Refik Anadol on AI, Algorithms, and the Machine as Witness
The artist behind an epic installation at MoMA answers seven questions about the new realms explored in his data-driven work.
Dec 20, 2022
What was the first digital art that you encountered? How did it make you feel?
It was The Legible City by Jeffrey Shaw, a groundbreaking interactive art piece [at ZKM Center for Art and Media in Karlsuhe, Germany], where the visitor rides a stationary bicycle through a city simulation surrounded by three-dimensional letters. It brought together many elements of immersive, interactive, and multisensory art that I had been pondering as an undergraduate student at the time and opened new windows for me to think about the city, urban architectures, and collective memories in a different light. When I viewed Shaw’s piece in Karlsruhe, I was already studying with Peter Weibel at ZKM, and I was interested in exploring Pure Data, and later VVVV, both open-source visual programming software platforms. I helped put together the very first media arts exhibition in Turkey, installing 300 artworks from all over the world in 2009. That was when I realized that I wanted to be in conversation with those artists and push the envelope by bringing new perspectives to the field.
What do you consider to be the materials of your art?
Collective memories, archives, light, architecture, generative AI algorithms, software, hardware, code, sound, and, more recently, scent.
Refik Anadol’s studio
“We imagine a future where a symbiotic relationship with machines will give us new insights, knowledge, and the power to not only challenge but change existing systems.”
What does your studio look like? Can you tell us about the team that you work with to realize a piece like Unsupervised?
I knew that I wanted to establish a studio when I was an MFA student at UCLA in 2014, and I began doing research about interdisciplinary studio cultures. We started off as a small group with a focus on public art production, but our studio practice expanded into a cross-disciplinary research unit over the years. The Studio is based in LA and comprises designers, architects, data scientists, composers, and researchers from diverse professional and personal backgrounds. We originate from 10 different countries and are collectively fluent in 15 languages (and spill into other cities beyond LA, including Berlin and Istanbul). Our shared dream is to make art for all ages and cultures. The fact that we are a diverse team contributes tremendously to this project. We have been conducting bleeding-edge research and collaborating with leading neuroscientists, philosophers, biologists, medical doctors, environmental scientists, and computational designers in various parts of the world. We use the most innovative methods and most advanced research available to us to challenge received notions and inherent biases in technology, and to imagine a future where a symbiotic relationship with machines will give us new insights, knowledge, and the power to not only challenge but change existing systems, to create a better world.
Installation view of Refik Anadol: Unsupervised
Is there anything particular that you’re hoping a viewer will see or sense in Unsupervised?
I think that Unsupervised not only pulls the viewer into a strange world of collective art histories as imagined by a dreaming machine, but also provides a moment of meditation on new modes of perception and sensation. As it unfolds, you can see it speculating about, for instance: How to create an abstract picture. How to render volume and depth in new ways. How to deal with inventing new colors. And even the question, Why?—because these are the problems that artists confronted in the past two centuries.
For this work we used the most advanced generative AI algorithms in the world and created a dynamic, living artwork, meaning that it never repeats itself. At times, it also shows another layer of diagramming its own decision-making paths and correlations. It is based on ethical data research and analysis and has the potential to generate new discourses about how our faculties of perception are changing now that machines are inseparable witnesses of our activities and environments. In fact, we are currently designing a research protocol about the immediate effect of Unsupervised on the viewer by collaborating with neuroscientist Dr. Adam Gazzaley to measure brain signals, heartbeat, body temperature, and skin conductivity at the moment of experiencing the work.
Is there a data set out there you hope to work with someday?
I have been dreaming about compiling the largest rainforest biome data set in the world in collaboration with the Yawanawa people, which would give rise to a real-time, immersive rainforest-inspired artificial reality.
What gets you most excited in art and technology today?
The fact that generative AI algorithms are open to the public is very exciting, and I am watching all the recent developments very closely. I’m enthusiastic about creating new dialogues about how technology is being used outside of its imposed realms and the future of productive transgressions.
Refik Anadol: Unsupervised, organized by Michelle Kuo, The Marlene Hess Curator of Painting and Sculpture, and Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator, Department of Architecture and Design and Director, Research and Development, with Lydia Mullin, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Painting and Sculpture, is on view through March 2023.
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