Close to the Bone

On Skawennati’s TimeTraveller

Gregory Volk


When I visited Montreal last October to write about La Biennale de Montreal, I encountered Skawennati’s artwork for the first time. I had missed out on the unprecedented CyberPowWow she helped initiate way back in 1996, and the inventive Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace (AbTeC), a network of artists, technologists, and academics, of which she is currently co-director. I was there to see, experience, and write about what I quickly understood to be a very good and compelling exhibition, filled with diverse works by Canadian and international artists, and with a subtheme that involved an ample selection of vivid and engaging videos and films.

On my first day, after seeing several works I came upon Skawennati’s TimeTraveller™ room, featuring a large projection. I was instantly intrigued, then enthralled and transported, even though, or perhaps especially because, I didn’t know exactly what I was seeing. Skawennati’s films—with their elaborate architecture and landscapes; avatars moving in choppy, rudimentary ways; rich colours and accompanying music (including way cool hip-hop by the Cree rapper Daybi)—suggested to me cartoons and animé, but even more than that, the virtual, immersive, three-dimensional environments of computer games like Minecraft (my thirteen-year-old son is an aficionado). I subsequently learned that Skawennati’s movies are machinimas, movies made in virtual environments, in this case, the pioneering, longstanding virtual world Second Life.

Based on this computer game aesthetic, I was expecting something fun and, very likely, fantastical. Instead, I began absorbing an artwork that is indeed fun, witty, and fantastical, but also sorrowful, insistent, confrontational, ironic, savvy, sexy, educational, occasionally fierce, and deeply, complicatedly human. Throughout, contemporary culture—including a pastiche of slang reaching from the present to Skawennati’s teenage years (“no problemo,” “BFF,” “whatever!”), urban fashion, music, computers, and websites—gets enfolded into both the remote past and future. Mohawk people, including issues of their identity, culture, history, and political resistance, are at the core of this work. It immediately occurred to me that while I have seen and written about many international biennial exhibitions, this was the first time in such a show that I was encountering a Mohawk-themed work made by a Mohawk artist, and not only that but an extraordinarily innovative work that decisively breaks with just about all traditions associated with Indigenous art, and that also offers radically fresh possibilities for such art. A direct-action infiltration and transformation of cyberspace is also at the core of the work. Long a devoted Internet and Second Life user, Skawennati is well aware of how underrepresented (and sometimes not represented at all) Indigenous people are in cyberspace. Skawennati changes this situation. With TimeTraveller™, but also through her work with AbTeC (which involves teaching Indigenous youth to make video games in order to empower them as producers, not just consumers, of new technologies), as well as mentoring artists, she opens cyberspace to her concerns and makes it hospitable for, responsive to, and representative of Indigenous people like her. Her TimeTraveller™ episodes are freely available on the Web. They are also shown in galleries, museums, and schools. Her scenes are populated by diverse Indigenous people across diverse time periods. It is their voices we hear, stories we learn, psyches we discover, and worlds we visit. They are the commentators, not the commented on; they are central and not peripheral figures. Building on the important and courageous achievements of Mohawk activist Richard Oakes (prime instigator of the temporary “Indians of All Tribes” occupation of Alcatraz Island in 1969) and the Mohawks who defended their land and confronted government authorities during the Oka Crisis of 1990 in Quebec—both of these events figure prominently in TimeTraveller™ episodes—among many others, Skawennati’s work constitutes a profound act of cultural assertion and self-determination now extended into cyberspace. Also, while this is not an overtly autobiographical work, it arises from a profoundly personal source, from Skawennati’s own complex experience as both Mohawk and Canadian. Her characters are her surrogates and ambassadors, allowing her to explore nuances of her psyche and to connect with her Mohawk heritage and identity.

I entered Skawennati’s TimeTraveller™ while Episode 02 was playing, which introduced me to Hunter, one of the two main protagonists. He’s a strapping young Mohawk man living in Montreal in 2121, and his home is an austere yet serviceable storage locker. In another era this bounty hunter and ex-Marine (who, incidentally, is also very thoughtful, sensitive, and respectful), trained in combat techniques and expert with weapons, could easily have been a confident and brave Mohawk warrior. In his era—featuring a glittering, technologically advanced, consumerist, money-addled Montreal—he is disaffected and adrift, isolated from and largely ignorant of his people’s history and his own cultural identity. Almost on a lark, he begins using his TimeTraveller™ edutainment system, which includes special TimeTraveller™ glasses that allow him to not only research but also directly experience and participate in past events. We are informed that this is common technology in his day, and has long been incorporated into schools as an interactive educational tool. Wearing blue glasses and clicking on his computer, Hunter temporarily sheds his normal life to become a virtual explorer ostensibly traveling through time, and what he’s searching for, as I later learned from Episode 01, is exhilarating violence; he’s like many other avid young men out there in cyberspace playing Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, or World of Warcraft. Typing in the keywords “Indian Massacre,” he is looking, as he tells us, not for Indians being massacred, but instead for Indians who are committing massacres.

