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Thinking about the land with interdisciplinary artist Marlena Myles

Myles says her approach has a basis in Dakota thought. “I don’t try to limit myself because I don’t think that’s the way my people lived ever,” she says. “I try not to place boundaries between areas of knowledge.”

Part of Marlena Myles’ installation at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.
Part of Marlena Myles’ installation at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.
Screen shot

From designing augmented reality experiences grounded in Native American knowledge and storytelling, to mural projects, public buses, illustrated Dakota land maps and more, Marlena Myles brings together technology, culture and a distinctive style to interrogate how we think about the land where we live.

Her interdisciplinary approach has a basis in Dakota thought, Myles tells me in a recent conversation over Zoom, when I reached her at her home in St. Paul. “I don’t try to limit myself because I don’t think that’s the way my people lived ever,” she says. “I try not to place boundaries between areas of knowledge. I try to blend it all together.”

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Self-taught in art and technology, Myles developed a love for both from an early age, growing up in Minnesota and South Dakota. “My mom bought us a computer in the late ’90s. I learned to code making websites and teaching myself Photoshop and whatever outdated technology was popular at the time,” she says. Learning from YouTube tutorials and from other users who shared their knowledge, Myles has pursued the cutting edge of creative output moving freely between disciplines, whether that be animation, public art, illustration or digital design.

In recent years, she’s found new institutional support for augmented reality, a process that uses geolocation data and 3D animation to bring together creative design with views of the real world.

“When I first started out with augmented reality, I would submit my ideas to grants, and people would be like, ‘Are you sure you can’t just paint something instead?’ Myles tells me in a Zoom interview. “They didn’t understand really what the technology was.”

That changed when Pokemon Go dropped in 2016, which used augmented reality (AR) technology. After that, “it was easy to reference that phone game to get people really to see how the technology works.”

Myles’ AR momentum gained steam when she was selected by curator Tricia Heuring for a new AR project. Heuring had been hired by Todd Boss, artistic director of the app Revelo, to select artists who would be a good fit for creating work in the AR realm.

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“I actually had been following her work for a while,” Heuring tells me, adding that she recalled Myles saying she’d love to see her work in AR. “When the opportunity came up, I knew she was the one to talk to,” Heuring says.

With support from Pixel Farm, Myles has collaborated with Boss to create the “Dakota Spirit Walk” at Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary and “The Dakota Sacred Hoop Walk” at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.

I had an opportunity to experience the latter this summer. Using my phone, I’d walk to different landmarks throughout the arboretum. There, through my phone, I’d experience Myles’ vivid imagery and a mix of Native storytelling and philosophy. The immersive installation opened up a new perception of a place I had walked through many times.

Part of Marlena Myles’ installation at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.
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Part of Marlena Myles’ installation at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.
Myles tells me she spoke with people from the arboretum as part of the project. “When I went there I listened to the people who have been around these plants for 20, 30, 40 years and just listened to their connection and relationships,” she says. “I’m coming into it as a Dakota person. I’m able to translate those experiences into Dakota philosophy, or a Dakota worldview. We have the same goal, we’re just taking two paths to get there.”

Myles’ process for developing the stories immersed in her AR designs varies from project to project. It’s a mix of research, listening and a connection to place. “A lot of times, I go to these places with an open mind, studying the landscape that’s there, and use the features to come up with a story,” Myles says.

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She offers the metaphor of a computer to describe Dakota storytelling. “You click on something and it opens up a folder that has memories, or files,” she says.  “If I look at the Mississippi River, it connects to our star knowledge. We believe what’s above is reflected below. The Mississippi River on earth is reflected above as the Milky Way, which is the spirit road we travel to this world and when we leave this world.”

She doesn’t need to read about that knowledge in a book. Instead simply looking at the river, or at a landscape, or plants, connects her to a broader understanding.

“I’m using augmented reality to immerse people into that sort of thinking, to not limit yourself to just what’s in front of you, but try to think about the seasons, think about nature,” she says. 

Plus, AR is a way to get people to go outside. “People are like, oh, get off your phones and go outside. Well, how about you just do both and gain a deeper experience of nature that’ll make you want to keep going back?” she says. “You’ll see the Earth as a relative, appreciate all the seasons and everything for what they give us as humans.” 

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Last weekend, Myles opened a new augmented reality experience at the White Bear Center for the Arts, which runs through Nov. 18. She opens “Wodakota Walk” at Caponi Art Park in Eagan on Sept. 16. 

For the Caponi Art Park installation, Myles began with the theme of wodakota. “Dakota means friends or allies and the word, and wodakota means friends or allies with all of the universe, with all the natural world with the communities around us,” Myles says. “It’s also the translation of the word treaty.” 

Myles was interested in exploring the concept of wodakota as a metaphor for our current world, and people connecting across diverse communities and also connecting with nature and the spiritual world.

Part of Marlena Myles’ installation at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.
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Part of Marlena Myles’ installation at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.
The project also touches on the land back movement. “When I say land back, I don’t just mean, here’s a land deed or something,” Myles says. “I mean, land back as a relative. A lot of people don’t know how to properly live with nature, as if it’s your grandmother.”

For Myles, wodakota is about warning people about the dangers of not being in “a good way” with nature. It’s also about reminding people the power of building community and diverse storytelling. 

Myles is documenting the project, working with All Arts, a multimedia platform based in New York. She’ll be creating a documentary about her process, with guidance from the All Arts staff. 

She hopes the experience will lead to more mini documentary work, especially about sacred sites and AI. Being able to make her work accessible to people outside of Minnesota is important, especially because the Dakota people were forced away from the state. 

“When I go up to North Dakota, where my reservation is, my little cousins, they don’t know about the sacred sites that aren’t on reservation,” she says.

Meanwhile, Miles has mural projects underway and is gearing up to head to Franconia next year, and plans to bring other artists into the project, ideally sharing her knowledge about AR with others. “I wanted it to be is more community based from the very beginning,” she says. With funding from the Joyce Foundation, she’s taking things to the next step. “We’re showcasing to the world how this technology works, how it can tell these stories that people do want to see,” she says. 

“Wodakota Walk” opens Saturday, Sept 16, with a dedication ceremony, dance exhibition and a Native Arts Market from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. An artist talk takes place Sunday, Sept. 24, from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. More information here.

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