Reframing Practices: Why Naming Matters

In mid-November, the Quebec Library Association (ABQLA) hosted a discussion on cataloging, classification and Indigenous Knowledges at Concordia’s Webster Library entitled “Reframing Practice: Why Naming Matters. As AbTeC begins to set up the database for the Aboriginal New Media Archive (discussed in an earlier post), issues regarding the classification and cataloging of Indigenous materials are pertinent to our project. This post summarizes the event in connection with AbTeC’s archives.

 

Recently, institutions and Indigenous communities have been developing protocols and strategies for institutions holding Indigenous materials. This, in part, is the result of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee’s call to action in 2015 which called upon “the federal government to undertake a “national review of archival policies and best practices” in collaboration with Aboriginal peoples.[1] The Committee on Indigenous Matters at Canada Federation of Library Association recommended library systems address “structural biases […] arising from colonialism […] [by] committing to integrating Indigenous epistemologies into cataloguing praxis and knowledge management.”[2] This recommendation was coupled with calls to “recognize and support indigenous cultures and knowledges,” “enhance opportunities for Indigenous library, archival and information professions” and implement “Indigenous Knowledge Protection protocols and agreements […] to respect the Indigenous cultural concept of copyright.”[3]

It is clear that Western systems of knowledge management do not adequately describe Indigenous archival materials. This inadequacy, as Hannah Buckland described in her presentation, is expressed in the Library of Congress’ subject headings. For example, the Library of Congress uses the subject “American Indian — folklore” to categorize Indigenous Peoples’ cultural knowledges and storytelling. The subject heading, as Buckland notes, reinforces the colonial mystification and mythologization of Indigenous peoples and their cultures. Descriptive metadata of this kind is not only inadequate, it is a form of colonial inscription that serves to legitimize and reinforce existing biases that, historically, repeat the troubling roots of archives as part of the dispossession of Indigenous’ cultures, land, and languages. Libraries and archives have a responsibility to address how their institutions are implicated in colonial histories and knowledges and pave a new path forward in which the support of Indigenous knowledges and cultures is prioritized.

Descriptive metadata, subject headings and the ways in which cultural knowledge is accessed and deployed need to be determined by and in consultation with the communities whose cultures and materials are being represented. Buckland, currently the Service Manager at Hennepin County Library and the former Director of Library Services at Leech Lake Tribal College in Minnesota, Buckland spoke about the need for librarians and archivists to use metadata as a form of microaggression to work against existing biases and power structures within library classification.

Indigenous librarians and archivists have implemented new cataloging and classification systems that reflect their cultures and communities. Presenters Camille Callison (Learning and Organizational Development Librarian at the University of Manitoba) and Annie Bosum (Library Technician at ᐋ ᑎᐹᑐᑖᒡ ᐋᓂᔅᒑᐅᑲᒥᒄ, Aanischaaukamikw, Cree Cultural Institute [http://creeculturalinstitute.ca] in Oujé-Bougoumou) shared their respective adaptations of the Brian Deer Classification System (BDCS) to develop a more accommodating system for nations across the continent and, in Bosum’s case, at a local level. The Cree Cultural Institute updated the BC-focused BDCS to include more Cree dialects. They also removed the provincial parent heading as a category for organizing dialects because dialects do not neatly correspond to regions.

 

 

Callison, on the other hand, is doing this work through her participation in the Canadian Federation of Libraries Association’s Indigenous Matters Committee, a committee formed to advance and implement meaningful reconciliation as addressed in the Truth and Reconciliation Final Report and in the Calls to Action. The committee developed the Indigenous Materials Classifications Scheme (IMCS), a system based on the BDCS that will eventually be free and online for libraries and archives to adopt!

The IMCS was employed by the National Film Board in their Indigenous Cinema online collection, a project developed in consultation with Callison. Katherine Kasirer, Librarian at the NFB, discussed the project’s development and the NFB’s history of Indigenous filmmaking and films with Indigenous content. Through the project, the collection’s one access point for Indigenous content expanded to include 18 Indigenous subject headings and a searchable index of nations organized from East to West rather than in alphabetical order. This organization is part of the IMCS, and one of the ways Indigenous epistemologies in archives are enriching researchers’ interpretations and experience of data. In this case, spatial knowledge is built into the system and offers another layer of information and exploration not provided by alphabetical ordering.

 

Dr. Kenneth Deer from the Mohawk Nation of Kahnawake opened the morning’s discussions with Ohén:ton Kariwatéhkwen or Thanksgiving Address, the Haudenosaunee ceremony to bring our minds together as one and give thanks to the natural world. This process of beginning with words to guide intentional actions is a fitting way to begin discussions on how description and organization in cataloguing and classification practices give way to anti-colonial actions in which Indigenous cultures and knowledges are supported, not just in archives and libraries, but in the research projects they inspire, educational programming and their local communities.

