On the Banff Centre for the Arts

B A N F F : U T O P I A N    M E M E P L E X    M A C H I N E

Making the Invisible Visible

<This article was published in FUSE, Toronto as the cover article>

By Oliver Hockenhull 

"We can and should build an institution here dedicated to the cultivation of the mind...in all varied aspects...which as far as man's humble efforts may go, will be worthy of the setting." Douglas Cameron, First Director, The Banff Centre for the Arts.

This rhetoric of location and the calling to a higher art.


The founding ideals of The Banff Centre for the Arts – a panorama of utopianistic vistas, of determination, a legacy dependent on experimentation, inclusivity, and the placing of the individual and the cultural in the embrace of a site so sharply configured, in an air precise, and then humbled by the extravagance of geological time and upheaval, and the alert of nature. Yes, easily defined as Romantic, but that would be too easy, as is the simple of the dismiss of 'tourist trap'.   To be in awe – the intoxicant of making you small and seeing the largesse of the world – who knows the complexity of a mountain lion feeding her young?

As the human species fouls itself in its own greedy fossil fuelled inertia – the means of its own survival, though at hand, is as if invisible.

The integrity of creative thought and rationality, radiant in imagination and intellectual, aesthetic and design connectivity, is disregarded. Lethargy, purchase and/or a dependence on the misuse of historical consciousness rules the prevalent night.

Radical problems requiring innate solutions

"The task may take a hundred years or more, but that is the perspective we must have if we are to do justice to the opportunity which is ours." D.C.

It is commented that we do not live in a class–based society. Ha! Yes we are all consumers under the great glaring eye of the dollar (not the Canadian Peso, thank you). Each and every problem is subsumed under the aspect of our global consumer identity – which name brand is my life style? To then speak outside the confines of Nike/Sony worlds, to posit that the intellect of our society necessitates a platform from which not only to speak, but to be heard (as pervasively, say, as a new underwear label or the latest pop group) places us in the class called “the invisible.”

The invisible, the taken-for-granted environment, is the support from which dangles the fabric of culture.

It was in the years of the Great Depression that a small grant by the Carnegie Corporation of New York that allowed the extension program of the University of Alberta to initiate in August of 1933 "an experimental school in the Arts related to the Theatre" in Banff.

Generally the Arts are allowed this pristine space of public indifference. The arts – possibly pretty to look at, comforting to hear – but not the markers from which social structure is to be rethought.

Yet to discount the creative is to slight creation itself. The lack of regard is prevalent – in education, in business, in government.

A community's hierarchy of responsibility must, if it is to be rationale, be founded on ecosystemic principles. The liberalism of the economy is really only the tyranny of the market. Ideological constructs, or the rules of market and desire, or the neurosis of alienated consumerism matter little during a drought, a flood, or to the intestines of a child who has drunk water from a polluted source.

Cultural production presupposes a culture to produce for, and as we slip further into a McCulture we are seeing more and more McArt– an art empty of time, empty of meaning (other than self–promotion), i.e. art that is a reproduction of the logic of consumer capitalism.

"The end of World War II came a few days before the close of the 1945 summer session. The young struggling institution known as The Banff Centre for the Fine Arts had survived 5 years of depression and 6 years of war all through this time it had grown in strength and vigor and it had sent its message to the far corners of the Canada and the world. It had survived and taken root and become self–supporting because in a modest way it had filled a need in the minds and hearts of the Canadian people. " Donald Cameron, Campus in The Clouds, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1956.

Culture is a tool – and the need for the Means of Access.

Banff contains within its originating scope the promise of a meta-institution, an institution that promotes the intercourse of the creative, the ecosystemic and the question of the organizational.

"The service of art to the human spirit is not limited to the few but is universal for all...art is not for adornment's sake, or preaching sake, or pleasure's sake, not for the sake of gratifying the senses, or exhibiting technical skill, not for art's sake, but for life's sake." E.H. Griggs, The Banff School of Fine Arts Calendar, 1949.

