Sundance’s New Frontier program takes attendees on wild ride along the boundary of tech and art |

Sundance’s New Frontier program takes attendees on wild ride along the boundary of tech and art

Nan Chalat Noaker
Park Record contributor
The New Frontier selection “Persuasion Machines” by Karim Amer and Guvenc Ozel helps attendees visualize how smart devices can turn one’s living room into a portal for big data.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Sundance Film Festival's New Frontier vital info

The exhibitions, films and performances at New Frontier at the Ray, 1768 Park Ave., require tickets.

New Frontier Central, 950 Iron Horse Drive, is open to credential holders.

Spaced Out at the Sheraton Hotel (Festival HQ) is open to credential holders.

For additional information about New Frontier films and performances, click here.

For additional information about the 2020 New Frontier exhibitions, click here.

With 244 films being screened in 16 theaters, along with innumerable panels and parties, the Sundance Film Festival has a lot of moving parts, but one of its most complex and ambitious segments, arguably, is the New Frontier program. 

While some of the New Frontier selections will be shown on traditional screens in front of a seated audience, most require some sort of high-tech equipment including specialized headsets, swiveling chairs and/or darkened cubicles where attendees can move about, wearing haptic body wear. This year, one piece even asks adventurous participants to dive into a swimming pool wearing waterproof headsets.

The wizard in charge of coordinating this magic kingdom of alternate realities is Shari Frilot, senior programmer and chief curator of the New Frontier program since its inception in 2007. For the last 13 years, Frilot has trotted around the globe mapping the ever-evolving boundaries of art and technology — and her enthusiasm hasn’t faded. 

“This year I saw more projects than ever before and they are all amazing,” she said in a recent phone interview.

Frilot came across the underwater project while serving on a panel at a virtual reality conference in Switzerland. She explained that docents at the Sheraton Park City hotel pool will help swimsuit-attired attendees don space simulator headsets and snorkels — then they will experience the sensation of traveling through space to the moon. 

“It is a very surreal, very beautiful experience that wouldn’t be possible without being underwater,” she said. The selection is entitled “Spaced Out” and was created by Pyaré, an artist from France.

Another notable New Frontier selection, “Sandlines, the Story of History,” hails from Iraq. Creator Francis Alÿs recruits Iraqi children to enact scenes from their country’s turbulent history. 

According to Frilot, Alÿs is a Belgian-born contemporary artist who currently lives in Mexico City and travels the world making conceptual work. 

“He casts children to tell really complicated, complex stories in a poetic way,” she said. “This is his latest piece and he is excited to show it here.”

Sundance-goers who were impressed with last year’s documentary “The Great Hack” may want to expand that experience by taking in this year’s New Frontier exploration of the same theme, “Persuasion Machines.” The piece, one of the exhibitions at The Ray Theatre, invites participants into a modern-day living room equipped with smart devices where all the data streams are suddenly visible. 

In the New Frontier film “Sandlines, the Story of History” by Francis Alys, children play the roles of key characters in their country’s tumultuous history.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute | Photo by Francis Alys

Frilot said she met the filmmakers, Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim, at last year’s festival and they were interested in finding new ways to sound the alarm about big data. 

“They wanted to find deeper ways to visualize something that is so invisible,” she said. “You put on a VR headset and you walk into a living room and you see the data flowing in the way your Alexa sees it, or the way your cellphone sees it, or your computer or your Nest — all these smart machines. It is very exciting.”

She added the piece dovetails well with other Sundance selections that deal with concerns about new technologies like artificial intelligence and facial recognition including “Coded Bias,” screening in the U.S. Documentary Competition and “The Social Dilemma,” in the Documentary Premieres section.

“It is going to be a big year around big data,” she said.

The ethics surrounding new technology is also tackled in the innovative New Frontier piece “Chomsky vs. Chomsky: First Encounter,” in which artist Sandra Rodriguez has cobbled together archival footage of Noam Chomsky’s musings about the future impacts of artificial intelligence. The catalog describes it as an engagement with an AI digital entity under construction.

Frilot believes people are rightfully worried about how some of these technologies will affect their privacy and other aspects of their lives, but she is hopeful that artists can help confront those conflicts.

“AI has a rap in society today, mostly because of films like “The Terminator,” that it is used by machines that know everything, they are after you and they will defeat humanity,” she said. “But from personal experience working with artists who are engaging with AI, I am learning that it draws from the human archive, so it’s got our DNA in the form of data, of course. So it is important to keep a human connection with these powerful technologies. They are still a part of us and we are part of them, and if we let go of that tie they will indeed be used against us.

And that is what keeps Frilot on the hunt along technology’s New Frontier. In addition to the sheer delight of experiencing tantalizing new visuals, Frilot relishes supporting artists who are experimenting with new technology and, as importantly, connecting those artists with audiences at Sundance.

“That is why I am excited about getting involved with artists,” she said, “because when artists are involved, these algorithms, these values around technology, shift to more humanist values.”

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the number of films being screened during Sundance.

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