This morning, as I sat by the open window at my laptop, engrossed in a
departmental email, one of my senses - sight, smell, hearing? - pricked,
and I looked to the immediate right of my lap to see a large and
twittery squirrel, on the sill of our screenless window. I jumped and
yelled HEY, causing the contents of my coffee cup to go shooting up and
over everything in sight - powerbook, papers, window. During the
requisite freakout-session of careful cleaning of my laptop to keep
coffee from getting inside the thing, I noticed a nut the squirrel had
left behind, on the sill - he was looking for a place to stow it, I suppose.
Of course last weekend's challenging and enlightening New Forms Festival
in Vancouver came to mind, where the 2005 theme was "Ecosystems."
Biological metaphors are nothing new to this community or to some of the
more theoretically(academically?)-minded in new media. But Niranjan
Rajah and the other conference organizers put together a collection of
presenters and panels that gave the subject a deep, difficult
examination, unlike any I have experienced.
It was a rich weekend of difficult analyses and proclamations about the
relationship between our tools, the institutions that hold them, and the
other beings or places we have displaced, eradicated or absorbed in the
process of creation. I thought I should share with the list some of what
transpired, in part because I think there should be more of it south of
The New Forms Festival has been running for a few years, and this was my
first. I'm sorry to say that I saw none of the exhibition components,
and only a small piece of the music components, but the conference
portion was quite a full plate. Three days saw numerous panels, papers,
and performances - unique about these for me was that a new media
conference was focussing on so many allegedly "extra-medial" concerns
that don't seem to come up often in new media discourse. I'll run
through some of the highlights.
First, perhaps the most remarkable thing about this conference was its
setting in the Museum of Anthropology at University of British Columbia,
a world-renowned collection of works by the First Nations people of
western Canada. Niranjan's characterization of this choice as forcing
the examination of a field that runs "from bones to broadband" was just
the start. The days' events went far beyond the predictable and
essentialist juxtapositions of "hi-tech" and "low-tech" we've come to
expect of some McLuhan-esque rhetoric. Instead, the setting constantly
forced the difficult question of technology's role in colonization -
the same colonization that led to the assembly of such a collection as
anthropology rather than as history, as technology, or even as art.
Carol Gigliotti's keynote paper on Friday took us through the history of
the West's definitions of "human" and "non-human", with an emphasis on
some seriously disturbing metaphors employed by the likes of Descartes.
It comes as no surprise to many of you I'm sure that the Enlightenment
gave us descriptions of Nature as "the proverbial 'bad girl'" (Carol's
words), requiring a strong hand to the forelock and a slap to the back
of the head, if not an outright rape. And from this we get modern
science, and from that we get vaccine, but also flash memory and
nanopods, and at the expense of beings and places we first had to label
as not worthy of respect. For you skeptics, this was much more than an
effort to scare more "PC" into your P.C.. To recognize the roots and
expenses that make possible our faster and ever more social media forms
is to weigh our enthusiasm about new possibilities against some of the
effects. I count this as progress in an area that normally slips into
utopianism like an old drug habit.
Following Carol's talk was a provocative examination of the museum as a
site of grieving - we witnessed a live remote performance by Peter
Morin, who from just outside the auditorium took a page from Coco Fusco
or Fred Wilson, and placed himself among the artifacts of his own
people. Through a seemingly casual video monologue Peter spoke and sang
about those who had long died, those of his people who were at that
moment facing arrest during protest, and about the experience of the
museum as mausoleum, as pain. The following panel complicated this
perspective through the presence of Anthony Shelton, the museum's
Director, and Raman Srinivasan, who related the story of visiting a
temple in the Philadelphia Museum of Art as a graduate student, reverent
and comforted but also aware of the violent rip that made the presence
of the temple in his temporary home possible.
These strategies persisted - we saw several panels set up to keep us
uncomfortable in our assumptions, including the odd and provocative
pairing of the champion of sampling, John Oswald (of Plunderphonics
fame) with Ahasiw Maskegon-Iskwew, who told stories of information theft
as colonialist strategy, but also of artist Cheryl L'Hirondelle
Waynohtew's approach to piracy or sampling as act of infiltration or homage.
Other standout moments included:
- Learning from Ahasiw Maskegon-Iskwew and Stephen Loft about Winnipeg's
Urban Shaman gallery, drumbytes.org, and conundrumonline.ca, several
efforts at supporting and displaying works in New Media by aboriginal
artists. In his talk, Stephen Loft re-imagined the gods of fire in
aboriginal mythology as John Wayne, protecting and hoarding a powerful
technology until he's finally encircled by his opponents.
- Filmmaker and conference sponsor Loretta Todd also shared some about
the effort she's leading, the new Aboriginal History Media Arts Lab.
- Steve di Paola described his work with the Vancouver Aquarium to model
Belugas and fishes in 3-D environments, in which he found himself
confronted with the irreality of what some expected the virtual animals
to do, and the shocking reality of illusionistic 3-D renderings that
even react to stimuli.
- Landscape architect Kelty Miyoshi McKinnon's excellent paper on "The
Urban Bestiary," how animals adapt to and infiltrate urban landscapes,
how we sensationalize their arrival, and how some architects respond.
- Curator Alice Ming Wai Jim shared some about the new and exciting
efforts of the recently relocated CENTER A, a non-profit space for new
media and contemporary art from Asia and the Pacific Rim. Significant to
Center A's current mission is the gallery's intentional and stark
relationship to the surrounding neighborhood of Gastown, infamous as the
poorest postal code in Canada. Alice and the Center seem committed to
acknowledging this contrast through exhibition and outreach, including
their involvement in the upcoming Container Project for ISEA 2006.
- John Wynne's work on his project Hearing Voices, in which he explores
the endangered Khoisan clik-languages of the Kalahari Desert through
field recording, photography, radio documentary and installation.
The conference concluded with a performance in the Anthropology Museum,
at the foot of the totem poles in the main hall, backed by the setting
sun over the pines of Vancouver's bay. At first, the pastoral sounds of
electronic musician Noah Susswein jarred with the memories of violence
implied by the artifacts, even as the landscape behind seemed timed for
the music. But when vocalist Tanya Tagaq Gillis took the floor, backed
by Souns on the laptop, we were reminded that even as we remembered
death, First Nations people were very much alive, and strong. Tanya's
throat-singing (which you may have heard on Bjork's Medulla album) and
Souns' glitches meshed together in service of the power of the voice.
Tanya ruled that space for awhile, as I'm sure she will with the Kronos
Quartet later this Fall, and resisted our identification of the
"natural" or aboriginal as dead or dominated. It was a fitting close to
a weekend I won't forget - and for which I'm indebted to a long history