Dr. Sara Diamond completed her BA Honours in History and in Communications at SFU in 1990. She has been steering Toronto’s prestigious OCAD University since 2005.

History, Alumni

Sara Diamond, Digital Media Arts Pioneer, on her "Early Days" at SFU

October 16, 2015

In August 2015, in partnership with the International Symposium on Electronic Art (ISEA), SFU Galleries presented a keynote talk by OCAD University President, Dr. Sara Diamond on early video and media production in Vancouver. Diamond is a renowned television and new media producer, director, video artist, curator, critic and artistic director. With ties to the Banff Centre as Director of Television and Radio (1992-94) and Director of Research (2003-2005) and as the founder and Artistic Director of the Banff New Media Institute (1994-2005), Diamond also has her Masters in Performative New Media Arts at St. Martins College of Art and Design (2007) and a and a PhD in Computing IT and Engineering at the University of East London (2009).

But before these achievements, Diamond was a labour activist in Vancouver and student at SFU. Born in New York, Diamond and her family moved to Toronto, Canada in the 1950s. When asked how she ended up at SFU, Diamond recalls being drawn to the social and political scene in Vancouver during the 70s and 80s: “I had been traveling to Latin America and seen the West Coast. I was inspired by the social and political scene on the West Coast—the labour and women’s movements, in particular. Vancouver had this reputation as a place of social transformation, progressive politics and socially-minded causes.” 

In the 1970s and 1980s Diamond worked with the Association of University and College Employees (AUCE), organizing non-unionized labourers at UBC, and she had a job at the SFU Theatre. When Diamond enrolled at SFU as a mature student, she balanced activist work while taking a range of courses in arts and social sciences: “I took courses in Latin American Studies, Canadian History, Sociology, Communications, Fine Arts, Liberal Studies. But it was my work as an organizer that inspired the research I did for the Women’s Labour History Project. I was really inspired through my activism at the time: here I was finding these histories through my contacts in the labour movement and I wanted to do more with that.”

Woodcut print accompanying an article by Diamond for Kinesis.

Between 1979 and 1980, Diamond interviewed and recorded 43 interviews with women who had been active in the British Columbia trade union movement from the 1890s. In the interviews that comprise the Women’s Labour History Project, housed at SFU Archives,  “the women discuss their childhoods, family lives, careers, social issues such as childcare and birth control, economic situations such as the depression and post-war employment, and the working condition that led them to become union activists.”

Diamond says that in the 70s and 80s the academic study of oral history was not as widely accepted as it is today and the methodologies to do so were still emerging.  “It was, for me, a great opportunity for incredible discovery, recording these stories of women in labour. SFU was a place incredibly supportive of that innovation and all the people I worked with were so open to that. In the History department, Bryan Palmer and Mary Lynn Stewart were particularly important figures.” 

While SFU supported innovation and emerging methodologies, Diamond also notes that the social and political context of the 70s and 80s could be quite polarized. “I was really involved in the SFU Women’s Centre at SFU and there were people who opposed our work…I remember seeing my name attached to hate graffiti in an SFU bathroom; that happened too. So it was also a politically charged time.”

Motivated, in part, by the social and political climate and wanting her research to “be more accessible to the general public,” Diamond wrote several articles for Kinesisa feminist periodical published by the Vancouver Status of Women from 1974-2001 and published two projects with radical, Vancouver-based, feminist publishing collective,Press Gang PublishersWomen’s Labour History in British Columbia: A Bibliography, 1930-1948 (1980)and Chambermaids and Whistle Punks: An Aural History of Women in B.C. Labour, 1930-55 (1982).

Making the research accessible also meant taking the Women’s Labour History Project beyond the confines of print media. Diamond did this by establishing her own production company, Women’s Labour History Project (WLHP) Productions, and becoming involved with Amelia Productions, a Vancouver feminist collective that produced documentary videos about women’s experiences in collaboration with unions, First Nations’ and other women’s groups. Using archival footage, photographs, and recorded oral history Diamond directed eleven films between 1988-95, all drawing from material she researched and recorded for the Women’s Labour History Project. Many titles, including Ten Dollars or Nothing, Lull Before the Storm, or On to Ottawa, were broadcast often throughout the 1990s in Canada and internationally on such channels as CBC, The Knowledge Network, PBS (in the United States), and Channel Four (in the United Kingdom).

Diamond graduated from SFU in 1990 with first class honours, majoring in History and minoring in Communications. She was awarded the Dean’s Medal, History’s Gold Medal for outstanding achievement in History, and History’s Stephen McIntyre Book Prize. Diamond has said that the seminars in Fine Arts at SFU were crucial to helping her stay engaged with the arts scene more generally. While pursuing her academic research, Diamond was also producing videos that addressed personal history, the past, and memory including Influences of my Mother (1982) and Patternity (1991). She says, in particular, a seminar on video art with Lisa Steele and Clive Robertson, were among the most influential. While at SFU, Diamond also had the opportunity to study with Bruce Barber and now-famous photographer Jeff Wall. The courses she took, she says, opened her up to art-making, semiotics and (feminist) psychoanalysis. “I was particularly inspired by feminist cultural critiques of narrative, feminist psychoanalysis and visual art in by like Kaja Silverman or Mary Kelly, for example.”

Since leaving SFU, Diamond has had a tremendously productive academic and artistic life. In addition to the many exhibitions of her artistic work, she has curated dozens of art exhibitions, led and co-led a number of federally-funded projects in the field of art, design, digital media production. Diamond became President of OCAD University in Toronto in 2005 and looks forward to continuing her educational leadership in media arts and design since been reappointed as President and Vice-Chancellor of the university in June, 2014