Museums and the Web 2005

Reports and analyses from around the world are presented at MW2005.

Researching And Presenting A History Of New Media: Ten Years Of The Banff New Media Institute

Sarah Cook, University of Sunderland, UK


New media art (including digital art,, and interactive installations) has had an interesting relationship with major art institutions over the past five years. This paper explores the current state of the challenges and relationships from a perspective of professional curating. It suggests a possible case study for historicizing the practice: The Banff New Media Institute's (BNMI) ten-year contribution to new media culture. The author considers the tools and structures used to produce and document the theory and practice of the BNMI and notes significant issues BNMI summits and exhibitions have addressed: visualizing data, the interface, community, the industry and collaboration.

Keywords: New media art, curating, history, archiving


New media art (including digital art,, and interactive installations) has had an interesting relationship with major art institutions over the past five years. In Canada, one particular history of new media art and the institution is longer than that. This year, the Banff New Media Institute (BNMI) – a world-class research and content innovation Centre – is celebrating its tenth anniversary. For the last decade, BNMI has been supporting research into the production and distribution of all forms of content using new media technologies – from art installations to video games to interactive television programmes. To mark the anniversary, BNMI is undertaking a number of activities. These include:

  • Publication of an anthology of writings
  • An international exhibition
  • A reunion programme of the annual summit Interactive Screen
  • A release of DVD editions of the on-line journal Horizon Zero
  • The digitisation of audio archives
  • An art history and new media international academic conference (Refresh)
  • The creation and ongoing support of a 'collaboration net'
  • The commissioning of visualizations of the history and networks of the BNMI.

This paper addresses the production of these elements of the BNMI's anniversary and as well discusses the key themes and questions about new media cultural production (from interface to community to artistic uses of the Web) which have arisen in the process. It represents a possible beginning of a case study of the BNMI's ten-year contribution to new media culture, including reflection on the tools and structures used to produce and document theory and practice.

The History

The BNMI focuses on the cultures of expression and use, enabling the creation of applications and technologies for participatory culture. New media at The Banff Centre converges art, design, architecture, dance, performance, computer science, engineering and science research with education, health, cultural industries, social sciences, humanities, and other constantly emerging forms of content. Fundamental to the BNMI is the belief that the creative sector – artists and cultural industries, in collaboration with scientists, social scientists and humanists – has a critical role to play in developing technologies that work for human betterment.

More than any other new media institution in the world, the BNMI has consistently provoked rigorous, provocative cross-disciplinary debates and productive dialogues about new media. Summits and critical workshops have occurred four to six times each year for eleven years, building on small workshops and conferences that took place at Banff from 1990-1994. This occurs within the context of artistic co-production and research that grounds the BNMI in the presence of practice. The Centre has played a key role in Canada and internationally in the development and sustenance of research into new media technologies and their affect on art practice in particular and society in general.

Ten years ago, in 1994, the BNMI began with a conversation on a bus between Steven DeNure (then the Senior Vice-President and creative director of Alliance Media, the largest Canadian production and distribution company at that time) and Sara Diamond. Both were interested in creating a context where artists, traditional media producers, technology researchers and thinkers could meet in ongoing dialogue. This discussion began at the very moment the Web was about to come into existence from the seeds of the visual Internet, and at a time when there was tremendous wealth being generated by the software sector. Interactive Screen (financed by Alliance Media, The Banff Centre, and Industry Canada) was born, bringing together the leading writers, directors and producers of television and feature film in Canada to expose them to researchers in interactive television, virtual reality and interactive fiction.

This initiative (which would prove to be the seed of the BNMI) was possible because The Banff Centre, under the leadership of Michael Century and Douglas MacLeod, had launched a world-renowned artists' project in the field of virtual reality. This venture in turn built on a cross-disciplinary residency, The Bioapparatus (1990), led by Catherine Richards and Nell Tennhaaf. They voiced the uncomfortable but valuable friction among independent artists, researchers in the domain of technologies, and theorists. Artists in the 'Art and Virtual Environment' programme laboured side by side with computer scientists, electronic music composers, and graphics artists. The BNMI underscored the productive quality of these debates, structured them, and facilitated their expression.

Today, the BNMI is a goldmine of crucial ideas about art, technology, society and media that have resulted from these culturally rich encounters. Hundreds of hours of material have been generated from the nearly one thousand visits made by artists, scientists, and theorists over the last ten years.

