Computation Arts faculty member Jason Lewis and alumna Skawennati Tricia Fragnito use digital media to explore the Aboriginal experience
“We’re all immigrants in cyberspace.” So begins a 2004 academic paper by Jason Lewis, an associate professor of Computation Arts. If cyberspace is indeed unclaimed ground, he asks, is it possible for Aboriginal people to claim portions of it?
Lewis and artist/curator Skawennati Tricia Fragnito, BFA 92, GrDip (DIA) 96, are looking into new approaches to tell the stories of Native Canadians by creating opportunities for them to define themselves in mass media “rather than be defined,” as Lewis explains. “We have the opportunity to participate in the digital evolution. We don’t have to be passive observers or the objects of technology’s gaze.”
To meet their goals, Lewis and Fragnito co-founded Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace (AbTeC), a research project supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. AbTeC offers a series of initiatives to expand and encourage Aboriginal internet presence and participation in shaping new media through web pages, online games and virtual environments. “AbTeC is one of many efforts to develop new ways for Aboriginal people to express themselves both individually and culturally,” Fragnito says.
AbTeC’s secondary focus is to explore how digital technology can be used for purposes other than those for which it was intended. This dovetails nicely with some of Lewis’s other research as founder of Obx Laboratory for Experimental Media, which is exploring new ways of working with visual language in the digital environment.
One of AbTeC’s initiatives is a series of workshops called Skins in which mentors and elders work with youth on traditional stories and translate them into a virtual setting from an oral format. “As an artist and a teacher, I would like to see Aboriginal youth become producers of digital media. If more Aboriginal people were employed in the video game industry, we might see more interesting Aboriginal characters than the ones we see now,” Lewis says.
To illustrate this point and put it to the test, AbTeC bought an island on Second Life, the virtual reality game. (While the land is virtual, the money is real.) “On the one hand, it is very much an Aboriginal territory in cyberspace,” says Lewis. “On the other hand, we’re not interested in saying, ‘We just want Aboriginals here.’ We want this to be a point of engagement with other people in cyberspace,” Fragnito concludes.
While the art is digital and the worlds are virtual, Lewis and Fragnito aim to offer Aboriginal people opportunities for real conversations in real time.