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Filmgate Interactive festival spotlights experimental film and performance

The first word in Filmgate Interactive makes it sound like another addition to Miami’s growing list of film festivals. But it’s the second word that holds the clue to this week-long celebration/investigation of cutting-edge media, film and performance that sounds more like a festival out of a tech-prescient William Gibson sci-fi novel than any of your usual art house fare.

“Someone asked me where do I think interactive, immersive storytelling will go in a few years, and it’s impossible to answer,” says Filmgate co-founder and executive director Diliana Alexander. “You used to read about 3D printing in [science fiction] books. Now it’s not only possible but affordable. You read futurists and sci-fi writers, and a few years later what they write is reality.”

Alexander and her partners in Indie Film Club, a group of alternative Miami filmmakers, started Filmgate two years ago as a way to understand their rapidly morphing medium. Not only was it being transformed by technology, but old boundaries between creators and audiences were being blurred by the participatory ethos of social media, and by applications that allow people to participate in films or performances online or even in the real world. One of Filmgate’s showcase events is Jacqueries Part 1, where the audience will use a special smartphone app to transform their view of dancers on the streets of South Beach.

Filmgate, which opens with a performance-filled party on Saturday night at the Miami Light Project and runs through Feb. 8, is the only festival of its kind in the U.S. Its 2012 debut, with a budget of just $50,000, drew 1,000 people; while the second, boosted by a $100,000 Knight Arts Challenge grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, attracted 4,000. A showcase called Tech Playground, and workshops in new technology and equipment are at the Loews Hotel on Miami Beach, with films and performances at venues in South Beach and Wynwood. Many events are free or low-cost; passes are $60 for students and $120 for adults.

The buzzwords are interactive and transmedia, which even its practitioners can struggle to define. “The first year we had a workshop called WTF is Transmedia, because I didn’t know what it was either,” Alexander said recently at Filmgate’s home base at O Cinema in Wynwood.

In old school multi-media you might have dance, video and live music happening simultaneously. In new school transmedia, audiences can participate in or even alter a film or show. Creators can present their ideas online or on a smartphone or a film screen, using technology to change how, where and in what medium they tell a story.

For instance, in {The And} Game on Friday, pairs of people from the audience will be invited to interview each other, asking pre-set questions about each other and their relationship, in a live version of an ongoing online documentary. On Wednesday there’s a presentation with the creators of Futurestates, a website that allows visitors to choose from a set of short films on the future – so that each person’s experience is different.

Workshops include one on new ambient sound software with the MIT Open Documentary Lab, a center for new documentary media; and Learn+Do+Share, with Lance Weiler, whom Wired magazine named one of 25 people reinventing entertainment, where 50 Miami area high school students will create designs to tackle sea level rise.

Dance and performance are showcased in CTRL+ALT+DANCE, which includes Melancholalaland, where live dancers and singers interact with characters in an animated video projection, in a tale of artist-engineers inventing mind-altering drugs and technologies.

“You’re not just watching two different things co-existing,” says choreographer and dance filmmaker Pioneer Winter, who oversees the performance series, and whose piece A Proper Marriage will be shown with Melancholalaland. “There are a lot of collaborations between dancers and other artists or technologies. They’re trying to figure out how to access new audiences… and how to move our art form to a new level.”

Avant-garde choreographers like Merce Cunningham and Trisha Brown experimented with site-specific performances on city streets; or dancers who set off electronic music devices onstage, back in the ’60s. But again, new technology enables startling new visions.

In Jacqueries, Toronto choreographer and computer programmer Jacob Niedzwiecki will set dancers chasing through South Beach alleys and hallways in what he calls a “live heist.” Not only does the audience break into groups to follow different performers, as if roaming around a chase film, they’ll also be equipped with smartphones with a special app that will layer visual effects over the action in front of them, or allow them to follow a scene happening elsewhere on their phone screen. At one point a dancer seems to disappear, at another someone dances with a partner who’s only visible on the phone. “Like being in your own video game, except it’s real” was how the Toronto Star described an earlier performance.

Niedzwiecki created the app to intensify the already disorienting experience of chasing through a performance that overlaps with real life — using our screen-staring habits to augment, instead of take us away from, what’s around us.

“It increases the narrative density between what’s live and what’s onscreen … a way for objects or images that are not actually there to appear when you look through your phone’s camera,” he says. “If we’re not in the theater and we have these devices, what new experiences does that open up?”