The 2016 Shortlisted Nominees: Lynette Wallworth & Her Use Of Virtual Technology In Art

Over the next few weeks, we will be profiling the shortlisted nominees for the Advance Global Australian Awards in an attempt to familiarise our community with these remarkable individuals. Today we're shining the spotlight on Lynette Wallworth, a nominee for the category of The Arts. 

Interview by Molly O'Brien, Marketing & Communications Specialist, Advance. 

Renowned Australian filmmaker Lynette Wallworth uses innovative virtual-reality technology to bring her films to life. Her most recent piece of work, Collisions, focuses on a journey to the land of Indigenous elder Nyarri Morgan and the Martu tribe in the remote Western Australian Pilbara desert and Nyarri's first contact with Western culture - witnessing an atomic test. This truly incredible story premiered at Sundance Film Festival in Utah, and will be shown at the TriBeCa film festival in New York City. 

What’s your connection to Australia, and what is your background?

I am a born and bred Australian; home to me is Newtown, Sydney. There has been a lot of travel in my life, I’ve done three-month residencies in cities all over the world for work, but I keep coming back to Australia! 

My background is in filmmaking; I have always been interested in the delivery of the moving image. I went to an arts school in Sydney where I experimented with film but had a non-traditional background. I’ve been making interactive video works for many years.

Your new film, Collisions is airing at TriBeCa Film Festival. Would you like to tell us a bit about your work? 

Collisions was created in Berkeley, California, and is a virtual reality journey to the land of Indigenous elder Nyarri Morgan and the Martu tribe in the remote Western Australian Pilbara desert. The Martu lived greatly untouched by Western culture until the 1960s and Nyarri’s first contact came in the 1950s via a dramatic collision between his traditional worldview and the cutting edge of Western science and technology when he witnessed first-hand, with no context, an atomic test. Nyarri offers us a view to what he saw, and reflecting on this extraordinary event, shares his perspective on the Martu way to care for the planet. All the feedback hugely supportive so far, there has been a lot of positive reviews. As well as the TriBeCa Film Festival it will also be shown at the upcoming World Science Festival, as a one-night presentation at MoMa, and then at the Vienna Festival of Nuclear Testing.

How did you come about the story of Nyarri?

I first heard Nyarri's story about four years ago, on a hunting trip with the Martu women painters in the Western Desert. Upon learning that I had been to Maralinga where Britain tested atomic bombs in the 1950s, Nyarri’s wife Nola turned to me with what felt like an instruction… “You have to talk to Nyarri!” This is my third work with the Martu people. Initially I wondered if this could be an installation or longer film. I was working on other projects at the time and figuring out the best way to make it happen when two things came about; the World Economic Forum and the Sundance Institute offering me a Virtual Reality Residency. Those things combined enable me to create the film and bring it to the audience where I felt it was the most appropriate.

You use a lot of innovative technology for your work. How important was using Virtual Reality forCollisions?

I love new, innovative technology, and the moment when the viewer experiences a new sensation for the first time - I know that moment gets seared in to their memory. I also believe in the power of story to reshape us collectively. I think the two belong together. 

I have worked in immersive environments for over 20 years and I felt like Virtual Reality was the technology I had been waiting for. At the same time, Sundance New Frontiers Institute co-directors Shari Frilot and Kamal Sinclair had exactly the same thought. A partnership with Jaunt Virtual Reality has made Collisions a reality but only with the inexhaustible, unflappable energy of producer Nicole Newnham.

Virtual Reality will soon hit in a big way, very possible to become ubiquitous. In the window of time that exists before then I wanted to make a work that has protocols of meeting at its core. Nyarri’s world is only available to me to visit, and in this work through the technology, that invitation is extended to the viewer.

The agency Collisions belongs to Nyarri. When I put the camera down in front of him he said; “it has sixteen eyes.” I replied that it has sixteen eyes and four ears. From that moment, Nyarri became the one who decided what was seen and what was not seen, what was told and what was not told. The powerful sense of presence of VR makes everything personal. Nyarri knew who it was he was speaking to.

What emotional responses are you hoping to elicit from your viewers? 

Each film is different depending on the subject matter of the film. As a filmmaker you don’t focus on what the responses will be – you focus on using your skills to tell the most compelling story you can. Fundamentally, storytelling is a communal experience, so you look at what will open people’s hearts. My goal is to put a piece of work in front of people they feel reverence for.

Do you have a favourite piece or exhibition, or are they like your children – you can’t choose? 

I love them all for different reasons. Some pieces that I’ve worked on have created lasting relationships with people, which is really special. One of these in particular was Evolutionist’s Fearlessness – a video portrait of 11 different political. I travelled all over the world for this, searching for women with the quality of resilience. I found some exceptionally strong women who had lived through enormous amounts of trauma and had been forced to leave their home under different circumstances. I still keep in touch with them.

What’s the most innovative aspect of your work?

The most innovative aspect of my work is being able to constantly work with new technologies, and bringing these technologies to a new audience. These technologies are able to push a piece of work and its story in an interesting and unique way. I have a very experimental approach to a vast range of interactive and responsive screen-based innovations, and rarely use the same technology over again. 

Where do you get your inspiration to be innovative?

I’ve always challenged a traditional way of viewing a piece of art – I have a natural inclination of wanting to bring the viewer close in to the work, and that mentality marries well with innovation in screen-based technology. Virtual technology is constantly inspiring also; there are always new ways to create possibilities for immersing people in a piece of work. I’m of the belief that telling stories is in our DNA, and it’s very deliberate.