Culture in the Cloud: do digital technologies hold the key to preserving cultural heritage while empowering traditional owners?

An article for SyncTank.  

Two elder Aboriginal women sit in the dust, hand painting on a canvas that stretches between them. At a nearby makeshift table, three young Aboriginal women tap away on smartphones. They are on Facebook. These women are all Martumili artists or filmmakers, and only one or two generations separate them. The elder generation were born and grew up “on country”, and began the practice of painting on canvas. The current generation were born in hospital and raised in communities, balancing modern influences with traditional culture and law. This rapid transition from the bush to the cloud must make Aboriginal Australians one of the most innovative cultures in the world.

We are at the Martumili Art Centre in Newman on the edge of the Pilbara Desert, the red dusty heartland of Western Australia. I am here with FORM, a not-for-profit arts organisation that leads cultural and industry development through thought-leadership and creative capital. This is the first in a series of community consultations to establish a legal, cultural and technological framework for an ambitious digital archive of materials amassed in the course of FORM’s Canning Stock Route Project.

The Canning Stock Route is a 2000km trail that cuts across Western Australia’s red desert interior. It is the world’s longest and reputedly most dangerous cattle stock route. It was constructed by Alfred Canning in the 1900s to increase the trade of cattle from the north to feed a gold boom in the south. However, the Canning Stock Route was forged by brutal methods. It also crossed the traditional lands of more than 20 Aboriginal language groups, and wells – created a day’s walk apart – desecrated sacred waters at the very heart of indigenous culture. The route scattered Aboriginal communities, many ending up in stations and settlements far from their traditional lands. Like much of Australia’s twentieth century cultural history, the white story was a source of deep shame, and the black indigenous story remained largely unknown.

That changed in 2006 when FORM initiated Ngurra Kuju Walyja: The Canning Stock Route Project – translated as One Country, One People – which sought to explore the history of this land from an Aboriginal perspective. The project brought together over 200 elders, artists and community members from 10 language groups who, despite the distances that now separate them, are related by marriage, kinship or blood. The resulting exhibition of paintings, film, oral histories, photography and interactive multimedia went on to break attendance records across the country. Dark stories of first contact and conflict are overwhelmed by the vibrancy of culture, connection to land, spirituality, the uniting of diaspora, and the development of an Aboriginal art movement which has taken the world by storm. The exhibition was recently acquired by the National Museum of Australia as a ‘national treasure’.

Between 2006 and 2011, the Canning Stock Route Project and exhibition amassed a vast store of creative and cultural works which must rival any single collection in the world. Aboriginal society is an oral one, with cultural knowledge preserved and passed on in stories, song, painting and dance. And while Aboriginal peoples are one of the most intensely researched in the world, this knowledge has consistently seeped out of communities in the hands of white anthropologists and researchers, to be stored in museums, libraries and universities far from the reach of most indigenous people.

A new phase of the Canning Stock Route Project aims to reverse this decades-long trend of extracting cultural knowledge from communities. Recognising the ubiquitous reach of digital technologies into even the most remote communities, FORM will repatriate the project’s materials through a vast digital archive and range of web and tablet applications.

A handful of bespoke content management systems exist with cultural protocols at their core, including Mukurtu developed at the Centre for Digital Archaeology at UC Berkeley. In these platforms, technical experimentation and innovation intersects with cultural context, research ethics and ownership of cultural property. Indigenous Cultural Intellectual Property (ICIP) protocols, widely acknowledged across Australia but not yet adopted into law, seek to recognise indigenous people’s communal interests in tangible and intangible aspects of cultural practice. The architecture of the Canning Stock Route Project archive will rigorously reflect ICIP protocols, acknowledging traditional owners and determining which materials are ‘open’ for public use and which are closed, held as culturally sensitive only for the benefit of communities. Aboriginal communities have become understandably wary of the potential for their knowledge to be misappropriated or misused. FORM, in partnership with ArtsLaw Australia and arts centres across the Pilbara, aim to place ownership of this cultural knowledge firmly back in indigenous hands.

The ambition is that the Digital Futures project will become a living archive, owned and administered by community, with the younger generation using and adding to its content to create deeper cultural heritage value and new revenue streams. FORM’s immersive, content-rich web and tablet apps will act as a portal for indigenous and non-indigenous alike to explore the archive and understand the region and its people. The repository will be a work in perpetual progress, and finding funding partners and archival hosts with this kind of long-term vision may prove its greatest challenge. However, if successful, I believe the Canning Stock Route Project will become a world-leading example of how to collaboratively record and make accessible indigenous cultures, whilst simultaneously preserving and invigorating them.

We are now online, mobile and sharing everything, everywhere and everyday. We carry the world with us on smartphones and tablets. As armchair tourists, we can now explore distant cultures, living and past, to gain a greater appreciation and understanding of what separates and unites us. As a physical tourist, the digital world can be layered over the real world to create deeper, richer experiences to educate as we explore. For at-risk communities or environments, digital holds the potential for us to explore and care, but from a safe distance. And new technologies enable indigenous cultures with tools to improve self-sufficiency, self-governance, human rights advocacy, education, and general economic conditions. In terms of cultural heritage, digital provides mechanisms to record and pass on knowledge, diluting a largely culturally homogeneous media and connecting with younger generations on their own digital turf.

I am not celebrating a cultural heritage digital utopia just yet. Although rapidly changing, the power, money and technology lie predominantly in non-indigenous hands. It is absolutely vital that indigenous peoples can actively assert dominance over the reflection of their own knowledge, stories and history. It must be their voice and their experiences that are digitally amplified. If we do not enable that, we risk following in Canning’s footsteps: blind imperialist pioneers, distorting and misrepresenting indigenous cultures with every step.

Note:  I wrote this article for SyncTank: a new online magazine “showcasing the freshest thinking about how digital is enabling, inspiring and changing our cultural lives“.  Read the article here.  Many thanks to all at FORM, where I was based as a Fellow of the International Creative Entrepreneurs Programme.

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