Barriers to Access. The Good Kind.

“What people care most about is not simply restricting the flow of information but ensuring that it flows appropriately.”

– Helen Nissenbuam

Remember when people called the web “new media”?

By now, “New media” is something of a misnomer, and just as the social and mobile web is no longer new, the debate about how information is created and shared online has become timeworn.

The debates tend to circle around two competing ideologies: Neo-liberal “free culturists” battling tight-fisted regulation lovers.

The techno-optimists have their camp. The likes of Cory Doctorow and Jeff Jarvis vociferously exalt the benefits of the free flow of information. Copyright and digital rights management (DRM) tools are anachronistic straightjackets on the democratizing potential of open access. Free market dynamics will smooth the wrinkles of disruption caused by Silicon Valley startups.

In the other camp are the artists, media-makers and media owners who depend on restricted access like copyright and paywalls for their livelihood – and for those in the film and music business – for the preservation of the industry status quo.

Journalism, too, relies on the tenets of access to information – rendered as freedom of expression – the right to publish information gleaned from public spaces that is relevant to the public it serves.

Kimberly Christen Withey has a bone to pick with the open access debate. But her position doesn’t quite fit the binary.

She is a researcher at Washington State University who has taken a close look at the origins of the phrase “information is meant to be free” and reveals, through the work of scholars Lewis Hyde, Boatema Boateng, Jane Anderson and others, how the concepts of public domain and open access are tightly bound up with colonialism.

Thomas Jefferson was a purveyor of the free transmission of cultural ideas, his motivation stemming from what Whitey calls “deeply emotive and ideological American narratives” (Whitey, 2877). But she links “public domain talk” with the ideal of westward expansionism of settler occupiers.

For many Indigenous communities in settler societies, the public domain and an information commons are just another colonial mash-up where their cultural materials and knowledge are “open” for the profit and benefit of others, but remain separated from the sociocultural systems in which they were and continue to be used, circulated, and made meaningful. (Christen Whitey, 2012, 2879-80)

There’s another problem with the “public domain” – it’s often conflated with unfettered access.

To open our eyes, she takes us to the grassy plains of Tennant Creek. It’s a small town in Australia’s sparsely populated Northern Territory, known for cattle ranching and its hot dry climate. Half of the residents are Indigenous. It’s home to the Warumungu people.

In 2008, when Twitter, YouTube and Facebook were emerging, Christen Whithey launched the Mukurtu Wumpurrarni-kari archive, “a stand alone, browser-based community digital archive for the Warumungu community.”

The idea was to create an online presence to mimic offline protocols. Contrary to the tenets of open access, some Warumungu protocols require privacy – gender and family affiliation determine which practices community members can participate in. Mukurtu CMS works by restricting what users can access based on identifiers in their profile. An outsider might only be able to view a narrow set of material while a community elder might have access to an expansive range of content.

The community embraced the archive because it provided a solution to the problem of artefact sequestration. Cultural artefacts are often cloistered in museums, and not always available to the Indigenous communities from which they originated. Prior informed consent isn’t always provided, and too often, artefacts are taken freely. The digital archive didn’t just make these digital artefacts accessible to the community, it allowed the community to exert control over who sees what.

The archive was the first experiment that would eventually lead to the creation of Mukurtu CMS – an open-source content management system that “can be adapted to the local cultural protocols and dynamic intellectual property needs of any indigenous community” (Christen, 2012, 2873).

What the CMS does, is challenge assumptions around intellectual property. While today, “public domain” and “the commons” have intellectual property connotations, their origins can be traced back to Britain’s Great Charter of the Forest, which protected the poor’s right to glean natural resources like firewood, fish from streams, and plants (Taylor, 2014, 173).

The commons is a concept, as political activist Astra Taylor suggests, that is as much about negotiating the use of a space, as it is the space itself. But we often forget this, much to the detriment of the debate surrounding information access, says Christen Whitey:

The commons was never a place of inclusion, nor was it ever unregulated or uncontrolled. In his study of the commons as an idea and as practiced, Lewis Hyde shows quite clearly that, “the simple fact is that the commons were a form of property that served their communities for centuries because there were strict limits on the use rights. The commons were not open; they were stinted” (2010, p. 34, emphasis mine). (Christen, 2012, 2876-7)

If we understand this principle, then perhaps it opens up a new way for framing the debate around access to information, the mapping of Indigenous protocols onto the digital space, and what that means for journalists.

