Project Description

Skawennati, Five Roses, 2013. Machinimagraph from TimeTraveller™. Image courtesy of the artist and ELLEPHANT.

Avatar Activism

By Treva Michelle Pullen | March 6th 2017

“I now think of avatars as metaphors for the future”

-Skawennati, 2017

Distinctions between the ‘real’ and the ‘virtual’ become messy when considering the lives of avatars.

Second Life is a free 3D virtual reality platform that was first launched in 2003 and still hosts roughly 800,000 users/avatars today. Though the mainstream public interest in Second Life has dwindled, artists and educators have begun takeover the VR world. The massively-multiplayer-online (MMO) game has expanded to include more than 200 institutions of higher education, as well as VR representations of the Smithsonian Institution, the Census Bureau, and NASA. Similar locations include OCAD University’s VR campus and Skawennati’s AbTeC (Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace) Island.

Like the real world, the online virtual sphere, and more specifically the world of Second Life, has become a new site of public encounter. With new possibilities of self presentation and representation, come new opportunities for social and political uprisings, for activist protest, and biting commentaries on the “real” world.

Mohawk multimedia artist Skawennati Fragnito is no stranger to Second Life; she has been filming experimental machinima in the VR platform since its early days. Her first machinima (a mode of filming using computer graphics engines from video games), TimeTravellerTM, is a 9-episode series of activist art. The machinima is a critique of colonial, Western and imperialistic historical narratives that retells actual historical events from an indigenous perspective and imagines a vibrant future for indigenous people.

TimeTravellerTM is an empowering piece of activist media. Skawennati’s work with Milieux’s own Initiative for Indigenous Futures research cluster is imperative to our imagining of a bright and inclusive future in times of desperate despair provoked by the recent American election.

Skawennati, Becoming Sky Woman, 2017. Machinimagraph from She Falls For Ages. Image courtesy of the artist.

Skawennati’s most recent work has brought her back into Second Life; though it seems unlikely that her personal avatar xox Voyager ever left. She Falls for Ages (2017), is a beautiful retelling of the Iroquois creation story in Skyworld.

In Second Life, Skawennati creates her own lyrical and enchanting depiction of Skyworld as an otherworldly alien inhabited planet of vibrant pink and green extraterrestrials. Skawennati’s exhibition Tomorrow People (Feb. 4 – March 18) at OBORO gallery will be the debut of this newest machinima film.

“What I hope to show is not that I want to be like my avatar or my avatar wants to be like me but we want to be like each other,” Skawennati told me in an interview.

The avatar is a chimera creature that is both real and constructed, imagined and material—a shared experience that allows artists to move through and inhabit multiple worlds.

Watching empowered bodies march and congregate in the material world, I wonder about methods of occupying the virtual world as resistance? We need bodies in the streets, but we may also need bodies in the virtual sphere to create change. Virtual spaces allow artists to comment on the unique experiences and the potential injustices they face in their physical bodies.

Skawennati, Hunter and Warriors, 2012. Machinimagraph from TimeTraveller™. Image courtesy of the artist and ELLEPHANT.

Second Life is a real site of social engagement, as well as a space that can inform the cultural climate of the ‘real’ world offline. If the avatar is a metaphor for the future, it is also a powerful tool of activist engagement. It can be used as a tool that “allows the artist to go anywhere and do anything in the virtual realm while also presenting the open possibilities of constructing and presenting her own unique identity through these seductive iterative virtual bodies” (Pullen 2016). Marginalized publics have the potential to be set free online.

So let’s make our own avatars, occupy material and virtual spaces, and ask: how can we use virtual reality as a site of activism rather than escapism?

Treva Pullen is an interdisciplinary researcher, curator, artist and PhD candidate in Communication Studies at Concordia University. Her research merges critical theory and curatorial practice based research to explore methods of display for the ‘whimsical bodies’ presented through bio art; facilitating human nonhuman engagements/pedagogy, and unpacking feminist maker methodologies enacted in bioart laboratories. Pullen is the coordinator of the Speculative Life Cluster at Milieux and a member of the Indigenous Futures Cluster, Milieux. Her writing has been published in The Senses & Society, InterARTive, JAWS and AlterNative: An International Journal of Indigenous Peoples. She has also curated new media based exhibitions such as #NATURE (2016) and Influenc(Ed.) Machines (2015). Pullen holds an MA from OCAD University in Contemporary Art, Design and New Media Art Histories, and a BFA from OCAD University in Criticism and Curatorial Practice.

Works Cited

Pullen, Treva. 2016. “Skawennati’s TimeTraveller™: Deconstructing the Colonial Matrix in Virtual Reality.” AlterNative: International Journal of Indigenous Peoples 12.3.3: 236-249.

Skawennati. (2016, April 13). Skype interview.

Skawennati. (2017, Feburary 8). Lecture: “SKAWENNATI: MA VIE EN TANT QU’AVATAR.” L’Université du Québec à Montréal.

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