Get To Know: OBUXUM, The Music Producer Redefining Live Performance

In advance of This is Worldtown’s One Year Anniversary Event ARCHV RMX, we chatted with performance artist OBUXUM about finding healing through hip hop, storytelling through live performance, and rejecting compromising her sound.

Obuxum is a performative music producer who draws on her Somali heritage to inform a visionary approach to electronic music steeped in R&B, hip hop, house and ambient styles. She’s been on the rise with performances at Kazoo! Fest, Electric Eclectics, Venus Fest, Wavelength Music Festival and more. OBUXUM made now Toronto’s list of Electronic Artists to Watch in 2018.

H.E.R (2017) Album Cover

How did you get started?

Other than a musician I’m a community worker, so I work with youth at Waterfront Neighbourhood Centre. I wanted to learn how to use hip hop as a way to teach children about music production. So in 2011, I joined a program called LEAP, that focused on hip hop production. It was there that I met Soteeoh. He changed my life. He worked in that program back then, and I work there now. He encouraged me to do the program, and beat production. After a few months, I started putting music together. I started experimenting and coming up with music that was still in the hip hop realm. That was back in 2011. I took a break for a while but in 2015, I decided that Toronto deserves to know who I am. So I did my first project called 2991. It was mostly hip hop beats that I made in 2011 and 2012. But I didn’t care if people didn’t feel it, I just wanted them to know that I’m an artist. And I felt like it was important for me to put out some kind of work that would legitimize the fact that I’m an artist. I can be creative, I can do a lot of creative work, but if I have nothing to display, how do I legitimize the fact that I’m an artist? That was the first thing I put out.

From there, I continued it. I would make music, and then try to find ways to perform it live. In 2016 I did a set at Long Winter, and after that I started getting more bookings to do live sets. With each booking, I started to learn about performance in a new way and how to interact with my music differently. That relationship changed. Some people resonate with instrumentals, some people resonate with just words, but I wanted to make my performance in a way where it doesn’t matter what you like, you’ll be able to feel my story. So that’s how I perform live now. My sets are designed in a way where it tells a story of its own.

2991 (2015) Album Cover

What was the inspiration behind your follow up work, The Metaphor Series?

After 2991, I decided I wanted to think of a concept, an idea, where I could put multiple projects out. The concept that I came out with became The Metaphor Series. It’s rooted in my journey being Somali, being a first generation Canadian, living in housing, and also making music that is considered left field, that doesn’t really fit in a box. And how all those different things inform the way that I make music and my moods. I dropped Luul, which was the first EP to the series. And my mother, her name is Asha, but her household name is Asha Luul, so I named it after her. In the project, I sampled conversations that my mom would have with my aunts. I had one track on the album, Shaah Iyo Sheeko – that means Tea and Conversation. And that’s exactly what was going on.

LUUL (2015) Album Cover

What inspired you to create the music that you do?

Experience with life, with people, with working in community. Experience performing live, being inspired by other artists no matter what art form. I’m not just inspired from musicians. I’m literally inspired by everything. Everybody has a creative ability in them. In your life journey, you have to find that niche, and what fits, and what you can translate that into.

When you were growing up, what kinds of music were you surrounded by?

My mom would watch a lot of old Hindi movies, the black and white ones. I remember, when I was 8, there was a movie called Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, and I was so in love with the music. Hindi movies are very musical. They’re also super dramatic and three hours long. But I used to find myself copying what they were singing about and dancing in front of the TV. That’s really where I learned music, from Hindi films.

And the thing about Hindi films is that it would hit your heart. Positive, negative, whatever. You just feel it in your chest. And that’s what I constantly want to regurgitate, it’s that feeling.

I started getting into hip hop around the time I started working at the community centre, and I was going through a very depressive state. But I felt that hip hop just made it make sense. And that’s why I want to teach children about hip hop as a way of healing, because it helped me.

What are some of the themes in your music?

I think currently, my biggest theme is resistance. Now that I am performing live, it’s something I feel like I’m constantly faced with. I’m usually performing in white spaces. Sometimes I’ll be the only black girl in the whole line up, but I’ll be the one that they remember. For me, that’s a form of resistance. When I’m making music, for example, with H.E.R (Hearing Every Rhythm) – it comes from a very feminist standpoint. I have this track called HE(R)STORY and I sampled Eartha Kitt. And she was talking about compromise. Being female, being of colour, being a producer and performer; I can relate to that. I’ve had a lot of conversations with people where they try to tell me to compromise my sound. But compromising my sound is compromising who I am.

