Waiting to enter the Barbican’s underground Pit space, I really have no idea what to expect. I’m aware that this isn’t going to be a regular evening at the theatre. Collisions is an immersive virtual reality experience conceived by Emmy award-winning Australian artist and director Lynette Wallworth, along with acclaimed producer Nicole Newnham (also, significantly, Emmy award-winning). The immersive installations and films Wallworth creates reflect connections between people and the natural world, using immersive environments, interactive technologies and narrative long-form to engage with viewers.
This particular piece is part of the Barbican’s 2019 annual arts and learning season Life Rewired. The VR experience tells the story of Aboriginal elder Nyarri Nyarri Morgan, a Martu man from the remote Pilbara desert in Western Australia. Morgan lived his early life with no knowledge or contact with Western culture – his world is all he knew. This world was shattered in the 1950’s when he witnessed a British atomic bomb test in the Australian outback.
The film features Morgan himself, amongst his family, filmed in the remote Western Australian desert. Wallworth has pointed out that the powerful sense of presence in VR makes everything personal, and this feels absolutely true. Launched into the world through VR goggles and headphones, the kind-faced, white-haired Morgan speaks directly to you. It is intimate and personal.
We, the viewers, are placed in swivel chairs which allow us to take in stunning views of the Australian landscape surrounding us – made possible by Jaunt VR’s state of the art 3D 360 degree camera attached to a drone. Narration by Wallworth and Curtis Tayor gently brings our attention to the story; it’s as if they’re whispering an exciting secret directly into our ears. There is a sense that this is an important story from a private world that we are privileged to have shared with us.
The sound is spectacular. Recorded by Liam Egan and rendered into an immersive soundscape by sound designer Tom Myers, our ears are filled with birds, wind, wildfires, dogs – and the explosion of the atomic bomb. The only problem with this is the placement of headphones over the bulky VR headset means the sound isn’t as in-ear as I would like, and I have to press them to my ears with my hands.
However, the visual experience of the bomb is truly breathtaking. Frightened kangaroos run towards us and away from the ginormous mushroom of smoke. Morgan describes the experience in this way: ‘we thought it was the spirit of our gods rising up to speak with us’. We are shown this as the cloud evolves and shifts into a mythical creature-like form.
Morgan, and many others, were poisoned because of this bomb test. The image of him watching video footage of J. Robert Oppenheimer – the “father of the atomic bomb” – is particularly poignant. At the end, from high in the air we watch Morgan perform “mosaic burning”, creating huge rings of fire that blaze across the desert. This is accompanied by a powerful and pertinent message about the planet that goes far beyond this specific cultural tale. ‘Take care of your country, take care of your land’, we are told. ‘For the next generations. There are things you know and things you don’t know. It’s what you do next that matters.’
Collisions is playing until 20 April. For tickets and more information, visit the Barbican website.