Skawennati Tricia Fragnito
Distribution: a curator discusses distribution and participation projects including Cyber PowWow.
Things are criss-crossing in various ways, and actually on your printed schedule you have Kathleen first and then Skawennati second, but for various reasons we have changed that and we hope you don’t mind that. I am very pleased that Skawennati is here because, for me, Skawennati represents one of these new breed of artist-curators who we term sometimes catalysts and who themselves produce artwork but who are also very instrumental in bringing projects together, and Skawennati is one of these people.
In another way, Kathleen is also a catalyst who is bringing various trends together both in Interaccess and in her independent curating, in her writing and in educational fields lately as well. So I hope that this new configuration of these catalysts will be of interest to you and that you will have your own comments on it. Thank you. Here is Skawennati. (Applause)
Hi. Thank you all very much for being here and for listening. This is what I’m going to do today. I’m going to spend three to five minutes introducing myself and then the rest of the time, which I think will be ten to fifteen minutes, I’m going to take you on ‘the annoying issues tour’ of the CyberPowWow site. So I will have to tell you a little bit about the project in order to make you understand what’s so annoying about some of the problems that we ran into, but I won’t be telling you all about CyberPowWow because it takes a really long time and you can visit it on the Net.
First of all my name is Skawennati Tricia Fragnito and I’m an artist and an independent curator. I spent a year and a half at the Walter Phillips Gallery at the Banff Centre and I’ve also spent some time working as a coordinator at Galerie Oboro, an artist-run centre in Montreal. I also co-founded Nation-to-Nation, which is a First Nations artist collective. So those are the three kinds of highlights of activity in this art scene. But I think I’m going to be changing my business card – the next business cards that I have because I’ve just moved back to Montreal after spending two years in San Francisco - is now going to say “Skawennati Tricia Fragnito - content provider” – because I think that’s what really us artists are doing.
CyberPowWow was a project that began in 1996 when I discovered the World Wide Web. At that time everything was so brand new and I went to a StudioXX Wired Women / Femmes branches evening and a person there – who’s name I forget – presented to us the Palace. This was a graphical chat room which just blew my mind, because I was just ‘Oh, my God! You can talk to people all over the place and you can see it’. I had of course heard of IRC – Internet Relay Chat - and I found it kind of boring because you were just looking at text, but here were people who were talking to one another with little balloons – I’ll show it to you in a moment. You could see the text and you could see artwork and you could see who you were talking to in a certain way. I had been thinking a lot at that time about Native artists and communities and how Native artists were sort of really flung across – at that time I was thinking Canada, but really it’s the globe – and we were doing all these similar things but we just weren’t able to meet in one room very easily because of the vastness of the globe. And so I thought this might be an opportunity to talk to one another using computers – because of course everyone can have a computer! And so CyberPowWow was born – and of course we all know that not everyone can have a computer or an Internet connection, but we’re just going to suspend that reality and believe that we all do have connections.
So CyberPowWow has grown over that time to include artists from Australia, the United States, people working in Europe and it’s also grown from being the idea. The idea that only being on the Internet actually wasn’t good enough. When I first started it I knew that not everyone would know how to use the Palace and not everybody would know how to use the World Wide Web or a browser. So what I wanted to do was to make sure that people did come together in groups, at real places which have since come to be called ‘gathering sites’, where they could help each other; access the internet; help each other to learn how to use the Palace; talk to one another and of course eat food.
So I think having said that, I think that might be enough for a basic information on the CyberPowWow project to actually show you a few things. This is my beautiful assistant – Jason Lewis! He is also my tech-support in many other instances, as well. What I am going to show now is the CyberPowWow webpage, and I was waiting for you to actually see this before I told you about it. But one of the very annoying things about the CyberPowWow webpage is that when you get to it, the first thing it says is ‘Upcoming event – April 21st, 2001’! And so of course the first thing that you realise as soon as you’re a Net-Artist is that you have to be constantly updating these webpages otherwise they become so out-dated so quickly and maintaining them is work – period. You can get these grants – if you’re lucky – to make a website, but then there’s no real money in it – there is no real payment to the person who is up-keeping the Website. So this is one of the annoying issues of creating a net-art.
So problem number one is upkeep. Problem number two ends up being the gathering sites. (Instructs Jason on where to go on webpage).
Of course once you have a project where you’ve decide to have a physical space, then you need to find physical spaces and that’s not as easy as it sounds – in fact it’s not easy at all. You have to convince people that this is a great idea and it’s a great project and a lot of people have no idea what you’re talking about when you say ‘Graphical Chatroom’, especially four years ago. Then you have many different levels of connectivity; you have many different levels of access to computers. Many artist-run centres which were the types of gathering sites I was aiming at only have one computer or only had a couple of computers, and have a 56K modem and they don’t have a technical person on staff. So these are huge issues when you’re trying to have a gathering site type of situation.