In the search bar at the bottom of the screen we see that Hunter has arrived in Acton Township, Minnesota on August 17, 1862—and I doubt that many viewers know the significance of this place and date; I certainly didn’t. In Fly-on-the-Wall (lurking) mode, Hunter encounters what he thinks might be an Indian war party and, intrigued, he switches to Intelligent Agent mode, allowing him to interact with the participants, all equally strapping men like himself. As he banters with them (at times hilariously, including his “cheque is in the mail” wisecrack that falls flat, because there were no cheques and also no mail for circa 1860s Sioux), Hunter is startled to discover that this isn’t a war party at all but instead one scouring the landscape for food during a time of starvation. Violence isn’t on the minds of these Dakota Sioux, hunger is, and the hunger of their families. The group is thrilled to discover some eggs, and then decides (with some trepidation) that it might be a good idea to knock on a settler’s cabin door to ask if they might spare a couple of hens, which you see strutting about the yard. The settler emerges with a cocked rifle ready and vehemently demands that the Sioux get off his land. Suddenly the place is bristling with weapons, those of the settlers in the cabin and those of the Sioux. Shots are fired. The settler family is killed, including a young girl who was hiding under a table. Up to this point, the film had seemed fun and engaging (like a computer game), at times even jaunty. Now it is grave.

Although he doesn’t know it yet, Hunter is at the advent of what would come to be known as the Dakota War of 1862, a raging conflict between Dakota Sioux and white settlers, during which hundreds of people were killed. The conflict escalated into a war between the Dakota Sioux and the US Army, ultimately resulting in the surrender of the Sioux, their expulsion from their historical homeland, and the hanging of thirty-eight Sioux men (you see them in the film at the gallows), still the largest mass execution in U.S. history. “Terrible Indian Raid,” the Saint Paul Pioneer & Democrat newspaper indignantly declared on August 29, 1862, describing the kind of scene Skawennati enacts, “Shocking barbarities.” Later, the newspaper wrote of “the outrages committed on our border by these fiends in human form,” fiends that “must be exterminated” [1] (emphasis mine). Largely left unexplored in accounts of the day were any of the reasons for this violence: treaties constantly broken, guaranteed annuity payments delivered late or withheld, the Sioux being pushed off their homeland, the fact that the Dakota Sioux were quite literally starving, Indian agents who refused to extend credit which would have allowed the starving Sioux to procure food, the humiliation of rampant racism. “Shocking barbarities,” it seems, only applied to the Sioux, and not to the many barbarous acts of the settlers and the government that supported them. It is precisely these complex underlying factors that Hunter encounters, and that we also encounter as viewers. Skawennati’s concise (at just over eight minutes) pretend world with its pretend violence intersects with whopping and calamitous historical events.

While the Dakota War is prominent in some Indigenous memory, I’m betting that it isn’t at all in non-Native American memory. In fact, I’m betting that the vast majority of Americans know nothing about it whatsoever. Utilizing extremely contemporary, and fundamentally entertaining, pop culture technology and aesthetics, Skawennati reclaims and reexamines crucial parts of a traumatic Indigenous past. Noted genocide scholar Raphael Lemkin (who coined the term “genocide” in 1944) has convincingly written that denial and eradication of memory are fundamental components of genocidal projects: they perpetuate the trauma and violence across time, psychologically punish the victims and their heirs, and exonerate the perpetrators. Skawennati directly intervenes in this process. She makes an especially fraught period of history present; she brings it to life (although a highly mediated life) and induces her viewers to consider it anew.

After watching this episode I was hooked, and wholly absorbed. Futuristic science fiction, complete with technological marvels, elides with contemporary culture (all the snappy banter exchanged between the members of the group) and also history, in this case an especially potent history. Now totally enthralled, I watched Episode 03, and here I want to make a confession. I had only the dimmest notion of the Oka Crisis land dispute of 1990, which is at the centre of the episode, and which became a watershed moment for Indigenous activism in Canada, and I suspect that many non-Indigenous and non-Canadian viewers will know little about it as well. In a nutshell, the town of Oka, Quebec (inhabited for thousands of years by Mohawk peoples before the French arrived in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries) planned to expand a private, nine-hole golf course to eighteen holes and also to build luxury housing by confiscating and razing a pine forest long deemed sacred by the Mohawks of Kanesatake; the forest is also a revered Mohawk burial site. Mohawks barricaded the road leading to the forest, and a tense, at times violent, conflict ensued, pitting Mohawks (joined by others) against the Quebec provincial police and, later, Canadian military forces, as well as against large segments of the local, non-Indigenous populace. On the one hand: a bigger golf course. On the other: sacred nature, to be cherished and respected. Basically, this was Avatar for real.

