July 23, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

Sundance 2021: VR, interactive works fit the COVID moment

The plump, mustachioed and vest-wearing Frank Bourassa looks genial enough, especially when he materializes as a tiny cartoon figure in your living room. He’s here, in augmented reality, to talk to us about money, seeking to raise questions about our own fiduciary responsibility — or lack thereof.

But should we trust someone who claims he’s the “world’s greatest counterfeiter”? Add in the fact that he’s a cartoon, and maybe we should be on our guard — or at least pay closer attention.

When it comes to examinations of the psychology of money there’s a human tendency to tune out, to think we know it all and avoid thinking about our own limits. This is why the augmented reality vignettes of “Fortune!,” designed to be watched on a smartphone or tablet, aim to superimpose themselves on our world, to disrupt it with humor.

Directed by Brett Gaylor, “Fortune!,” will be shown as part of the interactive and experimental New Frontier program at this year’s virtual Sundance Film Festival, which runs Jan. 28 to Feb. 3. It’s just one of the online festival’s numerous offerings that aims to use new technology not necessarily to wow us but to communicate with us.

“Secret Garden” is a work that can play in an art gallery or a web browser, as each can be equally enveloping if used correctly. The Stephanie Dinkins-helmed project captures oral histories of Black women throughout the decades, not only shedding a light on severely under-told narratives but reminding us that every life has a story to tell. Or see and hear “7 Sounds,” an audio-video work that aims to get us out of our head and simply show us the meditative power of sound.

A still from “Secret Garden,” an online work that allows users to explore the oral histories of multiple decades of Black women. “Sercet Garden” is showing as part of Sundance’s New Frontier program.

(Dinkins Studio)

While Sundance’s New Frontier selections have over the last decade always sought to highlight overlooked stories and the ways in which augmented or virtual reality could make them more palatable, this year’s online-focused slate also aims to show just how accessible they can be. Some presentations require a VR headset that must be tethered to a computer — tech that is still a luxury for many — but a number of offerings will be available on a phone or a web browser, with some even focusing on a social media platform.

Taken together, this year’s edition of Sundance’s New Frontier should, if successful, provide COVID-19-era lessons that will stay with us even after the vaccines have done their job. Pre-pandemic and in-person, the most popular of the VR installations shown amid the typical Park City, Utah, event, can draw lengthy lines and waits.

But shifting to online this year — New Frontier access costs $25 and comes with an elaborate virtual space station to explore — allowed New Frontier to pivot and have a tighter focus. The emphasis on merging film, theater and interactivity with tech as accessible as a browser is a reminder that storytelling not only surrounds us but can meet us where we’re at, at least if we’re open to looking for it.

Going digital has even allowed Sundance’s program to expand, at least in types of content if not in physical space.

Some New Frontier events, such as the live VR show “Tinker,” border on immersive theater, a genre Sundance has largely avoided because of its often low-capacity. But rules in virtual reality and online are constantly bending, allowing curator Shari Frilot to double-down on her mission to showcase diverse and left-of-center projects, all of which can demonstrate for filmmakers, media and students the storytelling possibilities that exist for projects that don’t fit a standard mold.

“The inequities in the movie business has kind of a feedback effect,” Frilot says. “You have certain communities that are privileged and are able to touch the equipment. Then you have movies that are privileged because of who stands at the gateway of festivals or studios. That’s the audience with very specific kinds of films that affect and feed who you are and who you think the world is. It has not served all of us very well.

“And those it has not served, we weren’t really served very well with those tools of storytelling,” Frilot continues, referencing the pioneering multimedia-meets-journalism-meets VR work of Nonny de la Peña, whose “Hunger in Los Angeles” was the first VR documentary to screen at Sundance in 2012 and required goggles to be developed at USC’s Mixed Reality Lab before the film could be seen. “We had a more complicated and layered experience in stories.”

A number of the New Frontier projects are uniquely tailored to 2021, not only reflecting our always-online lifestyle but even asking us to rethink our relationship with the devices in our home. This sort of intimacy is more difficult to achieve in a large, in-person festival such as Sundance. Take, for instance, “Beyond the Breakdown,” which has participants connect with others via the internet to interact with an artificially intelligent character asking us to build a better, more collaborative future.

“The idea of being able to go onto a browser with other people — it looks like a Zoom room — except one of those boxes is a human artificially intelligent team that’s helping us do a world-building exercise to figure out what world we want,” says Frilot. “It’s quite emotional. You get very vulnerable in that.”

Sundance's virtual space for the New Frontier program.

Sundance has created an elaborate virtual space that is open to all attendees with New Frontier access to come and hang out online or in virtual reality.

(Sundance)

“Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran,” was envisioned for a pre-pandemic world but turned out to be particularly well-suited to our current climate. Beyond exploring topical ideas such as the emotional effects of the digital lives we present across social media, the theatrical show directs users to Instagram to flesh out its narrative. Then there’s “To Miss the Ending,” a VR work with a cynical bent, wondering if in the future our lasting memories — our souls — will live only online.

To help make the exploration of these projects its own interactive experience, Frilot and her team crafted an elaborate space station. There, attendees can find info on the projects as well the ability to explore either via a computer or in VR communal spaces that invite us to hang with others. There’s also a virtual theater, which will house limited screenings if we want to simulate the theater experience. For those not versed in wandering online worlds, think of something such as “The Sims” but warmly inviting, with grand vistas of the stars and planets to take in.

Consider it a reminder, like all of the New Frontier works, that even as we miss the ability to gather in theaters for a film or a play, the power of online and virtual works is in their interactivity. And that, after all, gives us a sense of presence.

Sundance’s New Frontiers content may be viewed for free if you already have a festival pass, or you may buy a $25 “explorer’s pass” at festival.sundance.org.