#654: Indigenous Futurism & Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace with Jason Edward Lewis

jason-edward-lewisI talk with Jason Edward Lewis about the Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace initiative, as well as the two 2167 Indigenous Storytelling in VR that he helped to produce. How do we reckon the past, present, and the future, and what types of possibilities open up when you start to tell stories from the perspective of seven generations from now, or about 150 years into the future. This conversation took place at the Symposium iX conference at the Society for Arts and Technology in Montreal, Canada.


This is a listener-supported podcast through the Voices of VR Patreon.

Music: Fatality

Support Voices of VR

Music: Fatality & Summer Trip

Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.412] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye and welcome to the Voices of VR podcast. So last week I had a chance to be in Montreal, Canada at the Symposium IX, which was taking place at the Society for Arts and Technology. And it's basically all these artists that are coming together from around Canada and around the world, really, to show different experiences that they've been creating within virtual reality. also to have different sessions and panels and whatnot. So I ended up giving a keynote there, as well as moderating a panel with all sorts of different artists and creatives that were working within the virtual reality space. And one of those people was Jason Edward Lewis. He is a part of the indigenous territories in cyberspace, as well as working on these different initiatives, like 2167. It's 150 years into the future, looking at what indigenous futures are going to look like. And so using the virtual reality technology to explore some of these potential futures. So I had a chance to sit down with Jason and to get part of his story as to creating the aboriginal territories in cyberspace and some of the projects they've been working on within Second Life, as well as some of these other virtual reality projects that they help support as part of the 2167 additional storytelling within virtual reality. So that's what we're covering on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. So this interview with Jason happened on Saturday, June 2nd, 2018 at the Symposium IX in Montreal, Canada. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:01:42.532] Jason Edward Lewis: I am Jason Edward Lewis. I'm a professor at Concordia University. I teach in the Design and Computation Arts Department there. I co-direct a research network called Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace, or ABTEC. And we do a variety of different things, sort of all revolving around looking at how Native people and Native communities are using digital media technology of all sorts. We've done some virtual reality work. We produced a couple pieces as part of a series called 2167. This was a collaboration between our initiative for Indigenous Futures, the Toronto International Film Festival, and Manage Native Film and Media Festival, which is the world's largest Indigenous media festival, where we invited, at the end, five Indigenous artists to make VR pieces, and the context that we gave them was, imagine 150 years in the future, what will life look like for your family, your community, Indigenous people in general in North America? And that was a response to the celebrations up here in Canada of the 150 years of Confederation, which is very loosely analogous to, sort of say, Independence Day down in the United States. You know, essentially it's a celebration of 150 years of colonialism. It's not the sort of thing that Native people are really excited about celebrating. And so we, the partners in the project, decided that we wanted to spend our time thinking about the future and what the future might bring. So, as I said, there were five pieces made. We produced two of them in our lab here at Concordia in Montreal. One is by an Anishinaabe artist called Scott Benison at Bandan. It's called Blueberry Pie Under the Martian Sky. and the other one is a piece called Each Branch Determined by the Arts Collective Postcommodity Group from the American Southwest. So, and both of them in their own way are exploring, well, I'll talk about Scott's Blueberry Pie Under the Martian Sky as he's taking One of the tellings of the Anishinaabe creation story which is that they descended from stars, the Pleiades actually, seven sisters, they descended on a thread down to earth and that at some point they're going to return back to those stars. And so what his work is about is imagining that trip back to the origin place, using that as a way to think about the future of the Anishinaabe language. So, you know, how do you say faster than light or gravity or black hole in Anishinaabe. And so we did a lot of work with language experts and knowledge keepers to develop new words basically in Anishinaabe. And so part of a kind of an ongoing interest he has in how languages evolves, particularly Anishinaabe evolves, and it's part of what we in general are interested in is, you know, there's often a narrative of discontinuity when it comes to talking about Native people on this Continent and you know that everything got broken and shattered and duh duh duh duh duh, you know clearly things got broken but we didn't get broken in a fundamental sense and Internally, you know the people that I know they see a narrative of continuity and evolution and so We like to think in terms of not necessarily sort of say just before colonization or during colonization But just sort of the long sweep of history and thinking about where things might be going.

[00:05:01.577] Kent Bye: Yeah, and I get the sense that there's a history that is told to the colonizers. The victors get to write that history, and then there's other alternative histories that are less seen. So there's a part of telling the direct experiences of those histories, but also a part of looking to the future, which it sounds like you're doing a little bit of both of that. Both looking at the past and preserving that cultural heritage and telling those stories, but at the same time, trying to imagine that far ahead, 150 years, pretty much beyond what most futurists think about, but that's part of the seven generations. So maybe you could talk about that duality between telling the stories of the past, but also, you know, trying to create the future.

