In conversation with Refik Anadol, a media artist from Turkey now based in the US, who is the pioneer of data painting and the aesthetics of machine learning and intelligence. His site-specific parametric data sculptures, live audio/visual performances, and immersive installations take many forms, reconceptualising the physical world through machine consciousness, which mimics the human mind and memories, exploring our relationship to time and space, and the creative potential of machines. As Anadol puts it, “Art is for me the humanity’s capacity for imagination.”
Sukanya Garg (SG): Why New York? What inspired you to choose this city for the project Machine Hallucination?
Refik Anadol (RA): It is actually because of ARTECHOUSE; it is a very interesting collaboration. With ARTECHOUSE, I have another exhibition right now in Washington DC, that was focusing on my earlier work using data and machine learning as well, but this (Machine Hallucination) is a whole new challenge, whole new canvas. This beautiful place is in Chelsea market, a boiler room with fantastic 18 channel projections, 32 channel sound system; meaning it’s a fantastic canvas for an artist to dream.
But I think my obsession about the city started before. Cities are a big inspiration for me because I find them like a living organism. Inside them are the memories, the emotions, the past, the history, architecture, everything. Sometimes I feel like cities are more important than countries, because these are much more lively and cross many cultures of people. New York is one of the world’s most amazing city with its history and its context. So, I think it is very exciting to do a project about New York in New York. It is very meaningful.
SG: How long have you been working on this project?
RA: I think for almost seven months. But heavily, the last couple of months. Three years ago, I was very fortunate as I was an artist-in-residence at Google and I was able to work with one of the most wonderful engineers using AI algorithms. My team and I were trained by them to work on the world’s first AI installation three years ago - Archive Dreaming.
In 2016, however, before the Disney Dreams project, there was another project of archives and memories, depicting the future of a library. So, I am very inspired by many things but specifically what I really enjoyed is, once AI started becoming available for artists to dream, it basically allowed me to work with a kind of consciousness. This is because a machine can learn like a human in the sense that it can mimic our cognitive skills and then using it as a pigment, what it learns can become the material. So it was very inspiring. Over the last three years, as a studio, we have pioneered many art installations using machine intelligence to create new stories, new narratives. But my work is always about architecture. I am dreaming to give a kind of cognitive capacity to architecture, meaning can I build a dream? Can it learn? Can it remember? These kinds of very human cognitive skills is my way of storytelling. But for this project, I wanted to push something much deeper and as a team we were able to collect 100 million images of New York.
SG: Could you talk a little about your process of working on this project?
RA: I am very inspired by our memories, not individual memories but collective memories, like how we perceive a city, architecture, landscapes, streets, and daily life. Culture is embedded in our collective memory. So, to understand this much better, we really challenged ourselves and looked for New York in pretty much every social network available, from Instagram, Flicker, Google images, literally anything available publicly. We were able to collect an enormous corpus of data of photographic memories. All the data is public, like if AI can go online and write New York, what it would actually learn. I am very sensitive to privacy, and I am very critical about the future of data and technology, so we even have another AI, which goes and finds people and erases them. Therefore, I want to be super transparent about the process because we all know that the data we are creating every single day poses huge questions like who is using it, how is it stored, who owns it and all these big questions of propriety. But here, we are using data to create a story of our collective memories. We are using one of the most cutting-edge algorithms, hardware and software capacity, to make art purely. What I find really fascinating is that once a machine has this enormous beautiful information, it stimulates the idea of whether you can reconstruct the memory. Can you reconstruct dreams? Can you create a dream space where these memories become alive? It is very much like a science fiction story.
This is because I am fascinated with cinema, and it is one of my favorite mediums ever as it really can allow the director to create a reality. In cinema you have architecture, biology, music, physics, philosophy, everything that life consists. It fascinates me as a medium. I think we are trying to invent a new story, a new narrative that we have never seen before, and it’s just so exciting!
SG: For your project Walt Disney Concert Hall ‘dream’, you created a machine intelligence programme using human memories to mimic how humans dream. If using AI, one might be able to predict dreams, is it not possible that there might be a time when machines control what we even dream of. How, then, do we avoid what (Stephen) Hawking predicted, that “the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race”?
RA: I am very sensitive to this question. If you look at technology and how it is affecting humanity, for example, let us think about fire. We found fire and we cook with it, make food, and communities come together and live together. But, with the same technology we also make guns, with those guns people kill each other and disconnect humanity. So I think it was always the same thing. With technology then, we have the bright side and the dark side. My worldview is that I highly believe in the positive impact of technology, specifically how it can enhance our capacity of cognitive skills. The questions I concern myself with are - can it help us to be more creative? Can it help us to cure issues? Can it help us to be brighter, to solve problems? It can be interesting in that context, so I am inclined towards the optimist side and trying to understand what else we can do that is beyond just dystopian memories or dystopian dreams. For me, the story has a happy ending. Even still, I am not sure how it will happen. I mean maybe it can cure climate change, cure cancer, help us to become more sensitive human beings, know much more about humanity, nature or even the unknown space. In my head, I want to use technology to become more productive.
SG: You mentioned that you picked up the knowledge of AI at the Google residency. Were you working with AI before?
RA: Till 2016, as an artist, I had been using data in my work. I coined the term ‘data painting’ in 2015. For me, data was always a substance and life was always a material. I gained my knowledge of using data in the last eight to nine years. But, my artist residency at Google was very rewarding because once we had this knowledge, we could build on top of it. At my residency, I was paired with an engineer named Mike Tyka, who taught us how to use AI. Then things moved much faster, so we also did the Disney Hall Dreams Project, which was Frank Gehry’s creation and that was our peak moment. We are gaining new experiences in each project. Every new canvas is new fresh thinking and ARTECHOUSE is giving us a chance for this dream, so it is a very beautiful opportunity.
