The Review/Interview/

“Indigenous existence is resistance”

The artists of 2167 discuss Indigenous Futurism, their impressions of VR, and why Canada 150 isn’t the milestone they’re interested in

by
Oct 18, 2017

To mark the occasion of Canada 150 this year, TIFF partnered with imagineNATIVE to present 2167, *a series of VR installations that imagine life 150 years in the future through an Indigenous lens. The first installment of the exhibition, which ran this past summer at TIFF Bell Lightbox, featured installations from multimedia artist Scott Benesiinaabandan, filmmaker Danis Goulet, and artist collective Postcommodity, made up of Raven Chacon, Kade L. Twist, and Cristóbal Martínez.

In a roundtable hosted by imagineNATIVE Artistic Director Jason Ryle, Benesiinaabandan, Goulet, and Chacon touched on their approaches to Indigenous storytelling and how VR technology can support that, while also considering the implications and dangers of creating artificial empathy. The resulting conversation offers inroads into critical issues of cultural visibility, reinvention, and alternate histories.

This fall, 2167 expands to include the work of multidisciplinary artist Kent Monkman, with all four installations now on view at the Lightbox as part of the imagineNATIVE Film & Media Arts Festival, running October 18 to 22. On Friday, October 20, the artists join us for a discussion on Indigenous storytelling in VR, presented by TIFF Higher Learning and the Canada Media Fund as part of imagineNATIVE.

2167 runs until December 31 in the Atrium on the ground floor of TIFF Bell Lightbox.


Jason Ryle: The idea for this goes all the way back to Stephen Harper and when the first Canada 150 project was announced. At imagineNATIVE, we weren’t sure exactly what, if anything, we would do to commemorate this year. The initial Canada 150 was really focused on celebrating the past 150 years; the works had to be celebratory – there was no subversion, it seemed, from their requirements.

2167 came about envisioning 150 years into the future, and turning it over to Indigenous artists. As programmers, we get such few works that are actually sci-fi-based or that contemplate the future in this way, so it seemed like a great opportunity to do it.

It was originally meant to be a short-film project, but three years ago, Nyla [Innuksuk] brought a Google Cardboard into the office that showed a helicopter flying over Manhattan. It was just was one of those moments like when the iPhone came out, like “Wow, this actually works.” It was such a mind-blowing experience for me; this was something so entirely new. As soon as it was done I said, “This is what 2167 really needs to be about.” I’m curious to hear everyone’s initial response to the proposition of the project.

Danis Goulet: I first had a conversation with Jesse [Wente] in the Lightbox, and he said “We’re gonna do this thing, are you interested?” My initial response was, “How can I say no?” It was a really cool idea, and I was really excited about us imagining what our future would be. At one point, I was interested in doc-drama hybridity, then at another point, social realism… all of these concerns are very much of the present. I think a lot about threads in my work, and we talk so much about loss in our communities because that is the reality of so many people’s experience. I'm also curious about continuums and what survives despite loss, how culture revitalizes itself, how people push for that, and how we resist.

When I was approached to do this project, I had been hearing about VR for a while, and I was ready to try something different. I thought, "Let's do this crazy experiment and see what happens." It's completely different than making traditional film.

The Hunt, Danis Goulet, 2017. Photo by Ashley Bomberry.

Jason: How about you, Scott?

Scott Benesiinaabandan: I jumped on it right away. I was lucky I was situated at Concordia, where I was surrounded by new media all the time. I actually really like learning about new technologies, so for me it was exciting to work with technicians and learn programs to build the work. When we got into it, it opened up many different possibilities.

Jason: Have you tried it before?

Scott: I think we tried it with Google Cardboard, which was kind of underwhelming because it was just photo-based, but the first time I put on an Oculus, I thought, "Wow, this is pretty awesome." From there, it just got better and more immersive.

Jason: The first Oculus I tried was on the engineering bridge of the Enterprise. I was like, "Finally! I'm here!" [Everyone laughs.] How about you, Raven?

Raven Chacon: I'm in a collective, and we were all excited for different reasons, mostly because it would be an experiment and completely new to us. I think I'd been the only one in the group who had put one of these on; the other two guys, Kade and Cristóbal, didn't have any experience with this technology. The ones I had tried were all just fun experiences that would trip you out or make you look like you were going to fall off a building, but no real content beyond that. At best, they had some storytelling arc to them or educational purpose, so we were trying to figure out why we would engage with this technology, and how we would put some of what we know into it.

