Wiikwemkoong Arts and Music Festival, Six Foot Festival try experimental virtual format for pandemic-era events

The Sonny O Trio performs a set within one of the six-foot cubes stationed in the Manitowaning-Wiikwemkoong region. They played a live drive-by performance at Buzwah lookout on Friday afternoon, October 2.

MANITOWANING – Debajehmujig Storytellers have concluded their virtual Six Foot Festival and Wiikwemkoong Arts and Music Festival, a pair of three-day events that challenged the team to reimagine the festival experience for a pandemic-gripped world.

The Six Foot Festival turned 11 this year and organizers chose rhythm as their 2020 theme. The festival is a celebration of the land, art and food that allows all people to unite over art, collaborate on projects and learn about traditional ways of life.

Its signature element is the use of six-foot frame cubes around the community in which artists create installations. The cubes served as stages for virtual, pre-recorded engagement sessions that aired live on Facebook during the festival.

“During these COVID times we have adapted to keep moving on with our festival in an online engagement,” said Richard Ashley Manitowabi, sustainable program facilitator at Debaj and one of the co-hosts of the virtual Six Foot Festival.

“Thanks, COVID; you helped us come up with something new and, you never know, we may be able to do something like this next year,” added co-host Bruce Naokwegijig, artistic director of Debaj.

In their virtual opening remarks at the start of the festival, both reflected on the things they missed this year, such as the crowds at the Debajehmujig Creation Centre in Manitowaning and the delicious foods that are a favourite among hosts and visitors alike. They added that shared lunches are often a source of collaboration and brainstorming, a significant loss this year.

The two performed live hosting duties from an anchor desk. They introduced the segments and offered commentary, while their live feed went to Chris and Justin Deforge in the neighbouring control room. The mixers output a live feed of the hosts and the pre-recorded content and the pair had spent upwards of 18-hour days getting ready for the event.

The pre-taped content was in abundance. This year’s festival featured 27 unique segments, some repeated on multiple days, which included engagements with the cube creations and explanations of other installations in the event.

Much of the festival was pre-recorded by design—in case COVID-19 numbers spiked and strict lockdowns would have prevented any in-person programming, the pre-shot video would have allowed the festival to continue. By the end of the weekend, more than 1,500 people had viewed the live feeds of the festivals.

Young classical pianist Mason Animikwan played an original piece followed by a classical medley and a pair of Beatles tunes.

For those who attended in person, Debaj crews set up a physically distanced theatre space in the Creation Centre that held up to 20 people to watch the live feed and see some of the creations.

There were also some drive-by performances in the six-foot cubes throughout Wiikwemkoong and Manitowaning, at which viewers could pull up to the site at a scheduled time and see a live performance from within their cars.

The action continued into the evenings when Wiikwemkoong Arts and Music Festival took over, highlighting some local and farther-afield acts in addition to some workshops.

The evening festival also featured pre-taped performances but many aired live from the Debaj studio or over video calls. 

Debaj music and audio department lead Jason Manitowabi hosted the festival alongside Cree-Métis multidisciplinary artist Veronica Johnny, who fronts the band The Johnnys.

Performers and artists at the arts and music festival included Elijah (Manitowabi) and the Back Burners, Leonard Sumner, Tasha Sipllet-Sumner, David Osawabine, Leland Bell and Dylan Shigwadja, Stephanie Pangowish, Adrian Sutherland, Digging Roots, Perry Bebamash, Zigz Gaud, Kuzzins of Leon, Leslie McCue and Lindy Kinoshameg, Logan Staats, Crystal Shawanda and Everette Morrison.

Starting the program on the final day was young classical pianist Mason Animikwan who performed a medley of classical compositions that was especially impressive considering his one-and-a-half years of piano experience. He also played an original composition and shared some stories in between tunes.

The Debaj house band closed off the final night after a round of thanks for the event’s sponsors and the many people and groups who supported this year’s virtual festival.

“I’m feeling very thankful for the artists that participated in the Six Foot Festival, considering it’s COVID times,” said Richard Ashley Manitowabi, adding that the organizers may continue the hybrid model in the future and invest in wireless camera technology for more flexibility. 

“Chi-miigwetch to all of you out there for supporting Debaj and all of these things we do here,” added Mr. Naokwegijig.