Skawennati, Skins and Second Life

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A screenshot from Th’owxeya: The Mosquito Story, created during the Skins Machinima Workshop in Vancouver

A group of new avatars are learning how to fly. We’re on AbTeC Island, the virtual headquarters for Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace, a research network based at Concordia University of academics, artists and technologists whose aim is to encourage the creation of self-determined Indigenous spaces online. In 2015, AbTeC launched the Initiative for Indigenous Futures <abtec.org/iif>. One of their major efforts is to teach various computational technologies to First Nations youth, through the Skins Workshops on Aboriginal Storytelling and Digital Media.

Six participants of the Museum of Anthropology’s Native Youth Program are learning to maneuver the virtual realm of Second Life as part of the Skins Machinima Workshop. Hence, the flying.  They are led by Skawennati , a co-director, with Jason Edward Lewis, of AbTeC, and CAG’s artist-in-residence for August. Assistants Erica Perreault and Darian Jacobs (a Skins “alumni”) also joined us. The workshop, held in Vancouver for the first time, was their longest machinima workshop yet, boasting four days of instruction and production. The word “machinima” is a portmanteau of machine and cinema and describes a technique of making movies in video games. It has been around for several years, and the participants were shown examples of machinima created in Halo, Minecraft and the Sims. In past iterations of the Skins workshop, participants re-created scenes from Star Trek and even a poetic “nature” documentary of alien plant forms.

“We [talk] about Indigenous self-representation in media,” said Skawennati, who has led previous Skins workshops in Kahnawake and Montreal. “An important part of that discussion is to underscore the richness of our traditional stories.  However, AbTeC decided long ago that the participants can tell any respectful story that they want to.”

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The artist Skawennati with participants of the Skins workshop in Vancouver. Photo Credit: Mackenzie Reid Rostad

The participants decided to split into two teams, each focusing on a story special to one of their nations. After deciding on the narrative, they worked on storyboarding and character development. A part of the workshop focuses on animating the characters to “act” and also build the set pieces needed for their stories. The NYP participants created sets that reflected their traditional culture, such as a painted big house and carved posts.

Skawennati chose to begin her artist talk at the CAG with her own avatar introducing the concept of using Second Life as a communicative medium. The clip was originally created to serve in the place of the artist herself, as she was unable to attend a conference and decided instead to send her representative avatar to speak for her. Skawennati also screened episodes of TimeTraveller™, a machinima series that follows a man as he uses a virtual time traveling device to re-visit specific moments in history.

In the Vancouver workshop, each team was given a budget of 2,500 Linden dollars or about $10 in Canadian. The money was spent purchasing clothing, set elements and specific modifiers for key characters. A perk of digital production is the high level of customization, as well as the boundless potential for creative expression.

The machinimas created by the Native Youth Participants will premiere on the CAG website in September.  

–Ines

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