Wallworth considers moments of confrontation through virtual reality

On April 11 at the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance, Australian artist Lynette Wallworth came to the College to speak on her virtual reality (VR) film, Collisions. Set in the West Australian desert, Collisions puts viewers into the reality of Nyarri, an indigenous elder, who witnessed the effects of nuclear testing in Maralinga during the 1950s.

Wallworth has a history of working with new technologies in immersive, large scale installations with “presence-activated components” in which the audience plays a critical role in the work. In Evolution of Fearlessness, an interactive installation, viewers came face-to-face with the life-sized portraits of 11 refugee women whose stories of war and trauma were relayed through brief, paper bound biographies. After learning about the history of one of the women, they approached the digital installation, at which point a digital image of the woman would appear. “How do you get people to look at the thing that’s hard to focus on?” Wallworth asked at the beginning of her talk. In Evolution of Fearlessness, she said, she addresses this question by making “a work [that] would provide an opportunity for the viewer to come face-to-face [with these women].”

Collisions, as its name suggests, is a work about similar moments of confrontation. Positioning the audience within the work rather than outside of it, the film brings viewers into Nyarri’s world and reality from inside of it. Wallworth acts as a storyteller, a mediator between Nyarri and the audience. “I found out Nyarri had regularly stood up in his community and said that he would one day tell that story of seeing the atomic test to the world. In particular, he wanted to tell that story to politicians,” she said. This is a moment that Collisions realizes in a deeply disturbing scene: Wallworth digitally reconstructs the moment when Nyarri comes face-to-face with the debris cloud produced by the bomb. Viewers are placed into his perspective as the impact from the explosion knocks over wildlife and pours ash over the landscape.

VR is still a fledgling medium, its full representational potential yet unrealized. While its deeply immersive experience has made VR an adept tool of documentary, it has also made it one which positions viewers at a privileged vantage point. In her essay “Voyeur Reality,” Kathryn Hamilton explains, “the [VR] user is propelled through a reality that they have the sensation of occupying physically, while their physical body remains apart from the consequences of being present in that space.” Having been absolved of personhood, the viewer is also absolved of personal responsibility. Wallsworth mitigates this risk in Collisions by means of introductory rituals embedded into her filming process; the viewers are placed onto the back of a car as the narrator reveals that they are entering the Martu’s land. Upon their arrival, viewers are greeted and invited by Nyarri and Nola, his wife. Nyarri and the Martu community also played a large part in the filming process. “Nyarri and the other elders began instructing [that] if the drone flew too high and showed something secret or sacred they shouldn’t show … everything [Nyarri] wants you to see is what you are seeing,” Wallsworth said.

In one scene, Wallworth places us in the middle of a burning field, explaining that the act is a technique of forest management known as control burning. Control burning reduces the amount of brush and thus limits the range that a fire can spread. It’s a small act of destruction, but one that mitigates tremendous devastation, one which can be seen as a metaphor for the goal of Wallworth’s film. In 2016, Collisions was screened by the Preparatory Commission of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization  in Vienna at an event in which multiple world leaders were present. More importantly, Wallworth’s work suggests a hopeful image of the future, in which technology and social progress work hand-in-hand.

‘Collisions’ reflects on connections between people and the natural world through immersive installations. Photo courtesy of vimeo.com.