At 10:40 pm PST on January 31, 2022, Helen Bambic Workman took her last breath – less than an hour into the Lunar New Year, the Year of the Tiger. Helen was a bright spark and a techno matriarch. She will be deeply missed.
Helen Bambic Workman was born on June 22, 1935 in Kirkland Lake, Ontario to a Ukrainian mother and a Slovenian father. The family soon moved to Val‑d’Or, Quebec, and that’s where Helen grew up. She always said she was a country girl at heart. At 18, she moved to Montreal to study nursing at McGill University and trained at the Royal Victoria Hospital. Helen completed her course work but was denied certification when she became pregnant. She and her classmates were up in arms about this rule, and they made enough of a fuss that the policy was revoked the following year.
Helen got married in 1955. She said, “We never thought very much about marriage the way that young people do now. It was just something that everybody did. You just got married and had children. The first two kind of arrived and the second two were planned, and four was really enough… It never occurred to me that I would ever get divorced, because family was absolutely prime, children were prime, home was prime… When my marriage fell apart and I was going back to school, just being aware — Oh my God, I’m 40. What am I doing? What have I done? Where am I? So I thought, ‘well I can thread a 16mm projector, so I think I’ll just go into Cinema’.” (excerpt from Oh Mother!, documentary by Sandra Dametto and Sara Morley, 1998)
At 40, Helen enrolled in Concordia University’s Cinema program, and graduated with a BFA in Cinema Production in 1979. Right out of school, she was hired to run Concordia’s AVISTA (Audio‑Visual In‑Service Teaching Area), while continuing her studies in Educational Technology.
By 1989, Helen had been running AVISTA for ten years, and had earned a Masters in Educational Technology. She loved her job and felt privileged to serve students from a multitude of disciplines, constantly working to provide them with the best media production tools available.
“In December 1988, I personally purchased from Dr Peter Grogono, Computer Science, an Amiga 1000 computer … I became very excited about the Amiga and was amazed by its potential for becoming a quality production tool.” (Response of MITE to the Report of the Review Committee for AudioVisual Services, Helen Bambic Workman, 1994)
In January 1989, Helen hired Pamela Burns, a student enrolled in Linguistics who was a graduate of Ryerson and had an Amiga and production experience. AVISTA now had a tool to create professional looking video titles; make 2D animations on an amazing paint program; digitize images to bring graphics, photos and maps into the computer; digitize sound to load voice, music and sound effects; and all these elements could be processed and then transferred back onto videotape. This was novel and state of the art in 1989.
Pamela taught Helen how to use her Amiga, and computer science student Stefan Buchholz spent hours at the AVISTA office on Bishop Street, chatting with Helen about what was possible. She was full of ideas, and together they dreamed up the model for the MITE (Media Integrated Technology Environment) Lab — a kind of technology playground for students across the university, dubbed “the mighty lab” by those who worked there.
“I’d had the name MITE since 1984, at which time I had procured a copy of Nicholas Negreponte’s proposal for the MIT Media Lab. I decided then that it was exceedingly necessary for Concordia to have a media lab. The acronym MITE also came from Buckminster Fuller’s name for a minimum tetrahedron, a minimum system.” (Response of MITE to the Report of the Review Committee for AudioVisual Services, Helen Bambic Workman, 1994)
By March 1989, Helen had developed a proposal for Commodore Business Machines to provide a three-year loan to MITE AVISTA of 10 Amiga 2000 computers with 40 MB hard drives and 3 MB of RAM each. This was impressive back then. She also asked for nineteen monitors — nine student workstations to output to a nine‑monitor media wall, with the instructor’s computer outputting to a large screen via a ceiling mounted video projector. Commodore was presented with a vision and a concrete plan for integrating multimedia technology into education, and they agreed to the proposal.
The MITE Lab grew in the direction of the Amiga because, in 1989, it was the only personal computer that could do it all. It was a powerful multimedia machine, with a colour monitor, that could be used to create graphics, animations and music, as well as being a pioneer in desktop video editing when fitted with the Video Toaster.
“Helen wanted people to push the envelope of the technology as far as they could. At the time, the notion of ‘multimedia’ was still being defined. The only people who knew about it were the people actually doing it.* If you worked at the Lab, Helen would let you use it after hours, but on one condition, you had to share what you learned with others by teaching workshops.”
— Salvatore V Barrera, a video & multimedia producer and MITE maven * Design in Motion, Concordia Works, Michael Keegan, The Concordia Journal, 2006
Helen forged a team with varied experience and interests — she called us staff MITE ‘mavens’. She encouraged us to be imaginative, independent, focused, and curious, and she fostered an environment of innovation and cooperation. The MITE Lab was a place where students and faculty from any discipline, who were willing to put in the time and effort, could hone their skills and share what they’d learned with the people working alongside them. There was a spirit of collaboration and discovery.
“Unlike any other lab, Helen’s was truly open to everyone at the University. It was common to have biology students using our scanners to make slides, while a dance class edits a video, and a workshop was given on 3D design. This created a lot of cross‑pollination, and many long lasting personal and professional relationships were born at the Lab. One of my favourite memories is whenever someone had an idea to improve the Lab, Helen would always smile and say, ‘Great idea! You’re in charge!’ and she meant it.”
— Scott Prentice, a web developer and MITE maven
Helen inspired her team to have a vision and to hone their ability to find innovative ways to accommodate the learner. She believed it was important to focus on learning rather than teaching. To that end, a series of hands‑on workshops and seminars were developed to facilitate the learning of multimedia production tools: Computer Operating Systems; Paint Programs and Image Creation; 2D and 3D Animation; Desktop Publishing and Image Processing; Sound Sampling, Sequencing and Processing; Authoring Systems and CD Technology; Telecommunications; and Desktop Video. These workshops steadily evolved and were very well attended. At opening time on Monday, workshop registration day for the week, there was always a long line of eager students stretching down the hall on the mysterious third floor of the Hall Building, where the MITE Lab had its home.
“helen had a strong influence on my life, allowing me to grow. MITE AVISTA was staffed by generous and talented workers thanks to her. humour and goodwill was everywhere. so many belly laughs! dear helen was a strong advocate for free thought, technology, creativity, women’s rights and the underdog (aka. Amiga)! i am so glad to have visited her a few months before her passing, i whispered in her ear: “I LOVE YOU”. XOXOXOXO HELEN!”
— Steffy “LePew” Buchholz, a software developer and MITE maven
In the background, Nick Ostopkevich (Assistant Director, Technical Division) and his team gave the Lab their full tech support — finding countless quick and inventive solutions that went well beyond the maintenance and repair of equipment. Thanks to their efforts, the monitor wall worked flawlessly. Along with MITE’s intrepid System Administrators, they kept the Lab running.
“Working for, and with, Helen was a defining moment, a turning point, in my life. She was amazing. I will always be inspired by what I learned from her. In terms of learning about leadership and the art of delegating — if you had an idea for the Lab, Helen would respond with ‘Great idea, you’re in charge of making that happen’.”
— Deborah VanSlet, a storyteller and MITE maven
The landmark Women and the Fine Arts course, taught by Corrine Corry and Nell Tenhaaf, introduced students to the works of pioneering women video artists, and encouraged them to create their own videos at the MITE Lab. It was this class that led Deborah VanSlet and me to the Lab … and it changed the direction of our creative lives.
“Helen named the computers in the Lab after goddesses — Demeter, Artemis, Kali, Gaia. I still do that with my own today. I’ve kept up that tradition. There were as many women as men teaching and learning in the MITE Lab — unusual for the late 80s/early 90s. This was down to Helen’s welcoming and encouraging spirit. She made it clear to all the young women who dared to walk in the door that there was a place for them here — their ideas and creative visions would help shape the burgeoning multimedia landscape. She empowered us. She made it feel like anything was possible. Helen used to say to me, ‘I’m the best boss you’ll ever have’, and I replied, ‘You’re the last boss I’ll ever have’.”
— Sara Morley, a designer and MITE maven
Don Ritter was one of several Design Art faculty who used the Lab to supplement their own resources and make class presentations. A Computer Animation course, taught by Cinema prof Stephen Menzies, was feasible because the Lab had the required hardware and software. New media technologies were not being taught in the classroom yet. MITE Lab regulars often knew more than their profs about the emerging computer systems that were in the process of reshaping many aspects of our lives.
“Helen’s vision provided us with the instruments to expand our world to the cutting edge of what was happening in digital media no matter who you were, your background or economic means. She made the world so much bigger and better, and filled it with opportunity.”
— Phil Greene, a web developer and MITE maven
“It is to Concordia’s and AV’s credit that MITE has been able to evolve, as no other unit could, to meet the needs of the students, in spite of the lack of sufficient funding and support. This has been largely due to Mark Schofield’s support.” (Response of MITE to the Report of the Review Committee for AudioVisual Services, Helen Bambic Workman, 1994)
“I was recently thinking of Helen in the context of what was possible to achieve at Concordia outside the formal academic structure. Concordia offers opportunities that would never be possible in the more formally structured institutions. The MITE Lab was a wonderful example, and it was Helen’s enthusiasm and drive that made it possible.”
— Mark Schofield, Director, Audio‑Visual Department, Concordia University, 1987‑98
MITE AVISTA was Concordia University’s multimedia showcase, recognized in articles (Amazing Computing, March 1992) and on television (3‑minute piece on Pulse News, December 1992), with an operational philosophy based on developing the skills necessary for survival at the dawn of the 21st century.
“I have fond memories of Helen’s inestimable drive to keep the MITE Lab going and lead us toward an alternate vision of the techno‑present and future (ahh, the long‑suffering mighty Amiga…).”
— Tom Haig, a community health researcher and MITE maven
In 1995, Helen retired and went to live full‑time at her magnificent property in the Eastern Townships on Lake Memphremagog, near Mansonville. She continued to work on personal multimedia projects and often invited MITE mavens to her home to work on their own productions, while enjoying the fresh air and glorious view.
In 1999, Helen was featured in Oh Mother!, a documentary that takes a strikingly intimate look at the lives of three generations of mothers, broadcast on Mothers’ Day on the Women’s Television Network (WTN). It was directed by Concordia alumni and MITE mavens, Sandra Dametto and Sara Morley.
“I met Helen at the MITE Lab. The lab she created in the 90s before the internet was born. Before digital technologies like scanners and video equipment were everywhere. A place where students would gather and seriously tinker with computers to explore their potential, to test ideas. I was a first‑year communications studies student. I hung out at the MITE Lab a lot. So much so that she offered me a job. It’s how we became friends. Helen celebrated women, championed independent thinking, and wherever possible poured gas on creative potential. Helen had a lot of gusto. I will remember her wisdom, generosity, and distinctive insights or “Helenisms” — of which there are many. Her unique and fierce fire burns bright in my heart and mind. I am truly lucky to have known her.”
— Sandra Dametto, a digital innovator and MITE maven
The MITE Lab closed in 2003, but its impact is still being felt by the students and staff who began exploring multimedia technology there — many of whom have continued to work, create, and innovate in this domain.
In 2001, Helen moved to Victoria, BC to be near her children. She went on to study the Feldenkrais Method and became a practitioner, while maintaining a keen interest in the evolution of computer technology as a tool for education and creation.
“Helen. More than a force of nature, a force of exploration, and of endless learning. She was a pioneer of what we now call bio‑hacking. She mastered body‑work disciplines that made her more agile and flexible in her 70s than typical people in their 20s. A free‑thinking advocate of creative solutioning, if she thought you were onto something, she’d say “good idea — you’re in charge!” She embraced the democratization of new communications technology as an opportunity to inform and teach about the possibilities of conscious evolution. She wasted no time. She was busy improving herself, her world, and making opportunities for others. She was a sublime inspiration. We shared a lot. I owe her a lot. And I will never forget her.”
— Michael Boyce, a writer and MITE maven
At 86, Helen died peacefully in her sleep. She is mourned by her four children and her MITE family.
Cheers to Helen!!!
Written by Sara Morley, with help from Scott Prentice, Salvatore V Barrera, and Holly Workman, Helen’s daughter.