What happened at the symposium…

Many thanks to everyone who made the Digital Natives Symposium such a great event. It will give us a great deal to consider and reflect upon as we move toward producing a publication for the project. Since so many of our contributors and our 300+ followers on Twitter are scattered around the world, I am posting this (very) brief summary of the proceedings as well as responses that arose during the discussion that followed.
Many thanks to Henry Charles, Storyteller in Residence at the Vancouver Public Library, for his gracious welcome to the participants. Henry’s translation of messages to hǝn’q’ǝmin’ǝm’/Musqueam, as well as his own bilingual messages for the billboard are much appreciated.
Our first roundtable presenters were Sonny Assu, Edgar Heap of Birds, and Jeff Derksen. Sonny spoke about how his messages were excerpts of conversations with his grandmother about family history. Her memories of residential school, his grandfather’s decision to hide ceremonial regalia in a cave that cannot now be located were two among many tweets that he composed. He talked about his creation of #potlatch ban and #indianact hashtags as a hopeful gesture for twitter exchanges about these recent histories and a means to retrieve and cluster them. Edgar presented his memorial work about the indentured American Indians that performed across Europe as part of the Wild West Show and the many who died there, and whose remains have yet to be re-patriated. His message for Digital Natives that was censored by Astral also speaks to the need to first acknowledge and honour those who came before. Jeff placed the project within bodies of thought around ‘the right to the city’, and how city space is for living and is diminished the more it is commodified. He discussed Duncan Campbell Scott, the 19th century poet noted for composing sentimental poems about indians, while at the same time working to frame the language of the Indian Act.
The second roundtable looked at the project from the perspectives of public space, digital technologies and translation. Annabel Vaughn commented on Digital Natives in relation to city planning’s fixation on ‘view corridors’, the symbolic impact of seeing First Nations languages in the city’s visual space, and the overlooked fact that, in making buildings, developers also create the space between them, the space of the public. She commented on how, paradoxically, the project carried a tone of intimacy between the contributors and the followers. Phillip Djwa spoke about the challenges of digital access for rural First Nations, and the finely grained generational differences when it comes to the use of digital media, and how these ideas relate to the workshops with urban aboriginal youth he conducted as part of the project. The archiving dilemmas of traditional languages and the fragility of recording technologies were discussed in relation to endangered First Nations languages. Deborah Jacobs cited a UNESCO report stating that Canadian native languages are the most endangered in the world, and addressed the complexity of the translation process undertaken by the Education, Language and Cultural Resource Management team at the Squamish Nation for the Digital Natives project. A multi-layered process, translation relies on the imaginative interpretation of intended meaning, the transliteration of sounds, concepts and histories to visual form, and an understanding that language itself has culturally specific values. This use of language is seen in the context of marking the “125th” anniversary of this place.
In the discussion, language was equated with sovereignty, as a way of claiming symbolic space, as treasured and also crassly commodified in an advertising context. Digital language – in the abbreviations of text messages, the hybrid forms created by the character limits of Twitter, and the incidental and intentional poetics that result, are considered alongside the work to create unicode fonts to accurately present First Nations transliterations. The speed of transmission of digital language sits next to the ten-second timing of the billboard, leaving viewers in cars straining to grasp the message, while online audiences can relax into the pace of the message roll and twitter feed, should they have the time. Bridge walkers have more opportunity to reflect, although they may resent having to pay attention to the slow pace of the ad content while waiting to focus on the next message. Operating in all these different temporal and spatial conditions simultaneously, the project’s effect is similarly multiple, and each aspect is ‘partial’ coming together only by association. As a temporary spectacle that leases a piece of the built environment, it draws together the standardized global template of the billboard with this particular location, and the particular viewpoints of the contributors and members of the public that sent us their ideas.

The symposium animators Glenn Alteen, Keeka Alexander and Kristin Kozuback drew out several themes and posed challenges to the discussion. Can public art really generate a different way of thinking? Is the symbolic presence of First Nations language in public space the most resonant, valuable part of the project? Does reaching out to involve other publics, such as aboriginal youth, have a meaningful impact? Comments about generosity – and its limits – brought the discussion to a close, as Clint recapped the days events.
I welcome all comments (and corrections!) to this summary in the field below.
Thank you to Jill Baird and the MOA staff for hosting the event, to the speakers and animators, to Barbara Cole for her introduction, and to everyone who attended.

