Marking a first for both Sundance and cyberspace, these viewers were avatars watching a feature-length festival film Monday from a screening room in the virtual world of Second Life.
"This is one for the grandkids," said Henrik Bennetsen, who helped with the presentation in Second Life as part of the Stanford Humanities Lab.
The avatars were joined by real-life festivalgoers in a wired theater that allowed for a subsequent forum in which questions were fielded from both worlds.
The film, Strange Culture, is director Lynn Hershman Leeson's unconventional documentary of an ordeal still plaguing Massachusetts artist and professor Steve Kurtz, who was there for the screening and question-and-answer session.
In 2004, as Kurtz was preparing for a Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art exhibition that would let audiences test whether food had been genetically modified, his wife, Hope, died suddenly of heart failure. Kurtz called 911, but when medics arrived, they were suspicious of his art supplies--including petri dishes with bacteria ordered online--and called the FBI, according to the film and news accounts.
Later, dozens of agents in hazmat suits arrived, turning his home upside down and then holding Kurtz as a suspected terrorist. Three years later, he still faces related mail and wire fraud counts and up to 20 years in jail, Kurtz said. A trial date has yet to be set.
Because Kurtz can't talk about the events leading up to his arrest, Leeson enlisted Tilda Swinton, Thomas Jay Ryan and Josh Kornbluth to serve as avatars--in the more traditional sense--to interpret and re-enact the artist's story. Actor Peter Coyote is also featured in the film.
Leeson, who is known for her films and interactive artwork that explore the likes of artificial intelligence and virtual identities, called Strange Culture a "cultural collage" of contributed work. It weaves together scripted scenes with news footage, testimonials and even a related comic strip.
Beyond the telling of the story itself, Leeson's powerful film, which is being talked about as a favorite among festivalgoers, is about government practices and risks taken in the pursuit of social criticism. It's also meant to reach out to those interested in helping Kurtz with his case.
The Second Life screening was invitation-only, Bennetsen said, because of concerns about overloading the system. Avatars were full participants in the Q&A, though at least one teleported away.