Through the Wormhole
Looking 150 years into the future for National Aboriginal Day
This is a conversation between three Indigenous artists. Skawennati is a Mohawk of Kahnawake, Jason E. Lewis is Cherokee and Kanaka Maoli (Hawai’ian) and Scott Benesiinaabandan is Anishnabe. All three live in Montreal, where this conversation took place, on a terrace outside a pub near Concordia University. These artists are part of Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace, also known as AbTeC, a research network based at Concordia. Last year, AbTeC launched IIF, the Initiative for Indigenous Futures. Through residencies, workshops, symposia and a new media art archive, IIF encourages Indigenous people to imagine our communities seven generations from now.
Today, TIFF, imagineNATIVE, Pinnguaq and the Initiative for Indigenous Futures have announced that they will work together on the joint project 2167: an innovative virtual reality and immersive media series. They’ve asked six Indigenous filmmakers and artists to create six VR projects in 2017, with each artist asked to set their work 150 years in the future. Three works will premiere at TIFF Bell Lightbox in June 2017, and three during the imagineNATIVEfilm festival in October 2017, as part of TIFF’s sesquicentennial initiative called Canada on Screen. These artists include celebrated, award-winning filmmakers Jeff Barnaby (Rhymes For Young Ghouls), Danis Goulet (Barefoot, Awakening), Alethea Arnaquq-Baril (Angry Inuk) and Canadian artists Kent Monkman, Scott Benesiinaabandan, and the interdisciplinary arts collective Postcommodity.
Said Jason Edward Lewis, Director, and Skawennati Fragnito, Coordinator at Initiative for Indigenous Futures in an official press release:
“As teenagers, we fell in love with science fiction because it helped us to imagine the future. As we got older, we began to notice the lack of Native people in those futures. We started to think that perhaps the lack of stories and images of Indigenous people in the future was a big problem. If we can’t imagine ourselves there, maybe we won’t be there — however, if we start to look ahead to a time when we are thriving, integral agents of society, then we will inevitably assume our roles as such.”
In this wide-ranging conversation about memory, technology, art, language and evolution, Skawanetti, Jason Lewis and Scott Banesiinaabandan look through the wormhole between their past and present to figure out: what exactly does the future of Canada look like?
SCOTT: So what are you doing in your art practice, Skawennati?
SKAWENNATI: I’m trying to imagine ourselves — Native people — in the future. I think I’m even trying to project myself into the future to imagine what could I see there.
For example, I’m trying to think about wampum belts. What could be a wampum belt that could happen in the future? What might we commemorate in the future? I’m thinking Empowerment. I am also trying to play with the materials to reflect that. For example, originally, wampum belts were made from the quahog shells. And we made them purple and white because that was the colour of the shells. But today, many reproduction wampum belts are made out of fimo, which can be any colour. So if we can have them any colour, how does that change the meaning of the belt? Does it?
JASON: Part of what is interesting about that is that it helps us think through the present use. If we’re trying to think ahead of how things will evolve 150 years from now, I think it also helps to think about how things have evolved from 150 years ago. Some things weren’t allowed to evolve because it wasn’t considered traditional, or it wasn’t considered indigenous.
What if we had been able to embrace all sorts of material culture and make it our own? How would things look different now?
SKAWENNATI: That’s what you were doing in your project Scott, right? When you’re thinking about the change in language?
SCOTT: Yeah, conceptually. But it’s really hard for us as individuals — we have 80 years on this earth at the max. Each of us.
SKAWENNATI: I think 100.
SCOTT: You’re reaching.
Conceptually it’s really hard for us to seriously consider the future because we’re not part of it. It is interesting — us trying to envision ourselves in the future, but excluding us, individually. We talk about seven generations but… Trying to think about ourselves in the future is very difficult, outside of our own ego-driven now, so it’s helpful to look back, say 150 years, because I’m always shocked at how recent that was! History hasn’t moved too far forward.
JASON: I was just reading today about this term called “human wormholes,” did you see that?
It’s this idea that you look at a person’s lifespan. Like, somebody who’s 85 where you realize, “Oh my God, they were alive when things weren’t completely electrified.”
