Techno Moʻolelo: He Au Hou, Skins 5.0, and Digital Indigenous Community-Making

The Initiative for Indigenous Futures (IIF) is a partnership of universities and community organizations that develop multiple visions of Indigenous peoples in the future. Through its four main activities — residencies, symposia, archive, and workshops — IIF contributes to a thriving Indigenous futurist community. He Au Hou was the fifth edition of their acclaimed Skins Workshops in Aboriginal Storytelling and Video Game Design.

The Skins workshop in Hawaiʻi demonstrated how digital media can contribute to transnational fourth-world community. It was the first major Skins workshop to take place outside of the territory now known as Quebec, creating coalitions between multiple Indigenous organizations working in community.

During Skins workshops, participants work with their own stories and knowledge; they then direct the creation of a video game that speaks back to representations of Indigenous peoples within larger culture. Skins addresses new generations of creators who are already active in cyberspace by providing instruction in the tools of the medium. Storytelling and cultural knowledge form the basis of Skins; in this way, digital image and sound design, 3D modeling, animation, and level design can be approached as ways to engage with culture.

The Initiative for Indigenous Futures works to challenge the ideas and assumptions that overdetermine Indigenous peoples’ relationships to technology and digital media. In video games as in film, photography, painting, and literature, Indigenous peoples have often been denied their humanity, seen through the frame of cowboys and Indians, as dying tribal hordes, human-animal hybrids, and objects of sexual conquest. (LaPensée, With this history and the popularity of video games among youth, this is a critical site for healing.

Amanda Roy, an Anishinaabe artist and filmmaker, considers Skins through Michelle Raheja’s concept of “virtual reservations.” Raheja parallels real-world experiences in the reserve system with the Indigenous experiences in film and new media; virtual reservations are also sites of repression and violence, insofar as the range and depth of Indigenous humanity and our ability to imagine ourselves is delimited through the multiple roles that structure our existence within the dominant culture’s imaginary. (Raheja 150 – 151, 153) Like their real-world counterparts, though, virtual reservations are places where Indigenous peoples create community and transmit cultural knowledge.

Skins “creates emancipatory space for Indigenous peoples,” where we can create our own wired communities and upload our own data. (Roy 52 – 53) We know that our experiences in the physical world are affected by a constellation of images and virtualities. Much like navigating the multilayered significations of physical space, so too do we transverse digital space as well.

There are parallels between the tools Skins brings to storytelling with Indigenous women’s writings on maps; Johnson identifies storytelling as a cartographical practice used by Indigenous women that highlights interrelationships on and through the land (116). This knowledge coalesces in “deeper maps”, which question the abstracted geographies put forward by Western maps.

He Ao Hou, the game produced during the workshop, produces a “deeper map” as a way to transmit kanaka maoli knowledges. Space travel figures heavily into He Ao Hou; the player character goes on a quest to different planets in search of their twin. The use of star navigation in He Au Hou is further in line with Johnson’s idea of a deeper map in that it embeds traditional knowledge, wayfinding by stars, into the game. In this way, new media technologies produce digital cartographies that plot Indigenous life in and through the virtual.

He Au Hou represents what the Skins Workshops in Aboriginal Storytelling and Video Game Design hopes to achieve. Youth become creators of Indigenous digital media and contribute their own knowledge and viewpoints into the virtual world. More than speaking back, this work happens in an Indigenous space for Indigenous people. Digital media are seen through the lens of traditional knowledge, the oral tradition, and community connection.

I thank Skawennati, Nancy Townsend, and Kathryn Jezer Morton for their help with editing and writing this piece.

Cheese, Please

At one point, I had 12 liters of milk in my fridge. Bags of pasteurized milk sat next to an array of capped and labeled falcon tubes in an uncanny tableau of pre-experimental chaos. Inside each of those tubes were hand swabs of bacteria that I’d collected from Concordia staff members who agreed to participate in my little food provocation.

Last year, I made a cheese cultured with bacteria that naturally live on my hands. I cheekily called it ‘a handmade cheese’ but wanted to up the stakes. Last week, I made the same kind of cheese, but I used other people’s hands and served it to the public to theoretically scrutinize and taste.

And scrutinize they did: “By staging encounters that ask the viewer to engage directly (for example serving cheese made from the bacteria on human hands), Hey makes space not only for thinking, but also feeling our way through these kinds of epistemological and ethical splits,” recounts Milieux member Alix Johnson, who attended the event I organized for the occasion, Engaging with the Microbial Other: an exhibition of recent ferments and prototypes on December 6, 2017.

I made this cheese because its physical form tugs at the ethical fabric of what we consider to be a legitimate food, what constitutes contamination, and who gets to decide. What’s too ‘out there’ to be considered edible? Then again, what’s ‘too close’ for comfort? How do the answers to those questions change from individual to institutional scales?