I was hoping just to show you another site very quickly and just get off CyberPowWow to show you that this happens in many different instances. So this Imagining Indians is another site that I created. It was commissioned by the Edmonton Art Gallery. You almost don’t have to see it for me to tell you the story about it. The idea was that this site would be, again, it would be this physical thing, there would be an installation of the project. There are six computers in a circle that have this on the screen when you went in there. The Edmonton Art Gallery told me, once we had this set up, that ‘you dragged us kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century’ because their building, their physical building was not wired at all – kind of like the problems that we’ve talked about today. Of course they knew about this project more than a year in advance and I get to Edmonton three days before the show opens and they haven’t wired for it – the wiring is not in the building yet! So even a big institution with a lot of resources can have that kind of difficulty and it’s also a mind-set issue. Also, another issue is that once they had the computers all set up and there was a line running into the building, there were these six computers – they were also saying ‘Oh, we can also use these to access the Edmonton Art Gallery website’! I thought, ‘Okay! – I thought this was my art piece here in this big show and that this is what the people are coming here to see’. But that was certainly a mismatch of expectations and again I was feeling like, ‘Okay, new media art is maybe not that widely accepted but if this was a sculpture, then would you be saying, “Oh this could double as a coat rack!” – never! Anyway, I guess it’s something that you get used to. I don’t know.
So if we could go back and go to the Palace. So we use this software called the Palace. So this is what the Palace looks like and unfortunately today I cannot get into the Palace that we made for CyberPowWow. But it’s really cute! I just wanted to show you want actually happens. Your default avatar in the Palace is this little smiley face and the smiley faces have thought balloons coming out of them so you can see who is talking. The Palace is a collection of rooms. So you can usually… probably right now you’re not seeing the image behind – the image that would be the background because it hasn’t loaded yet, it’s got another two minutes remaining. But generally there’s an image behind that sort of gives you an idea…so you’ll be seeing CyberPowWow momentarily.
Anyway, so what I’m going to try and talk about now is the technical side of things. Being dependent on this technology was a huge issue because the Palace – we used it for two years and then suddenly it was no longer being supported. Now what that meant was that nobody was working on the Palace anymore at palace.com. They were no longer going to be updating it to make it compatible with new browsers; they were no longer doing anything with it because it just wasn’t making them any money. So where that left us was without the technology to work with and we were faced with the prospect of having to completely change – leave the Palace and possibly use another tool. One of them was Adobe Atmosphere, which probably some of you know about? But that was only useful for PCs, and it didn’t have a MAC client.
So as you can see we are all alone in this palace right now, whereas in the other palace there are many people speaking to one another and that’s because nobody knows we’re online right now. Luckily what ended up happening was I did a lot of research on the Palace and I found the guy’s address who created the Palace and I wrote to him and asked him for some help and he totally helped us. Basically we were able to use the client – there’s still a total underground of Palace users who have been keeping it up – and he provided us with a special page on our Website where you can go and get registration codes and stuff so you can still make it work. But it’s a huge issue to be dependent on a technology that is owned by a smaller company or that is maybe being used or made by only an individual or a small group of people.
Another annoying issue whilst doing this project was having to learn new technologies constantly – or another way of looking at it or talking about this is, that if you’re an individual or a small group of people, you have to learn such a huge range of new skills in order to make a project like this come together. You have to learn HTML and/or Dreamweaver – you have to learn how to build a Webpage and a Website, and that’s not even about talking about design issues and learning how to make navigation bars and Smart – it’s just talking about the pure coding and the images that you make into a site. We had to learn IPSCRAe, which is the proprietary language of the Palace and how to use the Palace. We also had to find someone and in this case what we did was we found someone who knew JAVA in order to create an instant Palace, which is something I actually won’t talk about, but you can discover on the site yourselves if you’re interested, or I would be happy to talk to you more about it later. So these all took a huge amount of time – time possibly better spent developing content or organising people. There’s often no money, or not enough money, to hire individuals who already know this technology – and also I think there’s a certain desire on the part of artists – well certainly on my part – to learn new technologies. But I am not sure if it’s realistic anymore. I’m starting to think that hiring someone who knows how to use the technology – it might be a better way to go – if I had the money!
Number five – funding! This project has been relatively very well funded. I’ve written and received grants from the Canada Council, the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation and we were very well supported by the Surrey Art Galley. As well, this time around – I don’t think I told you, but there have been CyberPowWows –one every two years since it began. The last one, the best and only way to really raise money was to ask each gathering site to pay an artist fee, which, before that I hadn’t really thought about doing. So they basically paid an artist fee and that’s was how we were able to raise the money to make this happen. The biggest expense was the bringing the artists all together to Banff to build the site together – to build the whole Palace together on the website. But I worked for two years on CyperPowWow 2K and basically I was paid in the end $7,000. I worked for probably quarter-time to half-time, depending on the time of the year and on the writing of the grants – and it’s impossible to keep that kind of involvement in the website up without a real pay cheque and a real way of doing it. So this is something that I want to know from you! What do you – or what do I do – what does one do? How can a project like this which I still think is very worthwhile, how can it survive? What can we do?
That’s my whole presentation at the moment. I want to leave some room for questions. I know I’ve left things out – there are so many things to talk about with this project. It’s five years old and it has evolved a lot. I should have also said that it’s opened up now, it’s not just for Native artists anymore. It’s much bigger than that. It’s important to us – when I say ‘us’ I mean Nation to Nation – to reach out to other people and to make connections – it’s a bigger world out there than just the Aboriginal world and the digital world is also very big and interesting and rich and so we wanted to make it a larger thing.
I think that’s all I have to say right now. If you have any questions? So, thank you so much once again. Talk to you later.