Sundance Expanded: New Frontier, Abacus & whiteonwhite

New Frontier, the sort of artistic/experimental section of the Sundance Film Festival (the section we are a part of out here), hosts various performances and screenings of work apart from the exhibition on view throughout the festival. I was lucky enough to sneak in on the dress rehearsal for one performance and also one screening- one a live experience and one a filmic experience, two very different approaches to a new forefront in expanded cinema.

Ever since Lars Jan became a  TED fellow the interest in his latest work has been humming below the surface of most art and film circles I come in contact with. His Abacus project, an outlook on what the future of mankind could look like, was first conceived as a large scale multimedia project up at EMPAC (a place I adore!) where giant screens, live camera feed projection w/steady cam dancers (?), a complex light show, and a live actor orating a monologue on our misconceptions of the world/ how we need to expand our minds to fix looming disaster- think global, act global perhaps? As someone who religiously reads National Geographic I don't really think I learned anything new in this performance and the format of a one man show is something that has never appealed to me as a medium....but that is not to say that an audience of young, forming minds would not benefit from a surfacey crash course in "how to fix the world." Hopefully Abacus will screen in it's much larger scale form again since I think the tiny, intimate setting of the Sundance performance took away from a much needed distance that would allow for contemplation, a better experience of the propaganda/screen/dictator/superstar relationship (which Jan views as an important part of the social commentary of the piece and which I think is a necessay Brechtian A-effect tool), and more acceptance of the soft futurist tone.

I've raved about whiteonwhite:algorithmicnoir before on the blog in it's gallery setting but, seeing the film in a theatrical setting was a completely different experience! Composed of film clips, voice over tracks, and music tracks randomly live edited together by a computer program (the "Serendipity Machine," whose script was made visible on screens to the sides of the theater screen while at Sundance) the film began playing when audiences entered and continued to play after they left. Telling a lose noir story of a man lulled into a life within barren City A and the circumstances surrounding his confines, Eve Sussman and The Rufus Corporation create a tense landscape of a film genre, exploring the nature of creating cinema, the inherent expectations/behavior of an audience, a visualization of clandestine code, and moving towards a completely new understanding of what film & new media can do together (this last point underscored by Triple Canopy's involvement in the early stages of this project). In this thater setting the film puts the audience in a much more active position, trying to piece things together, glancing at the algorithm to see what it is thinking, almost trying to complete a puzzle- the most engaged cinematic audience I have seen in awhile! The film actively plays with the normally passive act of watching a film, urging each person to construct their own conceptual narrative, or mood, or meaning, alongside that of the multitude of actual directors ( the art collective/filmmakers, the code writer, the computer). Ultimately the form this film takes on leads to questions of control, surveillance, and intent: in a world of surveillance and technology who is determining our notions of reality?

I think Abacus and whiteonwhite are both approaching the same problem in today's film going/media ravaged audiences, a response against the passivity of the overstimulated world of virtual/false interaction. These pieces actively engage the viewers: to work with a machine to create a narrative, and to disburse important concerns & knowledge in  a more palatable/pop-cultural way- both pieces acting in the name of human existence. These projects are meant to be experienced in settings much different than the audience/film screen setting Sundance provides- whiteonwhite better suited for an intimate gallery/museum and Abacus a large, arena-like theater- yet their inclusion in this large scale film festival, and the high attendance rates of their shows, makes me think that film goers are seeking out a different kind of watching. The definition of what a film audience is, and their role as such, is changing: projects like these won't be the anamolies in the future of the film industry. (photos from a window in downtown Park City)



Donna K. lives in the Midwest and on the internet. Mostly she writes about her interest in the offline world.