A Brief History of the Banff New Media Institute

Woman stands before three wall sized screens

Media Visual Arts, Visualization Lab Opening, 2003. 

New media came into focus at Banff Centre for Arts in Creativity in the late 1980s. With the formal establishment of the Media Arts Department in 1988, under its Artistic Director, Michael Century, Banff Centre turned its attention to the exploration of the intersection between art, science, computing and technology in various projects. Examples of early new media work and research at Banff Centre included: 1989’s Hypermedia (a linked text/media exploration of Glenn Gould); The Virtual Seminar on the Bioapparatus (a ten week residency at the Centre in 1991, led by Catherine Richards and Neil Tenhaaf); Nomad Net (1993) led by Sara Diamond; and 4Cyberconf (1994). Many of these early projects were part of the Art and Virtual Environments project (1992-1994), spearheaded by Douglas MacLeod, which aimed to explore virtual reality and artistic practices (and played a pioneering role in the production of many early virtual reality artworks, such as Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun’s “Inherent Rights, Vision Rights”).

The conclusion of the Art and Virtual Environments project in 1994 (mainly as a result of a restraint in government spending, which reduced enthusiasm for expensive virtual reality projects), the recently established Media and Visual Arts Department at Banff Centre aimed to find a means to continue the conversation around new media. It did so through the establishment of the Banff New Media Institute (originally called the Banff Multimedia Institute). The BNMI, as it became known, under its founding Director/Executive Producer Sara Diamond facilitated summits, think-tanks. workshops and conferences.  on new media topics. Fundamental to the ethos of the BNMI was the concept that artists and designers should both be advanced users of technologies and inventors of technologies. Believing that “all forms of technology are designed,” it sought to provide cultural, humanist and post-humanist perspectives on technology research and development-design from the perspectives of human culture and respect for the natural world. Support for Indigenous voices was a fundamental principle of the BNMI. Almost all events included perspectives from Indigenous artists, designers, thinkers and technologists such as Jason Lewis, Skawennati and Loretta Todd. It supported the development of a creative-led new media industry and arts practices with workshops such as Interactive Screen (held every year from 1995-2010), Producing New Media: Money and Law (1997-2005), and Women in the Director’s Chair (1996-2015). Its summits (with catchy names such as Human Voice/Computer Vox and Big Game Hunters) explored both the future and imminent practices of new media, whether games development, nano technologies, social media, digital archives and memory, AI and artificial life, bringing together leading scientists, artists and designers from across the world – including Latin America, Africa, Asia, Central and Western Europe and the UK, and global and Canadian technology companies. Partnerships examples include Interval Research in California, Real World in the UK, BBC, University of Southern California, and the University of Calgary. The BNMI worked closely with the Banff World Media Festival, curating its new media content and special events before and after the festival for many years.

Although the shift away from the largescale production-focused Art and Virtual Environments project to the more thinktank and conference-focused activity of the BNMI should be noted, the BNMI continued to play a pivotal role in the creation of new media works through its support of hundreds of co-productions; which included short films (such as "Herr" by John Greyson), and interactive works, such as  gatherings of Indigenous Artists (CyberPowWow 2k, Native Net  and Drum Beats to Drum Bytes),and a pioneering new media publication ("Horizon Zero"), among countless other projects. The BNMI organized events around the world, presenting Canadian new media artists and curators at the Dak’Art Biennial of Contemporary Art, in the  Millennium exhibition in Beijing and curating the all-Indigenous new media exhibition for the launch of the Canadian cultural centre in Paris.

Dr. Sara Diamond, the Director of the BNMI, was appointed as Banff Centre’s Director of Research and established funding from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council and the National Science and Engineering Research Centre for its activities. The BNMI contributed to new media research, through various projects (most notably the Human Centred Interface Project, and leadership of two Canadian Heritage international research networks (Mobile Digital Commons Network and Am-I-Able) and participated in the high performance computing networks (WestGrid and CANARIE). Banff reinvigorated its research facilities with a new VR and data visualization research cave, a collaboration centre and a mobile engineering hub led by Dr. Maria Lantin). BNMI also explored supporting the business applications of new media research through various projects, such as the Accelerator program and the national Interactive Project Lab.

In 2005, the BNMI celebrated its 10th anniversary, with a series of events (including REFRESH! The First International Conference on the Histories of Media Art, Science and Technology (a conference series that continues to this day) and an exhibition at the Walter Phillips Gallery titled "The Art Formerly Known as New Media"). A significant transformative event in its 10th year was the departure of Director Sara Diamond, who went on to serve as President and Vice-Chancellor of OCAD-U.

Diamond was succeeded as the Director of the BNMI by Susan Kennard. Kennard, in a 2010 discussion with Sarah Cook, noted that she “was interesting in building the co-production model through the development of a new program of group thematic residencies” (Diamond and Cook, 2010, p. 979). This led to the establishment of Liminal Screen (2006-2010), Almost Perfect (2006-2010), and Reference Check (2007). This resulted in a shift away from the summit and co-production culture of BNMI under Diamond, to the creation of a kind of “lab”, wherein artists and researchers came together for longer production driven residencies.

When Susan Kennard left Banff Centre at the end of 2009, the BNMI continued its planned events under the BNMI banner in 2010 (such as Interactive Screen, Liminal Screen and Almost Perfect), but the Institute was wrapping up. Starting in 2011, the BNMI formally ceased to exist, and was replaced by a Digital Media Research program stream within the Film and Media Department (now called Film and New Media). Still, several programs established at Banff Centre during the BNMI days (notably Women in the Director’s Chair) continued for several years under the new structure.

The book Euphoria & Dystopia: The Banff New Media Institute Dialogues (Cook & Diamond, 2012) distill BNMI themes and provides excerpts from events and essays analyzing the BNMI’s history.

For further research on the BNMI, including screenshots of the former BNMI Web Archive and a complete finding aid, please visit our holdings on Alberta on Record

Research Note:

Given that BNMI was part of the Media and Visual Arts (MVA) department at Banff Centre, additional material related to the BNMI can be found in MVA files in the Archives.

For all other queries and/or to request access please contact the Archives: Archives@banffcentre.ca