“Toward a Digital Imagination” project awarded SSHRC Connection Grant

Team: Lead Applicant: Theodora Vardouli, Co-applicants: Daniel Cardoso Llach (Carnegie Mellon University) and Nicolas Reeves (UQAM), Collaborator: Gabriella Aceves Sepulveda (Simon Fraser University).

Project description: How did 20th century developments in digital computation, software, displays, and hardware shape the aesthetic evolution of North-American design and architecture? How may we trace this evolution in contemporary cultures of creative practice? Before the advent of the personal computer, government and industry investment in computing research sought to propel the use of computers for manufacturing and design. Along with the new technologies, new conceptual and visual languages emerged. Through innovative, publicly engaged scholarship, “Toward a Digital Imagination” explores this period of remarkable inventiveness and traces its multidisciplinary aesthetic, material, and cultural repercussions.

The project includes an exhibition uniquely combining historical materials and contemporary artworks, scholarly presentations and workshops, and a high-quality printed catalogue. Engaging a variety of academic and non-academic audiences, it will enrich the public’s understanding of the vibrant interplay between technologies and cultures of creative practice.

A public exhibition will be hosted for two months in January 2021 at the Centre de design de l’UQAM — one of Montreal’s foremost galleries for art and design. It will showcase a unique combination of historical materials, interactive software reconstructions, and contemporary works by a selection of architects, designers, and artists experimenting with computation. The historical section of the exhibition showcases previously unseen or little known photographs, high quality reproductions, and films exploring the formative period of numerical control and computer graphics technologies between 1950 and 1980. A series of five interactive software reconstructions accompanies these historical materials, offering visitors the possibility of playfully interacting with pioneering systems for computer-aided design. Examining the influence of these technologies on present-day creative practices, the contemporary section of the exhibition showcases experimental works by Canadian and US artists, architects, and designers.

The exhibition adapts and expands “Designing the Computational Image, Imagining Computational Design”, which originated at the Miller Gallery of Contemporary Art at Carnegie Mellon University curated by co-applicant Prof. Cardoso Llach. As a result of a research collaboration with lead applicant Prof. Vardouli, the new exhibition brings into focus Canadian histories and practices of numerical control, computer graphics, and computer art in their enmeshment with architecture. Further, a symposium entitled “Digital.Visual.Material” will be held at McGill University in January 2021 bringing together scholars and practitioners of computational design from Canada, the US, and Europe.

Presentations by eminent scholars will be punctuated by hands-on workshops conducted by exhibition contributors. Finally, a high-quality reasoned catalogue, published with a widely-circulating architecture press, will document the exhibition and enrich it with brief essays and interviews.

From the playful and exploratory to the utilitarian and technical (and from historical archives to present-day practices) our project will illustrate how the expressive and functional possibilities of computational media challenged disciplinary boundaries — as well as dominant views on drawing, design, and creativity — ushering new aesthetic languages and intellectual debates. Highlighting shared practices, histories, and infrastructures that so far have remained distinct, it will offer a perspective from which we might critically reconstruct the visual, material, and intellectual histories of computation in design — and re imagine their future.

Link to the exhibition website: