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In conversation with Refik Anadol on his AI generated installation 'Glacier Dreams'

Turkish-American new media artist Refik Anadol speaks with STIR at Art Dubai on his immersive AI generated installation Glacier Dreams, commissioned by Julius Baer.

by Rahul KumarPublished on : Apr 28, 2023

At the recently concluded Art Dubai 2023 fair, Julius Baer launched the global multi-chapter AI journey with new media artist Refik Anadol. The commissioned AI project is inspired by the beauty and fragility of the world’s glaciers and was unveiled as a series of multisensory artworks over multiple chapters.

Speaking to STIR about the importance of the commission, Laura Blagho, Art Strategist, Julius Baer says, “Our art commission to Refik Anadol is a global project and is designed to enhance the overall cultural engagement of the bank. Partnering with foresighted individuals and institutions mirrors our purpose of increasing knowledge and discovery through new creative approaches. Anadol and his team are pioneers in the aesthetics of data machine intelligence. His transdisciplinary journey through arts, science and technology, is a perfect fit with the idea of our NEXT initiative and the topic of digital disruption.” Julius Baer is dedicated to supporting upcoming currents in the arts. “We value the inspirational power of culture and recently launched ‘NEXT’, a program that supports cultural productions at the forefront of scientific research and technological development to foster innovation and progress,” adds Blagho.

(Anadol's) transdisciplinary journey through arts, science and technology, is a perfect fit with the idea of our NEXT initiative and the topic of digital disruption. – Laura Blagho, Art Strategist, Julius Baer

The artwork Glacier Dreams will unfold in multiple chapters and locations. Turkish artist Refik Anadol has processed a dataset of visual materials from online and institutional archives along with additional personally collected glacier visuals through machine learning algorithms. Anadol’s audio-visual, immersive installation has an olfactory component that was created with a pioneering artificial intelligence model. He says that having produced immersive art based on nature-themed datasets for almost a decade, this project takes his practice to the next level by compiling a comprehensive visual dataset on the glaciers of the world. With this large-scale project and the consequent artwork, he hopes to not only generate poetic glacier-themed experiences, but to also use existing AI tools to contribute to glacier research and raise awareness about climate change and rising sea levels.

There is, however, a counter view. Hans Ulrich Obrist, curator, critic, and art historian, currently artistic director at the Serpentine Galleries, in his book titled The Age of Earthquakes, published by Penguin Group and co-authored by Shumon Basar and Douglas Coupland says, “Today, the digital economy uses 10 per cent of the world's total electricity. It’s the same amount that was used to light the entire planet in 1985." Amit Gupta and I from team STIR had the opportunity to attend a conversation between Anadol and Obrist on the sidelines of Art Dubai 2023, where some of this was briefly deliberated upon. Any action of ours will have a carbon footprint. And art has the purpose of bringing to attention significant issues and conveying them without the barrier of language. But cannot help wondering that by computing 85 million images, how this initiative potentially challenges the very peg of the Glacier Dreams. A similar project by Anadol (titled Unsupervised) was criticised by the American critic and author, Jerry Saltz. In an article published with Vulture, Saltz calls it “…pointless museum mediocrity… Unsupervised is mildly entertaining for whole minutes at a time. There are chairs and couches strewn in the lobby. You can lounge and look. It takes about 30 seconds to have an idea what this is and what it’ll do next: a suggestion of Impressionism, some cubic forms, more blobs and waves, modern art mashed together." In my conversation with Anadol, he responds: “The world is changing; the field is changing. Unfortunately, lazy, not well-researched people cannot understand. I am sorry for him, but he couldn't even log onto the site, how does he understand what AI means, right?”

I speak to Refik Anadol about this work, his practice, and future projects.

Image render: Immersive view of Glacier Dreams, 2023, AI generated installation, Refik Anadol | Art Dubai | STIRworld
Immersive view of Glacier Dreams (render), 2023, AI generated installation Image: Julius Baer

Rahul Kumar: How did you get interested in documenting the glaciers for your work titled Glacier Dreams?

