Table of Con­tents | http://​dx​.doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​7​7​4​2​/​I​M​A​G​E​.​M​A​.​8​.​3.5 | PDF

Abstract | Mar­shall McLuhan’s ideas have been foun­da­tion­al in shap­ing under­stand­ings about the role of media and medi­a­tion in land­scape, iden­ti­ty, and nation­hood. At the same time, his the­o­ries remain teth­ered to a lib­er­al human­ist schemat­ic of cit­i­zen­ship and tech­no­log­i­cal moder­ni­ty, which advances—implicitly or not—colonial con­struc­tions of the land as ter­ra nul­lius, and thus severe­ly lim­its or frus­trates attempts to enlist them in anti-colo­nial analy­ses. In response, this paper places McLuhan into dia­logue with Cree artist and schol­ar Cheryl L’Hirondelle, argu­ing that such a move can begin to dis­rupt the set­tler under­pin­nings in McLuhan’s ideas, and also broad­en the poten­tial for these ideas to be applied with­in con­tem­po­rary queries into decolo­nial cit­i­zen­ships on Tur­tle Island. Our paper focus­es on L’Hirondelle’s nika­mon ohci askiy (songs because of the land). An inter­ac­tive dig­i­tal plat­form framed through Cree cos­mol­o­gy, nika­mon ohci askiy is a mul­ti­lay­ered work that explores tech­no­log­i­cal medi­a­tions of nation, land, and Indige­nous cit­i­zen­ship. Sim­i­lar to oth­er Indige­nous the­o­ries of new media, this work chal­lenges the view of land as barren/hostile, in par­tic­u­lar by empha­siz­ing land-based ani­mate rela­tion­ships. Ulti­mate­ly, this paper argues that the new media ecolo­gies prof­fered through L’Hirondelle’s work con­test set­tler lib­er­al cit­i­zen­ship, and reori­ents under­stand­ings of “net­works” and “the dig­i­tal” as cru­cial­ly ground­ed in Indige­nous notions of rec­i­p­ro­cal­i­ty and relationality

Résumé | Les idées de Mar­shall McLuhan ont été fon­da­men­tales dans l'élaboration des com­préhen­sions sur le rôle des médias et de la médi­a­tion dans le paysage, l'identité, et l’idée de la nation. En même temps, ses théories restent attachées à sché­ma human­iste libéral de la citoyen­neté et de la moder­nité tech­nologique qui avance, implicite­ment ou non, les con­struc­tions colo­niales de la terre comme ter­ra nul­lius, et lim­ite ain­si ou freine sévère­ment les ten­ta­tives de les enrôler dans des analy­ses anti­colo­niales. En réponse, cet arti­cle établit un dia­logue entre McLuhan et Cheryl L'Hirondelle, artiste et uni­ver­si­taire crie, sou­tenant qu'un tel mou­ve­ment peut com­mencer à per­turber les fonde­ments qu’ont les colons des idées de McLuhan, et égale­ment élargir la pos­si­bil­ité que ces idées soient appliquées dans les requêtes con­tem­po­raines de décoloni­sa­tion des citoyen­netés sur l'Île de la Tortue. Notre arti­cle se con­cen­tre sur les nika­mon ohci askiy de L'Hirondelle (chan­sons à cause de la terre). Plate­forme numérique inter­ac­tive encadrée par la cos­molo­gie crie, nika­mon ohci askiy est un tra­vail com­plexe qui explore les médi­a­tions tech­nologiques de la nation, de la terre, et de la citoyen­neté autochtone. Comme d'autres théories autochtones sur les nou­veaux médias, ce tra­vail remet en ques­tion la vision de la terre comme stérile/hostile, en par­ti­c­uli­er en met­tant l'accent sur les rela­tions ani­mées ter­restres. En fin de compte, cet arti­cle sou­tient que les écolo­gies des nou­veaux médias véhiculées par le tra­vail de L'Hirondelle con­tes­tent la citoyen­neté libérale des colons et réori­en­tent la com­préhen­sion des « réseaux » et du « numérique » comme fon­da­men­tale­ment ancrée dans les notions autochtones de réciproc­ité et de relationnalité. |

Jes­si­ca Jacobson-Konefall
May Chew
Daina Warren

 Songlines, not Stupor: Cheryl L'Hirondelle’s nikamon ohci aski: songs because of the land as Technological Citizenship on the Lands Currently Called “Canada”

 …we stake a claim here too as being an intrin­sic part of this place—the very roots, or more appro­pri­ate­ly routes. So let’s use our col­lec­tive Indige­nous uncon­scious to remem­ber our con­tri­bu­tions and the phys­i­cal begin­nings that were piv­otal in how this vir­tu­al real­i­ty was constructed.
-Cheryl L’Hirondelle, “Codetalk­ers Recount­ing Sig­nals of Sur­vival,” Cod­ed Territories

In nika­mon ohci askiy: songs because of the land, Cree new media artist Cheryl L’Hirondelle high­lights Indige­nous prac­tices of decol­o­niza­tion in the arts, chal­leng­ing assump­tions about nation, lib­er­al cit­i­zen­ship, land, and tech­no­log­i­cal moder­ni­ty. L’Hirondelle’s the­o­ret­i­cal and artis­tic works advance Indige­nous cit­i­zen­ship net­works towards a decol­o­nized civic ecol­o­gy. L’Hirondelle’s work nika­mon ohci askiy: songs because of the land presents a peo­pled land­scape res­o­nant with voic­es and his­to­ries. nika­mon ohci askiy: songs because of the land demol­ish­es the set­tler mythol­o­gy of land giv­en to us by canon­i­cal nation­al thinkers includ­ing Mar­shall McLuhan and George Grant, who offer its under­stand­ing as a bar­ren and hos­tile chal­lenge to over­come in the lib­er­al human­ist tri­al of Cana­di­an cit­i­zen­ship. As an icon­ic Cana­di­an media the­o­rist, McLuhan shaped views of land, nation­al iden­ti­ty, and cit­i­zen­ship through the lens of media. By delin­eat­ing and embody­ing Indige­nous his­to­ries of land and net­worked sub­jec­tiv­i­ty in media arts, L’Hirondelle fig­ures tech­no­log­i­cal rela­tion­ships from Cree per­spec­tives that dif­fer from those of McLuhan’s argu­ments about Cana­di­an nation­hood and the tech­no­log­i­cal individual.

Indigenous Media Art and Civic Ecology: nikamon ohci askiy: songs because of the land

The accounts and works of Indige­nous the­o­rists, artists, and media tech­nolo­gies dif­fer from their pre­sen­ta­tion in McLuhan’s argu­ments, although Indige­nous artic­u­la­tions of new media do res­onate at times with his vision of a global—though Euro­cen­tric and colonial—framing of the return of trib­al man through media (Loft, “Medi­a­cos­mol­o­gy” 181). McLuhan does not empha­size the sit­u­at­ed colo­nial nation­al con­text of his per­spec­tive and writ­ing. His argu­ment around process­es of what he calls “retrib­al­iza­tion” places atten­tion on the poten­tial for “the prim­i­tive role of art” to serve as “con­sol­ida­tor and a liai­son” with the cos­mos (qtd. in Loft, “Medi­a­cos­mol­o­gy” 181-2). In this spe­cif­ic aspect, Mohawk schol­ar and the­o­rist of new media art Steven Loft writes that McLuhan “nails it” as regards Indige­nous prax­is and cos­mol­o­gy (181). Yet McLuhan’s for­mu­la­tion is over­ly abstract; his “trib­al” media argu­ment pre­sumes an unmarked world cit­i­zen with­in an undoubt­ed­ly abstract and lib­er­al frame­work that, while it dis­sem­bles back into the “prim­i­tive” (181) is not ground­ed, as Indige­nous media the­o­ry is, in the speci­fici­ty of rela­tion­ships in spe­cif­ic lands with­in which tech­nol­o­gy is fig­ured in Indige­nous onto­log­i­cal contexts.

Win­neba­go schol­ar Renya Ramirez pro­vides a con­text for dis­cussing Indige­nous media art when, draw­ing on Indige­nous women’s expe­ri­ences, she writes from the ground up against set­tler-colo­nial frame­works of lib­er­al human­ist cit­i­zen­ship such as McLuhan’s. Ramirez argues that urban Native peo­ples prac­tice rela­tion­al cit­i­zen­ship by com­pos­ing “hubs” formed by cul­tur­al process­es and geo­graph­ic places, includ­ing the use of tech­nol­o­gy, there­by “re-member[ing] the native body torn apart by col­o­niza­tion” (23, empha­sis added). For Dene the­o­rist Glen Coulthard, this Indigeneity:

is deeply informed by what the land as sys­tem of rec­i­p­ro­cal rela­tions and oblig­a­tions can teach us about liv­ing our lives in rela­tion to one anoth­er and the nat­ur­al world in non-dom­i­nat­ing and non-exploita­tive terms; [a] place based foun­da­tion of ground­ed nor­ma­tiv­i­ty…[under­lies] the modal­i­ties of Indige­nous land-con­nect­ed prac­tices and long­stand­ing expe­ri­en­tial knowl­edge that inform and struc­ture our eth­i­cal engage­ments with the world and our rela­tion­ships with human and non­hu­man oth­ers over time. (13)

Ramirez and Coulthard focus on con­tem­po­rary translo­cal and land-based rela­tion­ships and their long­stand­ing forms. Unlike for McLuhan in his famous for­mu­la­tion, con­tent here is as sig­nif­i­cant as form. Hubs embody land-based rela­tion­ships between city and reserve spaces, between Indige­nous nations, and between set­tler and Indige­nous peo­ples (Ramirez). Indige­nous cit­i­zen­ship prac­tices, oppo­si­tion­al to set­tler fram­ings of the con­cept, orig­i­nate from the grass­roots prac­tices of Indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties on their own terms. Indige­nous media art is pro­duced in the long­stand­ing and unfold­ing con­text of these land-based relationships.

Loft takes a genealog­i­cal stance in rela­tion to the term new media art, sit­u­at­ing it in the func­tion of media with­in Indige­nous cos­molo­gies that are always in flux and, most impor­tant­ly, con­nect­ed to the land. Loft dis­cuss­es what he calls the media ecolo­gies (Cubitt; Fuller; Strate)[1] of Indige­nous art as long­stand­ing in Indige­nous soci­eties, cit­ing “win­ter counts, birch bark scrolls, and the Aztec codices” as a few exam­ples (“Medi­a­cos­mol­o­gy” 172). Loft shows how media has func­tioned for Indige­nous peo­ples in ways that are con­so­nant with the func­tions of cyber­space and dig­i­tal forms with­in it, such as hyper­text (172). For exam­ple, he cites Angela M. Haas, who describes wampum pre­cise­ly as hyper­text, cit­ing it as “an Amer­i­can Indi­an intel­lec­tu­al tra­di­tion of mul­ti­me­dia the­o­ry and prac­tice” (77-100). Not only are the forms and con­cepts that under­gird, sup­port, and mate­ri­al­ize new media con­so­nant in unin­ter­rupt­ed lines of con­ti­nu­ity through Indige­nous media ecolo­gies, but, as L’Hirondelle notes, the move­ment path­ways of Indige­nous ances­tors across the land of North Amer­i­ca pro­vide the routes on which set­tlers built their roads, and these ancient Indige­nous routes are the infra­struc­ture for the elec­tri­cal lines along which dig­i­tal data trav­els (L’Hirondelle 152-53). Indige­nous thor­ough­fares, based on rela­tion­ships with the land and ani­mal nations, form the mate­r­i­al net­works of move­ment for new media forms. L’Hirondelle argues that under­stand­ing Indige­nous sov­er­eign­ty, espe­cial­ly in rela­tion to media art, requires an aware­ness of the mate­r­i­al ground as it artic­u­lates with­in Indige­nous ontologies.

