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How Sundance’s New Frontier Section Confronts Age-Old Ideas and New Questions

How Sundance's New Frontier Section Confronts Age-Old Ideas and New Questions

Now in its eighth year, New Frontier is the Sundance Film Festival’s series highlighting innovation and experimentation in modern storytelling. For many festivalgoers, the works in the New Frontier exhibition are unfamiliar territory, ranging from participatory installations and projection mappings to performance and virtual reality. It’s also fairly young terrain for the programmers at Sundance. The premise of this iteration, curated by Shari Frilot and dubbed “The Primordial Pool,” is that technology has created a new world order. In practice, the individual works rarely delve into this concept. It would be more apt to say that the new world order addressed in New Frontier is the unsure place of creative technologies within the world of film, especially when many of the projects on view blur boundaries with other genres, such as visual art and music. But as these artists expand our ideas of what film might be, they often return to themes and motifs that filmmakers have long tackled.

Lauren Moffatt’s “Not Eye,” taking on themes of surveillance, privacy, vision, and power, is one of the more traditional—but also more successful—experiences in the New Frontier installation. Visitors are invited to don a set of 3D glasses and enter the small black box theater as the ten-minute fiction piece plays on loop.

The film begins with an extreme long shot of a studio, slowly moving past stage lights, microphones, and tangled cords before zooming into a frail middle-aged woman poised on a couch. Talking in French to an off-camera documentary filmmaker, the unnamed woman reveals her paralyzing anxiety of the intrusive gaze of others. “I can’t take it anymore—I feel constantly violated,” she says, powerless against the individuals, security cameras, and mobile phones that track her every move.

Her only remedy, she shares, “is to cast that violence back.” When she goes out in public, the woman dons a helmet that looks like it could belong in a science fiction film or a hazmat facility. On it, two Go Pro cameras serve as surrogates for eyes, recording her day with a tiny but ominous red light (the only hint of color in the otherwise black-and-white film). The helmet serves both to shield her likeness from view and record the events around her. She readily obliges when the interviewer asks her to put on the mask, reversing the camera so that we—the viewers—now are the wearers of the helmet. The final scene is fantastically haunting: the woman faces out of the front car of the subway, layering the stark train tracks with her shadowy reflection and those of the passengers behind her.

While Moffatt asks us to reflect on the idea of sight and power, she controls what we see. In an interview with Luciana Dumitru, she explains: “Glasses-based 3D viewing systems essentially allow you to project the images almost directly onto the retina. It is very intimate and quite invasive in a way.” While some works in New Frontier use new technologies and the installation format to allow the viewers to control how they view a work—Microsoft Kinect-based documentary “Clouds” and Doug Aitken’s six-channel installation “The Source (evolving)” come to mind—Moffatt’s masterful use of stereoscopic 3D technology (although, in 2014, nothing too newfangled for most visitors) serves to draw us in further.

And although “Not Eye” might skew more traditional than other New Frontier works, Moffatt takes advantage of the exhibition format. When I turned to leave the black box, that I noticed something that had been behind me all along: the film’s helmet, tucked in an inset like a specimen on display, the camera-eyes level with ours.

If Moffatt’s helmet is a lens (or two) that captures the world around us, the Oculus Rift is a viewfinder into a new world. Developed by 19-year-old wunderkind Palmer Luckey and premiering at Sundance’s New Frontier in 2012, the lightweight headset has been hailed as revolutionizing virtual reality. The 360-degree graphics, paired with sound that follows the movement of your head, lend themselves to a powerful, immersive experience, making the hype around this invention warranted. And there is certainly hype: as soon as the New Frontier doors opened to the public on January 17, people flocked to the four Oculus stations, instantly overwhelming volunteers and staff.

The offerings on Sundance’s Oculus presentations were wide-ranging, dipping its toes into forms such as music and video games. In Chris Milk’s “Sound + Vision” (the first live action video, not to mention music video, for Oculus Rift), viewers can roam through Beck’s performance of David Bowie’s 1977 song “Sound and Vision.” CCP games’ Eve Valkyrie, the design firm’s first game created natively for virtual reality, has the player take on the role of a pilot embroiled in intergalactic battle.

But how should a tool like the Oculus Rift work in service of traditional film? While virtual reality’s original goal is to transport users to alternate and unusual worlds, Oculus Cinema—the in-house app for film built by the Oculus VR team—ironically returns viewers to the theater. Just a few yards from actual big screens, I witnessed Matthu Placek’s short “A Portrait of Marina Abramovic” in the presence of a drab virtual cineplex complete with rows of chairs and glowing exit signs. Even with a technology said to pioneer new forms of storytelling, we still hold on to the trappings of yore.

Central to both “Not Eye” and the Oculus Rift is the idea of sight: How do we see the world? Who controls what we see? These are questions filmmakers and photographers have asked since the camera could capture a visual image. It will be crucial for Sundance’s programmers to consider the question of seeing as New Frontier matures in the future. Film has standardized its ideal viewing conditions—the dark theater with plush chairs and a black hole of a silver screen—but for new media works, exhibition practices are still shaky. New Frontier takes on many conventions from art exhibition but lacks others, sometimes to detrimental effect; with oversized disco balls hovering above the lobby, deep crimson walls dotted with circular mirrors, and plush red couches congregated in the middle of the exhibition, the physical space of New Frontier resembles more a lounge than a gallery.

Still, the growing pains of New Frontier are ones that I embrace, and I’m glad that Sundance does, too. Creative technologies are shaking up our comfortable definitions of film, visual arts, music, and performance, and it will be fascinating to see how the various experimentations might lead to a new world order.

Desi Gonzalez is a graduate student in MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program.

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