Sundance’s New Frontier announces works from ‘always changing’ technology

(Image courtesy of Sundance Institute) Candice Lee appears in "Flowers & a Switchblade," a VR work by Nic Koller, and Weston Morgan, an official selection of the New Frontier Exhibitions program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

The worlds of virtual reality, augmented reality, mixed reality and artificial intelligence are moving so fast, it can be hard to keep up.

“The field is always changing,” said Shari Frilot, senior programmer at the Sundance Film Festival and chief curator of its New Frontier program. “Anything you thought you knew last year has been surpassed.”

In fact, she said, in three months what looked like the new thing can already be old hat — which is a challenge for New Frontier, when Frilot and her team are picking titles in November for a festival that runs from Jan. 23 to Feb. 2.

“We’re throwing the lasso, and hoping we’re going to grab a relevant moment in January,” Frilot said.

One example Frilot cited as a new step in VR is “Flowers & a Switchblade.” Where most VR works to date involve digital cameras on a 360-degree rigging, and images seamlessly put together by computers, artists Nic Koller and Weston Morgan built their own rig with iPhones.

“They showcase the seams,” Frilot said. “They want you to see the collage.”

Selecting titles for New Frontier’s VR Cinema works much like the rest of the festival, Frilot said, with artists submitting VR films in an open call from which the best are chosen. For other parts of New Frontier, “I pretty much have to go out and get them,” Frilot said. “It’s more of a curating process.”

New Frontier installations will go up at two locations in Park City during the festival — New Frontier at The Ray, and New Frontier Central (in what used to be a Blockbuster Video store) — on opposite sides of the Fresh Market grocery store on Park Avenue. The venues are accessible to anyone with a festival credential.

Both sites will have a VR Cinema, where small groups will be given goggles to watch the same program of short VR films at the same time. And both sites will include a variety of media installations and panel discussions.

New Frontier Central is home to the Biodigital Theatre, a presentation space with a rotating schedule of room-sized VR performances. One example is “Atumo,” an immersive work based on Kenyan mythology that puts viewers around a computer-generated tree alongside digital dancers.

Augmented reality — the technology that places digital images in real-world scenarios, familiar to players of mobile games like “Pokémon Go” or “Harry Potter: Wizards Unite” — gets a workout in such installations as “Dance Trail,” which puts dancers in locations around Park City, and “Breathe,” which allows viewers to see what happens to air as it enters and leaves one’s lungs.

“It really shows you the true power and potential of AR technology, to visualize something that’s there and you can’t see,” Frilot said.

Here are the films, performances, installations and VR works that will be on display in the New Frontier program of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

New Frontier films and performances

(Image courtesy of Sundance Institute) Amandla Stenberg appears in "BLKNWS" by Kahlil Joseph, an official selection of the New Frontier Exhibitions program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

“BLKNWS” • Video artist Kahlil Joseph directed and co-wrote (with Sheba Anyanwu and Lee Harrison) this ongoing art project that uses the newsreel format to jump over the lines between art, journalism, entrepreneurship and cultural critique. The cast includes Helen Molesworth, Alzo Slade, Amandla Stenberg, Trifari Williams. “BLKNWS” will also screen at 11 art-house theaters across the country.

“Infinitely Yours” • In a mix of film and performance, musician/artist Mita Matreyek performs onstage and plays animated projections that create a kaleidoscopic meditation on life on Earth during the climate crisis.

“A Machine for Viewing” • (United Kingdom/Australia) A three-episode hybrid of real-time VR, live performance and video essay that considers how humans watch films — by putting “machines for viewing,” including cinema and VR, face to face. Created by Oscar Raby, Richard Misek and Charlie Shackleton.

“małni – towards the ocean, towards the shore” • Director-writer Sky Hopinka’s experimental film looks at the origin of the death myth among the Chinookan people in the Pacific Northwest, following parallel stories of two people (Jordan Mercier and Sweetwater Sahme) navigating their relationships to the spirit world and a place between life and death.