The discussions that took place at “Reframing Practice: Why Naming Matters” will help guide our consideration of naming conventions and knowledge organization in AbTeC’s archives, and the eventual Aboriginal New Media Archive. As we head into a new year, 2019 will bring more archive team members and consultants to develop protocols for the archives and the launch of new public initiatives that promote Indigenous archives and archiving practices. Stay tuned!

Sources

[1] Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, “Calls to Action,” 2015, accessed December 4, 2018. http://www.trc.ca/websites/trcinstitution/File/2015/Findings/Calls_to_Action_English2.pdf

[2, 3] Indigenous Matters Committee, “Mandate,” accessed December 4, 2018. http://cfla-fcab.ca/en/about/committees/indigenous_matters_committee/

 

Archiving Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace

Archiving Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace

Floppy disks, hard drives, slides, CDs, tape-based videos, paper materials, photographs — these account for just some of the materials born from Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace’s twenty plus years of production both on and offline [fig. 1]. These materials give shape to extensive networks of Indigenous artistic creation and collaboration since the beginnings of media experimentation to today, and trace a history of media art with Indigenous makers at the centre. Today, they form the basis of the Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace archives and the  starting point for a much larger project: the Initiative for Indigenous Futures’ Aboriginal New Media Archive.

For the past six months, Mikhel Proulx, RA and PhD student and Art History Department faculty member, and I, research coordinator for AbTeC/IIF, have been sorting materials related to AbTeC’s activities—both in physical and born-digital formats—and sketching out possible ways of organizing and caring for them to ensure accessibility and long-term preservation. The ultimate goal is to develop an archive of the work of Indigenous new media artists, beginning with AbTeC, that is publicly available online but housed locally in the Indigenous Futures Cluster at the Milieux Institute at Concordia University. While there’s much work to be done, we’ve had a busy spring and summer laying the groundwork for the archive project that’s worth sharing!

Figure 2. A slide from our presentation at the Yale Center for British Art.

Is This Permanence: Preservation of Born-digital Artists’ Archives

This past spring, we attended the symposium “Is This Permanence: Preservation of Born-digital Artists’ Archives” hosted at the Yale Center for British Art [fig. 2]. We presented our project alongside archivists, technologists, and curators from major institutions in North America, who, like us, are grappling with the challenges of preserving a wide range of born-digital materials and, at the same time, making these materials, or at least aspects of them, available for public access and engagement. The strategies for preserving digital artist records addressed by these institutions were diverse and, at times, improvisatory as new challenges required new methods in an ever-changing digital landscape.

The Yale conference helped us to conceptualize our project in practical terms like workflow and structure, and to draft a working list of system requirements while we researched various applications for the archive. It also helped to confirm some things we were already doing! John Bell’s (Dartmouth) presentation on practices of digital archiving within online gaming communities was illuminating for its emphasis on community-specific metadata. A historian’s perspective on what information to preserve will be different from a programmer’s, or an artist’s, or a community member’s. Learning how different communities might interact with AbTeC’s archives and the connections between these communities is an important aspect of our project and one that will be further explored in conversation with IIF partners and project stakeholders.

Figure 3. Our panel at the “Is This Permanence?” symposium!

Artist and new media scholar Jon Ippolito delivered the final keynote “Your Archival Format Will Not Save you” in which he discussed the strategy of emulation as a viable means of preserving and experiencing web-based artworks in their original format. An emulator was used to reactivate CyberPowWow—the groundbreaking online chat room and virtual gallery of contemporary Indigenous art—for its presentation in AbTeC’s retrospective Filling in the Blank Spaces, discussed in an earlier post [fig. 3]. The keynote, and our own emulation strategies, emphasize the importance of contextualization (in our case, running CyberPowWow on the original computer program The Palace and through the original browser version) and activation over static and self-contained archival formats. We need for archival formats and archives that, as Ippolito states, “are expansive and creative enough to capture the vibrancy that makes the art of our era worth preserving in the first place.” This, and attending to the particularities of what makes this an Indigenous archive—not just in terms of content but how we build relationships between objects and entities and direct methods of engagement—steer our ongoing work in organizing the Aboriginal New Media Archive.

Figure 4. We used an emulator and old Mac monitor to recreate the experience of visiting CyberPowWow in The Palace!

Artefactual Systems Access to Memory Camp

These broader considerations inform how we determine our practical needs, such as which software to use for the organization and storage of archival descriptions and digital objects. This aspect of the project has been particularly challenging in light of the proliferation of content management systems and tools available, each with their own strengths and unique capabilities. However, we have narrowed our focus to one system created by Artefactual Systems.