[00:05:42.087] Jason Edward Lewis: So, you know, when we talk to elders and storytellers and story keepers, you know, one of the things that often comes up is sort of a very weaker or sort of just lack of distinction between the past and the present and the future in the way that we sort of think about it from a Western kind of linear time sense. And so, you know, when we are dreaming of the future, it's very much rooted in the past. It's not confined to the past, but it is kind of a constant sort of effort to kind of bring forward from the past the things that are worth keeping, the teachings that are worthwhile and help us live good lives into what we think about the future. You know, having done this work for about five years now, the future-facing stuff, one of the things I feel is different from, say, indigenous futurisms than, you know, kind of standard science fiction sort of futurism, sort of science fiction futurism, as opposed to, you know, futurists, right? People trying to forecast stuff for business or something like that. is that it's not about escape. It's not about a new start or a new beginning. Really, I mean, that's like the American sort of foundational myth, right? You know, Americans, you know, the colonizers came, were throwing off the shackles of Europe and coming to a new land where they could start a new life without the constraints of previous ways of being and stuff like that. And you know, as somebody who grew up south of the border, you know, in the United States, in California, you know, I've had that mythology drummed into my head and I still share it to a certain extent. Like, you know, it's kind of this constant sort of sense of like, oh, we can just kind of escape the past and start something new. But, you know, most native people I know, that's not how they look at the world, right? They very much want to retain the past and we very much want to use that as a basis for thinking about the future. So one of the ways we think about that, one of the ways we sort of express that is talking about the seventh generation. as a way to keep ourselves mindful of how what we do now will have consequences going on into the future and it's not just about who we are now and what we're doing now but it's about our children and grandchildren and their children and grandchildren and their children and grandchildren and so how does that shift the way you make decisions and how you sort of engage with the world around you. Hopefully it sort of helps you shift in a way that makes things more sustainable than they are right now. Capitalism isn't good at sustainability. We're starting to really find out now. People have been, you know, critiquing us that for a while, but we're really starting to see the effects of that, I think. So anyways, but on the other hand, it's really fun to think freely about the future and to think about how things could be if things were different and what needs to be different in order for things to be better and providing a frame where people have the sort of the freedom and the energy to engage in that kind of imagining because you know as we found out when we first started talking about the project as we went around to different communities, you know, we got some really great feedback from some of the elders that we talked to, you know, would make a point that was essentially, you know, if we're not dreaming about the future, then what's, what's the point of the fight now, right? The fight now is hard, it's long, been doing it a really long time, there's lots of casualties along the way, takes a lot of energy and emotion and everything else, and it's not just about status quo, it's not just about preserving, it's really about creating a foundation for our future generations. And so let's spend some time thinking about what we want their lives to be like. And that's what we do.

[00:09:18.702] Kent Bye: Yeah, being here at the Symposium IX, we were on a panel together, and one of the questions I asked is that seven generations of being so far out, and one of the things you said was that, to a certain extent, that seven generation gives you a freedom of sovereignty to not being withheld to the institutional momentum of all the existing structures, that when you go that far out, you can start to dream a lot more. So maybe talk a bit about what it's like to project yourself out into 150 years of the future and what that enables for you to be able to then set a new context.

[00:09:52.297] Jason Edward Lewis: Well, projecting out that far, 150 years, 7th generation, allows you, in different contexts, to kind of bracket off different problems right now, right? So you could say, okay, imagine a future where the native people of this continent have regained control of their land, or at least, say, the majority of their land. So let's just take that as a given. So what does it look like? How do we want to govern ourselves, right? Because for the last 500 years, you know, we've been governing, depending on where you were on the continent, it might be less, but you know, we've been governing ourselves in reaction to what the colonial powers have imposed on us right so both in Canada and the United States there's legislation at the federal level that started like as soon as well really started before the first treaties were signed because it started in the sense of you know essentially war making upon us that was directed at breaking us and breaking the ways that we organize our lives and the way we governed ourselves and That war has continued up until the present. It's just that it's moved into legislation, right and You know down in the United States there are tribal governments but these tribal governments in some sense still get their kind of authenticity from the federal government and Right? And up here they have what are called band councils, and they get their authorization from the federal government as well. So they're, in a sense, as much as they might be all native people running those things, they are still very much implicated in the colonialist framework. And so you can't say that we're self-governing now. Right? More self-governing than we were, say, even 100 years ago, or certainly, say, maybe 150 years ago. But those governmental structures are extensions of the federal governments on both sides of the border. So in some sense, you know, we know and we have old teachings about how we should govern ourselves. And there are still people in the different reserves and reservations that, you know, have a longhouse or something like that, where they implement that traditional governance. But because of the band council system or the tribal government system, they're not actually in control in many ways. In some ways they are. So it's a very complicated and confused system. So what does it mean to imagine that's all gone? And it really is just us again? Deciding how we want to govern ourselves and interesting challenges come up because with all things that are rooted, you know in the past Things have evolved or we have evolved and things have evolved evolved around us So there's lots of practices that you know, I think are really worth keeping and there's some practices that people question You know around gender rules for instance. It's not to say that they're necessarily wrong, but certainly that they you know in 2018 they need to be sort of interrogated. We need to really think about the ways in which they make us stronger. So that's part of what that does. You know, we can imagine things like we did at a workshop we did in Honolulu this last summer, which is, you know, Indians in space. So what does it mean for native people to go out into space? And part of what was really interesting about that was because we're working mainly with indigenous sort of young people, mainly 20, 30 years old, And when we first started brainstorming with them, they're the ones that got really excited about going off into space, so started thinking about doing that. And, you know, one of the first scenarios that came up was the dying Earth scenario that we're very familiar with from kind of just general science fiction. So we sort of screwed things up here, we got to go somewhere else to find resources to sustain us. You know, Hawaiians have an amazing culture of astrogation, right? So they use the stars among several other tools to navigate across these vast distances of the Pacific Ocean. And so one of the cool things that the participants were like, okay, well, we can take that skill out into space, right? We would be really great space navigators because you're going to be using the stars to do that. So that was really cool. But then it turned into this thing of going to get resources and bring them back, kind of the standard video game trope. At some point, a couple people started saying, well, wait a second, we lived through that on the wrong side of things. Aliens came to our land to extract resources that they needed to run their economy back home. And it didn't work out well for us. And so maybe we shouldn't do that same thing when we go out into space. And so it allowed them to reconfigure that very typical science fiction space colonization trope. And it wasn't about going out to get resources. They weren't going to these different planets to get resources. They turned it into something where there's these two twins. One of the twins takes off and the other twin doesn't know where they're at. And so the other twin has to go and visit these different planets following the trail of the first twin. and learn from the people there to get clues about how to get to the next planet to follow them. So it became about an exchange with the inhabitants of the planet, not about exploitation of their resources. So those are the sorts of things that sort of like lets you bracket off some things like sovereignty. It allows you to really think about how your people might grab a hold of the future in a way differently than the Western culture seems to be grabbing a hold of it, which is very saturated with this space colonization trope, right? Of like, let's go to other places. I mean, it's a colonial trope. It's like, yeah, screw it. Let's go to the Americas and exploit the shit out of it and take their land and use it to our utmost, to our own purposes. And that's what a lot of science fiction is founded on. So it's also about reclaiming that. So there's a woman named, Grace Dillon, who coined the term Indigenous Futurism, she put together a great anthology called Walking the Clouds, which is if anybody's interested, I really highly recommend it, especially her introduction really kind of sort of lays out why Indigenous Futurism is an interesting thing for Indigenous people to engage in.

[00:15:55.011] Kent Bye: Yeah, and being able to see one of the pieces that you helped co-produce as part of your 2167 initiative, I was struck by how you're able to use virtual reality to be able to give this full landscape of the land. And there's something about indigenous and native people's connection to the land that I think it's something that a lot of the reductive mindset of the Western thought has had this disconnection with nature and almost treated as this externality that you could use to be able to increase the GDP, but it wasn't sort of accounted for in any of the equations. And so it's kind of turned into this ecological crisis, but also like this larger ethical crisis that we see within business. And I feel like it's like on this trajectory of some sort of reckoning. But from your perspective, I'm just curious to hear a little bit more about that connection to the land and how you perceive it through the lens of an indigenous eyes and sort of what you see in Western culture and their relationship to the earth.

[00:16:54.948] Jason Edward Lewis: Well, it's a big question thinking about the land. So, you know, like I said, the research network is called Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace. And so, you know, it was really about claiming space in this new territory of cyberspace. And what does that mean for Native people to do that? So what does it mean in kind of a straight ahead sense, but also what does it mean within a context of colonialism, where, you know, we had territory claimed from us? So we think a lot about this issue, you know, what does it mean to be grounded in cyberspace, vis-a-vis what does it mean to be grounded in real space? You know, there's huge value within the Native communities that I'm familiar with that's put on the territory and the land and knowing the land and being connected to the land, and I think it's hugely, hugely valuable. At the same time, at least here in Canada, I think it's almost 50% of the Native population doesn't live on the land. They live in urban centers. And so we have to sort of expand our concept of what on the land means. We have to expand it to be able to incorporate the urban experience. I think we have to expand it so that when people think of their reserve territory, the urban territory that their people occupy somehow becomes part of that as well. And it's tricky to do that. It's very, very tricky to do that. And people have a very wide range of opinions about those sorts of things. So what I do think, even for those who live in an urban environment, I do think there is a general attitude that is, you know, say 90 degrees from kind of the classic Western capitalist way of looking at land, as you said, which is a resource to be exploited. And you exploit it until there's nothing there to exploit, and then you move on to the next thing. And what the crisis I think that is happening right now, and lots of people are thinking about this, is that we've run out of new land. Right? So North America and South America were great for that for a really long time, but they're getting saturated. And so the slowly dawning realization that, you know, in the longer term, there's not going to be new land. Right? And so how can we continue living on a resource economy is even more pertinent in Canada than the United States. The United States has a much more diversified economy than Canada does. Canada, it's very dependent upon resource extraction. How do we do that when we know it's running out, we know that the costs of getting to more and more of it are just, you know, insanely high, and we now have hundreds of years of evidence of how poisonous it is to the ecology, to the things living in the ecology, and to the peoples living there, right? It's just that for most of those time, those people were not visible. Or they're considered subhuman or not human, so that's what's happened to the indigenous people. Or they were made invisible because the press and politicians wouldn't talk about them because they knew that in order for those resources to be extracted that people needed to kind of not know the poison that was being laid down in their communities. We know that stuff now, you know, and that's the thing about the pipelines is, you know, the pipeline companies and the government can assure people all day long we're using the latest, that's built to the latest safety standards and we're doing everything, you know, to make sure that it's built to the highest quality and stuff like that. But people know two things. First of all, no man-made system is ever perfect. It's gonna spill. It's going to spill. It's even spilling right now, right? And the people who pay the price of that spill are not the people who profit from it. Right? There's just no getting around that anymore. And, you know, it's why it's so disgusting to see something like what the current liberal government in Canada is doing, which is, you know, basically paying four and a half billion dollars to buy this pipeline off of this Texas company to bail them out of their really bad friggin investment decision. And then they're going to use government ownership of that to ram that through over the objections of the people who are going to be the ones that suffer the consequences when the thing spills. And the government, if they do manage to sell it back to somebody else, are not going to be there to suffer. It is such an immoral act that it is difficult for me to believe that they actually expect the people along the way to embrace this. I know some have, like some bands have signed agreements and that's their choice, but the majority, in my understanding, have not. And then there's also people who are not Indigenous tribes, there's other people living out there who are connected to that land or own that land. So all that is a long way of saying that I think that one thing that, you know, the Cherokee people I know, the Native Hawaiian people I know, Mohawk people I know, Cree people I know, etc., you know, tend to have a much better sense of the value of the land in the holistic sense of like this is what's here to sustain us and to sustain us going forward for generations and we have to take care of it. We can't just look at it as this thing to make money off of and then we move somewhere else because we're not going to move somewhere else. This is our land. This is where our ancestors are. So that would be sort of one way of describing that difference. You know, part of what we do in Aboriginal territories in cyberspace is we sort of make the argument that, you know, well, part of our territory is now cyberspace. Right? So we're spending significant amounts of our lives in cyberspace and a significant amount of sort of work and pleasure and everything else are happening there. And so how do we think about that as an extension of our territory and not in opposition to it? And partially that's a generational thing, right? You know, people the age of my sons over here, they don't see this is the virtual here and this is the real here, right? It's all just one thing that has different attributes. In the virtual dimension of that space, I can jump off a building five stories and survive. In this aspect, I can't do that. And they know that. They understand that. And I think they understand it in a way that's epistemologically deeper. than I do as somebody that grew up watching the kind of the virtual world come into being and then more and more sort of connections being made between the virtual world and the real world. So I still see them as two different things whereas the new generation I think sees them as one thing and I think that for an indigenous person what we want for our youth is we want them to be sort of fully powered up to operate in this world. And being fully powered up to operate in this world of the 21st century means really understanding what's going on in cyberspace, with digital media, with virtual reality, with all these amazing tools that we have, and thinking about how we can best bend them to our needs.

[00:23:54.885] Kent Bye: Yeah, and I had a chance to try out the Second Life virtual world that was a part of the creation of the Aboriginal territories in Cyberspace. And there was nice Adobe organic architecture, there was a whole museum with cultural heritage of modern art, but also sort of sci-fi narrative elements of Time Traveler TM, where you're talking about different dimensions of a sci-fi future that is looking at native people in the future, which is, you know, something that is often missing from a lot of speculative sci-fi in the future is where are the indigenous and native people and what role do they have to play that has a significant role. And so that seemed to be a part of that as well. So yeah, maybe you could just talk about this experiment in Second Life and creating these virtual worlds and the deeper intention was to create this space and start to claim the land in cyberspace.

