This Frontier Cannot be Tamed

Want to make a Sundance film? Great! Bring your cell phone to Park City and talk to Shu Lea Cheang. Want to be in a Sundance film? Perfect! Wander by Lincoln Schatz’s Cluster, and chances are you will appear onscreen sometime later. Want to see every single Academy Award winner for Best Picture? Get ready! R. Luke Dubois will show you that history in a little over an hour.

Yes, things are changing at the Sundance Film Festival thanks to the New Frontier Section, which explores the far reaches of cinematic expression, where everything familiar about filmmaking becomes unfamiliar. New filmmaking techniques, new screening arrangements, and new ways of interacting with images are all part of the section’s offerings as it brings the world of new forms into the realm of a film festival.

“I believe there will be a burgeoning of platforms in the future, all for reading, feeling, and responding to moving images, both narrative and nonnarrative,” said Lynn Hershman Leeson, who for more than 30 years has been a leader in exploring the spectrum of moving image possibilities. Her work includes cutting edge interactive media installations, experimental feature films, and this year’s New Frontier entry Strange Culture, an innovative documentary chronicling the plight of the Critical Art Ensemble’s Steve Kurtz, whose art-oriented investigations of the biotech industry led to accusations after the death of his wife. “Audiences are becoming more sophisticated,” continued Hershman Leeson, “and the aesthetics are shifting to include new structures such as mobile phones, A.I. platforms, DV films, and installations of all sorts, as well as nonlinear and fractured stories.”

As Hershman Leeson suggested, the New Frontier Section offers a sampling of moving image experiments from a broad range of fields. “We’re going to look at the relationship between art and film,” explained Festival Director Geoff Gilmore in a conversation about the section’s growth since its inception in 1996 as simply the “Frontier Section.” “We want to develop a new nexus for experimentation.”

That experimentation has evolved over the years, from feature films that reimagine storytelling, such as Matthew Barney’s epic Cremaster 3, Gaspar Noe’s shocking film-in-reverse Irreversible, and Betzy Bromberg’s poetic A Darkness Swallowed, to more participatory film events such as the fully immersive image environment created by the San Francisco-based collective silt several years ago or Our Second Date, a media installation by artists Jennifer and Kevin McCoy. Indeed, Jennifer McCoy used the term “post-cinema” in describing an emerging body of film-related projects that explode the traditional accouterments of filmmaking, scattering screens, projectors, images, and filmmakers in all directions – often well beyond movie theaters – while borrowing tools and ideas from sculpture, painting, theater, video art, and new media.

“I see this section as a forum for artists and audiences to come and see the intersection of the artworld, the filmworld, and emerging technologies,” explained Sundance programmer Shari Frilot, who has spearheaded the section’s evolution over the last eight years. This year, the section has been renamed the “New Frontier” and relocated to what used to be the Digital Center on Main Street. The space has been completely altered so that it now includes a microcinema, large lounge area, and spaces for installation work. However, this is not to say that Park City is the new Soho. “We’re not looking to join the artworld,” explained Frilot. John Cooper, head of festival programming, added, “We’re trying create a space that doesn’t really exist right now, a hybrid space. Frankly, we’re bringing these artists into an experiment, and we’re really hoping it will work.”

While the Frontier experiment is new in many ways, the Festival is also relying on what it does best. “We’re doing what we normally do,” explained Frilot, “namely focusing on the artist. But in this case we’re looking at [film] artists who might benefit from having some exposure at Sundance.”
These artists include Pierre Huyghe, a French filmmaker known for his multi-channel video installations exploring elements of filmmaking; Huyghe’s short form work from 1997 on will be screened in an Artist Spotlight, the first ever in the Festival’s history. Other participating filmmakers include the always interesting Shu Lea Cheang, who will present MobiOpera, in which cell phone users are invited to help script and shoot a film using their phones as cameras. Nina Menkes also returns with her latest experimental feature film Phantom Love, while Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno, familiar to gallery-goers, will present Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, an intensive feature-length study of a single soccer player who was photographed with 17 cameras during a game. In each of these cases, artists demonstrate new possibilities and directions for cinema, exploring new forms of production, temporality, and storytelling.

New Frontier also explores the ways computers are affecting filmmaking. In his films Academy and Play, New York-based composer and artist R. Luke Dubois takes his experiments with compressing music, a process he calls “time lapse phonography,” into cinema. In Academy, for example, the first 75 years of Best Picture Oscar winners are compressed into a dizzying whirl of one-minute movies.

“With this film, you can see how things are getting faster,” explained Dubois, who said that he enjoys taking aspects of culture and subjecting them to a kind of gestalt analysis, where viewers gain an overview of a massive amount of material in a reduced form. “If you compare something like Casablanca with Chicago, you can clearly see the faces of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in the first, but only a crazy blur of imagery in the second, so even though the films are all shrunk down to one minute, you can still see how things have changed so much, how the trend is toward larger, noisier spectacles, a cinema of sensory overload. Speeding everything up adds to that overload.”

Like Dubois, Chicago-based Lincoln Schatz does not come from the film world, but his work has grown increasingly cinematic. His background includes photography, sculpture, printmaking, and drawing. Several years ago, he began creating digital animations as a way to depict his large-scale public sculptures, and these gradually led him to think about the intersections of public space, memory, and video. At Sundance, Schatz will install a video installation that incorporates footage of people at the Festival. The footage is gathered, selected, stored, and then recombined with other footage through custom software, creating a computer-controlled moving image history that melds past and present.
Both Dubois and Schatz have been just fine outside the world of traditional filmmaking – what will they gain from showing their work in a festival setting?

“I’ve never really had a conversation with someone in the film industry, or a serious cinefile about Academy,” admitted Dubois. “I’ve talked to a lot of artists about it, and I’ve talked to new media people, but they have different gaze. They think of it as a great data set. And I do know it works as a conceptual artwork, but I want to know if it works as a type of documentary on collapsed cinema, so I’m looking forward to talking to people who do this for a living.”

For Schatz, the differences between his work and that of other filmmakers became readily apparent as he filled out the filmmaker’s forms asking about credits, other films, and so on. “I think it’s clear that we’ll all sort of be the odd men out,” he laughed. “And I don’t mind that at all.”

“This is a part of a larger evolution,” added Hershman Leeson. “You have social network systems now and tools such as [the multi-user virtual environment] Second Life that totally radicalize content and access, as well as community. [New forms are] infiltrating larger visual culture quite rapidly. I believe New Frontier will pave the way to find truly new ways of exploring meaning and content, and present these hybrid and exciting forms and genres to an ever growing and expanding audience, who now can absorb them into the framework of the larger context of cinema.”

By Holly Willis

The Daily Insider, Sundance Film Festival | January 25, 2007

© 2007 The Daily Insider, Sundance Film Festival