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Carving on the Edge Festival: Community-centred digital practices in a remote and Indigenous context

Tofino, British ColumbiaTofino (British Columbia)

Story Seeker: Margaret Lam
Person interviewed: Brianne Dempsey, Digital Events & Marketing Coordinator; financial details provided by Hélène Descoteaux, Administrator & Projects Coordinator
Interview date: August 19, 2021

The Carving on the Edge Festival was founded in 2010 by a group of Indigenous and non-Indigenous carvers and artists in Tofino, British Columbia as a way to deepen the knowledge and cultural exchange needed to sustain their practice. While the Festival started as an annual event, in 2019 it became biannual in order to increase the organization’s ability to provide administrative support and services to their members across the island and beyond.

Brianne Dempsey, Digital Events and Marketing Coordinator at Carving on the Edge, facilitated the transition of the in-person Festival experience to an online format, which would never have been a priority if it were not for the gathering and travel restrictions that came with the COVID-19 pandemic. The process of shifting such a hands-on and meditative art form that is passed on from generation to generation into a digital format presented the Festival with numerous challenges.

Guided by its unwavering focus on supporting and growing coastal wood carving traditions, the digital edition of the Festival continued to have the human impact they desired, while opening up new ways to continue their work.

The Innovation: Digital marketing in a remote and Indigenous context

Photo of Robinson Cook by Chris Oouget

While innovation is often associated with new approaches, the wood carving practice that the Festival celebrates has roots that go back hundreds of years. The success of the online Festival was rooted in the organization’s understanding of the desired human impact and not assuming that digital “best practices” can be applied wholesale to every context.

The pre-pandemic change to a biannual format was in response to increased artist demand for administrative support and a desire to expand the community-building activities that are inseparable from the artistic practice itself. The Festival has played an outsized role in facilitating the exchange of stories and knowledge between Indigenous and non-Indigenous participants, as well as fostering mentorship relationships between experienced carvers, community elders, and youth.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the Festival was faced with an incredible challenge: how to emulate its immersive and intimate nature in an online setting. Although Festival organizers had more questions than answers, they recognized early on the need for dedicated digital support. The new role of Digital Events and Marketing Coordinator was created to support the Festival and the overall organization.

The Challenge: Shifting an immersive and intimate in-person experience to a digital format

Carving is a very personal, often solitary experience. In contrast, digital experiences can often feel impersonal. Because of this, many carvers felt hesitant and uncertain about the Festival’s new formats of pre-recorded workshops and programs as well as live sessions on Zoom. There were further concerns that the traditional knowledge about carving practices being shared would not be properly stewarded and that meaningful connections between participants would not be feasible or possible.

For instance, one of the carvers recorded a five-part series that introduced viewers to the fundamentals of wood carving. He felt unnatural and awkward doing demonstrations in front of a video production crew instead of a live audience, and he expressed some hesitation around the sharing of the videos online.

On the audience side of the experience, many Festival participants were not experienced with technology, which was not surprising given their age as well as the reality of limited connectivity in a remote coastal community of fewer than 2,000 inhabitants.

The organizers made extensive efforts to provide technical support to any participant who needed it, while promoting the benefits of increasing awareness of and access to traditional wood carving practices through pre-recorded video and live video-conferencing formats. It was a labour-intensive process, but it was an opportunity to build the human relationships that have been so foundational to the success of the Festival. Bit by bit, these one-on-one conversations built up the sense of community support and trust that was needed for everyone to take a leap of faith in the digital format.

As an urbanite from Vancouver who transplanted to the remote coastal town of Tofino, Brianne’s own journey as a digital communications and marketing professional provides important insight into what successful digitization looks like in a remote and Indigenous setting. For example, commonly accepted digital marketing practices assume that you are marketing to a sea of anonymous faces. In the case of the Carving on the Edge Festival, it is actually a tight-knit community with shared values and perspectives. In such a context, digital marketing is most effective when it reflects and amplifies the feelings and experiences of people who belong to that community.