ITIYAMA (2016) Album Cover

What issues do you hope to change or address through the work that you do?

I would hope to inspire conversations around encouraging or creating spaces for women of colour that are interested in music production in Toronto. I know that’s so specific, but when I did a release party for H.E.R, it was difficult for me to find women of colour producers that would also perform live. You can find so many DJs but you can’t really find producers. That’s a problem for me. I would love to see new spaces that encourages women of colour producers to come out, play their beats, do their thing. That’s a conversation that I’d really like to start.

Why is it important to have physical spaces and digital spaces for artists of colour and specifically female artists of colour to share their work?

We already know how this world works. There’s so many of us but we’re so invisible. So when physical spaces are created, there is an actual existence of these women, and we are at the forefront. And we’re given that limelight to do whatever it is we want to do; to showcase the work that we produce in our bedrooms, in real life spaces. In the digital world, unless you have a label, it’s a lot harder. But that’s why I use my face on my album covers. I want you to know that I’m black. I want you to know that I’m a woman. And I want you to know that I made this music.

Have you found a community in the tech beats space? What’s that like, if you have?

Somewhat. Me and a really good friend of mine, who is also an amazing producer, Kilamanzego, we’re working on creating ideas of how we can do festivals that centre around women of colour that are producers. It’s called EF FEMME. Right now, we’re just focused on discovering other women of colour producers and try to share their work and circulate that.

Get To Know: Sharine Taylor, Editor-in-Chief of BASHY Magazine

In advance of This is Worldtown’s One Year Anniversary Event ARCHV RMX, we chatted with guest panelist Sharine Taylor about the importance of representation from diaspora communities, her love for keeping archives and how she found her voice in digital spaces.

Sharine Taylor is an Afro-Jamaican, Toronto-based digital content creator, artist, writer, editor and academic. She is currently a contributor at Noisey, the Editor-in-Chief of BASHY Magazine and is on the final leg of pursuing an Honours Bachelor of Arts degree in the humanities.

How did you get started?

I’m a student at University of Toronto and after three million and four program changes, I landed in the media studies program, which was probably the best thing that’s ever happened to me. In this particular program, it’s very interdisciplinary. You can bring in your knowledge from virtually any field and curate it so it fits the mold of media studies. And for me, it was sociology (And also my strong sense of arrogant Jamaican pride in virtually every space that I occupy). One of the classes that I took made me realize that I could be visible in an academic setting, where often people of colour, women of colour, Black and Indigenous folks were not visible. Once I realized that media studies was something that I didn’t necessarily have to do in an academic space, everything just took off from there. I started freelancing and doing work through internships at advertising agencies, at VICE and with Noisey. And from there, I used all my collective experiences to create BASHY Magazine.

What inspired you to create BASHY magazine?

When I would see writing about Jamaica, and I’d click on the author, they wouldn’t tend to occupy Jamaican identity and it tended to be written by somebody who had an appreciation or fascination with the culture, maybe even fetishization of the culture. Given all that I had access to living in the Global North and understanding my privilege, and seeing how there’s a real disconnect with access to resources in the global south – I thought to myself, there is no publication that I know of that exists in the Global North that is 100% focused on Jamaica and that also includes the voices of the diaspora. I think that we’re often left out of the conversation and I just wanted to make space for that. With BASHY, I wanted it to be a global conversation and not one that was just restricted to Jamaica, but also one that talked about our identities outside of the island.

Can you speak to the importance of reclaiming narratives about diaspora communities?

A lot of the work that I’ve done, my own personal work as well as the research that I’ve done in school, has largely been focused on citizenship, belonging, home, community and how that’s fostered between and beyond borders. Borders are man made and only exist for capitalist and neo-colonial purposes. A lot of how I felt, and a lot of what home means to me, means existing between these two spaces. The beauty of living in Toronto is that I never feel far from home. In every community that I’ve lived in, both in Toronto or in different cities in the GTA, I’ve never felt very far from Jamaica. There’s always a festival or a concert or a community or a restaurant; there are these small pockets. Those [pockets] draw on the existence of diasporic communities. It’s important for me to think about our identities beyond the geographic space that we occupy and talk about what it means to be Jamaican in Toronto, what it means to be Jamaican in a different location. And also taking a very intersectional approach like asking what it means to be somebody who identifies as queer in Toronto who is also Jamaican? And just speaking about those different identities because that’s ultimately what’s going to shape our experience. I think that those experiences are worth talking about and worth championing in BASHY.

Photo by Peter Sterling, from Over Hills and Valleys, Too

Could you describe how your work involves archival material?

My mother is not a very sentimental person at all. So there are very little memories in my household of myself as a child. Just photographs, no video or anything. That is something that I’ve wanted to change for my own self. So I document virtually everything. Things that don’t need to be documented, I document it. And I save things and I hoard things. So with BASHY, have the print, and as long as those exist, our stories and our narratives will be there. But I really like that we are also online, and the fact that we’re able to house these stories in a print and then make it accessible in digital spaces. We also try to uncover stories that haven’t been told or trying to preserve stories in digital ways. Most recently, we published a story written by our music editor Shanice Wilson, who is a descendant of the Maroons, a group of people in Jamaica who were granted independence before Jamaica as a country was granted independence. Much of the Maroon histories are oral stories. They’re very cautious of who enters this space and when people do enter this space, what people are leaving with from this space. Our access to this space, through Shanice, and being able to digitize the story and make the transition from oral to digital, was something that really meant a lot to me. I thought, in a few years, if BASHY is still up and running, somebody can read this and make it accessible. And based on our comments yesterday and how I saw it move across online, people were saying things like “I have Maroon heritage and I never knew any of these things!” and just thinking somebody across the pond in the UK is reading this and sharing this with his or her family members. I think that is how BASHY has tried to archive moments.

Why is it important to have physical spaces and digital spaces for artists of colour and specifically female artists of colour to share their work?

I know that online spaces can be incredibly violent, especially toward Black, Indigenous and women of colour. Thankfully my experiences online have been good. I very much use my space and my time online to make meaningful connections and I would not have the access to knowledge that I have if it weren’t for being online and accessing these digital spaces, particularly Twitter. I think that those spaces are super important because for me they both give you access to information and they make information accessible. But I also think it helps you confront things that you’re not all that comfortable with. And it makes things visible to you, and challenges the things you already believe. I think it’s important for us to have access to those things. A lot of us are cash poor people, a lot of us are artists who work on the margins. And I think once one learns how to use a digital space to their advantage, then you can change your position. I know that’s been the scenario for me. That’s where I found all my online work. That’s where I’ve connected with the BASHY editors, that’s where everything was formed for me. I often tell the folks: as much as you take up space in your physical settings, do that online as well.

What issues do you hope to change or address through the work that you do?

My priority has always been to allow people to see Jamaica beyond the stereotypical tropes that they see, and the lens through which they understand Jamaica. A lot of times, the Global North dictates how the Global South is perceived. I find it very comforting and I find peace knowing that through BASHY, there’s a bridge to access this publication that is visible, and that there are people in Jamaica who can say, “hey, this is how it really is.” I’ve always tried to be conscious of the ways in which im visible in these digital spaces. And I want to lend that visibility to the things that I create so that people who are a part of it can also create those things. It’s always been about shifting the politics of visibility to folks who can better speak to their experiences and shift how Jamaica is understood in the global imagination – beyond smoking weed and beyond being linked to deviance and criminality – which is often the case in news and broadcast and print media. Those are the aims and I’m hoping that we can maintain those things going forward.

Photo by D.L Samuels, from No Joke Ting: A Discussion on Mental Health in Jamaica by Shanice Douglas

For the people who are moved by your work, what would be the next steps for them to take?

Stepping into the world of independent publishing has been very interesting. It is not cheap. And I understand why people pivot to video or why there are digital publications that exist as opposed to print publications. But I really do love print and I love the feeling of holding something and holding your work. I would advise anybody if they’re interested in supporting this lovely endeavour to consider purchasing a copy. Any issue that is purchased, the money goes right back into paying our contributors and our editors, covering our operational fees and production, shipping costs, all that wonderful stuff. We are being supported on Patreon which is a monthly subscription based service. I’d also encourage folks to go online, read our articles, listen to our playlist, looking at our photo essays, sharing our videos – just engaging with the content.

Labour and Beauty: Looking Back on My Grandmother’s Life

By Shazlin Rahman

Over the next few months, we will be featuring articles and conversations from our Behind the Dust Visual Series Mediamakers. This is the second in the series.

In my ten years of living in Canada as an immigrant, a woman of colour and a Muslim, I’ve experienced various forms of discrimination. I’ve had someone tell me I don’t have to wear the hijab because I’m “in Canada now.” I’ve had to start my university studies all over again because my five years of postsecondary education from outside of Canada weren’t recognized. I’ve had people curse and toss a cigarette butt at me when I was out walking with my visibly Muslim friends. I now work at a nonprofit that addresses issues of race and inclusion, where I vicariously  experience the trauma of others on a daily basis.

