Photo courtesy of 2017 Sundance Institute | Photo by Jonathan Hickerson

Open Doc Lab fellow Callum Cooper was selected to participate in Sundance Institute’s New Frontier Story Lab with his work-in-progress project Porton Down. We interviewed him about his experience.

OpenDocLab: Can you tell me about Porton Down? What is it about? What are the techniques and technologies you are using? 

Callum: I have been developing this project through my MIT Open Documentary Lab fellowship so its great to expand that support now with Sundance. The project is a room-scale VR piece that explores the experiences of ex-serviceman Don Webb. In 1953 at age 19, he unwittingly found himself in a bizarre, mind-altering LSD military trial that would dramatically change the course of his life. Don Webb, who became a noted playwright will be a key collaborator on this project. During the experience we are revealed how we, the user, are being tracked, monitored and analysed by contemporary VR systems.

OpenDocLab: What stage are you at?

Callum: The project is presently in production. It is an illustrated experience that I have been drawing in virtual reality for the past year. Now, after the lab we have a clear vision of what it will become.  

OpenDocLab: You are working with Amelia Winger-Bearskin. How do you two collaborate on Porton Down?

Callum: Amelia has an incredible amount of specialist skills; she has run a machine learning lab in NYC, she is presently the director an art centre in New Rochelle and has a longterm practice as a performance artist. Consequently, her unique perspective and outlook has been wonderful for this project. 

Amoungst other things, Amelia has the critical role of creating exhibition experience. She has been developing the atmosphere and procedure that the user inhabits before they put on the headset and then what they experience immediately after. As VR systems aren’t widely distributed, most audiences experience VR projects at film festivals or events. So it is important to create an experience framework and a language for how the audience engages the piece (before and after its strapped to their face).

OpenDocLab: Can you describe the program and your experience at the New Frontier Story Lab?

Callum: The New Frontier Lab was an extraordinary experience, it was week of intensive project focus with lectures and challenging workshops at the Sundance resort in the mountains of Utah…couldn’t complain. 

OpenDocLab: How did the Lab help your project, and your artistic practice in general?

Callum: It gave us the ability to reconfigure and hone the most important elements of our project, with the generous input of industry leaders.

OpenDocLab: Is the fellowship supported by the Sundance Institute or do you need to provide your own funds? 

Callum: Yes, the Sundance Institute funded the Lab and my participation in it. The institute an environment where everything was gracefully provided, so we could solely focus on our projects. The New Frontier Story Lab selects around 6 projects per year.

OpenDocLab: Were there any particular participating projects, artists, mentors that you found inspiring, that we should look out for? 

Callum: The New Frontier Story Lab is highly competitive and all the artists and mentors were insightful, generous and inspiring. The mentors are curated to directly compliment each project which means all the mentor meetings we had were engaging.

OpenDocLab: What would you advise to other artists who are considering applying to the New Frontier Story Lab?

Callum: In terms of the application, I had two projects shortlisted this year for the Lab, they were both very different (thematically and technically) but were both very much character-led. This would certainly indicate to me that this is an important element to consider when applying with your projects. Sundance calls it a ‘story lab’ so the selected projects all had clear compelling narratives. The focus at the Lab was about how to push these narratives further, make them stronger, more affecting… rather than focusing on the technicalities or execution in your chosen medium.

OpenDocLab: At what stage of their project should they apply? 

Callum: The projects were at a variety of stages, one felt as though it was in their infancy whilst others were deep into their production. Our project is in production, I have been gently working on it for over a year.

OpenDocLab: How should they prepare to get the most out of this experience?

Callum: I feel it is probably best to come with a strong understanding of your project and then be receptive to that probability that it will be reborn.