SCOTT: I was working in the rapid-prototyping lab for the first time. I was watching the prototype come out, and I remembered a story this girl told me. She had been going through this architectural program and one day she went home and broke down crying because of the stress of this professional program. And her dad who was an elder and a knowledge-keeper came over and asked, “What’s wrong, my girl?” He listened to her, then said: “At the end of the day, just remember that your grandmother was born in a wigwam. You’re trying to build cities and learn technologies of concrete and steel, and your grandmother was born in this very simple, traditional structure.” That’s the gap, or the wormhole between us. We think it’s a lot longer than it actually is.
SKAWENNATI: Your friend’s grandmother was born in a wigwam. And her grandmother was born in a wigwam. And hers. And hers.
SCOTT: But I think humans have always innovated. New technologies are always incorporated. Whether it’s steam engines or horses with new bridles. Leaps in technology still radically impact people’s lives. But you don’t know what the impact of analogue technology is.
JASON: I do think that is what is interesting about you focusing on language, because language is always evolving.
SCOTT: Well, it ties into what I was going to say about your fimo versus natural materials. There’s an energetic physicality to materials. And energy is captured within those things, memories are encoded in land. If we change the very material… does fimo have the ability to encode and hold memory? And that ties into the nature of what does all this new technology do? What is this doing to the ability for things to hold memory?
SKAWENNATI: A lot of the new technology is memory. It’s actually, you know, memory.
SCOTT: No literally, RAM!
SKAWENNATI: I don’t know if I wanna talk about wampum belts too much but when I talked to (Mohawk artist and activist) Ellen Gabriel about that idea, she said, “It will completely change the meaning because it’s not shell anymore.” And the shell is related to the water.
SCOTT: That’s really beautiful because the very shell is moulded by its external force. The time is etched into it. Just like language. Linguists can parse out the ways language and words evolve, the sociological pressures that words pass through.
SKAWENNATI: So talk about your project for VR 2167.
SCOTT: People are always saying the language is dying. I always found that language is its own time capsule. Even if you lose certain words, you can always build new ones. I always thought Anishnaabemowin was built expressly for this. You can’t lose a language that is very easily adaptable to new words and new ideas and emotions and visualizations.
So, to envision 150 years into the future, I don't know what our phones will look like, or what apps we’re gonna be using, but the language will still have to come up with ways to consider these things and our relationship to them. What binds us together as Anishnabe when we are 150 light years into the future? The basis of my project is going to be looking at new Anishinaabemowin for things and relationships that we haven’t encountered yet. To break those things apart and reform them in new creative ways.
JASON: Why do you think Anishinaabemowin is particularly suited for this? I remember you saying, “I think it’s a really good language.”
SCOTT: It’s a very visual language. When you speak it, it’s more about what’s going on in your mind. When you’re talking, it plays out in your mind constantly.
SKAWENNATI: You put a picture in the mind of the person you’re talking to!
SCOTT: ...the pieces are all together. If you know the basis, you get to see the visualization of what you’re talking about, even if you don’t know that exact word.
SKAWENNATI: I think Mohawk is like that too. You have little roots that mean stuff. You can have the root word of flower and then you add onto it a verb like, “brings flower” then “she brings the flower” and “she brings the flowers today.” So, yeah, they’re sort of modular languages. That’s why I think that you can’t lose it, like you said before. If all the parts are there, it can still be revived. I love that idea.
SCOTT: You can lose the will to learn the language. But you can’t really lose the language.
JASON: Lost until somebody wants to find it.
SKAWENNATI: Up until now, everyone thought that Mohawk was going to die out. But they could not have foreseen the revitalization process that started in the 1970s. Now in the 2010s, people are starting to say that it might be making a comeback.
When people see your installation, what do you think they’re going to see when they put on the headset?
SCOTT: It’ll be based on of the elements of the Anishnabe creation story: Spider woman, weaving a web down, which we came down through. The interpretation I’m going with is that it’s like a wormhole, which we came through to this space and time. The whole premise of these experiential VR projects is to go back into the wormhole, back to the origin place. Basically, to go back home.