The paradigmatic function of The Banff Centre – a vehicle or tool for culture 

 "Tools are artifacts, but they are not in essence objects. Since they qualitatively increase a species possibility of organizing and controlling the matter–energy in their ecosystem, their primary characteristic is that of information. They are forms which inform; they are informed because they remember the past and make possible new types of projection into the future." Anthony Wilden, System and Structure (Second Edition), London: Tavistock Publications, 1980.

"It is the status of their products, not the consciousness artists have of their activity, that defines the social effect of works." Peter Bürger, Theory of the Avant–Garde (translation from the German by Michael Shaw), Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

The institution as tool. The evolvement of a mnemonic trace – to be improved upon.   The Banff Centre is articulated as a place from which art and the cultural can reassert itself over its fate through the act of the imagined. It is to do this person by person, by creative expressivity, and by an internationalism respectful of difference.  

Canadian Glasnost contra the Production of Canadiana

What is wrong with Canadian cultural production/identity in general?   Limping, lumbering movements – body parts not co-ordinated – the whole bumbling contraption is thoughtlessly headless! (Our clutch of various institutions, the NFB, the CBC, the CRTC, the artist run centres, the museum art circles, the university art programs, the various Federal institutions, not knowing, not caring, not supporting, and often even antagonistic to one another!)

The Canadian Heritage Department de-evolved years ago now from the Department of Communication has not the fortitude, nor the expertise, to co-ordinate the various agencies that it funds. It is as if this hydra head had little time to imagine itself functioning within the needs of a national culture, a culture not simply one of the past, not one so much of ‘heritage,’ but of modification and movement, of future prospect.

It would be thoroughly unfair to blame The Banff Centre for failures that are distressingly so National in scope. Most prominently, the CBC and the NFB have apparently little use for The Banff Centre for the Arts, a Centre devoted to creativity and innovation in the Arts and especially in the Media Arts. Is it the fact that The Centre is located in Alberta (albeit in a National Park)? Or more plausible, that these Crown Corporations are so institutionally frigid – their position so taken for granted and unamenable to scrutiny – that they are blind to the seductions of speculative thought, fearful of collaborations, and the intercourse of joint institutional projects and research? (Note: Media/Visual Arts should be more responsive to it's own national responsibilities. The often-heard comment from artists and artist run organizations across the country is that they feel very distant from The Centre –they feel it to be cliquish. Conclusion: Media/Visual Arts needs to outreach in more effective, responsive, and inclusive/democratic ways.

Adjusting the Noise to Signal Ratio

The Centre must take on a much more active role in the creation, articulation, and promotion of cultural theory and activism. In the past 3-4 years, and acknowledged by the principles involved, very little has been published and disseminated in terms of the work or debates of artists who have been resident in Visual/Media Arts. Research is poorly funded and many projects never receive the technological expertise necessary to bring them to successful conclusion. As well, the overall framing of the aesthetics and/or direction of The Centre itself is left to promotional phrases and the Thematic Residences.


The concentration of the Media and Visual Art departments on Thematic Residencies presents a significant dissipation of institutional intent. Instead of persistent enquiry into constitutive aesthetic, creative, communicational, and/or design principles of various media or social paradigms, the Thematic Residencies predicate artists’ involvement via the interpretive fancies of The Centre's directors. (Maybe it is all we can expect in this age of apathetic disenfranchisement...maybe this spoon feeding is the necessary correlate of artists not knowing what purpose they are to assume?)

Abdicating the wide-angle strategies and comprehensive objectives of the founding principles and interdisciplinary vision, Media/Visual Arts could be depreciating itself out of a job and depriving artists of a key institutional forum – a forum that could be continually weighted in historical perspective and future expectance, a place of ongoing debate, discussion and production.

To be fair, the jury that decides on acceptable projects for the Thematic Residencies throws a large net – practically any reading of the theme is gist for the mill. In parallel, the Visual/Media Arts does offer ‘self-directed residences,’ however these residences are not as subsidized as the Thematic Residences. (Co-productions for particular individual projects and workstudies are also juried on a continual basis.)

