Jason Edward Lewis: The Indigenous Future Imaginary

By Rebecca Smyth

Issue 003, Volume One | Winter 2016

Skins 2.0, Skahionati approaches the Stone Giant, The Adventure of Skahion-ati: Legend of the Stone Giant game prototype, 2012. Still.

Photo Image courtesy of Jason Edward Lewis, © AbTeC.

Jason Edward Lewis is a champion for better futures. In collaboration with his partner, Skawennati, he has spent the last fifteen years expanding the notion of the Indigenous Future Imaginary.

Seeking to highlight both the past and potential future for Indigenous peoples, Skawennati’s TimeTraveller™ video series, rendered in Second Life avatars, was featured at the Montreal Biennale: Looking Forward and more recently at the Dunlop Gallery, Regina, SK.1 The project was created with support from the research group Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace (AbTeC), co-chaired by Lewis and Skawennati. Since 2008, AbTeC has run the SKINS videogame workshop series, which seeks to empower Native youth in becoming media producers.2

Lewis is a professor at Concordia University in the department of Design and Computation Arts, the Research Chair in Computational Media and the Indigenous Future Imaginary and the founder of Obx Laboratory. In 2014, Lewis received the Trudeau Fellowship to forward the Initiative for Indigenous Futures.3 In 2015, Lewis was included among other top Indigenous scholars in the anthology Coded Territories: Tracing Indigenous Pathways in New Media Art. Realized by Ryerson University and the imagineNative Film Festival and published by the University of Calgary Press, the text is being heralded as a much-needed addition to the sparse selection of scholarship available on Aboriginal New Media art.4

After hearing Skawennati and Lewis speak at the Re-Create Media Art History Conference in November 2015, we connected with him in Montréal this January to discuss his upcoming talk at the Alberta College of Art and Design (ACAD), developing Indigenous methodologies, and his hopes for Indigenous youth and leaders as they prepare to populate the Future Imaginary. Lewis will be in Calgary February 12-13th to speak at Where Next?: Creative Writing, Narrative, Film, and Contemporary Art, a symposium hosted by ACAD.

This interview has been edited for content and length.

LUMA: I was at your talk at Re-Create in the fall and it got me thinking about the synergy between imagining future methodologies and the work that’s being done in Indigenous contemporary art. . . .You’re an expert in this field—how long have you been doing this kind of work, and how long has Indigenous New Media been a field in academia?

JASON EDWARD LEWIS: I’ve been doing New Media for say 25 years, and engaging in Indigenous New Media for about fifteen years. . . . I would say it’s not a field yet; it’s very much emerging in the sense that there’s just a really small number of artists and creators, and a small number of people who are talking about it. But there’s really interesting things going on in that small field, and I think it’s just going to grow. Are you familiar with Coded Territories?

LUMA: Yes!

JEL: There was a previous collection called Transference, Tradition, Technology that was published by the Banff Centre in 2006 that kind of served as a look forward to Indigenous New Media, meaning that a lot of work that’s discussed in there is not the New Media of the present; it’s the New Media of the past—so a lot of talk about video work—but a number of the themes that come up with that try to contextualize Indigenous artists who were working in a contemporary media mode, as opposed to a traditional mode or say, a more fine arts/visual arts mode. I think it’s a really important milestone, that book, and the work that it talks about.

I think [New Media is] one of the more vibrant areas in Indigenous art precisely because the medium itself kind of forces the question: what makes it Indigenous? Because it’s being made by an Indigenous person? Because it’s transforming tradition in some way that’s very contemporary? Maybe it’s so contemporary it’s not even recognizable where the tradition is from? Some combination of these things? Working in this media, this question comes up sooner, I think, than with other artists . . . [if you’re] engaging with an aesthetic which is not necessarily in any way referencing what you might call traditional aesthetics, culturally grounded aesthetics, though you may see the grounding yourself because you understand where it’s coming from.

The medium itself kind of forces the question: what makes it Indigenous? Because it’s being made by an Indigenous person?

