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Machinima art series revisits Oka Crisis, moments in native history

Categories: Art & Design, Featured, Gaming, Movies

Time Traveller face-offTimeTraveller tm brings to life a number of key events in aboriginal history, including the Oka Crisis. (Skawennati/Abtec/Ryerson Image Centre)

Military vehicles sit next to a barricade along a stretch of Quebec highway bordered by the forest, near disputed land close to the Kanesatake reserve and the small town of Oka. Tensions are high and violence seems imminent.

The scene is familiar, but you're not watching an evening news clip from 1990, when the Oka Crisis caught the attention of Canadians and the world. This is TimeTravellertm, a video art series looking back at key moments in history from a distinctly First Nations perspective.

Perhaps even more unusual, the series is an example of machinima, a style of animation created inside a video game. In this case, the game is Second Life, the enduring virtual world launched in 2003.

TimeTravellertm is the brainchild of Montreal-based artist Skawennati, who recently finished the nine-episode series after six years of work. Episodes are screening in Toronto at the Ryerson Image Centre as part of the university's exhibition Ghost Dance: Resistance. Activism. Art.

For Skawennati, the Second Life game engine was the perfect fit for the project.

"I wanted to tell a story set in the future, and what better way to tell it than with this futuristic medium?" she said.

TimeTravellertm follows Hunter, a young Mohawk from the 23rd century, as he uses a sophisticated pair of glasses to view and participate in important moments of aboriginal history. Skawennati likens the experience to the Holodeck from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Two episodes playing on large screens at Ryerson showcase key instances of resistance in First Nations and aboriginal history: the Oka Crisis and the 1969 Occupation of Alcatraz in California.

"What I'm trying to do is use science fiction to place a kind of distance from the now, in order to be able to look at certain First Nations events from a new or slightly different perspective," Skawennati says.

Peter Mansbridge in Time TravellerThe Oka episode includes a machinima depiction of Peter Mansbridge on The National. (Skawennati/Abtec/Ryerson Image Centre)

In the case of Oka, Hunter spends time behind the lines, alongside the Mohawk activists who formed the blockade to prevent the expansion of a golf course onto what they consider sacred ground. During his time there, he even watches an archival newscast on CBC's The National, complete with a machinima depiction of Peter Mansbridge.

"It's compelling," says Steve Loft, the guest curator who brought TimeTravellertm to the Ghost Dance exhibit.

"Most people see any side of confrontation and interaction through ...the media lens, which is usually almost always on one side. I don't mean that in terms of bias, I mean one side of the view. Here you're seeing the entire episode from within the community that's behind the barricade and it humanizes them."

Machinima wasn't initially the main point of Second Life. In the game, players create and design avatars to interact with others in social environments, from recreations of real-world locations to, say, a demonic night club populated by characters clad in goth fashions. Once heralded as the next Facebook, the game has since faded from front-page headlines but still has a smaller, dedicated fanbase.

However, the game's graphics engine has provided a bottomless toolbox for machinima creators. Like real-world TV or film directors, they can manipulate Second Life's cameras to produce videos inside the game.

When Skawennati first encountered Second Life, it reminded her of an old online chat program called The Palace. She says she didn't have a clue about how complicated making TimeTravellertm would be. She and her team of animators faced a number of technical hurdles when they began, including the absence of darker skin tones for human characters (which were added later as the game's audience expanded).

But using a video game -- still a relatively unusual medium in art gallery settings -- was a way to bring audiences into the experience (becoming, in a sense, a "player" alongside Hunter) and to encourage First Nations people to think about the future, she says.

"I was thinking about native people and our presence [in cyberspace], and our lack of presence in the future and how people don't see us in the future. Even we native people don't seem to see ourselves in the future. It seems to me that we keep longing for the past."

Two episodes of TimeTravellertm are displayed at the Ghost Dance exhibition, which continues at Toronto's Ryerson University through Dec. 15. The entire nine-episode series will screen on Oct. 18.

Time Traveller watching newsArtist Skawennati said she was inspired to create TimeTravellertm after thinking about the lack of a native presence in cyberspace and in depictions of the future. (Skawennati/Abtec/Ryerson Image Centre)

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