While the digitization of analog objects – everything from music files to photographs – renders them facsimiles that can be copied ad infinitum without diminishing the quality of the original, this raw process cannot accommodate the boundaries laid out in Warumungu and other Indigenous cultures. Simply put, barriers to access IRL ought to be conferred to the digital equivalents, no matter how contradictory that requirement may be, given the contours of the web.

If journalism is bolstered by the principle of freedom of expression, perhaps this refined understanding of what it means to have access to “the commons” helps explain why some information should not be free.

Consent, refusal, and the press

Recently, an episode of the media podcast Canadaland featured a panel of Indigenous reporters and media makers.

The panel assessed mainstream media coverage of Indigenous news as well as the role that Indigenous media plays in today’s digital news landscape.

Host Jesse Brown asked whether mainstream media should be permitted to cover these stories in the first place, and conversely, whether Canada is experiencing a “watershed moment” in which Indigenous stories are receiving more airtime.

Maureen Googoo, who owns and runs the independent Indigenous news site kukukwes.com, said:

“I’m at a point in my career and life where I just don’t care what mainstream media finds interesting anymore because I have my own website. I get to decide…. I care about what my community finds interesting. Those are the stories I want to tell and those are the stories I’m going to try to tell […] at this point, I mean, I’ve dealt with mainstream media long enough to realize that these questions are what I’ve been hearing my entire career.”

And Leena Minifie, editor of Ricochet’s Indigenous Reporting Fund responded with:

“We’ve been doing Indigenous media by Indigenous people for Indigenous people since the turn of the century […] we’ll continue doing those stories […] It might take mainstream media a long time to get that kind of education.”

These two responses stood out for me.

They jumped out because I am a settler journalist preoccupied with the ethics of reporting Indigenous stories for mainstream media.

This panel discussion and these two responses were particularly generative, however, because they dovetailed with the ideas raised in Audra Simpson’s Mohawk Interruptus and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s “Land as pedagogy”; specifically, Audra Simpson’s critique of ethnography and Leanne Simpson’s deployment of the concept of consent regarding academic participation.

Audra Simpson is an anthropologist who, in her book, critiques ethnographic methods while articulating a “politics of refusal” in relation to the Kahnawà:ke reserve in what is now southwestern Quebec. It’s a rich, exhaustive and self-critical study of the Mohawks of Kahnawà:ke and their strident assertion of sovereignty in a deeply oppressive colonial state.

In “Land as pedagogy,” Leanne Simpson challenges readers to rethink the impetus to “Indigenize the academy” and instead to take up and pursue particular, situated forms of knowledge (in her case, Nishnaabeg) that are derived from the land itself.

Both represent a turning away from colonial attitudes and conceptions of sovereignty and institutionalized forms of knowledge.

These concepts (“politics of refusal” and “consent”) may provide a way into the question of what productive mainstream media coverage might look like and what it should not strive to achieve – a direction I think both Googoo and Minifie are gesturing towards in their statements, above.

Audra Simpson articulates a politics of refusal as a response to the politics of recognition. Refusal as she describes it, represents a move in the opposite direction: “Refusal” refers to the “political and ethical stance that stands in stark contrast to the desire to have one’s distinctiveness as a culture, as a people, recognized.” In this way, refusal becomes a political assertion. “Refusal comes with the requirement of having one’s political sovereignty acknowledged and upheld, and raises the question of legitimacy for those who are usually in the position of recognizing” (2014, 11).

Audra Simpson sees this politic play out in Kahnawà:ke, but she also acknowledges and respects this politic and turns it onto her own ethnographic methods. It’s a problem, she confesses, because it runs contrary to the presumed tenets of good ethnography.

But respecting it makes room for a far richer account of the politics at play on this reserve and perhaps more generally, in occupied territories across Canada/Turtle Island:

“In listening and shutting off the tape recorder, in situating each subject within her or his own shifting historical context of the present, these refusals speak volumes because they tell us when to stop” (Simpson, 113).

This account of refusal speaks, I think, to Leena Minifie and Maureen Googoo’s rejection of the authority of mainstream media.

