Virtual Reality – Lynette Wallworth

The work of Lynette  Wallworth – artist, filmmaker and trailblazer – has premiered at ADL Film Fest since 2009. Her work continues to stretch the bounds of technology combined with supreme story-telling and visual impact.

ADL Film Fest is delighted to again present her award-winning virtual reality project Collisions this year. The following is an essay in her own words, in which she recalls the story of creating and presenting that work.

Lynette Wallworth

In her own words

In 2008 AFF began discussions with me about commissioning a new moving image work for the festival funded from the visionary AFF Investment Fund. I recall then Festival Director, Katrina Sedgwick telling me that this new commission would require board approval, then approval from the Arts Minister and Premier Mike Rann to change the conditions of the Fund in order to support work such as mine, and why not?  This was a Film Festival commissioning a major gallery based work from an installation artist.  Yet all those approvals, one after the other, were given and the relationship with AFF began and became a turning point for me. The new work was made and in Feb 2009, just a month after returning from the first presentation of my work at Sundance Festival, New Frontiers, I had my first Australian solo show at the Samstag Gallery courtesy of the AFF/ Samstag partnership and Duality of Light, an immersive interactive installation using multiple sensor triggers to create the illusion of a visitor who is actually the viewer themselves, was born.

Artists are frequently driven by a core theme that remains a constant throughout a lifetimes work. I think that is true of me and perhaps the work that exemplifies that theme most clearly is the very work AFF first commissioned, Duality of Light. The wave/particle duality that the title references tells us that light can be observed as behaving either in waves or as particles. Hence the duality. When viewed in the double slit experiment Quantum physics tells us that the observer impacts what is observed. If the observer is looking for waves, they see waves, if they are looking for particles, that is what they see. In other words observation impacts reality. For me, in a nut shell, this is the conundrum that every work of mine pivots around; that frequently we see only one perspective and take it to be ‘the whole truth’. Secondly that when we are participants inside a work, that work is changed by our presence and the work may in turn change the very perspective we have taken to be true.

Duality of Light and the solo show of my work at Samstag was opened by Rolf de Heer. I remember vividly the happiness I felt that a filmmaker I so admired was speaking about my installations with such passion. Our worlds were not, perhaps, as separate as they had seemed.

In 2010 I was lucky enough to be awarded the first AFTRS Creative Fellowship which placed me in the film school for a year where I developed what would be the companion work for my CORAL full dome film. I had to plan well ahead for CORAL. I wanted it to be released during the 2012 Transit of Venus and, if I missed that moment , the next Transit would not occur for another 121 years…. So in 2010 I worked on an Augmented Reality piece called Rekindling Venus: In Plain Sight and, with technical support from HitLab NZ in Christchurch, created a series of posters of coral specimens that when triggered by an app, creating animated coral experiences that linked to real-world data from NOAA indicating current reef bleaching risks around the world. Sue Maslin, who I had first met when she emerged from experiencing Duality of Light in Adelaide, produced this very early AR work, Screen Australia largely funded it and AFF showed it in beautiful light boxes at the Nova cinemas at the 2011 Festival where people downloaded the app and watched the dry coral specimens descend back into a luminounos reef. In the same year AFF instigated the first HIVE LAB and brought Wendy Levy whose San Francisco based BAVC Producers Labs I had mentored at for the past few years, to direct this very first Lab. At the end of the 5 days together we had the opportunity to present ideas for a work we may want to develop. Artists like me were encouraged to develop the film work we had dreamed of, filmmakers were encouraged to consider alternate moving image platforms and so I spoke about a small community south of Sydney who were planning to start a Not for Profit funeral company and my desire to follow that story in a traditional documentary form.

In 2011/ 2012 I made and toured the immersive full dome film Coral releasing it, thanks to John Maynard’s dogged efforts, in 25 digital full domes across the world during the week of the Venus Transit. It began life at the Hayden Planetarium in New York and moved from planetarium to planetarium in a joyous spiral throughout the year carrying the Rekindling Venus posters with it.

In September I took a short break from touring to travel to the Western Desert at the invitation of the Martu women painters.These first contact Martu elders had invited me to come and film them for an installation in Fremantle Arts Centre for the end of 2012. I had no idea then that this was the beginning of a long connection.

I spent 10 days camping with the women in Western Desert and the Still Walking Country installation screened in November that year.