(Francis Alys | courtesy of Sundance Institute) A still from "Sandlines: The Story of History," by Francis Alys, an official selection of the New Frontier Films & Performances program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

“Sandlines, the Story of History” • (Iraq) A century of Iraqi history, from the secret Sykes-Picot agreement in 1916 to the terror imposed by the so-called Islamic State in 2016 — all reenacted by children of a mountain village near Mosul. Written and directed by Francis Alÿs.

“Vitalina Varela” • (Portugal) Varela, a 55-year-old woman from Cape Verde, arrives in Lisbon three days after her husband’s funeral, having waited for her plane ticket for more than 25 years, in writer-director Pedro Costa’s look inside the lives of Portugal’s immigrant community.

New Frontier exhibitions

(Acuity Productions | courtesy of Sundance Institute) Nubiya Brandon appears in "All Kinds of Limbo," by Toby Coffey, Raffy Bushman and Nubiya Brandon an official selection of the New Frontier Exhibitions program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

“All Kinds of Limbo” • (United Kingdom) Audiences are brought into a VR performance space in this musical tour by the UK’s National Theatre, which follows the influence of West Indian culture on the British music scene — including reggae, grime, classical and calypso. Toby Coffee, Raffy Bushman and Nubiya Brandon are the lead artists.

“Animalia Sum” • (Germany/Brazil/Iceland) “I am animals. I eat animals.” That duality informs this VR film, by Bianca Kennedy and Felix Kraus, which projects ahead to a future in which insects will be the main food supply for humans.

“Anti-Gone” • Billed as “a mixed reality play,” Theo Triantafyllidis’ work is set in a world after climate change, when environmental catastrophe has been normalized, following a couple navigating a world in which they move from shopping to movies to psychedelic drugs frictionlessly. Other collaborators are Connor Willumsen and Matthew Doyle; the cast includes Lindsey Normington, Zana Gankhuyag and Doyle.

“Atomu” • (France/Kenya/United States/United Kingdom) An immersive digital dance piece, based on myth from the Kikuyu tribe in Kenya, in which man can become woman and woman can become man. Lead artists are Shariffa Ali and Yetunde Dada; the cast includes Cassie Kinoshi, Alexander Whitley, Clément Chériot and Amaury La Burthe.

“The Book of Distance” • (Canada) A room-sized VR experience, in which artist Randall Okita tells the story of three generations of his family, starting with his grandfather, Yonezo, who in 1935 left his home in Hiroshima, Japan, for Canada — a journey interrupted by war and racism.

“Breathe” • (Sweden/Canada) What’s in the air around you and in you? A mixed-reality app aims to show you, using body movement and breathing to immerse participants in “the story of air.” Diego Galafassi is the lead artist.

“Chomsky vs. Chomsky: First Encounter” • (Canada/Germany) Artist Sandra Rodriguez introduces us to CHOMSKY_AI — an artificial-intelligence entity under construction, based on the digital traces of linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky — to spark a debate about the promise and pitfalls of AI. The cast includes Rodriguez, Michael Burk, Cindy Bishop and Johannes Helberger.

“Dance Trail” • (Switzerland) A dance piece in augmented reality, putting virtual dancers in the real world — both site-specific and mobile, with an app that creates dance sequences at different places during the film festival. Created by Gilles Jobin, Camilo De Martino, Tristan Siodlak and Susana Panades Diaz; the work features Diaz and Jobin as performers, along with Victoria Chiu, Maelle Deral, Diya Naidu and Tidiani N’diaye.

“The Electronic Diaries of Lynn Hershman Leeson” • Leeson (“Teknolust,” SFF ’03; “Women Art Revolution,” SFF ’12) taught herself to use a video camera in 1984, and ever since has sat before it and talked. Leeson is director and star here; others appearing include Dr. George Church, Eleanor Coppola, Dr. Caleb Webber, Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn and Dr. Anthony Atala.

“Hypha” • (Chile) Video artist Natalia Cabrera creates this VR installation following the life cycle of a mushroom that could heal the Earth from man-made disasters. Narrated by Trinidad Piriz.

“Living Distance” • (China/United States) Artist Xin Liu sent a robotic sculpture, containing one of his wisdom teeth, on a mission to space and back. This work chronicles that journey.