All of this took an emotional, mental and physical toll on me. I began searching for representations of strong, trailblazing women as role models as a source of strength and healing early in 2017. Little did I know that I’d find it in someone close to me: my late grandmother, Mok.

Mok died of old age in 2012. Given the distance between here and Malaysia, returning for her funeral was out of the question and I never got the closure I needed. In grappling with my fear of forgetting her altogether, I began asking my mom about Mok—about her childhood, her marriage to my grandfather, and what she was like as a young mother. That was when I became fascinated with the collection Mok’s old batik sarongs my mom had brought back with her from Malaysia. The sarongs were valuable artefacts of Malay culture—my culture—in general and of Mok’s life in particular.

A little over a year ago I began reflecting on Mok’s resilience and ingenuity in the face of poverty through short stories; I also created artwork and sketches based on her collecting of batik sarongs. The more I explored what she meant to me, the more I discovered there were lessons hidden among different moments of her life that are deeply relevant to who I am today.

There are no records kept of her birth—which is common at the time— but Mok must have been born sometime in the early to mid-1920s. The fifth child of fourteen, she was born into crippling poverty, in one of the poorest parts of British-occupied Malaya. With a husband who was largely absent, her mother was kept busy providing for the family and Mok had to learn to fend for herself from an early age. She married my grandfather in her late teens, had three daughters and fostered multiple children despite being very poor. Working from home, she took on different jobs to make ends meet, including making batik sarongs.

I discovered that the adversities Mok overcame in her life–starting almost a century ago–are now sources of strength for me as a millennial Muslim woman of colour living in Canada today. Aspects of her life illustrate what resilience looks like for women like me. Here are three of them:

Mok’s house, viewed from the front yard. (Photo by Asad Chishti)

Mok’s House

Both my grandparents had very little when they met each other, and they brought even less into their marriage. My grandfather was a rickshaw driver and Mok helped out at her mother’s food stall at the city market in Kota Bharu, Kelantan on the east coast of Malaysia. Their first house was a simple wooden platform with rattan-woven walls and a thatched roof, built on stilts about four feet off the ground to protect against the monsoon floods. There was no electricity, no indoor plumbing and housed a single space that was sectioned off into areas for sleeping, cooking and dining. My grandparents and my aunt, the eldest of Mok’s three daughters, gradually saved up and expanded the house to include more rooms, a bathroom and a kitchen. After my grandfather passed away in 1989, Mok kept the house in pristine condition for decades after, often making necessary repairs herself. “Mok’s house” as my cousins and I called it, was our favourite refuge from the city during  school holidays.

Mok’s house, viewed from the back yard. (Photo by Asad Chishti)
One of the two original school buildings of the “People’s school”. (Photo by Asad Chishti)

The “People’s School”

Although Mok never learned to read or write, all three of her daughters went onto become university educated. This is an incredible achievement, considering how poor the family was and how so many families did not educate girls beyond the primary (grade school) level.

This Sekolah Rakyat or “People’s School” was built in 1949 and it was the first school in the village where Mok lived. It was a community effort spearheaded by activists who would later become part of the fight for the country’s independence from the British in 1957. The first school building was a simple wooden rectangular building with a thatched roof, and it was divided into sections for different grades. A terrible storm later destroyed it, and the school was rebuilt in 1950 as two buildings—one for classrooms and the other as a canteen—not far from Mok’s house.  There were no fees, and everyone in the village was encouraged to attend. The teachers included those who had been educated up to the second or third grade, were able to read and write and were therefore qualified to teach. My aunt, the eldest of Mok’s three daughters, remembers standing in the corner of a classroom listening to the lessons before she was old enough to attend. She was always welcomed by the teachers and was never told to go away. Following Malaysia’s independence, the school was absorbed into the public school system, rebuilt and renamed Kampung Sireh Primary School. The original school buildings, rebuilt in 1950, still stand there today.

