An AI enhanced image by Dave Krouse 
Support Indigenous Artists by visiting our NFT Gallery at: https://harbourcollective.ca

What’s Art got to Do With It?

By Sasha Kucas

At the first online gathering of the Harbour Collective LAB Coastline, the facilitators, software artist Ryan Kelln, and Indigenous computational artist Dave Krouse, gleefully used technical Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Crypto terminologies. Terms such as Blockchain, Cryptocurrency, Coinbase, GAN, and Databases were tossed around, but what did it all mean? How do media and visual art fit into this strange alien world? My mind instantly reverted to where I last heard the terms; it was on the TV show The Big Bang Theory. Leonard and his physicist-friends realized that Bitcoin, a form of cryptocurrency they mined, was worth money. Confused more than ever and, to misquote Tina Turner – What’s art got to do with it? Succinctly put, Krouse explained that an NFT is a unit of value and a new way of disseminating art through a record of cryptocurrency transactions called blockchain.

More questions quickly arose. One definition ushered another, and it was easy to get lost in the concept and the terminology. In an attempt to keep all of it straight, my brain was collapsing on itself. A steep learning curve was about to happen.

To further understand Harbour Collective and the artistic nature of its LAB Coastline, as well as give me some respite from all the new vocabulary, I talked with Metis artist and Artistic Director of Coastline, Jason Baerg.

Over the last 15 years, Jason Baerg and Metis Harbour Collective programmer, Liz Barron, have been in creative cahoots. Providing support to, and creating opportunities for Indigenous media practitioners soon became their inspiration from their combined experiences volunteering for the Independence Media Arts Alliance and the National Indigenous Media Art Coalition. 

As a fluid organization, Harbour Collective started with original members Jason Baerg, Liz Barron, and Chilean-Canadian filmmaker and curator Cecilia Araneda. Together, they delivered two LABS: a summer LAB in Regina, Saskatchewan, which focused on hand-processed film and visual arts abstraction, and a LAB in Meech Lake, Québec, that looked at story-telling through experimental film. The Harbour LAB series exceeded expectations. In addition to Indigenous artists being involved in conception, design, and at the production level in creation, the inclusivity of Indigenous artists working in various disciplines and incorporating film and newmedia developed a more welcoming space for artists.

Harbour Collective has now grown to include artist Paulete Poitras (Dakota/Cree from Muscowpetung First Nation in Treaty 4 territory); film and photovoice artist, Vanda Fleury-Green (Red River Metis; and artist and entrepreneur, Jesse Green, (Dakota/Anishinaabe) to embark on the Harbour Collective LAB Coastline. 

Rumblings of LAB Coastline grew from the 90s when Baerg’s interest in “machine and emergent technology collaborations and art practices grew.” He explained that in early 2022, some universities received large funding gifts to advance Artificial Intelligence. 

“It is no surprise that there are very few Indigenous Arts practitioners in this sector. Therefore, this presents an important opportunity to develop capacity for our Indigenous people to participate,” Baerg explained.

The logical next step was for Harbour Collective to stimulate and promote Indigenous-specific opportunities by hosting workshops and labs for Indigenous artists working in 2D and 3D visual art, digital art, moving images, or audio forms which became the LAB Coastline. LAB Coastline is a four-month residency with offsite learning via Zoom and Discord, as well as one-to-one Zoom meetings. The residency would conclude in Ottawa with a week of in-person sessions during which a series of new works using artificial intelligence data and the creation of non-fungible tokens would occur. 

The work that Harbour Collective does in my mind amplified. Their webpage harbourcollective.ca states that “…the act of a harbour intrinsically considers transitions, shorelines, and in-between spaces.” LAB Coastline is a clear example of Harbour Collective’s programming as it enhances support for Indigenous artists working in visual, new media, and moving image artistic practices, and the technological virtual space where NFTs live are most definitely “in-between spaces.”

My curiosity sparked around how the selected Indigenous artists plan to examine conceptual themes using NFTs. In summary, Baerg informed me of LAB Coastline’s conceptual thematic. The story block consisted of a series of questions such as: 

“Where is technology taking us? What Indigenous utopia can arise from the framework of today? What is your critique of the current path we are on collectively? How can we use emergent digital tools to circumvent further environmental, social, or political demise? Through [the LAB Coastline] community, conversation, skill sharing, and art making, the outcomes will nonetheless move us in a new direction. What we propose is our future.”

Eloquently put, thank you, Jason Baerg and Harbour Collective, for giving us all something to ponder and explore. It was time to learn more about the artists and the direction their projects were taking them.

The six First Nation and Metis artists chosen for LAB Coastline from the lands known as Canada were: mixed heritage of Metis,  Cree  and Ukrainian, Irish and Scottish, artist Holly Aubichon; Mi’kmaw writer and director Naomi Condo (Gesgapegiag First Nation);  Two-Spirit, Indigiqueer, Metis-Saulteaux-Polish visual artist, Dayna Danger; Anishinaabe AI and digital artist, Quinn Hopkins; Queer, Red River Metis Futurist, Chanelle Lajoie; and, artist Claude Latour (Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation).