There was the initial challenge that we were willing to take up, but also skepticism at what we were getting involved in. At the same time, we have a lot of work that is completely about the future, even though we might look to the past, but the work is always propelling itself into some kind of reimagined future. If we're going to be suspending disbelief, then how can we turn it into a metaphor for what we want to speak about; the future, or our own self-determination.

Jason: What did you make of the theme? It was very much rooted in the Canadian nation state, in response to Indigenous nations on this landmass and to the sesquicentennial – was there any kind of interaction with that?

Raven: I think when you invited us, that was the first we had learned that this celebration was coming up. Me and my two brothers think about this the same way; when a country is celebrating an anniversary like that, the best thing you can do is hope it’s going to end pretty soon. Maybe this is being celebrated because it’s coming to an end – so that was a takeoff point for us. This is going to be 150 years imagining a complete reset.

Jason: I really love that term “reset,” because it was interesting to envision what you guys would do. You give someone carte blanche, except with one idea of setting it in the calendar year 2167 and what would come out of it. We were curious if it would be utopic or dystopic, and if it would it be a purely conceptual representation of this time. Danis, did you weigh this idea of purposely creating a utopia or dystopia?

Danis: For sure. The last film I made, Wakening, was about Cree cultural resurgence in a dystopian landscape, and I wanted to dream about a vision from the future. I thought immediately that I had to do something utopian that we could get excited about. For some reason, I wasn’t really coming up with anything – not for a lack of being able to imagine, but then Trump got elected… [everyone laughs] and it was just such a shit time! It was like, “Screw it! I can’t do utopian, we need to fight!” It was just a strong, visceral reaction how important it is to resist.

Obviously, Indigenous existence is resistance, and we have been fighting all this time, but all I could relate to in that moment was the fight. I just thought about the continuum of the fight, and also — given how long Indigenous people have been on this land — 150 years isn’t that far into the future. My [project] focuses on a Mohawk community, and if you look at what I think is one of the biggest Indigenous films in the Canadian consciousness, Alanis Obamsawin’s Kanehsatake, she’s looking at 500 years of Mohawk resistance. So, if we’re gonna fast forward 150 years, how much will actually change in that short amount of time? Change takes time, so I couldn’t imagine in that short span of 150 years we wouldn’t still be fighting. It was more about celebrating the ingenious ways we resist colonization.

Jason: In terms of a “continuum of resistance” — is there hope?

Danis: Absolutely. As crazy as things are right now, I feel like change comes out of tumultuous times. I feel so lit up and excited in this particular moment than I have been for so long. I felt personally changed by Idle No More; there was this awakening, and to see Indigenous people around Christmastime doing round dances in malls that I hung out in as a teenager in Saskatchewan, which is an incredibly racist place, was so powerful. It was the jumping-off point when my work began to be about our power, and how we would determine our future for ourselves. So much of that has to express itself as resistance, but that doesn’t mean it’s a negative thing. Colonization is so pervasive and we have to push against it. There are more people coming together and more voices being heard than there ever have been before, so I think this time is really exciting in spite of how much we feel like we’re up against sometimes. And, for me, even if this is a shit, dystopian future, we speak our language in our future. In 150 years, we could bring the languages back for sure — if not sooner.

Blueberry Pie Under a Martian Sky, Scott Benesiinaabandan, 2017

Jason: I love the title of your work, Scott. Can you talk about your project a bit?

Scott: It’s about pie [laughs]. To echo what Danis was saying – 150 years into the future is not a long time from now. As a starting point, I tried to imagine 150 years ago and use that as a map for the future. I went off-script a bit because I don’t see the distinction between 150, 200, 300, or 400 years – it’s just about the future. [The work] uses the language because one of the things I was considering was that 150-200 years ago, there was no Anishnaabe word for “blueberry pie.” There was only “blueberry.” “Blueberry pie” was created because of the nature of the language; it’s a gluttonous language, where words are built from experiences. My last name – Benesiinaabandan – is just “thunder bird seeing things.” Even though you can lose words, you can build new words into the language, and that was always very important to me. We talk a lot about how much of the language is lost and all the speakers we don’t have anymore… so there was an opportunity to create new words and work with elders on words for things that aren’t even conceived yet, like time travel. What is that psychological impact? I really wanted to hear new Anishnaabe words, and the crux of this was built on that desire. The language is a time capsule that we can envision ourselves in.

I worked with Skawennati on the writing, as she’s done a tonne of sci-fi-based work, so we collaborated on little narratives that are heard in the piece. I also worked with Alan Corbiere in Manitoulin, on a list of words like “black hole.” Often it’s just “black” and “hole,” which isn’t really the deep history that these words can contain. So he worked an elder language group to parse out our relationship to the world. It was really interesting to consider our link to light or to time itself.

Jason: How did you pair that with the visual aspect of the piece?

Scott: The story arc goes back to our creation story that says we were lured from the sky by a spider woman on a spider thread. From a sci-fi standpoint, I interpreted that as a wormhole; we travelled from our home world, or original world, to reside here, but at some point, another part of the story is that a little boy will go back and retrieve those knowledges. In the future, our knowledge of fuzzy wormholes will be great enough that we can travel back to the original world where all these languages are being spoken. As soon as you start talking about space-time, 150 years in the future is really just something happening now that was already occurring 150 years ago somewhere else. So in the VR piece, you’re the little boy that goes back through the wormhole, and the excerpts you hear are non-linear radio transmissions that you’re intercepting. When humans go back, it’ll be a psychological experience, so I chose to keep it abstract with basic shapes.

Jason: Raven, in your own experience working with the piece along with the collective, you talked about this resetting and resistance aspect. How did you come to that particular story?

Raven: There are some similarities in the worldview that Scott’s talking about. It’d be very hard to do one of these projects if you commissioned 10 more artists to not touch upon themes of the hope for decolonization or getting back to some place. So that’s something Postcommodity has been thinking about a lot; not decolonization, but the impossibility of what some people might consider decolonization. One of the threads we’ve been looking at is northern New Mexico, where my father and Cristóbal are from. What we’re talking about is Los Alamos National Laboratories, which is on the homelands of Santa Clara and Ohkay Owingeh, formerly San Juan Pueblo, formerly Ohkay Owingeh – and this is the place where they made the atomic bomb. There are still people who live in that area, there are still pueblos in that area, and there are still remnants of work from the atomic age from this facility, even though the facility is still working today. Those remnants cause cancer in the area and have destroyed the land.

Each Branch Determined, Postcommodity, 2017.

So, we wanted to present an experience where you find yourself on this mountain valley where Los Alamos is located, and the mountain is on fire and you’re running away from that fire. In the distance, you see ruins, but you can’t tell if they’re ruins of the lab melting down, or something else. Throughout the experience, you see craters in the earth that look like exploded bombs… we wanted to create an ambiguous landscape that perhaps wasn’t an accident by an enemy, but instead a intentional, controlled burn, which is something we do in the desert to manage our own lands. Things grow in weird areas and as invasive species come into the desert, that action becomes more necessary. These craters are perhaps not created from bombings, but instead are kivas – places where you pray. The VR environment reminds you that you’re still living; you see birds guiding you in different directions, and they represent time. Halfway through the experience, it becomes another way of living through this portal – like what Scott was talking about.

We chose to overshoot the future by a couple hundred years and look at this VR experience as an artifact of 150 years back, so that we can justify why it’s not a video, or why things are artifact-y. Any technology is going to look outdated in a few years, so you might as well exploits those kinds of handicaps of the medium and design the narrative to overshoot that, so you’re always speaking about the future-past.

What you hear in the VR project is plumbing codes from California; we tried to find them for New Mexico, but I don’t think they follow the law [everyone laughs]. So you hear different things like pumping, water draining and emerging, and the hardware involved. That’s the narration throughout the piece. I like to think of that as another artifact; perhaps this plumbing manual is laying around and that ended up in the creation story of the very, very future.

Jason: How did this project complement some of your other work? Was it a different experience in creating this work, or was it an extension of the tools you guys have already used?

Raven: We had never worked with animation, so by working with IIF (Initiative for Indigenous Futures) and Jason [Lewis] and Skawennati’s team, we able to experiment with it. We wanted to use their facilities and learn some new tools, so we decided to go the route of video.

