Blast Theory, A Machine to See With, documentary, 2011. Photo: © Walker Art Center
To commemorate ten years of innovation and experimentation at the New Frontier at Sundance Film Festival Program, the Walker’s Sheryl Mousley and Shari Frilot, New Frontier chief curator, offer this illustrated survey. Celebrating its 10th anniversary, the Sundance Institute’s New Frontier program has provided the highest level of curation in this emerging field since 2007. Virtual Reality: The New Frontier runs at the Walker Art Center on Sunday, June 12 through Thursday, June 16 and is presented in collaboration with the Sundance Institute’s New Frontier program and Northern Lights.mn.
As I walked around Park City, Utah, in January 2011, I listened to directions over my cell phone from a calm voice with a slight British accent: “Stand nearer the curb as you are in a close-up”; “Look for the Union Bank on the right side of the street”; “Cross over toward the entrance, look at the teller window but go past to the lobby.” I did what I was told, but was I acting or actually being asked to rob a bank? Was I in a movie or about to be arrested?
I was participating in a work titled A Machine to See With by Blast Theory, an artist collective from England, presented in the New Frontier section of the Sundance Film Festival. It was a ticketed event, yet—unlike going to the cinema—once you handed over your cell phone number you were placed in the artists’ hands. While you were never actually being filmed, as you learned later, so much of what we believe about cinema came into play vividly, as if it were a real movie. We trust cinema until we are pushed past our own boundaries, to a new frontier. As we go into uncharted territories, we ask, Can we trust our vision, our understanding of the cinematic experience?
A broadly realized project, New Frontier is curated by Shari Frilot as a convergence of film, performance, new media and technology. Showing artists from around the world, it has become recognized widely for its cinematic innovation.
New Frontier, now celebrating its 10th year, transformed an existing programming section at Sundance that had been called simply “Frontier.” Always known for pushing forward more experimental work, Sundance was formed in 1985 by Robert Redford, who has been the steadfast champion of independent filmmakers. Focusing mainly on narrative features made outside the Hollywood system and documentaries that define the complexity of our social and political world, Frontier became the category meant to expand these traditional forms of cinematic storytelling. The name also served as a code for the audience to readily identify a film that experimented with nontraditional narrative, boldly radical styles or challenging storylines. The programmers had a place for films that did not fit easily within the evolving the idea that this category actually became a corral of sorts for renegade artists.
By 2007 the Sundance programmers found filmmakers and moving image artists expanding the boundaries even further as they worked within the ideas of the cinematic but did not play by filmmaking rules.
That year, Sundance announced the New Frontier initiative. Shari Frilot explained it as follows:
“New Frontier on Main was a hybrid space drawing from the art gallery scene, microcinema culture and the seductiveness of the DJ lounge atmosphere and then designed to look and feel very distinctive from the rest of the Festival. We wanted to cultivate an artistic and social environment to disarm people when they entered the space. It was a way of unlocking inhibitions and encouraging audiences to think about opening themselves up to the new rules and cinematic suggestions which the New Frontier artists are inviting you to consider.”
Quickly recognized for bringing the art world and the film festival world together, New Frontier tracked the developing performative cinema movement, the fast-paced tech advances and visual artists who used moving images as part of their work. It became a festival inside a festival.
Miwa Matreyek, This World Made Itself, live performance, 2014. Photo: Gayle Laird © Miwa Matreyek
In the area of performative cinema, we might ask: Is film inherently performative? Blast Theory used our belief in what an actor does on screen to get the audience to participate. Live performance’s long history onstage as well as staged happenings opened the door for Sam Green (January 2010) to make a live documentary film, Utopia in 4 Parts. Using the stylistic form of documentary film (although the work is actually more like early educational television with an authoritative voice-over, images created or culled from history, and a soundtrack to build emotional connection to the topic), Green shook up the system by never actually making a film but instead performing his text live. The audience watched him edit the images pulled from his laptop onto the screen, all to a live musical score by Dave Cerf.
In This World Made Itself, Miwa Matreyek used rear projection to create a stage space (2014). The projector, sitting about 20 feet behind the screen, provided the audience a large-screen cinema feel. This space also gave Matreyek room to move between the projector and screen to form larger- than-life silhouettes made by her body movements interacting with the filmic images.
