(L-R): Lynette Wallworth and Mrtu elder Nola Taylor in WA.

Shari Frilot is the chief curator of New Frontier, the Sundance sidebar devoted to the cutting edge: hybrid projects, transmedia stories, multimedia installations and VR. 

In Australia earlier this year as the guest of the Adelaide Film Festival and the Australia Council for the Arts, she caught up with multi-disciplinary artist Lynette Wallworth, whose work Frilot has shown since 2008. 

Wallworth previously exhibited an interactive installation, Evolution of Fearlessness, at New Frontier, and in 2013 she brought Coral: Rekindling Venus to Park City. Kenneth Turan of the LA Times called the full-dome film "immersive cinema at its most spectacular".

Last year, Wallworth was selected as the inaugural artist of the Sundance Institute New Frontier | Jaunt VR Residency Program, undertaking a residency at Palo Alto-based VR company Jaunt.

Funded with the support of the Adelaide Film Festival Fund, Collisions is the first project to be created as part of the program. 

The primary reason Frilot is in Australia, she says, is to “deepen the conversation that started a long time between us and Adelaide. Adelaide was always the festival I could point to when I was trying to get New Frontier thing started – this is a thing that’s happening in the world and we have to be a part of it. This was the early noughties. The Hive Lab started before we started our lab.”

Collisions premiered last year at New Frontier as well as at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Since then Wallworth has toured the work to the Tribeca Film Festival, San Francisco Film Festival, the UN in both Vienna and New York, and finally home to the Adelaide Film Festival in October. 

“The thing that’s great about New Frontier is that so many of us have come from installation, as in placing people in physical space and seeing what happens,” says Wallworth. “And there’s a natural translation of that to VR. You understand certain things, like [how] adjusting lighting and adjusting sound shifts focus.”

“That’s the advantage you brought to the medium,” Frilot says, “in that you’ve been working in space, telling stories in space, for a very long time. I’ve found performance artists do the same thing; they’re very interested in space and they’re using their own body to move you around the space.”

Both women namecheck Rebecca Solnit’s book River of Shadows as a fascinating primer on the way in which technology can affect human perception. 

“She talks about when trains first went across the U.S.,” says Wallworth. “People didn’t have the depth perception to anticipate that kind of movement towards them, because they’d never ever seen it.”

“A lot of people at the beginning of those railways got run over because they had no ability to gauge that sort of speed at depth. They put an actress on one of the first trains, crossing the Southwest, travelling at 20 or 30 miles per hour, and she recalled that everything outside the windows was a blur. So that tells you something. Physically that’s what she saw.” 

Wallworth heard about similar experiences from WA’s Martu people, whose world is on display in Collisions. 

“The Martu people have talked to me about being put in four-wheel drives and taken away from their homeland, [and] they say exactly the same thing: they said the trees were running.” 

“This is the thing with these technologies: they change us as we create them. And that change in us as we create them is what’s really fascinating to me, and I think to Shari, and that’s where we connect.”

With Screen NSW, Screen Australia and Melbourne’s ACMI all supporting VR work, the future looks rosy for the medium in Australia, though Wallworth acknowledges it’s a form dependent on subsidies, “because there’s no distribution model for it yet.” 

For Frilot, the subject of distribution – and return on investment – is close to blasphemous.

“Consider that it’s a medium,” she says. “And it’s developing in a lot of different ways even beyond artistic expression. This is a medium that is headed toward a form of communication and a competing platform as much as it is a tool to tell stories. So it’s almost criminal to answer that question.” 

“Are you going to tell people that your five year old’s going to be a lawyer, or are you going to let the five year old grow up in an organic way and see what kind of an amazing person [they become] or what amazing field they invent that we don’t even know [about yet]. That’s where it is right now.”

This story first appeared in IF #177.

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