Sundance, a festival notorious for creating bidding wars over hothouse indie flowers that die outside Park City, was presented remotely this year, promising a purer, more accessible experience: no need to book a trip to the expensive ski town to take in the program. But experiencing some of the projects presented in New Frontier, the new media/VR program, required special hardware and the skills to use it correctly, which gave it a whiff of 1990s internet culture. Appropriately, the offerings filtered experiences through nostalgia and utopianism, even while confronting how relationships with the physical and the digital are merging, and how the difference could collapse altogether someday soon.
Sundance’s online portal for New Frontier simulated milling in a lobby with other festival attendees, but it felt goofy, like a mall in Second Life. Everyone showed up as a multicolored stick figure, though you could stick a headshot on your virtual body. If your avatar got close to anyone else’s, a pop-up window asked if you wanted to chat. Images from the program’s fourteen projects “hung” on the walls around gigantic globes labeled by medium: the four VR projects were in a corner opposite the AR ones, and so on. I had a hard time moving around the space and accessing signage from my Oculus headset, though it was easy enough with a mouse.
Despite the portal’s awkwardness, most of the projects I experienced—whether through a headset, on my laptop, or switching between laptop and phone—were worth the hassle. Violeta Ayala’s episodic VR experience Prison X – Chapter 1: The Devil and the Sun (2020), deals with colonialism’s legacies of racism, incarceration, and environmental destruction in Bolivia. It begins when you accept an invitation from the Jaguaress, a woman in a mask who always appears between two blue jaguars, to play the role of Inti, the Incan sun god,. But Inti, as you learn after donning the mask she gives you, is also a young man caught trafficking cocaine to Argentina, and now that you’re inhabiting his body, you’re on your way to Bolivia’s notorious San Sebastian Prison.
Violeta Ayala, Prison X – Chapter 1: The Devil and the Sun, 2020, VR experience.
Courtesy Sundance Institute. Photo Dan Fallshaw
After killing time in your windowless cell, you enter the yard and meet other characters: an old woman selling snacks, an Israeli guy dressed for the beach, and an Australian photographer with a bird’s body who “just wants to tell your story.” The virtual environment of Prison X is based on documentary shots of the prison, but these are fused with graphics and sprites inspired by traditional Andean arts. Ayala’s VR experience asserts Indigenous aesthetics and cosmologies that not only were erased and devalued by colonial Spanish rule, but are woefully underrepresented in digital media today. The fact that Prison X was released less than a year after the coup against Evo Morales, a politician who worked to correct Bolivia’s anti-Indigenous bias on a cultural and economic level, made the dive into its world even more emotionally effective.
Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran (2019– 21), a multimedia performance-lecture by Javaad Alipoor and Kristy Housley, telescopes from social media voyeurism to geologic time, mapping links between mindless consumption and mass extinction while meditating on the difficulty of comprehending such shifts of scale. Originally presented as a live theater piece that premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the remote version splits the viewers’ attention between the screens of their computers—where they watch a video replicating (and distorting) Zoom’s interface—and their phones, where they scroll an Instagram account and browse hashtags as directed by Alipoor and performer Peyvand Sadeghian. (To prevent online harassment from the Iranian government, the Rich Kids account is locked, and your follow request would be approved right before the scheduled show began—a bit of social media meta-drama.)
Javaad Alipoor and Kristy Housley, Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran, 2019–21, multimedia performance.
Courtesy Sundance Institute. Photo Peter Dibdin
On Instagram Live, Alipoor and Sadeghian discussed the phenomenon of #richkidsofTehran—children of Iran’s elite, who flout their parents’ rejection of Western culture by enjoying luxury goods and drugs amid the extreme misery in the rest of the country caused by US sanctions. Referred to as “aghazadeh” (Farsi for “princeling”), these failsons and faildaughters are at once trapped and liberated by their social standing.
The trajectory of one aghazadeh’s fatal crash in his Lambo is contextualized by larger economic and historical forces, then geologic ones: the layer of chicken bones building up on the Earth’s surface and the technofossils of our phones, which will last ten times longer than humans have existed. The show’s seemingly ironic reference to malls grows more profound as the show goes on. Archaeologists debate whether trading posts or temples were the catalyst for the birth of civilization. For all its sensorial and informational glut, Rich Kids makes a kind of intuitive sense.
“Traveling the Interstitium with Octavia Butler,” a kind of mini-program within New Frontier, offered a series of five net art projects, united in their orientation toward the future and references to Butler’s works. It’s structured like a web ring, the way users with similar interests linked their pages before social media monopolized connection. These works aren’t meant to be experienced in any particular order, and can only be accessed through the “homepage,” a field of red and black pixels that ripples and buzzes in response to your cursor. I spent more time with “Traveling the Interstitium” than any of New Frontier’s other offerings, because the works had no durational limits—and maybe out of nostalgia for a pre-corporate internet.
The online portal for New Frontier at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
Photo Violet Lucca
Some of the pieces are more straightforwardly Butlerian. Pluto, a striking short by Sophia Nahli Allison, is an intense discussion of time travel between two Black women that turns into an exorcism, alternating between close-ups of their bodies (never revealing faces) and shots of the solar system. Stephanie Dinkins’s #WhenWordsFail asks you to record what you think holds you back in life with your webcam, and then throw it into the WebXR void of space. The project weds Butler’s lifelong interest in self-help and positive thinking to Dinkins’s own notion of Afro-now-ism, which advocates thought and action that isn’t limited by an opposition to structural barriers.
The most engrossing project of the web ring is Terrance Nance’s “99 Frames Per Millennia.” A swirling, dark gray tunnel of waves provides a visual accompaniment to a fictional radio show, in which the Black female host interviews a prolific Black female director who made her name by writing, directing, and starring in a biopic of Nina Simone and adapting Butler’s Earthseed trilogy. The piece does the crucial work of imagining two Black women talking about the artistic process, unbound by Hollywood’s financial, racial, and patriarchal limitations, and creating something challenging that addresses mass audiences. However, as is true of much of Nance’s work (such as his 2012 film An Oversimplification of Her Beauty), there is a sense of humor—the intense discussion is broken up by some wonderfully (and painfully true) original songs about self-loathing and relationships, all performed by men, as if to subvert the slogan “the future is female.” Listening to this invented director, who makes the sort of film I’d actually like to see, discuss her career was transcendent. It was perhaps the most intense feeling of hope I experienced during New Frontiers, for it promised a world where barriers—bigger than owning the latest Oculus—no longer existed.