickerson of Etsy
XOXO is an annual festival and conference held in Portland, Oregon, that describes itself as "celebrating independently produced art and technology". XOXO was founded in 2012 by Andy Baio and Andy McMillan with funding from prepaid tickets and other contributions via Kickstarter, and it was described by the New York Times as an "experimental" conference.
The inaugural event was held in Portland's Yale Union Laundry Building in September 2012 with approximately 400 participants. The first day of the conference focused on talks from independent creators from fields such as film, comics, music, art and illustration, video games, hardware design and product design, while the second centered on technology, and those building tools to facilitate and encourage independent creativity through the web. Speakers and performers included Dan Harmon, Adam Savage, MC Frontalot, Chris Poole, Bre Pettis, Julia Nunes, The Kleptones, The Limousines, and the creators of Kickstarter, MetaFilter, VHX, Simple, Diesel Sweeties, Indie Game: The Movie and World of Goo.
Associated events included live music, film screenings, an arcade of independently produced videogames, a pub crawl, a market, and food trucks.
News media and bloggers noted an "impressive list of speakers", a focus on "democratizing media and innovation", and an "intimate tone" missing from other technology-focused conferences. Ruth Brown wrote "the audience was overwhelmingly white, male, middle class and educated."
XOXO returned to the Yale Union Laundry Building in September 2013 with speakers, workshops, films, music shows, game events, and a market. Baio described it as being "about artists and hackers and makers that are using the internet to make a living doing what they love independently without sacrificing creative or financial control". Portland Monthly compared the event to the larger South by Southwest festival, quoting Matthew Haughey saying SXSW speakers are "in the business of selling technologies" and XOXO speakers are "creating things". To handle increased interest while remaining small (500 conference tickets and 200 "fringe event" tickets), it had an application process with questions intended to filter out people who wanted to market to attendees.
Speakers and performers included Tim Schafer, Vi Hart, Evan Williams, Molly Crabapple, Marco Arment, Jack Conte, Erika Moen, Jay Smooth, Adrian Holovaty, and the creators of Cards Against Humanity, Pinboard, and Panic. The editors of Boing Boing—Mark Frauenfelder, Cory Doctorow, David Pescovitz, and Xeni Jardin—appeared together on stage for the first time to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the zine's launch in 1988. Musical performances included Anamanaguchi, Jack Conte, Jonathan Coulton, and Jim Guthrie.
An attendee, Glenn Fleishman, described the conference as having a very friendly social environment and inspiring people to change their jobs, and he noted essays by other attendees about the need for critique and not just friendliness, a lack of gender balance similar to the technology industry in general, and a harassment incident that was handled effectively. Another attendee also discussed her enjoyment of the people at the conference, and she noted the challenge of running a conference about independent creators that is inaccessible for some independent creators due to ticket and travel cost.
In 2014, the third XOXO was held on September 11–14, 2014 at The Redd, a former metal stamping facility in an industrial area of SE Portland.
The XOXO lineup was announced in June 2014 and conference tickets were sold out by the first week of July. Conference speakers included Anita Sarkeesian, Hank Green, Gina Trapani, Golan Levin, John Gruber, Leigh Alexander, Kevin Kelly, Justin Hall, Jonathan Mann, Rachel Binx, and Welcome to Night Vale co-creator Joseph Fink. Sarkeesian's appearance was met with controversy from Gamergate supporters, with one protester passing out leaflets.
A new evening event, XOXO Story, was added in 2014 with live performances of popular podcasts like Harmontown, John Roderick's Rendezvous, and Song Exploder featuring an interview with The Thermals. A second night of music was also added, including performances from Pomplamoose, YACHT, Molly Lewis, John Roderick and Sean Nelson from The Long Winters, Mike Doughty, and Nerf Herder. XOXO Arcade featured 10 unreleased or exhibition-only games, such as Quadrilateral Cowboy and the ten-player Killer Queen arcade cabinet, and new work from Keita Takahashi, Threes creator Asher Vollmer, and QWOP creator Bennett Foddy.
Ten films and shorts were shown at XOXO Film, including previews of the first two episodes of Natasha Allegri's Bee & Puppycat series, new animations from David OReilly and PES, and the debut of Empire Uncut, the crowdsourced sequel to Star Wars Uncut.
News media and bloggers noted a more serious tone from previous years. Boing Boing said a "darker sense of mission and meaning took hold in the event's third year." The Verge called it "the most interesting weekend in tech" that "pushes the web forward." The Daily Dot reported that 40% of attendees were female, double the rate of previous years.