SG: What kind of challenges?
RA: It is teamwork, not a one man show. I just love to invent and make new projects. Frank Gehry always says, “If I know what I am doing, I am not doing it.” I love to push the boundaries of my knowledge. It does not make things easy, it makes things harder for sure, but it has been rewarding, it feels fresh and unique.
While using AI to make people disconnect seems ironic, that’s the beautiful part of it. Something designed to make something else can do something else too. - Refik Anadol
SG: When you talk about changing the world, what is it that you envision?
RA: I think, first of all, we are surrounded with these machines, with this data, with this enormous information. So what will we do with this data? How will we understand it?
For many centuries, we were writing on paper or on a stone, leaving something behind us. But right now, everything we leave behind us is on the computer, is in the cloud, in the machine. So, this is a very interesting problem. I believe that we first have to understand how technology works and how it moves and if we understand that, perhaps, we can do many exciting things with it. Instead of letting it control us, we can instead use it purposely to create more impact for humanity.
However, this doesn’t come free. If we are using those machines and computing all the information, this means that it is eating our energy, our resources. Every like, every comment, every share means an energy cost. The more we connect with each other using these machines, the more we are disconnecting from our built environments. So, how can we ensure that humanity is not trapped in this chaos? How can we make sure that people are aware of machine’s potential and tools beyond pressing a few buttons? Therefore, I thought that doing data art and AI art may allow people to understand this enormous powerful of machines and its potential.
In order to do this, I am trying to make my work very meditative. I highly believe that mindfulness is one of the things we need a lot. The life we are inside now is dictated by algorithms; we are constantly tuned into machines. The question is, how can we disconnect from this world and focus on ourselves? That is one of the reasons I am trying to make a meditative piece in this project. While using AI to make people disconnect seems ironic, but that’s the beautiful part of it. Something designed to make something else can do something else too.
SG: What do you hope to evoke in people’s minds through Machine Hallucination?
RA: My work is about making people come together, creating communal experiences and a sense of connection for a while. Literally what cinema did to humanity is not so different from what I am trying to say. But it’s just new ways of experiencing it. Instead of you sitting in a theatre, you are together with your family or friends just exploring something never seen before while you are calming down and exploring machine imagination. So it’s very like a sci-fi movie.
My hope is that these artworks that are pushing the boundaries of our imagination, allow people to think differently. Maybe people will become interested in how AI works, how machines can learn, can machines dream etc. All these questions are my hopes regarding this project. - Refik Anadol
I believe that the emotional connection that people will create with the work is one of the reasons people will feel connected with themselves. Art has the power to change. If art can bring sensitivity and can make one stop for a while from this fast forward thinking, perhaps it may give us a fresh perspective. That is one of the reasons I love the power of art. Therefore, I like to make art that is for everyone, meaning any age, any background, any country, and any culture. Even though AI means bias because it is based on data, but still, I am extremely unbiased about humanity. The more an art can reach people at the same time, the more it has the power to change the world. My hope is that these artworks that are pushing the boundaries of our imagination, allow people to think differently. Maybe people will become interested in how AI works, how machines can learn, can machines dream etc. All these questions are my hopes regarding this project.
SG: The final renditions of your work are very zen, completely un-indicative of how mechanised their underpinnings are? What is the reason for this polarised approach?
RA: I am heavily inspired by nature. Algorithms also inspire me, which are used to make nature. For example, noise algorithms were invented by Ken Perlin, a fantastic professor from New York University whose algorithm also got an Oscar award in 1986. The reason this happened is that his algorithms were allowing computer scientists or movie makers to make mountains, oceans, even clouds. I found this extremely existential that an algorithm was allowing people to create mountains and landscapes. I learnt about the algorithm in my undergrad years and I am obsessed with it. To give a life to this imagination, I thought data is the best way to move these landscapes, to move these forms.
Another source of inspiration for me is water. I am in love with water. I mean water is life. Therefore, I am always looking for fluid dynamics, meaning (that) in computer graphics there are algorithms designed to mimic water. I am looking for these poetic algorithms to find emotions inside them and bring the out using data.
SG: While we are talking about data art, AI and fluid dynamics, a lot of artists are still practicing more traditional forms of art. In a world where human skill is increasingly becoming dispensable, what is the future of traditional art?
RA: When technological change happens, it is always the same thing. Art is inspired from technology all the time. What is happening is similar to what happened when print technology or photography was invented. So I don’t think traditional art will go anywhere. It will be there hopefully forever. Technology is all about how we can enhance our imagination. For example, when I say data painting is very interesting; for me a pigment does not mean a pigment. For me a data point is a pigment. When I say in Machine Hallucination, I will be painting with machine consciousness, I can dip my brush into the machine’s mind and paint with that. So it is not science fiction anymore, it is truly what we are doing. Just different imaginations I guess.
If you ask me what is art; art is for me the humanity’s capacity for imagination. It is clear that the imagination is the reason we invent art and stories. So I think they are all connected and none of them will go anywhere.
For me a pigment does not mean a pigment. For me a data point is a pigment. When I say in Machine Hallucination, I will be painting with machine consciousness, I can dip my brush into the machine’s mind and paint with that. - Refik Anadol
SG: Lastly, what STIRs you up?
RA: Cinema, I watch a lot of movies, I don’t stop watching movies. Blade Runner is the movie that changed my life and The Space Odyssey by (Stanley) Kubrick in 2001. Pretty much every single science fiction movie I watched was very impactful for me. But it is not only science fiction; I also watch documentaries, stories of people’s lives. I am heavily inspired by pioneers who are changing the world. I am very inspired by people as a mind.
Machine Hallucination by Refik Anadol opens on September 6, 2019, at ARTECHOUSE in New York.