Refik Anadol: The idea was a journey of our studio, and it began almost three years ago during the pandemic. The question was - We can go to nature, but can nature come to us? And we were all as humanity on the same page in the same conditions. And we were not able to travel or access our physical environments. And then I was much more inspired by preserving nature, because it was clear that as humanity, we are pretty much relying on the nature's conditions and balance. So, corals, glaciers, rain forests, and nature in general, became the fundamental research for our studio in the last three years. Additionally, I give big respect and appreciation to our creator; he preferred that I go out of my comfort zone. And he clearly advised me to go beyond what we felt we could do, such as downloading billions of images! And the Glacier Dreams is a kind of new way of looking at our work and reimagine how we can address the issues about climate and in general nature, and how can we use our current technologies to bring attention and awareness?

The world is changing; the field is changing. Unfortunately, lazy, not well-researched people cannot understand. – Refik Anadol, Artist

Rahul: Your digital art talks about global warming induced melting of the glaciers and associated catastrophes. Have you considered the carbon footprint of the digital world, that research equates to emissions of the entire aviation industry?

Refik: Of course, we cannot be just talking about global warming or related issues without being aware of what we do. So, first of all, I am very grateful to our last seven years of AI research. Since day one we have been very careful about our footprint. We have used renewable energy. In our research, we have been using Cloud computation from Google, which right now is the one and only platform relying fully on renewable energy. And secondly, in our studio, we are computing, we are also calculating, and saving our footprint. And lastly, when we use our insulation, when we use technology in our installations, we are in the 30 per cent of brightness of those screens, which is similar to using cinema projector. I always imagine our work as a kind of in a cinema theater, like imagining using a similar technology. And we try to correlate our work to watching and experiencing cinema. So, I think we are on the same level of just experiencing a film in the public space.

View of Glacier Dreams, 2023, AI render, Refik Anadol | Art Dubai | STIRworld
View of Glacier Dreams, 2023, AI render Image: Julius Baer

Rahul: Standing inside the ‘immersive room’ was indeed a unique experience. However, it may not immediately occur that the source of the images, the soundscape is all painstakingly sourced from and refers to the vanishing glaciers. How do you bridge this gap of the wonderment in your work and underlying message?

 Refik: One of the reason this project is different from the others is exactly that there is this reason to physically go to Iceland, Greenland, and Antarctica. So, first of all, those images you were seeing in the room, and the majority of them we collected ourselves, by walking in minus 20 degrees, eight kilometers, 50-kilogram of load in our backpacks. So, it is a very different approach than many other AI research projects. Additionally, not only images but sound and climate data too were sourced by us from the ground. So, we are literally reconstructing our own datasets from scratch, to make this project extremely different than others. On the other hand, the bridge between the wonderment and the underlying message is a very big challenge. One thing that I learned in the last decade is critical voice activism, unfortunately, did not make any impact at all. If it had an impact, we won't be here. So, it is clear that the negative tone has almost no impact on the issue. I am trying to find the positive impact, the positive voice to bring more attention to beauty and aesthetics, and change the attention of the people, the audience to something very important. I do not see anyone who has tried this in the past. I did not see anyone experimenting through this. But I do believe that using AI and cutting-edge algorithms, techniques, and aesthetics has much more potential to bring attention to these topics. Also, I have seen many different tactics, like we saw activists throwing soups and things on artworks. It clearly got some attention for a couple of days. But that's it. There is almost no tangible action after that. There is almost nothing quantifiable from this research or activism. I hope that our take on the issue has a much more potential and hopefully measurable, quantifiable impact. And that's what the expectation is behind this work as well.

Rahul: What’s NEXT for Refik Anadol?

Refik: Right now, we are excited to open and unveil our new project called Mumbai Dream. The piece uses an enormous number of images of Mumbai, both architecture and nature. And we were able to relocate and create a dataset through one-year-long wind data of the city. It is the very first time that we will be showing in India, that too at a large scale, is a great honour and really exciting. Finally, I hope this public artwork will bring attention to the very fast-moving world of AI, digital technologies, and hope the upcoming generation in the region will be inspired and create new dialogue between the past, the now, and the future.

Glacier Dreams is an AI generated immersive installation, Image render, Refik Anadol | Refik Anadol |Art Dubai | STIRworld
Glacier Dreams is an AI generated immersive installation (render) Image: Julius Baer

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