To further reshape the concept of performative cinema, choreographer Bill T. Jones took on 3D cinema to interpret After Ghostcatching for the 2011 New Frontier, and performance artist Jacolby Satterwhite perched himself above the 2014 festival scene, watching us even more than we were watching him at the New Frontier opening event. The past 10 years have seen exhilarating changes in technology. Some film projects become an interactive experience via technology. As an example, Eve Sussman’s whiteonwhite:algorithmicnoir is both a feature film and a nonending story that edits itself in front of your eyes via an algorithmic program and multiplied tagged clips. A word in one scene will trigger what is chosen for the next scene; a movement across the screen will trigger another. The film is based on a tale set in mid-century Eastern Europe but is never the same sequence of events and so never the same story.
Still from whiteonwhite:algorithmicnoir, 2009-2011, Eve Sussman | Rufus Corporation. Collection Richard J. Massey, New York
Another example of how technology morphs film and performance is Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s hitRECord.org, an evolved film production company that assembles an independent social media community that comes together to crowdsource the making of films under Gordon-Levitt’s direction. These films are exhibited in various ways, almost always incorporating Gordon-Levitt’s performance, as well as activating and incorporating crowdsource-produced elements generated during the exhibition. hitRECord.org is a unique cinematic expression that is at once social media discussion, crowdsourced production and performance. It completely ruptures conventional narrative traditions.
New Frontier looks as much at artistic practice as at final projects when following the struggles, love, fun and risks artists use to create work that opens up the boundaries. So we ask: Do we need a frontier? Many artists consider themselves sans frontières, without disciplines, without boundaries to push. The more definition, the more there is to resist. I have been in Park City for all 10 years of New Frontier. In fact, I started to go to Sundance in 1992 and have only missed a few years. Having seen this evolution, I know that it is more comfortable for some artists to stay within the frame of film. After all, this is a film festival. But just as I recently changed the name of the Film/Video department at Walker Art Center to Moving Image, it is time that the format-driven names film and video give up their ghosts. Film once equaled cinematic experience, and video was for artist installations; but those terms have grown tired and out of date. Now we have per- formative cinema, whether filmed or live; versions of 3D that go beyond watching projections while wearing glasses in the dark; the Oculus Rift sense of virtual reality where you turn your head and body to see a full 360 degrees and know the action might be behind you; or the reshaping of on-screen strategies by the video-game-playing generation of artists.
I asked Shari Frilot her thoughts about her 10 years with this exciting program:
“We brought the worlds of film, performance, visual art and technology under one roof in a social setting to reinvigorate the conversation about the potential for the cinematic image, and we had hoped that something larger than the sum of its parts would emerge. And emerge it did—gestural forms of editing film, audiences authoring the film itself through active participation, video games that are documentaries, performances that double as simply the act of living in an immersive digital environment, and a powerful reincarnation of Virtual Reality, a fully immersive medium that hybridizes video and theater to deliver a deeply convincing sense of liberty and presence in the moment.”
For 10 years, New Frontier has been on the forefront of visual awareness. At its very foundation it is about learning new ways of seeing and giving artists space and time to hone their work and change the way we see Moving Image.
Story is how we understand ourselves, our society and the world around us. But story doesn’t exist until it is shared through the mediums we use to communicate—our communication architecture. Today that architecture, which affects the form and practice of storytelling as much as the content itself, stands on the verge of a massive paradigm shift, one that will impact storytelling at a scope and scale that is breathtaking.
• • • •
The inaugural year of New Frontier was presented in 2007 in the basement of the Main Street Mall (Park City, Utah), directly across the street from the signature Egyptian Theater, so that art, film and technology would converge in Park City for the first time. This experiment in festival exhibition generated palpable excitement and not only blossomed to become one of the major points of interest at the Sundance Film Festival but also inspired the creation of an Institute-wide initiative. In 2011, the Sundance Institute established artist development programs for New Frontier artists that include the Story Lab, Artist Residency, granting, alumni support and Day Labs.
A view inside New Frontier at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. © 2008 Sundance Institute. Photo: Rachel Thurston
Media artists R. Luke DuBois and Shu Lea Cheang were featured in the 2007 festival as two examples of art-world figures who were innovating technology in their studios in ways that would resonate powerfully with the changes in communication architecture to come. Lynn Hershman Leeson was a returning film- maker and media artist pushing the boundaries of form and content.
