Drone performance review: Wintjiri Wiṟu, Uluṟu

In a world first, a drone and laser show over Uluṟu blends ancient law with new world technology, to teach greater mindfulness.
Light show at Uluru as shape of a dog.

How do you review a drone performance-slash-immersive light experience that is so embedded in an ancient culture and story that reaches back generations? And are we really in a position to ‘review’ such a story?

It is a complex question that many will face experiencing the new $10 million light and drone show – Wintjiri Wiṟu – which had its global revelation this week over Uluṟu.

The show, which for some will feel brief (20 minutes), has been in the making for five years. But time is a rubbery consideration. The Aṉangu community have been custodians of this chapter of the Mala story for generations – it’s an inma (ceremony) passed from parent to child for thousands of years drawn in the red sandy earth of the Central Desert.

It is a kind of crazy head-blurt then, to have this chapter of the Mala story – which sits between the tract of country between Kaḻṯukatjara (Docker River) and Uluṟu – told by over 1000 drones every night, in a world first.

For many, the first question it raises is an ethical one. Technologist and light artist, Bruce Ramus tells ArtsHub that he considered himself as ‘a conduit’ armed with honouring the story’s ‘simplicity, and to not try to add my interpretation of it or layer on top of it, but to allow the simplicity to speak’.

Assuring viewers, the show concludes with a voice spoken into the evening air: ‘We are happy to share our story with you. Take it home and share it with your people. This way we will always be connected.’

In a formal statement, Elder Rene Kulitja on behalf of the Aṉangu Consultation Group, says, ‘We are looking forward and have created Wintjiri Wiṟu for the next generation,’ adding that the project was about, ‘listening together and creating together’.

That respect and lightness of step cuts across every aspect of this project. Viewers arrive at dusk, stepping out over an elevated boardwalk, where endangered desert skinks will soon roam with nightfall.

Audiences settle in on a tiered amphitheatre with a backlit design by local artist Christine Brumby. Uluṟu is their backdrop as light projections and lasers start to activate the scrubby mulga and spinifex in the foreground. The music is resonant. Both a male and a female voice introduce the Mala story in Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara languages.

Sung by Aṉangu, the score is stunning in the way that it seemingly drifts on the night air with a poignancy, building drama at the appropriate moments, but then also allowing pause – which is so important in Indigenous storytelling.

What is exciting about this experience is that it uses the whole canvas of Country – moving from light projections at a ground level, into Sky Country and, eventually, as the drones land, the night’s stars continue their connection.

In a world where we are so screen and device driven it almost instructs us and future generations to read the world around us – the drones merely a pointer to that silent energy.

The flip side of that is this chapter of the story is relatively simple, and from a technical perspective, that may have presented its own challenges to expand it to meet our contemporary demands of performative and immersive experiences.

Video by Getty Images for Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia. Acknowledgement – An̲angu share the Mala story, from Kal̲t̲ukatjara to Ulur̲u, through a drone, sound and light show designed and produced by RAMUS.

The story starts with the Mala (rufous hare-wallaby) People performing their inma. They are invited to travel to the west, to Kaḻṯukatjara (Docker River), but are unable to. So the evil spirit Kurpany is set upon them. This is first conveyed through a cluster of red pinpricks of light that collectively read as a murmuration. They eventually trickle to the ground, almost like cinders, to become a kind of electric storm of light that flows across the land like a spell.

Kurpany takes several forms in this story, but the most spectacular is that of a demonic dog. The intricacy of colour and detail has been created by a field of drones about 200 metres tall and 60 metres deep. It is this depth that gives the incredible image resolution, and sets it apart from other drone shows.

Read: Uluṟu drones – more than ‘clip art in the sky’

With this volume of sky activity, one would expect a hum from the drones, but there is none. You find yourself letting go of the chatter around the technology, falling deeper into the narrative as the performance continues. 

The inma lessons teach that the Kingfisher Woman, Luunpa, still keeps watch today, and the dog’s footprints are embedded as tjukuritja (physical evidence) in Uluṟu. The setting lends itself to uninitiated audiences feeling that they are witnessing something beyond present day wizardry.

There is a point, however, of confusion where the performance finishes. The drones have landed, but the production continues with a pixelated field of light that pulses in blues and greens. At the premiere, a single clap in applause rang out, followed by a confused pause. But the (now schooled) eyes of the captivated audience, held pregnant wanting more, eventually turn upwards to the sky. What seemingly feels a little short could be considered as a gateway to slow time – time to find your own narrative and connection with this moment.

Ramus says those pixelated images allow the viewer to complete the experience, creating ‘a sense of equality between yourself, myself and Aṉangu – we’re all equal in that process of looking’. The reality is that drones can only be in the sky for so long. This is managed across two acts, with the first fleet comprising 400 drones and a second 800 drones. Each fleet is in the air for approximately nine minutes.

From that perspective, creative director Bruce Ramus – with his team at studio RAMUS, and in collaboration with the Aṉangu community – have done well to work around current drone limitations to create a more dimensional experience for viewers through the immersive laser show.

Question of value for money? There is no getting around the reality that this is a high ticket price, and while there are two pricing offers, it is up there with opera and inner circles at rock concerts. But this is the stuff of lifetime memories – and hey, aren’t they priceless?

Read: Exhibition review: Murmurations, Museum of History

Postscript: And for the curious and the geeks among us, the drones each weigh 310 grams (roughly the same weight as two cricket balls) and are Nova flow drones. They can fly three metres per second and, for the storytelling of Wintjiri Wiṟu, reach 100 metres in height. They fly over an area of approximately 750 metres wide by five kilometres deep. It is the first time an experience of this magnitude has been performed on a regular basis anywhere in the world.

Wintjiri Wiṟu
Uluṟu, Northern Territory
Producer: Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia.
Technology and design: studio RAMUS with Bruce Ramus
Wintjiri Wiṟu Working Group: Malya Teamay, Sammy Wilson, Rene Kulitja, Deborah Walkabout, Peter Mitchell, Sidney James, Rosalind Yibardi, Ruby James Selina Kulitja
Aṉangu singers: Reggie Uluru, Awalari Teamay, Yuka Trigger, Rene Kulitja, Tapaya Edwards
Aṉangu narrators: Rene Kulitja, Harry Wilson, Ruby James, Leroy Lester
Artworks: Christine Brumby

Two shows nightly from 10 May, over the next five years.
Ticketed: Three hour Wintjiri Wiṟu Sunset Dinner experience $385pp. One hour Wintjiri Wiṟu After Dark experience $190pp.

Aṉangu share the Mala story, from Kaltukatjara to Uluṟu, through a drone, sound and light show designed and produced by Ramus.

The writer travelled to Uluru as a guest of Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia.

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW. Twitter: @ginafairley Instagram: fairleygina