Tkaronto, formerly known as Toronto, is a city that has been reclaimed by nature — overgrown plants are woven into the infrastructure, rivers run through the subway, the people travel in canoes, sleep in tents, and speak three traditional Indigenous languages.
This is the city featured in Biidaaban: First Light, an Indigenous futurism virtual reality (VR) art project. Between Sept. 18 and 24, the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) provided free admission to Biidaaban’s Canadian première in Nathan Phillips Square. The project, created by Anishinaabe film and VR artist Lisa Jackson and 3D artist Mathew Borrett, immerses audiences in futuristic interpretations of popular Toronto locations.
The 15-minute production allows viewers to virtually explore rundown versions of Osgoode subway station and Nathan Phillips Square. Though these scenes originated from one of Borrett’s personal projects called Hypnagogic, they were adapted to fit Jackson’s vision and transferred to a VR platform.
“I always thought that things like ruins can have a certain dignity and place in the world,” said Borrett. “Especially once nature starts to reclaim something, I think it’s kind of a beautiful thing and it puts things in perspective in a long-term sense.”
Biidaaban, which literally means the first light at dawn and refers to the collision of the past and future to make the present moment, includes spoken and written segments from the three native languages of Toronto: Wendat, Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) and Anishinaabe (Ojibway).
Each scene explores the relationship of the city to the land underneath it, along with significant Indigenous phrases or passages that Jackson selected herself. At the beginning, a question is posed in Wendat that translates to “where did the creator put your people?”
“I was asked that once and I thought it was a really interesting way of thinking about where you are from,” said Jackson.
After this scene, Jackson included a modern Anishinaabe poem that addresses city-living, concern for Indigenous youth, and reconnecting with nature before the dawn of a new day.
At the end, viewers overlook Nathan Phillips Square with the CN Tower to their left, as a central prayer of the Mohawk nation, called the Thanksgiving Address, is spoken from a number of voices that start to overlap.
“The thing that really struck me is that everything one would give thanks for in the Thanksgiving Address totally exists, and maybe more so. In some cases in this future Toronto — nothing’s been lost,” said Jackson.
Attendees of the exhibit left with mixed reactions, each with a unique perspective on the piece’s message.
“Well I think the idea that this first light, where the past and the future collide, really speaks to me,” said Lisa Fitzgibbons, a senior policy adviser for Ontario’s Ministry of Tourism, Culture, and Sport. “I find it a very hopeful approach and also I think if you extend that perhaps to reconciliation, it makes me hopeful — we have lots to learn towards the reconciliation.”
In the coming weeks, the project will be showcased at a number of film and VR events. The producers hope to deliver the experience to a broad audience and use it in communities and schools as an educational tool.
You can catch the exhibit when it returns to Toronto on Oct. 17 at the imagineNATIVE Film & Media Arts Festival.