One of the most original artists working today, Refik Anadol is redefining what it’s like to be a human experiencing life in the digital age of AI
Data is an overloaded word. From information in its rawest form to personal details strip mined for profit on social media networks, the word teems with associations negative, positive, and neutral.
Even so, few would have considered data as the source material – and often the subject matter – of visual art until Refik Anadol appeared. He’s the front man for a band of artists, software engineers, gamers, dreamers, mavericks, and architects working at the frontier of art and AI, creating what he calls “data sculptures.”
Over the past decade, the Refik Anadol Studio has dreamed up and executed some of the most challenging and provocative works in the contemporary canon of media art. In summing up the big picture of his work, he says over a Zoom chat, “We are not denying the ethical problems of technology or saying there’s no turbulence or inequality or dangerous concepts that might harm humanity’s vision. I’m just trying to say that data can also be a form of memory, and this memory in any form may also become a pigment and become a structure and a material.”
A poetic journey in the mind of a machine explored with vast synthetic landscapes of Mars to image a space yet reachable by humankind. Providing texture to this still unfamiliar place, Machine Hallucinations – Latent Study : Mars illustrates a dreamscape of possible futures and hidden pasts.
By way of an example take “Machine Hallucination.” This 30-minute-long show – or is it more like a ride? – which debuted in New York, is as immersive as an arthouse film or a videogame. It’s a sensory trip, which has the power of a mind-altering hallucinogen used by ancient shamans to enact healing rituals or the counter-culture hippies of the 1960s to “raise consciousness,” that’s composed of images flashing, shimmering, wavering across the walls and floors, from pixelated cityscapes to torrents of streaming data that emulate natural phenomena such as geysers and meteor showers, set to a soundtrack of avantgarde electronica.
The installation uses some 113 million images of New York taken from opensource data. It was put together with the help of AI. Is the viewer witnessing the inside of a machine’s mind processing data or the man-machine merger of a new kind of consciousness emerging like a butterfly from a cocoon to take flight on a virtual wing and a digital prayer? Refik’s work invites such poetic speculations. It also invites many different interpretations.
“This can be the pessimistic, optimistic, utopian, dystopian. My preference is generally the beauty, the positive, the good, because I think we need that more than ever, but it doesn’t mean that we are ignoring the ramifications. It’s not about ignoring or denying. It’s about saying different things and feelings of wellbeing and being connected,” says the Turkish-American artist.
With his black tunic and black glasses, Refik looks like one of the nerd-cool fanboys you might see at a sci-fi conference. Now in his mid-thirties, he’s retained his dimpled and boyish looks. After spending 40 minutes talking to him on Zoom, I suspect that his youthful attitude and appearance must stem from the relentless curiosity that powers his creativity.
Admirers of his work know that seeing the film Blade Runner at an early age kicked his imagination into overdrive. But the actual title of the novel by Philip K Dick that inspired the film is, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” This speculation – machines developing consciousness and the ability to dream – is a central conundrum in much of Refik’s work. At the same time, it’s also a metaphor.
For example, in another installation, “WDCH Dreams,” Refik Anadol Studio processed a century’s worth of digital archives from the Los Angeles Philharmonic to project them back onto the famous building designed by Frank Gehry. Does it appear that the building is dreaming? Or is it a receptacle for all the human memories that dwell there? Is this archive of images representative of what the psychologist Carl Jung referred to as the “collective unconscious,” recalibrated for the digital age?
These artworks are caffeine for the imagination, stimulating debate, even as they hypnotize with their aesthetic allure. Although the work is ambiguous in its messaging, we can say with much more certainty that the team’s media installations have won prizes and plaudits across the world. His studio has joined forces with tech titans that are more wellknown than many countries – IBM, Google, Epson and Microsoft – to collaborate on reshaping the boundary lines where AI and art converge, and where all-too-human memories and speculative dreams merge.
The studio’s latest work, “Sense of Space,” is on display at the 17th International Architecture Exhibition in Venice until November 21st. In some ways, this installation may serve as the culmination of the Refik Anadol Studio’s “data sculptures,” and other experiments, over the past decade. The two parts of this work use the familiar tools of machine learning and artificial intelligence to arrive at a more humane destination, where we confront the building blocks of life, cells and even sub-cellular architecture, along with images of the brain itself, the center of consciousness, to speculate on what he calls an “architecture of the future.”
Once again, the new work asks some potent and pertinent questions. “Can we live in our own dreams? Can the best days of our lives become a space?” asks Refik, who is based in Los Angeles, the city that inspired the setting for Blade Runner.
As always, his work reminds us that we live in a world of wonders but, and this is something new in his studio’s development, it’s clear now that life itself (our cells, plasma, marrow, and connective tissue) is the greatest of all these marvels.
Over thousands of kilometers of fiberoptic cables connecting us across the cyber cosmos from different countries, which is another miracle of modern communication we now mistake for the mundane, Refik says with tangible enthusiasm, “The human body is magical and such a remarkable structure.”
This article was written in collaboration with Jim Algie.