What did you think when you first walked into a fulldome space?

Actually I heard about fulldome spaces before I experienced them. I was intrigued because of their immersive potential and so I caught the bus to Canberra to attend a presentation about fulldome technology aimed at people who were running planetariums who might convert their systems to fulldome. They had a demo version set up. Part of what I heard that day stayed with me because I realised that the Directors of Planetariums were unsure about additional content that was not astronomical in nature so I knew from the start what I envisaged would take time to achieve. But, I was inspired and I knew that I would make a work for fulldome, that was in 2003, before Australia had any digital domes in operation. I applied for an Australia Council Fellowship and as part of my research on the fellowship I went to Albuquerque where I tested underwater material in the Lode Star Observatory where David Beining had begun Domefest, experimental short works for fulldome. That was the first time I was actually in a fulldome environment. I loved it. The content I took with me looked incredible and I never gave up from that moment. Before I returned home I visited Isfahan in Iran because I wanted to experience just the dome structure itself and the way it is used in sacred architecture. The feeling has remained with me that something in the perfection of the shape acts on us making it an ideal space for contemplation. By the time I returned to Australia the Melbourne Planetarium was newly opened and running and I met with them and told them my idea, an underwater film for fulldome. They have been supporters ever since. It’s been a long road to get here.


Which ones have you been to in the world? Which are the most impressive?

Apart from those in Australia I have visited the Lodestar in Albuquerque as I mentioned, the Hayden in New York, the Harrison in Greenwich, the Morrison in San Francisco shortly after it opened. The Morrison is very impressive because it is a huge expanse and you get an incredible sense of scale from it. But the Hayden is a rare concentric dome and feels extremely intimate, it has new projectors, Zorro’s, I saw them running last year and for someone like me who makes works for very dark spaces those projectors were a joy.


How did the idea of Coral: Rekindling Venus start in your mind? (i.e. What is it about coral that grabbed you, or were you always more interested in the metaphor?)

I think like most artists there is a thread that runs through my work that can be found in every piece no matter what it is or when it was done. The thread that emerges in my work is essentially the quality of resilience, but not in a gung-ho, impossible to defeat kind of way, it is a resilience earned from hardship. When I first experienced the mass coral spawning on the Great Barrier Reef, that was about 12 years ago I developed HOLD Vessel 1. It’s impossible to miss the combination of beauty and fragility in coral but the life force they exhibit in their drive to seed new life is a revelation. Subsequently when I have made work on women who have experienced great tragedy and then built extraordinary lives, I use the metaphor or coral resilience to describe them. We get seduced by the beauty of corals but they are complex communities who require diversity to thrive, they need the predator as much as they need the plankton, they live in absolute crushing proximity with a raft of species, many of whom live in symbiotic relationship with one another and they have evolved means of survival to counter all that we throw at them, if we give them time. I remain endlessly inspired by all I know about them.


How is the project different from an underwater documentary?

Like all my work, it is designed fundamentally to imagine the viewer in relation to the work. My aim is to immerse you inside the piece, that is what I care about. Immersion leads to connection and from that place your own relationship to the corals can emerge. I am not interested in telling you anything, selling you anything or preaching anything. I think these reefs are stunning enough to captivate and hold you in their thrall and very, very simply, like anyone you come to know, it is connection that makes you care. I will care more for a friend than a stranger, that is human nature, so connection matters when care is required. A natural history documentary might show you all the same things but its relationship to you is one of authority, it wants to inform, its sees us as passive receptors of information. I don’t want to inform you of anything. I just want to offer you an experience that might build a connection to a community as complex as our own that happens to be underwater. And one at great risk of warming sea temperatures. So all the shots in the work have been chosen with your orientation to them in mind, the work is designed to carry you into it. And then to leave you adrift in a world that might not exist in 100 years. Essentially this piece is about respect. That’s why the Gurrumul piece is placed as it is, in complete darkness at the start of the work, it is there to make us sit up and take notice, like a formal introduction, that we are about to visit another’s territory. And this is a visit, not a tour.


Does Marshall McLuhan’s “The medium is the message” have some resonance for you? He theorised that the form of a medium, (in this case the fulldome) somehow embeds itself in the message (the beauty and fragility of the coral), and influences how the message is perceived.