With­in Indige­nous media his­to­ries, land, and its ani­ma­cies are con­tent, and form fol­lows in a rela­tion­al equi­lib­ri­um. As Ahasiw Maskegon-Iskwew writes, “the ancient process of…innovating the appli­ca­tion of best prac­tices to suit com­plex and shift­ing flows—from a posi­tion of equal­i­ty and auton­o­my with­in them, is the macro and micro cos­mos of con­tem­po­rary Indige­nous cul­tures: a tru­ly net­worked way of being” (n.p.). L’Hirondelle’s work is inex­tri­ca­ble from its cul­tur­al and land-based speci­fici­ty in the eyes of those who remem­ber land-based Indige­nous his­to­ries. As Loft argues:

The phrase “all my rela­tions” is often used to explain the inter­ac­tion of all things with­in an evolv­ing, ever chang­ing social, cul­tur­al, tech­no­log­i­cal, aes­thet­ic, polit­i­cal, and envi­ron­men­tal intel­lec­tu­al frame­work (what I would refer to as the cos­mo­log­i­cal dynam­ic) and can cer­tain­ly be applied to the land­scape of media. Cos­mo­log­i­cal intel­lec­tu­al ecosys­tems exist as media, as mes­sage, and as a form of knowl­edge trans­fer­al. They are epis­te­mo­log­i­cal [onto­log­i­cal] envi­ron­ments where­in notions of nation­hood are inter­spersed with, con­nect­ed to, and inte­grat­ed with a larg­er sense of the plu­ral­i­ty of life. (“Decol­o­niz­ing the Web” xvi)

Indige­nous aes­thet­ics empha­size expe­ri­en­tial land-based knowl­edge. Media arts shape con­di­tions of per­cep­tion in rela­tion­ship with the land, as they have from time immemo­r­i­al. Indige­nous media, on and with the land, advance Indige­nous knowl­edge that is embod­ied, mate­r­i­al, ani­mate, rela­tion­al, and land-based. Coulthard sit­u­ates emphat­i­cal­ly land-based, spa­tial, and eco­log­i­cal ground­ed nor­ma­tiv­i­ty of Indige­nous world­views against the tem­po­ral con­text of pos­ses­sive colo­nial per­pe­tu­ity in the the­o­ries of the West­ern left. In many West­ern media the­o­ries, for exam­ple, the­o­rists fol­low Marx in mea­sur­ing oppres­sion by theft of work­ers’ time and labour, now under­stood as “atten­tion” (Crary). We can observe this ori­en­ta­tion in McLuhan’s use of the Nar­cis­sus myth to ana­lyze tech­no­log­i­cal sub­jec­tiv­i­ty: Nar­cis­sus dies because time pass­es; in his hyp­not­ic stu­por, he starves. Land is absent from this sto­ry. Indige­nous media arts fre­quent­ly reartic­u­late main­stream lib­er­al human­ist the­o­riza­tions of embod­i­ment, tech­nol­o­gy, and cit­i­zen­ship: the screen-based works cap­ture the view­er; the “time” of atten­tion is held by the pri­or­i­ty of the expan­sive and agen­tial eco­log­i­cal frame­works of Indige­nous land.

L’Hirondelle’s inter­ac­tive web­site, nika­mon ohci askiy: songs because of the land, is a mul­ti­dis­ci­pli­nary work that engages tech­no­log­i­cal medi­a­tion of nation, land, and cit­i­zen­ship, includ­ing bod­i­ly com­port­ment and mate­r­i­al and tech­no­log­i­cal rela­tion­ships. It elu­ci­dates a Cree cos­mo­log­i­cal phi­los­o­phy con­cep­tu­al­ly far from the Nar­cis­sus myth: that of the teepee pole teach­ings. The piece began as a tech­no­log­i­cal­ly record­ed per­for­mance of L’Hirondelle’s walks through Van­cou­ver city spaces in 2006 and con­tin­ues as an inter­ac­tive web­site: www​.van​cou​ver​song​lines​.ca.

Grunt gallery, which fund­ed the work, reflects upon the com­plex lay­ers of this project in its pub­li­ca­tion, brunt mag­a­zine. The work began as a mobile com­mu­ni­ca­tion arts project with var­i­ous con­cep­tu­al parts devel­oped through­out includ­ing: “per­for­mance art, con­cept art, an inter­ac­tive web-based instal­la­tion, musi­cal com­po­si­tion, musi­cal per­for­mance, com­pact disc record­ing, DVD, web 2.0 exhi­bi­tion (via YouTube, Twit­ter, Blog­ger and MySpace), and [a] spir­it quest” (Boyce 43). This paper focus­es on the web­site and the var­i­ous performative/musical parts direct­ly con­nect­ing to the online project.

The inter­ac­tive web­site embod­ies and extends L’Hirondelle’s projects, which are described on grunt gallery’s website:

Dur­ing the month of Decem­ber [2008], the artist will make dai­ly jour­neys through­out Van­cou­ver and “sing” the land­scape she encoun­ters. These encoun­ters will be cap­tured by mobile phone by the artist and what­ev­er oth­er tech­nolo­gies are made avail­able by par­tic­i­pat­ing viewers/audience (video, pho­to, audio).…During the live per­for­mances, Cheryl will sing, record and upload audio clips to an online data­base. Each audio clip will be tagged to one or more of the 16 Cree val­ues. The clips will auto­mat­i­cal­ly be avail­able to online audi­ences inter­ac­tive­ly through a rich online media expe­ri­ence avail­able at Van​cou​ver​Song​lines​.ca. (n.p.)