Posted in Art, Digital media, First Nations, Language | Comments Off on What happened at the symposium…

An anecdote about naming and language:

In the summer of 2010, an idea was circulated in the press that concerned the suggested renaming of Stanley Park in recognition of the Squamish village once located within the present boundaries of the popular tourist destination. With the heightened awareness of Canada’s Aboriginal peoples visualized by the spectacle of that winter’s Olympic games, the suggestion seemed appropriate and long overdue–long overdue as Xwáýxway was settled an estimated 3000 years ago while Lord Stanley, then Governor General of Canada, dedicated the park in 1889. Acknowledging Lord Stanley’s status as the Governor General seems particularly important as it allows the process of naming to appear strange, absurd, an historical contingency since Lord Lansdowne was the Governor General of Canada until 1888–the year Stanley Park was officially opened and a year before Lord Stanley would arrive to dedicate the park. Another example, perhaps clearer for its strangeness: the colonial-era name of the archipelago now known as Haida Gwaii was the Queen Charlotte Islands which was named after a ship named after a queen.

see below

The reaction from the public to the suggested renaming of the park and to the name Xwáýxway itself was mixed though mostly negative. The comments contained many reflections on language, naming, and Aboriginal cultures (and it should be noted that comments rarely concerned the Squamish people and their culture instead opting for a generalized, and apparently popular, image of an abstracted and singular Aboriginal culture lacking any internal differentiation). Common topics included the apparently Scottish name of the hereditary Squamish chief associated with the suggestion: Chief Ian Campbell, the discussion of the absence of the written word among Canada’s Aboriginal peoples to frame the name as a political fiction (as if naming a civic park in honor of the nation’s current Governor General was a politically innocent gesture), and aesthetic judgments concerning the sound of the name Xwáýxway and of Aboriginal languages generally. The name Xwáýxway, along with the name of Spuzzum, an unincorporated settlement beyond Hope, was deemed offensive to ears accustomed to the English language while Haida Gwaii and the Salish Sea (a recently named entity encompassing the Strait of Georgia, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and the Puget Sound), were found to be pleasant and acceptable. One remark that is difficult to forget sums up the situation all too well. berk1952 writes, “The name being proposed by native groups is ridiculous and impossible for most people to remember or pronounce.” This comment is revealing as it questions the ability of most people to comprehend, or even say, the word Xwáýxway while ignoring the important fact that there are currently only 15 people that are highly proficient speakers of the Squamish language. It is not a matter of “remembering” the word, it is a matter of learning it and speaking it so that it may be relearned and written for those who come after.


Posted in First Nations, Language, Messages, Site History, Vancouver, Writing | 2 Comments

Twitter and its Post-Spectacular Discontents

Debord defined the spectacle as a one-way communication regime in which Capital discourses endlessly upon itself. [1] Seen from this perspective, the “billboard as a medium” does not convey differentiated content. Instead, its message is formal, and is characterized by continuity, regularity, and normalized affects. As a perfected form of commodified communication, it occupies a static space, fixes and strictly regulates time, and is non-reciprocating. It’s not “cool” so much as cold. Its message is always the same: “look here!” Like any other authoritarian power, the billboard speaks but does not allow a response. Because it wants us to be only its mute and captive viewers, every “exchange” with the billboard diminishes us, and at some level breeds hostility; unless, of course, through an act of “culture-jamming” or vandalism, the billboard is seized and opened to dialogue and participation, as is the promise here – an aspect of the “hopefulness” Cheyanne mentions in her post.

While the theory of the spectacle is useful, it needs to be reloaded in the age of social media, where “us-viewers” can no longer be meaningfully described as passive consumers of spectacular information. Today, we don’t “consume” the spectacle so much as author it (and for free – pure surplus value!). In other words, we have become the fully-integrated producer-consumer-programmers of our own publicity [2]. Is this an improvement? One can’t be blamed for wondering if the “democratic” and “participatory” claims made by social media utopians aren’t overly optimistic. For whether they are carried out in the realm of technology and culture (Twitter), or at the level of politics-as-such (the state), don’t these minor modifications to Capital’s tools and techniques – its languages and its means of communication – only serve to consolidate our deepening dependencies on this brutal and dispiriting social order? In the same way that credit was introduced to fend off a growing crisis in productivity, social media will not overcome or even significantly challenge the increasingly obvious “deficits” of commodified communication; it will simply normalize and expand them – it will socialize them.