This was more than just a proof-of-concept; this was a deliberate attempt to engage with the likes of directors and heads of committees that enable/hinder certain forms of research. I asked for their hand samples, invited them to the exhibition, and fed them (along with the greater public) their ‘handmade’ cheese. Well, “fed them” sounds like I pried open their mouths and force fed cheese samples. Far from it: people ate more than 80% of the samples, while I stood on the other end of the room to keep from adding any social pressures.

Responses ranged, but the most common reaction was that of curiosity. They taste so different, they’d say, referring to the variability in flavor and texture in the three samples of other-people’s handmade cheese. One sample didn’t coagulate as much, indicating very little microbial activity, and had a texture closer to yogurt. Another tasted almost sweet, like mascarpone.

Said one Masters student, “I found the exhibition fascinating. I readily acknowledge that food preparation is a science, however, I’ve never really thought about the reaction of bacteria in our food. Nor have I ever considered the ways in which our own microorganisms can be manipulated to produce something edible.”

Or even delicious: One of the people who offered their hands for swabbing said that they liked their cheese the best. They didn’t know it was theirs when they tasted it, but I informed them afterwards, and we confirmed that their ‘handmade’ cheese was the one they preferred. Makes you wonder if that was by chance.

Weaving an Uncanny Valley

Jacquard weavings can be brain-teasers for the uninitiated. “The imagery is embedded in the structure of the cloth,” explains Sophia Borowska, an artist and researcher affiliated with the Textiles and Materiality Cluster. “So there’s no fabric without the image, and there’s no image without the fabric. When people who aren’t versed in the process itself look at it, they don’t know how it’s made. It can be very confusing.”

It was thinking about this uncanny quality possessed by jacquard that led Borowska to one of her ongoing research interests: jacquard weaving as a 3D construction medium. The project has been a collaborative research project [with artists Marlon Kroll and Cedric Laurenty supported through seed funding from the TExtiles and Materiality cluster, with the aim of developing 3D renderings in jacquard.

“We looked at 3D from different perspectives, researching the nature of representation nowadays, when 3D rendering is so popular. The idea was to examine why that is. Why do we strive to make these hyperrealist VR environments, when we have the power to create literally any kind of environment we want? Why is animation all of a sudden solely 3D?,” says Borowska.

Making weaving 3D isn’t quite like printing 3D, but there are overlaps. As with printing, a jacquard weaving is generated with a digital file. Borowska’s 3D pieces have ranged from very simple to quite complex. “In some pieces I’ll just add a pile to the cloth, so it’s just a little bit 3-D. And then there’s a way to weave multiple layers all at once, as you go, so it’s a flat surface, but the way the layers intersect when they’re cut off the loom will unfold into different panels. I also tried a method that leaves big gaps of unwoven areas, and then when the threads are pulled, those areas come together. So two flat pieces will come together and make a three-dimensional construction?.”

Borowska’s research led her to consider the primacy of the visual in contemporary culture, and consider the implications of attending to the visual rather than the other senses. “Is it a toxic symptom of a Western way of looking at things?” she says. “The woven media itself has potential to do amazing things that do make you aware of the haptic senses.”

As a Milieux affiliate, Borowska hopes to engage with people working in VR to continue this consideration of the potentialities of fibres and haptics in imagining alternate realities.


Documenting Capital: Intersections of Free Trade Zone Architecture and Digital Filmmaking

By Patrick Smith and Patrick Brodie


What can digital filmmaking bring to an understanding of the spaces of capital circulation and accumulation?

This project falls under the umbrella of the Global Emergent Media (GEM) Lab’s Works-in-Progress (WIP) initiative. This workshop is meant to showcase and investigate nascent research-creation projects. To find out more, please see the GEM Lab website:

 The Shannon Free Zone is a 2.43 square kilometre international business park located adjacent to Shannon Airport, County Clare, Ireland. It was established in 1959 to attract foreign and regional investment, and claims to be the world’s first free trade zone. Prior to its establishment, Shannon Airport relied almost entirely upon trans-Atlantic flight stopovers for its business. As commercial aircraft increased their fuel capacity and flight distances, it was more and more likely that air traffic would soon begin to bypass Shannon altogether. Consequently, Brendan O’Regan, an entrepreneurial County Clare resident, proposed a manufacturing incentive aimed at creating a production and finance hub with special tax incentivization. While now a free trade zone in name only, its model of the special economic zone—a sequestered space of territorial and financial exception—has been exported and implemented across the world in places like Shenzhen, Dubai, King Abdullah Economic City (Saudi Arabia), Cyberjaya (Malaysia) and across the Global South (and North) (Easterling, 15). In these places, deregulated industry has led to massive spatial transformations, due chiefly to financial growth/investment and the resulting migrations of labor and expulsion of populations.

