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Making Things Our Own
The Indigenous Aesthetic in Digital Storytelling
by Candice Hopkins
They say that we are the carriers of history; the storytellers and artists must express their visions for the people to see... how will we create our history together, now, in this time and space? (Marjorie Beaucage)1
Cherokee writer Thomas King begins his book The Truth About Stories (Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2003) with these lines: "There is a story I know. It's about the earth and how it floats in space on the back of a turtle. I've heard this story many times, and each time someone tells the story, it changes. Sometimes the change is simply in the voice of the storyteller. Sometimes the change is in the details... But in all the tellings of all the tellers, the world never leaves the turtle's back. And the turtle never swims away."
While it might not appear so at first, these initial lines in a book about storytelling are calculated and revealing. It is fitting that King would begin his book with a creation story - a tale of beginning. And it is fitting that he would choose lines that at once define and expand upon what storytelling is. Even the book's title, The Truth About Stories, points to one of the pivotal arguments in oral and written literature: that stories - often regarded as fictitious and aligned to myths and legends - are viewed as "the simplest vehicles of truth" by their tellers.2
By stating this, I am not trying to argue that the earth was formed on the back of a turtle. That would be too simple. Rather, I would like to put forward that truth, like stories, can have a more nuanced definition. One of the most succinct statements that I have read in this regard comes from Penny Petrone. "Myth", Petrone reminds us, has a very specific literary history. And it is when this category is applied to a tradition such as Aboriginal storytelling - which exists outside of this history - that a disjuncture occurs. Traditional narratives categorized by some as myth are not regarded as untrue by their Native tellers. "All Indian traditions," Petrone writes, "are valid guides to reality."3 In other words, as filmmaker Trinh T. Minh-ha states, "each society has its own politics of truth."4 To many readers, the above lines will seem unnecessary or even redundant, because what I am proposing is simple: that stories be understood, and defined, according to the ideologies that they originate from.
Tradition and Change
In re-reading the first lines of King's book, it could be said that the very foundations of story are built upon a series of contradictions. Stories are continually changing (King: "[E]ach time someone tells the story, it changes. Sometimes the change is simply in the voice of the storyteller. Sometimes the change is in the details"), yet they remain the same ("But in all the tellings of all the tellers, the world never leaves the turtle's back. And the turtle never swims away"). Stories are at once individualized and communal, original and replicated, authored and authorless:
In this chain and continuum, I am but one link. The story is me, neither me nor mine. It does not really belong to me, and while I feel greatly responsible for it, I also enjoy the irresponsibility of the pleasure obtained through the process of transferring... No repetition can ever be identical, but my story carries with it their stories, their history, and our story repeats itself endlessly...5
However, reading across these contradictions is generative as it reveals a worldview: one in which truth is considered apart from fact, where originality coexists within the copy, where change is an inherent part of tradition.
This last sentence - containing the idea that change is inherent to tradition - is contested. Tradition is often misinterpreted as being static or conventional. Cherokee artist and activist Jimmie Durham (someone whose own identity as a Native person has been challenged) characterizes this well, writing: "There is a nefarious tendency to consider material manifestations as traditions. If we accept such absurd criteria, then horses among the Plains Indians and Indian beadwork must be seen as untraditional. Traditions exist and are guarded by Indian communities. One of the most important of these is dynamism. Constant change - adaptability, the inclusion of new ways and new materials - is a tradition that our artists have particularly celebrated and have used to move and strengthen our societies."6 Durham notes that in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries, "every object, every material brought in from Europe was taken and transformed with great energy. A rifle in the hands of a soldier was not the same as a rifle that had undergone Duchampian changes in the hands of a defender, which often included changes in the form by the employment of feathers, leather, and beadwork." Stories themselves are not immune to these shifts - after all, change is what keeps them alive. Storytellers are continually embracing new materials and technologies such as video and digital media - materials that ensure that these practices maintain their relevance. I would suggest that this move does not threaten storytelling tradition, but is merely a continuation of what Aboriginal people have been doing from time immemorial: making things our own.
