November 2016

Arts & Letters

Seeing visions

By Quentin Sprague

Photo by Piers Mussared

Lynette Wallworth’s ‘Collisions’ brings virtual reality to the Western Desert

Nyarri Nyarri Morgan was a young man when he witnessed the atomic plume rise above the Western Desert in the 1950s. Like many Martu, he was at the time yet to meet a European, so what he saw unfolded with neither context nor warning. As he recalls in Collisions, a new immersive film by the Australian multimedia artist Lynette Wallworth, the surrounding waterholes boiled and kangaroos fell to the ground under a drifting blanket of ash. His first thought – that this was the sentient power of the country manifesting itself to the people – was quickly countered: when the people ate the fallen kangaroos, they took sick. What god, they wondered, would do such a thing?

Wallworth, known for accessible takes on subjects such as global warming and ecological stewardship, first heard Morgan’s story in 2012. She was staying in the tiny Western Australian community of Parnngurr, 370 kilometres east of Newman, while she worked on her second project with a group of Martu women: documenting the creation of a vast collective painting that depicted the network of ancestral hunting grounds that pattern the arid contours of their country.

It was mid October, and as they laboured in the sweltering interior of the community painting shed the ambient temperature was pushing 50 °C. Morgan, elegant and white-bearded, entered unannounced and started singing for rain.

Collisions, which recently had its Australian premiere in Adelaide and is showing until 15 January at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) in Melbourne, is billed as a “virtual reality experience”. The viewer dons a simple headset and for the film’s 18-minute run becomes a kind of voyeur in space: intimately present between the action, yet invisible in all but the most abstract of senses. (Morgan, for instance, at times addresses the absent audience directly.)

You begin high above the desert, watching as Morgan’s battered LandCruiser utility pulls into Parnngurr. At first Wallworth narrates, but when you drop to earth to meet Morgan properly his grandson Curtis Taylor takes over. It’s his voice that translates the loose web that Morgan weaves in Manyjilyjarra (the Western Desert language spoken most widely by the Martu) as the film progresses.

As he recounts his story the work reaches beyond a simple character study to become a tone poem to landscape. The desert’s red earth is resonant between rough clumps of spinifex; night settles and the sky turns from electric blue to star-traced void. Seen in 360 degrees it’s an affective experience. When a group of figures gather around a campfire, you can turn away and watch the flickering light trace the limbs of ghost gums in the darkness. When birdsong breaks out behind you, it’s possible to turn in time to catch a likely culprit darting into the distance.

For Wallworth, Collisions ties together a loose network of connections that threw her initial meeting with Morgan into sharp relief. Almost a decade earlier, another project had taken her to the Maralinga site in South Australia, the epicentre of atomic tests the British government performed in Central Australia between 1956 and 1963. In addition, by 2012 she had an established relationship with the Exploratorium, a museum founded in San Francisco by Frank Oppenheimer following his work with his brother Robert on the Manhattan Project.

Hearing Morgan’s story, Wallworth couldn’t help but think of Robert Oppenheimer’s own attempt to retrospectively grapple with the implications of the first successful atomic tests. He too had reached for the spiritual. Interviewed in 1965 he famously employed a quote from the Bhagavad Gita: “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”

“What I needed, I thought, was to create a conversation that never happened,” Wallworth told me in the lead-up to the film’s opening in Melbourne. “I needed to bring these two old men together.”

As work progressed, she came to understand that her own involvement was part of a process already in motion by the time she and Morgan met. He’d long been advocating for the power of stories like his to raise political awareness of the Martu people. Wallworth, whose previous work has been shown around the world, was the perfect vessel.

“It was almost like, Well, here she is,” she told me, laughing at the memory. “My impression was it was good I’d arrived, and if anything I was a little bit late.”

So far, the film has made up for any tardiness on Wallworth’s part. Its premiere took place in January simultaneously at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah and the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Since then, it’s been shown to a meeting of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization at the United Nations offices in Vienna, and at the Climate Action Summit in Washington, DC. In September a Mandarin translation was shown in Tianjin, China. Just days after Collisions opened at ACMI last month, Wallworth, Taylor, Morgan, and Morgan’s wife, Nola Taylor, presented the film at Parliament House, where it played to a cross-party group convened by senators Scott Ludlam and Louise Pratt and MP Ken Wyatt.

For the Martu the attention comes at a key moment. Negotiations with mining interests have long unsettled the solidarity of their far-flung communities, and in recent years the issue has been particularly prominent. In 2015 their troubled representative body, the Western Desert Lands Aboriginal Corporation, entered into special administration amid ongoing accusations of corruption. That same year the Canadian mining company Cameco received conditional approval from federal and state governments to develop the Kintyre uranium project, just over 100 kilometres from Parnngurr. Although Cameco claims to have general support from the Martu, a protest walk from Parnngurr to the Kintyre site in June told a different story.

Curtis Taylor, a filmmaker himself, helped organise the walk and is quick to point out the complexity of the issue. “We’re not speaking for all Martu,” he told me when we met at ACMI on a bright spring day following the film’s opening. “We’re just speaking for those who feel the same about uranium.”

By showing Collisions to key decision-makers, Taylor hopes that Western Australia’s ban on uranium mining – imposed by the Gallop Labor government in 2002 and reversed by the Barnett Liberal government in 2008 – might be reinstated. For him, virtual reality provides a powerful lobbying tool: it places the viewer “there like a spirit beside the protagonist”.

“[The politicians] talk about these issues but they’re removed from them,” he said. “We want them to be immersed in that space and in that time and history … and for somebody who has that firsthand experience to take them through that story.”

In this, the film’s potential political function ties neatly into its aesthetic achievements: any didacticism is carefully veiled by the allure of its images. Perhaps the most striking among them comes as ghostly footage of Robert Oppenheimer plays on an improvised rig powered by car battery. A group of elders watch as Oppenheimer’s famous quote dissipates in the desert night. Among them, Morgan rises and approaches the screen. For a moment it appears as if Oppenheimer is addressing the old man directly, each of them grappling with the complexities of past visions.

For some it may seem a touch heavy-handed, but it’s worth remembering that Collisions is a work premised on broad appeal. To reach its potential, one senses, it must be as accessible to schoolchildren and time-poor politicians as it is to dedicated viewers at venues like ACMI. Wallworth believes it will “open a different channel” of discussion, and to this end she has stipulated that the film be watched in groups. Curtis Taylor, for his part, has his sights set on the bush. He and Morgan have already taken it to a number of Martu communities, an ongoing initiative made possible by the relative simplicity of the technology involved. (It requires only a headset and an app-enabled smartphone to work.)

There is, of course, a sense of urgency to this task. The intimate knowledge of place carried by elders such as Morgan must now be passed on.

“Who will look after this fire for the ones who are on their way?” he asks as the film draws to a close. You have just watched him light a grass fire – a method of traditional land management – but his words carry a far broader, and more uncertain, implication.

The camera lifts high, and Morgan’s smoke-engulfed figure slowly recedes into the landscape.

“Look after your country,” he intones as his grandson translates. “Look after your young ones. Think about your land, and the ones to follow.”

Quentin Sprague

Quentin Sprague is a Geelong-based writer, and author of The Stranger Artist.

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