A Canadian artist’s new virtual reality experience rooted in Indigenous futurism will premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York next week.
Biidaaban: First Light, an interactive, room-scale VR work by award-winning Anishinaabe director Lisa Jackson, takes place in a future version of Toronto that has been reclaimed by nature.
Nathan Phillips Square has plant life bursting through the concrete and the sky is blanketed by stars unobstructed by light pollution — a drastically different look for Canada’s largest urban centre.
“A simple idea within the realm of Indigenous futurism is the idea that anything that’s Indigenous is often seen to be in the past, so can we imagine a future where Indigenous understandings are guiding us in some way?” said Jackson.
There is no English speaking in Biidaaban: First Light; instead the traditional languages of the area — Wendat, Mohawk and Ojibway — are heard and translated through text. As the viewer’s gaze passes over the text, the story is driven forward.
Languages growing like plants
In Biidaaban: First Light, Indigenous languages provide a framework for understanding our place in a reconciled version of Canada’s largest urban environment.
“These languages grow on this land in the same way that plants do. The languages have been spoken here for thousands of years; they capture this land more than any other languages,” said Jackson.
Biidaaban is the Anishinaabemowin word for dawn, but more specifically the moment of the first light of dawn. It’s a particular moment where the feeling of night is still there, yet the new day is coming.
“We all know that feeling of that very first light and the sense that anything’s possible,” said Jackson.
The word also refers to the idea of the past and present collapsing in on each other.
Indigenous concepts of time are often not linear but circular, something that Biidaaban: First Light hints at where the urban landscape is being reclaimed by nature.
Jackson said the experience offers a reconciled version of Toronto.
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“This is a way to say that there can be a new way of looking at it and without saying what the new day would look like, it’s just saying here’s a moment, let’s pause to reflect on what else may be possible.”
Creating space for audiences
Using virtual reality as a medium creates more space for audience interpretation, said Rob McLaughlin, a producer on Biidaaban: First Light and the executive producer of the National Film Board of Canada’s Digital Studio in Vancouver.
“We’ve talked a lot about Indigenous language in this country and how it allows for different understandings of people and perspectives on complex things like time,” said McLaughlin.
“Biidaaban does a really interesting thing in VR that allows the audience to think in ways that maybe a straight film, written article, or an art installation wouldn’t or couldn’t do.”
Biidaaban: First Light will premiere to Canadian audiences in the fall.