While mainstream media ought to be accountable and ought to be accurate, structurally, it does not (and cannot) serve Indigenous voices. It gains its legitimacy through upholding the status quo even as it portends to be an antagonist of the powerful and sceptic of entrenched hegemonies.

Not only that, but Audra Simpson’s rethinking of ethnography also opens up ways for rethinking journalistic practice.

Perhaps there is a way here, to look at respectful coverage that acknowledges the colonial underpinnings of media institutions, and at how acknowledging this power imbalance might help us appreciate and respect why the tenet “freedom of the press” has its limits.

Perhaps in journalism, too, “refusals speak volumes.”

And it’s here, I think, that Leanne Simpsons’ notion of consent might help us appreciate and work through a reframing of mainstream media approaches to covering Indigenous stories.

In land as pedagogy, Simpson points to the harm caused through the persistent denial of consent: “Within the context of settler colonialism, Indigenous peoples are not seen as worthy recipients of consent, informed or otherwise, and part of being colonized is having to engage in all kinds of processes on a daily basis that, given a choice, we likely wouldn’t consent to” (2014, 15).

While the subject at hand is academia, her analysis provides a strikingly accurate account of the danger of reporting, as well:

“The word consensual here is key because if children learn to normalize dominance and non-consent within the context of education, then non-consent becomes a normalized part of the ‘tool kit’ of those who have and wield power” (2014, 15).

There are times when journalistic consent is presumed – and this denial is as damaging for those affected as it is to a student denied his/her particularized, knowledge framework in the academy.

In both cases, this presumed consent can be normalized and become an insidious means of both justifying and denying asymmetrical power dynamics. If mainstream media journalists are brokers between two worlds, their first job is to acknowledge the game is rigged.

I wonder, then, what consensual journalism might look like and whether it is a contradiction in terms. Especially coverage that requires reporting in communities in which stories are hidden from mainstream audiences either in virtue of proximity or through the enactment of “refusal,” as outlined above.

One final thought: As Jesse Brown suggests during the discussion, the advent of the social web has meant unprecedented settler access to Indigenous media. Applying questions about how politics of refusal play out in the context of the web and in relation to independent Indigenous media are fraught. But they also open up opportunities for reclaiming space and affording bridging opportunities between settler and Indigenous communities. They might just offer mainstream media, a means of education.

[1] Maureen Googoo, Leena Minifie, Jarrett Martineau, Ryan McMahon, and Waubgeshig Rice

Politics of Recognition, Mediated

I’d like to start this post with a question: What are the implications of the thesis Glen Coulthard offers in Red Skin, White Masks for mainstream news media?

I ask because, as a settler journalist, I seek to understand the ethical implications of my line of business.

My aim here, is to look at the viability of bringing Coulthard’s critique of the politics of recognition into dialogue with media ethics in a Canadian context—in a way that tarries with the facts at hand, and which Coulthard lays out plainly in his book, namely, that Canadian statehood finds its legitimacy in the continued work of dispossession.

As Coulthard writes in the conclusion of Red Skin, White Masks, colonialism “is an ongoing practice of dispossession that never ceases to structure capitalist and colonial social relations in the present. Settler colonialism is territorially acquisitive in perpetuity” (150-51).

Applying this premise to the domain of mainstream media requires that we consider the political mechanics of journalism. Questions about the role of Canadian media in serving colonial ends, even as it defines itself as an ostensible antagonist of the state, are fraught. They are fraught because journalism is not by matter of course asked to contend with its own origins, origins which are resolutely colonial and, as Coulthard puts it, “territorially acquisitive.”

Nevertheless, They are questions that ought to be asked precisely because of the reciprocal nature of the relationship between mainstream media and the Canadian nation-state. In many ways, mainstream media, by adopting values of “objectivity” and by leaning on funding from advertising and taxation, operates as an extension of the state and an apologist of the politics of recognition that Coulthard so vehemently opposes.

Coulthard provides a much needed articulation of the insidious aspects of the politics of recognition in Red Skin, White Masks. With the help of Frantz Fanon, he delivers a knockdown argument against state-derived impositions of reconciliation. He defines the term for us in the introduction:

“I take “politics of recognition” to refer to the now expansive range of recognition-based models of liberal pluralism that seek to “reconcile” Indigenous assertions of nationhood with settlerstate sovereignty via the accommodation of Indigenous identity claims in some form of renewed legal and political relationship with the Canadian state” (9).

What the politics of recognition fails to consider, he contends, is the asymmetrical power dynamic inherent in the settler-subaltern relationship, which results in the “very configurations of colonialist, racist, patriarchal state power that Indigenous peoples’ demands for recognition have historically sought to transcend” (9). This is because, as he explains via Fanon, “when delegated exchanges of recognition occur in real world contexts of domination the terms of accommodation usually end up being determined by and in the interests of the hegemonic partner in the relationship” (17).

Mainstream media often touts this same inconspicuous rhetoric. The facts of dispossession, which Coulthard so clearly lays out in his book, are rarely taken into account by mainstream news outlets. The most recent and tragic example of the La Loche shootings, does very little to counteract this tendency.

La Loche “is a community with high levels of unemployment and addiction to drugs and alcohol and a reputation as a tough town,” according to one New York Times article. Pieces in The Globe and Mail and National Post provide ample evidence of the community’s struggle with drug abuse and disproportionately high youth suicide rates, but historical and social causes are glossed over or omitted entirely.

Still, outlets have also provided sympathetic coverage that provides a more nuanced account of the tragedy. One piece in the Toronto Star, which covers the arrival of Justin Trudeau to the town after the shooting, remarks on Trudeau’s lack of commitment to residents’ request for funding to improve education, infrastructure and housing in the community. The National Post piece quotes Leonard Montgrand, executive director of the La Loche Friendship Centre, who voices his concern that reporters visit La Loche only when tragedy strikes: “People out there think our community is this evil, horrible place to live in. It’s not like that.” (See also Seeing Red, by Mark Cronlund Anderson and Carmen L. Robertson for an exhaustive account of the role mainstream media has played in perpetuating racial stereotypes in Indigenous news coverage.)

Still, the problem runs deeper than a lack of context and it can’t be resolved with a few mollifying paragraphs tacked to the end of a news article. The problem, I think, is structural. These media entities are by their very nature invested in the socio-economic status quo. This may or may not overtly influence the way in which a reporter frames a story, but blindness to the consequences of historically founded and continued perpetuation of colonial narratives speaks to a kind of latent acceptance of the colonial framework – one which mainstream journalism at its core and as an inherently sceptical profession, ought to contest.

So why doesn’t it? I would venture to suggest that the prioritization of the objectivity norm ends up serving the hegemonic discourse over counter-narratives that may be accurate and representative of diverse perspectives. As Donna Haraway suggests in her seminal work, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective,” objectivity acts as a kind of unspecified and unsituated gloss – a gaze from nowhere – and it serves dangerous ends: “This is the gaze… that makes the unmarked category claim the power to see and not be seen, to represent while escaping representation” (1988, 581).

And so, we find ourselves back at the question of the role of journalism and media in the complex account of Indigenous-settler relations offered in Red Skin, White Masks. Coulthard scatters a few references to the role that media has played in shaping this relationship throughout the book. He directly analyzes how media portrayed the Idle No More movement and the Oka Crisis. Both events represent political turning points, when Indigenous groups define for themselves and in the media, the terms of engagement, often to the chagrin of mainstream media journalists who seek to stamp these events with some unifying narrative that inevitably falls in line with the predominating colonial discourse. In the case of Idle No More, he cites a few haphazard attempts by mainstream journalists at identifying the “problem” with the movement in its lack of focus. In the case of the Oka crisis, he notes how corporate media overwhelmingly portrays events “as a “law and order”” (116).

It seems, then, that a double-bind emerges from Coulthard’s framework: journalists must act as adversaries of the state while depending on the colonial, capitalist patriarchy that undergirds and legitimates the industry.

But the paradox presents little in the way of optimism, nor does it guide a way out of this structural problem.

So where do we go from here?

Coulthard, in introducing a radical turn away from politics of recognition, and sketching out the means for doing so in his concluding chapter, offers clues.

In the conclusion of Red Skin, White Masks, Coulthard provides some introductory thoughts on Indigenous resurgence. Rather than looking to Fanon to guide his thinking (who de-emphasizes cultural revival in favour of “the new”), Coulthard turns to political scientist Taiaiake Alfred (Mohawk) and feminist Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (Anishinaabe), who offer up alternative means of relating to the colonial-settler framework and more importantly, fashion signposts for conceiving an Indigenous resurgent politic.

Coulthard introduces Alfred’s notion of “self-conscious traditionalism,” which suggests that Indigenous people must “choose to turn away from the legacies of colonialism…and take on the challenge of creating a new reality for ourselves and for our people” (154). Likewise, according to Coulthard, Simpson suggests Indigenous people “need to decolonize “on our own terms, without the sanction, permission or engagement of the state, western theory or the opinions of Canadians”” (154).

As with Coulthard, both Alfred and Simpson push back on the notion of institutionalized reconciliation. Ultimately, so long as the settler-colonial power structure remains in place, so too will a power imbalance that will always pre-figure the state’s attempts to establish rights and apologize for past wrongdoings. There is no “righting” historical “wrongs” because these wrongs persist today, and because these efforts ultimately serve the ends of the Canadian government while preserving a relationship of dispossession. One need look no further than the recent Human Rights Tribunal decision regarding First Nations children to observe the ongoing fallout of this power imbalance.

What, then, can provide an effective alternative? The countermeasure is Indigenous resurgence — cultivating and promoting cultural revival. Both thinkers, however, suggest that embracing historical traditions and values requires a degree of critical reflection. As Coulthard explains: The resurgence Alfred and Simpson advocate is thus a critical one: an intellectual, social, political, and artistic movement geared toward the self-reflective revitalization of those “values, principles and other cultural elements that are best suited to the larger contemporary political and economic reality” (156-7). Coulthard delivers five theses for conceiving of a politics of self-recognition that take into account Simpson and Alfred’s approach, but the most relevant to the purposes of this discussion, is the first: On the Necessity of Direct Action.

Direct action for Coulthard, must be prefigurative, in that these actions “build the skills and social relationships (including those with the land) that are required within and among Indigenous communities to construct alternatives to the colonial relationship in the long run” (166). He also defines direct action as being “directly undertaken by the subjects of colonial oppression themselves,” and “in a way that indicates a loosening of internalized colonialism” (166).

If we are to grant that mainstream media, thanks to its reliance on the problematic objectivity principle and its dependency on the status quo of the nation-state in its present form, perhaps we can consider Indigenous independent media as a way of counteracting this discourse. The work of âpihtawikosisân, Maureen GooGoo’s Kukuwes and the call by Anishinaabe reporter Duncan McCue to fight to resist “colonial amnesia” in the newsroom, for example, offer narratives that aggressively question the latent power structure at play in mainstream media production.

But turning away from state-sanctioned corporate media and towards grassroots Indigenous alternatives elides the responsibility of those media-makers who find themselves employed by these outlets, especially settler journalists who profit from this power imbalance, even if they reject it. It also neglects the role that Indigenous media-makers play in seeking a way out of the dominant discourse.

Taiaiake Alfred, in speaking about how Indigenous students and scholars might reconcile their roles within the colonial academic institution says, “you can carve out spaces… there are cracks you can inhabit and live in there until they close up and then move on. This idea of impermanency is important…” Perhaps his words ring true in the context of media, also.

Media occupies a unique position: it requires a theoretical framework, however latent, to do its work. The journalist as storyteller must embrace the incontestable fact that theory pervades storytelling, and that in telling a story, journalists perform. Decolonizing mainstream media may perhaps be a contradiction in terms, but it also provides a way to think about mobilizing mainstream publics to demand better journalism.

 

Sources

Coulthard, Glen S. Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 2014. Print.

Haraway, Donna. ‘Situated Knowledges: The Science Question In Feminism And The Privilege Of Partial Perspective’. Feminist Studies 14.3 (1988): 575. Web.

Alfred, Taiaiake. Indigenizing The Academy. 2012. Web. 9 Feb. 2016.

Space travelling with Kevin Lee Burton’s “Nikamowin”

Kevin Lee Burton grew up in God’s Lake Narrows in northern Manitoba. Currently, he resides in Vancouver where he works on film projects. In the award-winning short film “Nikamowin,” he takes the viewer on a journey from God’s Lake Narrows to the city.

At the beginning of the film, subtitles appear which tell us, “Cree Narration, altered and in raw form, is the only source of sound in this film.”

We only see the landscape. We never see the characters. In the opening scene, the bow of a boat drifts aimlessly in a lake. There is brief dialogue between an English speaker and the Cree language.

“Who taught you to open your eyes and blink… you had the ability and you did it anyways didn’t ya? Your tongue is the same.”

The Cree language chastises the English-speaking Cree character for not knowing the language. But the English speaker doesn’t know anyone who speaks Cree.

And this is the crux of the short film: The interplay between Cree sound effects, the Cree narrator and the subtitles produces a trance-like atmosphere that asks the audience to question how and why languages are learned and lost.

Sophie McCall is a professor and author who studies Indigenous oral storytelling. She says something about the film Atanarjuat, the Fast Runner, that I think applies here. She says, “the subtitled film, as a form of textualized oral narrative, enables the filmmakers to create two parallel texts that interact and speak to each other in imperfect ways. The gap between what is spoken and what appears on the bottom of the screen can be manipulated strategically, for a variety of effects, enabling the filmmakers to address different audiences” (2011, 15).

Likewise, in Nikamowin, subtitles call out the non-Cree speakers in the audience, even while Cree itself is distorted in the film. The distortions provide one layer of disorientation, the blurring of images, another. There is a gap between the spoken words and the subtitles; there are differences in the experience of the film based on whether the viewer understands Cree. We are challenged to ask for whom these subtitles are intended. The film is about the meaning of language and identity, even as it turns language into a kind of instrument to transmit that question.

As we travel from God’s Lake Narrows to Vancouver, the Cree language makes statements and poses questions, which also appear in subtitles – we drive down rural roads (“I give you… love”), through the trees (“do you love yourself?”), past concrete towns and finally into the city (“Do not put down your language”). The messaging gets more urgent the further from Burton’s/the narrator’s home we get.

As a settler viewer, this was one of the more powerful examples of how film can use language to assert Indigenous autonomy and work as a means of resisting the colonial gaze. Language turned the places in this film into Indigenized places. The city at the end of the film loomed dark, and the Cree language commands the viewer not to forget one’s language. The language itself speaks into the alienating city rush.

“Nikamowin” provided a visceral experience of what it means to be asked basic questions about identity and place, questions settlers seldom need to ask. In this case, the answer to these questions is evident: one loses one’s language and identity when colonization and assimilation prevents it from being taught in the first place.

Sources:

McCall, Sophie. First Person Plural. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2011. Print.

 

a few sound components in quelemia sparrow’s ashes on the water

Google Street View of Burrard Inlet from the North Shore.
Google Street View of Burrard Inlet from the North Shore.

“There is a sound for pain. Love, there is a sound for love. Joy, there is a sound for everything. Young sounds, old sounds, deep belly sounds, tiny bird sounds. A breath and I am there.”

            — Ashes on the Water

In the last blog we immersed ourselves in cyberspace, and clicked through poetry. In this case, we’re walking down the middle of a street and into the ocean. Quelemia Sparrow gets into our ears and through our eyes we see history unfold IRL.

It’s a long time ago, 1886. But here, walking amidst concrete with earplugs stuffed in our ears, the immaterial washes over us and becomes tangible. By listening intently, we see into the past. The Great Fire of 1886 arrives.

I’d like to focus on how a few elements of sound achieve this arrival, keeping in mind a passage from performance artist Ann Hamilton that keeps swishing around in my head: “Hearing is how we touch at a distance.”

Ashes on the Water uses sound brilliantly. Sparrow weaves together a handful of components that serve to disrupt our sense of place, direct our attention and pull us into the narrative.

There is the ambient sound – the waves, the fire, the wind. These sounds merge with the ambient noises leaking through our headphones and keep us entranced and unsure of ourselves. Is that the past I hear or is it now?

Then there are the voices. The protagonists take turns narrating, speaking their thoughts and dialoguing.

But it is Paddle Song herself who brings us completely out of the events and into another place:

“I came into this world through the ashes of destruction,” says Paddle Song.

“It started off with what felt like a deep yawn. A deep yawn that shot across the inlet, through the paddles that cut the water surface and into the hearts of the people.”

A single tone is cut up and reverberates as a collection of breaths multiply and heave around it. A drum beats. A rattle shakes. A rhythm forms and Paddle Song emerges. It’s a kind of audio poetry. Artist Ann Hamilton describes radio as “a condition that allows many people to occupy together, even in their aloneness.” This is what it felt like for me.