Domes have been important structures for humans since pre-history. They hold therefore some resonance for us that is as imperceptible as it is core. In the history of human architecture they are often aligned with spaces for contemplation. I absolutely believe the space itself holds the work in a way that impacts on us as it otherwise would not if it was playing for example on a parallel flat screen. The fact is just being in the dome, lying back and looking up at it with nothing on the screen, is an affecting sensation. My sense of it is that it is naturally expansive and so it allows for thoughts and responses that are outside of the everyday. That is of huge interest to me in situating a work.


How has the process of making this work been different from your usual way of working? Is it more like a film production?

A lot of the work I do is very similar to film production in the sense of filming, editing, wrangling data and delivery but the single biggest difference I encountered is the amount of communication that is expected by you to a whole raft of people whilst making a film in this arena. In the art world we are essentially left alone, there’s a space that is understood to be required in order for most artists to work at their best with their collaborators and that space is not one where you have to do a lot of talking. In film there seems to be an expectation to let in all these other voices. That doesn’t happen in the art world and while I understand why its there I think it takes something away because if you leave someone alone in quiet to do their work, and you trust them, what will emerge is the most extreme version of what they are able to create. In other words, the more distilled work will emerge in a more contained space. It seems a small thing but I am used to spending days not speaking to anyone when I am developing a work and I would have to say that is some of the most important work I can do. I was lucky that John Maynard has worked with artists before and understands the essentially solitary nature of that process but the system that’s in place seems to counter that. The biggest difference is this, in making an artwork, especially using new technologies, funders are essentially trusting my process, whatever I envisage the work to be I then have to discover how to make it and in that process what emerges may look very different to what I described though I would say that it is essentially by following that process that I discover the work. In film you are expected to know everything before you start, explain everything before you start as a sort of failsafe, so nothing can go wrong. Trust is essential to making good work.


Did you ‘direct’ the cinematographer(s) – where did all the vision come from?

75% of the footage came from my friend and incredible cinematographer Dave Hannan. I knew from the start that his work would make up the majority of the piece and so I visited him at Stradbroke Island about two years ago to discuss it. Then we flew him to Melbourne to experience the fulldome environment so that he could see the different orientation in imagery that the space requires. After that we were in contact with me sending him still frames of the sorts of imagery I wanted. He did two, month long shoots after these meetings and sent hours of material and gave me access to many already existing shots based on what I needed. I knew Dave’s imagery very, very well and I have the kind of relationship with him that made the process an organic one. He was able to adjust his frame to get shots that are absolutely perfect for the dome and of his existing footage I could select what would work for me. We set up a small dome in the production facility so every shot could be looked at as it would be in the fulldome.

With other specific imagery like the coral fluorescence footage I had to find cinematographers who were shooting coral fluorescence – there aren’t many. Charles Mazel is a scientist who works a lot on fluoro corals and he put me in touch with Guy Chaumette of Liquid Motion in Indonesia and in a similar process to that with Dave I explained what it was I needed without being able to be there whilst anything was shot sending images of frames where the focal point works for domes, this is very different from the standard frame. The fluoro reef section was always going to be an important component of the work so that was where a lot of my effort was focused. In addition I had found the Coral Morphologic imagery last year when I was in the US. They are also focused on coral fluorescence but in a studio setting which means they are in a much more controlled situation for filming and that is where we got that incredible coral behaviour in close-up from. They are based in Florida and have tanks of corals that they can film under blue light to expose the fluorescent colours in corals. I had experienced this kind of shoot myself with Dr Anya Salih who is the person who has taught me about the fluorescent capability of corals. I put Anya in touch with Colin Foord in Florida, he is a marine biologist, so she could also offer her suggestions on how to get action from the corals which basically means feeding them so they open their mouths. Their work is phenomenal and I am really happy it can be showcased the way it is in the film.

Anya also did a shoot for me the microscopic footage of the same behaviours in corals. She uses one specific coral that she calls Marlon Brando because it always performs. She is not set up generally to get the sort of footage we needed for the film so we had to work with her and Leica to get the microscope to deliver us the kind of sequences that you can see in the film. They are amazing, the details are incredible. The thing about the microscopic imagery is that its able to show the multiple colours of fluorescence in corals and you can see Anya is very good at getting behaviours from the corals. She shot a lot of footage working very late into the night at the Con-Focal Bio Imaging Lab at University of Western Sydney.

