NEOMAD is a three-part interactive comic series built for iPad that, as part of Big hART‘s Yijala Yala Project, celebrates Aboriginal cultural heritage as an active, present and forward-looking communal process, not a lost way of life situated in the past—yijala and yala each mean now in the two dominant indigenous languages spoken in Ieramugadu (Roebourne), in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, where both project and story are based. Yijala Yala is an intergenerational, community-based arts initiative that trains and works with local people, developing digital media skills and literacy and creating content that can communicate their continuing culture to a global audience. NEOMAD was made by, for and with the people of Ieramugadu and thus constitutes a reclamation of Aboriginal subjectivity in the wake of colonial erasure and in the face of contemporary institutional oppressions.
NEOMAD is a futurist scifi epic set in Murujuga in the year 2076 and depicts a group of technologically astute young heroes called the Love Punks who discover a rocket booster that has fallen from space, emblazoned with a mystic petroglyph that suggests the creative juxtaposition of ancient culture with modern technology (Murujuga is home to some one million prehistoric petroglyphs). In the second episode, the Punks encounter the Satellite Sisters, a space-based group of Aboriginal girls tasked with monitoring the fall of such space junk to earth. In the final chapter, the two must cooperate to stop a tourist spacecraft from impacting a sacred constellation using a crystal bestowed on one of the Punks by a dormant sky god, the Sisters’ scientific knowledge of intergalactic travel, and the guidance of their elders. Each episode is preceded and followed by a live-action video sequence unlocked by the interaction that features the real Punks and Sisters in costume and surrounded by the material sets on which the comics’ animation and illustrations are based.
The app comprises the three episodes, each of which features original music and sound effects, talk bubbles that trigger voiceovers recorded by the real Punks and Sisters (and sometimes visually translate vernacular Aboriginal phrases) when haptically activated, and an interactive interface in which narrative is advanced with a swipe; but it also contains ancillary extras that provide paratextual information about the making of the series. The comics themselves are an exercise in collective authorship and restorative, participatory cultural production. While written, illustrated and animated by Sutu, with video sequences directed by Benjamin Ducroz, they were colorized, using Photoshop and Wacom pen tablets, by the Punks and Sisters themselves, over forty young Aboriginals from Ieramugadu who participated in digital literacy and filmmaking workshops for eighteen months. The kids, all aged between seven and fourteen, also assisted with scriptwriting and storyboarding, and were each responsible for designing, naming and voicing their avatars, as well as playing them in the live-action segments.
The intensely collaborative and grassroots nature of the NEOMAD project recalls Henry Jenkins’ work on interactive audiences and participatory culture, for though his focus is centered squarely on fandom and its reciprocal relationship to and with mainstream content, his analysis of the new tools and technologies available to consumers (here the colonial spoken-for) and the rise of do-it-yourself media production practices provide fruitful insights into the Aboriginal struggle to maintain cultural identity in globalizing modern world. Jenkins cites Pierre Levy’s vision for a potential new knowledge space, brought about by the web’s deterritorialization of knowledge and concomitant actuation of new modes of community and citizenship. Applied here, Levy’s taxonomy of social groups would position the indigenous communities of Ieramugadu as organic groups, the imposed and repressive Australian state apparatus as an organized group and Yijala Yala as a self-organized group. While there is much obvious crossover between first and third, the latter is in fact a “voluntary, temporary, and tactical [affiliation], defined through common intellectual enterprises and emotional investments … held together through the mutual production and reciprocal exchange of knowledge” (Jenkins).
Obviously the producers of NEOMAD constitute an actual, material community and not a virtual one, but it can be argued that, via transmedia storytelling and multiplatform worldbuilding that includes making-of content and other peripheral videos that feature the characters, they are forging a virtual community and assembling a collective intelligence to inspire the next generation of Punks and Sisters. As three of the young participants articulate in the video that follows the final episode, they are “working together to keep industries in check, to keep our culture strong, and to keep our country beautiful.” They then address the camera directly: “You are the new generation. You are the future.”
The Punks and the Sisters, along with Sutu, Ducroz and the self-organized Yijala Yala collective, compose what Levy, drawing from Benedict Anderson, calls an imaging community, in which “a sense of affiliation emerges from an active process of self-definition and reciprocal knowledge transfer” (Jenkins). Such creative self-definition, both in terms of reclaiming Aboriginal subjectivity from a colonial past and, perhaps more obviously, in terms of the kids’ construction of their material and virtual avatars, can be productively read alongside Stacey Koosel’s concept of informational self-determination. For her the creation of a digital identity involves a negotiation between public and private when interacting with a virtual community, the “individual’s right to decide what information should be communicated to others and under what circumstances” (Koosel 159). But in the case of NEOMAD, the realization of a collective and digitally distributed community identity involves a postcolonial negotiation between ascribed and autonomous identity formation when inter/acting with reality. The comics are a political project, a bid for self-authorship by an intensely marginalized group, as much as they are a creative one. For the Love Punks and the Satellite Sisters, “the modern world must maintain a balance between industrial progress and the protection of our environment and culture. We are all here to watch over the desert, the sea, the hills and the greater cosmos.” The technologies are here to help.
Big hART. “NEOMAD Interactive Comic for iPad.” iOS App Store, ver. 3.0.0 (2013), available here.
Jenkins, Henry. “Interactive Audiences? The ‘Collective Intelligence’ of Media Fans.”
Koosel, Stacey M. “Digital Identity: The Private and Public Paradox.” In Transforming culture in the digital age, 149–53. Tartu: Estonian National Museum, 2010.