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By Karen Herland
Google “Aboriginal tradition” and you’ll come up with 73 000 hits. Try a wildcard search for “Aboriginal cyber*” and you get only 410. A pair of Concordia artists are leading a project to address that imbalance.
“We wanted to imagine ourselves in the future. The discussion tends to be historically facing,” said Jason Lewis, a computation arts professor. He and Skawennati Tricia Fragnito (an alumna who, in 1996, added a graduate diploma in administration to the BFA she had earned four years earlier) co-founded Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace (AbTeC, abtec.org) with SSHRC funds.
“There’s a feeling amongst our people that everything great about us has already happened,” added Fragnito.
Fragnito has created TimeTraveller™ using the internet world of Second Life, where people can create characters able to interact with each other in real time. Part instant messaging, part role play, part fantasy world, participants build virtual worlds, hold virtual meetings or orchestrate virtual scripts within the capabilities of the software, networks and their own imaginations.
Fragnito uses Second Life as a virtual set and directs episodes in the life of her character, Hunter, an angry 22nd-century Mohawk bounty-hunter, who travels back in time and experiences historical events. In the first of a dozen stories to be produced over the next three years, Hunter embarks on his journey saying, “when it comes to history, always get a second opinion.”
Fragnito premiered her piece in Montreal at this summer’s 67th annual World Science Fiction convention, allowing Hunter to rub shoulders with more traditional sci-fi characters including Klingons, zombies and Doctor Who.
In the first episode, Hunter finds himself sitting in on a late 19th-century lantern show depicting Native violence for an audience of RCMP officers. The lantern show images recreated in TimeTraveller™ were adapted from real images in the collection of Calgary’s Glenbow Museum.
Fragnito talked about how the museum’s images were translated into a Second Life context, where historical and advanced technologies merge, and acknowledged the limitations of that fusion. For instance, the Glenbow Museum curator remarked the Second Life options for clothes left the virtual mounties wearing red coats inappropriately tight for the 1870s.
“We aren’t creating a museum, we can’t be absolutely accurate,” said Lewis.
Lewis was there presenting the results of an academic-year-long project, Skins 1.0, that AbTeC piloted at Kahnawake’s Survival School. From September 2008 through June 2009, they worked with students to “tell Aboriginal stories in new ways using new technologies.”
Students exchanged stories they had been told about their community and wove them into a video game with an Aboriginal protagonist.
“Young people are producers as well as consumers of new media,” Lewis said. He had the students take the lead “We restrained ourselves. Our role was to gather the resources and hope they pull it together.”
He was impressed with the students’ initiative and creativity. He, Fragnito and a team of technicians, who work with him in his Obx Labs at Hexagram (obxlabs.net), would visit regularly to help guide the process. The students took it upon themselves to design the terrain and map out where and how events in the game would occur.
In contrast, Fragnito designed TimeTraveller™, but needed a team of about 13 people to help realize her vision. “I was lucky to be working with people who shared my passion, but this was not a collaboration.”
Having spent some time elaborating Hunter, the Second Life set and the capabilities of the platform, Fragnito expects to produce a new TimeTraveller™ installment every four months.
Lewis is on sabbatical this year, and will be spending time in his studio. He wants to develop a curriculum for use in other schools based on the lessons learned from Skins 1.0.