These sound sam­ples are a com­pelling aspect of the work, rep­re­sent­ing her musi­cal com­mu­ni­ca­tion with her envi­ron­ment, a self-made Cree map­ping of place. She explores var­i­ous down­town urban envi­ron­ments and simul­ta­ne­ous­ly records who, where, and what was imme­di­ate­ly sur­round­ing her through impromp­tu singing into her cell phone (Fig­ure 5). This musi­cal map­ping not only became an out­lin­ing of the city’s urban space, but also a dai­ly or week­ly diary of her world as she describes it through city-inspired lyri­cal and oral his­to­ry. Glenn Alteen, cura­tor to the project, fur­ther explains:

Dur­ing its devel­op­ment nika­mon ohci askiy (songs because of the land) has moved around a lot. It was always about the city and how it was used but we nev­er exact­ly knew where it start­ed. So we start­ed tak­ing walks. Much of what this project became was envi­sioned dur­ing those walks or because of them. Walk­ing the city with Cheryl con­tin­ued over many months.…In the gen­e­sis of this project for Cheryl was the idea of song­lines, an essen­tial part of Aus­tralian Abo­rig­i­nal cul­ture. Accord­ing to their beliefs ances­tral totemic beings sang the land­scape into exis­tence and these songs are still used to nav­i­gate a ter­ri­to­ry. Cheryl had just moved to Van­cou­ver and want­ed to nav­i­gate her new city through songs and audio (n.p.).

Fig­ures 1 and 2. Cheryl L’Hirondelle, nika­mon ohci askiy: songs because of the land, grunt gallery, http://​www​.brunt​mag​.com/​i​s​s​u​e​5​/​c​h​e​r​y​l​-​l​h​i​r​o​n​d​e​l​l​e​.​h​tml.

L’Hirondelle’s actions, engag­ing with the con­cept of Aus­tralian Abo­rig­i­nal Song­lines, map the world through an Indige­nous per­spec­tive and pro­vide an organ­ic, son­ic visu­al­iz­ing of the land­mass and its inhab­i­tant ani­ma­cies. In Cities as Sus­tain­able Ecosys­tems: Prin­ci­ples and Prac­tices, Leonie Sander­cock applies the Indige­nous per­spec­tive of Song­lines to urban space. She lat­er expounds on how “Song­lines can take many forms in today’s dig­i­tal world.…They can facil­i­tate con­nec­tions between city dwellers and their biore­gions, link­ing city and coun­try, and pro­vid­ing a tan­gi­ble broad­er con­text for city life” (154). The work, although informed by sev­er­al var­i­ous out­side influ­ences, is under­gird­ed by Cree cos­mo­log­i­cal struc­tures in which each sound sam­ple attrib­ut­es to a val­ue of the teepee pole teach­ings.[2]

Indige­nous new media artists merge per­son­al expe­ri­ences, Indige­nous tra­di­tion, tech­nolo­gies, and ecolo­gies. Coulthard makes clear that set­tler exploita­tion of Indige­nous peo­ples through tech­nol­o­gy is a theft of land, or spa­tial dispossession—what McLuhan’s the­o­ries ren­der invis­i­ble or posit as emp­ty. Indige­nous new media arts focus­ing on civic spaces assert ground­ed nor­ma­tiv­i­ty against set­tler con­fig­u­ra­tions of tech­nol­o­gy in prac­tices, the­o­ry, and ontol­ogy. Indige­nous new media arts pre­fig­ure spa­tial, rela­tion­al, and eco­log­i­cal forms of Indige­nous nations in mul­ti­fac­eted rela­tion­ships that chal­lenge the con­ven­tion­al, tem­po­ral­ly, and acquis­i­tive­ly ori­ent­ed set­tler gaze, and human­is­tic set­tler sen­so­ri­um in tech­nol­o­gy, through what Steven Loft, Melanie Townsend, and Dana Clax­ton dis­cuss as Indige­nous media and cos­mol­o­gy in their col­lec­tion, Trans­fer­ence, Tra­di­tion, and Tech­nol­o­gy: Native New Media Explor­ing Visu­al and Dig­i­tal Cul­ture.

L’Hirondelle’s work alters per­spec­tives on Van­cou­ver and urban space broad­ly, reartic­u­lat­ing the bound­aries between the city and oth­er urban and non-urban Indige­nous spaces through a web­site enabling online inter­ac­tiv­i­ty and col­lec­tive prax­is through Cree cit­i­zen­ship forms. In con­trast to McLuhan’s views that Cana­di­an land is “emp­ty space” that func­tions as pas­sive con­tent for media forms, these stand­points affirm that colo­nial and sov­er­eign Indige­nous mate­ri­al­i­ty (con­tent) are just as sig­nif­i­cant as the dis­cur­sive, nar­row­ly tech­no­log­i­cal, and human per­cep­tu­al. As War­ren writes, “the world­views con­cep­tu­al­ized [in the artists’ projects] rebuild the integri­ty of [an Indige­nous envi­ron­ment] for peo­ples with­in the par­tic­u­lar sit­u­a­tions and frame­works defined by the artists’ projects” (4). Fur­ther, they active­ly decol­o­nize con­cep­tions of tech­nol­o­gy and cit­i­zen­ship framed with­in the lens of human­ism. L’Hirondelle’s artis­tic con­tention is an act of cit­i­zen­ship that par­tic­i­pates in con­sti­tut­ing peo­ples eschew­ing state-based pol­i­tics of recog­ni­tion, instead affirm­ing them­selves in inter­gen­er­a­tional rela­tion­ship, in rela­tion­al and con­tex­tu­al prac­tice on the land. Indige­nous media, in Taia­iake Alfred’s phrase, cre­ative­ly con­tends with and in the city.

The van­cou­ver­song­lines web­site tags the audio-clips with 16 Cree val­ues asso­ci­at­ed with the teepee pole teach­ings, inter­ac­tive­ly visu­al­ized on the site’s page. The first page presents the view­er with a large black back­ground with three light-blue ani­mat­ed icons: a teepee, branch­es for a fire, and a but­ton “go.” Each icon, when clicked, leads vis­i­tors into the teepee teach­ings. Down to the bot­tom right, one can see three branch­es, and an ani­mat­ed blue hand takes one of the branch­es and drags it to the left where three slen­der poles are being erect­ed over a fire. The hand drops the stick into the flames and embers rise from the fire, after which the hand turns into a selec­tion tool and the point­er fin­ger touch­es on one of the ris­ing embers. This ani­ma­tion repeats until the view­er clicks on the word “go,” at which point they enter into the body of the web­site (Fig­ure 3).