The Context

The Banff Centre is not a museum, nor is the BNMI an exhibition generator per se. The Banff Centre does have a collection of art works, most by former resident artists, on view at all times  across the campus. The Banff Centre also has a gallery – the Walter Phillips – that exhibits temporary exhibitions of contemporary art, and until recently held an annual exhibition of new media artwork. The BNMI is one of many programmes that have flourished under the umbrella of The Banff Centre. The Banff Centre is unique in that it is a place of scholarship and  information exchange. The BNMI, unlike the Gallery programme or music and theatre programmes of The Banff Centre, for instance, supports the creation of intellectual property and prototypes for cultural and commercial projects. In this, the BNMI holds an intellectual and practical archive that is unique in its cross-disciplinary and inclusive qualities.  As a result, seen together, the activities of the BNMI comprise an archive of the voices of Canadian new media artists, curators and scientists in a framework that links them to international events and concerns.

It is understood within the ethos of the BNMI that new media is a tool as well as a method; the technology is both form and content of the practice of its participants. New media is not only interpretational, used on behalf of other forms of content, but is also content itself.

One example of this ethos is Horizon Zero, a multimedia Web magazine about digital art and culture in Canada. Produced in eighteen issues over the course of three years, this bilingual virtual space devoted to creativity and critical ideas in the new media canon was occasion to commission writers, artists and interactive graphic designers to explore an extensive range of subjects – from memory to gaming to tactility. Horizon Zero’s issues represented an alternative method of distributing content to the usual offline channels, and as such the content was geared to such an interactive communal space. The issues are now archived on DVD-ROM.

Tactics of Historicising This Legacy

Researching And Presenting A History Of New Media

There are differences between curating an exhibition of new media art and creating other educational or interpretational media to support engagement with new media art. The BNMI focuses its activities for the most part on the latter. See for example Karen Parker's discussion (2005) of the creation of an online tool for collaborative research into new media. While curating an exhibition is often seen as content production (the display of new work), organising seminars and editing books is often seen as context production (establishing the ground for the new work). Within the field of new media it is difficult to separate out these two activities (content production from context production), as they often share the same platform (for instance, the Web) and demand similar research trajectories.

In order to realise the BNMI's exhibition and book projects, it has been necessary to create an archive to support the research process, both on paper (locked in a file cabinet) and digitally. This archive consists of agendas from every event ever held at the BNMI as well as class lists of participants, workshop materials, background readings, and presentation-related documentation.

The BNMI has built audio archives of its events and workshops since its inception in 1995. These articulate and often controversial presentations provide a strong sense of the context and time of each event. These have consistently been digitised and are being placed on-line for visitors to listen to. The Banff Centre has a short-range FM pirate radio station that also broadcasts on the Internet at In the course of conducting research for the exhibition and publication, it was suggested that those audio recordings which were not yet available on-line could be played on an 'archive hour' on Radio90 so that collaborators outside Banff could tune in on-line to listen to them.

The publication, which spans a decade's worth of material from the productive summits, seminars and conference activities, will be organized by key themes that have underscored the dialogues and resulting activities of the BNMI and new media culture. The book will be comprised primarily of transcripts, beginning in 1995 with Interactive Screen through the contemporary summits and workshops. Each section will be introduced by a short summary from the book editors or section editors, including Sara Diamond, Susan Kennard, and exhibition co-curator Steve Dietz. Short chapters will discuss the roles of research and co-production at Banff from 1990 to 2005.

While the Walter Phillips Gallery does have an established track record of exhibiting new media art, only a small percentage of the co-produced art works to emerge from the BNMI have been shown at The Banff Centre. For the exhibition, which seeks to address both the ten-year history as well as the range of themes that have circled around the BNMI's activities, a massive list of artists who have 'been through the door' at Banff was drawn up. This has enabled a curatorial selection process that is not  based just on the actual art works produced or previously exhibited at Banff, but also on the range of past and current practice by those artists who have remained committed in their work to the development of the field. Steve Dietz  (who is based in Minneapolis) and I (based in the UK) have filtered our way through this long list by keeping an on-line wiki – which we can each update remotely. At time of writing, the checklist for the exhibition is still under discussion; however, a few key concerns have arisen.

