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BIIDAABAN: Art Installation Shines Light on Indigenous Languages, Ways of Knowing.

Anishinaabe director Lisa Jackson brings vision and expectation to Tkaronto (Mohawk for Toronto) in her virtual reality art installation Biidaaban: First Light. The Anishinaabemowin word "Biidaaban" translates into "dawn" or "the first light before the sun comes up." It's the time of day where possibility looms large as the past and future collide in the present.

Jackson, who is known for making works from an Indigenous feminist perspective, has created an allegory of the current renaissance of Indigenous nations. Set in Tkaronto, viewers are invited to become part of a time and place where Indigenous peoples and languages are not only alive but thriving.

Using virtual reality headsets, Jackson immerses viewers in an Indigenous vision of the future. Nathan Phillips Square is flooded, mature trees grow through cracks in the sidewalks, vines cover south-facing walls of crumbling structures, and inhabitants grow vegetables on skyscraper rooftops and commute by canoe. The events that led to these radical changes are a mystery.

Jackson doesn't equate this transformation with destruction--quite the opposite. She sees it as a resurgence of all life--a thriving urban life coexisting with Mother Earth as she reclaims Tkaronto.

Using an Indigenous lens, Jackson challenges the settler notion of Indigenous people being frozen in a stereotypical version of the past, removed from and unable to determine their own present and future.

Viewers travel from underground Osgoode subway station through Nathan Phillips Square to the rooftop of the Sheraton Hotel. At this point, viewers are literally looking down on the very spot where they are actually standing, while their virtual future and their past collide in their present.

Women's and men's voices occasionally address viewers in Wendat, Mohawk and Anishinaabemowin, the original languages of the Tkaronto area. They ask us, "Where did the Creator put your people?" or they tell us, "We are one." The spoken words are simultaneously written across the dawn sky in the founding languages and then translated into English.

According to Jackson, "Indigenous languages are native to this place the same as the trees and the plants. Place is so primary in Indigenous thought. Indigenous languages hold radically different world views from English or other European languages, including different concepts of time, space, relationship to each other, to our surroundings, to all our relations and truth."

Jackson doesn't speak Anishinaabemowin fluently, due in part, she says, to the fact that her mother attended residential school, where speaking one's native language was punished. But she has studied Indigenous languages and believes that the language we speak shapes our thinking.

"Our languages carry complex thought systems that are not just important for Indigenous people but have much to teach everyone, especially at this time when our relationship to the earth is so fractured," she says.

There are more than 50 First Nations languages, and all but three are at risk of extinction because of historical and present-day colonial policies. For Jackson the remedy lies in creating fluent speakers through immersion language programming. "It's like the water we swim in, but we can't see it because we're surrounded by it.... I think the ideas and values and thought systems in our languages are profound, complex, beautiful and urgently necessary for our times. It's in all our best interests to protect them."

While reviving First Nations languages will involve a significant financial investment, Jackson believes that, "If the government put a quarter of the resources into language immersion programs that they put into the residential schools, whose goal was to eradicate the languages, we'd be able to make some real progress."

The National Film Board launched Biidaaban: First Light during the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. Five individual viewing stations were installed in Nathan Phillips Square for the free eight-day event. Viewers donned virtual reality headsets that took them on an eight- minute surreal virtual adventure using the familiar present to explore a less familiar future.

When asked about the public's response to Biidaaban, Jackson said, "Many people were moved and affected on a very deep level and came away thinking in a profound way about this city's past, present and future. This is positive."

Jackson is currently working on Transmissions, a large-scale, three-part audio-visual immersive installation based on similar themes and visual language, set to premiere in Vancouver and Hamilton in the fall of 2019.

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Title Annotation:Biidaaban: First Light
Author:Nicoll, Doreen
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jun 22, 2019
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