Shape-Shifting and Other Points of Convergence: Inuit Art and Digital Technologies

Flynn-Burhoe, Maureen. 1999. “Shape-Shifting and Other Points of Convergence: Inuit Art and Digital Technologies.” Art Libraries Journal. 24/3:38-41. [1]

Western thinking which is predominantly linear and analytical, does not adequately give access to the complexities of Inuit visual culture. However, hypertext offers new possibilities for information management, and the aboriginal communities are using it creatively to share information, for example in the Internet record of the development of Canada’s newest territory, Nunavut. This article examines how and why interactive multimedia were the means chosen to develop a master’s thesis on the Inuit artist Jessie Oonark.

While Inuit culture encircle the circumpolar section of four nations: Canada, Denmark, Russia and the United States, it is in Canada that Inuit art production has grown exponentially over the past fifty years into a multi-million dollar cultural industry. The Inuit Art Bibliography, compiled and published in 1996 by the Inuit Art Section of the Department of Northern Affairs, includes over two thousand entries. This is surprisingly large in proportion to the size of the population: there are 40, 900 Inuit living in Canada’s north. Nunavut, encompassing 360, 000 square kilometres, is the largest and newest of the three Canadian Arctic territories.

From dog sleds to snow machines to digital connections, the Inuit continue to adapt technologies for their needs. Today more Nunavummiut per capita use computers and the Internet than in any other region of Canada. On my computer in southern Canada, I can follow the official April 1st opening ceremonies in the new capital of Iqaluit, Nunavut through the satellite communication link. I could read about it in the Nunatsiak News web page or I could participate in person at the Museum of Civilization, Hull, Quebec and be part of a live broadcast also available on the Internet.

Jessie Oonark

Jessie Oonark (1906-1985) Una or Unaaq lived the traditional hunter-nomadic life of the Inuit for almost fifty years. But in the 1950s her Keewatin home, in the region west of Hudson’s Bay, was devastated by famine after the disappearance of the herds of caribou which had previously supplied basic needs. Survivors of this disaster like Jessie Oonark, a widow with children, settled in emerging small permanent hamlets like Baker Lake Qamanittuaq, now in Nunavut. Here small-scale carving and printmaking co-operatives were developed to supplement income. In Baker Lake, in a matchbox house, Jessie Oonark produced wall hangings, drawings and prints that single her out as one of Canada’s greatest artists. Her internationally-renowned wall hangings echo the iconography and techniques of the appliqué and inlays of traditional skin clothing. In 1975 she was elected to the Royal Canadian Academy of the Arts, and the year before she died she received Canada’s highest award, the Order of Canada.

Today most Baker Lake community graphic artists continue to use rich palettes of coloured melton, duffle, coloured pencils, printers ink and paint. Jessie Oonark’s children continue her artistic legacy: her son William Noah has experimented with computer graphics to represent the vivid, spectacular colours of the sky over the mountain tundra.

Inuit legend

Jessie Oonark’s work presents us with a different vision of the world, a new way of seeing. Her visual imagery reflected her traditional spirituality, her thought processes, and the Inuktitut language. When she spoke she talked in circles, turning the subject to many sides as she communicated all the necessary information to her peers in imagery reminiscent of the fluid, space-changing and shape-shifting nature of oral legend. In an Inuit story (unikkaaqtuaq) ambiguous key figures shift to human and animal forms within one story. A story can begin at the end, or particular episodes of a legend can be struck in the middle of a large story or cycle of legends. Anthropologist Charles Moore suggests that essentially the same myths and legends are told right across the North but vary considerably from region to region (Flynn-Burhoe 1999:38) both in detail and in form. These variations may have occurred as stories were shared at great meeting places such as Akilineq in the Keewatin.

The Sedna (nuliayuk, taleleeyo) legend, the theme of countless works of art, illustrates this. In this story, which has hundreds of regional variations, a young woman who refuses to marry is punished. Her punishment transforms her into a being so feared and respected by the land dwellers who once oppressed her that their lives centre around appeasing her. Most often her brutalized fingers become whales, walrus and seals which she then controls. Referring to her 1974 drawing and print Big Woman, Jessie Oonark told a seemingly unrelated story of a woman who turned into stone.

‘This woman who is turning into a stone, in Chantrey Inlet. The Stone itself is really colourful because this woman has a fancy parka . . .’ She turned into stone . . . ‘because she never wanted to get married to anybody, not anyone at all. The woman is supposed to be in a kneeling position, but I just drew it in a standing position anyway.’

A popular columnist with the Nunatsiaq New, Rachel Attituq Qitsualik, tells a version of this shape-shifting Sedna story in which the torngat (powerful spirit), who used trickery to bring the woman to his distant island, is transformed into stone. Jessie Oonark’s cousin, Luke Anguhadluq, a highly-respected camp leader and keeper of the Utkuhihalingmiut legends, provides a detailed account of Nuliajuk (the name given to Sedna by the Utkuhihalingmiut, Oonark’s cultural group) turning into stone. The less rigid Inuit world view allows for ambiguity even in terms of geographical locations. The woman who turns into stone is also part of the living legend of Marble Island, an island located near Chesterfield Inlet.