First, while we don't want to give up trying to represent the history of the BNMI and the field of new media, it is a difficult job to do with a limited budget, a finite amount of space and the vast changes in technology from 1994 to today. As a result, we've decided to curate an exhibition with perhaps no more than half a dozen art works. Therefore we are seeking out significant projects that, seen together, manage to reflect a train of thinking across ten years – works that have historical connections, but might be entirely contemporary. It is important for the exhibition to demonstrate new media art endeavors that 'know' they have a history.

Undertaking the curatorial research for the exhibition and archival research for the publication has pointed out key moments in the history of new media art that owe their beginnings to the BNMI. In 1998, BNMI hosted a conference on curating and conserving new media – the first of its kind which addressed in particular the place of on-line art in a museum context. In 2000 and 2002, the Bridges Conferences (which included some museum professionals) was groundbreaking in its bringing-together of scientists, technologists and producers (artists and others) from the creative cultural industries, to discuss models of production and distribution and common tactics (in and out of institutional affiliation). More recently, the BNMI has instigated and supported research into collaboration and its integral place in the new media landscape.

Themes Within The History Of New Media

Those mentioned above are but a few of the themes that permeate the summits of the BNMI. Several of these continue from the early New Media Research initiatives that were part of the activities in the early 1990s, through the late-1990s fragility of new media industries, the danger of the technology drive, the weakness of dotcoms and the obstacles that blocked the production of compelling content.

Early on was the strong emphasis on virtual reality (now visualization), together with the beginning of an exploration of authoring tools, computer music and surround sound, and Aboriginal culture in new media. As the BNMI emerged, a wider group of themes recurred  through summits and workshops. These are collaborative processes and tools, including the creation process and the experience and learning processes; 3D experience, virtual reality and ubiquity, networked 3D and immersive sound, emotional computing, and on-line virtual worlds; biotechnology and materiality; convergence, including television and new media, games, and other cultural forms; sound and interactive media; and Aboriginal new media culture.

Community Development

Banff producer Susan Kennard has spearheaded research into the themes of community development in new media both from an industry perspective and an individual one.

The BNMI has held summits every year on the topic of 'Money and Law, addressing how multimedia is produced. The BNMI has also had a close link with the Banff International Television Festival, and numerous summits have addressed the more mainstream models of production from the broadcast sector. The inclusion of practising new media artists in summits such as Skinning our Tools: Cultural Difference, Aboriginal Presence, Synch or Swim: Subversion, Dispersion and Tactical media and Avatar, Avatar: Where for art thou? has brought a completely different idea of community development into the picture – one not based on the top-down production of new media content for a collective audience of consumers, but rather on participation and ground-up initiatives centred on the individual.

This is in part also because the ten-year history of new media production has seen some dramatic shifts in the economic landscape. With the utopian opening up of markets (the dot-com boom) came an emphasis on creating content for the consumer. With the more distopian retreating horizon of what turned out to be in many instances an entirely virtual economy (the dot-com bust) came a shift in perspective about the role of and constituency of the audience – from consumer to user, and even content provider (think for instance, of reality shows that generate part of their budget through phone-in voting). How do we now think of the audience: as the interactant, the observer, the participant? These industry-related economic shifts were concurrent with changes in understanding of public space. Copy-left and open source/free shareware movements continue to sustain those creative producers engaged less in the hype of convergence and more in the spirit of generosity that most social (and hence digital) networks are founded upon. This is all the more relevant today when public and private spaces are blurred as technologies become more intimate, portable, mobile, ubiquitous, responsive and individual.

Artistic Uses of the Web

From beginnings in research into the artistic possibilities of virtual reality (1994) and early explorations into authoring tools, the theme of visualisation has been a consistent one at the BNMI. More recently, interest in this issue has moved towards a consideration of immersive data-driven spaces. Is architecture data? How do we interact with it? Engage with it? Is data material? Tangible? Solid?

The Web is just one way we encounter networked-data. But it is not the only way artists have chosen to work with computer networks. Artists working with new media have consistently questioned how to describe the qualities of data and how data can be managed, imaged or represented. Summits held by the BNMI such as Unforgiving Memory: The Ephemeral Archive and the Data Base have propelled these debates. Databases structure our economy, our knowledge systems, and our security. Yet these structures serve and are subject to multiple goals and agendas. Our practical experience of databases in Westernized societies suggests not just access to information about the world, but also the world's access to information about us. We are the objects of databases: a phone number to market to, a credit risk, a questionable border-crosser.