[00:24:45.193] Jason Edward Lewis: So yeah, Abtec Island came about for a couple of different reasons. Part of it is that my wife and partner in all this, Mohawk artist Skawennati, you know, since the mid-90s has been interested in sort of shared virtual spaces. So she did a pioneering online gallery called Cyber Powwow. The first iteration was in 1996. It was one of the first online galleries of art, period, and the first sort of one to feature Indigenous art. And so since that time, she's been very interested in how these virtual spaces can be used to bring Indigenous, particularly Indigenous artists together. You know, so Canada is a very large country, very sparsely populated. The Indigenous community is spread across the whole expanse of that. and it's expensive to get people together in the same space. And so part of what excited her about it originally, she was like, oh, this is a way for me to actually hang out with my indigenous artist peeps who are from Saskatchewan or from Yellowknife or from up with the Inuit or something like that. And so when Second Life came out and we were sort of pointed towards it, a big reason why we kind of dove into it is she thought that this was a really interesting sort of successor to what was called The Palace, which is the tool that she used for Cyber Pow Wow in the 90s. So it was virtual space, shared, anybody could come in from anywhere. It was free, free to download, free to use. You could chat with people, had jetpacks, and you could teleport, so it had these futuristic elements. And so we sort of started exploring it from that direction. And then we learned about Machinima. So filmmaking in virtual worlds. And we really started thinking about how we could use Second Life as a place where we could create a virtual headquarters for AbTech and also use as a set for making Machinima. So Scalbinati had the initial ideas for what became the Machinima series Time Traveler TM. that was originally written as a radio play for CBC that didn't take off. And anyways, somebody introduced us to Second Life and we were like, okay, maybe this is the way I can tell this story. And they were like, oh, maybe we can set this up as a place where we can bring people in from all over the place. And that's sort of where Abtec Island got started. So for many years, it was really, really the set. It was a place where Scott Bonatti shot the Time Traveler TM series, which took her about five years. It's over nine episodes, about 75 minutes running time. So it takes a long time to make a machinima. But as we were doing that, we were like, this is kind of cool, this stuff that we're building here. And let's try to get more people come and hang out here and do stuff. And maybe we can do lectures. And maybe we can do shows and stuff like that. And so we talk about it and talk about it. But other things always would come up. It was there. And we made it so people could come. But we never did anything to really try to activate it. But then Scott went on to finish Time Traveler TM. She sort of had some bandwidth to kind of think again about this sort of stuff. We got some research assistants into my studio. So like I mentioned, I teach at Concordia University. So the work that we've been doing for the last 15 years has really been the result of having extremely talented students, mainly undergraduate students actually. So we finally found a couple students who were really excited about Second Life. And so we were able to say to them, look, your job is to activate this, right? Your job is to be in there, you know, now over the summer twice a week for three hours each time to greet people, tell them what it is that they're seeing and stuff like that, to advertise it, to get people there and stuff like that. So for the last year, we've been really pushing to try to make people more aware of it because we still have this dream of it becoming sort of a kind of a virtual gathering space, particularly for Indigenous artists. And so, you know, it's been really exciting because we are getting more people there to come and visit. We do have an exhibition going on, which is actually an exhibition that Scott Bonatti built for one of the episodes of Time Traveler TM called the Museum of the Future. So Scott Bonatti's been part of the indigenous art scenes in Canada for a very long time. She knows lots of the major players. She's now one of the major players herself. So she was able to go around to some very well-known artists and say, hey, I have this crazy idea. I want to make this virtual exhibition. In Second Life, can I use your artwork? And they all were like, oh, that sounds really cool. Yeah, let's do it. And so you go and you have one of the best exhibitions of Indigenous art anywhere, in a virtual sense, in that space. What we're hoping for now, what we need now, is we need a couple of good students who want to actively curate that. And what we would like to do is actually have it be a space where, you know, maybe every six months there's a new show that's in there. And we sort of do it like as an ongoing thing, as a way, again, a way to share the art in a way that's not possible when it's, you know, in a specific gallery. And there is something about it being embodied, right, as opposed to just seeing images, say, on a website or something. There's something about being able to walk around it, particularly the sculptural work, to get a sense of, like, the physicality of the works, the textures and the size and how they relate to you as a human being. So, you know, some of the things we're like, Skawennate are like, this is our thing, we're gonna make it happen, and we go. Some of the things like, this would be really cool, but we're too busy, you know, but if we can find a good student who wants to work on this sort of stuff, we're like, we have money now, at the moment anyways, we have money, you know, you just make it go, so.

[00:30:18.305] Kent Bye: Great. And finally, what do you think is kind of the ultimate potential of virtual reality, augmented reality, all these virtual worlds, and what they might be able to enable?

[00:30:29.375] Jason Edward Lewis: You know, that is a really good question. And I was thinking about the question of what might be the ultimate possibilities after our panel yesterday. And it's hard because I really vacillate between the kind of intense pessimism around our technology and the optimism that got me interested in this work in the first place. You know, for me, the pessimism is really represented by things like, you know, kind of the surveillance state that's been set up in the UK by now and, you know, things like drone warfare run by the US and the new social credit scheme, you know, that's being implemented in China, right? Which is really, it's like, oh my God, it's all gonna be used to track and control us. And so when we plug in and we have our VR experience, there's going to be somebody watching. Or it's going to be stored so they can go watch it. So it's hard to get away from that pessimism. But when I'm not, when I'm feeling optimistic, I think it's like all our successive ways of new forms of creative expression and then, you know, in the last, say, hundred years or so, kind of those new forms of creative expression, you know, being either driven by or following in the wake of or sort of, or kind of helping create new technological breakthroughs. and that we're gonna see just amazing works of art that people create using virtual reality. And I think about some of the early pieces, so Shar Davies' Osmos and Ephemir pieces, which were made here in Montreal in the early 90s. Osmos is still one of the most beautiful digital experiences I've had in my life. That was almost 30 years ago. And I feel that so much VR that we see now is so Boring, it's so lacking in imagination, you know, particularly this drive to photorealism, right? And this is one of the things that Char Davies was reacting against right because at that point most the VR was like military industrial VR and it was all about, you know flight training and things like that So they wanted photorealism and so part of what she was interested in was what if you take an expressive approach? What if it's not about replicating the world and trying to get it, right? But what if is it about sort of kind of creating another dimension of the world right or thinking beyond the world? And I don't see a lot of that. I think in the last couple years it's changed a lot with the really consumer grade headsets and things like that. There's more people experimenting and trying things and that's been really heartening. But I still think there's still a lot of it that's being driven by the game industry. And the game industry is so obsessed with photorealism. It's hard to get a word in edgewise on that, you know? It's hard to be like, you know, we have a really fantastic photo real world, like why are we spending all this time and money and everything recreating it, you know? So, for me, I'm interested in things like Osmos. I'm interested in things, another piece coming out of sort of the electronic literature world called All the Delicate Duplicates, right? You know, where it's really about kind of expanding our sense of what reality might be, and sort of playing around with those things, creating these amazing visual palettes for us to kind of engage with and experience. And so I think that's the area in which we're going to see something really interesting happening, and I'm excited about that, right? I'm excited about new work that can be made and new possibilities like that. But it's also incredibly narcissistic. What I would like to see is more people working on how can you create a common experience in VR. So how do you create an immersive experience with headsets and everything like that, but that you're sharing actively with other people. You know, we just came from a movie theater, and I love the fact that my kids still like going to see movies because it's this communal experience of this thing going on in front of you, right? You're there kind of sharing it with other human beings. And one of the things I don't like about VR is you get closed off from the world, right? So your vision gets closed off, your hearing gets closed off, you get put in this cocoon. And I think that it's going to be very difficult, actually, to be a true mass medium if they can't find a way to address how to make it into a communal experience in some way. And I hope they do, and I think that amazing things could happen if they figure out how to do that well. And I hope they go that direction, because otherwise we're all just going to be sort of like, you know, plugged into our SimStem. you know want to live in that world all the time and only begrudgingly come out of it because we have to eat or what we don't have to mean you know we can be fed by IVs or whatever so I don't know if that's a good answer or not um you know I haven't done any VR work myself and I might be doing some over the next year I might not I'm still myself not sure if it's where I want to put my effort, because of the effort it takes for people to experience it. You know, I've been doing digital media and doing digital media art for a long time now, and have become really wary of making work that might be really cutting edge in some ways, but, you know, only 250 people get to see it, because, you know, they went to the three places in the world where it was installed, why it was installed. And nobody else has the equipment or the money to get the equipment or something like that. So I'm very wary of that. On the other hand, the 2167 pieces, what was exciting about those is that those have been on tour. So they went on tour in the fall. And I can't remember how many places they visited, but probably about 24, 25 pieces, and they're going on tour again. And that's one guy. I think he has three headsets, phones and headsets. And he goes to big cities like Montreal or Toronto, but then he goes out to small indigenous communities or primarily indigenous communities and shows it. And it was fantastically successful. We had people lining up in these smaller communities, particularly as people lining up out the door to come experience it. So that made me think, OK, maybe that's gotten portable enough. and cheap enough that it is something that can be shared amongst a wide range of people who aren't just the normal people who go see art in big metropolises. Which, you know, they're cool people, but there's other people in the world.