In a way it’s similar to a short film called Nikamowin by Kevin Lee Burton. In that short film, the narrator teaches another a few words of Cree. The narrator is the Cree language. Much like here, we have the Paddle Song narrating. In both cases, the song transforms and directs the listener to a place beyond the immediate.

Despite the lyrical beauty of the soundscape, what I found most intriguing were the sound cues sprinkled throughout the piece. We are instructed where to stand, in what direction to look and when to walk. As if a director is sitting somewhere just behind our shoulder. At first I found it off-putting. Then again, I was listening while doing the dishes. I didn’t need a cue. I wanted a story.

(I made it to CRAB park, but I forgot to download the file and so I wandered there, untethered by sound directives and totally lost.)

The second time I listened I opened up Google Maps and streetviewed the podplay. Probably not what Sparrow intended. But it afforded a way into history. This time the cues are functional. I think this detached human voice does more than simply direct us. Or rather, that this direction serves a specific purpose.

It reveals the listener as actor. As performer in the space (the space that is real life — a road and park crawling with civilians and leashed dogs — but also in this instance, a stage… and in my instance with Google Maps, a cyberspace). We follow the cues and so we submit to the demands of the artwork.

This might be going too far, but perhaps this disembodied directorial voice compels us to belong to this history, as settlers, as Indigenous people, as newcomers.

We cannot trace the narrative (literally, with our feet!) ourselves. We’re confronted with a jarring reminder. By being told where to walk, we are reminded of our situatedness. The contemporary cityscape and the complexities of this particular neighbourhood born out of the past to which are ears are attached. The directorial cue demands that we walk directly into that tension and submit, as an actor might, to the narrative reified. The cues are more than simply cues.

View of Burrard Inlet from the South Shore.
View of Burrard Inlet from the South Shore.

Sources:

Ann Hamilton, “On Being”: http://www.onbeing.org/program/ann-hamilton-making-and-the-spaces-we-share/6147

a look into history and a look at the future by looking with Isi-pîkiskwêwin-Ayapihkêsîsak

 

i’m going back and forth in a triangle and then some kind of circle, flitting between tabs hoping for an opening up space for access to Isi-pîkiskwêwin-ayapihkêsîsak . access denied. this happens sometimes.

Ahasiw Maskegon-Iskwew produced this piece in 1996. how long ago was that? what age was the internet? remember that hilarious clip with katie couric? here is the mainstream media thinking about internet in 1994:

now i’m looking through the work of Loretta Todd. she says “the transformation that is a regular experience in native narratives is not like the experience of escapism in western narrative nor the disembodiment of cyberspace…”

escapism and disembodiment is what utopic sci-fi film The Cave, eviscerates, speaking as it does to a specific audience (not me) that has no need for tired narratives. it is aboriginal sovereign – process, collaboration, production. it is escapism disrupted since it’s escapism turning inward, towards home. but the mind trudge, the access-point searching continues.

now i am stopping over at the national film board website (how did i get here?) for a quick scan through Loretta Todd’s Hands of History, a 1994 documentary film that explores the inner lives of Doreen Jensen, Rena Point Bolton, Jane Ash Poitras and Joane Cardinal-Schubert, women who make art as a form of revival and resistance.

and then, again, i venture to wander through the portals that Ahasiw Maskegon-Iskwew leaves open. i know he leaves them open. for a moment, i’m caught in cold winter.

9:00 A. M. SATURDAY, "Isi-pîkiskwêwin-Ayapihkêsîsak "
9:00 A. M. SATURDAY, “Isi-pîkiskwêwin-Ayapihkêsîsak “

i’m cold and disoriented. the window is open. i pick up my notebook: 18/10/2015, i have scribbled “indigenous futurism” and exclamation-pointed “indigenous people are on the forefront of digital technology, pushing what new media is and can do.”

Ahasiw Maskegon-Iskwew’s work is raw. a few narrators, poetry, blinking icons. there is a circularity, not in the logical sense, but in the way you click on the buffalo and return home. as has been explained in other blogs, as well as in the artist’s statement, Isi-pîkiskwêwin-ayapihkêsîsak “concentrates on the experiences of people who have been consigned to the fringes of urban streetlife and their sources of joy, grief and intense humanity.” i see that in open and bare stanzas.

