Âhasiw Maskêgon-Iskwêw, CyberPowWow (2001). Web art documentation from CPW 2K, http://www.cyberpowwow.net/gallery.html.
“Come into my office,” Iktomi1 said, “I want to hear more about your project.” Coyote had warned me about this one. “This one,” he said “will tell you fantastic things. They are, to be sure, all true, and he will weave them in his web, and you will be seduced and mesmerized… and if you don’t watch out, you will go on fabulous adventures to realms of light and energy and spirit.”
Thus began my incredible (and ultimately too-short) journey with Âhasiw Maskêgon-Iskwêw. Âhasiw Maskêgon-Iskwêw. Agitator, activist, artist … writer, curator, thinker. Words that describe, but never really catch the spirit of the man until we add one other, Aboriginal. His thinking, his way of being, his artmaking was always informed and animated by Aboriginal philosophies, and customary ways of knowing. Far from being a dogmatist though, his was an Indigeneity of thought, of intellectual and cosmological manifestation. With the rise of the inclusion of Aboriginal artists in institutional arts programming in the past twenty years, there has been increased dialogue around the nature and political/cultural imperative of Aboriginal arts presentation and discourse. Âhasiw was on the front lines of these struggles throughout his career. Not just as a thinker and writer, but actively mobilizing ideas of Aboriginal cultural sovereignty and self-determination through his tireless policy and theoretical work. Maskêgon-Iskwêw’s influence on organizations such as the Canada Council for the Arts, Pitt Gallery, Circle Vision Arts Corporation, Aboriginal Film and Video Art Alliance, and Urban Shaman: Contemporary Aboriginal Art are testament to his leadership role in bring Aboriginal media and new media to the fore.
He believed that Indigenous media art production constituted a very different kind of media ecology than “western” practitioners and theorists. Jimmie Durham once wrote that “traditions exist and are guarded by Indian communities. One of the most important of these is dynamism. Constant change—adaptability, the inclusion of new ways and new materials—is a tradition that our artists have particularly celebrated and have used to move and strengthen our societies.” Âhasiw understood this and through his artwork, tireless advocacy and critical examination, furthered our understanding and engagement with “transformation and shifting states of being.” 2 Âhasiw understood that any critical discourse on it had to reside in Indigenous thought.
His was an epistemology of animism rooted in Aboriginal philosophies and technological imperatives that formed a media ecology. For Maskêgon-Iskwêw, the “premise arises out of Aboriginal concepts of the intersecting animist relations that inhabit the realms stretching from astronomy to meteorology, geology and down into microbiology, and offers them as new rhetorical designations of the relations that are evolving in the multiple streams of contemporary Aboriginal media art production.”
This kind of media ecology embraces a wholly different view of media that incorporates language, culture, technology, land, spirituality, and histories encompassed in the teachings of the four directions. The phrase “all my relations” is often used to explain the interaction of all things within an evolving, ever changing social, cultural, technological and cosmological dynamic, and can certainly be applied to the landscape of media. He did not conceive of digital art practice as a “new medium” because he understood that its basic premise of connecting thoughts and aesthetics electronically was linked to Aboriginal cosmologies, pedagogies, and epistemologies. He knew that cosmological media ecosystems can be seen as interrelated and part of a larger Indigenous worldview. Thus they exist as media, as message and form of knowledge transferal.
In his seminal work Drumbeats to Drumbytes, he wrote,
Indigenous digital artists around the world are deeply engaged with, and provide important contributions to interdisciplinary and cross-community dialogues about cultural self-determination. Their works explore and bear witness to the contemporary relevance of the histories of Indigenous oral cultures and profound connections to their widely varying lands. They also reveal the creative drive that is at the heart of Indigenous survival.3
It is a philosophy and an aesthetic argument that is perhaps even more cogent and salient today than when he wrote it.
It would be impossible in this short essay to recount and examine the many projects, artworks and writings of Âhasiw Maskêgon-Iskwêw, so I will concentrate on three that have particular significance to me.
“It’s the web that holds us together,” Iktomi explained to me, “in the past, in the present, and in the future.”
In drumbytes.org (2003). Maskêgon-Iskwêw created a portal for the dissemination of Aboriginal media-based art. By creating an open, accessible, and interactive site, he provided in drumbytes.org, a space to examine issues of access to technology and communications, issues of colonialism and globalization in relation to Aboriginal arts, cultures and languages and critical dialogue about digital media aesthetics, process and context. He wrote,
New media is both an outcome and a facilitator of major cultural and social shifts, not merely an additional creative tool. While media art already has well- established critiques closely aligned to cultural self-determination and social change, the apparatus of media arts production and presentation has often been institutionally prescribed, inequitably distributed, and Indigenous access to it tenuous and temporary. New media, while still far from meeting standards of equitable access to production and presentation, is providing many more communities world-wide with tools for international expression, activism, recognition, and networking.
Âhasiw Maskêgon-iskwêw, Âsowaha (1995). Performance documentation, Photo by Merle Addison, courtesy of grunt gallery.
Âhasiw Maskêgon-iskwêw, White Shame (1992), performance documentation. Photograph by Merle Addison, courtesy of grunt gallery.