LUMA: I did read your article in Coded Territories, and you talked about some of your past projects that straddle the border between settler technologies and New Media aesthetics, then bringing in narratives and history that is more based in First Nation identity and worldview; why, even though this is not maybe the most instinctive aesthetic tool for artists, can [it still] be very useful as a system—as you mentioned—for interfacing spirit, human and technology [?]

JEL: There’s tons of reasons. One, there’s the simple reason that maybe that’s what you choose to use as a tool. And I think that as an artist, and as an Indigenous artist, you have the right to do that. You don’t have to concede that basic choice to anybody else, even your community. . . . There’s some aspects of the tools that are really powerful that we should be taking advantage of where we can. My partner in the AbTeC stuff, Skawennati, she talks about the early days of CyberPowWow in the ’90s; just the network aspect has this amazing ability to tie together what are communities that are pretty small and spread far apart. It can be hard to generate a sense of a community, trans-nation sort of, meaning between the different Nations within Canada, because of the distance involved, and the cost of getting across those distances, and the net provides a way to close that distance and a way to talk to each other and stay in touch with each other and support each other, and promote and represent ourselves to a wider audience.I think that in terms of the quality of the medium itself, some people have made arguments about how the ability to do things like hypertext and non-linear text are somehow sympathetic or resonate with Aboriginal ways of knowing. I think I might be willing to say, ‘they resonate with.’ . . . I do think that if you are interested in making narratives that are cyclical or non-linear in different ways,that digital media is a fantastic way to go about doing that. It does that much better than a book, or than a movie, or any other sort of linear time-based media.

LUMA: As you said, this is an emerging field, and Coded Territories is contributing to establishing an academic methodology—what is the importance of bringing in experimental non-linear methodologies to talk about this kind of work?

JEL: That’s another question—there’s the work, and the process of the work and how it operates, and then there’s how we talk about it, and I think that there’s a general promise of digital media being able to create much “thicker” description, to borrow a word from anthropology. So when we’re describing something, whether it’s an art object or a community or something like that, the ability to create a text that is multidimensional, so you can provide links to images, to videos, you can provide links to alternative texts, you can provide commentary right there in the text, in a way which was very difficult to do before. You can stabilize the text within the text itself. . . . These are all tools that, as Indigenous people, we’re very interested in, because for the most part the canonical texts don’t handle our histories very well. They’re either very thin or they’re incorrect. And so, these tools provide a great way to be like, ‘This here is a much fuller picture of what this history is or what the contemporary situation is. And I’m gonna include voices other than my own in talking about this.’ Also it’s really interesting to make that sort of work as well, right, that has a fullness to it, so you’re not just looking at one kind of thin representation from one person’s point of view.

Jason Edward Lewis, No Choice About the Terminology, 2011. Installation view at Edward DayGallery. 42” two-point touch surface, and a 60" x 60" digital print text-image.

Photo Image courtesy of Jason Edward Lewis.

LUMA: In Coded Territories, you talk about William Gibson, Jackson 2Bears talks a lot about Derrida, but how do you find negotiating this space between more settler, institutional methodology and your own Indigenous world views? How effective is that?

JEL: That’s a really good question and I think I’m in the middle of a kind of transition or transformation in the way that I’ve been thinking about this. I come from an interdisciplinary background by training, so I love bringing different methodologies and disciplines together and seeing how they can help you understand each discipline better, and I’ve been doing that ever since I got to University. . . . There’s a tremendous power there, and I think that you really run the danger of missing a lot of what might be important about a topic if you approach it from one method or one discipline. So I still really believe that, but I’m much more interested these days in understanding what we have to say about ourselves from a critical perspective or from a methodological perspective. It’s very fun and interesting for me to bring Derrida into that conversation. . . . Glen Coulthard just brought Hegel [laughs] deeply into the conversation with Red Skins, White MasksAnd I’m a German studies person, so I love it! I eat that stuff up, but [I’m] really beginning to question whether it’s necessary, and whether it gives us useful results.Does juxtaposing our methodologies or our way of looking at things with Derrida give us a result that we can then use in our communities, and in our own academic field, productively, to actually help understand ourselves and make our communities healthier or more vital? Like I said, I’m sort of in the middle of this transition, but what I definitely am [is] very tired of this discourse of, ‘Oh, we’re going to bring you into the cannon, we’re gonna bring you into the mainstream conversation.’ And it’s like, you know, screw that. I don’t want to be part of the mainstream conversation. The mainstream conversation has done nothing for us for hundreds of years, and in fact it’s been detrimental, and so we’re gonna spend all this time trying to bend that mainstream conversation in away that’s useful to us? It’s gonna be another hundred years. Screw that; let’s develop an Indigenous conversation that comes up from within our communities. . . . We have people who think deeply from the position of their communities and from their traditions that have things to say to us about how to approach these different research subjects methodologically.

