Asserting Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace: Interview with the Artist Skawennati
by Amy Ge, Associate (Feminuity)
Skawennati is a Mohawk multimedia artist who currently resides in Montreal, QC. She is a Co-Director of Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace (AbTeC), a research network of artists, academics and technologists investigating, creating, and critiquing Indigenous virtual environments and also co-directs their Skins workshops in Aboriginal Storytelling and Digital Media. Recently, she served as the 2019 Indigenous Knowledge Holder at McGill University. We met Skawennati at this year’s WOW Dinner, an event celebrating inclusion in the tech industry. In a report conducted by report conducted by Tech for All, statistics show that less than 1% of all tech roles in Toronto were occupied by indigenous folks. That is why we at Feminuity were particularly fascinated by Skawennati’s art and sat down with her to learn more about the need for more indigenous perspectives in tech.
Amy Ge: Could you tell us about your art and particularly the medium called Machinima?
Skawennati: Well, Machinima itself is simply making movies in virtual environments. Virtual environments are like video games, where you have an avatar and can operate that avatar to move around and do things that you want it to do. I use a game, or massively multiplayer online world called Second Life. So, it's a lot like making a movie. Instead of casting people, I customize avatars. I write a script. I get the avatars wardrobe and hairstyling. And I find voice talent to record the voices of the dialogue.
You’ve mentioned that the machinima, She Falls For Ages, is a retelling of the creation story in a futuristic setting. This is really interesting because there is a mainstream portrayal of indigenous folks as always being stuck in the past. You've consciously placed their stories into the future. Could you talk a little bit about that?
One of the things I wanted to do was provide the world with images of indigenous people in the future. I love to think about what we'll be doing, how will we look, who we will be in a relationship with in the future. I also love to think about some of the incredible concepts and cultural artifacts and policies and thoughts that our ancestors had that made them think they were so great that they wanted to survive. How can those translate into the future? How can we re-adapt them or revitalize them or basically bring them with us into the future?
Your art seems to be driven by this theme of ‘time’, whether it's about the past or the future or just the act of change and transformation itself. What drew you to that idea?
I have always been a fan of science fiction, because I loved thinking about the future. But at one point I realized that Native people are rarely shown in the future. In literature, movies and video games, we are used to represent the past.
It made me think that the tragic statistics associated with Native people, such as the highest dropout rate, highest incarceration rate, and a very high suicide rate in the country, could be linked to the fact that we couldn't see ourselves in the future. There's a real political urgency to it. I felt that we needed to have some different images to work from.
I view your work as a piece of resistance because a lot of the narratives about indigenous folks in Canada have been rewritten by those in power to mitigate the atrocities that happened –– which is a reprehensible way of retelling stories. But you're rewriting these narratives in a positive light, because you're thrusting them into the future and showing indigenous people that they do have a place there and that they do survive.
That's what I hope. And I think it's also important not to just show us as just surviving, but also thriving. For example, in TimeTraveller™, [one of my machinimas], we start off with a young man who lives in the future, but he's not doing so great. He can't find a job and has to work as a hired gun. He lives alone, he's lonely, he doesn't fully know who he is. He knows he's Mohawk, but he doesn't have a good connection to his community. He lives in a storage locker because he can't afford anything better.
And so, the whole story is about him getting to know who he is and then having success: learning to love himself and another person, becoming rich and famous. It's not that I think money and fame equal success, but they are a way of showing success in this society. It's a kind of success that Native people are not often shown having. I made this because I thought it was important to show a rich, famous happy, loving, and loved Native person. That is thriving.
What do you think is the effect of you showing this counter-narrative through tech rather than a live action movie?
That's a great question. No one's ever asked me it like that before. I think I'm using the medium that fits the message. The medium of machinima, especially, lends itself to using Second Life where your avatar can fly, your avatar can teleport, your avatar can instantaneously communicate with other avatars. It seems so futuristic to me. And of course, you can build sets that look futuristic. It seemed like it was a great way to convey the future.
Are you working on any new projects right now?
I am and thank you for asking. My team and I are working on a project called, Calico & Camouflage. It is a virtual fashion collection of “resistance wear and is based on two patterns that are related to a lot of Native people. The first pattern is found on the ribbon shirt, a blouse-like top usually made of calico, which is a flowery print. These shirts have ribbons on them, usually horizontally across the chest and across the back. People wear them to ceremony. People wear them to the UN when they're representing their nation. People wear them to graduation. Some people get married in them. The second is camouflage. During a lot of our significant moments of resistance, such as Wounded Knee, the Oka Crisis, or the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, you can see Native people wearing army clothes.
I thought it would be interesting to put those two things together and make ribbon shirts in camouflage print, and army pants in calico print. I'm making everything in Second Life and will have a virtual fashion show. We’re going to take portraits of the avatars and make a fashion lookbook. It's going to be a catalogue of fashion with the avatars wearing the clothes, and it’s going to include text about why we need resistance wear, where we wear it, and what it's for. Also, we might be in a real fashion show, so we might be making the fashions in real life now.
We are grateful to have had the opportunity to speak with Skawennati about her point of view as an Indigenous artist, as well as her innovative projects. To learn more about Skawennati and her work, click here to access her website.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity with the interviewee’s permission.
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