I also got imagery from Allan Jones who works in the Electron Microscopy Unit at Sydney University. He takes scans using micro CT scanning which is the same sort of process that we have on our bodies to see structure when we have a CAT scan. Alan generates huge data sets which are microscopic slices through the structure of a shell for example that give you a way of seeing structurally. I have used Allan’s imagery before and this time he scanned some new shells for the work and they are spectacular.

I got some incredible geo acoustic underwater sounds from NOAA. These are sounds of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions recorded with a hydrophone. They are intensely physical. They also gave us usage of a selection of sounds recorded underwater where they don’t know what generated the sound. We have used some of them in the work and they are strange and captivating. Liam Egan, the sound designer, has done a great job with them.


What made you think of aligning your project with the Transit of Venus?

It’s a story that I find hopeful, incredible. I love the position of Halley imagining a moment he would not live to see and calling out to a generation of future astronomers to search for a piece of knowledge that would tell us something of our home. I love the time consuming nature of the quest and the ability for nations to say that something greater than their long held enmity to another was at stake. I can’t think of what would bring us together at this moment, the closest we get is with the Olympic Truce where all nations are meant to put down arms in order to compete.

Great civilizations knew the cycles of Venus and would have watched for this event, it is wonderful to have a moment in time that you know won’t occur again in the lifetime of anyone now watching it. It creates a sense of perspective, causes us to imagine what might be when next the cycle occurs, its not only astronomers who have an interest in such a perspective. For me it was the perfect moment to imagine a work centred on a current global problem and set it adrift on that day to see where it might land.


Do you think we’re as capable of international co-operation as world leaders managed to be in the 1700s?

I don’t think we are currently capable of imagining it. Most of the stories we tell ourselves, through our current art forms like film and television are stories about the impossibility of global co-operation. I love this story of the 1760s transits precisely because someone imagined that it might be possible to co-operate to achieve an outcome that had no financial benefit for anyone involved. I think we have lost the ability to imagine a dream so grand and noble and simple. We elevate every day and at every level, our incompatibility, our territories, our disparateness but all the technologies for communication that we are currently obsessed with are exactly about connection beyond physical borders. Global communication between communities of interest is what we have achieved by these tools and maybe these tools for global communication might lead to moments of global co-operation. The technologies could offer us exactly that possibility.


I’m really struck by the choice of music in the film – there is a strong sense of the avant-garde, the artist musician. How did you decide what flavour of music would be right? Did you work one-on-one with Max Richter or Antony or any of the others?

I met with Max in London and then went to see him perform in Brighton. We talked about work and what became clear to me is that what he hopes to achieve in his work is of the same nature as what I am after, he is aiming to provide moments of transcendence, and he achieves that. He was a natural choice. His music is mesmeric, it acts on us like a perfect pattern, you get lost in it whilst seeing intricate and moments of beauty in each fragment. It is trance inducing, plus, he loves Manta rays.

Tanya is a friend, we met when we both showed work at the Vienna Festival, we were on a panel brought together by Festival Director Peter Sellars, we hit it off and have stayed in touch ever since. Tanya spoke on that day about the pollution in Northern Canadian water systems and the high levels of toxins in breast milk of Inuit mothers, we live at extremes of the planet and our interests were resonate with one another from the start. Her voice brings breath and life in an ancient form, it is essential and without artifice. I have imagined her voice in this work since I met her. We planned to work with one another then and we speak of it still for future works.

Antony’s voice is rare jewel. I met him when showing my work at the Lincoln Centre last year. David Metcalfe, UK co-producer of the work arranged the meeting for me. I begged him because the only voice I could imagine at the end of the work was Antony’s. He has something of the corals in his spirit, a combination of the incredible beauty of that voice and an aching vulnerability. I knew he would understand the intent of the work. He is passionately concerned about climate change. We talked for a long time, he had objects on his wall that were the colour of coral, he said, “Coral is the colour of paradise” I asked him then if he would write a song for the film and he agreed. I had beautiful moments subsequently of Antony singing Rise to me over Skype as he developed it. I sent him a poem with words that might be useful and from that he took just one word, RISE. He has been effortlessly wonderful to work with and his song is a sheer gift to the work. His are the only words most of us will understand so he is essentially the voice for the corals in the film. He leaves the film with these words, “Rise while there’s still something left to lose, Rise while we still have a chance to choose.”