Access to Memory (AtoM) is a web-based open-source application for standards-based archival content and a promising option for us to implement. It is easy to navigate, accepts a variety of file types, and is integrated with Archivematica, Artefactual’s digital preservation system. As an open-source software that employs a community-based development model, AtoM is sustained by collaboration, openness and generosity—aspects of research-creation that AbTeC privileges in our own activities.

Last month, Mikhel and I attended a 3-day training and information camp for professionals working with AtoM at Robarts Library in tkaronto/Toronto. We learned the nuts and bolts of the system from inputting archival descriptions to cleaning up messy data and importing in into AtoM. It was useful to see how the system could be used to map social relationships and complexities like nationhood and multiple languages latent in our data.

As this project moves forward, we will continue to demo AtoM and determine an appropriate archival structure that supports our various needs. Further discussions on Indigenous archives and Indigenizing archives with Indigenous archivists and librarians are needed to further flesh out the project’s potentials, in addition to understanding the needs and perspectives of the archive’s users and stakeholders.

A recorded version of Sara and Mikhel’s presentation at “Is This Permanence” is available online, starting at 51:30.

URL: https://britishart.yale.edu/symposium-permanence-preservation-born-digital-artists-archives

Filling in the Blank Spaces through the eyes of Exhibition Coordinator Sara England

Sara Nicole England is an MA candidate in Art History at Concordia University and Research Assistant at Obx Labs/AbTeC/IIF. Her thesis research examines public displays of labour in turn-of-the-twentieth-century industrial tourism in the United States. Sara is part of KAPSULA Magazine, a digital publication and online platform for critical and experimental writing. She has a BFA in Criticism and Cu­­­ratorial Practice from OCAD University in Toronto, Ontario.

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I joined AbTeC last June to assist with the coordination of Filling in the Blank Spaces, the first-ever retrospective of the research and creative work of AbTeC held at the Leonard and Bina Ellen Gallery from November 4th to December 2nd, 2017. I came to this project with an interest in AbTeC’s collaborative approaches and the ways technologies and media were being remixed, modified and, sometimes, created from the ground up to strengthen and complement Indigenous cultures and communities. Taking part in Indigenous-led projects is an important part of situating my research and myself as an academic and settler on unceded Indigenous lands; I’m grateful for the opportunity to be part of the amazing work of AbTeC.

Credit: Paul Litherland/Studio Lux © Bina Ellen Art Gallery, Concordia University, 2017

Mounting an exhibition of over twenty years of media production was no small feat! I started the project with what any art historian would do: I referred to Concordia’s library and online databases to research examples and methods of curating new media and digital art. Texts by Sarah Cook, Christiane Paul, Beryl Graham, and Sara Diamond, and projects like CRUMB (Curating Resource for Upstart Media Bliss) laid out the landscape of cyber culture and digital art curating in the 1990s and early 2000s, and offered a theoretical framework for thinking through modes of participation in media art exhibitions.

I quickly learned that the history of new media production moves fast—really fast—and I wasn’t going to find an exhibition model or guidebook that provided all the answers or accounted for the breadth of AbTeC’s experimentation with media; even within the short span of a decade, curatorial models for digital art were often outdated by the time they were published. Relatedly, the term “new media” has stayed the same but the practices that it defines are continuously expanding and evolving; indeed, what we group under the umbrella of new media, and the curatorial strategies for its display, is ever expanding too. Continuous experimentation may be the connecting thread.

Credit: Paul Litherland/Studio Lux © Bina Ellen Art Gallery, Concordia University, 2017

The research and creative work featured in Filling in the Blank Spaces maps out a history of new media in and of itself, with Indigenous artists, academics, technologists and others, at the forefront.  For example, the pioneering project CyberPowWow (1997-2004) was one of the first ever online art galleries, combined with a chat room, and incorporating live events that later would be termed “mixed-reality” events. Jason Edward Lewis and Skawennati’s Thanksgiving Address: Greetings to the Technological World (2002) was made with Flash, a nearly defunct application. Listening to it today, the artists remarked on how bad sound compression was at the turn of the millenium.  “I sound like I have a lisp!” said Skawennati. The exhibition presents AbTeC’s present-day work, too: Activating AbTeC Island (an open invitation to visit AbTeC’s virtual land in Second Life) (2008-2017) expands some of the ideas first explored in CyberPowWow while computer games produced in the Skins Workshops use new media techniques like modding to bring Indigenous storytelling and representation to game culture; Virtual Reality works by Scott Benesiinaabandan and Postcommodity created in AbTeC’s artist residencies and Illustrating the Future Imaginary (a series of postcards with artwork by Indigenous artists) imagine our world seven generations into the future. AbTeC’s dedication to thinking about the future means that AbTeC is not only part of a history of media history, but also defining and creating its future.