DuBois worked on the vanguard, developing algorithmic compression technologies to explore ideas of canon and historical progress in popular culture. His work, Play, melds every Playboy magazine centerfold since 1953 into a dynamic collective portrait of idealized feminine beauty as it has changed over the last half century, and his film, Academy, melds every Best Picture winner, in its entirety, into a single 70-minute film.
Cheang led the cutting edge of crowdsourcing narrative filmmaking with her interactive multimedia installation MobiOpera, which invited festival-goers to check out mobile phones in order to jointly script and shoot a narrative “soap-travaganza.” Soapisodes were uploaded into a timeline and presented at a MobiSlam party to bring the authors together to jam their footage.
Shu Lea Cheang, MobiOpera, collective public cinema, 2007. Photo: © Shu Lea Cheang
That same year, Lynn Hershman Leeson would present the first feature film offered to the denizens of the cybersociety Second Life. Her film, Strange Culture, played to both Park City and Second Life audiences and was discussed collectively in a Q&A organized across the live/virtual divide.
Traditional boundaries between artistic forms continued to be challenged by the artists in the 2008 edition of New Frontier. Cinematic images engaged architecture in Jennifer Steinkamp’s Mike Kelley Trees, which transformed the basement lounge into a magical forest of digitally generated trees that twisted and turned in a toroidal electronic wind.
In an adjacent gallery, experimental game developer Eddo Stern gave Sundance audiences the chance to consider storytelling as they engaged with a work that integrated gaming and haptic feedback. Darkgame was a two-player game that worked with various forms of sensory deprivation to advance character development.
The same year, Cory Arcangel in collaboration with Paper Rad blew up pop art in a one-night-only film and live music performance that broke down consumer- sized ideas and colors with lucid, OCD-tripping, Nintendo-like worlds and “The Bruce Springsteen Born to Run Glockenspiel Addendum.” It would be the first time an artist presented work at the festival via Skype.
The power of computing started to manifest changes in how stories were told in the 2009 edition of New Frontier. Renowned MIT Media Lab scientist John Underkoffler was responsible for the computing visualized by Tom Cruise in the film Minority Report. Underkoffler’s new company, Oblong Industries, created the first operating system based on a gestural interface, called gspeak, and unveiled the video editing app Tamper, which allowed filmmakers not only to edit clips with hand gestures but also to take apart and reassemble visual elements of the clips into an entirely new composition, reintroducing the act of production into the post- production process.
Sundance filmmaker Cory McAbee was experimenting with creating a narrative that could show on cellphones and proposed the episodic series Stingray Sam, meant to be exhibited on small screens. This musically inspired project recounted the adventures of two space convicts as they earn their freedom in exchange for rescuing a young girl held captive by a genetically designed figurehead from a very wealthy planet. The project was accepted on script alone and was an unqualified hit at the festival.
Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar introduced Sundance audiences to the craft of creating narrative through data visualization with their work We Feel Fine, which explores human emotion on a global scale. Every few minutes, the program takes sentences that include the words “I feel” or “I am feeling” from all blogs that have just been published and visualizes them in ways that let viewers see what any part of the world is feeling at any given moment.
By 2010, the festival had witnessed a massive collapse of the independent film business as indie shingles in the studio system shuttered and financing for independent film dried up. Before this juncture, New Frontier had been regarded as a kind of marginal cool art experiment. Now festival audiences were entering the venue in an active search for alternative ways of moving forward with the art, craft and business of independent storytelling.
Documentarians Sam Green and Dave Cerf took cues from the music business, which had switched from selling albums to selling concert tickets, and created the live-performed documentary Utopia in Four Movements, in which Green and Cerf performed live narrative and soundtrack to accompany a PowerPoint presentation of images and footage to tell the story of the history of the utopian impulse.
Sam Green and Dave Cerf, Utopia in Four Movements, live documentary, 2010. Phott: © Sundance Institute
The actor Joseph Gordon- Levitt presented a new brand of production company that was part crowdsourced media workshop, part social network and part live performance. hitRECord.org operated a production studio at the venue and invited audiences to collaborate with Levitt to create short films that would then be presented at the festival in an interactive revue hosted by the actor.
