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Talk Indian To Me #4
Speaking Spider Languages

Âhasiw Maskêgon-Iskwêw, 1996

The real question about what relevance the Internet may have for artists is not what the Internet can do for artists or what artists can do with the Internet; the most significant examination remains in the domain of what a body of artwork does and how it does it. The tradition of artists' practice in time-based media art grew out of subverting the contexts of commercial control over video, radio and film within a similar range of artistic purposes. The pervasive and dominant nature of commercial broadcast media makes it imperative that artists comment upon and subvert them. This tradition of appropriating commercial media now extends to using computer communications technology within art practice for many of the same reasons, the significant difference being that the one-sided nature of broadcast will soon be completely eroded in favour of interactivity.

An interesting precedent, photography began as, and remains, a primarily commercial medium. Yet, it also boasts a well-established tradition of use in artistic practice and a growing grey area of intelligent and creative crossover between commercial and artistic practice (often seen as appropriation and bastardization by both camps). Duane Michals is an example of a photographer who has made an innovative contribution to commercial fashion photography and who has also created a significant body of work incorporating obscure and haunting portraits with poetic texts that examine and question the nature of identity in portraiture through a highly personal approach.

Two examples of artists appropriating commercial media, each from opposite bands of the authorship spectrum, are the artist's book and activist design. "The artist's book offers a form of design authorship from which function has been fully exorcised. The artist's book, in general, is concrete, self-referential and allows for a range of visual experiments without the burden of fulfilling mundane, commercial tasks. There is a long tradition of artists' books through the historical avant-garde, the Situationists, Fluxus and experimental publishing in the 1960s and 1970s, but activist work—including the output of Gran Fury, Bureau, Women's Action Coalition, General Idea, ACT-UP, Class Action and the Guerrilla Girls—is also self-motivated and self-authored within a clear political agenda. Proactive work has a voice and message, but in its overt intentionality lacks the self-referentiality of the artist's book." [Michael Rock, "The Designer as Author," Eye: The International Review of Graphic Design, vol. 5, no. 20 (Spring, 1996,) 49-50.]

Digital technology enabled literary artists to achieve the promise of hypertext that had been well theorized before the widespread availability of the computer. Ironically, the advent of hypertext literary concepts—inaugurated in Euro-American culture by Robbe-Grillet, Burroughs, Calvino and Joyce through fragmented non-linear narratives—took place during the decades when residential schools were undertaking their most virulent and vicious attacks on First Nations culture and language. These were oral cultures with long histories of development in the arts of non-linear, fragmented storytelling and oration. But hypertext is a very limited form of interactivity, whether it be linked text fragments, images, video and animation in a non-linear structure, or its attendant development in three-dimensional movement and manipulation of objects in virtual reality.

The most significant feature that computers make accessible to artists is the ability to assign behaviours to objects within a hyperlinked environment. These objects can be anything from an animation, photograph, video, sound, text or environment. Behaviours chosen by the artist are the essential character of the work that becomes apparent in different ways depending on the interactive choices of the viewer/participant. These behaviours can span the full stylistic range, including abstract, formalist, expressionist, dada etc., in a highly performative interaction.

There is already a commercial application - that of the World Wide Web - which assigns behaviours to objects in this way. It has been virtually ignored by artists, however, enjoying little creative or critical development. Perhaps this is due to the programming skill level required (which now is rapidly becoming more simplified and accessible) or, equally likely, because of artists' negative preconceptions about its most prevalent products: video and computer games. This cynicism also belongs to a larger phenomenon of constant and increasing culture shock, where physical nomadism has been replaced by technological diaspora. Even media artists, long relegated to technological elitism by other art form practitioners, are no less subject to alienation, given the suddenness of current technological development and the cultural changes it necessitates.

