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In 2021, the Sundance Film Festival found art in Zoom, Instagram, and VR theater

A New Frontier for a year at home

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In a Sundance Film Festival defined by the coronavirus pandemic, the New Frontier section — devoted to experimental projects like virtual reality films and interactive performance art — was also radically reimagined. The section is often one of Sundance’s most intensely physical experiences; in 2020, it included a series of VR films viewed while floating in a swimming pool. In 2021, during an entirely remote festival, it pushed for something different: making our own homes feel otherworldly.

Pared down to 14 projects, this year’s New Frontier focused on web art and social media alongside virtual and augmented reality experiences. The result was a show that felt intimate and intriguing — and set a model for showcasing interactive art online.

Beyond the Breakdown
Created by Tony Patrick, Lauren Lee McCarthy, and Grace Lee

It’s tough to make a Zoom call feel profound, but Beyond the Breakdown comes close. Like Tinker, the experience involves only a few people, all of whom dial into a web-based video chat. The chat is moderated by a Siri-like voice bot (controlled largely by a human operator), and it’s devoted to answering a simple question: what should Earth look like in 2050?

My session of Beyond the Breakdown felt like an attempt to figure out the philosophical underpinnings of a better world, rather than predict the most plausible future or imagine the specifics of a utopia. That probably depends in part on the participants, but it’s helped by gentle prodding from the “AI”, which asks open-ended questions and chimes in with an occasional request to delve deeper. The whole experience benefits from its film festival context — while it might take place on the same screen as all your normal work meetings, it’s got an unusual sense of playfulness and optimism.

Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran Still

Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran
Created and performed by Kirsty Housley and Javaad Alipoor

Shopping Malls in Tehran is a tragic love story about the rich kids of Instagram — or more specifically, the rich kids of Tehran, a group of wealthy teens and twentysomethings shopping and partying under the shadow of social instability in Iran. Like a social media feed, it plays out in reverse: from two lovers’ fatal car crash just before dawn, through late-night drives and fights with disappointed parents and a surreal trip into the desert, all told through a combination of live narration and posts on a fictitious Instagram account. Slowly, the story expands from the doomed couple to a history of Iranian politics, the global oil industry, and the eponymous Tehran shopping malls.

The piece was originally intended as an in-person performance, but the pandemic pushed it fully online, with Housely and Alipoor narrating the show alternately on a YouTube channel and in live Instagram broadcasts. The result perfectly channels the distraction of online social interaction — as audiences juggle their phones and laptop browser tabs to keep up with the show.

Tinker Still

Directed by Lou Ward

Tinker puts a twist on immersive VR theater, a genre where live actors play characters in virtual reality experiences, like Tender Claws’ The Under Presents. The Oculus Quest project is about an affable inventor in a cozy late-’90s house. A handful of audience members join the scene. Most are invisible spectators, but one plays the man’s grandchild — who can take Polaroids, assemble toys, draw on walls with crayons, and talk to their grandfather over two decades’ worth of vignettes.

If you’re the participant, the “acting” is pretty simple; you’re not literally pretending to be a toddler or a teenager. But it blends the feeling of having a personal conversation about your family with the understanding that you’re playing to an audience and want to make your scene at least a little entertaining. And the setting is a great sandbox of toys that encourage engaging with the environment and actor. It’s a worthwhile followup to projects like the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival experience Draw Me Close or the 2020 Sundance installation Scarecrow — with no physical contact but a more spontaneous feel.

To Miss The Ending Still

To Miss the Ending
Created by Anna West and David Callanan

The physical world is dying. Machines have made human effort obsolete, and the only future is a virtual environment that approximates their old reality. The problem? None of the uploaded souls can agree on what reality was. While musing about their last days on Earth, they argue about whether a river is actually a road, whether an apartment’s stairs should lead to anything, and whether a tree belongs in the middle of a living room.

To Miss the Ending is a melancholy, unsettling VR experience. Animated in jittering neon voxels that reflect the stories being told in voiceover, it turns a familiar dystopian science fiction conceit into a series of personal and bittersweet reflections on living to see the end of the world.

4 Feet High VR Still

4 Feet High VR
Created by María Belén Poncio, Rosario Perazolo Masjoan, Damian Turkieh, and Ezequiel Lenardón

4 Feet High VR is the bigger, more ambitious followup to another Sundance project from 2018. It’s a series of short VR films about Juana, a teenager in Argentina who’s navigating sex and romance after showing up at a new school. Juana uses a wheelchair, and the film is shot so we’re level with her height. But its unique cinematography is just a small part of the appeal. It’s a sweetly funny coming-of-age story about being young, awkward, passionate, and relentlessly sure that you can change a hostile world by having fun. The film would still be compelling without VR, but its 360-degree video completely shuts out reality and pushes you into Juana’s world — something that, during a year without movie theaters, traditional film simply can’t do.