The second edition of inter·mission, discussing and reflecting on wats:ON? 2017: Shift and Designing the Computational Image / Imagining ComputationalDesign. Download PDF.

Note from the Editors

In this special issue of INTER•MISSION, we celebrate and reflect upon the many provocative exhibitions and events that happened across the SoA community this Fall, exploring a range of attitudes towards issues of drawing, sensory perception, curating and historical research in contemporary design practices today.

Elizabeth Levy presents exquisite sketches of European
streetscapes from the Gindroz Prize Exhibition: Polis.

Kelly Li reflects upon works by artist Hadi Tabatabai over tapas.

Spike Wolff and Eddy Man Kim discuss their curatorial roles in the planning and execution of the exhibition Transitional Spaces and the 2017 wats:ON? Festival Across the Arts SHIFT.

Daniel Cardoso Llach calls for an awareness of the historical roots of computational design in today’s practice in his exhibition Designing the Computational Image / Imagining Computational Design.

The Living Street Reconfigured
Elizabeth Levy

Sketching is a critical technique in capturing a specific space or time. The Gindroz Foundation provided me with an opportunity to understand public spaces across the globe and record this public performance through a series of drawings illustrating patterns of movement and communication. An individual sketch creates an opportunity to highlight or abstract various components of the built environment, and a series of sketches reveals the human actions in each case study.

Reflections on Hadi Tabatabai
Kelly Li

When the elevator doors opened to the 3rd floor of the Miller Gallery, I almost stayed inside. I admit — it took me a second to realize that the room was, in fact, not empty. Only later did I realize perhaps it was a deliberate effect of his intention, which he described in his lecture as an attempt to create neutrality.

Leading up to the wats:ON? Festival, I spent a week and a half trying to understand the mind of Hadi Tabatabai. My journey began with reading articles about him and experiencing his work at the Miller Gallery. During Back2Front, the discussion pulled out some of the the varied reactions to him, and the following week I joined a small group in a four-hour conversation with Hadi over tapas. The voyage culminated in his lecture at the College of Fine Arts.

A week later, I’m still trying to post-process these events. How do you describe such a person in just seven hundred words?

Plenty of articles exist that debate his work, some using the inadequate but understandably-used word of “minimalist”, others arguing its politicization through its lack of politics, some even flattening him to a spiritually-driven ascetic. Regardless of how he or his pieces are perceived, there is no denying that his work is exquisite through its attention to craft. It operates as a kind of dual-meditation: a meditation for Hadi in its creation, and a meditation for the viewer who stands in front of it. Someone watching me in the Miller would have seen me with my face six inches away from the wall, slowly moving side to side or forwards and backwards, noticing the way the shadows moved or how the meticulously-placed overlaps would misalign and realign. Spike Wolff, the force behind bringing Tabatabai here, said that her favorite comment in response to the work at the Miller was when someone asked, “Was this made by a machine?” Spike’s response was simply, “Hadi is the machine.”

It’s true that Hadi is the machine of his art, but I was also intrigued by everything that made him more than a machine. The dinner was a peek into his brain beyond the simple label of “artist”. Whenever someone asked a question, he would begin by explaining his viewpoint and then throw in a one-liner like, “Human beings are usually not conscious,” and we would stop him, demand some extra explanation, and continue only to hit another sentence like, “I’m pretty sure I am dreaming more than 90% of the time,” and we would pivot again, and so on and on the words flowed in a chain of interlocking ideas until the sole waitress not-so-subtly placed the check on the table.

From that conversation, I could sense that Hadi felt his views and even his art were desperately trying to transcend the limits of what language allows for. Within each word is all of the baggage that comes with it, and to Hadi those connotations were just mental limitations. He understood that words were the tools of communication, just as his art was, but that a certain clarity or order or perfection — while always worth being in pursuit of — could never be attained. His exhibit was dubbed “Transitional Space” because it is about murky inbetweens or the expanse found in a gap, even within the extremities of precision. But even then if those terms were the best for describing his work, he also understood their restraints as a filter between him and the viewer. His pursuit of order brought about a profoundly heightened relationship with disorder, and he had come to peace with that.
Ultimately I can only give my own perspective glimpses of his reality. My reflection is based on what I’ve gleaned from interacting with him as a thinker and a creator over the span of ten days. At the end of the day, the quote I keep remembering from him is this:

It became clear that all image-making was basically mark-making, and perhaps the person making the marks wanted to say, “I existed”.