Arizona farmer Matthew Moore took cinematic storytelling out of the exhibition space and into the local grocery store. Lifecycles reconfigured the produce section of the Fresh Market grocery store in Park City by showing time-lapse films of crops growing alongside the bins of the very same crop being sold at the store, transforming audiences’ relationship to the produce they bought and consumed.
The 2011 edition of New Frontier was presented at the historic Miners Hospital and featured 18 works—art installations, performances and transmedia projects. Filmmaker/creative technologist duo Chris Milk and Aaron Koblin presented two works at the festival: the HTML music video The Wilderness Downtown <www. thewildernessdowntown.com/> and The Johnny Cash Project, a participatory web-based project that invites audiences to create individual drawings that are woven into a collective, animated music-video tribute to Johnny Cash, set to his song “Ain’t No Grave.”
Filmmaker/transmedia storyteller Lance Weiler blurred the boundaries between R&D and festival exhibition with a multi-platformed story that tracks the spread of a mysterious zombie virus affecting adults as it spreads from its small rural town origins to Park City.
Pandemic 1.0, a continually evolving transmedia storytelling experience that unites film, mobile and online technologies, props, social gaming and data visualization, allowed audiences to step into the shoes of the pandemic protagonists anytime during the day.
Animator/performance artist Miwa Matreyek presented two cinematic performance works—Dreaming of Lucid Living and Myth and Infrastructure—integrating Matreyek’s original animation with the artist’s live shadow play to create breathtakingly beautiful images that told a penetrating tale of the relationship between the domestic realm and the larger surrounding environment.
2012 marked a major shift in how technology would affect the moving image, but no one knew it just then. Former Newsweek correspondent Nonny de la Peña developed a groundbreaking brand of journalism that made news reporting a fully immersive experience (Hunger in Los Angeles). The head-mounted display that she developed with 18-year-old intern Palmer Lucky would be the first prototype for the reincarnation of virtual reality.
Collaborators Chris Johnson and Hank Willis Thomas, in collaboration with Bayete Ross Smith and Kamal Sinclair, reimagined the social network with Question Bridge: Black Males, a work that allowed black men to speak for themselves and to one another from a safe, personal space. In this inspired exquisite corpse project, the interviews that the men recorded and uploaded in solitude were then edited together by the collective and installed to play as a forum discussion between the men.
The National Film Board of Canada’s Bear 71 would break ground, gaining worldwide attention to the art and craft of transmedia documentary storytelling. Audiences follow an emotional narrative of a bear trying to survive in the Canadian Rockies as online participants join the interactive forest com- munity in which the tagged Bear 71 roams.
The desire to create fully immersive media forms was trending rapidly among artists, with various forms of expression emerging on the deeply networked media landscape. Klip Collective, who began projecting on tables in the 2007 edition of New Frontier, created What’s He Building in There?, a large-scale 3D projection–mapped film that transformed the entire frontal exterior of the New Frontier venue, which that year was a retired lumberyard.
Klip Collective, What’s He Building in There?, video projection, 2013. Photo: © Sundance Institute
Inspired by the international science collaboration of 1761, which observed the transit of Venus, Lynette Wallworth created the visually stunning Coral: Rekindling Venus, a networked, augmented-reality, full-dome film presentation that was presented in planetariums worldwide. This epic project featured original deep-sea photography and music by Antony and the Johnsons.
Blending augmented reality, social media satire, IRL (“in real life”) performance and hip hop music video, Yung Jake was himself net art incarnate. Crafting a fluid and elusive identity that mainly lived as a conversation between himself and the various screens in his environment, Yung Jake’s work Augmented Real posed questions about identity in an age when most people were looking at their digital screens as much as at each other.
In 2014, New Frontier moved back to the Main Street area (sharing a building with the festival box office) and debuted Oculus Rift’s first development kit, offering festival audiences a showcase of four VR works, including the multiplayer game EVE: Valkyrie by CCP games; the music video Sound and Vision by Chris Milk; the app VR Cinema, where the 3D New Frontier shorts screened; and Clouds, a VR version of the interactive documentary about the world of creative code by James George and Jonathan Minard.
Chris Milk and Aaron Koblin, The Johnny Cash Project, animated music video, 2011. Photo: © Sundance Institute
Media artist Doug Aitken presented a 2,000-square-foot pavilion installation designed in collaboration with architect David Adjaye that was installed in the Main Street area. The Source is an immersive, multi-platformed, generative documentary exploring the nature and source of creativity. The work was presented as a rhythmic, six-channel projection installation, a living archive website and short films presented in various screens throughout the festival.