We were interested in making something completely generative where you might have a new experience every time you watch it. I don’t know if the technology could handle that the way we wanted it to, so we didn’t go with that idea. There was also talk of expanding it into a larger project, because we’re thinking about another year – 2043 – which is supposed to be the year that white people start becoming the minority in the United States. We’re starting to see that as another timeline for another major shift; not as large as a complete reset, but an important date to think of a timeline of the future. Canada 150 isn’t significant to us, so we’re trying to connect this all together.

Jason: How much do you envision this “reset” being a physical manifestation?

Raven: It’s not in anyone’s control, at least in this piece… it would have to be a major catastrophe that we use in our favour to gather the remnants and the shards to try and build something new, whatever that may be. It might not even involve old ways anymore... so that’s why I don’t want to say “utopia” or “dystopia” – it’s something completely new.

Jason: Danis, in terms of your process, you mentioned it was a very different style of storytelling. Did you storyboard your piece?

Danis: No, I don’t storyboard my films anymore. [VR] is a very different medium from film because you can’t really edit in the same way, and for film, editing is one of the most powerful tools that you have. It enables you to cut away anything you don’t want. You can cut VR, but it’s not really the same.

Scott: Is it a 360 video?

Danis: Yeah, that’s what I ended up making. There’s no frame, obviously – that’s another really big difference from film. You see everywhere. In the last couple films I’ve made, I really loved working in a shallow depth of field. Close-ups have a certain power and all of that creates an intimacy with what you’re seeing. VR is kind of just one flat image. Everywhere you look there are restrictions, so as a filmmaker, at first I was like, “Dang, VR!” [Laughs]. It was really frustrating.

At first we just did a bunch of testing. I wanted to test how people felt at different distances to the camera. Everyone was like, “You can’t move around in VR,” and I was like, “I wanna try moving anyway!” So, we tried. The DP built a rig for the camera and we strapped it onto people’s bodies and walked around with it. It was cool, but it creates a really extreme aesthetic and I couldn’t use that for a lot of the scenes because it didn’t match the feel. I did a bird’s eye map of what happens where… and some of that technical stuff, I always think I hate – like blocking and maps – because I really love just following instinct. But once I started geeking out on my maps, I got out my ruler and pencil, I was drawing circles and x’s. It actually got to be really fun, so I just stopped resisting and gave in.

Jason: Were you hiding behind a barrel or building? [Everyone laughs.]

Danis: Yes! I was hiding in every shot. Also, we were so rushed, so we threw this smoke bomb at the side – and I got home at night and was like, “Did I just shoot what’s supposed to be a camp and it’s going to feel like the Vietnam War?” [Everyone laughs]. You use smoke a lot in film because it add atmosphere and creates texture, and usually you and the DP are staring at the monitor going, “Fan it a little that way, let it dissipate….” There was none of that. It was just, “SMOKE BOMB! ACTION! [Exploding sound].” [Laughs.] I was scared to look at the footage.

Jason: What would you like audiences to experience, and what kind of legacy are these works leaving for audiences in the future?

Scott: I try not to think about legacy stuff. It’s way beyond my control. All you can do as an artist is make the work you want to make, and the future is part of its own arts wilderness.

Jason: Is there anything you hope audiences glean from the work while interacting with it?

Scott: One of the problems I learned through this process is that the bottleneck, technologically, is that all our technicians are basically gamers who are being co-opted into the visual arts. I had to say so many times, “I don’t want hands in the piece. I don’t want you to grab stuff.” For me, if audiences can have an experience that isn’t a game, that’s outside their expectations, and if they walk away with a different appreciation, that’s all I can hope for.

Blueberry Pie Under a Martian Sky, Scott Benesiinaabandan, 2017.

Raven: Exactly what you said. The only experiences I had seen were “fun” and rarely educational – they always had a video-game aesthetic. The collaborators we worked with are highly specialized, but as we see with the headsets, this is driven toward the market of the phones and there’s that kind of money behind it. You try to have art squeezed in between that, and we spent a lot of time talking about what we’re doing with this technology. What can we do to make ourselves feel like we’re doing something productive? For Postcommodity, we make large-scale works that vary in the kinds of media they use, so this was a very different experiment for us. It got us thinking that this might not actually be a standalone piece… it might be a piece of a larger puzzle.