A sec­ond page presents the words “choose 3,” which slow­ly fade as a third page uploads. As a black back­ground tran­si­tions to dark grey-green hues, six­teen Cree syl­lab­ic words present in a loose group­ing: each word blurs and appears, as if wait­ing for the view­er. When mov­ing, the view­er can select any three words. Once all three are select­ed, each state­ment turns into a wood-like pole and the per­spec­tive moves down­ward on the screen. We are then tak­en into a dark­ened land­scape that con­tains a for­est, a teepee-like struc­ture, a fire pit, a pile of small logs. One dis­cerns in the right-hand area of the page a dis­tant wolf’s sil­hou­ette, the Lion’s Gate bridge, and obscured moun­tain ranges (Fig­ure 4).

Fol­low­ing the first page’s direc­tions, we raise the teepee poles over the fire. White mark­ings then appear on the upper areas of the poles. Select­ing one of these mark­ings, we can see that the pole rep­re­sents one of the words that we had pre­vi­ous­ly cho­sen. Each selec­tion caus­es a dig­i­tal sound sam­ple of the artist singing a melody. When one adds a few logs from the pile into the fire, the fire gets brighter and embers begin to float out of the pit. By select­ing sev­er­al of the embers, we par­tic­i­pate in an inter­ac­tive self-direct­ed dig­i­tal sound mix­ing. On the low­er left of the web screen, there is a “reset audio” but­ton, which ceas­es the dig­i­tal sound sam­ples when pressed. Select­ing anoth­er pole builds up the fire once again, adding more embers to cre­ate an entire­ly new sound com­po­si­tion that con­nects the the­o­ry and prac­tice of song­lines to the rela­tion­al prax­is of teepee pole teachings.

Fig­ure 3. Cheryl L’Hirondelle, nika­mon ohci askiy: songs because of the land, grunt gallery, http://​www​.brunt​mag​.com/​i​s​s​u​e​5​/​c​h​e​r​y​l​-​l​h​i​r​o​n​d​e​l​l​e​.​h​tml.

Fig­ure 4. Cheryl L’Hirondelle, nika­mon ohci askiy: songs because of the land, grunt gallery, http://​www​.brunt​mag​.com/​i​s​s​u​e​5​/​c​h​e​r​y​l​-​l​h​i​r​o​n​d​e​l​l​e​.​h​tml.

By devel­op­ing her musi­cal map­ping into a web­site and DVD, L’Hirondelle under­lines how all of her artis­tic process­es reflect account­abil­i­ty to her com­mu­ni­ty. She places her­self and the par­tic­i­pants that she encoun­tered on the city streets in rela­tion­ship with online users, cre­at­ing “place” or an embod­ied and land-based com­mu­nal envi­ron­ment framed through Cree cos­mol­o­gy. The teepee pole teach­ings become a struc­ture assist­ing indi­vid­u­als in how to inter­act or engage with­in com­mu­ni­ty or com­mu­nal sit­u­a­tions. For L’Hirondelle, “[t]he very act of erect­ing a tipi is a cer­e­mo­ny” (157). These sacred tech­nolo­gies ani­mate in vir­tu­al spaces that are com­posed of the Indige­nous mate­r­i­al infra­struc­ture of lands and routes.

L’Hirondelle’s web­site-as-par­tic­i­pa­to­ry-art­work allows the vis­i­tor to cre­ate their own non-lin­ear per­spec­tive of Van­cou­ver and per­son­al rela­tion­ship with Cree teepee pole teach­ings. Her singing hon­ours her own body in and with the land, while the media work extends this per­spec­tive to oth­er Indige­nous peo­ples who inter­act with the site. Vis­i­tors can explore and cre­ate their own recur­sive and shared expe­ri­ence of Vancouver’s time and space through Cree rela­tion­ship par­a­digms. In many ways these could not be far­ther from those artic­u­lat­ed by McLuhan on media and “the Cana­di­an question.”

McLuhan’s Themes: Land as “Empty,” Sensorial Extension, and Settler Colonialism

In, “Cana­da and Counter-Envi­ron­ment,” one of his rare under­tak­ings of the Cana­di­an ques­tion, McLuhan argues that the Cana­di­an spir­it inher­its a “war on emp­ty wilder­ness” from its set­tler ances­tors. Antag­o­nis­tic rela­tions with the bru­tal­i­ty of nature defined a pop­u­la­tion, forg­ing a par­tic­u­lar type instilled with “ini­tia­tive amidst soli­tude” (“Cana­da and Counter-Envi­ron­ment” 75). For McLuhan, the “empti­ness” of nation reflects Canada’s oscil­la­tion between the bal­last of British tradition—from which it is alienated—and the lure of Amer­i­can futu­ri­ty, which it observes as a “spec­tac­u­lar light show from afar” (Marches­sault 81). McLuhan claims that Cana­da is a “counter-envi­ron­ment” that func­tions as the “psy­chic theme park” for the U.S., “some­thing like a Hol­ly­wood set that simul­ta­ne­ous­ly links the past with the present, a city with the wilder­ness” (“Cana­da and Counter-Envi­ron­ment” 73). He ref­er­ences the instal­la­tion of the Unit­ed States’ Dis­tant Ear­ly Warn­ing sys­tem (DEW line) in the Cana­di­an north to argue that Cana­da is an “anti-envi­ron­ment” that pro­vides a neu­tral set­ting for the work­ing through of “oth­er people’s fan­tasies” (73). McLuhan’s argu­ment is sim­i­lar to Mau­rice Charland’s on tech­no­log­i­cal nation­al­ism; rather than pro­vid­ing “sub­stance or com­mu­ni­ty” for the con­struc­tion of a polis, tech­no­log­i­cal nation­al­ism con­sti­tutes the nation as reflec­tive sur­face, or “com­mon car­ri­er” of for­eign sig­nals and con­tent (Char­land 198). Such con­struc­tions of Cana­da as emp­ty car­ri­er point toward the nation as the tri­umph of form or medi­a­tion. To adapt McLuhan’s phras­ing, it is medi­um trump­ing con­tent. The “absent nation” express­es ambiva­lence about Canada’s tech­no­log­i­cal sov­er­eign­ty, high­light­ing colo­nial exer­tion where­in the ter­rain of “nation” becomes a back­drop for the exer­cise of indi­vid­ual will. The lack of con­tent reveals the pow­er of the tech­no­log­i­cal cap­i­tal­ist struc­tures and the self-sus­tain­ing exer­cise of for­mal seduc­tions car­ried ever for­ward and onward towards totality.