The fourth XOXO was held on September 10–13, 2015 at Revolution Hall, the auditorium of the former Washington High School in the Buckman neighborhood of SE Portland. For the first time, a limited number of subsidized passes were offered for $50 to those who couldn't otherwise afford to attend. Free on-site childcare, live captioning of talks, and free bike rentals were also new additions.
Conference speakers included Heather Armstrong, Gimlet Media's Alex Blumberg, Veronica Belmont, Kathy Sierra, Spike Trotman, Daniel Mallory Ortberg, Anil Dash, Zoë Quinn, Eric A. Meyer, BoJack Horseman's Lisa Hanawalt, Vlambeer's Rami Ismail, and the creators of Suck.com, reuniting on stage for the webzine's 20th anniversary.
XOXO Music was held on an outdoor stage for the first time, with evening musical performances by Dan Deacon, Kaki King, Vulfpeck, Open Mike Eagle, NIKO IS, Kawehi, and the first live CVS Bangers by Hennessy Youngman. During the day, music performances were curated by Patreon's Jack Conte and Ground Kontrol's Art Santana.
Seven films and shorts were shown at XOXO Film & Animation with Q&A from the creators, including new work from Every Frame A Painting's Tony Zhou, Everything Is A Remix's Kirby Ferguson, Feminist Frequency's Anita Sarkeesian, and animator Justin Roiland screened House of Cosbys and debuted a new episode of Rick and Morty. XOXO Story, an evening event focused on live podcasts and storytelling, featured live performances from Gimlet Media's Reply All, Hello from the Magic Tavern, the founders of Suck.com, and You Look Nice Today with Merlin Mann, Adam Lisagor, and Scott Simpson, followed by the unannounced premiere of Adam Lisagor's Computer Show.
XOXO Arcade featured 14 unreleased independent games with their designers and developers on-site, including Firewatch, Overland, Hyper Light Drifter, Donut County, Below, Cibele, Keita Takahashi's Wattam, Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, and the first playable appearance of Tacoma, Fullbright's followup to Gone Home. XOXO Tabletop brought the creators of eight independently-produced tabletop games to show their work, including The Metagame, Two Rooms and a Boom, Bycatch, Funemployed, and Marrying Mr. Darcy.
Engadget wrote many talks were "emotionally driven... centered around the difficult issues of being independent." The Guardian attributed the festival's popularity to "its gentleness, its emotive undertone and thoughtful curation, but also its commitment to supporting individual artists over businesses and corporates."
The Verge wrote that Slack "broke out at Portland's XOXO Festival" when attendees used the chat software in the weeks leading up the festival to socialize and coordinate activities, creating over 150 channels covering a variety of interests.
For the fifth XOXO, held September 8–11, 2016, the festival returned to Revolution Hall in SE Portland, with over 1,200 attendees. Expanding the amenities from the previous year, 10% of passes were offered to low-income attendees for free, reduced from $50 the previous year. Free on-site childcare included a new children's arcade with a rotating lineup of independent videogames, and children were allowed to attend the festival for free.
Conference speakers included Gaby Dunn, Talia Jane, Sammus, Neil Cicierega, Star Simpson, Mystery Show creator Starlee Kine, John Roderick, Lucy Bellwood, Simone Giertz, Jenn Schiffer, David Rees, Itch.io's Leaf Corcoran, Sarah Jeong, Another Round's Heben Nigatu, Majal's Esra'a Al-Shafei, and writer/designer Frank Chimero.
At XOXO Film & Animation, six video creators were featured with screenings and audience Q&As, including Don't Hug Me I'm Scared, new work from the creators of Every Frame A Painting and Baman Piderman, the first public appearance of Auralnauts, and the debut of Feminist Frequency's Ordinary Women animated webseries. The Brothers Chaps showed selections of their work from Homestar Runner and Two More Eggs, and improvised a live performance of Strong Bad's "Trogdor the Burninator" episode. XOXO Story staged the first live episode of The Foo Show, a virtual reality talk show hosted by Will Smith, who interviewed Quadrilateral Cowboy designer Brendon Chung inside interactive sets from the game, followed by live performances of Flash Forward, The Heart, Reasonably Sound, and Just Between Us with YouTube creators Gaby Dunn and Allison Raskin.
XOXO Arcade featured 12 unreleased or exhibition-only games with their designers and developers on-site, including TumbleSeed, Thimbleweed Park, Rain World, Memory of a Broken Dimension, Beglitched, Secret Legend, Tetrageddon Games, Funomena's Luna, and Multibowl, an experimental mashup by Bennett Foddy and AP Thomson combining 230 two-player games from the 1980s and 1990s. XOXO Tabletop brought the creators of 13 independently-produced board and card games to show their work, including Beasts of Balance, the Jackbox Party Pack, the Spaceteam card game adaptation, Emily Care Boss' Breaking the Ice, and Illimat, a Kickstarter-funded board game created by game designer Keith Baker and The Decemberists. Singer Colin Meloy and illustrator Carson Ellis joined Baker to play the game with attendees.
Press coverage focused on the hiatus and the festival's impact. The Verge called it "the internet's best festival," and highlighted its attention to detail, focus on diversity, and curation. A follow-up article featured highlights and discoveries from the festival lineup.
After a one-year hiatus in 2017, the sixth XOXO was held on September 6–9, 2018 at a new venue, Veterans Memorial Coliseum. In an announcement explaining the return, the organizers cited the increasing importance of supporting independent artists in difficult times, as well as a shifting focus on artists balancing their work with political and social activism.
Nearly twice the size of past years, over 2,300 attendees attended XOXO 2018. Over 400 passes, about 20% of ticketed attendees, were made available for free to economically-disadvantaged artists and creators, twice the percentage of its 2016 event.
The festival opened with a keynote from comedian Cameron Esposito about the production of her "Rape Jokes" standup special. Conference speakers included Jonny Sun, Jean Grae, Jennifer 8. Lee, Open Mike Eagle, Demi Adejuyigbe, Claire L. Evans, Pepe the Frog creator Matt Furie, Ijeoma Oluo, ContraPoints' Natalie Wynn, Adam Ruins Everything's Adam Conover, The New Yorker's Helen Rosner, and the creators of the feminist satire magazine Reductress. Comedian Hari Kondabolu was the final speaker of the conference, talking about representation in media and why he made The Problem with Apu, his 2017 documentary about The Simpsons character.
Two new evening events were added in 2018. On Friday night, XOXO Art+Code featured creators working at the intersection of art and technology, including projects from Baratunde Thurston, AI researcher Janelle Shane, Everest Pipkin, Tracery creator Kate Compton, and Botnik Studios. On Saturday night, the new XOXO Comics event showcased short talks from independent comics creators such as Dinosaur Comics/Squirrel Girl's Ryan North, Webcomic Name's Alex Norris, Eisner Award-winning writer and editor Taneka Stotts, and the editors of The Nib.
For the first time, XOXO Arcade and XOXO Tabletop were both expanded to two consecutive nights of programming. XOXO Arcade featured 14 unreleased or exhibition-only independent videogames presented by their designers and developers, including Ooblets, Mineko's Night Market, Untitled Goose Game, Knights and Bikes, Neo Cab, and Pikuniku. XOXO Tabletop featured 11 indie RPGs, board, and card games, including the Edible Games Cookbook, Bluebeard's Bride, Star Crossed, Ravine, and Someone Has Died.
XOXO Film & Animation featured seven video creators, including Lindsay Ellis, Demi Adejuyigbe, Graham Annable, Victoria Vincent, and Bojack Horseman's Lisa Hanawalt, who previewed work-in-progress footage of her upcoming animated series, Tuca & Bertie. In his first solo appearance, Bill Wurtz showed a collection of his videos, including "history of the entire world, i guess," followed by an audience Q&A. XOXO Story featured five live podcasts: Criminal, This Is Love, Feminist Frequency Radio, Friendshipping, and Jean & John, a live variety show with John Hodgman and Jean Grae, with special guests Hari Kondabolu and musician Sammus.
The festival closed with an unannounced concert by Lizzo on the festival's main stage, who surprised attendees after the show by performing karaoke in the Blue Ox Bar, a dedicated pop-up dive bar created for the event. Other on-site installations included a secret speakeasy, accessible only by solving a series of puzzles accessible via telephone booths around the venue, and Dear Future Me, an interactive installation by illustrator Alice Lee inviting attendees to mail a postcard to their future selves.
In June 2015, the organizers of XOXO announced they were opening a shared workspace to "bring some of our favorite people and projects in indie art and tech under one roof" in a 13,000 square foot building in Portland's Central Eastside Industrial District. The Outpost opened in February 2016, and served over 85 members including video game designers, filmmakers, musicians, writers, and artists, until a sharp increase in rent forced it to close on December 30, 2016.
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