One of the two original school buildings of the “People’s school”. (Photo by Asad Chishti)
Close up of one of the two original school buildings of the “People’s school”. (Photo by Asad Chishti)
My aunt Hasiah, and Mok’s eldest daughter, shows me a few of the many batik sarongs from Mok’s personal collection. (Photo by Shazlin Rahman)

Batik Sarongs

Batik sarongs are the quintessential clothing item for women in the Malay archipelago. Batik is a technique where motifs are drawn or printed on fabric in wax and later filled in with fabric dye. Parts of the fabric that is covered in wax will resist the dye, thus creating a clear outline of the motifs. My curiosity about Mok’s life was sparked by the collection of batik sarongs she left behind. I learned about Mok’s work in colouring batik sarongs at home when she was a young mother, like many women like herself at the time, and later involved her three daughters to supplement the family income. Batik manufacturers would typically employ men to draw or print the motifs, and women like Mok would do the work of colouring the motifs in the comfort of their own homes. According to my aunt, it was this work that generated the surplus income that helped them slowly break out of the cycle of poverty. On my recent visit to Mok’s and my hometown of Kota Bharu, Kelantan in east Malaysia, I discovered the industry has remained largely unchanged: batik-making still came out of small, home-based operations, men were still primarily hired to draw the motifs and the colouring was done by women, often those who lived close by and were therefore able to care for their children and their homes while working.

A batik colourist at work at one of the many small batik workshops along Pantai Cahaya Bulan road, a popular tourist attraction in Kelantan, Malaysia. (Photo by Asad Chishti)

Although batik is one of the state of Kelantan as well as Malaysia’s most popular cultural exports, this value is not reflected in the remuneration given to the women in the batik industry, nor in the conditions in which they work. I explore this gap in the relationship between Malay women’s labour, beauty and the batik industry through my upcoming photo essay with photographer Asad Chishti. You can see more of my reflections on Mok’s life, batik sarongs and the batik industry at surat.hersarong.com and @hersarong.

When I began my journey over a year ago to reconnect with my late grandmother and, by extension, to my Malay culture, my connection to those two aspects of my identity felt tenuous at best. Now, I’ve found a reservoir of beauty and life lessons that will remain relevant regardless of whether I’m in Canada or Malaysia.


Shazlin Rahman is a Malaysian-born, Toronto-based freelance writer and artist. She has six years of architectural education from Malaysia and Australia, a degree in Journalism from Wilfrid Laurier University and M.A. in Communication and Culture from the interdisciplinary joint program at Ryerson/York. Shazlin uses photography, abstract art and creative nonfiction to engage her audience in conversations about the resilience of women of colour.

 

Spotlight: Lisa Jackson on Versatility in Visual Storytelling

Still from “Savage”

This is Worldtown’s new series features Indigenous media-makers exploring themes of identity, reconciliation, and resistance through visual storytelling mediums.

Lisa Jackson‘s award-winning work has screened at festivals internationally including the Berlinale, Hotdocs, SXSW, Margaret Mead and London BFI, and aired on many networks in Canada. Her films span documentary and fiction and include virtual reality, current affairs, animation and a short musical, Savage, for which she won a Genie award. She is Anishinaabe, the director mentor for the NSI’s Indigidocs program and is on the advisory committee for the NFB’s Indigenous Action Plan.

How did you get started in the industry?

I had been working for the federal government doing writing and researching contracts.  I ended up working for Knowledge Network in BC where I worked on specifically educational, TV shows and series and stuff for educational purposes. That was my introduction to making documentaries.

I was researching and production coordinating but I wanted to become a director. That’s when I decided to go to film school. And I told myself that I’d put between 5 and 10 years into trying to make it as a filmmaker. And if at the end of that time I found out that I was no good at it, at least I would know I’d tried, and I’d move on to something else.

But in my final year of film school, I got some funding and decided to make Suckerfish, my first film, and it did pretty well. I kept working my day job for another year or so after that, and then I became a full time filmmaker in summer of 2005.

Still from “Suckerfish”

What drew you to visual storytelling?

I actually started off as a writer, and I still really like writing. For me, the initial move into visual storytelling was actually inspired by people. I was writing a lot of profiles of people and many of them were so magnetic and fascinating. And you could never get that down on the page.  And so my initial move towards it was actually very human-centred. Wanting to, in profiling people or putting them on the screen, get that unnameable quality that you can get on screen. Now, having said that, I was in dance when I was young; I did pottery and ceramics and sculpting and things like that. I always had this visual sensibility. But I also had this activist, documentarian sensibility. And so I think as time has gone on, I’ve melded those two things closely together, and I’ve figured out my own way to sculpt with film.

How has working in different genres such as fiction, documentary, animation, performance arts and musicals affected the way you tell stories?

It’s been really validating to see how profound an impact you can have on people by presenting a unique take on something. So for example, my film Snare is only 3 minutes long but it brings a lot of people to tears. It’s about MMIW [Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women] and it’s just very visually striking and it says a lot metaphorically in those 3 minutes. The role of creativity and framing – specifically reframing things that we think we know about in a unique way – it’s very visceral.

Still from “Snare”

How has working in different mediums such as short film, music video, virtual reality and feature films affected the way you tell stories?

I’ve always thought a lot about the world that I’m putting viewers into and had such a specific idea of what the tone and environment would be. And that goes across all of them, from an installation to a VR to a film. But I think that characteristic just manifests itself differently in all those mediums.

In some ways, I look at VR for its potential to, rather than make us voyeurs, actually implicate us in the worlds that we enter into. With Highway of Tears, the viewer is placed in the main character Matilda’s living room, listening to her tell a story. And she’s looking at you, so she’s in control of that storytelling space. It moved a lot of people, but it also made them uncomfortable. Because you’re not just watching her unseen; she’s aware that the camera is you, and she’s going to tell you this story. I think that’s good and I think that implicates the viewer. And I hope that we see more pieces that, as users, push us to make choices or evaluate what we think.

Still from “Highway of Tears VR”

Can you speak to the idea of community and connectedness in the work that you do?

I don’t know any Indigenous artists that don’t feel connected to their community in a way that has responsibility. And not in a bad way, because we’re supported by and fed by the communities, but we are a part of a larger whole. There’s amazing Indigenous art being created right now. I think if you look at pretty much all of it, you’re going to see that there’s a sense of connection to community and the way that the subject matter we take on, our perspectives, have similarities. Regardless of whether it’s a sci-fi, or a period piece.

Can you speak to the idea of reconciliation in the arts and media, and what that looks like for Indigenous communities?

Reconciliation has become a challenging word in some ways because there’s a depth to what’s required to reconcile.The majority of the Canadian population now knows more about residential schools, but what about treaty rights, or other aspects of our history? There’s a lot to know about, even for us. I’m learning about the details of Canadian Indigenous settler history right now, and it’s a huge amount of information. But we have collective amnesia in Canada about that. And in this modern, social media, fast-paced age, it’s really easy to think that historical stuff is so irrelevant, since we’re in this moment now. But I think if we don’t understand the history, we can’t actually reconcile it.

What’s next for you?

Several things. I’m about to release a VR piece with the NFB called Biidaaban: First Light, and I’m developing a few fiction and doc projects for film and TV.  But a big focus right now is Transmissions, which is a three-part multimedia immersive installation that looks at how we see the world differently through Indigenous language. It’s not like a typical installation in a gallery, because it’s got a single channel film, projections, and similarities to theatre. It’s an Indigenous futurist take and it poetically puts you in a space where you feel like what might happen if our current structures of society were no longer in place. The idea is that Indigenous languages grew here as much as plants grew here. They are native to these lands as much as plants are native to these lands. They describe Canada better than any other languages do. Indigenous languages are also, in a way, very practical and grounded. The idea that we live in relationship to everything around us is central. An installation requires people to be active participants with agency within these spaces and that reflects the belief system of these languages more closely than a film.

I’m moving more and more into iconic imagery and metaphor. And I think that’s really powerful, because it allows you to talk about political things without it being alienating to an audience. People can grasp on to it.

Spotlight: Nyla Innuksuk on Perspective in Virtual Reality

Still from Bang Bang Baby

This is Worldtown’s new series features Indigenous media-makers exploring themes of identity, reconciliation, and resistance through visual storytelling mediums. This month, we feature Nyla Innuksuk.

Nyla Innuksuk is an Inuk Virtual Reality (VR) content creator, filmmaker and producer, based out of Toronto. She founded her company NKSK, a small tech start-up, in order to create immersive, interactive and cinematic content in new platforms such as 360, VR, and the ever growing Augmented Reality (AR) space. She previously co-founded Pinnguaq Productions, which focuses on video game and 360 production, as well as STEM education in Nunavut. When she is not working within other realities, she loves to watch films and continues to direct 2D films (flatties) and sits on the board of directors for the Glenn Gould Foundation.

How did you get started in the industry?

I was raised in a very creative household. I studied film and I started making documentaries and scripted content since I picked up a camera when I was a teenager.

I became really interested in VR / 360 stuff, and early on, someone asked me to produce a piece for them and I agreed, even though I hadn’t done it before.

After this first job, I tried to meet everyone I could in VR; understanding the community, getting a camera, shooting stuff, learning how to stitch. These were the early days, when everyone was on the same playing field and nobody really knew anything more than anyone else. So it didn’t matter that I came from film and not from video games. And nobody had seen this stuff, so I would put a headset on anyone that I came across. It was impossible to describe, so I had to stress meeting in person to show them. Because they had never seen anything like it, their minds were blown.

And maybe they didn’t become a client then, but a year later I would get a call. Timing was a big part of it; it was everything. There’s a saying: it doesn’t matter necessarily if you’re the best, but if you’re first. The thing about VR, 360 and AR is that the technology is changing so quickly that there’s always potential to be the first.

How would you define “virtual reality”?

I think VR is another creative platform to tell stories. For documentary, it’s really unique because you can really feel as if you are existing in a space and with people and it brings you closer to the subject matter.

I did a documentary called IMPOSSIBLE TO CONTAIN where we went very quickly after this diesel spill off the coast of BC in a community called Bella Bella, and my friend Zoe Hopkins was the director of that piece. We were able to focus just on her family’s experience. Of course we could have done it in 2D, but to be standing in the water and seeing oil at your feet is going to be much more impactful than just seeing it in 2D. To actually feel like you’ve got a seat at the table while they’re serving all this seafood that we don’t even know will exist in 10 years because of this diesel spill is that much more impactful in 360.

Still from Impossible to Contain (2017)

What’s your opinion on perspective in virtual reality storytelling?

For me, there’s sensitivity around every kind of content creation. I think minority voices interpret the world differently. Everybody interprets the world differently; women will interpret it differently than men and children experience it differently than adults.

I think when it comes to gaze, more so than traditional film, we need to be thinking about who is making this stuff. If there was a team of women following a refugee crisis and making an experience about that, even if they weren’t refugees themselves, they would have a different takeaway than a male team making that experience. So even that level of diversity is important. If you were able to work within a community and train people to use these tools, you’re going to get a totally unique perspective and you’re going to find different stories within the story.

I think a lot of projects within the Indigenous community are very reflective of things that have happened in the past. Our histories involved colonization and residential school systems and you see that a lot in our media that we create. So there’s a lot of documentaries, a lot of heavy dramas that exist within the Indigenous community and i think that’s partially because we feel we have this responsibility to tell these stories.

In VR, what I find is if you’re actually giving the marginalized voices the chance to make their own content, you’re probably not going to get a lot of heavy empathy content pieces coming out of them. Because if you’re from the community, you’re going to be seeing the people that are making a change in the community, you’re going to be seeing the resistance and that power within the community, not the things to be looking down upon. You’ll find, time and time again, stories of survival and perseverance and love and happiness and levity.

What is your vision of the future with the work that you’re creating?

I think there’s still a lot of room in finding out how to tell narrative stories within this new medium. There’s obviously limitations from the tech side of things, but also just coming up with new ways of telling the story. We’re stuck in using the same tools we use in traditional film, but I think these kinds of molds need to be broken, and that requires testing out, breaking things, putting them back together. It requires time and experience. That’s just innovation, that’s how it works. And I hope that’s something I never stop doing.

What’s next for you?

I’m in development of my first feature, it’s called Slashback. It’s about a group of girls in Nunavut that ride on their dirt bikes and chase down aliens and battle them. It’s going to be this fun adventure movie and I can’t wait.

Spotlight: Danis Goulet on Indigenous Futurism in Film

Still from “The Hunt”

This is Worldtown’s new series features Indigenous media-makers exploring themes of identity, reconciliation, and resistance through visual storytelling mediums.

Award-winning Cree/Métis filmmaker Danis Goulet‘s short films have screened at festivals around the world including Sundance, the Toronto International Film Festival, Berlin International Film Festival, imagineNATIVE and Aspen Shortsfest. Her 2013 film Wakening had premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, Sundance Film Festival, and went on to win the Outstanding Canadian Short Film Award at the 2014 ReelWorld Film Festival. In 2012, her film Barefoot premiered at TIFF and was later recognized with a Special Mention from the 2013 Berlin International Film Festival Generation 14plus international jury. Her work has been broadcast on ARTE, CBC, and Movieola. Danis was born in La Ronge, Saskatchewan and now resides in Toronto.

 

How did you get started in the industry?

My first job was as an extras casting assistant on a CBC mini series in Saskatchewan called Big Bear, which actually had a Métis director at the helm, which was totally unheard of at the time and this incredible Indigenous cast. I went on that set and I caught the bug and what I didn’t realize was that set was a total anomaly.

