From a virtual spaceship floating high above planet Earth is where (avatars of) attendees of Sundance 2022 will once again enter New Frontier—the film festival’s pioneering program of virtual, augmented and immersive works. Until roughly a week ago, programmers, volunteers and many ticket-holders planned to be on location in Park City, Utah, where New Frontier intended to construct a “Biodigital Bridge” that allowed passersby of their physical hub to interact with life-sized representations of people in the digital spaceship through a real picture window. Sundance then shifted to an entirely remote roster of screenings, talks and events, but structures set in place for last year’s online iteration have made the transition smooth.
Once again, this means greater access for all: people can partake in Sundance’s slate of features, shorts, performances (like the highly anticipated HOW TO LIVE (After You Die) by Emmy Award-winning artist Lynette Wallworth) and experimental works from the comfort and safety of their home. And, as with last year, attendees do not need a VR headset to access the New Frontier spaceship; it can be viewed on a web browser for the entire duration of the festival. Though the spaceship hosts the entry points to New Frontier projects (some of which do require tethering a VR headset), it will also present talks, gatherings, after parties and the 32 Sounds performance (the official start to this year’s festival). Further, attendees can gather at the spaceship bar to socialize in the Sundance metaverse. To take part, one simply needs to hover over the New Frontier tab on the Sundance program page and click “go to New Frontier.”
Every New Frontier entry aims to reorient our understanding of the relationship between storytelling and technology. The following six highlights, however, stand out for groundbreaking contributions to their medium.
From Ben Joseph Andrews and Emma Roberts, the durational, multiplayer VR experience Gondwana is told over a staggering 24 hours. Within the project, which can be explored in 2D on a web browser or 3D through a headset, the filmmakers chronicle more than 100 years inside a virtual representation of the Daintree (the ancient tropical rainforest in Queensland, Australia) as its wonders degenerate. Viewers can step into and out of the 1440-minute daily event at any point during its run from 20-31 January (every 14 minutes, the rainforest jumps forward one year). To make the work, the artists lived for five months off-the-grid in the Daintree (during an unprecedented period of extreme weather) and the result is astounding.
Suga’ – A Live Virtual Dance Performance
An extraordinary collective experience utilizing volumetric video, movement and a shared digital space, Suga’ – A Live Virtual Dance Performance is the vision of lead artist, dancer and researcher Valencia James. The 30-minute immersive work (which does not require a headset) transports multiple participants into a story of resistance, healing and resilience amidst the suffering of the transatlantic slave trade. James, a Black woman from the Caribbean, will perform the piece six times between 20-27 January, infusing her live dance into a photogrammetry scan of the Annaberg Plantation, where slaves were used to establish the sugar trade. James worked with the Volumetric Performance Toolbox for this production, which offers low-cost access to VR tools.
They Dream in My Bones – Insemnopedy II
An enveloping, imaginative 17-minute rumination on the origin of dreams, French filmmaker Faye Formisano‘s They Dream in My Bones – Insemnopedy II is a poetic virtual immersion. Formisano’s 360-degree VR experience (which was supposed to be coupled with an in-person textile installation) tells a story around fictional scientist Roderick Norman, founder of the study of “onirogenetics” (which asserts that all of our dreams are engraved within our bones). This metamorphic tale, which was inspired by Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, unfolds as a stylistic collage and tests the boundaries of cinematic storytelling.
From co-creators Mengtai Zhang and Lemon Guo, the 30-minute virtual reality documentary Diagnosia explores Zhang’s 2007 detention at a military-operated video game and Internet addiction camp in Beijing, as well as the very idea of considering our time online as a medical disorder. Zhang, an artist and filmmaker, partnered with Guo, an artist and composer, to bring this eye-opening immersive tale to life. Diagnosia is a sensorially stunning experience, underscored by incredibly relevant subject matter.
Flat Earth VR
A satire of surprising beauty, Flat Earth VR—from filmmaker and creative technologist Lucas Rizzotto—is a five-minute ride into space on a stolen NASA shuttle (complete with a few complications along the way), where participants get to see firsthand that the Earth really is flat. It’s funny, of course, but there’s something undeniably powerful about Rizzotto’s vision.
Hero image still from Flat Earth VR by Lucas Rizzotto, an official selection of the New Frontier section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, courtesy of Sundance Institute