Driven by a motivation to document and visualize financialized spaces like the Shannon Free Zone—which, while containing a distinct history, also functions as an active financial conduit—we embarked on a multi-media research-creation project aiming to “cognitively map” the abstract flows of capital through the area. Our adoption of a “cognitive mapping” praxis intends to represent the complexity of these histories, and extends primarily from Fredric Jameson’s work on the cultural and economic logics of late finance capitalism. Cognitive mapping—a primarily aesthetic-political practice—should “provide, in one way or another, glimpses into, or distant refractions of, the functioning of a global political economy” (Toscano and Kinkle, 20).

By visualizing the spatial machinations of finance capital (shooting on a Sony A7sII camera), we hoped to confront its invisible circulations by focusing on its material infrastructures and conditions of labor.

Our understanding of free trade zones has benefited enormously from the work of scholars such as Keller Easterling and Aihwa Ong, both of whom have written extensively about the dynamics and negotiations between transnational corporations and governing bodies in the administration of these deregulated zones of industry, trade, and services. We hope to confront these spatial dynamics designed to eliminate friction in certain modes of privileged circulation, while maintaining strategic barriers around a condition of exception. While not necessarily novel, these processes have intensified under the militarized, logistical governance of these zones across all corners of the world since their inception.

While it provided a material and managerial template for free trade zone governance, Shannon never became Dubai. The space itself contains traces of this unrealized and offset potentiality, especially as it re-emerges from obscurity and dilapidation, but one must account for the Republic of Ireland’s unique political and economic context when discussing and representing its present, past, and future state. Ultimately, within the epoch of finance capital’s unrelenting expansion, its increasing globalization requires spatial placeholders to both absorb the surplus of financial overaccumulation and to create new strategic centers for further movement and expansion.

After spending some time on site, were struck by was the everydayness of the operations of corporate development. When we arrived in Shannon, we were given a presentation by executives of Shannon Commercial Properties (SCP), who described the zone’s growth, decline, and current regeneration as a commercial hub. Nested quite snugly next to the grounds of the Shannon Airport—also administered by the Shannon Group and a site of controversy as US military planes often stop over for fuel on the way to and from their undeclared wars in the Middle East—the zone is a visual relic of earlier forms and stages of production and circulation.

While the offices of the development corp were new and refurbished, we were informed that much of the zone, especially the manufacturing spaces, needed to be reclaimed, demolished, and rebuilt in order to continue operating. While SCP had not repossessed all of the manufacturing and warehouse spaces still in use, the process was underway. Across the main road of the industrial estate were the razed and rebuilding grounds of two new office buildings. These were intended to ultimately plug into the tech and knowledge economies being so successfully developed in and around the nation’s other urban centers (and elsewhere in the zone, where GE Capital holds massive headquarters).

The presence of our camera served as both a passport and mediator between ourselves and the spaces we entered and individuals with whom we interacted. Goals, intentions, relations, and intimacies emerged organically, yet the sense of our intrusion, capture, or exportation remained. However, this was not necessarily a unidirectional process. We were tactful about our intentions, but the goals of the executives were clear: they needed to promote the space, and it did not matter where this promotion went. The fact that the Shannon Group also has interests in an airport, regional touristic development, and other branches of commercial industry betrays a logic of expansion that will ride whatever medium of circulation made available. The managers of these smaller arms simply follow the mandate of whatever development process they are promoting.

This brings us to a question of methodology, and the deep imbrications of industry and knowledge creation, of capital and creative production. It is quite common for the barons of industry and policy-making to mine the analyses of humanities research, however critical, to better understand the processes that they are meant to design, regulate, and optimize. When we visited with the critical geographer Rob Kitchin at Maynooth University on this same research trip, he told us that the National Institute of Regional and Spatial Analysis, which has produced some of the most searing critiques of Irish neoliberal policy through the Celtic Tiger and since the crash, was often under contract to produce research and policy papers from the very organizations that they threw into the flames.

While this can produce affirmative results, as developers and policy-makers may better understand the violences and hierarchies of these processes, they always appear to toe the line between critique and complicity. The information produced can aid in more robust and sustainable forms of urban development, but can also be utilized by developmental logics that further optimize systems of exclusion and exploitation, whether intentionally or not.

So, where does research creation fit into these complex systems of governance and critique, design and disruption? The ethnographic approach inevitably must account for the lived experience of both the environments observed and the researchers involved. It is impossible to impose binary oppositions to everyday contingency, social practices, relations, intimacies, and experiences. As mentioned above, in an attempt to investigate this approach, the GEM Lab—created and led by Canadian Research Chair Joshua Neves—is beginning a Works-in-Progress (WIP) initiative (co-organised by Patrick Brodie, Viviane Saglier and Patrick Brian Smith), which will create a space for alternative methodologies and practices, investigating research trends in the humanities such as visual anthropology, digital ethnography, field recording and sound experiments, approaches to information technologies, and other on the ground research practices. WIP can hopefully create a space for such exchanges. While the workshop will not propose answers to these questions, it will serve as a site of conversation around the future of humanities research that is constantly put under pressure by the same neoliberal logics that it often strives to critique.