Using his TimeTraveller™ edutainment system, Hunter searches for “Warrior Mohawk” (he is beginning to conceive of himself as a Mohawk) and arrives in the Mohawk encampment during the conflict to join and converse with the people there. Even given the limits of Second Life software, which result in circumscribed bodily movements and facial expressions for Skawennati’s characters, they are vivid, personable, and compelling—you empathize with them, want to hear their stories, and you learn from them as they sit around a campfire discussing the siege and planning their moves. It’s well worth paying attention to visual details because this episode, and indeed the others, abounds with diverse, precisely chosen signifiers articulating a cultural milieu that is simultaneously contemporary and traditional, Mohawk and North American: a wampum belt and an Evil Dead t-shirt, a Ghost in the Machine t-shirt (referring to the 1981 album by, appropriately, The Police), and the Mohawk warrior flag. It’s worth paying careful attention to many other details throughout the series as well: glances, smiles, the inflection in a voice, a particular song played at a particular time, a special glint in the eyes—all of these make Skawennati’s fabricated world so human and touching, so close to the bone. At the campfire, Hunter (and we too, as viewers) meets the precocious four-year-old girl Karahkwenhawi—she’ll loom large in later episodes—and vows that he’ll protect her if her mother is arrested (many Mohawks were arrested, after they proudly walked away from their siege). Right here is the origin of a surprising aspect of Skawennati’s TimeTraveller™. This complex, culturally and politically engaged work is also an endearing love story.

Flash forward twenty-one years. Karahkwenhawi is now a university student, writing an art history paper on the representation of Aboriginal people in public spaces. With her iPhone, cascading black hair, tight jeans, boots, purple micro-down jacket, crackling intelligence, and ironic demeanor she is emblematic of cosmopolitan, circa 2010 Montreal youth. She’s in a local church seeking images of Kateri Tekakwitha, the so-called Lily of the Mohawks: the seventeenth century Algonquin-Mohawk Catholic convert who died young, was later canonized as the first North American Native saint, and is a controversial figure for Mohawks, many of whom consider her a traitor for siding with French colonizers and their religion. Here’s where a miracle happens. Hunter wordlessly materializes in the church. He teleports there, like in Star Trek, and then vanishes the next instant, leaving behind only a pair of blue glasses. Karahkwenhawi is amazed, and announces that she is not sure of what just happened, whether “a religious experience, a flashback, or a rift in the space-time continuum.”

It’s these glasses—a gift from the future—that allow her to time travel, explore future and past, ultimately meet Hunter, and probe her own identity as a Mohawk woman. She dons them, fumbles with the controls, and is rocketed to a rollicking, stadium-filling Winnipeg powwow in 2112 that’s being webcast all over the world. The Dead Mohawks, a post-post-post-post-post etc. punk band, perform on the overhead big screen, dancers whirl through the air, Miss Universe 2111 is introduced (she’s Cree), and prizes are offered for best dancer, including a space trip to Saturn’s rings, his and hers matching Ferraris, and one billion dollars. There is a carnival air of freedom, exuberance, celebration, and above all a spirit of pride and togetherness. Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin wrote of the carnival and carnivalized situations as those times when the normal social and political rules, values, hierarchies, and modes of apprehension are suspended and upended in favour of a brand new freedom, which can be simultaneously ungainly and exhilarating, bewildering, and liberating. For Bakhtin, the crucial role of the carnival—with all its excess and freedom—is to draw life out of its “usual rut,” to suspend “socio-hierarchical inequality” as well as “all distance between people” in favour of “a free and familiar contact among people.” [2] Skawennati’s is a decidedly freedom-seeking, carnivalesque imagination. She gleefully dispenses with current limitations, restrictions, and indignities as she presents this glorious future gathering of Indigenous people, who are plugged in, amped up, fashionable, successful, assertive, and who revel in their cultural identities. At this celebration Karahkwenhawi spies Hunter, alone, way up near the rafters; the two are getting closer.