The magical mutations of forms in Jessie Oonark’s work provide arguments for seeking a different relationship between ways of seeing, ways of thinking and language. Western thinking, which is predominantly linear and analytical, is inadequate for a full appreciation of Jessie Oonark’s many layers of meaning and visual puns. Her work can be looked at syncretistically, a term used by art historians and anthropologists such as Swinton, Carpentar, Blodgett and Jackson to refer to an uncritical blending of diverse, even conflicting, ideas, beliefs or principles. In Inuit art it refers to a way of seeing in which total events, thoughts and structures are understood without it being necessary first to analyse all their component parts and details. Artistic forms mutate, reflecting the Inuit world view with its highly interdependent relationship between humans and their environment. Humans become spirits, shamans, animals, or constellations, which in turn become human. Inuit are more tolerant of the uncertain boundaries between worlds and this gives meaning to the shape-shifting quality of oral tradition.

It is interesting that Sherry Turkle’s book Life on the screen: identity in the age of the Internet (New York: Touchstone 1997) uses the same terms to communicate the networld of human exchanges. The shifting sense of self in digital identities, the distinction between real life and virtual, tolerance of boundary uncertainties and shape-shifting are also terms to describe the first-generation inhabitants of digital existence.

While these connections are awkward in print format, they flow easily in digital format through images, maps, and layers of text. Interactive multimedia provides a richer means of access to a mode of thinking that is non-linear, which parallels Oonark’s work. My first graduate student project on Oonark had been in the form of a slide show with voice-over and reflected the oral, nonlinear tradition of her people the Utkuhihalingmiut. While this format allowed me to avoid cumbersome verbal descriptions of the artist’s dynamic transformation of forms, it is fundamentally linear. I found that the many layers of meaning, visual puns and high tolerance of ambiguity could be more easily evoked through the interactive multimedia digital applications being used in teaching, learning and research.

The tools

To carry out the work I chose Asymetrix Toolbook, an authoring software package which enabled me to manipulate images, text, audio and video freely. I was able to gather and digitize visual, audio and textual data from various sources including sound clips of throat singing and Jessie Oonark speaking. To manage the large quantity of data and images, I also used other software such as Adobe Photoshop, FoxPro (RQBE) and EndNote. While issues such as copyright, digitization, memory, resolution and projection systems often seemed to be insurmountable obstacles, it did prove possible to find solutions. Carleton University’s Teaching and Learning Resource Centre supported my project generously, upgrading its equipment to meet the technological needs. By January 1995 I was faced with serious problems of lack of hard disk space and the University purchased an 800 megabyte external drive so I could continue working. At times other University departments such as Engineering and Geography had to be asked for technical assistance. Because of the prohibitive cost of scanners some of the slides were sent to Kodak Photo CD to be digitized on CD-ROM.

One of the examiners suggested that a printed version be produced for them. There are 283 pages containing over 130 images including photographs, maps, models and works of art; approximately 2,000 hyperlinks, including hotwords and buttons; sound and video clips, animation and over 150 text fields of varying lengths. Fortunately, my explanation of the impossibility of such a print-out was accepted.

In March 1995 “Woman in the Centre: a Study of the Symbols of Womanhood in the Work of Jessie Oonark using Interactive Multimedia as a Method of Exploration” was submitted (Flynn-Burhoe 1999:39) on the external drive and in the form of taped back-up as part of my Master’s Degree in Canadian Studies at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada. After three readers had seen it in this form it was burned into a CD-ROM. The Teaching and Learning Resource Centre of Carleton University, Ottawa, has an updated version of the disk, as I have continued to perfect the application even after graduation in June 1995. I am working towards an improved version of the CD-ROM which I am hoping to publish. I have presented my MA research often to various groups. Ideas generated from the demonstrations and discussions have encouraged others to consider this new set of intellectual tools, with new ways of framing research that suggest fresh ways of looking and thinking.

The methodology

In my project I attempted to blend form and content whenever possible, with a concept map providing possible navigation routes and as a metaphor for the way data is connected. Jessie Oonark’s images of dynamic transformations are juxtaposed with deliberately transparent layers of text, which are revealed only when certain hotwords or buttons are clicked. The words of art historians, curators, anthropologists and Jessie Oonark are presented in a non-hierarchical, egalitarian way. Sound bytes of the artist’s own voice, as well as numerous quotations from her 1983 interview with Professor Mame Jackson, are incorporated (Flynn-Burhoe 1999:40).

Smaller images called thumbnails, wallet images and snap shots were sufficient. The CD-ROM was intended to enhance understanding of Jessie Oonark’s work in order to heighten enjoyment of the works of art themselves, not to replace the museum visit.

My goal was to create an interface that combined form with content, using Jessie Oonark’s own drawings to indicate ways of making connections visually. Since traditional systems did not represent how she would have presented information, transparent fields of white text on a dark textured background were used to represent the way she would have spoken — these look like words floating on a water-like surface.