Having toured Coral for much of 2012 and into 2013, ending again at Sundance New Frontiers, I was ready to make the documentary I had imagined at HIVE and the AFF/ABC/Oz Co HIVE funding came on to support me with Amanda Duthie now as Director of AFF. Kath Shelper was Producer and we spent a truly wonderful 2013 at the Port Kembla Community Centre with our small crew of Simon Morris and Mark Cornish as the community grappled with death in the most joyful, forthright and compassionate way possible. I found myself in brand new territory for the first time in a long time, having to manage dialogue, story arcs that made sense in narrative time and the constraints of creating work for broadcast networks that simply don’t apply to the art world. It was a harrowing and exhilarating year, full of love and of loss where the brilliant mind of editor Kaz de Cinque made every day a revelation in the form. When Tender the film premiered at AFF 2013, hosted in true Duthie style, it was one of the proudest moments of my life. I had been inducted into the world of film most fully and I had found so much happiness in what had at first seemed impossibly difficult. Tenders’ AACTA’s accolade was the icing on the cake.

After we had locked off Tender I travelled again to the Western Desert to make a new installation with the Martu women, we had been invited to create a work for Nick Mitzevich’s Dark Heart Biennial so we needed to be ready by early 2014. During my first trip with the Martu in 2012 I was told that there was a man I needed to meet who had a story he wished to share, something to do with the Maralinga tests. I had travelled to Maralinga village previously and worked with the Maralinga Tjaratja so I guess it seemed to make sense that that I hear this story. When I returned to the community in 2013, sitting in the stifling hot art shed one day filming the women as they painted a tall, elegant man came in to instruct on aspects of the painting. This was Nyarri, the man I needed to meet. Nyarri talked with the women about the painting, he sang for rain, then, as clouds gathered outside, he came to talk to me. Nyarri knew I too had been to Maralinga where Britain had tested atomic bombs in the 1950s, I showed him my photos of the purple desert flowers and the endlessly long runway. Then he told me his story. How he had been walking about with family members, pre contact, on a trade route that passed through that country when he saw a thing he could not explain. His words held the most powerful story I have ever heard. He had told it to very few, not even many family members knew what he had seen. I asked him if it was true that he wanted to share this story. He said he did and I said I would find a way.

With Nyarri’s story in my heart I travelled later that year to Tianjin China where the World Economic Forum were showing Coral in a beautiful Zen-dome inside the Conference Centre. This was my first experience of the World Economic Forum and I was unprepared for the impact of showing work to that particular audience of heads of state and heads of industry. I realised quickly the power of this platform for works like mine that place the viewer inside the artwork in order to offer a new perspective, one that may lead to a new thought, a new action. With an audience of those who drive so much of this world I saw instantly how valuable this platform was and so when they invited me to Davos at the beginning of 2015 to show my interactive installation Evolution of Fearlessness I knew what a powerful platform for change making this was and that the subject of this work, refugees, had found a perfect home. When I left the Forum after that first Davos experience a new invitation was offered to me, the WEF asked me to bring another work for the following year, one that was not already existing, one that was made instead with the Davos audience in mind as it would be premiered there. I knew what story I wanted to bring. About the same time Sundance Institute through New Frontiers decided to offer their first VR residencies to artists they felt might adapt well to this new form and might push the boundaries of what VR could do narratively. They offered me their first residency partnering me with Jaunt VR. This was my perfect storm. I asked Producer Nicole Newnham to help me deliver this work and with an initial grant from the Australia Council we knew we could film Nyarri’s story. Again AFF came on board to financially support this new work in yet another form and with funding from a raft of US philathropics like Skoll Stories of Change, Ford Foundation, Fledgling Fund and Pritzker Foundation as well as WEF, Collisions my first VR work was created. In January 2016 Nyarri, his wife Nola, grandson Curtis, Nicole and I all travelled to Davos where Collisions the very first VR work ever shown at the World Economic Forum, Davos, premiered in synchronised screenings to the Davos audience.

Collisions travelled as no other work of mine has managed to do, its impact astonished and uplifted me, I felt my years of work, often in a vacuum, had fitted me for exactly this moment and this technology. It’s also true that AFF has supported me in every form I have turned my hand to, from interactive installation to augmented reality, feature documentary and 360 VR. It has funded me, not the forms I have chosen, it has seen the theme running through each work and understood that though the tools may change the intention persists and have given me their trust where others have seen risk. When we brought Collisions to AFF Goes Rogue last year to begin our Australian tour it was a homecoming for me, so much of what I have hoped to do as an artist is contained in that one work and it was in many ways the culmination of years of discovery in the joys of new technologies, discoveries that AFF supported. Now as I am about embark on my next journey, into the Amazon, for a brand new work with new tools it seems only fitting to pause for a moment to say thank you to AFF. I have gained so much from your support and though I have much more to learn, I am ready for the next adventure. See you in Adelaide.