HIGH TECH Bi­idaa­ban imag­ines a re­claimed city

The Georgia Straight - - Hightech - By

PKate Wil­son

ic­ture the Toronto sky­line over­grown with plants. Green shoots poke through bro­ken con­crete, and trees sprout from patchy rooftops. The sub­way tun­nels are flooded to plat­form level, form­ing a col­lec­tion of in­ter­weav­ing trib­u­taries just wide enough to be nav­i­gated by a ca­noe. Sky­scrapers are crum­bling un­der the eye of the CN Tower.

The scene’s de­scrip­tion in­vites a vi­sion of a dystopian, postapoc­a­lyp­tic night­mare. But in the hands of Anishi­naabe mul­ti­me­dia artist Lisa Jack­son, cre­ator of the vir­tual-re­al­ity ex­pe­ri­ence Bi­idaa­ban: First Light in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Na­tional Film Board, the trans­formed Toronto is both fer­tile and med­i­ta­tive.

“I don’t like us­ing the word postapoc­a­lyp­tic,” Jack­son tells the Ge­or­gia Straight on the line from her home in the city. “That’s one of the words that comes to mind, of course, and Mathew Bor­rett—the amaz­ing 3-D artist whose work fed into this—his cre­ations can con­jure those ideas. But there is no term for a fu­ture place where cur­rent so­ci­etal struc­tures aren’t op­er­at­ing, apart from one that im­plies there has been to­tal death and de­struc­tion. In­stead, I’ve some­times been call­ing it a rec­on­ciled Toronto.”

Jack­son’s In­dige­nous her­itage is at the heart of the seven-minute Bi­idaa­ban. Of­fer­ing an in­sight into a world in which First Na­tions tra­di­tions flour­ish within Toronto’s ur­ban jun­gle, her imag­ined fu­ture al­lows the viewer to wan­der around a to-scale vi­sion of the city re­claimed by the nat­u­ral world. The an­chor point of the ex­pe­ri­ence is lan­guage. As users slip be­tween rich van­tage points, words from the Wen­dat, Anishi­naabe, and Kanien’kaha—the first in­di­vid­u­als to in­habit the place ini­tially known as Tkaronto—rise up

Bi­idaa­ban: First Light de­picts a “rec­on­ciled” Art­work by Mathew Bor­rett

on the screen and are nar­rated over the sound of chirp­ing crick­ets and stir­ring leaves.

“The first flash­point of my in­ter­est into this was about 10 years ago, when I started look­ing into In­dige­nous lan­guages and read­ing a lot of lin­guis­tic books,” Jack­son says. “In­dige­nous lan­guages hold ways of look­ing at the world which are rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent. To over­sim­plify it, there’s a lot of stuff that has to do with re­lat­ed­ness—a height­ened sense of re­la­tion be­tween peo­ple and their en­vi­ron­ment. The English lan­guage is mostly nouns, and In­dige­nous lan­guages are largely verb-based. Sud­denly, ac­tions, re­la­tion­ships, and in­ter­re­la­tion­ships be­come high­lighted, and ob­jects start to re­cede. [Bi­idaa­ban] is tak­ing an­other step and imag­in­ing a place re­claimed by na­ture, where the lan­guages that have been spo­ken here for many thou­sands of years grow back in the same way as the plant life and the other things that are na­tive to this world.”

Jack­son’s project falls un­der the ban­ner of In­dige­nous fu­tur­ism, a la­bel that de­scribes First Na­tions per­spec­tives on the past, present, and fu­ture through the con­text of science fic­tion. By build­ing an imag­i­nary vi­sion of a re­claimed Toronto, the in­vented set­ting al­lows her to cir­cum­vent pre­con­cep­tions about In­dige­nous peo­ple and por­tray Na­tive cul­ture free of the set­tler nar­ra­tive. With its fo­cus on cre­at­ing fan­tasy land­scapes, Jack­son be­lieves that In­dige­nous fu­tur­ism is a frame­work that lends it­self to VR ex­pe­ri­ences.

“Be­ing able to cre­ate new worlds within the im­mer­sive en­vi­ron­ment of VR is one of the most ex­cit­ing pieces for me,” she says. “And I think for In­dige­nous folks, the world-views— whether or not we’ve been raised with the lan­guage—are so dif­fer­ent from main­stream cul­ture. [Us­ing VR] is an op­por­tu­nity to put peo­ple within a dif­fer­ent world and have them ex­press the view and cul­tures of In­dige­nous peo­ple.…it’s a great way to cre­ate a sense of place, and when you think that for In­dige­nous folks, cul­tur­ally, ev­ery place is so cen­tral to how ter­ri­tory re­lates to iden­tity, I hope that it will spark more peo­ple to ex­plore that medium and those con­nec­tions.”

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