In Conversation with Spike Wolff & Eddy M. Kim

[Spike stands back and admires Hadi Tabatabai’s installation, after diligently fixing the tangled threads on one of the panels.]

SW: We just come here to meditate every morning.

[A moment of silent repose]

IP: So what motivated you to pick Hadi as the anchor artist for this year’s wats:ON? festival?

I’ve been following his work for quite sometime now and despite the fact that he has primarily exhibited works on gallery walls, to me they have always been very spatially responsive. So when I was curating the last festival I decided to pitch the idea of putting up an installation in the Great Hall to him. He took some time to consider the proposal, and two weeks later agreed to doing it. I sent him photos of the space and he began to make mockups for what he wanted to do, and it became — what I call — an exploded thread painting. After we secured that, I was meeting with fabricators but it turned out he had already enrolled in a water jet class and had begun construction of the first frame, and planned on stringing the threads of all six panels by himself.

He’s always been used to shipping and installing the artwork himself. He even included full IKEA-style pictograms and jigs when required to facilitate the installation of each piece in the gallery, so he was in a sense with us as the work went up, even if he couldn’t actually be there himself. For the installation, Did he need to string each panel himself six times? No, probably not. But it became his own personal challenge, and a way to really explore the limits and possibilities of the work. Now that he’s done this piece, I think if he were to scale up he would try to assemble a team to assist him because he doesn’t need to go through that alone again. But that’s just part of his practice, you know. Being one with the material, the string, his friends, as he would call them.

IP: In a similar way to how he didn’t call himself an artist until he got used to other people calling him an artist, he is also slowly getting used to the idea of letting other people participate in the process. But perhaps the question becomes whether the process begins to be a little bit removed from himself and how he understands the work.

I can’t speak for him, but this question has always come up. Is the fact that Richard Serra is not personally fabricating the steel plate make the art any less of his work? I don’t think so. The architect isn’t doing everything all by his or her own self either. It’s all about collaboration. Even more so with artwork, at a certain point that mentality just doesn’t make sense to me, and that goes with the act of making the work. You may have a plan but you have to also be open to where the work and the process take you. I’m not sure if this installation has much deviation from his original planning but it’s really about him understanding not so much about the thread itself but more about the materiality of the scale, this type of frame, how it was deflecting, and how it needed to be managed.

IP: What was the process of picking works for the Miller Gallery exhibition?

It was all him. We gave him a floor plan, some photographs and a sketchup 3D model. Usually that would be part of my job as curator, but Hadi doesn’t need me to tell him how to do this. He really thought about how these paintings would work spatially.

IP: What was the process like to work with someone who is perhaps controlling of the curation of the work?

It’s brilliant. It’s wonderful. It’s great. He doesn’t think he’s controlling. It’s the work that is controlling — he jokingly considers himself as the laborer of the work. But he also means it. In a way he’s also just trying to be efficient. I didn’t expect anything less. I’m certainly glad to lay out the work but I know damn well he wants to do it and he should do it. He knows the work best, and has the best sense of how it may adapt to a new context.

IP: There is an interesting dissonance between his intensely personal process of hand threading the paintings and the machinic aesthetic of process-driven works that belongs to the tradition of minimal art.

Well, even though artists don’t always enjoy the term minimal art, works like Hadi’s are still within that tradition. I think for him though it’s very important to remove the personal. He talked about when he started art school he was an abstract expressionist, which of course is, “Let me show you my angst with you”. He tries to pull that out in order for everyone to have his or her own experience with the work. It’s funny to me because a lot of people come with the intention that they have to attach external value to viewing the works, in order to ‘understand’ them. They ask questions like, “What does it mean?” or, “What am I supposed to think?” when in fact these are the most accessible of any work because you don’t have to come in knowing a damn thing. If you are visually sighted, you can experience the work, and that’s it. You don’t need anything else, it’s all personal perception, which to me makes the works the least elitist and most accessible.

IP: It’s also influenced by the association people have with an institutionalized art space. Perhaps when you put the work in a public space, like the Great Hall, it becomes part of people’s daily lives. They’re no longer pressured to ponder on what it means. It really changes the way that you interact with the works.

