By Celina Gallardo
Indigenous new media artist Skawennati spoke at the Ryerson Image Centre on Monday night as part of the Visiting Artists Program. One of the topics of discussion from the evening was the representation of the Indigenous community in the media and how she has used technology to reshape the stories of her culture and indigenous history.
Skawennati’s first digital project was CyberPowWow from 1997 to 2004, where other indigenous artists were able to post their artwork and talk to one another using a computer program called The Palace.
Today, Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace (AbTeC), which Skawennati co-directs, aims to create virtual indigenous territories. One way they achieve this is through Skins, a storytelling and digital media workshop that teaches youth how to make video games or machinima, movies in virtual spaces.
“At first we started with legends, but I really wanted it to not just have to be about legends, I wanted the youth who are doing these projects to feel like their stories, whatever they are, are valid. Their lives now are valid, too,” said Skawennati.
Skawennati chose the virtual world of Second Life, an online multiplayer game which allows people to interact with each other in a virtual world.
Second Life also appealed to Skawennati because of its customizability, giving users endless possibilities in creating avatars, possessing supernatural powers and creating a virtual world. It also gives users the ability to make movies in the game, which is exactly what Skawennati did with her 2008 project TimeTravellertm.
Skawennati wanted to make a more masculine project after Imagining Indians in the 25th Century from 2001 was commonly referred to as a “girl piece” due to involving a journal-writing paper doll. As a response, she created Hunter, the male Mohawk protagonist of the 9-episode series in TimeTravellertm. Hunter had to escape the “hyper-consumerist North America” of the 22nd century and traveled through time using a pair of glasses which allowed him to either watch or partake in events from different time periods.
Sara Angelucci, a photography professor, said that Skawennati was an especially significant visiting artist because she brought a different perspective on the future of indigenous art.
“We have a real diversity of students on campus and we don’t always have full-time or even sessional faculty that represents some of those practices,” said Angelucci. “[The Visiting Artists Program] is a way we can bring in a different perspective in classrooms and into the school.”
AbTeC continues to shape the future of Canadian aboriginals with the Initiative for Indigenous Futures (IIF). The IIF will be inviting not only artists, but also experts in other fields such as DNA and food sovereignty to keep the conversation going.
“We want to make sure that native people are occupying that territory,” said Skawennati. “We want to make sure that native people are helping to shape the territory and that we’re here.”