Latour was the first of the group to experiment with the plethora of programs Kelln and Krouse mentioned. Subsequently, his posted LinkedIn images provided additional motivation for me to learn more about his creative process. When asked about his NFT project, Latour disclosed that his inspiration comes from his Algonquin roots and that Anishinabe semiotics and traditional written and oral stories will play into his NFT work.

Chanelle Lajoie, on the other hand, is approaching the project through the lens of AI and law and how it implicates racism in Indigi-queer communities. The all-knowing Google claims that Artificial Intelligence is about  machines demonstrating some form of intelligence. Our lives host a range of AI examples, such as when facial recognition is activated or when we ask for directions using our smartphone apps. Yet, according to Lajoie, AI is laden with racism and outdated ideologies which she wants to explore.

Lajoie will build a story-telling quilt that uses “white-centric images within the AI database.” Another story Lajoie wants to tell concentrates on “surveillance of Indigi-queer bodies and the use of AI.” The possibilities of where artists can take their NFT artwork seem endless.

At the LAB Coastline online workshops, Kelln urged everyone to research NFT artists and databases to find out what artwork appealed to each of us. Sofia Crespo, Xavier Snelgrove, and Diego Porres’s work immediately resonated with me. Artists received links to help guide them further in this unique world. Kelln’s tutorial on Machine Learning Art was jam-packed with information and extremely helpful – art was categorized into recognizable sections such as Realism, Psychedelic, Surrealist, Cubist, and Collage, to name a few.

With terms rooted in my prior knowledge, my interest perked when I saw many women artists. Inspiration hit as my initial thought of this surreal AI world was an evolution from the geeky boy worlds of dungeons and dragons, comic books, and such – where women did not belong unless scantily clad and carrying a whip. My metaphorical page was constantly being “refreshed.” Since databases were random collections of information, I was beginning to see how AI and visual art could join together. 

Before we could begin, another necessary task was to open a Crypto Wallet account. Coinbase and MetaMask were suggested platforms for beginners, as they are easier to use. Coinbase is a popular centralized cryptocurrency exchange on the Nasdaq Stock Market. I found out that Coinbase and MetaMask would hold tokens, Bitcoin, and all transactions. Bitcoin had fallen in the market, and Krouse told us to wait before transferring funds.

Each LAB Coastline artist received money to convert into cryptocurrency. Although crypto wallets were still unclear, to publish an NFT, I understood that artwork created on whatever platform needed something called “gas”, and that was where cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin and Ethereum, came into play.

There are fees to interact with the blockchain. Blockchain is the digital record-keeping and technology behind cryptocurrencies. A blockchain is the result of sequential blocks that build upon one another, creating a permanent and unchangeable ledger of transactions (or other data). My head was imploding again. It was all so confusing, and Satoshi Nakomoto was to blame. Nakomoto is the supposed creator of Bitcoin. No one knows if Nakomoto is a person or a group, he/she/they could very well be Bat Girl. 

The LAB Coastline group connected on Discord, a free voice, video, and text chat app where everyone can ask questions, share links to articles, and discuss different programs. Do we need to learn code, and what exactly is Blender? GAN? OpenSea? Helium? The enthusiasm was palpable. The deeper we delved into it all, the more complex and exciting everything seemed to get. NFT interest was on Twitter. Anthony Hopkins tweeted he was soliciting information about NFTs and wanted to buy his first piece. Would he purchase one of the NFTs from LAB Coastline? The revved LAB Coastline community of Indigenous artists was ready to hold philosophical discussions and the implications of AI, databases, machine-learning art, and NFTs. 

The collective process of online art-making further opened up questions around ownership and what new ways of working might look like, such as redefining art and the market, to inherent racism in AI and databases.

Krouse and Kelln were passionate about these topics and guided the conversations on Discord with finesse. The in-person workshops scheduled onsite in Ottawa from August 2- 9, 2022, were guaranteed to hold electrically charged dialogue brimming with future possibilities. The connections that formed online were sure to deepen. We were all looking forward to using tools and creating NFT artworks in person in Ottawa.

Satiated with what I had learned, still having room for further clarification and contemplation on everything presented, I appreciated Harbour Collective and its LAB Coastline even more. I honestly couldn’t wait to see what these spectacularly talented artists would produce and, of course, see if I could come up with my own NFT. Bat Girl willing.

ᑭᓇᓈᐢᑯᒥᑎᐣ / Kinanâskomitin / Thank You and Thank you, Bat Girl.

Harbour Collective LAB Coastline is made possible with support from the Canada Council for the Arts, Creating, Knowing, and Sharing.

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