In Search of an Indigenous Aesthetic
In 1980, in a story that has since become almost iconic, Zacharias Kunuk - an Inuit carver, and at the time a producer for the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation - brought the first Sony Portapak to the arctic.7 Kunuk saw something different in video: he stated that he was initially drawn to the medium because of the similarities that it shared with Inuit oral traditions. From the beginning, Kunuk and his colleagues at Isuma Productions [www.isuma.ca] realized the potential of this medium to tell stories - stories that offered an alternative not only to the non-Inuit television programming infiltrating their communities since the early 1980s, but to the way in which Inuit had been portrayed in film and television for nearly half a century.8
Kunuk was not alone in seeing this potential. Since the late 1960s (and largely thanks to the availability of the Sony Portapak), activists, community and cultural groups, documentarians, those involved in guerrilla television, and others have used video to give voice to the underrepresented, and challenge (with varying degrees of success) the authority of broadcast television (an authority elevated by the political climate of the time). Instant playback, freedom from cumbersome electronic editing equipment, as well as the immediacy, spontaneity, and relative affordability of the medium, all contributed to video's allure. Artists were also seduced: video signified a largely unexplored artistic terrain - one that in its very materiality, its impermanence and reproducibility, challenged the unique and precious nature of the art object and, in turn, the authority of the art institution.9
The fact that Kunuk was one of the first Inuit to experiment with portable video is not what makes his story relevant - it's what he did with it. In an essay entitled Indigenous Experimentalism,10 Hopi filmmaker and videographer Victor Masayesva discusses the value of what he calls "the indigenous aesthetic". Careful to avoid the generalization that all Native film and video producers are "knowledgeable about and committed to working from within the structures and conventions of traditional expression, including the use of the mother tongue as the narrative voice", Masayesva writes that it is the accumulative experience (ie, all the experience, traditional or not, that informs our lives as native people today) that "refines and defines the indigenous aesthetic" - an aesthetic which, I would suggest, influences the work of Kunuk and countless other Aboriginal artists.
By producing works out of his own personal experience as an indigenous person, Kunuk creates videos that defy simple categorization. Kunuk's works do not aim to document, but instead creatively depict Inuit life through a combination of improvisation, drama, storytelling, Ajajas (traditional songs), and reenactments - much in the same way that Inuit life has been represented and experienced within Inuit communities since time immemorial. This logic - one that continually upholds the importance of community, acknowledges how much the past continues within the present, and also recognizes the vital role of oral tradition - defines the work of Isuma Productions. Because of the very fact that they are not documentaries, Kunuk's videos offer a more authentic and nuanced representation of Inuit life.
Na(rra)tives in Cyberspace
What Kunuk and his community have achieved represents no simple task. Masayesva rightly states that "the tribal person today - who uses new technologies - must have quantitatively more knowledge that the traditionalist and be more facile than the colonizers in order to be understood in the world community."11 The success of experimental films and videos, he adds, can be defined by the "degree to which they subvert the colonizer's indoctrination and champion indigenous expression in the political landscape". This gauge is not limited to films and videos, but is applicable to all technologies, from the aforementioned "Duchampian" rifles in the hands of the Plains Indians, to new media and storytelling in the digital age.
In her seminal essay, Aboriginal Narratives in Cyberspace,12 filmmaker Loretta Todd put forward a number of considerations regarding the relationship between native people and cyberspace. Several of them concern the need to subvert what Masayesva terms "the colonizer's indoctrination". Writing as she was in 1996, before Aboriginal people had really begun making serious use of digital technology, the possibilities and dangers inherent to this new space were still very much imagined, rather than observed, by Todd. At the time, writers like Allucquere Rosanne Stone believed that cyberspace, through its computer-mediated shedding of materiality and the physical body, offered new possibilities for identity - identity that would not be defined by the boundaries of gender, race, and age, but by the individual themselves. Like Stone, Todd saw a number of problems with severing the relationship between the body and the physical world. From an Aboriginal perspective (if commonality can be argued), Todd asserts that there is no disconnection from the material world: all relationships - mind and body, human and nature, hunter and prey - are interconnected and symbiotic. Cyberspace, she argues, is driven by a much different ideology: born out of the climate of late capitalism, the need for cyberspace stems from a fear of the body, an aversion to nature, and a desire for salvation and transcendence of the earthly plane. With this in mind, Todd's central question was whether native world views could find a place in cyberspace.13
Writing nearly ten years later, I would say that they have found a place. Cyberspace has been occupied, transformed, appropriated, and reinvented by native people in ways similar to how we've always approached real space. Like video, digital technologies have become a medium for speaking and telling our stories. The Internet, for example, was recognized almost immediately for its ability to bring people together and communicate across large geographical divides. One of the first Aboriginal people to make use of these abilities was Paula Giese, who started creating Web sites for native audiences in 1993. Her most ambitious project, Native American Indian Resources, [www.kstrom.net/isk/] is not merely a resource but an extensive map of Native American life. The site contains everything from traditional stories and ideologies to information on the plight of Leonard Pelletier. From the beginning, Giese saw the Internet for what it was - one of the most advanced information storage and retrieval systems available today. Although not maintained after the author's death in 1997, at its peak Native American Art Resources contained links to over three hundred other Web sites which, taken together, tell a story of contemporary Native America.