I found myself in casting rooms and one in particular was for a casting director I was working with and the opening of the pilot had an “Indian princess” type character, which is a total archetype in what Hollywood has perpetuated about us. The character opens the series by standing in front of a waterfall and sacrificing herself. So she doesn’t say anything and she dies. Right off the bat, intro to the series. We were calling in all these amazing female Indigenous actors that I completely admired, and they were literally being silenced in front of my face. Silenced, and then killed on screen.

And it was a real moment for me. I just thought, casting isn’t quite going to cut it. I realized that the power is behind the creators of the film – writers, directors, producers. They call the shots, they’re creating the story from the get-go that create these characters that either sit there and die, or actually have more of a life; more complexity and more depth. And I looked around and it was like the penny dropped. Yup, we have to make our own films.

Can you talk about the themes in your work – specifically Indigenous Futurism. What does that look like, in your view?

Indigenous Futurism to me is very simple. It’s about imaginings of us in the future. Whatever form that could take. I think it can be seen in many different things, like music, fashion, visual arts and film. But to me it very simply means imagining a future for ourselves. And I also know that many Indigenous communities seem to be really big sci-fi geeks, and it’s interesting to think about why that may be.

I think a lot of the tropes in sci-fi lend themselves to marginalized people identifying with it. So if you even think of something like Star Wars where it’s the rebels against this intergalactic empire. That’s just like Indigenous people are the rebels, the empire is colonization and we see ourselves in it. Or alien stories where people get snatched away. That’s residential schools. There are many examples of sci-fi tropes that are perfect metaphors for colonization or things that we experience. I think that’s part of the draw. But I personally find it really exciting.

Still from “Wakening”

Can you speak about how you applied Indigenous Futurism into your film, Wakening?

The Idle No More movement happened right in the month that I wrote Wakening and, to me, it was the largest Indigenous resistance that I’d seen in my lifetime. At that moment, my work changed to be forward thinking, or future thinking.

I’ve always felt like oral storytelling traditions should be made to be dramatic in some way. I think sometimes these stories are thought of as folkloric kinds of things. To me, our stories are the classics of this land. In the same way that people consider Shakespeare to be classics. And I wanted to give our stories that type of gravity and power.

There’s a loudspeaker in the very beginning of Wakening and the text for that is taken out of the Indian Act. and it changes the word ‘Indian’ (which was the legal term for Indigenous back then) and changed it to ‘Citizen.’ It was like, imagine if life under the Indian Act was just actually for all canadians. There are some scholars that talk about Indigenous people as already having survived the apocalypse. All I was trying to do was bring the apocalypse to everyone so that hopefully they could empathize with that experience.

Still from “Wakening”

Can you speak to the idea of reconciliation in the arts and media, and what that looks like for Indigenous communities?

This time of reconciliation has been really interesting, and it started with the truth and reconciliation commission. What mainstream Canada really picked up on is the reconciliation word. Not the truth word. The truth is hard to handle. “Reconciliation” sounds like a happy, positive thing. Just like the word diversity sounds like a happy, positive thing. But the reality is that diversity and reconciliation are huge blanket terms that are very overused. And to do the work of either thing, it’s really challenging. Everything has been built on colonial structures that were not made to include us. So any time we are existing in Canadian systems, we’re hoping that we will be supported in whatever work that we’re doing. What we often end up finding is that these systems are built to be indifferent to us, and at the worst of times, outright hostile towards us.

We feel this as Indigenous filmmakers. We’re working under the weight of what colonization has done, and within film it’s meant that Hollywood has perpetuated negative stereotypes about us, and racist portrayals about us, or even just one-dimensional portrayals, pretty much since cinema began. So as filmmakers, we know this history and we’re up against it.

To me, things don’t change until people of colour, or marginalized communities, or Indigenous people are given decision making authority. We don’t want an Indigenous consultant on the Indigenous film. We want an Indigenous director, producer and writer. And on the commissioning side, we want Indigenous people as our broadcasters. We want Indigenous programmers at film festivals.

So what is diversity and reconciliation? It is getting out of the way sometimes. It is listening to Indigenous people first and actually just moving aside. And sometimes it is about seeding power. And those are really uncomfortable things to talk about.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on a feature that’s also dystopian. It’s about Indigenous resistance in the future. It’s called Night Raiders and it’s set in a dystopian world and it centres around a mother who’s on the run and has to seek out an underground group of vigilantes in order to get her child back from the state.

Catch Danis’s latest piece, The Hunt, a VR experience part of 2167, on at TIFF Bell Lightbox until December 31st.

You can also watch Danis’s award-winning short Wakening here.