Thursday, 29 June 2017

My Domestic Field Placement with IIF: A Crash Course in Hacking the Future

By Jasmin Winter, 2nd year MDP student

I first came across the Initiative for Indigenous Futures (IIF) in my first-year MDP Research Methods course, while I was writing a paper about Information and Communication Technologies and Indigenous community development.  IIF’s commitment to prioritizing Indigenous self-determination when considering technological engagement was an immediate breath of fresh air amongst the existing literature, and I was nothing short of inspired by the nuanced approach to their projects. If you had told me at that point that a year and a half later I would be sitting in their lab for my domestic field placement, I would have been pretty speechless. One thing’s for sure, I would have definitely had had much more motivation to get through those late nights writing that final paper!

Can you spot me amongst the green screened IIF team?

For some context, IIF is a partnership of universities and organizations “dedicated to developing multiple visions of Indigenous peoples’ tomorrow, in order to better understand where we need to go today.” IIF is conducted by Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace (AbTeC), a research network based at Concordia University. And the physical space at Concordia in which AbTeC and IIF activities take place is called Obx Labs. 

 If you’re having trouble keeping up with the terminology, don’t worry. You could always reach out to Jason Lewis (IIF’s primary investigator) or Skawennati (partnership coordinator), who run this whole operation. Reaching out to Jason while I was writing my paper was actually the first step in me meeting Dr. Julie Nagam, Associate Professor at UofW and Chair in the History of Indigenous Arts of North America at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. She is a co-investigator for IIF, and between then and now, became my supervisor for my Major Research Paper. She also took me on as an RA, in part to help out with the third annual IIF symposium, which will be hosted in Winnipeg at the end of this year. Therefore, my key role during my placement involves acting as a bridge between Winnipeg and Montreal to get the symposium organized. Looking back, everything really fell into place rather serendipitously.

Got my hands on a nifty IIF logo t-shirt.
What initially drew me into IIF’s work was their Skins workshops, where they share a comprehensive toolkit of digital media skills with Indigenous youth and allow them to create a playable video game rooted in traditional storytelling. With four iterations under their belt, word has begun to spread, and the team has actually been invited out to Hawai’i this July to conduct Skins 5.0.  While I won’t be joining them, being able to sit in on the Skins meetings and absorbing everything that goes into the process has given me invaluable insight into program planning.

Since being at IIF, I have also been able to see a virtual reality project being produced, as well as witness the production of Skawennati’s new machinima. What’s funny is that I actually learned about Skawennati through her machinima well before I learned about IIF. TimeTravellerTM was presented to me during an Indigenous art history course in my last year at McGill, which was actually taught by Hannah Claus, who is now a resident artist at the lab. Machinima, for those who don’t know, is a portmanteau of “machine” and “cinema,” and involves the capturing of film in virtual environments.

On May 27, I had the honour of presenting Skawennati’s machinimas (including TimeTravellerTM, She Falls for Ages, and Words Before All Else Part 1) at a workshop titled “On Time Travel” in Toronto. The workshop was one in a series produced by the Shattered Moon Alliance, and created from the impetus of wanting to explore science fiction worldbuilding from the perspectives of women of colour. You can find my blog post about it here.

Ready to present at “On Time Travel”! Definitely one of the coolest workshops that I’ve ever attended.
During that weekend, and all throughout my time here with IIF, I have been able to further substantiate the need to move away from simplistic narratives of the “digital divide,” and see first-hand how Indigenous peoples can be positioned as creators, not just consumers, of digital technology and new media. I have picked up on new vocabulary and conceptual ways of thinking, like how Indigenous peoples can hack the “source code” of different technologies in both a literal sense, and figurative one - by challenging the underlying worldviews that have influenced dominant technological development narratives. What makes IIF’s approach truly unique is the way that they create opportunities for Indigenous peoples to focus on their “wants,” and not only their “needs” when it comes to their futures, carving out space for whole new dimensions of imagination and potential. Through technological empowerment, IIF ensures that Indigenous peoples can all at once draw from the past and reclaim future imagery that has been denied through colonial narratives that suggest an inevitably in assimilation. The irony in this colonial logic, of course, is that Settlers would have never had a future had it not been for Indigenous peoples and their knowledge. This fact has become that even more relevant during this year because of the anniversary celebrations of Montreal 375 and Canada 150. It is more clear to me than ever that these events should not be viewed as celebrations of progress, but a recognition of the interconnectedness of the past, present, and future.

On a personal note, being back in Montreal after graduating from McGill two years ago is a constant flux between feelings of familiarity and strangeness. Strangeness, especially, because I am now working at Concordia, and living on the opposite side of campus. But these past six weeks with IIF have made the return so worthwhile, and truly exceeded any of my expectations. This is, above all, due to the high expectations set out by Jason and Skawennati. The team and the subsequent environment that they have curated is entirely conducive to respect, innovation, and fun. I can honestly say that I am learning something new every day that I am here, and I look forward to soaking up as much as I can during this last month of my placement.

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