McLuhan’s absent nation, as tech­no­log­i­cal dri­ve, reflects colo­nial con­struc­tions of the land as ter­ra nul­lius, land pas­sive­ly “emp­ty” of its orig­i­nal inhab­i­tants and avail­able for set­tle­ment. In this vision, tech­no­log­i­cal, mate­r­i­al, juridi­cal and imag­i­na­tive appa­ra­tus­es “clear” the land, mak­ing it an amenable ground for the flow­er­ing of Euro­pean civ­i­liza­tion. This absent nation may be an unin­tend­ed symp­tom of the con­di­tions for Canada’s exis­tence, accord­ing to Char­land. Under the lens of set­tler colo­nial­ism, how­ev­er, it reflects an active and will­ful impe­r­i­al land­scap­ing. This process embod­ies Patrick Wolfe’s con­cept of the “log­ic of elim­i­na­tion,” describ­ing the mech­a­nisms of set­tlers’ vio­lent incur­sions into Indige­nous land and com­mu­ni­ties in order to claim these as their own. Wolfe dis­tin­guish­es set­tler colo­nial­ism as struc­ture rather than event, rever­ber­at­ing Char­land and McLuhan’s argu­ments regard­ing the “emp­ty nation” pred­i­cat­ed through form over con­tent. Elim­i­na­tion becomes the “orga­niz­ing prin­ci­pal of set­tler colo­nial soci­ety rather than a one-off (and super­seded) occur­rence” con­signed to a dis­tant past (Wolfe 388). In Wolfe’s view, set­tlers must per­pet­u­al­ly enact the log­ic of elim­i­na­tion, at both struc­tur­al and indi­vid­ual lev­els, in order to nat­u­ral­ize Euro­pean set­tle­ment and ren­der its mech­a­nisms invis­i­ble. The analy­sis of the “absent nation” here is not moti­vat­ed by mourn­ful clar­i­ons to replen­ish an impo­tent nation/alism. Instead, the con­cept hints at how colo­nial nation­al nar­ra­tives are mobi­lized through form, medi­um, and struc­tures of feel­ing. These key themes inflect McLuhan’s idea of sen­so­ry exten­sion through tech­nol­o­gy, which, while it does not explic­it­ly cen­tre Cana­da as a foun­da­tion­al con­text, nonethe­less reflects set­tler-colo­nial logic.

The sen­so­ry exten­sion of man through tech­nol­o­gy is one of McLuhan’s most influ­en­tial ideas. In Under­stand­ing Media, McLuhan exam­ines how var­i­ous media—ranging from the print­ed word, cloth­ing, the light bulb, and tele­vi­sion (to name but a few)—function as pros­the­ses for our bod­ies and their sen­so­ry capac­i­ties to extend into the world: “[t]oday, after more than a cen­tu­ry of elec­tric tech­nol­o­gy, we have extend­ed our cen­tral ner­vous sys­tem itself in a glob­al embrace, abol­ish­ing both space and time as far as our plan­et is con­cerned” (19). Here, McLuhan’s lib­er­al human­ism is on bold dis­play; the “exten­sion” of man assumes the onto­log­i­cal cat­e­go­ry of “man” tied to the notion that man’s body (and its sen­so­ry ampli­tude) can under­go hyp­not­ic exter­nal­iza­tion and be mir­rored forth in cos­mic per­pe­tu­ity as the exten­sion of man’s “final phase” (Kro­ker 19).[3]3 At the same time, McLuhan tem­pers the human­ist sub­ject by sug­gest­ing that, while elec­tron­ic media extend man’s cen­tral ner­vous sys­tem out into world, tech­nol­o­gy also reshapes man, “incorporate[ing] the whole of mankind in us” (20). While George Grant views tech­nol­o­gy as a force of dom­i­na­tion and sub­ju­ga­tion, McLuhan believes not only that human free­dom and cre­ativ­i­ty can be unleashed through new media, but also that true human poten­tial is to be achieved not “‘out­side’ the tech­no­log­i­cal expe­ri­ence, but…‘inside’ the field of tech­nol­o­gy” (Kro­ker 64). McLuhan’s vision of sen­so­r­i­al exten­sion in tech­nol­o­gy is hope­ful, even cel­e­bra­to­ry. How­ev­er, his ref­er­ence to the myth of Nar­cis­sus shows that he also sees that tech­nol­o­gy can dom­i­nate the indi­vid­ual subject.

