Interview by Sharita Towne
Portrait by Alex Subrizzi
Skawennati is an artist, independent curator, and Co-director at AbTeC (Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace). It is her unique approach to storytelling, imagining the future, change, cultural richness, and growth that drew me to her work. Artistically speaking we can call Skawennati a “New Media Artist,” yet there is much more to her body of work than simple software and graphics. I am glad, in a word, to have been introduced to her work but I am grateful that she took the time to answer my questions so thoughtfully.
Sharita Towne: Thank you for agreeing to do this interview with the Contemporary North American Indigenous Artists blog. We are especially honored to have you, as an artist who knows firsthand the importance of forging digital spaces for Native artists, communities, and young people in Cyberspace. Can you tell us about the community you grew up in, and how it influenced you to become an artist, and particularly, a New Media Artist?
Skawennati: I think that I was pretty much born an artist, into a family of artists —not my parents or my siblings, but many of my Mohawk family members are very creative individuals, expressing themselves through sewing, beadwork, embroidery, pottery, woodworking and painting. My great aunt taught me to sew when I was three. I have very fond memories of looking through bags and bags of fabric in her closet; of her teaching me to put beads on a needle; of making my first stuffed animal (a giraffe!). Her daughter, Kathleen, who is like an older sister to me, encouraged my artistic tendencies in every way, from teaching me skills herself, like quilting and how to make a clay pot, to taking courses with me at the Visual Arts Centre. “Painting with Pastels” was one, and there was one where we learned to use hydrastone. She is still an incredible support to me.
When I went to university, my intention was to become a designer, probably a graphic designer. I didn’t yet know any artists or how one went about becoming one. It still wasn’t a real job to me at that time. It was the early 90s and the desktop computer was just starting to appear. My department, Design Art at Concordia University, was pretty cutting-edge because we had an Apple 2e lab! And an Amiga lab! It was love at first sight for me, though (perhaps unfortunately) I never became a geek. I was never that interested in what was under the hood; it was what you could do with them that excited me. While at University, I joined the First Nations student group; It was a small group, but most of its members were artists, and I started to realize that I was one of them.
After graduating, Ryan Rice, Eric Robertson, and myself founded Nation to Nation, a First Nations artist collective, to help us to stay motivated to produce artwork, and to offer ourselves and other artists moral support and venues to show their work. Around that time, I began to work at an artist-run centre called Oboro Gallery. The director Daniel Dion, was also very excited about computers and this new “internet” thing (this was around 1996). We kinda bonded over that and he encouraged me to figure out how to use e-mail, and all the new stuff that was developing at super speed.
Images from CyberPowWow.net
Without their support CyberPowWow would not have happened. So all these things together make me the artist that I am today. But, as for becoming an artist, I think I was born that way. I had to fight to convince my father to accept my decision to major in Fine Arts. He wanted me to become a doctor or a lawyer or something like that. He’s proud of me now, though.
ST: Can you talk a bit about your work as Co-director at AbTeC (Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace) and how it started?
S: AbTeC is a research network that I co-direct with my partner (in life), Jason Lewis (http://www.facebook.com/jasonedwardlewis). We’re artists who like to make stuff, so the product of our research is artwork. The idea of Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace started with CyberPowWow (CyberPowWow.net), which I claimed was an aboriginal territory in cyberspace. I came to realize that it was vital that Native people participate in the shaping of Cyberspace, so that we could determine our own image there. Prior new technologies had shaped the way non-Natives saw us —the camera taught people that we all wore headdresses; movies showed us as mute, or monosyllabic at best. But today, many of us Native types have been able to get our hands on a computer at the same time/rate as the rest of the population. We use it to tell our own stories, create our own images, and to have an effect on how the whole thing looks and works and acts. And we are teaching others to do the same through the Skins Storytelling and New Media Workshops for Youth (skins.abtec.org).
ST: One aspect that I find particularly intriguing about your work, is the way you bring together the past, the present, and the future, with both insight and playfulness. Your current work TimeTravellerTM has all these qualities. When did you first conceive of this idea of history in the future, and what has the journey been like to bring this idea to life? Do you see yourself continuing to develop this subject matter?
Right: Image from Imagining Indians in the 25th Century, Left: Image from TimeTraveller™
S: Thank you for your kind words. In 2001 I was commissioned to create a work for the Edmonton Art Gallery’s millennium exhibition (many galleries were doing special projects for the turn of the millennium). I made “Imagining Indians in the 25th Century” which is structured upon a timeline of one thousand years of history, starting in 1492, two years before Columbus’ arrival in North America, and ending in 2490. I imagined a Turtle Island as once again being populated and governed by an Aboriginal majority. In addition to reports that Aboriginal people are the fastest growing segment of the population (at least, in Canada) I was inspired by the idea that the majority of the population could easily be Aboriginal if all “half-breeds” and “mixed-bloods” and “grandchildren of a Cherokee” and all of our ancestors children where considered to be Aboriginal, instead of the other way around. Rather than seeing Indians as “diluted,” what would happen if everyone with any Indian heritage was counted as Indian? We’d live in a very different place, I think. Another reason for making that piece, and subsequent artworks about the future, was that I began to sense this feeling in Indian Country, that the only great things we’d done were in the past. While I love our traditions —our ceremonies and crafts and stories— it seemed like many people were trying to bring back the past, rather than create a future for ourselves in which we are once again great. (I think this has started to change).
Second Life ribbon shirt made by Charlotte Fisher, necklace by Sahar Homami, and stadium by Nancy-Elizabeth Townsend.
I have 5 more episodes of TimeTravellerTM planned, and once they are done, I plan to stop making machinima for a while. I have some ideas for some new work that will also be future-oriented. I’d like to make artifacts from the future, such as a wampum belt and a ribbon shirt, both of which are in the process of being designed right now. In these works I am asking myself, “In the future, what will we wear as regalia? What kind of agreement would we honour with a wampum belt?” I think I may also wear the costumes and artifacts in significant locations and then create a photograph.
ST: I have watched the first 4 episodes of TimeTravellerTM, and have been amazed by the attention to detail in every avatar and setting. How long does one episode take to make, and what is the collaboration process like?
Episode 01, TimeTraveller™
S: The first episode took two years, as we had to learn *everything* —how Second Life worked, how to move in it, how to dress people, how to make them look Indian. Then we had to figure out what tools we use to make the machinima. What was the best software app to capture the action? What settings were compatible with the editing software, and with how the work would ultimately be shown? The second took about a year, and Episodes 03 and 04 were made in the third year. Each one takes less time as the team gets better and better. Also, Second Life continually improves. It’s now possible to do things that were technically infeasible when we started.
For me, the term “collaboration” really means that two or more people have conceptualized a work and made it happen, so I don’t really think of this as a collaboration. That said, I work very closely with a small team whose opinions I greatly value. The core is made up of three multi-talented Production Assistants, Nancy- Elizabeth Townsend, Charlotte Fisher, and Sahar Homami (and other people who have moved on over the years. Check out the credits!). They know how to 3D model, texture, and animate. They make all the sets, props, and wardrobe. They have also necessarily become experts in Second Life, and can customize and operate avatars (basically “casting” and acting) too. When we are in pre-production, I give them the script I’ve written and we create from that a list of the avatars we’ll need, what they’ll be wearing and what custom actions they have to do (like a jingle dance).
TimeTraveller™ Production Still: Jingle Dancers Assembled. 2011. Courtesy of the artist.
Storyboard from Episode 03 of TimeTraveller™
I draw pictures, bring in swatches of fabric and basically act as Art Director (I think that’s what it’s called in Film). When we have been able, we have gone to real-life locations (such as St-Francis Xavier church in Kahnawake) to photograph every inch of the place so that we could replicate it.
Book image of St-Marie-Amoung-the-Hurons Indian Church c1600 and the Indian Church set built on AbTeC Island in Second Life from upcoming Episode 05 of TimeTraveller™
While they make the stuff, I then find the voice actors who will play the characters. With my trusted Sound Designer/Technician, Shawn Mullen, we record the voices. Then we are ready to shoot. Now the Production Assistants become Avatar Operators. We “choreograph” the scene. I direct. I say, “Okay, Nancy, you walk towards the picnic table and look down at the pizza, while, Charlotte, you play this sound file so that your avatar can “say” his line. Action!” And Nancy presses the arrow key until the avatar reaches the picnic table and then moves her mouse so that he looks down. (Sometimes, we need more avatars in a scene than we have people to operate them. We sometimes have one person operating two computers, with multiple Second Life windows open on each!) I am also the “machinamatographer’ (new word!) — I shoot the scene using a 3D mouse as a movie camera to frame the image, while using software to capture the screen action. Once all the footage is shot, I edit in Final Cut Pro. Other post-production work includes some After Effects business —all the HUD features are created and animated that way— and sound design.
