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ArtCenter College of Design

Indigenous Autonomy 

(Collaboration with The ONWARD Project)

Indigenous Autonomy is a community-based art initiative conducted by Hans Baumann and The ONWARD Project. The project is a contemporary response to the 1930’s Rainbow Bridge Monument Valley Expedition and draws from the wealth of archival material accumulated by The ONWARD Project over the course of 15+ years. Through a combination of community outreach, site-based research and cutting edge VR technology, this project documents contemporary Navajo experiences of Los Angeles and reimagines how cross-cultural exchange can foster social visibility and empower Native voices, places and stories in the present. In doing so, this project addresses long-standing narratives of marginalization and erasure amongst Native peoples and imagines the role that digital storytelling can play in reframing identity and preserving cultural memory.

This project was centered around a series of workshops in which participants were prompted to share stories of their life in and relationship to Los Angeles, both through drawing and spoken word. These hand-drawn “journey maps” were documented on a single 25’ long roll of acetate film, and video cameras and other recording devices were used to translate stories into a custom, high-resolution Virtual Reality model.

Instead of transporting users into an exotic terrain, the VR environment used in this project was an exact replica of the ArtCenter gallery space where the exhibition was held. Users thus encountered an extremely high-resolution facisimile of the room in which they were standing. Navajo stories existed outside the architectural confines of the space and could only be encountered by exiting the representation of the room and entering the infinite void space of the virtual space beyond. Upon entering this void space, users would encounter an individual, self-narrating story shared by a Navajo resident of Los Angeles.

All project work was developed and executed over a 7-week period in 2018 as part of ArtCenter’s Media Design Practice’s Summer Residency program, and the project team acknowledges that this exhibition was located on historically Gabrielino-Tongva land.

Special thanks to Lithuania Denetso and the entire Littlesalt Family, Pamela Peters, Madi Fair, Allison Fischer-Olson, Ailish Ulmann, Michael Conelly, Eric Natwig, Eli Ruoyong Hong, Akash Dhiman, Joise Zhuxin Liu and all workshop participants.