[00:36:49.457] Kent Bye: Awesome. And is there anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say to the immersive community?

[00:36:54.078] Jason Edward Lewis: Yeah. God, I don't know. I think I've been running at the mouth. Well, a couple of things. I do think it would've been nice to talk to more of my fellow panelists afterwards, you know, because I'm very suspicious of this empathy work. I think that there's, like, just psychologically, there's some really problematic aspects, you know, that's different between asking somebody to watch something that's sort of psychologically traumatic on the screen and then asking them to embody it. I think that needs to be sorted out. I think that, you know, what my colleague to my right, I forgot what his name was. I think it was Mark Bolos. Yes, Mark Bolos was talking about, you know, where he's, you know, talking about this sort of trauma tourism sort of thing where kind of using the virtual reality to bring people into a Sudanese refugee camp or something like that. You know, I think that there's a weird line that's being crossed there from news, which I think, yes, we need to know about these things, into this kind of, we have a PhD student working with us named Suzanne Kite, really, really talented artist and thinker. You know, she talks about how settlers find her stories of trauma to be delicious, right? So they want to feast on them, they want to feed off of them. And that's what worries me about VR, right, is it sort of creates that sort of relationship. between really kind of the white gaze and the sort of the everybody else, or the brown gaze, you know. Asia's different in its own ways, you know. So I just want people to sort of question that, and you know, and also, yeah. I mean, the other thing is, you need more brown people around, and you need to do the work to get brown people around, because, you know, I've been involved with developing technology since the early 80s, and what I'm seeing is that, you know, generation after generation after generation, white folks just have a Lock on all of those opportunities all of those Resources to create new and cool and interesting things the networks to find people to mentor them like you're just replicating yourselves and It's really tiring and it's not good for the species as a whole and I don't think it's good for the technology either there's a whole bunch of sort of viewpoints that are being shut out there and You know, we can all do better at trying to make sure that these technologies that we're developing, which are amazing, that that amazing opportunity to develop them is available to anybody who has the sort of aptitude to do it. And that simply is not what is happening right now. And that, you know, the Silicon Valley meritocracy is bullshit.