With glasses on, Karahkwenhawi also rockets way back to the past, to the Kahnawake settlement of Mohawks and French Catholic missionaries near Montreal in 1680, where she meets and becomes friends with the 24-year-old Kateri Tekakwitha (the computer program allows Karahkwenhawi to become Marie-Thérèse, Kateri Tekakwitha’s best friend). This direct experience persuades Karahkwenhawi to perceive Kateri Tekakwitha in a new light, as someone who, rather than being a traitor, preserved and melded Mohawk traditions and beliefs with Catholic beliefs, also as a proto-feminist. Searching for “Richard Oakes”—a fellow Mohawk who she previously knew nothing about—she arrives on Alcatraz Island in 1969 during the stalwart occupation. It’s here that she meets Hunter, who has serendipitously chosen this event for his own computer-based immersion. Both are on a mission, using TimeTraveller™ technology to learn about and discover who they really are and what it means to be Mohawk, and as they do they discover one another. At the sea wall of this former prison they kiss for the first time; later they have cybersex (“mind-blowing” cybersex, Hunter declares). Gender issues are also fundamental for Skawennati’s whole work. Hunter, for all his bulging, He-Man muscles and outsize masculinity, is, as I wrote, very thoughtful and respectful. Karahkwenhawi, an absolute beauty, is self-assured, independent, spirited, and multifaceted. The two are total equals. As much as Skawennati jettisons oppressive stereotypes and assumptions regarding Indigenous people, she also subverts and transforms the abysmal gender stereotypes—ultra macho men and hypersexualized women—so prevalent in cyberspace.

Hunter and Karahkwenhawi’s is one heck of a cyber courtship, including a mutual visit to a 1490 Aztec sacrificial ceremony, where digital Hunter is the willing sacrifice; a trip to England with Pocahontas; to the Pacific Ocean with Sacagawea (who so expertly assisted Lewis and Clark on their epic voyage); and to Hunter’s storage locker home in 2121 Montreal. This time-traversing fairytale has a fairytale ending. Hunter unexpectedly wins a one-trillion dollar award for most extreme time traveller of the year, and also the opportunity to host a TimeTraveller™ reality show. He is deeply in love and invites Karahkwenhawi to join him in his time and move in with him, which she does after much thought and time traveling back for a tearful visit with her mother. Her future is the future, where Indigenous nations are sovereign, Quebec is independent, boundless possibilities exist for Indigenous people, and she has found her soul mate. She gladly joins Hunter in their new spacious abode, which she fills with eclectic twenty-firstcentury Indigenous art.

Skawennati’s TimeTraveller™ is a really wonderful, entirely fresh artwork, also an educational one that invites and persuades viewers (whether Mohawk or not) to engage with Mohawk culture, to begin to learn about it perhaps for the first time. TimeTraveller™ is also complex and multilayered. It is science fiction fantasy as well as intense historical inquiry, and a profound investigation of Mohawk identity. It is education and entertainment. It is also an entrancing, fairytale-like, boy meets girl and vice versa love story, just one that spans centuries and conflates future, present, and past. There are welcome, renovating times in my life as an art writer when a riveting and decidedly idiosyncratic artwork by an artist new to me basically stops me in my tracks: it’s that good and transportive. Encountering Skawennati’s TimeTraveller™ in Montreal was, for me, most definitely one of those times.


Notes

[1] “Media Coverage of the War,” The US Dakota War of 1862.

[2] All quotes from and references to Mikhail Bakhtin are from his Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, Caryl Emerson, ed. and trans. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 122–124.

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Gregory Volk is a New York-based art critic and freelance curator. He writes regularly for Art in America, where is he a contributing editor, and his articles and reviews have also appeared in many other publications including Parkett and Sculpture. Among his contributions to exhibition catalogues are essays on Bruce Nauman (Milwaukee Art Museum, 2006) Joan Jonas (Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, 2007), Ayse Erkmen (Turkish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, 2011), and Hildur Ásgeirsdóttir Jónsson (Tang Teaching Museum/Reykjavik Art Museum, 2014). His essay on Vito Acconci is featured in Vito Acconci: Diary of a Body, 1969-1973, published by Charta in 2007.

Gregory Volk has curated numerous exhibitions in the US and abroad, including Three Parts Whole at i8 Gallery in Reykjavik, Iceland (2011) and Elemental at Havremagasinet in Boden, Sweden (2013), an exhibition that featured select Icelandic artists and prominent international artists who are deeply engaged with Iceland. His most recent exhibition is The Transportation Business (in which Skawennati is a participating artist) at Jane Lombard Gallery in New York. Gregory Volk received his B.A. from Colgate University and his M.A. from Columbia University. He is also associate professor in the School of the Arts at Virginia Commonwealth University.