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Performing Transformations: Ahasiw Maskegon-Iskwew
Sara Diamond

Ahasiw Maskegon-Iskwew performed transformations, altering conditions and states. He held a complex relationship to time – as if a pattern from nature he could act as a synchronous agent in a real time conditioned by simultaneity. Ahasiw could hold the moment prisoner; he could ignite incendiary moments that rolled out in episodic waves. In these modes he energized The Banff Centre. My encounter with Ahasiw spanned many decades, from our early acquaintanceship in Vancouver in the 1980s to decades of engagement with the activities of Media and Visual Art and the Banff New Media Institute at The Banff Centre. He was a collaborator in CodeZebraOS, my software, collaboration and performance project. I considered him an ally and a friend.

Ahasiw joined The Banff Centre on secondment from the Canada Council for the Arts, funded by a two-year First Peoples Arts Administration Internship. I had begun my tenure there in 1992. I had made a commitment to leaders like Loretta Todd to infuse Aboriginal thinking and making into every facet of Media Arts programs in collaboration with the vast creative Canadian First Nations, Inuit, and Métis and Aboriginal communities. Ahasiw joined me to realize that mission; to begin to engage Aboriginal artists across Canada; to develop strategy and to intervene within the life of The Banff Centre as a mandated emerging leader. As Aboriginal art practices were characteristically multidisciplinary the implications went beyond Media Arts. The original goal grew to become the creation of a comprehensive Aboriginal Arts program. The early events that Ahasiw facilitated paved the road for Marjorie Beaucage to become the first director of Aboriginal Arts at The Banff Centre.

In the early 1990s New Media Research and Media Arts established a series of workshops that would consider Aboriginal presence in cyber space. Ahasiw participated in a small summit of Aboriginal luminaries1 (and non-Aboriginals fascinated by Aboriginal culture) entitled Drum Beats to Drum Bytes (1994)2 that explored newsgroups and postings that claimed Aboriginality; established a manifesto and sought to lay cyber land claims to the Internet.3 Occurring on the cusp of the visual web, this summit explored the possibilities of Aboriginal-language representation and cultural exchange. Its intention was to create a nationwide computer-based telecommunications network that could support the communications, information-resource, and training and professional-development needs of Aboriginal (Métis, Inuit, and status and non-status Indian) cultural producers. It considered the findings from Native Net, a two-part investigative report (January–April, 1993) that analyzed Aboriginal presence online and the potential of the Internet to further Aboriginal cultural identity. Concerns were expressed regarding cultural appropriation, misrepresentation, and exoticization of Aboriginal people in the online world. An important element of the discussion centered on copyright, protocol, culturally appropriate network moderation and the necessity of networking spaces reserved for First Peoples’ participation. The Banff Centre for the Arts coordinated a live online telecommunications link between the Institute for Contemporary Art (ICA) in London, UK and The Banff Centre for the Arts, in order to allow members at the gathering to dialogue with participants at an ICA conference entitled Seduced and Abandoned: The Body in the Virtual World. With Ahasiw an enthusiastic participant, and others more skeptical, the ICA exchange was assessed in a variety of ways by the participants, and it led to further elaboration of views on Aboriginal arts and the need for self-determination.

Ahasiw was a pivotal participant in The User Symposium on Authoring Tool Design (1994) an intensive seminar on authoring tools (technologies that allow users to produce digital media). The workshop sought to critique existing tools; set new requirements for artist and design-friendly authoring systems and establish research priorities for developing a design specification for authoring software that might be developed by The Banff Centre and its partners.4 Ahasiw argued that authoring tools needed to be rethought from the perspectives of Aboriginal language structure. Cognizant of emerging translation tools he asked for more – that fundamental creative tools represent Aboriginal world views. Ahasiw was certain that emerging technologies could allow for new forms of empowerment for Aboriginal communities.

Ahasiw was part of many of the Banff New Media Institute summits and its hallmark Interactive Screen and Money and Law workshops. In the early 1990s debates raged about the promised cultural neutrality of cyber space. Telus Presents: Avatar! Avatar! Wherefore Art Thou? The Art, Software and Science of Identity investigated the rise and apparent decline of online virtual worlds, in order to understand their future potential. Thinkers such as Mark Pesce (one of the inventors of VRML) were convinced that gender and cultural identity were erased by the anonymity of virtual networks. Ahasiw sparked a debate, arguing that cultural specificity – Aboriginality – was viral and present within these emerging networks, that these technologies provided great opportunity for linguistic expression and hence cultural renewal, and that virtual worlds allowed a degree of play and redefinition for Aboriginal artists and communities that was unprecedented. At the same time he warned against appropriation and cultural invisibility.