Now it don’t take much but it does take a
lot in a red light dream parade.
Cause like, some whacked out dude like,
picked her up, and her
initials are printed where she used
to walk and no one’s like, seen her
since.

(Long Gone Walking Doll)

But they had an open box anyway,
with pink paper. And steam rose
from the ground early that morning
with brown
and newspaper swirling,
pushed by barely unseen winds
in ghettos of grass.

(A Prairie Piece)

each artist, some more than others, tells us of their love of Ahasiw Maskegon-Iskwew. his mentorship and vision.

Maskegon-Iskwew says, “The screenplay and storyboard are produced entirely on the World Wide Web in order to construct networks of relationships between the elements at each stage of development as a primary part of the work.”

this should be at the beginning but here it is: history converges with vision here. reaching back to 1996 when a man brought poets and visual artists and software developers together in a collaborative process to give voice to those “consigned to the fringes of urban streetlife.” those who may not ever really get on the internet in 1996 are rendered visible. the electronic form challenges Todd’s scepticism.

Todd asks:

“how do these concepts [of freedom of emotional singularity and community belonging] fit into cyberspace when cyber space has been created within societies that view creation and the universe so differently — one that creates hierarchies of being that reinforce separation and alienation with one that seeks harmony and balance with the self and the universe?”

Perhaps in the work of Ahasiw Maskegon-Iskwew, we find possibility.

Sources:

Vancouver’s Media World, Introduction
Narratives in Cyberspace, Loretta Todd
http://lovingthespider.net/?page_id=177
https://www.nfb.ca/film/hands_of_history
http://ghostkeeper.gruntarchives.org/essay-performing-transformations-ahasiw-maskegon-iskwew-sara-diamond.html

The Medium of Spiders

“Learning, the educational process, has long been associated only with the glum. We speak of the “serious” student. Our time presents a unique opportunity for learning by means of humor – a perceptive or incisive joke can be more meaningful than platitudes lying between two covers.”
– Marshall McLuhan, “The Medium Is The Massage”

It’s all child’s play, the Medium is The Massage. It’s a prank meant to undermine the serious “platitudes lying between two covers,” the big academic serious sounding words that bind people together and keep others out. The colonial words alongside them. The bodies of work that forget, erase, deny and indulge.

In 1964, in the Walter Kronkite era of mass communication, Marshall McLuhan introduces his seminal piece, Understanding Media. Total Change is upon us, he says. Gone are the days of parochialism. Not because we learned to read or do math. But because of electricity. Because of the medium itself. Because media work on us and work as environments, made by us, as extensions of our psychic and physical faculties.

And then he wrote another book. This time with pictures and some prose and some choice quotes. He called it the Medium is the Massage and here you have this entirely new thing, which is an example of the argument from his initial book and which is making a slew of observations based on that initial thesis, via language/presentation (images, conceptual graphics, abstract photography, tongue-in-cheek visual references) and about (among other things) the nature of serious work, our interpretations of cultural commentary, and our own biases against light-hearted learning.

Monochrome close-ups of toenails and then tire rims, perplexing and voyeuristic images of ceremonies and naked people and then spirals and maybe a couple of paragraphs about “ratios of sense perceptions” and the way a particular sense, when extended, influences our other senses and change us.

We were assigned to read this book for class. I couldn’t find it, so ended up using the internet and downloading a digital version. My neighbour and I shared the digital version in class. We couldn’t read the parts that required you to pick up the book and place it in front of a mirror. We performed readings out loud together and together the class watched itself perform interpretations of play and media, based on this book, which itself is play.

It’s meta. The warping of the meaning of learning and reading through this book calls us to question our assumptions of authority, of the real, of the culturally preconceived. But for me it helped frame another question: Is Indigenous new/experimental media a means through which to uncover a “new environment” for those who are out in the dark or cloistered reading those old platitude-filled books?

As we look to the poets, the artists and the sleuths in our midst, like Ahasiw Maskegon-Iskwew, perhaps these artists, contrarians, thinkers are those who “cannot go along with currents and trends.” Perhaps they/we have the “power to see environments as they really are.” Perhaps they/we represent what McLuhan calls “This need to interface, to confront environments with a certain antisocial power.” I wonder, how might these notions of disrupted learning interface with Indegeneity as environment, as medium? How do we play in an educational medium? How do we navigate and interpret those spider languages?