The media performance art of Jacolby Satterwhite defies categorization, incorporating live vogue dancing, sculpture and various original CG animations depicting hallucinogenic and outlandishly sexual landscapes and storylines. His bold and hallucinogenic work burns with originality, desire and conceptual density. Satterwhite evokes a universe where sexuality runs hungry and wild through the psychobioelectric matrix in search of transformation and liberation.
In March of 2014, Facebook would buy Oculus for $2 billion and by June, Samsung would develop Gear VR, Google would release Cardboard, Sony would prototype their Morpheus headset and a veritable gold rush to develop a commercial VR camera would ensue. The technology seemed on the precipice of transforming cinematic storytelling, so we made a decision to focus on VR for the 2015 edition and show the diversity of approaches and artistic practices that were engaging the new medium. Works included Vincent Morisset’s groundbreaking Way to Go; Rose Troche and Morris May’s Perspective; Chapter 1:The Party; and Chris Milk’s stunning Evolution of Verse. Fox Searchlight had even produced its firstVR experience, Wild, with Directors Felix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphael, also the first of its kind to feature widely recognized Hollywood stars.
Chris Milk, Evolution of Verse, VR, 2015. Photo: © Chris Milk
VR would bring the world of the cinematic closer to the gaming industry than ever before, so we decided to showcase the hottest piece of game storytelling I had seen that year, 1979 Revolution, a groundbreaking documentary about the namesake event, the Iranian Revolution, told as a game designed for iPad and Oculus.
After the 2015 edition of New Frontier, the field of VR exploded and would begin to transform both the entertainment and publishing industries, as much as it was affecting the gaming and medical industries. Cinematic storytelling entered a bold new world.
The 2015 festival proved to be a watershed event that connected the world of cinema to the medium of VR. Billion-dollar projections were being forecast for the industry, and VR companies, who once saw their future in games, began to talk publicly about the importance of VR storytelling. World-class musician Björk was creating a new album to be presented entirely in VR, and The New York Times gave away 1 million Google Cardboard goggles to its subscriber base. The media landscape was undeniably changing.
The 2016 edition of New Frontier, which marked the 10th anniversary of the exhibition, reflected how strongly storytellers were embracing VR. We featured a slate of 44 artists, 30 of which were VR experiences, ranging from documentaries to animation to live-action narrative. We developed an independent architecture within New Frontier at Sundance to showcase this burgeoning VR production and highlight its downloadable/mobile nature.
Following the form of the medium, we also created the Sundance VR app for Android so that audiences outside of Park City might access the work.
Amid the landing of the VR tidal wave, New Frontier still needed to do its job at the festival to showcase and provoke continued innovation realized at the crossroads of film, art and technology. The 2016 edition presented the work being done in several important media labs around the world, including the 5D World Building Media Lab who were integrating VR and haptic environments, as well as advancing new forms of Augmented Reality storytelling in their developing storyworld, Leviathan.
Staying true to continuing to bring together diverse forms under one roof, several immersive projection works were presented, including Kahlil Joseph and Kendrick Lamar’s stunning two-screen work, Double Conscience.
Kahlil Joseph and Kendrick Lamar, Double Conscience, installation, 2014. © Kahlil Joseph, Kendrick Lamar. Photo © Chayse Irvin
Both the MoMA and Walker Art Center organized exhibitions saluting the achievement of New Frontier at Sundance that would run throughout the year. The success of the show prompted the relentless question from the press corp: “How has New Frontier changed?” But nothing had really changed. New Frontier was doing exactly what it had started to do in the basement of the Main Street Mall in 2007, which was find the artists who were working with cinematic language—regardless of whether they were working in the art world, or with technology, or in journalism or in performance—and bring them under one roof at the Sundance Film Festival and see how cinema culture could expand in ways we couldn’t have ever thought of before.
“New Frontier at Sundance Film Festival,” by Sheryl Mousley and Shari Frilot, was first published in Leonardo, 49:2 (April, 2016), pp. 109–112. © 2016 by the International Society for the Arts, Sciences and Technology (ISAST). Reprinted courtesy of The MIT Press. The original published article can be found here.