[00:39:28.217] Kent Bye: Awesome. Well, Jason, I just want to really thank you for taking the time to come out and share your perspectives and all the work that you're doing to bring the past, present, and future all together and to stake the claim out and to stand up and represent these voices that we don't get to hear from enough. So thank you for joining me today on the podcast. It's a pleasure. Thanks. So that was Jason Edward Lewis. He's a professor at Concordia University, and he heads up the Indigenous Territories and Cyberspace. So, I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that, first of all, Well, there's this moment where I asked Jason about the past and the present and the future. And he said that from the knowledge keepers and some of their indigenous traditions, there's a bit of a lack of distinction between the past, present and future, which I found really interesting. And when you look at the mathematical structures of reality from a general relativity perspective, there's a four dimensional spacetime structure that does have a little bit less of a differentiation between the past, present and future. And there is. this era of time that we perceive as moving forward, but from more of a phenomenological experience, our stories and our myths that we tell ourselves about the past are embedded into a relationship that we have with that past and are creating this foundational place where we are creating our futures. And so just from a storytelling perspective, the stories we tell about what has happened in the past are actually impacting how we relate to our futures. And so I think it's really important to analyze some of these different mythologies that we, as an entire collective civilization, especially here in the United States and Canada, have this mythology that we are, to some extent, escaping different dimensions of the past that we don't want to look at. And I think in talking to indigenous people like Jason, they have a lived experience of some of those mythologies and perhaps some of the shadow sides of those mythologies that aren't necessarily acknowledged or fully integrated into the myths that we have as a collective. And so I think that is an issue of like, well, how do you actually resolve this issue where their lived experience is that they still have governmental institutions that are a legacy of these actions that took place over hundreds of years ago. It's not like they're able to have their full autonomy and sovereignty, but yet a lot of these things that happened from many generations ago are still something that they live with each and every day. And so what does it mean for them to project out into the future where they can imagine what their lives might be like, free from a lot of the institutional momentum of a lot of these collective stories and collective mythologies that are part of their real challenge of how to reckon the stories of the past with the present and the future. So the stuff that's happening with the 2167, the storytelling and virtual reality initiative that started at the Toronto Film Festival, I had a chance to see a couple of those pieces and they're really quite interesting to see. The blueberry pie in the Martian sky of, you know, having this, you know, return to the stars and what's it mean to go back to your place of origin from these indigenous mythologies. back into the plate ease and have different visual depictions of time travel as well as actually working with the Language to be able to create actually new words that don't exist in the language that may be bringing it up into speed in harmony with some of the latest science about black holes and Time travel and wormholes and stuff like this that they don't have actual words for and so what does it mean to work with those? Knowledge keepers to actually develop those words and those concepts and to kind of seed those ideas Such that if there is technology to eventually do that Then what does that mean to be able to communicate that within their native language? So that was really interesting to hear that they had sort of a dual track that was happening where they were translating into English But they also had the native And then the other piece from Post Commodity was looking at being in the desert and being connected to the land. And yeah, it just was really striking to me, just talking to Jason about that. What's it mean for the native people to both take ownership of their land again, but also have full sovereignty and control over it. And there is this different relationship to the land that they have in terms of seeing it as a foundational life force that is sustaining us rather than a resource to be extracted. And I think that's really important. I think there is different dimensions of sustainability and our current way of looking at sustainability is, from an economic lens, not necessarily fully holistic or sustainable. So I think that there's a lot of insights to come from some of these more indigenous perspectives. And, you know, I think that it is a huge open question into how to reckon the past, present, and the future, and to be able to bring some sort of truth and reconciliation to these intergenerational traumas. From my perspective, just being able to listen to the stories and to really just try to integrate it to your own worldview, I think, is perhaps a first step is to just even listen to what those stories are. 150 years from now, I think that a lot can happen. And so that's actually a timescale for everybody to really think about, like, what does it mean to be able to, like, project that far out into the future? Especially from their perspective that there's not a lot of hope when it comes to a lot of these existing institutions and their current situation. And I also had a chance to walk around the indigenous territories in cyberspace, the Aptak Island that was there in Second Life. And I think it's definitely worth checking out. They have like an art museum and they have some of these sets. And yeah, it's an interesting place to see, especially if they're going to have some students to try to activate it. I think they're going to be having some places and times where they're going to try to be doing more regular meetups and really try to activate the space and to have it as a space where they can really network and connect to people. Yeah, there was some really great art that was in the art museum there. And like you said, it's probably one of the most sophisticated art museums of that type of some of this modern art from a lot of these artists from around Canada that have decided to put different pieces within the museum that's there on Aptak Island. And finally, just this concept of claiming land and cyberspace and how Jason's kids are starting to not have an epistological difference between what is virtual and what is real. For them, it is basically mediating these different experiences. And I think that a certain generation, we are going to have this differentiation between the virtual and the real but that as time goes on there's going to be more and more of a blurring of that line between the virtual and the real and it's I think it's going to just be a part of reality of having different augmentations and virtual worlds that are kind of blending both being able to go into the virtual worlds within their own right but also have those virtual worlds somehow connected to reality through different augmented reality experiences and so what's it mean to be able to claim land in cyberspace, both for the aboriginal territories of cyberspace, to be able to redefine what's it mean to be quote-unquote on the land, whether that's in urban environments or whether that's in these cyberspaces, and how these different virtual reality technologies are going to potentially expand our creative expression and create new technological breakthroughs and different pieces of art that are able to express these things in a way that we can't necessarily experience without these immersive technologies. And, you know, he's less interested in the photorealism aspect, but also more of the stylized artistic potentials of virtual reality technologies. And that as him as an individual artist, they collaborated with this 2167 virtual reality storytelling initiative from the Toronto Film Festival and helped produce two out of the five VR experiences. And that from him as an individual artist, he's trying to just do these different trade-offs between you know putting a lot of this effort initiatives to be able to create these immersive experiences and then how are people actually going to see them. I think that actually like with web vr as well as with these different distribution options you know web vr probably is one of the most democratized way to distribute things out into the world and not have to jump through any of the hoops for the application stores but Yeah, still at this point, there's still a growth that's happening within the virtual reality industry and that after it reaches a certain critical mass, there's going to be pulling more and more people into actually creating content once they know that the audience is going to be there. So it's a little bit of a chicken and egg problem. And I think that the entire virtual reality community is dealing with right now is as it's growing and more people having access to the technology, then that's just going to inspire more content creators to be able to create the content that is going to really push the edges and the limits of what the technology can do. So that's all that I have for today. And I just wanted to thank you for joining me on the Voices of VR podcast. And if you enjoy the podcast, then please do spread the word, tell your friends and consider becoming a member of the Patreon. This is a listener supported podcast. And so I do rely upon your donations in order to continue to bring you this coverage. So you can become a member and donate today at patreon.com slash Voices of VR. Thanks for listening.

More from this show