"I love to be surprised by new experiences, storytelling and technologies" - Shari Frilot (Sundance New Frontier)
Oldest festival with an interactive section in the world (if we count, since 2007) Sundance New Frontier opens this week a very special edition in Covid-19 time. A reinvented Sundance, online, which takes the opportunity to open itself to the whole world (and some satellite venues in the United States).
With its selection concentrated around 14 projects, the event remains for the XR world the first major event of the year - and an indispensable landmark in an industry in full artistic maturity. Interview with Shari Frilot, New Frontier's programmer since... 2007.
Preparing for a virtual edition of Sundance New Frontier
Shari Frilot - If you asked me in March, I would have really just had no words about our ideas for the 2021 edition. It was a process to change the deep roots of our event. Sundance is all about being able to gather people and films. That was one of our biggest things… and we had to change everything. At New Frontier we had to design an exhibition virtually which could present a wide, diverse range of works. A lot of it is innovative and custom-built XR contents, all these kinds of different formats. It was a very daunting task.
S. F. - And fortunately, we also have in our community these amazing creative people from around the world. We're talking all the time. And it was just through conversations with that community that we found a way to build the New Frontier world. They just had some really great tools that really stacked up to a lot of the shiniest things that we were watching and seeing in the immersive field. We had some ideas of our own and how we wanted to kind of take the next step in terms of building a social platform that could hold hundreds of people - and to build it in a very human way.
S. F. - That's something very important to us, to approach people's bodies. It has always been central to our exhibition design. So we came up with something so different to the other social VR platforms. When connecting you will find a beautiful exhibition hall, sitting on top of a giant floor that can hold 250 people. When I realized we could have that, I figured that we could do more - to support the whole Sundance film festival. So we built another venue “Film party”, a social venue : a giant bar with this beautiful tree and six screens around it. Each of the screens will feature films that will, as world premieres, roll out on the online streaming platform. There will be premier parties, you will hang out with your Avatar. Our platform has everything from audio proximity, private rooms and meetings… And it orbits around the Earth alongside the International Space Station! We built a cinema house as well, in VR only, which I'm really excited about - in homage to the Egyptian theater, not only in Park City but around the country as art house cinemas - with the ceiling that opens up into the heavens, fireworks on the outside of the place.
S. F. - We were nervous when the pandemic hit - about not being able to get submissions before January. We condensed our program in anticipation and of course, what happened was we got the same number of submissions that we got every year. Finally we have 14 works. It’s the most difficult edition to get into Sundance ever! The quality was just as high as it ever has been - we're really proud of the work that we'll be showing. And there's more headsets in the world than we ever had in Park City! We have a great opportunity to bring creative works to a bigger audience.
S. .F - New Frontier is all about the quality of the projects we select. It’s how well they tell the story, how well they deliver the experience. But I'm also interested in new ways of telling stories, new technologies. We always strive to come up with a lineup that really embodies both of those qualities. And I don't ever go like a thesis - like “this is going to be the same”. I like to be surprised, to feel the experience. I want to be affected by the work I see. Every time I write about it, I keep it in my book. It comes together organic, my best hopes are that we're able to put together a show that's very eclectic and diverse. I'm just really following the artists. That's all I've ever done as a curator.
S. F. - I think artists are becoming more comfortable with technology - it could have been also because of Covid-19 - they are pushing themselves even harder to try to figure out new stories to tell and how. Like TINKER (Lou Ward), for instance. This is a project we followed for the last 5 years. There was such a heart to this film. It wasn't quite ready before, but they were looking for something real and that can affect the audience in the right way. Finally they figured out how they really wanted to tell the story as an immersive theater experience. It’s a piece about Alzheimer's and about growing up with a grandpa with Alzheimer's who develops it over the years. And you have to have that personal interaction with a live actor to kind of get the story out… And then Lou and his team found a way to deliver this in a virtual format! We will present it in a virtual gallery. He's got a set up, a way to register for participants - even for the press preview - a way to to stream the entire performance on Twitch.
S. F. - I'm in constant dialogue with a very wide community of artists and deeply interested in their practice and their production. It's not my job to help artists make their work at all. But I’m often invited to sit on panels and at workshops. A project we selected last year, SPACED OUT by Pyaré I did see it quite early at the World XR Forum in Switzerland, and followed the project until January 2020 where it was showcased in Park City. We had the New Frontier Lab until last year - we still have the interdisciplinary Lab program at Sundance, which I'll continue to play a part in selecting works.
S. F. - New Frontier is one of three sections at Sundance where we are more relaxed on premiere status. It has never been a requirement - but when we receive so many works, we all love them… Which is the one that we're going to choose? Then premiere status comes into the conversation because as a festival we're trying to help launch artists and experiences. And there are projects that really just need to be in the lineup this year. TO MISS THE ENDING ( Anna West, David Callanan) in example, which I saw at the 2020 London Film Festival (LFF Expanded). It is a fantastic piece of work. Same story for RICH KIDS (Kirsty Housley, Javaad Alipoor) at the Electric Dreams Festival. It is a brilliant pivot from a live performance into a virtual live presentation. 4 FEET HIGH (Maria Belen Poncio, Rosario Perazolo Masjoan, Damian Turkieh) is one of these “unicorn projects”, right? They went through our New Frontier Lab and Biennale College at Venice. They've been rolling this and developing this episodic series for a while. It’s the first time we will present a project in 2 sections of the festival - the complete VR pieces of this project AND the television series as well! About FORTUNE! (Brett Gaylor, Nicolas Bourniquel, Arnaud Colinart) It’s an app to download on your smartphone - they're also doing a whole set of filters for Snapchat to tell the story in filters! Which is really interesting.
S. F. - When I'm looking at the New Frontier slate, it’s really remarkable that there're so many “time machines'' experiences. That's a very old, fantastical science-fiction kind of thing. But VR headsets are like storytelling devices dedicated to this… Maybe because we're feeling time slipping away, especially in this pandemic era. All of a sudden we start to feel the condensation of the static life. What is time? NAMOO (Erick Oh) is a perfect example of - in 7 minutes - you become a boy all the way to a man - and what does it mean to hold onto things and move on with your life? THE CHANGING SAME (Michèle Stephenson, Joe Brewster, Yasmin Elayat) is another time capsule.
S. F. - SECRET GARDEN (Stephanie Dinkins) is another time capsule where we are looking through many generations of black women with six different stories - from being a black woman in today's America from being slaves, to being an A.I.. There is a sense of what “humanity” means. Stephanie needed to tell, and had to tell it in this way - to your body. That piece especially is interesting, because we will be presenting it in New Frontier in the virtual environment. But if the health regulations permit, we will also be presenting it simultaneously in New York, at ONX studio (link), in the Onassis Gallery of Olympic Tower in Midtown Manhattan. It will be the same exact presentation, but in two different places, a true expression of the bio/digital terrain that we live in today.
S. F. - Stephanie Dinkins is also part of TRAVELING THE INTERSTITIUM WITH OCTAVIA BUTLER (with Sophia Nahli Allison, Idris Brewster, Ari Melenciano, Terence Nance), which is a work accessible on computers. It's a creative browser created with Web Excel featuring several artists. They were going to do a live performance in New York, before Covid-19. They teamed up with digital artists and web architects to reimagine it. They've come up with a rumination of what Octavia Butler defines in the in-between places of our inner body. The space between the blood cells and the muscle: the interstitial. Is this still reality?