LUMA: Do you think there’s space for the methodology—that will hopefully eventually come out of this—to then have an impact on the Institution and how the Institution approaches things?

JEL: I think so, and I think a larger thing that’s going on—happening much more within the sustainability discourse—is, ‘Oh, crap, those people knew what they were talking about. . . . We spent a couple hundred years suppressing their knowledge and telling them they were stupid, and they didn’t understand how the world worked, and looking at where we are right now, maybe that was a mistake.’

LUMA: What do you think off all these conferences [and exhibitions] cropping up lately about the future? 

JEL: I think that there’s a larger thing going on where people are concerned about the future, and talking about the future. There’s an argument to be made that we sort of had a Golden Era of science fiction in the ’50s and the ’60s, that basically created our current future imaginary. . . . There was some work earlier, with Jules Verne, or HG Welles, and then we had popular culture renditions of it—Star WarsBlade RunnerAlien—in the ’70s and the ’80s, but we haven’t seen anything new since then; we’ve just seen iterations of the same visions.

And I think what’s happened, is people are like—‘Shit!’ Ok, first of all we’ve kind of exhausted those, right? . . . And we have an actual future that’s looking bleak on a couple different fronts, and we need to start imagining againWe need to come up with a new set of tropes. We’ve exhausted the science fiction visions that were generated in the middle part of the 20th century. And we find ourselves in the 21st century, lost, without any really good new envisionings—at least ones that have entered into popular culture. Within science fiction literature, there’s millions of different visions. . . .We’re scared because we’re not sure what’s happening with our ecosystem, our ability to maintain it in a way that it’ll continue to support us. . . . It’s depressing that we exhausted the previous discourse without figuring it out [laughs], but part of what’s interesting about the next phase is, for instance,that I do think Indigenous voices will be more centred in that conversation. That there is much more of a sense of, ‘Ah shit, we ignored these people for a really long time, and that was a mistake, and we need to understand what they said then and we need to understand what they have to say now about the future.’ 

I don’t want to be part of the mainstream conversation. The mainstream conversation has done nothing for us for hundreds of years, and in fact it’s been detrimental. 

LUMA: Do you think there’s potential to have Indigenous [political] leadership if things are moving that way? Ideally, I guess?

JEL: Well, that’s a very interesting question, I think that there is potential, it’s just not clear to me that it’s the best use of our relatively few great leaders to do that. I want our leaders to grow our communities; I don’t want them taking all their talent and energy and pouring it into making the mainstream culture move forward. Where they can contribute, I think that’s great, but we don’t have a lot of people. . . . I wouldn’t advise any of my young, potentially great leaders that we deal with and we talk to, to go that route. . . . Our communities need help and guidance and people to work with them. That’s what I want those people to do, and that’s what we’ve done in our practice.

LUMA: What would you like to see youth doing in their own communities?

JEL: Well, you already touched on it; we want the youth to learn how to harness this technology, to tell the stories that they want to tell that are important to their community. . . . The first step is to become producers and not just consumers, the next step is to become technologists, so that we can build the technology in a way that suits us . . . And the next step after that is infrastructure, people who are capable of building or helping to build an infrastructure, again so that we have the ability and fluency of these systems that are ruling our lives that are completely invisible to most people.

LUMA: Do you think that digital literacy, in general, is a priority?

JEL: I think its super important. We might tell ourselves stories about a traditional life that doesn’t require or involve all these tools, but it’s not clear to me personally whether that’s actually the right goal. There’s a whole aspect of self-determination that’s around the technology that we don’t talk about. We tend to talk about it in terms of legal orders, in terms of governance, in terms of land, but there’s this whole other web of structures that set constraints on our lives that we also need to be self-determined in.