For these reasons, I was both uneasy and encouraged when Clint and Lorna asked me to participate in Digital Natives. Uneasy, because I’ve been unenthusiastic about the new modes of communication such as Twitter (“RIOT 1492” is my first tweet, though I actually emailed it…); encouraged, because the project clearly seeks to address precisely these issues, and opens the possibility to test-run a counter-interpellative “reply” to the billboard.

I’m not sure I’ve succeeded in that, but I’ll reflect on what I had to say in another post.


[1] “The spectacle is the existing order’s uninterrupted discourse about itself, its laudatory monologue.” – Debord, Society of the Spectacle, §24

[2] “Publicité is connected to the German Öffentlichkeit and means “public sphere” or “public opinion.” The German root offen– suggests openness, clarity, transparency and manifestness. Yet instead of translating publicité as “public sphere,” which carries specific connotations in political theory, we use “publicity,” following the convention established by Kant’s translators. Note however that “publicity” does not just mean advertising in a narrow sense, but rather the whole sphere of “publicness.”” – Tiqqun, Introduction to Civil War.


Posted in Messages | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

the billboard as a medium

There’s really no way I can think of the teaching or the research I do as out-reach or as community-based – as much as I would like it to be and as much as it pains me that my work doesn’t do this. Instead, I see my role as a professor of digital media and digital poetry as one that involves helping my students become the digital natives they’re poised to be – they may have grown up with digital technology in a way that I didn’t, they may have had facebook pages since they were in junior high school, but I’m not convinced this means they understand how these networks (of power as much as technology) work on and through them. (And in this sense, I sometimes think that “digital native” as it’s unthinkingly used in digital media criticism is a handy term to relinquish any responsibility to learn digital literacy skills.)

One of the ways I try to begin this process of uncovering networks of power (as I’m calling it here, anyways) is to look at how particular media structure what can be thought, written, expressed. What kind of writing do you produce when you handwrite? Have you ever written anything on a typewriter? How does this experience compare with using a word processor? What happens to our conversation in class when we switch to twitter? to a chat-room?

Along those same lines, then, I’m curious about what happens when tweets are translated into the medium of a billboard. They’re both (sometimes excrutiatingly) public, screen-based, woven into many of our daily lives, and built for broadcasting. But the billboard, the one overlooking Burrard Street Bridge, is also resolutely of a particular place, built up and over history. It is no small change in context to move from twitter to the billboard – the change doesn’t simply change the meaning of the Digital Natives Project. It creates the meaning – it is the meaning. This billboard in particular gives a home to the homelessness of digitally produced writing.

Posted in Digital media, Writing | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Youth workshops

Twice in this past month, as part of the Digital Natives project, I helped run workshops for Aboriginal youth, along with Phillip Djwa and Kristin Kozuback. Phil and Kris each have been doing this kind of thing for over ten years, Phil in helping to build capacity for digital connectivity among First Nations communities across B.C. and Kris in teaching and empowering Native youth, including at the Native Education College (NEC) at East 5th and Main in Vancouver. I’ve also been involved in various outreach education projects, including UBC’s Humanities 101 liberal arts program for low income people, and projects through the Eizabeth Frye Society, in the Downtown Eastside, and with seniors. These two workshops were amazing. 10 or so youth showed up for each (mostly under 25, many under 20 – and a couple parents at the second workshop) and we had a combination of Phil and I talking about social media, media literacy, and the Digital Natives public art project, followed by the participants brainstorming some messages that they wanted to get up on the billboard. This process was key for me – the kids are “digital natives” in both senses of the word – Marc Prensky’s of people who are wholly immersed in digital media due to having been born since 1980 – and as First Nations youth. But these kids were also – many of them – from marginal backgrounds. A couple didn’t know where they were sleeping that night – even as they may, as in one of the workshops, get a text message on their phone,  from their grandma in Port Hardy. That was one thing I learned about urban aboriginal youth – how farflung their roots are. We had youth from Sechelt, from Haida Gwaii, from Williams Lake, from the Okanagan, and from Vancouver Island. And I also learned how creative – and socially-engaged – they are. The messages that they wrote on the first, Feb. 10, workshop: “As Aboriginal youth we need to honour our ancestors & their struggles – focus more on our languages, healthy lifestyles = stable families.” “What’s your status? Why do natives have to have status? Is Native education fair? I’m a Native grad so there!” “First Nations. We are not a stereotype. Not gone … not lost! Still connected.” And from the second, Feb. 24, workshop: “I’m not ‘Aboriginal,’ I’m Haida or I’m Tsimshian, or I’m etc….” “Keep resources and programs like EASY and OASIS going strong in communities.” “Programs like the East Side Aboriginal Space for Youth (EASY) shouldn’t be shut down so we can have the support to succeed in life.” Both sets of messages are on the twitter feed now; we plan to have the first set  on the April 4 rollout on the billboard, and the second coming on  mid-month. On both occasions when I walked into the NEC there were drumming circles going on, as elders filled the space with chants and beats. In the second workshop, a drummer joined us, his drum in its container as we learned about what youth are up to with new forms of communication and creativity.