Yes, that is also why it’s so important to put up an installation in the Great Hall as part of the festival. It extends the festival and reaches people so they can just encounter it as they go, which is the way things should be. I’m really glad he did it. It will be interesting to see now where he takes his work. I think he’s intrigued by the possibilities...

IP: Can you speak to the planning of Body Drift with Jake Marsico and Chris Carlson in relation to the rest of the festival?

Sure. As far as the lineage of how the festival went, the theme and the anchor artist came first, then the performance. For the performative aspect, we began with the ambition of subverting norms of perception in a way that is more interactive and formative. We also had the aspiration of promoting local artists. Hadi is someone who is more internationally renowned so we thought it would nice to put local artists such as Jake on the map with the lineup. He’s actually never done a performance before so I think he made the intelligent decision to bring Chris on, and as we developed the festival we realized there is a lot of alignment, physically and emotionally between Jake’s piece and what Hadi is displaying here in the gallery. Thematically it really did tie together nicely. Another risk we took as curators was that we didn’t really know everything about the performance until the day of the rehearsal. We took that risk and in good faith we entrusted that creative license to Jake and Chris and they delivered.

As a curator the question becomes: how much can we control and how much can we let grow organically. It’s a really interesting balance. I’m sure it’s something Spike has dealt with in previous festivals, but it is certainly a scary process.

SW: I think it's really interesting though, now that you put it that way. Every year there’s always some risk, with certain things more than others, but the risk always affords the most successful moments.

EMK: I would argue that most curators in the world don’t operate like this. I bet they want to exert as much control as they can. I learned a lot from this process: what it means to curate, what it means to support the arts, and what that really means to me. The conclusion is it’s not all about control, it’s always about letting a few things go, letting that creativity have a life of its own.

IP: With artists like Hadi, Jake, and Chris, who are perhaps not as globally known than some others, there is almost an interesting elusiveness in how you can curate their work. Perhaps the process allows freedom and unexpectedness for you guys and the viewers to experience the work in a more intimate and unique setting.

That’s a really good point.

EMK: There was some recognition about the changing of cultural ties in Pittsburgh that I think we should recognize as an institution. Obviously, inviting big names helps. There’s a practical side that we need to be constantly thinking about, but it’s certainly a balance.

IP: What is some feedback you’ve gotten for the show?

My favorite feedback was from Art (Lubetz) when he said, “I felt something!” That’s really all I could ask for. More specifically about the performance, everyone came in and walked away with something unique of their own. Some people actually drifted off, dreamt a little bit, and as the sequence changed were brought right back to the performance. I think that kind of cadence of where your mind is and what you focus on was played around in really interesting ways. Open-endedness is what makes art interesting to me, rather than something that is overly prescriptive.

IP: In a way that open-endedness is a connection between the audience, Hadi, the performance, and you guys as faculty within the School of Architecture curating an arts festival.

Part of the ethos was also to do and see what’s possible. I think there’s something to be said about overly defining what we do in the disciplines we operate in. The moment you say you are an architect and you operate in this way, you’ve already shackled yourself to a particular way of thinking and working. But to say there are these other issues that are not bound by disciplines that you want to explore, such as perceptual shifts, the conversation becomes a lot more interesting. That’s the world we’re heading toward. The means start to follow to the end that we want to accomplish.

In Conversation with Daniel Cardoso Llach

IP: It’s really quite interesting to see the subtle connections between these three exhibitions that we have in the gallery now.

It wasn’t planned, but there is a certain sense of rhythm and visuality that at least Hadi’s work shares with some of the work that we have here. I talked to Hadi about that on the opening night, and he said that, to him, geometry wasn’t too important, but I don’t believe him. It’s very important, subconsciously at least.

IP: So this exhibit stems from your research at MIT and Cambridge and also your book, Builders of the Vision: Software and the Imagination of Design (Routledge, 2015). You position computation technology and design within a much wider historical and cultural framework, and outline its evolution and trajectory throughout the decades. Can you speak to your curatorial approach for this exhibition?