The measures of success also needed to shift away from the number or frequency of posts to how effective each post was at fostering the kinds of relationships and connections upon which the Festival was founded. Exceptional care was taken to craft social media posts that appropriately used written, oral, and visual language to reflect the spirit of reconciliation within the local community. For example, some commonly used emojis have different meanings in an Indigenous context.

The Financials: A variety of funding sources

The digital edition of the Festival had a budget of $116,500, accounting for over 80% of the annual operating budget in other Festival years. The expenses break down as follows:

  • Website redesign, software subscriptions (i.e., Zoom, MailChimp) – $9,000
  • Artist fees – $37,000
  • Artist expenses (supplies, travel, accomodation) – $3,000
  • Marketing – $2,500
  • Project coordination – $32,000
  • Administration – $23,000
  • Contractors (marketing, video production) – $8,000
  • Other costs (research, outreach, food, etc.) – $2,000

The Festival was supported by a variety of funders, such as BC Arts Council, Department of Canadian Heritage, Clayoquot Biosphere Trust, Destination BC Tourism Events Program, Alberni Clayoquot Regional District, and Tourism Tofino. In a typical year, the Festival engages around 100 volunteers for planning, implementation, and evaluation, including the board members who contribute above and beyond to make it a success. In delivering the digital Festival, different skills were needed from volunteers, especially technological literacy and experience, which led to recruitment difficulties.

Festival registration is typically free, and subsidies are offered for workshops that do have a registration fee. For the digital edition, all Festival components were free, but the Festival had substantial fundraising success: the Festival raised about $2,500 in donations compared to the $700-$1,000 that was typical for in-person editions. The fundraising success was thanks to registrants being redirected to a donation page right after their online registration was complete.

The Impact: Strengthening pathways for cultural exchange and reconciliation

The knowledge and cultural exchange that result from the Carving on the Edge Festival are not always visible or quantifiable. Yet, they can be seen in the way Indigenous and non-Indigenous participants engage in meaningful exchange and dialogue that embody the spirit of reconciliation. They can also be seen in the way the youth connect and engage with Elders as an opportunity to heal from the intergenerational trauma caused by the colonial systems that continue to harm and marginalize Indigenous Peoples in Canada. The Festival offered an outlet for the people of Tofino to direct their energy to something deeply meaningful, which helped draw the support of local radio stations and newspapers.

What brought such a diverse group of people together was their shared passion for traditional wood carving — a contemplative practice that is deeply connected to the land, and a tradition that has survived through intergenerational transmission of knowledge.

This deeply shared love of wood carving has fostered a spirit of reconciliation and a cultural pathway between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people across different generations in this little town at the end of all roads. It is this same spirit that made the digital edition of the Festival so meaningful for everyone at a time when they needed to be in the company of each other the most, even when technology itself can be a barrier.

The Takeaways: Prioritize the human impact of digital experiences and take opportunities to do things differently

There are a few important insights about how to develop our digital practices that can be gleaned from the Festival’s experience:

1. Identify and prioritize the human impact of digital experiences.

When producing any digital experiences, it is critical to have a deep understanding of your audiences’ values and to reflect them back in the design of the entire experience. Investing the time in advance that is needed to support individual contributors and participants should be part of the planning process. It can be considered an opportunity to increase understanding of the participants’ level of comfort with, and access to, digital tools and devices.

2. Be mindful of the urban- and Western-centric nature of digital “best practices”.

Best practices are an excellent place to start improving digital competency, but it is important to evaluate them critically, guided by an understanding of the target community. In particular, there are different “digital culture” norms. It is also important to pay attention to the way language, visuals, and other media are used by the target community to communicate digitally.

3. Innovation and resilience come from seeing and seizing opportunities to do things differently.

This involves taking the time to think about the “why” behind the digital approaches that an arts organization may have adopted and to consider whether they align with the community’s values. Organizations should engage in regular reflection about their own digital practices. This process doesn’t always come easily, but it can come more easily with practice.

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