Previewing Sundance’s New Frontier 10th Anniversary Programming

30 virtual reality experiences, 11 installations and three feature films converge in Park City

Beyond the 120 feature-length films present at this year’s Sundance Film Festival (65 films of which were selected for the US Competition, World Competition and NEXT categories), the acclaimed New Frontier program will have its largest showing to date. New Frontier, celebrating its 10th year, is an exhibition-like experience that presents works at the cross-section of art, technology and filmmaking. Last year, their unprecedented attention to virtual reality submerged thousands of guests into one-of-a-kind encounters. And this year—with 30 VR experiences, 11 installations, three feature films and one performance—it’s taking a step beyond. According to Shari Frilot, New Frontier’s curator and a senior programmer at Sundance, immersion is key.

From seven minutes in claustrophobia-inducing solitary confinement to an animated, whimsical wonderland, the diversity of VR has reached new heights. There’s narrative variation, tremendously distinct visual presentations and, ultimately, diverse technology at play. As Frilot explains to CH, “I always approach the curation from the approach of ‘How can I make the program as electric as I can?'” And, to be honest, last year’s success contributed to this year’s breadth and depth. As she continues, “To go from a program last year where we really had to search and travel and put together or provoke work for the show to having this massive stream of content this year, and being allowed to take the cream of the crop, demonstrates how effective this form of storytelling is becoming.”

Selecting pieces for such an exhibition requires a different approach than the film screening at Sundance. Frilot spent months on the road, traveling for the sake of technology. “The 30 pieces that we settled on really reflect the advancements in the tech that is involved, as well as various kinds of artists from various parts of the world—from iconic filmmakers touching this medium for the first time to brand new artists who are doing everything themselves,” she says. Frilot also notes that there is a good balance of live-action and animation, and a thorough representation of truly interactive works. But she touches upon something everyone is experiencing right now: “You can’t really use a single standard to appreciate the various types of VR in this line-up; the craft is still so young.” There are people morphing a more filmic narrative to VR and artists who are approaching it from a purely experimental standpoint.

There are, however, a few thematic links to expect across the entire program. The first, Frilot notes, is immersion itself. “The march toward immersion has been very consistent over the years. It’s very consulate, this reach and accomplishment of immersive storytelling and in the nascent form of storytelling VR and in the more experimental-reaching forms.” Of these, she notes that this year will host three different labs for real virtual exploration. These are experiences beyond a headset or Google Cardboard, but fully-haptic. A second through-line she’s observed, “There is an interesting theme, or occurrence, throughout the program that engages the natural world. It appears in various forms.” For instance, visitors can experience a job simulator or trek the course of sea gypsies.

Finally, much like with film, music factors strongly into the programming at New Frontier. “Music has been on the forefront of storytelling for years now,” Frilot observes. And with everything from Björk’s “Stonemilker” VR experience to Kahlil Joseph’s art installation collaboration with Kendrick Lamar and even a performance by Gingger Shankar, the musical experience and its immersive attractions are represented.

As for how to experience a multi-venue exhibition, Frilot explains how to take the most away. “The show itself is a lot of work this year but we tried to set it up in a way to make it easier for audiences to understand what it is and modulate it.” At Claim Jumper, the core mission of New Frontier will be present; the Gateway offers a deep dive into VR; while Base Camp will be immersive and large-scale works. As Frilot concludes, “New Frontier always has been designed to be an experiment festival inside the festival. I would encourage audiences to sit with the program that’s online and take in all the full dimensions.”

New Frontier will run from 21 to 31 January 2016, across the Claim Jumper (573 Main St, Park City), The Gateway (136 Heber Ave at Swede Alley) and the Canada Goose Festival Base Camp.

Images courtesy of Sundance New Frontier