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Arts and Culture

'Digital Natives'

Between ads for beer and pop music, an electronic billboard in Vancouver beams challenging messages by and about First Nations.

By Clint Burnham 5 Apr 2011 |

Clint Burnham teaches English at SFU and is the author of many books, including the novel Smoke Show. You can follow him on twitter: @Prof_Clinty.

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'Digital Natives' billboard on the Burrard Street Bridge.

If you're crossing Vancouver's Burrard Bridge and glance at the electronic billboard that rises at its Kitsilano end, you may notice something different. Amidst the Guinness and Jack FM ads will flash the occasional message on a red background. Some of them will seem to be about native issues:

"First Nations. We are not a stereotype. Not gone... not lost! Still connected."

Or: "Riot 1492."

Or: "My great-grandfather hid his ceremonial regalia in a cave that we have long since lost track of. Who wants to go spelunking? #potlatch ban."

The last one gives us a bit of a clue -- "#potlatch" is a hashtag, how you provide a hot link in Twitter. The text messages that will be up on the billboard for the month of April are part of Digital Natives, a public art project that Lorna Brown and I are curating, bringing together contributions by 30 native and non-native writers and artists, from Vancouver and from across North America.

Digital Natives is also being previewed as part of the WE: Vancouver exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery (and this article is part of a Tyee series sampling voices from that exhibit.)

In what follows in this piece, I'd like to talk a bit about the process by which we developed the project, a bit about some of what we've learned about issues of technology and First Nations languages during that process, and a bit about what we think this all means.

An idea jogged loose

I first came up with the idea for the project in early 2010, when I was out for a jog around False Creek and ran across the Burrard Street bridge. The electronic billboard was newly installed then, and its size and position appealed to me -- why not put a Twitter feed onto the sign? It seemed so easy at the time...

I use Twitter a lot, much more than Facebook -- I like Twitter's streamlined feel -- just a feed of messages and links, none of the extra garbage you get with Facebook -- no comments, no Farmville, no invitations to play Mafia Wars. And I also use it in my teaching, in a class I teach at SFU on autobiography. Twitter's a digital form of memoir, a kind of 21st century autobiography. And I think I like Twitter too, because as a writer its compressed 140 character limit appeals to me -- it's a kind of discipline.

582px version of Digital Natives tweet 1

And I liked the assorted controversies of the site -- the bike lane kerfuffles about the bridge, but also the conflicted responses people have to the sign itself. Advertising on native land -- the sign is on Squamish land -- seems to give rise to all sorts of confusion and, sometimes, outright racism. It's like non-native people don't want to be reminded there still is native land around us. Or that native people shouldn't use their land to make money.

So I got together with Vancouver artist and curator Lorna Brown, with whom I've worked before, and we brought the project to Other Sights for Artists' Projects, a local public art organization. We began by putting together a dream team of artists and writers. Avant-garde writers interested in new media forms, like Michael Turner, Lisa Robertson, Jeff Derksen and Larissa Lai. Aboriginal writers and artists who work at the intersection of politics and advocacy, like Marie Annharte Baker, Peter Morin, Raymond Boisjoly, Edgar Heap of Birds and Marianne Nicholson. Artists and writers from Kamloops (Chris Bose), New Mexico (the Postcommodity collective), Boulder (Lori Emerson) and Minneapolis (Emily Fedoruk). (You can find more info on the contributors here.) Everyone was excited, and ideas started flying through emails and tweets.

582px version of Digital Natives tweet 2

We worked it up, applied for funding -- first from the Canada Council, and then winning a commission from the City of Vancouver as part of their 125th anniversary public art projects for 2011. We also assembled a crackerjack team of technicians, because we knew that if we were going to approach Astral Media -- who run the billboard for the Squamish nation -- we had to have product that looked good and fit into their specifications.

Colin Griffiths and Judith Steedman designed the look of our messages -- the template -- as well as their digital forms. Deanne Achong put together the project's website. We also knew that we wanted a blog element, an online presence to make a local project accessible from anywhere.

Fonts of wisdom

As the messages started coming in, we started to work on getting them translated.

Some contributors' messages -- like Chris Bose's "stiʔtíʔxʷ kn qə wíʔ snk y ép: I believe in Jesus Coyote" were already in a mixture of English and native languages (in this case nɬeʔkepmxcín or Thompson).