In 1996, Todd wrote that, "The alienated psyche of Western man and woman cannot find relief in cyberspace and virtual reality. You can go anywhere, be anyone - but you are still alone."14 While I think that this is still true to a certain degree (and it was certainly valid when Todd was writing), it is useful to note the extent to which native artists have subverted this. Nearly every site created by native artists reflects back to real people - to communities, to traditions, and to stories. For example, Skawennati Tricia Fragnito's project Cyberpowwow [www.cyberpowwow.net] was created as a means to gather virtually - a place within which participants can take on new identities, view artworks, read critical writings, and meet and speak with people from around the world. What makes the project successful is not the virtual gathering, but the physical gathering of people at different real world sites during the two days when the "powwow" takes place. Throughout all of the gatherings that I have participated in personally, there have been constant reminders of real places, of lived experiences. One of the first questions I am always asked upon logging on - even though I am represented at the time by an avatar in cyberspace - is where I am located, and where I am from. In the end, Cyberpowwow is not an experience of shedding identity, but an exercise in reaffirming it.
Which brings us back to where we started: "There is a story I know. It's about the earth and how it floats in space on the back of a turtle. I've heard this story many times, and each time someone tells the story, it changes. Sometimes the change is simply in the voice of the storyteller. Sometimes the change is in the detailsůBut in all the tellings of all the tellers, the world never leaves the turtle's back. And the turtle never swims away."
Appendix: Essential Links
Skawennati Tricia Fragnito and Paula Giese's sites are just two in a host of others that subvert western indoctrination, and to use Masayesva's words again, champion indigenous expression in the political landscape. The following storytelling projects prove that the issue is not "what ideology will have agency in cyberspace", but how we can subvert that ideology from the inside and make it our own.
link no longer active http://www.fineartforum.org/Gallery/cybertribe/exhibitions.htm
link no longer active http://www.neutralground.sk.ca/artistprojects/in-x-isle/index.html
Jimmie Durham's you are here
Mike Macdonald's Butterfly Garden
Omushkegowak Oral History Project
Speaking the Language of Spiders
Stories Across the Oceans
The Prayer of Thanksgiving
link no longer active http://www.albany.net/~printup/
Candice Hopkins (Metis/Tlingit) is the curator in residence at the Walter Phillips Gallery in Banff, Alberta. She has an MA from The Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, NY, and has organized exhibitions featuring the work of Faye HeavyShield, Elaine Reichek, Brian Jungen and Truman Lowe. Her writing is featured in the upcoming publications Making a Noise and Transference, Tradition, Technology: Native New Media Exploring Visual and Digital Culture, both to be published by the Walter Phillips Gallery. Her upcoming curatorial project, Every Stone Tells a Story: The Work of David Hammons and Jimmie Durham, will open at the Kresge Gallery, Ramapo College, New Jersey on November 11, 2004.
1. Marjorie Beaucage, Aboriginal Voices: Entitlement Through Storytelling, in: Janine Marchessault (ed.), Mirror Machine: Video and Identity, Toronto: YYZ Books, 1995.
2. Trinh T. Minh-ha, Native Woman Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism, Indiana University Press, 1989.
3. Penny Petrone, Native Literature in Canada: From the Oral Tradition to the Present, Ontario: Oxford University Press, 1990.
4. Trinh T. Minh-ha.
6. Jimmie Durham, A Certain Lack of Coherence: Writings on Art and Cultural Politics, London: Kala Press, 1993.
7. The Sony Portapak, initially marketed in 1968, was the first truly portable half-inch video recording device.
8. I write about video not to create a linear historical trajectory from oral tradition to the digital present, but because it is one of the first instances in Canada where storytelling was equated with a medium outside of oral and written traditions. See Marjorie Beaucage's essay Aboriginal Voices: Entitlement Through Storytelling, referenced above.
9. One of the most comprehensive and engaging resources on the history of video art is Doug Hall and Sally Jo Fifer's edited volume Illuminating Video: An Essential Guide to Video Art (New York: Aperture in association with the Bay Area Video Coalition, 1991).
10. Victor Masayesva, Indigenous Experimentalism, in: Jenny Lion (ed.), Magnetic North, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, Walker Art Center, and Video Pool, 2000.
12. Loretta Todd, Aboriginal Narratives in Cyberspace, in: Immersed in Technology: Art and Virtual Environments, New York: MIT Press, 1996.