The Gurrumul piece I have already mentioned, I knew exactly what I wanted for the beginning of the film. It was just fortunate to talk this through with Michael Hohnen from Skinnyfish at the time when Gurrumul was just beginning to record in this very different style for him. When Michael first played it to me fresh from recording he warned me that it was quite intense. I heard it and knew it had all the authority I had been searching for and contained within it that essence of formal meeting that had been my experience of entering Australian Indigenous communal lands.

I met with Sakamoto in New York when I was imagining the music for the work; again he is both a great composer and an avid environmentalist. I would have liked to work with him in more depth but in the end we used one piece by him and Fennesz that I heard them perform in Melbourne and it is the perfect piece for that sequence in the film.


Max Richter says he thinks of music as a “storytelling medium”. Since there is no narration or dialogue in the ‘film’ – is there an extent to which the music “writes the narrative?”

The music helps us connect to feelings that otherwise might not be so easily tapped. The music releases us to feel. The visual structure was always roughly there so the music didn’t inform that but it helps each sequence to unfold in its emotional intensity.


Do you see planetarium/fulldome spaces becoming more widely used by artists now?

The thing is that they always could be but it’s a difficult process and essentially what hampered me was funding. What is clear in this process is that the funding structure in Australia is the only reason this work has come about, I don’t think I could have gotten it made anywhere else in the world, that’s why there are so few films of this type existing. Screen Australia and Screen NSW took a risk on funding something for a new cinema experience and it was extremely important that we do it well, because then a door is opened that others might go through. It was a testing ground, it needed the experience of a John Maynard to guide it through those funding processes and to stand the ground on not diminishing what was required to do it well. But it still needs to be received into the planetariums who have these extraordinary immersive spaces but with very specific content. It will find an audience I am sure, if it is given a chance to be seen and that comes down to what happens next. If it is allowed to break through and settle into the fulldome screening cycle then I imagine and I hope there will be a stampede of artists developing new works for the dome.


What other new technologies have you got your eye on?

There is a companion piece for the film, it’s an augmented reality work that was commissioned by the Adelaide Film Festival and allows you to view posters of corals through your phone and see the 2D image fall into a 3D space. That was really new technology to wrangle into an artwork but I love the challenge of it. I have a few ideas on the boil for what comes next, one project will take me to the Great Sandy Desert in WA and it’s those remote locations where technology comes into its own.


Given the unusual context for the content of the film, is there a relationship between Astronomy and Marine Biology?

When I was leaving after my first meeting with astronomical photographer David Malin, he handed me an image of a spiral galaxy and said “Take a photo of home with you.” The grand, expansive perspective of astronomers, in which one planet must be viewed as part of a larger system, has been impressed upon me on many occasions since. It is part of what inspires me in terms of the hopes for global thinking encapsulated in the positioning of the work. To astronomers, the viewing of one planet is microscopic. It is the type of shifted perspective that you encounter when reading the responses of astronauts as well. Here is a quote from Saudi astronaut Sultan Bin Salman al-Saud from J.W Gibson’s book ‘A Re-enchanted World’: “The first day we all pointed to our countries. The third or forth day we were pointing to our continents. By the fifth day we were aware only of Earth.”

In terms of the corals, what is interesting is that the evolutionary solution they have engineered for their reproductive survival is entirely based on the alignment of the Sun, Earth and Moon. The mass coral spawning event on the Great Barrier Reef, a once a year event where each species of coral releases its fertile bundles on the same night along with the entire inner or outer reef, occurs a few days following the full moon in mid-summer, November, when waters are warm. In other words, The Great Barrier Reef, the only living thing that is visible from space, is responding to the alignment of the solar system. To see the corals at extreme close up, including seeing the climactic spawning event, in the viewing environment traditionally used for showing us our world in relation to the wider context of the solar system and beyond, seems a perfect fit to me.