582px version of Digital Natives tweet 3

Working with UBC's Museum of Anthropology, we contacted Deborah Jacobs at the Squamish nation, (Peter Jacobs did the translation into Sḵwx wú7mesh snichim) and Elder Larry Grant of the Musqueam nation (for translation into hǝn'q'ǝmin'ǝm'). Marianne Nicolson and her mother, Gloria Nicolson handled translations into Kwak'wala.

What we were interested in here was, to put it bluntly, the positive and negative sides of the relation between native languages and modern technology. On the one hand, innovations like podcasting mean that oral languages in danger of disappearing can be preserved and even disseminated. The podcasts, compiled by Dustin Rivers, for example, teach a word a day in Sḵwx̱wú7mesh snichim, or the Squamish language. Such efforts are amazing ways of melding traditional knowledge and 21st century technology.

But there still remains the "digital divide." This means everything from questions of access to technology to how digital technology deals with traditional cultures. Many rural bands, like rural areas in general, lack broadband access or wifi -- a matter of infrastructure.

But, as we learned in getting messages ready for the billboard, there are still real difficulties in finding a font that will carry all of the diacritics that come in local First Nations languages. Fonts for Arabic (like the Twitter feeds I follow from Egypt since the Jan. 25 demonstrations) or Korean aren't hard to find. But ones that will show words like otłasa (in Kwak'wala) or lésiw̓ilh (in Squamish) proved to be a real challenge for our tech guru (and "art whisperer" to the stars of the art world) Griffiths. As he explained it to me recently in an email from Singapore, the font site "Languagegeek was the ultimate source for the look of the translations -- the diactritics and font specificities are the result of enormous labour by that team which ultimately renders this aspect of the Digital Natives project possible, once I got my head around the intricacies of the keyboard mapping versus font style versus language choices."

582px version of Digital Natives tweet 4

Colonial colloquialisms

So that's the tech side; there was also an interesting conceptual gap between English and First Nations languages. After a discussion with Marianne Nicholson about the translations into Kwak'wala, Lorna Brown wrote about some of this on the Digital Natives blog, noting the difficulty in rendering Christian Bok's message, which only uses the vowel "i," or Henry Tsang's tweet, which uses acronyms like "OMG" and "2D4." But possibly the most symptomatic difficulty came in translating American Indian artist Edgar Heap of Birds' "IMPERIAL CANADA AWARDED SEX ABUSE TO NATIVE YOUTH BY THE BLACK ROBES NOW PROUDLY BESTOWS BRONZE SILVER GOLD MEDALS WITH INDIAN IMAGE" -- as Brown notes, "the only non-English concepts" that could be translated are "gift" and "pride." So this is very important -- Heap of Birds' political message is almost entirely written in the (conceptual) language of the colonizer. His work is very powerful (he loves using the phrase "Imperial Canada" and does so in a poster work that I walk by every day at SFU), and yet it owes a debt to that colonial language. Heap of Birds' critique is untranslatable from English.

The history of the site itself is a fascinating study of conflicting forces and interests. Historian Susan Roy chronicles the shifting boundaries of the territory, in images and words.

582px version of Digital Natives tweet 5

What's the point?

So what are we doing with all of this? Partly Digital Natives is about starting a conversation in public about what public space means -- public art that isn't just for the public to see, but (potentially) to create.

In February, with the (massive) help of Phil Djwa and Kristin Kozuback, I coordinated workshops with Aboriginal youth in Vancouver, to get their participation. These kids saw a direct political message as what they wanted to convey -- two of their tweets, for instance, are about paying more attention to what marginalized youth need: "Keep resources and programs like EASY and OASIS going strong in communities" and "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."

Halfway through April we will start adding tweets that have come in from the public in response to the project. Anyone can tweet us a message @diginativ, or post a comment here or on our Facebook wall.

We will select up to 30 public messages to be included for broadcast.

A free public symposium about the project will be hosted by the Museum of Anthropology on May 1, with many of the contributors participating in roundtable conversations, followed by a closing celebration.

With Digital Natives, we've taken back -- temporarily -- some visual space in the city for messages from individuals, to display a dialogue from this city and beyond. A more complicated process than I first thought -- like the public space we share.

And why not use public advertizing for direct messages -- as well as poetic ones -- for messages that encourage a dialogue? Why not take back our spaces, our public spaces?  [Tyee]

Read more: Rights + Justice

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