The Bridges Two conference was a massive international effort that brought together new media artists, scientists and thinkers from all over the world to explore collaboration. Ahasiw was a member of the organizing committee and co-moderated one of the most dynamic panels in the conference, entitled, “Aboriginal Collaborations—within and Between Nations, Within and Between Cultures.” He opened the panel with a framework that linked sustainability, globalization and technology and insisted that the many American participants pay attention to the significant delegation of emerging world and Aboriginal participants there:

At events such as Bridges, where we as Aboriginal people make presentations to non-Aboriginal communities of academics and professionals, we often ask ourselves: what place do we have here, what is our purpose, and what relevance do we have? I am sure some of your colleagues may ask the same. While we as Aboriginal people often concentrate on the specifics of our own practices, communities, and cultures in shaping our presentations, I believe there is a critical subtext we all adhere to in many ways—that is to remind influential people and communities of the genocides that make this privilege of influence possible. To ask again that our histories be acknowledged. To point out contradictions between liberal voices and impressive actions and to build networks and connections based on a commitment to revealing and building on historical fact. In my comments, I also ask you to recognize the nature of the often overwhelming influence of American academics and politicians in regard to the rest of the world.5

Almost ten years after the first event a second Drum Beats to Drum Bytes II (2002) occurred under Ahasiw’s leadership in order to evaluate progress on the goals of the first event. Ahasiw had won the Canwest Global Communication Award – a major Canadian award - and the summit was his resulting project; it drew together original participants and new players. The results were disheartening in some ways as a national network had not emerged. However, by 2002 many Aboriginal communities had developed web presence; there was Aboriginal publishing; Aboriginal language translation tools had matured; commercial web sites attached to broadcasters (such as the Aboriginal People’s Television Network) had been established; there were major Aboriginal web projects and a legacy of Aboriginal new media works outside of the Internet – many co-produced by The Banff Centre.

As well as his intellectual contributions, Ahasiw found The Banff Centre to be a place that supported his artistic efforts. He was the coordinator, artistic director and collaborator in Isi-pikiskwewin Ayahpikesisak (Speaking the Language of Spiders), a multi-year collaborative project that was initiated as a World Wide Web screenplay/storyboard through the Pop, Mass, ‘n Sub Cultures residency at The Banff Centre. Isi-pikiskwewin Ayahpikesisak (Speaking the Language of Spiders) was presented during Cylic, an exhibition that I curated for the Centre culturel canadien in Paris in 1997 that showcased Canadian Aboriginal artists whose work was co-produced by The Banff Centre —such as Edward Poitras, Mike MacDonald and Ahasiw. The installation process required extraordinary patience and negotiation with recalcitrant French technicians; the show was almost closed because the embassy was anxious that Prime Minister Chrétien might react badly to some of the Aboriginal art work that was critical of Canadian policy. Ahasiw helped us all to recover from stress by leading us in an all night exploration of Paris night life. In 2002, this work toured in the visual art exhibition Exposed: The Aesthetics of Aboriginal Erotic Art, curated by Lee Ann Martin and Morgan Wood as part of the Banff Centre’s Banff International Curatorial Institute. His work was also exhibited at the Walter Phillips Gallery as part of Back/Flash curated by Dana Claxton. Based on our history of collaboration I asked Ahasiw to participate in a 24-hour performance that I undertook as part of my CodeZebra project in the Dutch Electronic Art Festival in 2003. I locked up an artist (Paul Wong) and scientist (Nina Wakeford) for 24 hours and asked them to create new inventions and theories, with regular interventions by moderators. Ahasiw was one of the moderators and engaged from his post at Video Pool, improvising with Paul Wong who played with the camera, sending images out in a visual mix-down that responded to his words. There was a time delay on the video stream, Ahasiw sent me email and I uploaded it into the chat software or read it to the video camera and then emailed responses back to him. The intricate procedures of communication created a sense of engaged intensity and active listening between all of us and we were at ease.

He directed Paul Wong to swing a glowing light back and forth between his legs, creating a beautiful and erotic mirror dance between Winnipeg, my cold media headquarters late at night and the temporary apartment on top of the building in Rotterdam where the Paul and Nina were stationed. It is 3 a.m. in Rotterdam. At the time I noted, “Diamond makes up a poem: ‘Laptop on lap to keep me warm. Light bright stick. Wong pulsates along.’ Ahasiw dubbed this performance ‘literoeroticism’s magic wand’. The group discussed many postings from Ahasiw on the nature of winter and the cold night. He described the super storms raging around the world and spoke of the violation of Aboriginal cultural rights and treasures. His style was dramatic, lyrical and poetic: “The selling of bear gall, spider is seeding the world with people who were helped by bear, wolverine and meteorological rage… the rage of the spirits against desecration, super storms!” Then, in his classic multi-vocal style, Ahasiw cried without pause: “Hi Paul! Lovely to see you!”6 He later began a discussion of the politics of the larger CodeZebra Project, about how “…zoomorphism operates… is this when animals place their spirits onto us?” Paul Wong and he wondered about the CodeZebraOS software’s aspirations to be a ‘moving democratic space’. I argued that the software was not intended to suppress conflict but to mediate conflicts and indicate emotional dynamics as well as content. Before the conversation moved on to explore time, space and circular narratives, Ahasiw shared an eloquent appraisal of the contradictory politics of electronic art:

The erogenous and substantive amounts of electricity surging around the world for industry, domestic use, and spectacle, are created and maintained at great costs to the non-human environment that can and will/is fighting back. Digital artists float delicately in this violent surge… [The] idea of networking, of electronic community development is interesting when put alongside the erotic rage of the massive energy streams it rides on.”7

Ahasiw consistently integrated a passionate argument for ecological sustainability, theorizing the ways that the biological (or zoological) world and virtual tools acted in contradiction and interaction. Ahasiw set about establishing multiple forms of literacy for himself and advocated these for others. He became fluent in the Cree language, in sustainability theory and in computation and brought these fluencies to Banff. Developing Aboriginal notions of authorship in the design of specific tools, interfaces and online expressions was of paramount importance to him. He put these ideas forward beginning in the early 1990s and continued to build on them, through organizational, theoretical and creative interventions throughout that decade and beyond. These are amongst the gifts – as well as his dynamic presence - that he provided to the many participants at The Banff Centre and to me.


  1. Sixteen Aboriginal resource people from across North America involved in First Peoples’ arts and cultural development, facilitation, production, education, communications, and telecommunications-network development attended.  back

  2. The gathering was coordinated by the Aboriginal Film and Video Art Alliance with the assistance of The Banff Centre for the Arts, the Canada Council, and the Department of Canadian Heritage.  back

  3. The Internet attracted non-Aboriginal people who reveled in masquerading Aboriginal. In 1992-3 it was difficult to discern Aboriginal postings from pretenders hence a number of leaders of Aboriginal sites were asked to Banff under the belief that they were Aboriginal.  back

  4. Participants included representatives from industry such as Real-Time Computer Systems for Audio And Performance; Intel Corporation; Christie Communications as well as two other Aboriginal participants, Norbert Many Grey Horses (the Native Newspaper), and Gordon Tait (Banff Centre press) and artists, designers and composers  back

  5. Ahasiw Maskegon-Iskwew / Transcribed: 0:00–9:00 / Talk: Not noted / Panel: “Aboriginal Collaborations—Within And Between Nations, Within And Between Cultures” / Event: Bridges II: A Conference about Cross-Disciplinary Research and Collaboration / Date: Friday, October 4, 2002, 2:00–3:15 p.m.  back

  6. (Diamond et al., CodeZebraOS [Software], 2003.  back

  7. Ibid.  back

Dr. Sara Diamond is the President of OCAD University, Canada's "university of imagination". She holds a PhD in Computer Science and degrees in new media theory and practice, social history and communications. She is an appointee of the Order of Ontario and the Royal Canadian Society of Artists. While retaining OCAD University's traditional strengths in art and design, Diamond has guided the university in becoming a leader in digital media, design research and curriculum through the Digital Futures Initiative, new research in Inclusive Design, health and design, as well as in sustainable technologies and design. She also played a leading role in OCAD University's establishment of the unique Aboriginal Visual Culture Program. These initiatives have built strong partnerships for OCAD University with science, business and communities, in Ontario and abroad. Currently, she serves on the Ontario Ministry of Culture's Advisory Council on Arts & Culture, ORION (Ontario's high-speed network), SHARCNET, IO (Interactive Ontario), Canadian Women in Communications; i-Canada; is Chair of the Scotiabank Nuit Blanche Toronto Advisory Committee. Diamond serves the larger university community through her membership on the Standing Advisory Committee on University Research (SACUR) of the Association of Universities and Colleges and as Chair of the Standing Committee on Relationships with Other Postsecondary Institutions for the Council of Ontario Universities. Diamond is a member of the Council of the Canadian Academies' expert panel on the State of Science & Technology in Canada.

She is a data visualization, wearable technology and mobile media researcher, artist and designer. She developed, a social media software and performance and responsive fashion environment. Diamond is founding Chair of the Mobile Experience Innovation Centre and current co-chair (with RBC). She is co-principal investigator on the Centre for Information Visualization/Data Driven Design, an OCAD U/York University major initiative and sits on the board of the National Centre of Excellence GRAND. Diamond continues to write and lecture on the subjects of digital media history, digital media, strategic foresight; mobility and design strategy for peer-reviewed journals and acts as a reviewer and evaluator for IEEE and ACM conferences and journals; SSHRC, CFI and the Canada Research Chair programs. Her artwork is held by prestigious collections such as the Museum of Modern Art, NYC and the National Gallery of Canada.

Diamond was the Artistic Director of Media and Visual Art and Director of Research at the Banff Centre, where she created the Banff New Media Institute (BNMI) in 1995 and led it until 2005. In this role she assisted with the development, incubation and support of many of Canada's leading new media companies. Diamond created and was the Editor-in-Chief of, an online showcase for new media art and design in collaboration with Heritage Canada and The Banff Centre. At the Banff Centre she created international think tanks and collaborations in ICT, digital media and science research with artists, designers and scientists from Latin America, Africa, Asia, Central and Western Europe and the U.S.A., as well as Canada. Her book (with Sarah Cook) Euphoria & Dystopia: The Banff New Media Dialogues, a history of the boom, bust and reset years of the first wave of digital media is currently available; published by Banff Centre Press and Riverdale Architectural Press, University of Waterloo.