ST: Do you think of yourself as a “Contemporary North American Indigenous Artist?” Do you think terms like that one are useful or not? Do you feel like there is a separation between contemporary indigenous artists and the rest of the art world as represented by mainstream art magazines, biennials, art fairs, etc.?
S: Yes, I am definitely a Contemporary North American Indigenous Artist. But I’d say I think of myself as an artist who is also Mohawk, and a woman and an activist and a Generation X-er and a few other things. I have mixed feelings about “terms like that.” They are very useful in some ways, confining in others. For one thing, they help us Indians identify each other! I truly believe that the main reason we as a community have gotten this far in the art world is because we started talking to each other, working together, helping each other. Of course, we’ve had a lot of non-Native supporters along the way as well, and we couldn’t have done it without them.
From my perspective at the moment, there is definitely a separation between contemporary indigenous artists and the rest of the art world. But I think a number of things are happening simultaneously. I think that we as a community have different subject matter that we want to interrogate in our work, and different audiences. I think, too, that we are still learning about the rest of the art world. I mean, we just got into the Venice Biennale in 1995! And there had already been forty of them! I think we’re learning both how to be like them and how we are different from them. But for sure something interesting is happening right now, as evidenced by Close Encounters, a huge (the biggest so far!) exhibition of international Indigenous artists created as Winnipeg’s banner project for their Cultural Capital of Canada program. There was so much parallel programming that it seemed like every museum and gallery in the city went “red.” And I can’t wait to see the reaction to the next Sydney Biennale!
ST: Have you ever felt pigeon-holed as an artist, if you have, in what ways have you felt pigeon-holed, and how have you dealt with that feeling?
S: No, thankfully, I have not. The only time I felt pressure to create “fluffs and feathers” was when I was in art school! Many of my teachers urged me to use more natural materials. I was like, “Why?!?” I was into bright colours, plexiglass and science fiction.
And I didn’t see any contradiction between that and my authenticity as an Onkwehonwe (Mohawk for Native person). I still don’t.
“Four Faces of Skawennati” a composite image created as a possible design direction for Skawennati.com
ST: You will be presenting at “Reconfigured Realities” this month. Can you tell us about it, and what more we can look forward to in 2012?
S: Reconfigured Realities is the theme of this year’s New Sun conference. I will be telling them a lot of the stuff I’ve talked about in this interview. I’ve also been asked to show an episode of TimeTravellerTM.
2012 is looking pretty exciting. The Eiteljorg show, We Are Here, will be travelling for the first time ever and it is going to one of my favourite cities ever, NYC and will be shown at the NMAI. That’s June 1. And I just found out last night that my work will be included in Changing Hands 3, at the Museum of Art and Design, also in NYC! I am quite happy. I’ve been asked to present my work at the new Native cegep (a kind of college we have in Quebec) and at Concordia University and a couple of other places —I post everything on my FaceBook page. The main thing is I want to finish all ten episodes of TimeTravellerTM this year!
ST: Thank you for sharing your time with us Skawennati. Can you recommend another artist that we should interview for this blog in the future?
S: Ryan Rice, Jason Edward Lewis www.thethoughtshop.com, http://www.poemm.net, http://www.facebook.com/ jasonedwardlewis
Skawennati is an artist and independent curator with a BFA from Concordia University in Montreal. Since 1996, she has been working in New Media, beginning with the pioneering, Aboriginally-determined, on-line gallery and chat space, CyberPowWow. Her own artwork, which addresses history, the future, and change, has been widely exhibited. Imagining Indians in the 25th Century, a web-based paper doll/time-travel journal has been presented across North America, most notably in Artrain USA’s three- year, coast-to-coast tour of the show “Native Views: Influences of Modern Culture”. A print version of this piece is in the collection of the Canada Art Bank. 80 Minutes, 80 Movies, 80s Music, her ongoing series of one-minute music videos, continues to grow; and her current production, TimeTravellerTM, is a multi-platform project featuring a machinima series. Its website, www.TimeTravellerTM.com, won imagineNative’s 2009 Best New Media Award. Skawennati is currently Co-Director, with Jason E. Lewis, of Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace, a network of artists, academics and technologists investigating, creating and critiquing Aboriginal virtual environments. Their project, Otsì:!, a game mod created with students from Kahnawake Survival School, won imagineNative’s 2010 Best New Media Award. Skawennati has also been awarded a 2011 Eiteljorg Fellowship for Native American Fine Art.