Indigenous Computational Media Artist Jon Corbett joins the School of Interactive Arts & Technology

March 13, 2023
Jon Corbett (left). Still frame from Corbett's "Four Generations" video showing a programmatically-generated beaded image of himself starting to transition into an image of his son (right).

Indigenous researcher and artist Jon Corbett has joined the School of Interactive Arts & Technology (SIAT) as an instructor with a research focus on computational creativity and Indigenous and decolonial computing.

Corbett, who has a Bachelor of Fine Art from the University of Alberta and a Master of Fine Art from the University of British Columbia, is currently completing his PhD in Indigenous Studies and Computer Science at UBC.

His current research explores Indigenous forms of expression through “Indigitalization,” which he describes as a re-indigenizing of both digital coding languages and physical prototyping of computational models to explore the reconstruction of Métis languages, kinship, history, and relations with land.

Computer programming and beadwork

Corbett, who is Métis, of Cree, Saulteaux, and European descent, was first exposed to computer programming as a child. He began learning multiple forms of BASIC on Commodore and Apple computers at the age of 10 and went on to create his first adventure video game at age 11.

While completing his MFA, Corbett was inspired to merge his early interests in computer programming and art with his Indigenous cultural practices. At the time, Corbett was hand-beading portraits of his family and, drawing on his beadwork practice, he developed a computer program in Processing that digitally-generated beaded portraits.

Corbett would feed the computer program a photo and the program would map out a pattern of where each bead should go.

“For my MFA I was hand-beading portraits of my kids,” Corbett explained in his interview with Computational Culture journal. “I was making a lot of decisions—what colour bead to choose, where do I put it? I didn’t want to do so much thinking, so I wrote a program that made those decisions and beading patterns on my behalf.”

While this project started out as a way to help make the process of physical beading easier by minimizing decisions, it evolved into an entirely digital work that bridged computer-based media and Corbett’s traditional Métis beading practice.

“nohkom” (2015), a computer-generated beaded still image of Jon Corbett’s grandmother. Still frame from “Four Generations,” 2015.
Computer-generated beaded image of Jon Corbett's father as it transitions to an image of himself. Still frame from “Four Generations,” 2015.

Corbett turned the digital renderings of the beaded portraits into a short film called Four Generations. The film reveals portraits of his family members which unravel and reform as other members of his family through four generations—his grandmother, his father, himself, and his son.

The film was featured in an exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in New York City and the Contemporary Native Art Biennial in Montreal.

Cree# and the Indigenous Media Toolkit

During the creation of these projects, Corbett was confronted with the limitations of programming languages when it came to integrating his Indigenous cultural practices.

Programming frameworks are typically based on the Latin alphabet and, as Corbett experienced, not easily converted into Indigenous syllabics. Corbett also found that a computer’s logic did not always reflect his experiences or cultural practices.

From these experiences, Corbett was motivated to think about how he could express elements of his language and heritage in computer programming. He is currently developing a new programming language and integrated development environment (IDE) based on the Cree language and on Métis culture called Cree# that allows for programming in Cree keywords, concepts, and metaphors.

Corbett's Ancestral Code syllabics-based coding language.

“This programming language uses the natural language and cultural perspectives of Cree directly in the interface with the computer,” says Corbett. “My goal is to provide a digital art platform that can be written in any given Indigenous language’s orthography.”

At SIAT, Corbett’s Indigitalization Lab will be the site for Indigenously-informed computational creative practice.

He is currently exploring traditional Métis sash weaving using computational and generative models, similar to his traditional beadwork. Additionally, Corbett remains strongly tied to his cultural and language learning through his adoptive community at University nuhelot’ine thaiyots’I nistameyimâkanak Blue Quills near St. Paul, Alberta. and is a staunch advocate for Indigenizing and decolonizing computing curricula in STEM/STEAM education. He intends to pass on knowledge from his lived Indigenous experience to SIAT students with courses that will braid together Indigenous culture and western computing technologies.

Learn more about Jon Corbett’s research: