Filed under the "keep it weird" tab, Austin's massive urban bat colony features more than a million Mexican free-tailed bats living under the Congress Avenue bridge over the Colorado River. The bats took over the location in 1980, shortly after the bridge was completed, as they found the climate hospitable and the 15 crevices on the underside of the bridge to be an ideal place to roost. During the warmer months, the bats pour forth from out of those crevices and into the night at dusk. It's quite a sight to see.
Bacardi is a brand with some familiarity with the Mexican free-tailed bat. The spirits company, which has been in the same family for over seven generations, has since 1862 adorned every bottle of its liquor with the creature. So when the London creative agency Mr. President was looking for a tie-in for its client at SXSW, the bat seemed like a good fit.
"This particular project is about turning the flight of the bats into music through motion tracking," says Laura Jordan Bambach, creative partner at Mr. President. "Bacardi's had a really long history with music, and so we're doing something with the music and the bats in a really interesting way."
The way it works is that Bambach and her team set up cameras and sensors to track the flight of the bats as they depart from underneath the bridge, capturing their paths through the sky at twilight. As a beat plays, the sensor technology the team uses converts the movement into music by altering the beat track's pitch and tone, in effect allowing the bats to remix the track as they fly.
It's a weird idea, which makes it a good fit for both Austin and SXSW, as well as a Bacardi brand that's looking to, as Bambach puts it, do something that's "about behaving untameably, as opposed to just talking about being untameable." Putting a big project in the hands of an urban bat colony, and trusting them to make music, certainly qualifies.
It's also unpredictable—the night we went to the bridge to meet with Bambach, the bats were shy, and a surprisingly small number of them actually emerged. That may be part of why the team has set up at the festival for several evenings, to ensure they find the right mix of bats to pull it off. Still, she's convinced that she's in the right place for this one. "SXSW is probably the only place in the world where music and technology meet, actually," she says. "And you've got a really interesting audience here as well, where we can meet people who are interested in this kind of musical innovation."