In April, the Walker Art Center presents three free programs dedicated to Film in the Cities (1970–1993), a foundational, filmmaker-led arts organization that fomented a mission to make moving image production, education, and appreciation part of the creative life of the Twin Cities. In advance of the series, Moving Image Coordinator Kelsey Bosch met with FITC founder Tom DeBiaso for a conversation on the origins of the organization and media arts education.
Film in the Cities is a name I recognize through casual mention in filmmaking classes I took as an undergrad at the University of Minnesota but which otherwise largely carries an air of mystery. Working on the Film in the Cities: A History and Legacy series offered an opportunity to delve into the history of our film community in the Twin Cities and ponder the magnitude of artist-driven media and media arts education. As someone working in the field as an artist, adjunct faculty, and in my role at the Walker, the series has proven an incredible immersion into the reality of a different era—one in which technology, education, and resources were hard to come by and where barriers were significant but the budding ballast of youth- and artist-driven media pushed against a passive acceptance of popular media culture consumerism.
In 2016, Tom DeBiaso was the director of the graduate program at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, where I received my MFA in media arts. He developed both the MFA program and the media arts department at MCAD after founding Film in the Cities. I was curious to learn how he began: what impulse lead him to develop programs in media arts education and how his philosophies on teaching and education have matured over the past 50 years. What was the impetus for what became a landmark media arts center?
KELSEY BOSCH (KB)
When you were starting Film in the Cities (FITC), how were media arts perceived?
TOM DEBIASO (TDB)
To frame some of the genesis for FITC, it really began for me as a graduate student. I was at St. Cloud State University studying painting, and I was also taking film and photography classes. Nobody really knew anything; most of the information you got was from going to a camera store. So I was interested in combining media and photography and painting, and that was personally really comfortable, but it didn’t really fit into the creative matrix of the arts community at that time.
Photography wasn’t shown in commercial galleries. It wasn’t collected. There were only a few places teaching filmmaking and photography. Where I was at in St. Cloud, there really was not much offered. I kept hearing about this thing called “underground film” that sounded very exciting and dangerous, but it was hard to get artists films.
What led you to establish FITC?
One of the things that was seminal for me was when a few of us at St. Cloud began to talk about the difficulty of access to certain kinds of education. We put together this little program, which operated for a couple of months, called the Experimental College. People were generously teaching classes for free, and it was a huge success. So it was really about teaching for the love of it, which fit into the social dynamic of the time. It was very entrepreneurial, and I think I realized the potential in that.
During my last year of graduate school, one of my graduate committee members, Ruel Fishman, who taught film aesthetics, was contacted by Susan Anderson of the St. Paul Arts and Science Center. This is where everything stemmed—Susan Anderson was hired to run an education program. They were casting around ideas for something interesting for kids to do on a Saturday, and they contacted Ruel. Ruel didn’t know anything about film production, so he grabbed me right away to teach this class, which was wonderful. We worked with junior high and high school kids from the East Side of St. Paul. It’s hard to understand now how difficult it was back then to learn how to make a movie or photograph, to get access to the equipment, the facilities, and education that wasn’t commercial or feature-filmmaking, which was so remote. With a few important exceptions, there wasn’t an air of generosity in the old media production guard. They didn’t feel personal expression was worthwhile. This new idea about media work wasn’t being taught in many places, and it occurred to me with my experience in organizing around the war movement and social issues, as well as the Experimental College, that media was more and more important. How it impacts the culture, the communication of television, the coverage of Vietnam, people began to think of photography as a language in itself. Pictures began to tell stories in a bigger way.
What were your initial motivations? Did you have any support?
It occurred to me that young people were in a situation where they were always reading or consuming media, but they never had the opportunity to write or produce. I was interested in that action, in that impulse: how could I be part of what we called at the time “media literacy”? We started to understand what media was; we started to talk about it and that it was a process that began through making. It wasn’t just the study of media; it was core and fundamental that people make media. They had to have access to the tools, they had to have access to the information, and the work needed to be shown.
How did that change affect the way media was regarded and consumed?
Well, I think anytime you actually make something, and you see that you made a representation of something in your life and in your community, and you look at that alongside something in a magazine and it has a similar credence, in that sense you own that power. There was a newness and an interest in photography, and people were beginning to talk about it as an art form. We were also starting to get exposure to independent film, artist-made films, and artists like Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage, Shirley Clark, Susan Pitt, and Andy Warhol.
What was it like to see the films again now, nearly 50 years later?
The work was better than I remembered it, which I thought was pretty damn interesting. Everything was so challenged back then. “What is this stuff? This is so weird! This was not what we were used to seeing. Who has the right to do this?” All of those questions were raging around all of this beautiful creative work that was being done. The challenge is quieter now. So maybe the core and fundamental value, quality, and authenticity of that work I can see with fresh eyes.
I imagine putting cameras in the hands of youth and giving them the opportunity to project their voices was challenging the status quo of education at that time.
Absolutely, it was. Some people didn’t like it, some people loved it. It seemed like the outcome was unknown. What was this all going to lead to? Was this revolutionary? Was this unseemly? Was this the most wonderful creative thing imaginable? Yes, it was!
In the second year, we moved FITC to an offsite location that gave us more independence and was real studio space. It was very grassroots: we built by ourselves an editing room, a sound mixing studio, and eventually a dark room. Then we expanded the course offerings. By the end of the second year all the components were there: studio-based alternative junior and senior high school educational programs, community media outreach and community equipment access, production facilities for film and photography, a darkroom, exhibition programs for film and photography, teacher and community media instruction.
There was this community that was being supported. But at the same time, for example, the Minnesota Museum of American Art wouldn’t show photography, and the Minnesota State Arts Board would not fund media. There were questions as to whether film and photography were legitimate art forms. The Walker Art Center had, by some brilliant impulse, a film curator. So immediately we started to connect with the Walker. There was a photography curatorial program at Minneapolis Institute of Art that Ted Hartwell was running, and he was very serious about collecting photographs and showing photography at the museum. There was also University Community Video, which was much more social action oriented with video and access to video and documentaries, and they eventually spun off and became Intermedia Arts. The U Film Society, run by Al Milgrom, was showing European films, primarily. These were films you couldn’t see anywhere else.
How did this early career teaching experience form your lifelong passion for education and your teaching philosophy?
An interdisciplinary approach was always there in my thinking—that one could have a lot of different skills which create a literacy as a maker and a consumer. Being a creative person and figuring out how to make a life in art and design, and I mean really making that life, the possibility of that seemed to me unimaginable. As someone who was a terrible student in high school and coming from a small state university, that a person could actually make a life at this was a dream come true, and I wanted to share that with other people.
What about the FITC story and legacy is particularly important to tell now?
I was part of the inception of FITC and left after about four years, and it continued on another 16 or so years after that. So I can only speak to what I was involved in. The other faculty and staff at FITC in the three years that were core to its development were Kathleen Laughlin, Rick Weise, Rod Eaton, and Diane Brennan, plus countless others. Seminal students were Edie French and Paul Auguston. Administrative support from the St. Paul Arts and Science Center was from Marlow Burt, executive director, and Susan Anderson, education director.
Any creative movement is important to look at. It’s the historical fiber that makes us who we are. Innovation always stands on what’s come before. FITC was a really important organization that existed for over 20 years. After it formally ended, it moved into an access center and that merged with Independent Feature Project North, which is now FilmNorth. That its legacy still continues is unbelievable. What’s important about FITC is that it exists. We can go over to St. Paul, to FilmNorth. We can take classes there, we can see films and visiting artists, we have access to equipment and funding. It legitimized the creative impulse to work in film, photography, and video as an art form and as part of a cultural community in this area. It was the action of pushing and the idea of not waiting. We’re losing a lot of our independent spaces, so it can be an inspiration to start new things, to push into places where people don’t want you to be.