Sure. The show wants to frame a conversation about computation and design that is sensitive to the specific visual and material histories of technology, and that highlights how design theories and technologies are related. So I divided the show into three sections: Software Comes to Matter, Structured Images, and Interaction and Intelligence, which are the three conceptual streams that extend from the post-war era into today’s computational design cultures. If you look at what’s going on in architecture & design in terms of robotics, fabrication, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and other general approaches to creativity, you realize it’s all embedded within the same discursive scaffolding that was created in the 1950s. I say that critically because as a researcher I’m not in the business of promoting digital tools, or trumpeting a computational revolution. My goal is to identify and make visible these long-standing intellectual trajectories. When we put these trajectories in perspective, we can appreciate better their actual potentials, and at the same time we become less vulnerable to ideologies of technological determinism and innovation, and the anxieties they induce, that are so pervasive today. I think that’s the role of historical understanding in relation to technology. Finally, I didn’t want the exhibition to be just about the visual. I wanted to evoke the gestural and sensual aspects of these technologies; to approximate what it was like to see and touch these systems sixty years ago. That’s where the interactive software reconstructions of Sketchpad and the Coons patch came from.

IP: Looking at these beautifully constructed digital drawings, one can even begin to trace ontologically back to the Renaissance and the observational methods of dealing with shapes and geometries.

Definitely. In fact, books from the eras of the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution played a big role in the completion of some of these technologies, and these engineers, for example Larry Roberts, actually recall going to the library to read about perspective mathematics in books written centuries earlier, in order to simulate it in the computer. So in a sense, these technologies were also works of translation. The researchers who built them aimed at codifying this knowledge in the language of the computer, matrices, in order to make it operable.

IP: At the same time there is a very particular digital aesthetic agenda behind these sterile radar screens. Perhaps even alluding to the postwar modernist aspiration for progress and reconstruction.

There is definitively an aesthetic world emerging here, but I would not describe it as part of an agenda, as this would suggest some kind of scheme or ulterior motive. On the one hand it was a result of the limitations of the technology at the time. They had these CRT monitors, oscilloscopes, and radar screens to work with. The images’ distinctive glow results from a chemical reaction on a phosphorous coating on a piece of glass, triggered by a cathode ray tube. On the other, they allude to very pragmatic tradition of engineering graphics. There’s something beautiful about those images; their simplicity; and their materiality. That is part of what the show tries to illuminate.

As you know a few years ago the Canadian Centre for Architecture commissioned Greg Lynn to curate a series of exhibitions called “Archaeology of the Digital.” These were beautifully produced, and shed light on fantastic archival materials explaining how some architects adopted computers in the 80s and 90s, and how their use in architecture evolved until today. However, they do not really offer an archaeology of the digital. A true archaeology of the digital needs to look at the technical and cultural infrastructures underpinning those architectural manifestations. That’s precisely what I tried to do with this show at Miller Gallery. It highlights the artistry of the engineers, mathematicians and other researchers, and makes visible, and palpable, the aesthetic capacities of the technologies they developed, and which architects adopted much later. It’s important to see and recognize that contemporary sensibilities in architecture and design have been shaped by these infrastructures. That they configured new imaginaries of design, of materiality, of representation, and elicited new conceptions of creativity, and labor. As architects we have a sort of unpaid debt with these histories. We have tended to see technologies as purely instrumental, as some sort of empty vessels. But they’re in fact embedded with theoretical and ideological force, as well as with aesthetic capacities. Recognizing this intellectual heritage is very important for architectural and technology criticism, and practice, because this recognition allows us to draw and situate ourselves within longer trajectories of thought, which can inspire new perspectives and better ground future explorations. In the Coda of my book I wrote about that classic dismissal of technologists by architects, including some who I respect. We can kid ourselves to think creative agency lies on the individual designer, but I think it’s necessary, not to mention more interesting and productive, to incorporate the socio-technical infrastructures that we operate on into an expanded conception of creativity. Every time we open a Rhino or Revit file, we are in conversation with a material and political history of these technologies, and with a wealth of laboriously codified knowledge. Is that bad? No, because it can help us develop a more nuanced and sophisticated understanding of our own practice as well as our role as designers and things we make.

IP: There is also a political dimension to this exhibition. It’s not difficult for one to see the connections between the application of these computational technologies and the military-industrial complex. The historian Beatriz Colomina theorizes the domestic home as a political propaganda of democracy, and in a similar way, these computational technologies and methods were also acting as weapons during the Cold War.

