Queen of the Next Frontier: Essay by Lynette Wallworth

7 September 2017


In 2008, the Adelaide Film Festival (AFF) started talking to me about commissioning a new moving image work for the Festival, to be supported through the visionary AFF Investment Fund. I recall former Festival Director, Katrina Sedgwick, telling me that this new commission would require Board approval, followed by approval from both the Arts Minister and Premier Mike Rann, for the conditions of the Fund to be changed in order to support work such as mine, and why not?  After all, 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, becoming a turning point for me.

The new work was made and, in February 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. Thus, Duality of Light, an immersive interactive installation using multiple sensor triggers to create the illusion, for a visitor, of actually being the viewer, was born.

Artists are frequently driven by a core theme that remains a constant throughout a lifetime’s work. I think that is true of me. Perhaps the work exemplifying that theme most clearly for me is the very work first commissioned by AFF, Duality of Light. The wave/particle duality that the title references tells us that light can be observed as behaving either in waves or particles. Hence, the duality. When viewed in the double-slit experiment, quantum physics tells us that the observer impacts what is observed. If, as observers, we are looking for waves, we will see waves. If we are looking for particles, that is what we will see. In other words, observation impacts on reality. In a nutshell, this is the conundrum around which every work of mine pivots – that frequently we see only one perspective and take it to be ‘the whole truth’. Secondly, 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 Creative Fellowship of the Australian Film, Television and Radio School, which placed me in the film school for a year. During that time, 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 because, if I had missed that moment, the next transit would not occur for another 121 years. So, in 2010, I worked on an augmented reality (AR) piece called Rekindling Venus: In Plain Sight. With technical support from HitLab NZ in Christchurch, I created a series of posters of coral specimens that, when triggered by an app, created animated coral experiences linked to real-world data from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration indicating current reef bleaching risks around the world. Sue Maslin, whom 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. People downloaded the app and watched the dry coral specimens descend back into a luminous reef.

In the same year, AFF initiated HIVE LAB and brought Wendy Levy on board to direct this very first LAB. For the few previous years, I had mentored at Wendy’s San Francisco-based Bay Area Video Coalition Producers Labs. After five days together at HIVE, we had the opportunity to present ideas for a work we might want to develop. Artists like me were encouraged to develop the film work we had dreamed of and filmmakers were encouraged to consider alternative moving image platforms. So I spoke about a small community south of Sydney that was planning to start a not-for-profit funeral company and about my desire to follow that story in a traditional documentary form.

In 2011-12, 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 Transit of Venus. 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 to be held in the Fremantle Arts Centre at the end of 2012. I spent 10 days camping with the women in the Western Desert, and the resulting Still Walking Country installation screened in November that year. I had no idea then that this would prove to be the beginning of a long connection.

Having toured Coral for much of 2012 and into 2013, ending again at Sundance Festival, New Frontiers, I was ready to make the documentary I had imagined at HIVE. Fortunately, the AFF/ABC/Oz Co HIVE funding came on board to support me following the appointment of Amanda Duthie 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 while, having to manage dialogue as well as story arcs that made sense in narrative time and dealing with the constraints of creating work for broadcast networks that simply don’t apply to the art world. It was both a harrowing and exhilarating year, full of love and loss. The brilliant mind of Editor Kaz de Cinque made every day a revelation in the form.

When the film Tender 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. Tender’s accolade of Best Televised Documentary in the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards 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 that needed to be ready by early 2014 for Nick Mitzevich’s Biennial Dark Heart, to be held at the Art Gallery of South Australia in association with the Adelaide Festival. During my first trip with the Martu in 2012, I had been told that there was a man I needed to meet. He 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 Tjarutja and so it seemed to make sense that I hear this story.

One day, on my return to the community in 2013, while I was sitting in the stifling hot art shed 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. He talked with the women about the painting and he sang for rain. Then, as clouds gathered outside, he came to talk to me. Nyarri knew I 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 had seen something 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 assured him 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 (WEF) was showing Coral in a beautiful Zen-dome inside the Conference Centre. I was unprepared for the impact of showing work to that particular audience of heads of state and industry. However, I quickly realised the power that this platform presented for works like mine that place the viewer inside the artwork in order to offer a new perspective – one that might lead to a new thought, a new action. So when Nico Daswani, Head of the Cultural Program, 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, Daswani invited me to bring another new work to premiere the following year, one to be made specifically with the Davos audience in mind. I knew what story I wanted to bring.

About the same time, Sundance New Frontiers decided to offer its first virtual reality (VR) residencies to artists who, they felt, might adapt well to this new form and push the boundaries of what VR could do in terms of narrative. 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. With the support of an initial grant from the Australia Council, we knew we could film Nyarri’s story. Again AFF came on board to support this new work financially in yet another form and, with funding from a raft of US philathropic institutions like Skoll Stories of Change, Ford Foundation, Fledgling Fund and Pritzker Foundation as well as WEF, my first VR work Collisions 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 WEF, premiered in synchronised screenings.

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 undertaken in a vacuum, had fitted me exactly for this very moment and this technology.

Along that pathway, AFF has supported me in every form I have explored, from interactive installation to augmented reality, feature documentary and 360 VR.

Over and again 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 it has trusted me where others have seen risk. It has seen the duality in me – an artist and filmmaker – and honoured both.

When we brought Collisions to ADL Film Fest 2016 to begin our Australian tour, it was a homecoming. 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 of the joys and challenges of new technologies.

Now I am about embark on my next journey into the Amazon for a brand new work with new tools and a new story to tell. Though I have much more to learn, I am ready for the next adventure.

It seems only fitting to pause for a moment to say thank you, AFF. I have gained so much from your support. See you next time, in Adelaide.


Lynette Wallworth has been awarded an International Fellowship from Arts Council England, a New Media Arts Fellowship from the Australia Council for the Arts, the inaugural Australian Film, Television and Radio School Creative Fellowship and the Joan and Kim Williams Documentary Fellowship. In 2012, Wallworth’s full dome film CORAL won the Art Category at the Dome Fest Awards. In 2014, Wallworth’s feature documentary Tender won the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Award for Best Televised Documentary. In 2016, Wallworth received a UNESCO City of Film Award and the Byron Kennedy Award for Innovation and Excellence and Foreign Policy magazine named her as one of the ‘100 Leading Global Thinkers’ of the year. In 2017, Collisions received an International Emmy Nomination for Outstanding New Approaches to Documentary. Wallworth lives in Sydney and mentors regularly at Sundance Labs.