Jason: Scott and Raven, both of you do constructed realities. Is there anything you wanted to do that the current technology didn’t allow for?

Scott: We were still using a developer model of Samsung gear; the Oculus hadn’t even come out yet. As we went, the technology was still playing catch-up and still is, so working on something that developers and artists still aren’t completely familiar with yet was interesting.

Danis: The old art versus commerce thing is very heightened in VR because it’s such a gamer’s medium right now. I did a VR lab leading up to this, and when we were paired off with VR production companies, there was a lot of tension in what the filmmakers were trying to bring. It was mostly people who had worked in traditional film. It would be like “Come and do this! It’s going to be an amazing project!” and then you partner with an ad agency or something. They create really beautiful-looking things, but I agree with you, Raven, it’s mostly trickery or spectacle, which I’m not really interested in. To make something for emotion’s sake, what’s the point? What ideas are you actually grappling with? That’s what I saw missing on the industry side.

The Hunt, Danis Goulet, 2017. Photo by Ashley Bomberry.

Jason: What’s your take on the supposed intimacy in VR, or this newer development of social interactivity that is supposedly around the corner? Like in a year or two — you in Albuquerque, Raven, and I’m here – we can conceivably make art together. What are your thoughts about these things?

Raven: There are a lot of contradictions. It’s more intimate, but then it’s 360 degrees. Similarly with sound, you’re really limited with what you can hear. It’s almost like they flipped a lot of ways you would normally experience reality in an attempt to mediate relationships.

Scott: Intimacy, I don’t think so. Skype was supposed to make us more connected, but I’d rather turn off [the camera] and just listen to the voice. In terms of empathy – we talked at the NFB that it’s hugely problematic to say these experiences are forming empathy.

Danis: We also talked about the difference between empathy and sympathy. VR has been talked about as the “new empathy machine.” People were taking a lot of issue with that. In terms of the gaze in traditional film… what story are you telling? What responsibilities are attached? As Indigenous people, we not only know the theft of our stories, but also the history of misrepresentation onscreen, which is so pervasive and has been the law of the land since the dawn of moving images. We have been portrayed in a simplistic or racist way that perpetuates a colonial agenda.

The first time I ever tried VR, I felt pretty emotional because it was in a refugee camp and I actually felt within arm’s length of the children around me. I was totally transported to a different place and you kind of feel like a ghost… it was really powerful, but also brought up so many questions at the same time. Emotionality for its own sake is not something I’m at all interested in. In all this 150 talk and reconciliation, people say “I wanna reconcile, what do we do?” All of us in the community are getting daily reconciliation requests like “Teach me how to reconcile!” and we’re like “Ahhh! I didn’t even come up with this word!” It’s kind of a crazy time to be grappling with all that. Sometimes when people come into this space, it’s with good intentions, but reconciliation isn’t about you getting to come in as the Great White Saviour with your philanthropic intentions. This is about ceding power; it’s about making space. So in the VR context, we have to be really careful. There can be such a patronizing relationship where you still are the one that gets to feel sorry and then gets to feel good about yourself –

Jason: And the one that gets to switch off.

Danis: That’s right. That’s not tearing anything down. I’m not even a fan of the word “reconciliation,” but if you want to talk about what that really is, it’s not that. Even the cultural tourism thing I find hugely problematic. The fetishization and weird fascination where Indigenous people and marginalized communities are the objects of someone’s gaze – I’m just sick of it.

Raven: The only hope I see [for VR] is that there are colours we can’t see, or emotions and senses no one has felt before, that VR can do. I think that’s all technology is good for. I don’t think it can mediate real emotions. I don’t know if that’s the tool to do that. I’m also skeptical of why it’s taken so long to do what it keeps saying it’s gonna do [laughs]. It’s been like 20 years!

Jason: I can’t envision a perfect VR unless it’s an implant of some sort. It does still seem limiting to me in some way. But it’s been so amazing to think of these things that you then take to places and realities you never could have imagined. In terms of the dialogue about 150 in Canada, one year ago it was so different. It doesn’t exist now without Indigenous context. That’s been a huge success.

Lead image by Connie Tsang.