Skawennati takes aboriginal storytelling into cyberspace

The Mohawk artist has tapped into the creative possibilities of the digital age, and now she’s sharing them with aboriginal youth

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      Skawennati, the award-winning new-media artist, did not set out to create a career for herself in cyberspace. Based in Montreal, she was born in Kahnawà:ke Mohawk Territory on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River, grew up in the suburb of Châteauguay, and studied design art at Concordia University.

      “When I started [there], the supplies that we had to get were Rapidograph pens, inks, erasers,” she says with a laugh. “That’s how old I am.”

      Skawennati is speaking to the Georgia Straight while seated on a sofa in the Contemporary Art Gallery’s Burrard Marina Field House, where she has been artist in residence for the past couple of weeks. She is in the early stages of a CAG commission to create a work for exhibition in 2017, but more immediately, she has been in Vancouver to lead an extended machinima workshop with aboriginal youth.

      The word machinima, she explains, is a cross between machine and cinema and denotes a means of producing animated films by using computer graphics and video-game technology.

      Skawennati's Hunter and Warriors.

      In coordination with the CAG, Emily Carr University of Art + Design, and the Museum of Anthropology, Skawennati has been working with six participants in MOA’s Native Youth Program, demonstrating ways in which oral storytelling traditions can be “reimagined” in virtual environments.

      “We’ve been talking about indigenous self-representation in media,” she says. “We want to use a medium that we think youth are excited about, and that they feel is theirs.”

      As for her own introduction to new media, it occurred in her third undergrad year, when she took a new and, for her, groundbreaking course in the computer as a design tool.

      “I loved it,” she says, describing early HyperCard experiments and an introduction to hardware and software intended for artists. “I saw great potential,” she adds, musing that she came of age as an artist at the same time that digital technologies revealed their creative possibilities.

      Her first job after university (she added a graduate diploma in institutional administration to her BFA) was with Montreal’s Oboro Gallery, an artist-run centre dedicated to exploring new technologies and supporting transcultural projects. Still, when Skawennati arrived at Oboro, she was the only person in the place with an email address, she recalls, laughing again.

      Kahnawake-born multimedia artist Skawennati.

      Through email, she learned about chat rooms, and through chat rooms, she conceived one of her first major digital projects, CyberPowWow, which occurred in four curated iterations over 10 years, from the late ’90s onward.

      CyberPowWow was about uniting people, bringing together individuals, especially Native artists who were separated by vast geographical differences,” she says. “When I was making it, I was thinking, ‘What is this thing we were doing?’… We were creating an aboriginal territory in cyberspace, a space to call our own.”

      Fastforward to 2005, she says, when she and her partner Jason E. Lewis, an associate professor of computation arts at Concordia, won a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council grant with the hopes of expanding indigenous presence online. It enabled them to establish and codirect Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace (AbTeC), described on her website as a research network of artists, academics, and technologists investigating, creating, and critiquing indigenous virtual environments.

      “We wanted to make sure that aboriginal people were participating in cyberspace,” Skawennati tells the Straight, “and cyberspace was Web pages, video games, virtual worlds, apps now—all these places we go that are not part of this physical world.”

      At the same time that Skawennati has been pursuing her own highly acclaimed creative projects, such as TimeTraveller™—a multiplatform future fiction featuring nine machinimas, each depicting a significant moment in indigenous history—she has also been codirecting AbTeC’s Skins Machinima Workshop.

      Jingle Dancers Assembled by Skawennati.

      This is the program of storytelling in cyberspace she is introducing to aboriginal youth in Vancouver, as she has done elsewhere.

      “We wanted to give these kids digital tools to empower them as creators, not just consumers of video games,” she says. “We wanted to impart a level of pride.…We wanted to make sure that they knew that their cultural history as Native people was interesting and useful and could fit into this world.”

      The youth she has been working with here have been telling two Northwest Coast legends by creating machinimas through the online virtual world Second Life. The final machinimas will be shared through the Contemporary Art Gallery and Museum of Anthropology websites, along with documentation of the creative process and reflections from participants.

      “Second Life is very seductive and fascinating to me,” Skawennati says. “It’s a rich medium and it’s highly customizable.…You can change your avatars to look like different characters, you can build jet packs and bridges and diamond rings—something as small as jewellery and something as huge as a skyscraper.”

      It’s also, she adds, “futuristic”, which makes it a powerful metaphor. “I’m really interested, in my art practice, in telling stories about Native people that are in the future,” she says.

      “The majority of images I saw of Native people were in the past, unhappy-looking, and unnamed. I want us to be there, in the future, alive and kicking and thriving.”