Skawennati Fragnito. “Episode 2: Dakota Uprising.” TimeTraveller, 2012. Still.

Photo Image courtesy of Jason Edward Lewis, © Skawennati Fragnito.

LUMA: What programs or mandates would you like to see in place in order to support visibility of this kind of work going into the future?

JEL: Well, these are the kinds of conversations we’re having at Concordia right now, and other institutions clearly are as well. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommendations have become a big spur for institutions. For me—what I’ve been saying to my colleagues at the University—if you want to make a difference, what we need to do, is we need to set aside a chunk of money to go out and find and recruit and sustain graduate students. That’s the single place we can make a difference. Because those bodies are what’s going to propagate more Indigenous presence, more Indigenous methodology, more Indigenous content, and—Indigenizing the academy—I’m not a big fan of that. I think that Indigenizing pockets of it, making sure that there’s some friendly spaces . . . but I think Indigenizing the curriculum across the University . . . I’m not opposed, I’m just sceptical. I really think that time and effort should be put into getting the bodies.The problem now is that sometimes there’s a little money here and there for scholarships, but there’s not the money to recruit, to pay somebody to go and spend 6 months of the year out on the road, visiting these communities, and convincing these people to overcome a very valid distrust of these institutions, and send their kids here. And then, once they’re here, we gotta provide spaces for them, we gotta provide First Peoples Houses, gotta provide places where they’ll meet others like them who understand where they’re coming from and understand their challenges. . . . We have to create a whole ecosystem that moves them forward. . . . In a lot of ways, I see diversity efforts in Universities as just, ‘Oh, we just gotta get some more brown bodies in the door, and we’ll just include that in our normal recruiting cycle.’ It’s not the kind of recruiting that’s necessary, but Universities are used to thinking in terms of quantity, so they’re like, ‘Well that’s not a great return on investment, I can send someone to Vancouver, for portfolio day, and they’ll see 150 students in that day.’ Well, then you’re not serious about getting Indigenous students in. It’s as simple as that. Until you actually send that person out there to find them and recruit them, and build relationships with the community, you’re making things up.

LUMA: That is, I think, a really good conclusion to things. You can’t just approach the recruitment, the work, or the methodology as though it’s just a slight deviation from the regular system. You’re trying to build new systems.

JEL: Exactly, exactly.

LUMA: What are you planning to talk about when you come to Calgary?

JEL: Part of what I’d like to do is use it as an opportunity to bring together my personal art practice and the work that we do with Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace. The connections are there in my head, but I’ve never really articulated them publicly. I want to touch on this whole idea—which now, I have some proto-language for it because of this conversation, thank you—self-determination within these technological structures. . . . It will probably be within the context of this ongoing effort on my part to develop this idea of the Future Imaginary, and why it’s so important for Indigenous people to think about and try to populate the Future Imaginary.


Coded Territories is available for free download here through the University of Calgary Press: http://press.ucalgary.ca/openaccess

Lewis’s 2013 talk on the Future Imaginary at TedxMontreal is available for viewing on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=3&v=cwkyaUALKJc

Tickets to Jason Edward Lewis’s Keynote in Calgary, and more information about the “WHERE NEXT?” symposium can be found through the ACAD website. https://www.acad.ca/where-next-creative-writing-narrative-film-and-contemporary-art


  1. “SKINS,” AbTeC.org, accessed January 12, 2016, http://skins.abtec.org/

  2. “Jason Edward Lewis,” Concordia University, Faculty of Fine Arts, Department of Design and Computation Arts: Faculty, accessed January 12, 2016, https://www.concordia.ca/finearts/design/faculty.html?fpid=jason-edward-lewis

  3. “Exhibitions”, Dunlop Art Gallery, accessed January 12, 2016, http://www.dunlopartgallery.org/exhibitions/index.html 

  4.  Joveski, Emily, “Coded Territories: Celebrating Indigenous New Media,” Ryerson Folio, October 14, 2014, http://ryersonfolio.com/coded-territories-celebrating-indigenous-new-media/


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