Brighton Festival 2017
Collisions, by Australian artist and director, Lynette Wallworth, is a ground breaking 17 minute-long Virtual Reality experience, which premiered in January 2016 at the World Economic Forum. It tells the story of Nyarri Morgan, an elder of the Martu people in South Australia’s Maralingu Desert, who reflects on his first experience with the West – witnessing an Atomic test in the desert – and shares his perspective on his people’s way of caring for and living with the land.
Lynne Wallworth is well-known for her immersive, interactive and highly experiential work which takes the participant right to the heart of human fragility, and Collisions plunges her work even deeper into that space. It takes us on a Virtual Reality (VR) journey to Nyarri Morgan’s homeland, which was largely untouched by western culture until British nuclear scientists arrived in the 1950s.
The viewing room itself is stark and white, but once we’re sat in the swivel chairs with the VR headset and earphones on, we swing into a red dust landscape that instantly takes us 16,000 km away. It’s magical – like stepping through the back of the wardrobe into Narnia.
The position of the camera is the position of a viewer, and Wallworth employs a wide range of video techniques to immerse us in place and people. The desert is wild and beautiful, and viewers get the chance to experience both its vast splendour and the intricate detail of its rocks and plants. We spend time with Nyarri and his family, both when it feels like they’re aware of us being there with them, and when it seems like they’re not. At times, we’re like flies on the wall, witnessing life go on in the village around Nyarri as he paints and younger tribe members sling bikes to one side and run in and out of the house as if noone else is there. As the narrator tells Nyarri’s story in first person, there’s an incredible feeling of belonging, land, co-existence, roots, tradition, respect, home, and of the slow, deeply majestic, as-it-always-has-been-and-always-will-be continuum of time.
But, this isn’t your ordinary eye-pleasing documentary – as one reviewer in the film’s promotional video describes, this is also a ‘stealth nuclear film’, a real wake up experience. Through taking Nyarri’s story to the world, Wallworth has provided him with an opportunity to open our eyes to the impact of nuclear testing. He doesn’t hit us with the facts and figures and gory details that we’re so used to hearing on the news. Instead, he tells a simple, disarming story of balance and tradition undone by cutting edge science and technology – delivered by cutting edge technology – leaving us reeling and questioning the complexity and unintended consequences of ‘progress’.
This VR experience bypasses the brain and goes straight to the heart – it takes a viewer deep into empathy. This is why it’s had such a profound effect on the policy makers who have seen it over the last 17 months. I’ve spent much of my life influencing policy, and, in that context, the potential of VR to take stories to policy makers is extremely exciting – at least until we get as used to VR as we have done to other technology, or it too turns into a monster that we didn’t expect it to. The only reason I didn’t rate Collisions as Outstanding was the less than optimal resolution of the graphics on the VR headsets, which slightly undercut the fullness of the immersive experience. However, apart from that, this is an outstanding piece of work: cutting edge, skilfully filmed/directed and impactful – go and see it!