Concordia Panel Explores the Work of Aboriginal Artists in the Digital Sphere

Photo Brandon Johnston

Can the digital realm exist as decolonized space? This was one of the topics discussed at last Friday’s panel discussion “Aboriginal Territories in Digital Space” in the EV building’s auditorium.

Organized by the Aboriginal Arts Research Group, the Concordia-based student group focused the event on fostering a discussion on indigenous art and artists in Montreal.

Skawennati, an Aboriginal artist and Concordia graduate, spoke about her recent project Time Traveler™, an animated video series based on a Mohawk character named Hunter who lives in the distant future.

He acquires a pair of glasses that allow him to travel through time and interact with historic events. His adventures allow him to understand his people’s history, and throughout the series, he forms a positive self-identity, eventually falling in love and gaining success in the hyper-materialistic world of the future.

“I think that what we’re doing as artists is we’re trying to show connected history and recreate that history,” Skawennati said. “I think art has that potential to remind us of something and in this case, it’s reminding us of our connections to our past and our ancestors.”

The entire series was created on a computerized set designed in Second Life, an online virtual reality.

“I really think virtual worlds are kind of metaphors for the future and that’s why I thought it was the right medium to use for this story,” she continued.

Following Skawennati’s talk, Jason Lewis, Concordia Research Chair and associate professor of Computation Arts, discussed SKINS—a video game design workshop he helps coordinate for Kahnawake’s First Nations youth.

The workshop allows young people to design their own video games from the ground up, with the help of Lewis and others. They first discuss the story they want their game to tell, design characters and landscapes using paper and clay and eventually take the games to the digital stage with the help of the workshop coordinators.

“A big part of why we undertook the SKINS workshops is because [technological] choices are being made for us,” Lewis said. “Part of what we need to do is start making those choices ourselves, so we can make them the way we want.

“In order to do that we need to gain a good grasp on the technology—the best place to start is with the youth.”

Technology, Lewis claimed, is inherently biased towards those who develop it. Since it has been primarily developed through a Western lens, it reflects those worldviews and results in a monoculture of technology, absent of divergent voices.

Morgan Kennedy, a usability analyst at Ubisoft, continued the evening’s discussion by talking about his experiences in helping develop Assassin’s Creed III, a video game which features a mixed-race Mohawk protagonist named Ratonhnhaké:ton.

“At all levels of the development team […] there were people who really cared about getting it right,” Kennedy said on the game’s development.

“There was this sort of political battle between the development team and our home office over whether or not [Ratonhnhaké:ton] would actually speak Mohawk in the game,” he said. In the end, a significant portion of the dialogue chosen for the game did appear in Mohawk.

“Sadly, I think that Assassins Creed III was one of the only [high budget] games that came out that year that actually featured a non-white protagonist,” Kennedy added. “I think that’s a shame and it speaks volumes about what’s wrong with the industry right now.”