Skawennati and the Dunlop makes you a TimeTraveller™

ART by Charles Atlas Sheppard


Realizing The Virtual: A TimeTraveller™ Experience
Dunlop Art Gallery
Until Jan. 13

Walking into the Dunlop Art Gallery for Realizing The Virtual: A TimeTraveller™ Experience is like entering another dimension: a dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind. You’re moving into a land of shadow and substance, of things and ideas called: The Twilight Zone.

Well, not exactly, but I guarantee that right next door to the Zone there’s a place called Second Life — a virtual online world that’s the setting of TimeTraveller™.

TimeTraveller™ is a video series shot on location within Second Life by the mono-named artist Skawennati, and the Dunlop places you smack-dab in the middle of this virtual world. TimeTraveller™ is the story of two protagonists. One, Hunter, is a young Mohawk man from the 22nd century who can interact with landmarks in indigenous history using TimeTraveller™ edutainment technology. This device, in the form of wrap-around virtual reality glasses, allows Hunter to immerse himself within the Oka crisis and the occupation of Alcatraz Island, among other historical moments.

Hunter’s love interest, Karahkwenhaw, is a present-day Mohawk woman and university student working on an essay about Algonquin-Mohawk Catholic saint Kateri Tekakwitha. Karahkwenhaw managed to get her hands on a pair of glasses through some kind of time glitch. Together they explore history from an indigenous perspective.

You can watch the video series online at, but it’s worth seeing them in the gallery where Hunter’s virtual world has been painstakingly reconstructed. Weapons adorn the walls (as befitting a warrior poet), and Hunter’s jet pack, desk, open fire pit, dreamcatcher and even his copy of the Blade Runner poster are prominently displayed. The installation makes you feel like you’re part of the movie.

Hunter and Karahkwenhaw’s story is told through nine episodes produced with machinima, an animation technique that uses videogame engines to create a cinematic experience. Skawennati puts a twist on this by using Second Life, a virtual world unto itself, as her platform. In Second Life, skins, clothing and props can all be purchased through virtual commerce. One catch: because Skawennati worked with indigenous subjects that don’t exist in Second Life (go figure), she and her team of students and collaborators had to create not just props but even the characters’ brown skin.

No wonder the project took seven years to make.

The technology has changed a lot since Skawennati began TimeTraveller™ and I imagine her skills have improved immensely. In the real-life world, where all old tech is re-digitized and polished, she was tempted to go back and update the project accordingly. I think it’s better that she kept the original files intact. The characters float over stairs, their gait is jerky and silly, clothes and hair float inside each other and the 3-D physics lag behind the seamless tech we have now. It’s everything I remember Second Life to be.

Besides, why does 3-D technology have to be seamless and realistic? The old glitches and pixelations are beautiful too.

Second Life peaked somewhere around 2006 with many artists using the space for collaboration and performance to varying degrees of success. Now, like Myspace, it’s a vast, empty wasteland, the loneliest place on earth.

(Ironically, in the category of life imitating art, Second Life is attempting a major comeback by running a version of its software on the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset. I doubt there will be a time travel app, though.)

Curator Jennifer Matotek discovered TimeTraveller™ at the 2014 Montréal Biennale. She immediately devised a way to bring the show to Regina with the concept of bringing the virtual world into a gallery setting or, as they put it, “indigenizing the gallery space”. It’s a perfect fit, since Skawennati’s been indigenizing cyberspace for two decades.

Skawennati may not be a household name but she’s highly regarded in new media circles as one of the pioneers of First Nations digital art. Back in 1996 she created CyberPowwow, an online gallery and chat space that was active until 2004. Skawennati is currently co-director, with Jason E. Lewis, of Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace, a network of artists, academics and technologists investigating, creating and critiquing Aboriginal virtual environments.

(Incidentally, AbTec is the name of the island in Second Life where they shot TimeTraveller™. Should you be in the neighbourhood.)

Jennifer is a bit of a nerd herself, enamoured by Dungeons and Dragons, all things Star Trek, futurism and new media art. It’s no wonder she gravitated towards Skawennati’s work at the biennale. She not only curated the Dunlop show but served as a collaborator. Placing digital works in a gallery setting isn’t easy task. The tendency is to place monitors all over the room and call it a show, but then it’s just boring old documentation.

Realizing the Virtual: A TimeTraveller™ Experience is almost intervention art, because let’s face it, the casual gallery goer is not familiar with machinima or virtual cyber worlds. Walking into a realized virtual world is like waking up on the pillow that is Skawennati’s dream, or having Chief O’Brien beam you directly onto the holodeck. You’re just instantly transported there.