Posted in Digital media, First Nations, Messages | Comments Off on Youth workshops

unpacking the tweeting process

this project helps me to imagine what i would want to see on a billboard instead of ads…  i mulled over possible tweets…  i’ve been thinking a lot with & through water, how it materializes relationships between human & nonhuman communities if we track water’s flow, how the indigenous peoples here coexisted & flourished with the fifty-plus salmon streams that ran through the unceded lands we now call vancouver before they were paved over and culverted into sewers by colonists, drastically reducing the biodiversity and wild food supply, how so few people realize how rapidly the ocean is changing & how key it is to our future survival), so i started with water:

1. people + planet are 2/3 water. take care of yourself: protect the oceans from pollution, overfishing, & global warming

2. From Stalew (Fraser River) to Great Pacific Garbage Patch, water links all. We breathe thanks to ocean (phytoplankton). Water lovers unite!

since we’re threatened by the corporate requirement to profit at the expense of the environment (notwithstanding greenwashing as well as real efforts to move beyond that deadly paradigm), i thought the following might be one way to address that:

3. Moving from federal to feudal @ the speed of capitalism? Time to redefine the responsibilities of corporations. Earth first!

since i’ve been influenced for many years by a small book called Give Back: First Nations Perspectives on Cultural Practice, compiling writings by Lee Maracle, Jeannette Armstrong and more, i wanted to harken back to that title:

4. Dear guests: please honour & respect Khahtsahlano’s descendants. Give back the best gifts you can.

but in the end, i thought it was important to start with the basic acknowledgements that were for too long ignored, and still bear repeating today:

5. May salmon streams return to Senakw Staulk & Saltwater City. May we respect this land’s cultures: Musqueam, Tsleil Waututh, Squamish

so much history + urgency to try to pack into 140 characters!

earnestly & humbly…

Posted in Messages | Comments Off on unpacking the tweeting process

Distance is not an evil that should be abolished. It is the normal condition of any communication.

These words of Jacques Rancière’s have been taken from a speech entitled “The Emancipated Spectator” that he originally addressed to the 5th International Summer Academy in Frankfurt, Germany on 20 August 2004, and which has since been compiled as part of a book of the same name.

Foremost, what drew me to put forward these two sentences as a contribution to the Digital Natives project is their hopefulness. The charged history of the billboard’s site and, indeed, the title of the project itself, rightly suppose embedded relationships between natives and non-natives, both culturally and technologically. Relation is not identity: Rancière’s proposal is to acknowledge this without fear. The space between my heritage and yours, or my experience and yours, is an opportunity to relate across that difference.

This is not to suggest that relation is being. These gestures across difference maintain structural integrity. However, this is to suggest that identity is not fixed. Efforts to bridge between one way of knowing and another surely complicate each in turn.

Case in point: these words of Rancière’s become “haw ḵey as kwis ans x̱éta7 kwis ḵwéy̓ḵweystway chet. tim̓á tkwetsi,” which translate back as “It’s not bad that it’s so far for us to talk to one another. That’s how it is.”


Posted in Art, First Nations, Language, Messages, Writing | 1 Comment