Definitely. In the US, the CAD and numerical control projects were funded by the US Air Force, a fact which hints at their militaristic intent. However, during the cold war’s ‘competitiveness doctrine,’ the US government sought to leverage computer technologies for industry as much as for strengthening their military. So, I think there are two ways of looking at this. On the one hand, there’s a somewhat naïf or lazy approach where one says “Oh yeah, that’s military stuff, and that’s kind of bad”. Certainly, we should talk about technology and empire. But on the other hand, we might look closely and understand that, for example, technologies such as CAD, numerical control, and the Internet, which have transformed the way in which we do most things, were publicly funded, government projects. I am interested in how this fact challenges dominant narratives and myths about innovation based on individual, private entrepreneurship. This question is particularly relevant under our current political climate when public investment in science and technology is under attack, and when individual figures, think Elon Musk, seem to have replaced the State as heroic enablers of progress —despite being heavily supported by that State.

Perhaps more specifically to your question, the notion of mass customization, that every person can have a design of their own, or be their own designer, was already an important theme in early discourses of computational design in the 1960s. It was one of many rhetorical devices to civilianize the computer. But, as I write in Builders of the Vision, this proposition enacted a particular politics which, problematically, cast people’s ability to participate of design —or of democracy— as a technological effect. A recent book by Fred Turner also explores this context, showing how notions of individuality, of uniqueness, were consciously deployed as cold-war propaganda in the US side, affirming by contrast a view of the other side as totalitarian and homogeneous.

IP: How do you think private funding changes the development of these technologies?

That’s a great question. The appropriation of publicly-funded technologies by the private sector has always been in the books, by design. This was the case with the numerical control project in the 1950s, and in the CAD Project through the 1970s. It was always the plan to involve industry early on. The government provided funding to research laboratories to develop new technologies and applications which would then trickle down into the civil sector. What we see today is a tighter imbrication of technology companies, such as Google, with governments, in a way that destabilizes the role of government as the instigator of technological innovation and, beyond, as the enabler of social progress. We are just entering a different historical moment from the cold war.

IP: And the propaganda war becomes this promotion of opposition between the human/individual and the machine/State, when in fact they are one and the same thing.

That’s exactly how I think about it. They’re part of the same history, and they are, by design, connected. As we just talked, the idea of democratizing design, of civic empowerment through technologies, are part of this larger ongoing enterprise of civilianizing technologies because, as you remember, in the 1950s and 1960s, computers were war machines. So, when these engineers talked about computers they innovated the language that we use to refer to them. They developed tropes of the computer as a “perfect slave” for designers and architects; or as a “collaborative partner”; or anthropomorphized the computer as a friendly aide to make it more approachable. So, their innovations were not only technical, but also rhetorical. These are the cultural origins of the personal computer, and also of the maker movement, and of the hackerspace. We may think of Apple’s famous 1984 ad referencing George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 as the beginning of this sensibility, but in reality it is a cultural and political project that has been brewing since the late 1940s.

IP: What are you thoughts on this fear in both academic and public discourses that once you give intelligence to machines they would take over humans?

I think it’s fake news. The notion that machines are anywhere near behaving intelligently is a fiction peddled by software entrepreneurs for the purpose of getting investors to fund their companies, and by lazy journalists for the purpose of selling clicks. It’s a harmful fiction because it creates an aura of inevitability that shuts down the possibility of analysis. In reality, nothing ever works —well, some things do, to a degree, but never as planned. I’m more interested in creating spaces for us to think about technology in design as a territory for reflection, speculation, and criticism. And in fostering perspectives on technology that avoid techno-deterministic sales pitches, and focus on what we can observe.

IP: In one of your lectures, you compared computational technology to railroad infrastructure, how it’s always present and invisible. Keller Easterling came to lecture a couple weeks ago and cautioned us against the uncritical embrace of computational technology in infrastructural and spatial practices. Can you speak to your stance on how these technologies should operate in greater society?

I think both Keller and I are influenced by the field of STS (Science and Technology Studies). We think about questions such as how can we recognize system’s material, social, and technical dimensions? And how might this understanding help us challenge totalizing discourses about efficiency, in order to reveal what’s really happening or what’s interesting? Keller has a really nice expression, to the effect that we should look less at the stories and more at technologies’ “observed dispositions.” I would say that my work, including this show, tries to do the same. So I’m not a theorist, but rather an empirical researcher. I like to look at things.