McLuhan believes that exte­ri­or­iza­tion induces a state of narcosis—and fail­ure of self-recognition—wrought through the trau­mat­ic ampu­ta­tion of the self in tech­nol­o­gy. This per­spec­tive relies on the notion of the lib­er­al subject’s bound­aried body, again a his­tor­i­cal­ly spe­cif­ic par­a­digm of “the human.” McLuhan points out that Nar­cis­sus comes from nar­co­sis, or numb­ness. His recount­ing of the myth inflects less the infat­u­a­tion with the repeat­ed image so much as the stu­por induced through this rep­e­ti­tion. For him, bod­i­ly and sen­so­ry exten­sions involve nar­co­sis or numb­ness, because “ampli­fi­ca­tion” through extension/amputation pro­duces a shock that the body then seeks to alle­vi­ate through a denial of recog­ni­tion. There­fore, con­ceiv­ing of exten­sion as mere­ly ecsta­t­ic embod­i­ment miss­es McLuhan’s point regard­ing auto-ampu­ta­tion as the body’s attempt to bring an over­stressed and over­stim­u­lat­ed sys­tem to equi­lib­ri­um. While this stress and stim­u­la­tion inheres in McLuhan’s the­o­ry of tech­nol­o­gy, it also res­onates with his fig­ure of Cana­di­an man, indi­vid­u­al­ly strug­gling in a hos­tile and bar­ren cir­cum­stance where­in tech­nol­o­gy becomes the form through which it is pos­si­ble to extend sub­jec­tiv­i­ty and embod­i­ment, while at the same time numb­ing and mis­rec­og­niz­ing. He empha­sizes reci­procity with “man’s” own tech­nolo­gies rather than with the land or its peoples.

McLuhan’s argu­ment on the tech­no­log­i­cal exten­sion and ampu­ta­tion of limbs and ner­vous sys­tems use­ful­ly shades the ques­tions of Cana­di­an nation­al iden­ti­ty and belong­ing through the lens of media as lib­er­al human­ist and set­tler colo­nial. He argues that man’s exten­sion and ampu­ta­tion (and atten­dant hyp­no­sis) can­not eas­i­ly be pried apart. Ecsta­t­ic dec­la­ra­tions of tech­no­log­i­cal ampli­fi­ca­tion func­tion as intend­ed cures for an over­stressed sys­tem as well as nar­cis­sis­tic-nar­cot­ic yearn­ing to con­firm the uncer­tain body—or Cana­di­an set­tler sub­jec­tiv­i­ty, cit­i­zen­ship, and nation.


Indige­nous the­o­rists of tech­nol­o­gy in media arts empha­size ongo­ing land-based ani­mate rela­tion­ships. We extend these elab­o­ra­tions to show how they inflect accounts of Indige­nous land-based cit­i­zen­ship, oppos­ing McLuhan’s notions of the “emp­ty” nation. Mar­shall McLuhan’s media the­o­ries rarely engage with the ques­tion of Cana­di­an iden­ti­ty and nation­hood direct­ly, but when they do, McLuhan describes tech­nol­o­gy as a means for over­com­ing a hos­tile emp­ty landscape—not only for hero­ic Cana­di­an set­tlers who would pre­vail over this hos­til­i­ty through the use of tech­nol­o­gy as colo­nial endeav­our but also for ambiva­lent set­tlers caught in an embar­rass­ing crux between the nos­tal­gic bom­bast of Britain and the Amer­i­can “spec­tac­u­lar light show from afar” (Marches­sault 81). McLuhan’s the­o­ries of emp­ty space and the sen­so­r­i­al exten­sion of man in tech­nol­o­gy rat­i­fy a set­tler-colo­nial human­ism that ignores the land and oth­er-than-human ani­ma­cies, while also posit­ing tech­nol­o­gy as a tele­o­log­i­cal tool for human beings (set­tlers) to extend them­selves indef­i­nite­ly, to re-trib­al­ize, to be reborn in an ulti­mate, cos­mic, end-time, tech­no­log­i­cal futu­ri­ty that moves past the orig­i­nal trau­ma of tech­no­log­i­cal artic­u­la­tion of the self.

In the con­text of the sov­er­eign­ty of Indige­nous cit­i­zen­ship and atten­dant media arts, Indige­nous lands pro­vide the mate­r­i­al sup­port and a key foun­da­tion for dig­i­tal net­works as demon­strat­ed in L’Hirondelle’s work. Arts-based approach­es to rela­tion­al urban civic ecol­o­gy are ori­ent­ed through Indige­nous rela­tion­ships to land, which Coulthard calls ground­ed nor­ma­tiv­i­ty. These foun­da­tions accord with tech­no­log­i­cal rela­tion­ships, where Indige­nous arts posit the pri­or­i­ty of land-based rela­tion­ships and decol­o­nize media the­o­ries that fig­ure abstract form over ani­mate mate­r­i­al con­tent. McLuhan’s media the­o­ries do not attend to land as the mate­r­i­al and ani­mate space of rela­tion­ship or as an agent in rela­tion­ships. Media art­works such as L’Hirondelle’s songs because of the land artic­u­late land-based rela­tion­ships as Indige­nous citizenship.

Works Cited

Alfred, Taiaike. Wasáse: Indige­nous Path­ways of Action and Free­dom. Broad­view Press, 2005.

Alteen, Glenn. “Mov­ing in, Mov­ing out—nika­mon ohci askiy (songs because of the land).” Grunt gallery, 2008. http://​www​.van​cou​ver​song​lines​.ca/​c​u​r​a​t​o​r​.​pdf. Accessed 31 March 2012.

Boyce, Michael. “Review­ing Because of Songs by Cheryl,” brunt Mag­a­zine, 5 Octo­ber 2009, pp. 43.

Char­land, Mau­rice. "Tech­no­log­i­cal Nation­al­ism." Cana­di­an Jour­nal of Polit­i­cal and Social The­o­ry, vol. 1-2, 1986, pp. 196-220.

Clax­ton, Dana, Melanie Townsend and Steven Loft, edi­tors. Trans­fer­ence, Tra­di­tion, and Tech­nol­o­gy: Native New Media Explor­ing Visu­al and Dig­i­tal Cul­ture. Wal­ter Phillips Gallery Edi­tions, 2005.

Coulthard, Glen. Red Skin White Masks: Reject­ing the Colo­nial Pol­i­tics of Recog­ni­tion. Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta Press, 2014.

Isin, Engin. Recast­ing the Social in Cit­i­zen­ship. Sage, 2008.

Kro­ker, Arthur. Tech­nol­o­gy and the Cana­di­an Mind: Innis/McLuhan/Grant. New World Per­spec­tives, 1985.

