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Aboriginal New Media at Banff
A Story of Gift and Exchange
by Sara Diamond
Since the rise of new media and the Internet, Aboriginal cultural producers, programmers, social activists, and artists have engaged with these media as creative and communicative tools. Projects like Speaking the Language of Spiders, [www.snacc.mb.ca/projects/spiderlanguage] Inherent Rights, Vision Rights, [link no longer active http://mitpress2.mit.edu/e-journals/Leonardo/gallery/gallery291/yuxweluptun.html] UsMob, and CyberPowWow [www.cyberpowwow.net/] are all examples of powerful new media works that span the period between the early 1990s and present day. All of these pieces are compelling in their use of space, their relational and discursive patterns of narrative, and their powerful sense of communal identity and contribution.
Aboriginal cultural practitioners seem to have found a deep and echoing resonance within the vast field of new media, finding and adapting structures, systems, and codes, and engaging in key debates. For example, Aboriginal artists from different national origins share forms of storytelling that are segmented, responsive, and adaptive to context, and threaded with hypertextual strings back to their histories. Other artists and theorists cite the importance of play, both as game and experimentation. These activities function as a means of teaching, learning, and resolving differences. Ideas about access to knowledge, apprenticeship, and earned levels of increased complexity are shared across computer games and Aboriginal new media works. There is careful consideration of the archive, including the living history of elders. This underscores an understanding of the rights of cultures to choose what to share and what to protect, and the need for protocols - an important counterweight to appropriation culture, and an interesting variant of open source. There is an investment of time in building trust. These values and related discussions set important precedents for the larger new media worlds, driven too often by expediency and speed.
Most recently, Aboriginal media artists have begun to discuss building tools from the ground up - tools based on the values, structures, and cadences of Aboriginal languages. Aboriginal artists, producers, and programmers have suggested that the similarities between interactive media and their own cultures would be magnified if computer code - as well as interfaces and design tools - could be based on traditional Aboriginal language structures. This concern underscores the key role that linguistic differences play in structuring worldviews. The tension and debate about of the value of generic versus culturally grounded tools is a rich one, and resonates far beyond Aboriginal communities.
The Banff Centre's partnership with the Aboriginal Film and Video Alliance, begun in 1993, resulted in a strong working partnership within The Banff Centre between the Banff New Media Institute, Media and Visual Arts, and Aboriginal Arts. Early initiatives included Native Net, a strategy paper that would eventually assist in creating access to the Internet for Aboriginal communities on reserves. Another early event was Drum Beats to Drum Bytes in 1994. It included an Internet relay chat between Aboriginal artists like Buffy Saint-Marie, Marjorie Beaucage, Ahasiw Meskagon-Iskwew, and Loretta Todd, and theorists and artists at London, England's ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts). The conversants debated topics including the challenges of identity politics, whether or not race exists in cyberspace, and how Aboriginal cultures are represented on the Internet. Drum Bytes Two, held in 2002, reviewed progress in creative practice, education, creative expression, and Internet access across North America. In the interim, Banff's Aboriginal New Media Workshops concentrated on training Aboriginal new media makers and setting up Internet radio stations. Aboriginal practice and issues have also been a key part of innumerable other summits, co-productions, presentations, and research projects within the sphere of the Banff New Media Institute, Media and Visual Arts, and the Walter Phillips Gallery. This involvement has provided a rich array of experiences from which other artists, theorists, and technology developers have also learned.
TELL: Aboriginal Storytelling and Digital Media looks at narrative within diverse indigenous cultures from North America and elsewhere, exploring the complex ways that culturally rooted stories move through different media forms, back to their original communities, and out into the larger world.
I thank Aboriginal new media artists for all of the gifts and exchanges that their visions have brought us.
Sara Diamond is Editor-in-Chief of HorizonZero.