As artist and theorist Lev Manovich suggests, for such an ubiquitous cultural form as the database – just as was the case with the automobile, skyscrapers, even perspective – we need to imagine the possibilities; to actively shape them and participate in how they are used to organize the world we live in. While artists have always been interested in collections and archives, with networked new media, the possibilities of making old data new or new data old are that much more varied. Thus, together with Steve Dietz and Walter Phillips Gallery director Anthony Kiendl, I co-curated the exhibition Database Imaginary which presented at Banff the work of thirty-three artists interrogating the form of the database in their work. The art included in the exhibition warns, astounds, and challenges us to understand database culture as a pervasive aspect of our contemporary environment and our lived experience.

Interfaces and Beyond

Along these same lines, Sara Diamond (2005) reflects on the ongoing research the BNMI has supported into the issue of how new media technologies change our perception of time, space and the individual. Summits at Banff such as Emotional Architecture: The Realism and Abstraction Debate in New Media and Navigating Intelligence: Testing Turing have questioned the notion of the interface, asking how we perceive and negotiate the 'cold' architectures of computer-driven media (from virtual-reality driven environments to computer databases). Learning from the many artist-scientist and artist-technologist relationships to have emerged from the BNMI (where at times the artist has been perceived as the one who represents the emotional and human side of interaction and the scientist the logical, machinic or programmed), Diamond discusses the importance of collaboration. Only through collaboration, participation and interaction can preconceptions about what is interface and what is behind it be dismantled.

Recent work at the BNMI has had strong emphasis on creating platforms for the production and distribution of new media content, be they mobile, wireless or on-line. Emerging from this research are new strategies for working together in networked environments, expanding the possibilities of the spaces of cultural production: from museums and galleries, on the Web, to medialabs, industry, and science labs.


In this essay I have, through describing the BNMI's activities, reflected on the tools and structures used to produce and document the theory as well as practice of new media cultural producers (artists, theorists, developers, etc.).

In developing the projects surrounding the anniversary of the BNMI, one challenge has been to share and highlight the legacy of an institute whose strengths are in the scholarship that has been generated around programmed events, one-offs, discussions: process – and not the traditionally more tangible products such as exhibitions or art works. The BNMI produces knowledge and relationships: intellectual property and collaboration. In order to share this kind of scholarship, the fundamental requirement, which we are lucky to have, is good documentation.

We have also learned that even in the fast-paced world of new media, archival projects take time. Finding the material, cataloguing and organising it and making it available are just three of the stages, and each has its own hermetic timeline. However, the BNMI both exists in and creates an environment that is a 'growth-culture', sitting as close to the front edge of the curve as possible. Through this the BNMI is very different from a museum, which by definition sits behind the curve of production by its very nature, historicising through scholarship. For the BNMI, a records management approach, where the files are still 'alive' and accessible, and in many cases are migrated from one format to another (audio tape to digital file, to on-line stream) was a more useful strategy than archival preservation (though the BNMI is working on an archival preservation strategy as well).

This case study of the BNMI suggests the benefit that can be had from providing different access points for different audiences: an on-line magazine, a traditional anthology, an exhibition, the production of new tools to support future working, making available the archival material to future researchers. While there are certainly some themes in new media art that have remained constant in the ten years that the BNMI spans - artistic uses of networked data, tools that support community building, a constant questioning of the interfaces we encounter as human beings in an ever-digital world - tracking the changes and developments of those themes is still a challenging and rewarding task.


The Banff New Media Institute Archives 2005. Consulted February 1, 2005.

Diamond, S. (2005) Participation, Flow, and the Redistribution of Authorship: The Challenges of Collaborative Exchange and New Media Curatorial Practice. in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2005: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics.

Cook, Sarah, Anthony Kiendl and Steve Dietz, eds. (2004) Database Imaginary. 2004. Consulted February 1, 2005.

Horizon Zero. 2005 Consulted February 1, 2005

Parker, J. K. (2005). Using the Web to Support and Document New Media Collaboration. in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2005: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics

Refresh: First international conference on the histories of media art, science and technology. 2005. Consulted February 1, 2005.

Cite as:

Cook, S. Researching and Preseting a History of New Media: Ten Years of the Banff New Media Institute, in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 2005: Proceedings, Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics, published March 31, 2005 at