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IPAA Tech Bundles: Enhancing cultural sovereignty through technical infrastructure

Toronto (base); national scope, OntarioToronto (base); national scope (Ontario)

Story Seeker: JP Longboat
People interviewed: Cynthia Lickers-Sage, Executive Director and Conor McSweeny, Project Coordinator
Interview date: August 10, 2021

The Indigenous Performing Arts Alliance (IPAA) is a member-driven National Arts Service Organization of professional Indigenous performing artists and arts organizations. IPAA serves as a collective voice for its members and for Indigenous performing arts in Canada. IPAA provides leadership, support, representation, advocacy, and practical assistance for the national development of Indigenous performing arts. IPAA is situated in the Tkarón:to (Toronto) area.

IPAA’s Tech Bundle project was initiated in January 2021 to provide a kit designed for online streaming, presentation, and related services to Indigenous Peoples throughout Canada. Each Tech Bundle is made up of video equipment, sound equipment, lighting, cables, a MacBook Pro computer, software, and other equipment needed for recording and disseminating sound and video, whether live or recorded. Complementary to this, IPAA is in the process of producing video content to provide knowledge on equipment use. IPAA will partner with Indigenous community centres and organizations across Canada that will steward the equipment in their local areas.

The Tech Bundles project is a visionary initiative arising out of pandemic determinants, specifically in response to the first and second waves of COVID-19. Cynthia Lickers-Sage, IPAA Executive Director, noted that “COVID-19 has helped us recognize there is a great need to help develop technical infrastructure in order to support and encourage cultural sovereignty and the nurturing of community voices from rural and territorial Indigenous communities”. During that period, IPAA invested in creating a technical infrastructure to encourage cultural sovereignty, provide training and mentorship opportunities, and promote wider engagement in the arts sector for emerging and mid-career Indigenous artists. IPAA provided oversight to the design, coordination, purchasing, and collaborative distribution of the Tech Bundles.

The Innovation: Adapting traditions to meet modern needs

From a cultural perspective, a Sacred Bundle or “Medicine Bundle” is a wrapped collection of sacred items used to assist and guide the people through life. It is held by a designated carrier who is taught the protocol for its use and care. Bundles include our knowledge, innate ways of knowing, being, and doing as Indigenous Peoples. We can carry dancing bundles, song bundles, medicine bundles, healing bundles, and the list goes on. Those who take care of these Sacred Bundles usually have been chosen to carry on the teachings, the purpose, and the responsibilities which come with these bundles. IPAA decided this would be a perfect metaphor for their package of technical equipment and guiding knowledge.

The needs of northern Indigenous communities were revealed in detail from the work of the Northern Indigenous Presenter Network. Key activities for this Network are to foster the development of best practices in negotiation and contracting, venues and public safety, marketing and outreach, as well as event logistics and presentation delivery. This work culminated in an online gathering and showcase that brought together Indigenous presenters from across Northern Ontario and Eastern Canada to share dance, music, and theatre that they might program in their communities. The gathering was also an opportunity for participants, funders, and invited guests to discuss current events, trends, and pressure points in the sector.

The presented works and accompanying discussions revealed many of the challenges that Indigenous artists and presenters are facing in representing their work successfully through video, digital media, and online platforms. IPAA quickly determined that these communities not only need physical resources, but also knowledge and guidance through workshops and hands-on experience. Prior to the pandemic, the success of this budding touring network had been based on IPAA’s capacity to physically travel to each community (often with rented audio/visual equipment) to facilitate the presentation of Indigenous performing arts and to document and share these performances. This pre-pandemic model is no longer an option, so IPAA solidified the vision for its Tech Bundles, applied for strategic funding, and developed a plan to pivot services. Culturally, the project reinforces trade routes across territories which have been in use for thousands of years. Perhaps more importantly, it supports the remaking of inter-territorial kinship relations, stemming some of the isolationist effects of a variety of colonial policies since the creation of the Indian Act in 1876.

The Challenges: Supply chains and local infrastructure

While IPAA had challenges with supply chain shortages, the Alliance did eventually manage to secure all 20 Tech Bundles and has started to distribute them. Because the goal is to have the bundles serve Indigenous communities throughout Canada, IPAA continues the search for Indigenous centres or organizations that can house, manage, and facilitate the sharing of these resources within their communities and regions. Challenges in securing these organizations outside of urban centres speak to the historic lack of arts infrastructure, limited access and working knowledge of these technologies, and lack of knowledge or familiarity with the medium. There has been little strategic investment in these types of services for artists and communities. However, these challenges do provide opportunities to foster capacity and infrastructure growth through project partnerships. Due to ongoing COVID-19 restrictions, the timeline for completing the instructional videos as well as scheduling the online workshop series has been extended. These efforts remain in progress and will be completed and distributed in the coming months.

The Financials: Supportive partnerships are key

Project funding was received in spring 2021, which allowed the initial gathering of the technical and software elements for each of the Bundles. By mid-August, the assembly of the 20 Tech Bundles was complete. IPAA stresses how key partnerships have been in making this project happen, particularly on the part of Ontario Trillium Foundation and the Department of Canadian Heritage. IPAA was able to develop supportive business partnerships with Apple Canada and Long & McQuade to meet hardware and equipment needs. IPAA has also signed a partnership agreement with proScenium Services, an arts firm that is developing a course on livestreaming for arts presentations which will be pre-loaded onto the Tech Bundle computers for instructional guidance. To maintain the program and the equipment over the long term, there will be very minimal rental costs for the use of the Tech Bundle. Access is central to this project and IPAA is committed to ensuring that no one is refused use of a Tech Bundle based on financial reasons.

The Takeaways: Serving national needs through infrastructure and know-how

The takeaways for this initiative are many. First, the project has put a number of people to work over a significant amount of time over the past year. Second, it has helped IPAA add additional services as it endeavours to serve the diversity of Indigenous artists and communities across Canada. Third, the technical resources and the working knowledge of them will provide significant opportunities in many rural, territorial, and more remote Indigenous communities. Fourth, the inter-regional and inter-generational access to these Tech Bundles, the learning, and the mentorship opportunities for young people will be significant over the long term. IPAA is now developing a variety of learning and resource materials to support Tech Bundle use, including a workshop and training video series on how to use and care for the equipment as well as an instructional course on livestreaming for arts and cultural presentations.

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