The World Wide Web in its current state is a passing, and almost already archaic medium. One of the cultural artifacts it has revealed, however, is the imploding attention span. The constant refrain is to keep image, video, sound and animation files small because if any of these can't be downloaded in a matter of seconds, the visitor surfs away to a more instantly gratifying location. The concept of microscopic perceptions of time and information assessment brings out an angry response from many who believe that it signals the last stages of cultural decay. But it is just as much part of a two-stage set of new survival skills that energetic, curious young people quickly learn: subversive, free access to networks and the ability to skim and sort vast databases to find and create unique sets of information—personal micro-cultures—sharing them with others of like mind with whom they may never physically interact in what amounts to a proliferation of virtual cultures.

"Virtual reality, as well as voice-activated, ultra-fast home processers, will enact our desires so quickly that in the long run, changing our personal identity will become a primary entertainment, like a cosmetic surgery of the psyche" [from Christopher Dewdney's introduction to The Skin of Culture: Investigating the New Electronic Reality by Derrick de Kerckhove. Somerville House (Toronto, 1995).] This analogy is correct in the sense that we have a far greater capacity to collect information artifacts that reflect whatever state we may be in at any given moment and display them to our community as badges of our identity. But this is an age-old cultural activity and is essential to our well-being: deprivation of it amounts to oppression. The only difference is that a much vaster amount of information is available, making possible far more precise and volatile depictions of personal identity. We can communicate to a huge population, enabling people to locate and participate in global communities that are much more unconditionally accepting of their members because they have much more specifically common purposes.

In a sense, children are leaving home in greater numbers than ever before - a new Children's Crusade - but coming back for dinner each night. Within a year every school in Canada will be linked to the Internet and the World Wide Web - most universities have been for years. Web 66 is a site where all currently available information about constructing web sites is made available in lesson plans directed at teachers of elementary school students. It also includes links to shareware sites containing web construction software. In five years broadcasting will be replaced by narrowcasting and view-on-demand, multi-media will flow interactively over large bandwidth networks and young people will be the most prolific multimedia producers commenting on culture - their own culture - in this new environment. Kerckhove writes, "The shift of controls from the producer/broadcaster to the consumer/user will turn a sizable minority of users into becoming their own producers, or 'prosumers.' The decentralizing of production technology will be accompanied by the decentralizing of production technology. As the prices go down on video and computer equipment, the quality and performance go up." It is interesting to note how there has been a strong shift by young people away from television to Internet chat and web surfing in homes where it is available. They are moving away from being "couch potatoes" and toward becoming "couch guerrillas" (Kerckhove's tag). I imagine the possible communities in formation: I hear the spiders working to spin webs within which they prepare for, and invent, the future.

Âhasiw Maskêgon-Iskwêw (1958 - 2006) was a Cree/Métis writer, editor, performance and spoken word artist, video and visual artist, curator and teacher. A graduate of Emily Carr College of Art and Design (now Emily Carr University of Art + Design), Maskêgon-Iskwêw was a participant in the two year Equity Internship Program at the Canada Council for the Arts that included work with the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College, Circle Vision Arts Corporation, and the Aboriginal Film and Video Art Alliance. He then became Program Coordinator and Assistant Editor of the Talking Stick First Nations Arts Magazine and later developed the position of Production Manager for SOIL at Neutral Ground Digital Media Production Suite. He also worked as web editor for the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network. His critical writing has been published in Mix and Fuse Magazine and in the anthology The Multiple and Mutable Subject: Postmodern Subjectivity and the Internet (2002), published by the St. Norbert Arts Centre. His fictional work Cannibals was presented by the Art Gallery of Calgary as part of the Storybook Story project.

In describing rooms he created for CyberPowWow, an Aboriginally Determined Territory in Cyberspace, Âhasiw said, “They form a constellation that attempts to tell one complex story. There is a desire to say things in a more complete way, to leave a legacy.” His work has left everyone who experienced his art or read his words a rich and complex legacy of their own.

A full bio can be found on the home page.