“Metamorphic” • A social VR experience, in which the human body becomes “a vehicle for expression within majestically drawn worlds.” Created by Matthew Niederhauser, Wesley Allsbrook, Eli Zananiri and John Fitzgerald.

“My Trip” • (United Kingdom) Artist Bjarne Melgaard uses VR to simulate the experience of taking dimethyltrytamine, or DMT, a psychedelic drug naturally occurring in the brain and other organisms.

“Persuasion Machines” • Artists Karim Amer and Guvenc Ozel expand on the graphics Amer created for the documentary “The Great Hack” (SFF ’19) to visualize the invisible world of data, and show people how their digital footprint is shaping their reality.

“Scarecrow” • (Korea) Enter a Sisyphean world of cursed artists, and try to break the spell. Created by Jihyun Jung, Sngmoo Lee, Taewan Jeong and Cooper Yoo.

“Solastalgia” • (France) Through immersive mixed-reality — virtual reality and augmented reality — artists Antoine Viviani and Pierre-Alain Giraud look at a future when Earth is uninhabitable, and the last generations of humans are living as holograms. The cast includes Mehdi Belhaj Kacem, Audrey Bonnet, Anne Brochet, Nancy Huston, Arthur Nauzyciel and Corine Sombrun.

“Spaced Out” • (France) In the artist Pyaré’s installation, underwater VR — a snorkel is involved — allows participants to take a trip from Earth to the moon, led by the audio conversations of the Apollo 11 mission.

“Still Here” • A multimedia, immersive installation about a woman (LeAsha Julius) returning to Harlem after 15 years in prison — and confronting issues of incarceration, erasure and gentrification. Created by Zahra Rasool and Sarah Springer, the work also features Keith Buxton, Marion Green, James Brown-Orleans, Jeorge Watson and Crystal Arnette.

VR cinema

(Dominic Nahr | courtesy of Sundance Institute) An image from "After the Fallout," a VR work by Sam Wolson and Dominic Nahr, an official selection of the New Frontier Exhibitions program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

Synopses provided by Sundance Institute.

“After the Fallout” • (Switzerland/United States) Lead artists: Sam Wolson, Dominic Nahr. “In March 2011, an earthquake caused a tsunami and a meltdown at the Daiichi nuclear power plant. The devastating consequences filled the communities in Fukushima with fear of the intangible and split Japan in a distinct before and after.”

“Azibuye - The Occupation” • (South Africa) Lead artists: Dylan Valley, Caitlin Robinson, Stephen Abbott; key collaborators: Ingrid Kopp, Steven Markovitz. “When Masello and Evan, two homeless black artist/activists, break into an abandoned mansion in an affluent part of Johannesburg, they proclaim their occupation to be an artistic and political act in defiance of inequalities in land ownership in South Africa.” Cast: Masello Motana, Evan Abrahamse.

“Bembé” • (Cuba) Lead artists: Marcos Louit, Patricia Diaz; key collaborators: Andy Ruiz, Alain López, Ernesto Collinet. “Bembé is a Cuban tradition that encompasses elements of both Christianity and the African Yoruba, where the souls of dead slaves come to Earth, and family, friends and neighbors take part in a celebration lasting up to seven days.” Cast: Ernesto Collinet, Kalina Collinet, Katyleidy Collinet.

“Flowers & a Switchblade” • Lead artists: Nic Koller, Weston Morgan; key collaborators: Candice Lee, Bridget Peck. “An everyday scene — a real-life conversation in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park — collaged together from hundreds of videos to form a fractured, hyper-stimulating, 360-degree Cubist world.”

“Go” • (Switzerland) Lead artists: Sandro Zollinger, Roman Vital, Klaus Merz; key collaborator: Thomas Gassmann. “Searching for stability in his life, Peter Thaler sets out on a hike in the Swiss mountains, from which he will never return. An unprecedented symbiosis of literature and virtual reality, telling a story of everyday and final farewells, and opening the door to eternity a tiny crack.” Cast: Klaus Merz, Niramy Pathmanathan, Robert Vital, Regula Stüssi.

