Imagine if Toronto were reclaimed by nature. This Indigenous futurism VR experience takes you there
Lisa Jackson's Biidaaban sees a future where Indigenous values, language and land are all integral to survival
Last night, I stood in Nathan Phillips Square and looked up into the evening sky engrossed by the galaxy of stars. They twinkled gently while the ethereal hum of frogs and crickets sang in chorus around me. I broke bread with the Creator and Indigenous communities speaking Wendat, Kanien'kehá:ka (Mohawk) and Anishinaabe (Ojibway). And then a turtle walked over my foot.
No, this wasn't a hallucinogenic trip or a lucid dream — I had just stepped into filmmaker Lisa Jackson's VR experience Biidaaban: First Light.
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The project is part of what Jackson calls "a rising tide of Indigenous futurism." As she explains: "What Indigenous futurism does is it looks to break through that tendency to stereotype everything that's Indigenous as stuck in the past and incapable of moving into our present or our future."
To create the world of Biidaaban, she worked with 3D artist Mathew Borrett, whose "Hypnagogic City" pieces were a large source of inspiration for the design of this future Toronto. Digital agency Jam3 and the National Film Board worked their magic to help make this virtual world a reality. But while all of these combined talents brought an incredibly clean and believable aesthetic to the project, it isn't merely an exercise in technical prowess — it's about a future where Indigenous values, language and land are all integral to survival.
"Given that half of Canada's population that's Indigenous lives within cities, I was like, 'Well, why don't we think of cities as Indigenous?'" Jackson says. "Cities are filled with vibrant Indigenous cultures, and so I've centred Biidaaban in the middle of a city and claimed space in that way."
This is not an apocalyptic vision — it's a hopeful one, graced with Indigenous symbolism like the Sky Woman, Grandmother Moon, teachings from the Thanksgiving Address and an open narrative that provides the viewer space for their own interpretations. While this was her first official VR project — and she just finished shooting an IMAX film, so she won't be abandoning traditional filmmaking anytime soon — Jackson is excited by the possibilities VR brings for sharing diverse stories.
"I've done so much mentorship with Indigenous youth and emerging filmmakers. For me, it would be great to see that community and other communities we haven't heard from, take their imaginations, use this technology to create new worlds that we can all experience. That's what I would like to see my piece provoke out in the world."
Step into Biidaaban: First Light at Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto Sept 18 - 24; The Hangar at the Centre for Digital Media in Vancouver Sep 29 - Oct. 2; imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival in Toronto Oct. 17 - Oct. 21; Planet in Focus Festival in Toronto Oct. 26 - Oct. 28; and Naisa North Media Arts Centre in South River Oct. 4 - Nov 25.
Watch CBC Arts: Exhibitionists on Friday nights at 11:30pm (12am NT) and Sundays at 3:30pm (4pm NT) on CBC Television.