For example on the homepage (Fig. 1) the reader can click on numerous hotwords, buttons, icons and images and hear Jessie Oonark’s voice, reveal pop-up indexes, or move to another page. A variety of icons were used: the inukshuk (stone cairn-like marker) to bring the reader back to the main menu; the drum-dancer (Flynn-Burhoe 1999:40) for audio; the caribou facing right and left as forward and background buttons.

I developed a glossary, bibliography, table of contents, scrolling title pop-up index, subject pop-up index, Who, What, Where, When, Why questions and thumbnail images on electronic contact sheets. All these are effectively pointers, replacing the usual references to books and articles in a textual thesis with a means of linking to large quantities of full content text.

The problems

Faster and more sophisticated computers, with high resolution image, audio and video capabilities, have created a paradigm shift in communication and information industries, in the ‘silicon basements’ of academia and in cultural industries. However, most multimedia applications still combine video and audio clips, images and texts in ways that are familiar. Exploring their capacity to form new, unexpected pathways through information, promoting knowledge instead of decimating huge quantities of information, is the challenge currently facing interactive multimedia authors.

I also mentioned earlier the problem of copyright. Working on this project has made me approach knowledge management in terms of possible hypertext connections. My arguments are increasingly visual and therefore dependent on access to digitized images, but free access to copyright-cleared downloadable versions of these, as in a library model, is increasingly being replaced by the much less-democratic pay-per-use model. Long-term public interests are being sacrificed to short-term private goals. Libraries and museums have public fiscal accountability; they also need safeguards so that they can achieve goals that straddle changing political and economic moods.

I have considered an Internet format for the Oonark application. I am not convinced, however, that the frustration of slow downloading of complicated, layered pages and images is near to being alleviated on the majority of computers. Slow output devices and on-line servers can slow down even the most efficiently-designed web pages.

Conclusion

New digital technologies can provide a two-way path to other cultures that creates the potential for dialogue on issues of identity. But they can also submerge diversity by encouraging the production of homogenous and superficial entertainment. When used to its fullest potential the technology can contribute to new ways of knowing. Inuit stories have been recorded in written form because ‘paper stays put.’ But linear formats freeze fluid stories; non-linear digital technologies provide a less rigid medium for interpreting Inuit legends and imagery.

Inuk journalist Rachel Attituq Qitsualik compared the fluid nature of the unikkaaqtuaq (Inuit story) to the surface of water in constant transformation and flux, a reflection of its human beauty. ‘Capture it, and it becomes as stone: it endures, yet stripped of value’ (Flynn-Burhoe 1999:41).

to be continued . . .

Webliography and Bibliography

Blodgett, Jean. 1979. The Coming and Going of the Shaman: Eskimo Shamanism and Art. Winnipeg Art Gallery, 1979. 1979, 1st Edition. (ISBN: 0889150680) Soft cover. First edition. 246 pp. hundreds of plates (some color), biblio, oversize (4to) softcover.

Blodgett, Jean and Bouchard, Marie. 1986. Jessie Oonark: a Retrospective. Winnipeg: Winnipeg Art Gallery.

Cohen, Kathleen. 1997. “The ‘Nina,’ the ‘Pinta,’ and the Internet – ships in Christopher Columbus’ expedition – Digital Culture and the Practices of Art and Art History.” Art Bulletin. 79:2: 187-191.

Driscoll, Bernadette. 1982. Inuit Myths, Legends, and Songs.” Winnipeg: Winnipeg Art Gallery.

Elkins, James. 1997. “What are we seeing, exactly? – Digital Culture and the Practices of Art and Art History.” Art Bulletin. 79:2:191-198. June.

Flynn-Burhoe, Maureen. 1998. ‘CD-ROM: The Process Behind the Creation of “Woman in the Centre.” Womenspace. 3:4. Summer. http://www.womenspace.ca (deadlink 2008 )

Flynn-Burhoe, Maureen. 1999. “Jessie Oonark: Woman in the Centre.” Inuit Art Quarterly. 14:2. Summer.

Jackson, Marion E. 1985. “Baker Lake Drawings: a Study in the Evolution of Artistic Consciousness.” PhD thesis. University of Michigan.

Lavin, Marilyn Aronberg. 1997. “Making Computers Work for the History of Art: Digital Culture and the Practices of Art and Art History.” Art Bulletin. 79:2:198-201.

Noblitt, James S. 1997. “Scholarship, Publishing and Computing: Interactions in the Educational Marketplace.” IAT Briefings. 5: 1-2. (deadlink: http://www.iat.unc.edu/publications/noblitt/noblitt2.htm)

Qitsualik, Rachel Attituq. Nunatsiaq News.

Turkle, Sherry. 1997. Life on the screen: identity in the age of the Internet. New York: Touchstone.

Veltman, Kim. 1997. “New Roles for Libraries in the Digital Age.” http://www.sumscorp.com

Notes

[1]. The original article was published in 1999. Unintentionally it became part of the deep internet or deep web. With the increased use of Web 2.0 open source technologies, I have chosen to make it more accessible using the Creative Commons 3.0 BY-NC-SA License. I have added links to urls that were accessible in May 2008. The original article is also available here and here.

[2] At the time of writing the original article in 1999 I was an active participant in artengine.

Kim Veltman, PhD http://www.sumscorp.com

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