L’Hirondelle, Cheryl. Nika­mon Ohci Askiy (songs because of the land). Van­cou­ver, BC: grunt gallery. http://​van​cou​ver​song​lines​.ca. Accessed 31 March 2012.

-----“Codetalk­ers Recount­ing Sig­nals of Sur­vival.” Loft and Swan­son, pp. 147-168.

Loft, Steven. “Intro­duc­tion: Decol­o­niz­ing the “Web”.” Loft and Swan­son, pp. xv-xvii.

----- “Media Cos­mol­o­gy.” Loft and Swan­son, pp.170-186.

Loft, Steven and Ker­ri Swan­son, edi­tors. Cod­ed Ter­ri­to­ries: Trac­ing Indige­nous Path­ways in New Media Art. Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­gary Press, 2014.

Marches­sault, Janine. Mar­shall McLuhan: Cos­mic Media. Sage, 2005.

Maskegon Iskwew, Ahasiw. “Edi­to­r­i­al.” Drum­beats to Drum­bytes: The Emer­gence of Net­worked Indige­nous Art Prac­tice. http://​www​.conun​dru​mon​line​.org/​I​s​s​u​e​_​1​/​d​r​u​m​b​y​t​e​s​2​.​htm. Accessed 31 March 2012.

McLuhan, Mar­shall. “At the moment of Sput­nik the plan­et became a glob­al the­ater in which there are no spec­ta­tors but only actors.” Jour­nal of Com­mu­ni­ca­tion, vol. 24, iss.1, 1974, pp. 48-48.

---. "Cana­da as Counter-Envi­ron­ment." Cana­di­an Cul­tur­al Stud­ies: A Read­er, edit­ed by Sourayan Mook­er­jea, Imre Sze­man, and Gail Faurschou, Duke Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2009, pp. 71-86.

---. Under­stand­ing Media: The Exten­sions of Man. Signet, 1964.

Navach­ing. Song­lines. http://​www​.navach​ing​.com/​h​a​w​k​e​e​n​/​s​l​i​n​e​.​h​tml. Accessed 31 March, 2012.

Ramirez, Renya. Native Hubs: Cul­ture, Com­mu­ni­ty, and Belong­ing in Sil­i­con Val­ley and Beyond. Duke Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2007.

Uni­ver­si­ty of Regi­na. “Heart of the Nation’s Learn­ing Com­mu­ni­ty: 8.4 Tipi Teach­ings.” Heart of the Nations. http://​heartofthen​ations​.ure​gi​na​.wik​i​spaces​.net/​8​.​4​+​-​+​T​I​P​I​+​T​e​a​c​h​i​ngs. Accessed 31 March 2012.

War­ren, Daina. Cree Cul­tur­al Cos­molo­gies in Con­tem­po­rary Arts. Master’s The­sis. Uni­ver­si­ty of British Colum­bia, 2012.

Wolfe, Patrick. "Set­tler Colo­nial­ism and the Elim­i­na­tion of the Native." Jour­nal of Geno­cide Research, vol. 8, iss. 4, 2006, pp. 387-409.

Wollen, Peter. Paris Man­hat­tan Writ­ings on Art. Ver­so, 2004.

Image Notes

Fig­ures 1 and 2. Cheryl L’Hirondelle, nika­mon ohci askiy: songs because of the land, grunt gallery, http://​www​.brunt​mag​.com/​i​s​s​u​e​5​/​c​h​e​r​y​l​-​l​h​i​r​o​n​d​e​l​l​e​.​h​tml.

Fig­ure 3. Cheryl L’Hirondelle, nika­mon ohci askiy: songs because of the land, grunt gallery, http://​www​.brunt​mag​.com/​i​s​s​u​e​5​/​c​h​e​r​y​l​-​l​h​i​r​o​n​d​e​l​l​e​.​h​tml.

Fig­ure 4. Cheryl L’Hirondelle, nika­mon ohci askiy: songs because of the land, grunt gallery, http://​www​.brunt​mag​.com/​i​s​s​u​e​5​/​c​h​e​r​y​l​-​l​h​i​r​o​n​d​e​l​l​e​.​h​tml.


[1] Lance Strate described media ecol­o­gy as “the study of media envi­ron­ments, the idea that tech­nol­o­gy and tech­niques, modes of infor­ma­tion and codes of com­mu­ni­ca­tion play a lead­ing role in human affairs,” “Under­stand­ing MEA,” In Medias Res 1 (1), Fall 1999. Indige­nous con­cep­tions of media ecol­o­gy dif­fer, decen­ter­ing the human. See also Ahasiw Maskegon-Iskwew, “Storm Spir­its: The Cul­tur­al Ecol­o­gy of Abo­rig­i­nal New Media Art,” Storm Spir­its — Abo­rig­i­nal New Media Art. Artist’s State­ment, 2005. http://​storm​spir​its​.ca/​E​n​g​l​i​s​h​/​c​u​r​a​t​o​r​i​a​l​.​h​tml (Accessed May 4, 2012).

[2] Glenn Alteen argues L’Hirondelle’s work can be com­pared to that of the Sit­u­a­tion­ist move­ment in the 1950’s: “In the 1950’s the Sit­u­a­tion­ists explored notions of Psy­cho-geog­ra­phy and cen­tral to this was the prac­tice of ‘derive’ trans­lat­ed in Eng­lish as drift­ing. It meant to walk through the land­scape with no pur­pose or des­ti­na­tion” (n.p.).

[3] Kro­ker argues that the tech­no­log­i­cal human­ism espoused by McLuhan is “expan­sive, plu­ral­is­tic, uni­ver­sal­is­tic, and cre­ative” pre­cise­ly because it is root­ed in the per­ceived alliance between tech­nol­o­gy and the poten­tial for free­dom (14).

This arti­cle is licensed under a Cre­ative Com­mons 4.0 Inter­na­tion­al License although cer­tain works ref­er­enced here­in may be sep­a­rate­ly licensed, or the author has exer­cised their right to fair deal­ing under the Cana­di­an Copy­right Act.