Picture the Toronto skyline overgrown with plants. Green shoots poke through broken concrete, and trees sprout from patchy rooftops. The subway tunnels are flooded to platform-level, forming a collection of interweaving tributaries just wide enough to be navigated by a canoe. Skyscrapers are crumbling under the eye of the CN Tower.
The scene’s description invites a vision of a dystopian, postapocalyptic nightmare. But in the hands of Anishinaabe multimedia artist Lisa Jackson, creator of the virtual-reality experience Biidaaban: First Light in collaboration with the National Film Board, the transformed Toronto is both fertile and meditative.
“I don’t like using the word postapocalyptic,” she tells the Georgia Straight on the line from her home in the city. “That’s one of the words that comes to mind, of course, and Mathew Borrett—the amazing 3-D artist whose work fed into this—his creations can conjure those ideas. But there is no term for a future place where current societal structures aren’t operating, apart from one that implies there has been total death and destruction. Instead, I’ve sometimes been calling it a reconciled Toronto.”
Jackson’s Indigenous heritage is at the heart of Biidaaban. Offering an insight into a world in which age-old First Nations traditions flourish within Toronto’s urban jungle, her imagined future allows the viewer to wander around a to-scale vision of the city reclaimed by the natural world. The anchor point of the experience is language. As users slip between each rich vantage point, words from the Wendat, Anishinaabemowin, and Kanien’kaha—the first individuals to inhabit the place initially known as Tkaronto—rise up on the screen and are narrated over the sound of chirping crickets and stirring leaves.
“The first flashpoint of my interest into this was about 10 years ago, when I started looking into Indigenous languages, and reading a lot of linguistic books,” Jackson says. “Indigenous languages hold ways of looking at the world which are radically different. To oversimplify it, there’s a lot of stuff that has to do with relatedness—a heightened sense of relation between people and their environment. The English language is mostly nouns, and Indigenous languages are largely verb-based. Suddenly, actions, relationships, and interrelationships become highlighted, and objects start to recede. [Biidaaban] is taking another step, and imagining a place reclaimed by nature, where the languages that have been spoken here for many thousands of years grow back in the same way as the plant life and the other things that are native to this world.”
By prompting the viewer with questions and short pieces of text in First Nations tongues, later to dissolve into their approximate English translation, Jackson hopes to restructure the way that humans view their relationship to the land. Language, she says, is the framework though which people think and understand their world. By envisioning spaces with an alternative linguistic and cultural perspective, she believes it’s possible to interpret locations like Toronto in a totally different way.
“Having done all this research, and talked to linguists, you realize how much it would change everything [to think using a different language],” she says. “People speaking different languages aren’t just saying what we are saying, but with different words. There are other ways of looking at things which are profoundly different.
“Language can even change the nature of the way time operates,” she continues. “In English, there is an obligatory tense, which means that every time I use a verb I have to place it in the past, present, or future. When I speak English, I’m constantly putting everything on a linear timeline, which reinforces the idea that time goes in a straight line from somewhere in the past that’s way behind us, to somewhere in the future in front, with the idea that we’re moving towards total perfection.
"Some Indigenous languages create their tenses in terms of how you came to know the information you’re sharing,” she continues. “So you will know from the tense of the verb whether I’m telling you I saw something with my own eyes, whether I saw evidence of it but I don’t know whether it really happened, or whether I saw it happen but my judgement was impaired, whether someone told me it happened, and so on. It isn’t linear in the same way.”
Jackson’s project falls under the banner of Indigenous futurism, a label that describes First Nations perspectives of the past, present, and future through the context of science fiction. By building an imaginary vision of a reclaimed Toronto, the invented setting allows her to circumvent the preconceptions of Indigenous people and portray Native culture free of the settler narrative. With its focus on creating fantasy landscapes, Jackson believes that Indigenous futurism is a framework that lends itself to VR experiences.
“Being able to create new worlds within the immersive environment of VR is one of the most exciting pieces for me,” she says. “And I think for Indigenous folks, the world-views—whether or not we’ve been raised with the language—are so different from mainstream culture. [Using VR] is an opportunity to put people within a different world, and have them express the view and cultures of Indigenous people…It’s a great way to create a sense of place, and when you think that for Indigenous folks, culturally, place is so central to how territory relates to identity, I hope that it will spark more people to explore that medium and those connections.”
Biidaaban: First Light is at the New Media Gallery until January 27.
Kate Wilson is the Technology Editor at the Georgia Straight. Follow her on Twitter @KateWilsonSaysMore