So, we made up the rules as we developed the show. To be sure, there are guiding questions that emerge with any exhibition, especially an interactive and largely virtual one: how will visitors move through the space? How do we get visitors to interact and engage critically and with curiosity? And more specific to the nature of this exhibition: how do we get visitors to recognize the layers of intervention, production, and collaboration when their interactions are mostly at the level of the interface? How do we invite—and empower—visitors to become “users,” “players,” and, in certain instances, “decision makers?”

One of the aspects of Filling in the Blank Spaces that I found interesting is how it acknowledged a material history of technology. In New Media in the White Cube and Beyond, Jon Ippolito writes, “… new media art can survive only by multiplying and mutating.” In some instances, mutation and multiplication were built into the works. Poetry for Excitable [Mobile] Media (P.o.E.M.M.) (2007-2014), a series of interactive and digital poems by Lewis, was an experiment in how digital texts perform across multiple screens and how these interactions between text and device dictate different modes of readership and bodily engagement. In other cases, the artwork had outlived its media and thus required new hosts. CyberPowWow ran as a “canned version,” meaning it operates offline, and was displayed on a virtualized Windows XP program, which ran off a globular iMac G4. The layers of intervention, here, mark a history of technological changes and reveal relations between new and old media in order to contextualize the technological milieu in which CyberPowWow was created.

Credit: Paul Litherland/Studio Lux © Bina Ellen Art Gallery, Concordia University, 2017

Imagining Indians in the 25th Century (2001), a website that imagines a character who visits significant moments in Indigenous history—created by Skawennati before the age of tablets and touchscreens—was displayed on an iPad in the exhibition. Most of the works in the exhibition behaved independently from their media or means of display. I think this is a valuable curatorial strategy—working without consistency across old and new media—as a way to get people to think beyond the interface and develop a media awareness that attends to both the material and immaterial components of media art. As a form of media literacy, the strategy is not apart from the aims of AbTeC.

For much of the exhibition I also acted as a docent in the gallery, introducing visitors to the work, assisting them with questions, and, most importantly, encouraging them to interact with the various components. This experience was gratifying because I was able to witness and take part in people’s experiences with and responses to the retrospective. I learned that many visitors often needed an invitation to touch the works and to participate fully in the experience. Despite the relative ubiquity of the technology used in the show, this further demonstrated the uniqueness of the exhibition.

The exhibition asked visitors to think about their expectations of a gallery and how artwork should perform. It required active engagement rather than passive viewership (though I’m inclined to think all artwork asks for active participation) and people had to do the work.

Credit: Paul Litherland/Studio Lux © Bina Ellen Art Gallery, Concordia University, 2017

Many did! It was amazing to see visitors, who had never played a computer game before, defeat the evil archaeologist in Ienién:te and the Peacemaker’s Wampum or express wonder when they discovered that their avatar could fly in Activating AbTeC Island, the gallery installation of AbTeC’s virtual land in Second Life. Creating the circumstances for discovery and surprise, for me, is the main goal of exhibition production, and I think we pulled it off!

Jason and Skawennati engaged with me as a collaborator, encouraging creative input and providing ample time and significant resources for me to ask questions, learn about their practices, and flesh out ideas. During this time I was also able to learn how to use the computer-modeling program SketchUp to plot exhibition layouts. Some of the images you can see here.

Credit: Paul Litherland/Studio Lux © Bina Ellen Art Gallery, Concordia University, 2017

Like all of AbTeC’s projects, many people contributed to the making of the exhibition: among many other contributors, Mikhel Proulx added an archival and historical component to the exhibition by organizing an archive section and writing an exhibition essay; Sabine Rosenberg made the technical magic possible; Valerie Bourdon designed the beautiful exhibition title and vinyl game instructions; Roxanne Sirios and Nancy Townsend designed a visitor-friendly environment within the virtual land AbTeC Island and even created AbTeC avatars for visitors to inhabit; and a team of research assistants activated the exhibition as gallery docents and led the workshop series. Filling in the Blank Spaces is the result of years of dedicated artistic production, research, and collaboration. The making of the exhibition reflects that process, and was made possible by the contributions of an enthusiastic and imaginative team at AbTeC. I can’t wait for what’s next!

 

Notes

1.     Jon Ippolito, “Death by Wall Label,” ed. by Stephanie Fay and Christiane Paul in New Media in the White Cube and Beyond, ed. by Christiane Paul (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 2008), 106.