Game-Changing Art and Tech at Sundance's New Frontier

Game-Changing Art and Tech at Sundance's New Frontier
Doug Aitken's "The Source"
(Photo by Charles Coleman)

New Frontier, the art and technology division of the Sundance Film Festival, is expanding and changing locales for the festival’s 30th anniversary later this month. Spread across several spaces on Main Street, the exhibition, now in its eighth year, will present the U.S. premier of “Station to Station” artist Doug Aitken’s new film, “The Source,” and Klip Collective’s 3D projection-mapping project, in addition to a more traditional program of six films and a large exhibition that encompasses art films, installations, and displays of new technology. Works on view there will include James Nares’s mesmerizing video piece “Street,” which was a hit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art earlier this year, and, in the technology category, “Sound + Vision,” the project of musician Beck and filmmaker Chris Milk, which uses 360-degree audio and video to recreate Beck’s cover of the David Bowie song of the same name. ARTINFO spoke with Shari Frilot, the exhibition and film program curator for New Frontier — which runs from January 15-25 — about this year’s offerings.

Sundance has been doing more art-oriented films or films by people who work in the art world for nearly ten years. Why did the festival start getting involved in films made by artists? What does it add?

It was around 2005 or 2006 that we started to pay attention to how many films were coming in fully ready to go from the art world. I’m talking about Miranda July, John Maybury, Isaac Julien. There just seemed to be a waxing number of films that were wildly original and accomplished on a very high level that we needed to pay attention to as a discovery festival. We basically decided to go into the art world as opposed to having it come to us. That was sort of the seed for New Frontier and how it came together. I started to actually go to art fairs, talk to artists, and immerse myself more in the art world.

Meanwhile, new technologies were also pushing the envelope. We conceived New Frontier as a platform for work that’s not only films but [also] immersive media, installation, works coming out of the art world that are not necessarily meant for the theater but for a gallery setting. [We’re] resituating them in a film festival context to keep up with the artists as they are expanding our cinema culture.

What’s different about this year’s New Frontier programming?

One of the big things that we’re doing this year is that we’re moving our venue. We have been installing this show at the Yard, which is this really gorgeous space, but we wanted to move to Main Street this year. The mission of New Frontier is to bring art, new technology, and cinema under one roof. So one of the ideas to do this is to populate various sites along Main Street. No matter where you turn on Main Street now you’ll see New Frontier. It’s part of how we’re elevating the profile of the program.

You’re premiering a Doug Aitken film and a Klip Collective project. Why did you choose those as the headliners?

Doug Aitken, we’ve been talking to him for several years now and he’s been very excited about “The Source” and building something that has to do with a new kind of documentary about creativity. We had the Klip Collective last year at New Frontier with their 3D mapping. The technology has jumped that form into another realm, and it was something that we had to pay attention to last year. I think audiences are very interested in being the first, touching new technologies, and seeing artworks like “The Source” as they come.

How does the film industry audience that has traditionally come to Sundance react to all of this art programming?

It’s been really interesting to track the reaction. I’m really glad you asked that question. We’ve been doing this since 2007 and the first couple years there was confusion and awe. They really loved the show, but they didn’t quite understand why we were doing it. We would try to get the press to come and we’d actually start the press conference for the whole festival at New Frontier. It was just so much fun to watch the film press talk to artists. They were asking questions that they were hard-wired to ask about films, and then watching the artists being so happy to talk about their work in a narrative way, with all these beautiful answers coming out. But we did have to force the meeting.

It wasn’t until 2010 that things started to turn around. Two thousand nine was right around when the film industry blasted to pieces and had to recombinate itself. Two thousantd ten was the year when, if you asked anybody on the street, they were probably watching movies on their computer. So I think that in 2010 the industry started to pay attention, and we were also floundering to try to figure out how to rebuild ourselves, the independent cinema industry. People started to take a new interest in New Frontier, not only because it was just interesting, but also because maybe there were some answers there. So before 2010 it was hard to get the journalists to talk to the artists. In 2010 they were all over them.

Film still from Chris Milk's "Clouds" 

Can you tell me more about the technology component of the exhibition?

In 2012, there was a technology that was really in a laboratory form, which this year we will be presenting to a film festival audience. It’s something that could very well change the game. It’s a new device called the Oculus Rift.

Chris Milk has made the first film that is a 360-degree video — you’re actually inside the film — for the Oculus Rift, which is a virtual reality simulator. Virtual reality was around in the ’90s, but the simulators were very bad. They gave you the spins. This guy Palmer Luckey, who came in 2012 with a piece called “Hunger LA” by Nonny de la Peña, he designed these virtual reality headsets. So we’re working with Palmer and Oculus Rift and have selected a number of works including Chris Milk’s, a game called “EVE: Valkyrie,” and a beautiful documentary about digital culture called “Clouds.” This kind of work, we’re putting it in there to expose filmmakers and film festival audiences to a new way of thinking about telling stories in the moving image. It is evolving. It will continue to evolve. There’s always going to be some work at New Frontier that pushes people to the very edge and they have no idea what it is. There are other things where it’s going to be pretty clear how useful and how immediately vital it’s going to be as the industry grows and as cinema grows.