“Hominidae” • Lead artist: Brian Andrews; key collaborators: Brian Ferguson, Robert Steel, Kahra Scott-James. “Against a landscape of X-ray imagery and wild anatomical reimagination, a mother and her children struggle for survival. This experience follows an Arachnid Hominid, an intelligent creature with human and spider physiology, from the birth of her children to her premature death in the teeth of her prey.” Cast: Phyllis Griffin, Luis Mora, Emily Weems, Kidjie Boyer, Austin Daly, Oliver Angus.

“tx-reverse 360°” • (Austria/Germany) Lead artists: Martin Reinhart, Virgil Widrich; key collaborator: Siegfried Friedrich. “What is behind the cinema screen? What if the auditorium dissolves and with it the familiar laws of cinema itself? As reality and cinema collide, viewers are drawn into a vortex where the familiar order of space and time seems to be suspended.”

“VR Free” • (Italy) Lead artist: Milad Tangshir; key collaborators: Vito Martinelli, Stefano Sburlati. “Exploring the nature of incarceration spaces by portraying slices of life inside a prison in Turin, Italy. The film also captures the reaction of several inmates during brief encounters with immersive videos of life outside of prison.” Cast: Michele Romano, Albert Asllanaj, Cristian De Bonis.

New Frontier shorts

Previously announced. Synopses provided by Sundance Institute.

“E-Ticket” • (Hong Kong/United States) Director: Simon Liu. “A frantic (re)cataloguing of a personal archive and 16,000 splices in the making. 35mm frames are obsessively rearranged in evolving-disorienting patterns, as a Dante’s Inferno for the streaming age emerges, illustrating freedom of movement for the modern cloud.”

“Guisado on Sunset” • Director and screenwriter: Terence Nance. “Missed connection regret at that one late-night spot — the kind you keep playing back in your head but not quite ever remembering right, until it starts to look like something else.”

“How Did We Get Here?” • Director and screenwriter: Michelle Miles. “A visual exploration of progressive atrophy. A study in how microscopic changes can go unnoticed, but amass over time. Even as these changes become drastic, we sometimes fail to realize anything has happened at all.”

“Meridian” • (United States/Italy) Director and screenwriter: Calum Walter. ”Footage transmitted by the last unit in a fleet of autonomous machines is sent to deliver an emergency vaccine. The film follows the machine before its disappearance, tracing a path that seems to stray further and further from its objective.”

“Narcissister Breast Work” • Director: Narcissister. “Focusing on the exercise by women of their right to bare their breasts in public, this film is an investigation into how prohibitions on female toplessness are grounded in fear of, and desire to control, the female body.”

“Pattaki” • (Cuba) Director: Everlane Moraes, Screenwriter: Tatiana Monge Herrera. “In the dense night, when the moon rises, those who live in a monotonous daily life without water are hypnotized by the powers of Yemaya, the goddess of the sea.”

“While I’m Still Breathing (Tandis Que Je Respire Encore)” • (France) Directors: Laure Giappiconi, Elisa Monteil, La Fille Renne, Screenwriter: Laure Giappiconi. “The blurred portrayal of a young woman as she moves through three steps of her sexuality.”


Park City Live, the mega-nightclub on Park City’s Main Street, has announced four shows as part of its “Snow Fest” lineup during the 2020 Sundance Film Festival — for people who love electronic dance music and can afford to buy the tickets.

The highlight is the top-selling DJ and production duo Alex Pall and Drew Taggart, aka The Chainsmokers. The duo, who played Vivint Smart Home Arena back in November, is known for their hits “Closer” (featuring Halsey), “Don’t Let Me Down” (featuring Daya) and “Something Just Like This” (featuring Coldplay).

A late addition to the slate: Rapper Wiz Khalifa, who will perform Friday, Jan. 24. (Tickets for this show go on sale Dec. 24.)

Here is the schedule for Park City Live’s Snow Fest, along with general and VIP ticket prices. Tickets are available at parkcitylive.com. Doors open at 8 p.m. each night, at 427 Main St., Park City.

Friday, Jan. 24 • Wiz Khalifa • Prices to be announced

Saturday, Jan. 25 • The Chainsmokers • $150 general; $275 VIP

Sunday, Jan. 26 • Tiësto • $115 general; $175 VIP

Friday, Jan. 31 • Kaskade • $90 general; $150 VIP