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Alianait Arts Festival: Sounds of a virtual North

Iqaluit, NunavutIqaluit (Nunavut)

Story Seeker: JP Longboat
Person interviewed: Victoria Perron, Festival Director
Interview date: August 23, 2021

The Alianait Arts Festival is known as the world’s circumpolar stage and is Nunavut‘s premier arts festival. The festival sets the spotlight on Inuit and other circumpolar artists working in music, visual art, film, theatre, circus, dance, and storytelling. Alianait presents performances from across the North and throughout the world at their annual festival and year-round concert series. Alianait is the Inuktitut word for “wonderful” and can be used as an exclamation or an expression of joy.

Alianait has always believed that the arts are vitally important to the health of Nunavummuit (i.e., residents of Nunavut), and remains committed to supporting artists and cultural presenters in bringing the arts to communities during these difficult times.

The Innovation: Working through a rapid shift in landscape

Since the festival is held annually in late June, the planning and organizing for the 2020 edition of the festival fell right in the first and second waves of the pandemic. In March 2020, Nunavut declared a public health emergency, including recommendations for social distancing, limiting gatherings to no more than five people, and restrictions to non-essential travel. Lockdown and public safety restrictions made it impossible to produce the festival as ordinarily carried out. Festival Director Victoria Perron and her production team needed to find some alternatives – a way to pivot – because they were committed to delivering the festival.

In March 2019, Alianait had already started to explore streaming online concerts and in June 2019 initiated a 15-week online concert series with one live concert each week. In 2020, the team drew on their experience to formulate an innovative plan, inspired by the success of their 2019 experiences. Adapting through pandemic restrictions, Alianait decided to take the festival fully online for the first time ever. The festival was very excited to announce that a special online edition would take place on November 21 and 22, 2020. The festival expanded the first-time virtual edition to present artists from 25 communities across the North. Live festival content was also screened on Alianait’s YouTube channel and Facebook page, as well as broadcast through a partnership with NorthwesTel Community TV, as part of a vital project partnership with NorthwesTel.

Live events and concerts were streamed online throughout the weekend starting on Saturday afternoon and were presented in a format similar to an in-person Alianait show. Alianait utilized the skills of three videographers to incorporate artist and community stories during short, 30-second to two-minute breaks in between live performances. Alianait also incorporated live emcees throughout the festival. Audiences saw some of their favourite Northern bands and had the opportunity to discover new and emerging talent from across Nunavut and beyond.

The Challenges: Across large fields of snow and ice

It was challenging to program all the artists and cultural presenters and work with them to prepare their presentations in a timely manner, as some had never recorded themselves before. The majority of the artists and presenters needed significant assistance to set up, prepare for, and deliver their online presentations. Many had low levels of computer literacy. With only limited quality camera equipment across the North, Alianait and the festival team began to explore the use of cellphones as well as any suitable computers that might be available.

The festival team in Iqaluit had to supply a great deal of assistance and would talk to each of the 30+ artists personally. Interestingly, the team found that the farther away from a significant Internet source, the less knowledgeable the presenters seemed to be. The festival’s approach focused on building connections within each community. This outreach began with the local infrastructure – organizations and cultural associations – and branched out to include various program coordinators, teachers, and community leaders.

Supported by these resources, the artists and cultural presenters found innovation through a process that incorporated experimentation, discovery, and learning as they were figuring out ways to make it happen from their own locations. Victoria spoke of working with artists in 25 communities: “at times it got complex, some wanted to quit, but we supported them all the way through, even sent a computer with my friend to Yellowknife, so they had something to work on and do their presentation.”

Bandwidth is a huge factor across the North, which presents ongoing challenges in transmission, and streaming can often be unstable. Therefore, the availability of shows via a TV broadcast, thanks to the partnership with NorthwesTel, was an incredibly important element to the successful delivery of the 2020 festival to audiences across the North and internationally.

The Financials: Adaptation and community support

Alianait made some financial adjustments with the support of its funders and reexamined its existing grants, reprioritizing and contextualizing some of its funding to take on the new festival delivery format. It focused on two things: making the festival more community-oriented, and taking this opportunity to expand their reach across the North and include more diverse communities. This aspect was very new, because it had previously focused on a more regional approach.

Partnerships were essential in making the vision for the festival a reality. Alianait has fostered an active core group of volunteers, which needed to be expanded for this new initiative in order to supply a significant number of hours. The investment from NorthwesTel was also key. “I’m proud that we can help the Alianait Arts Festival continue its tradition, showcasing talented northern artists”, said NorthwesTel President Curtis Shaw. He continued: “NorthwesTel is a longtime supporter of arts and culture in the North. So, it makes sense that as a telecommunications provider for the North, we can help present this year’s festival in a new, virtual format and keep sharing Northern talent with the world.”

The Takeaway: Forming the circle larger

Once Alianait committed to an online format, it allowed the festival to think in a broader context and take the presentation opportunities out to a much wider range of Northern artists. This new format was inclusive of a variety of communities from Greenland to Alaska, allowing the festival to begin building a more comprehensive network of artistic and cultural presenters.

Alianait is now working with Northern TV and Radio to foster and provide opportunities for more artistic production. The 2020 festival experience allowed Alianait to set goals for better quality video and sound, as the organization looks to strengthen a broader Northern network.

Livestreaming the festival and presenting through various social media platforms were successful methods for getting the information out about each concert, instructions on how to tune in, and ways to keep informed with the latest programming updates.

Other key outcomes for Alianait include the following:

  • Building deeper relationships and expanding its local core of volunteers.
  • Advancing the capacity of the local Iqaluit community.
  • Connecting through hands-on engagement with some 30 Northern communities and fostering learning and capacity building within each of these places and their participants.
  • Increasing the audience for the live festival to over 8,000 viewers, and to 60,000 for the overall festival experience, thereby broadening knowledge and understanding of these cultural communities and sharing the beautiful and powerful voices of Northern artists and cultural presenters.

 

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Logo d'AlavivaCarving on the Edge Festival, pre-COVID-19. Photo by Sonja Peterson