Yet the clear emphasis – and the largest allocation of support – is for the Thematic Residencies, ultimately a historical erosion of the role of The Centre Media/Visual Arts for Canadian and International artists, as it is a dissipation of actionable intents.

"At many stages we possess new constructible tools or new intellectual tools which obviously are bound to increase our powers considerably in some direction or other. The question is in what direction? It is just as truly a work of invention or discovery to find out what we are able to accomplish by the use of these new tools as it is to search for the tools which will make possible a new device or method." Norbert Wiener, The Care and Feeding of Ideas. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1994.

This premise of The Centre as a liminal space for cultural articulation would demand that it profoundly embrace the tenets of its own raison d'être. That it theorize, rationalize, and actualize its existence in terms of a vital synthesis of creativity, environmental awareness, and leadership education. To do so, The Centre is obliged to develop a level of integration, understanding, and appreciation between departments and disciplines not currently expressed. It is also required to produce, in a consistent and continuing way projects and publications heralding its own role as a key, attentive author in these fields.

Cultural renaissance, innovations in the arts, a democratic and active citizenry, the application of technology towards the liberation of individual creativity instead of further indenture to the system grid...How? Certainly by introducing a greater professionalism in the visual/media arts. That is to say a furthering of discourse, analysis and criticism of artistic practice and a substantial registration with the design arts (and industries), and with communications, civil planning and architecture. The introduction of these arts at The Centre should not however impinge on the other established areas, such as what was called once upon a time the fine arts; their addition must be accommodated without taking away from other areas.

Yearly seminars dealing expressly with the question of creativity and the care and nourishment of invention and innovation in all their forms (social, artistic, civil, structural, etc.) would be called for. Actual material, social goals and projects established at such meetings would make the seminars more than gabfests. Representatives from concerned player institutions– national and international – would be involved and an equal or larger number of independent artists/scholars contracted.

Currently the Banff New Media Institute, a division of the Media/Visual Arts department, holds seminars and workshops of crucial interests to digital artists. Directed by Sara Diamond and Susan Kennard, the seminars are generally brightly conceived propositions and queries of new media. They are smart and practical workshops that are orchestrated and composed by the directors to engineer ideas and projects. With its blend of raw cross disciplinary curiosity and practical applications, the Banff New Media Institute is, in miniature and in limited fashion, an example of the construct of the preceding arguments.

Here we are expressing purpose founded on utopian impulses, a cognition of the not yet achieved potentials of a Blochian analysis. Obviously this embracing is outside the perpetual refusals, postponements and ineptitudes of the academic post modernist conformist. It is crucially important that The Banff Centre for the Arts remain a centre for the independent artist/intellectual – not a conference retreat and recreational centre for those individuals who have already (too often) acquiesced and accommodated themselves to the status-quo in their fields, at their institution, or in the world.

Aesthetics is a subgenre of communication. Perhaps it is the valuation of communication – of the possibility of the creation and anamnesis of a self, of a soul. Therefore, it is a relative of ethics. A relative of ethics, or justice – a placing into just relationship, negotiation, and then the ecstasy of union, of pleasuring sense. A politics of aesthetics, a social of aesthetics would take seriously its responsibility to the environment, to definition, and to the body of humankind, as the ecology is the frame.

"The commodity under consumer capitalism is infinitely substitutable and indefinite. In this way substitutability becomes the principle of the production of meaninglessness. The response of the much serious art of the late twentieth and early twenty–first centuries is to confront substitution with definition." Sean Cubitt.

To be more than a data cloud amongst the data clouds the value of the individual transforms from sign to signification, becoming articulate through social, political and poetic connection and empathy. Grounded in aspiration, i.e. the ground of the mortal alive, the traverses and articulations, shades and raptures of the movement of our days become the marks and masks of our art and our society. The work is rebellion against the occultation of self and politics by the facileness of consumerism, the ignorance of careerism, and the imbecility of institutionalisms. Via the vision from the top of the Mountain, the work of engagement turns to demands, necessities.

Banff Centre

Oliver Hockenhull