Âhasiw Maskêgon-iskwêw, Untitled (circa 1980s). 35mm colour negatives. Images courtesy of grunt gallery
drumbytes.org succeeded in creating a networked space for artists, individuals, and communities, not unlike the social media sites we know so well today. He was a harbinger of this kind of collective interconnectivity in an ever-expanding cyber universe. As usual, he was ahead of his time.
ISI-PÎKISKWÊWIN-AYAPIHKÊSÎSAK (SPEAKING THE LANGUAGE OF SPIDERS)
“Let me show you something” said Iktomi, “it’s called isi-pîkiskwêwin-ayapihkêsîsak, Speaking the Language of Spiders, I’ve been working on it quite a while. I think you’ll like it.”
Aboriginal artists work from a history grounded in the colonial experience. Yet an aesthetic has developed despite cultural oppression and repression that is distinct, vibrant, and multi, as well as cross, disciplinary. In many ways, the work of Aboriginal new media artists can be seen as the outgrowth of a distinctly Aboriginal visual, oral, and literary culture. It represents an aesthetic of nexus, based on an oral storytelling tradition. In isi-pîkiskwêwin-ayapihkêsîsak (Speaking the Language of Spiders) Maskêgon-Iskwêw created an interactive screenplay website exploring language and worldview. The work was developed with the collaborative influence and creative participation of Lynn Acoose, Cheryl L’Hirondelle, Joseph Naytowhow, Greg Daniels, Elvina Piapot, Sheila Urbanoski, Sylvain Carette, Mark Schmidt, and Russell Wallace. “Through the use of poetic, fragmentary, highly visual and intuitive modes of expression this project brings into play the ways First Nations historic cultural paradigms, and ancestral and animistic spiritual forces operate in a very real manner in contemporary First Nations culture.”4
Artist and writer Terry Billings wrote of this work that it “engages language and image as a fluid motion, a dance with possibilities, a measure of gravity and a pathway into the body.”5 Language as cultural signifier embodies a dynamism of existence and presence despite, and in spite of, overarching Euro-western cultural hegemonies. By framing it in this context, AMI asserts the primacy of Indigenous definitions and denies the appropriators and the anthro-ethno apologist any space to define Aboriginal culture through their limited lenses.
Âhasiw argued that “tribal cultures speak and transform these definitions through their reinvention of metaphor and metonymy as history and prophesy, woven into a solid and living present, sung by many voices, most of whom are not people. You can talk Indian in many languages, but almost always through subversion, satire, irony and allusion.”6
Iktomi laughed in that infectious way. “Of course we can change the world,” he said, and then ordered another round of beer.
In 2005, while I was director of the Urban Shaman Gallery in Winnipeg, Âhasiw came to me with an idea for a new web-based commissioning and dissemination project. Over many beers at the Kingshead Pub (isn’t that when the best ideas happen?) we came up with a new program for Urban Shaman, Stormspirits. It was Âhasiw who remembered to write a note to himself outlining the main points of the conversation. Good thing, too because I sure wouldn’t have remembered. Over the course of the next few months we worked on a framework and context that would build on earlier work he, as well as others7 had been developing. Âhasiw became Urban Shaman’s new media curator and Stormspirits was born. The project sought to bring together new media artists, curators, and writers to create new works and discourses around them. The site was meant to be a forum for innovative projects to engage, define, challenge and investigate the use of digital and new media arts practice by Aboriginal artists. Unfortunately, Âhasiw would never see Stormspirits come to fruition. I like to think, and sincerely hope, he would have been proud of the results. On September 26, 2006, Âhasiw Maskêgon-Iskwêw passed on.
Âhasiw Maskêgon-Iskwêw was a warm, loving, generous soul, one of the foremost thinkers on Aboriginal new media art and a true friend to all who knew him. He had a profound impact on Aboriginal art in this country and his influence is still being felt.
He once wrote, “the ancient process of successfully adapting to their worlds’ shifting threats and opportunities—innovating the application of best practices to suit complex and shifting flows—from a position of equality and autonomy within them, is the macro and micro cosmos of contemporary Indigenous cultures: a truly networked way of being.”8
And that’s why, for me, Âhasiw will always embody the spirit of Iktomi. Rest in peace my friend, may your continued journeys take you places to commune with the ancients and be one with your ancestors.
“I’ve been the mirror reflecting other’s selves … I am Iktomi.”9
- In Lakota mythology, Iktomi is a spider-trickster spirit. There is a prophecy that stated Iktomi would spread his web over the land. Today, this has been interpreted by some contemporary Indigenous people to mean the telephone network, and then the internet and World Wide Web. Iktomi has been considered by the Lakota from time immemorial to be the patron of new technology, from his invention of language he gave to the people to today’s modern inventions, such as the computer.
- http://www.reg.trlabs.ca/artists/âhasiw/cree1.htm “Talk Indian to me… or from the billings”
- billings p. 21
- http://www.reg.trlabs.ca/artists/âhasiw/cree1.htm “Talk Indian To Me”
- For example the amazing Cyber Pow-wow series curated by Skawennati and Archer Pechawis, among others.
- John Trudell – “Iktomi,” from his recording Madness and The Moremes (2007)