Refik Anadol tests new possibilities for experiencing digital space

Vladimir Belogolovsky talks to LA-based Refik Anadol, a pioneer in digital aesthetics, about his daring idea—to unlock machines' ability to learn from us how to dream.

by Vladimir BelogolovskyPublished on : May 23, 2022

I first had a chance to experience the work of Refik Anadol (b. 1985), a media artist born and raised in Istanbul, Turkey, and now based in Los Angeles, while visiting his audiovisual exhibit, Machine Hallucination at Artechouse in New York in 2019. Projected on every surface of a large windowless space, punctuated by several thin columns, the installation immersed visitors in a continuous flow of imagery, weaved from representations of urban memories and inventions reinterpreted by artificial intelligence. The 30-minute looped piece was composed by deploying algorithms that have invaded and transformed a vast archive of over 100 million photos of New York City found on social networks. Going beyond mere entertainment, the Machine Hallucination attempted to examine a new relationship between machine and man by exploring the potential dimensions of virtual reality limited only by the current technology, but more so—by our imagination.

  • Machine Hallucination at Artechouse, New York, 2019-2020, Project Partner: Artechouse | Interview with Refik Anadol | STIRworld
    Machine Hallucination at Artechouse, New York, 2019-2020, Project Partner: Artechouse Image: © Refik Anadol
  • Machine Hallucination  - the audiovisual exhibit was projected on every surface of a large windowless space | Interview with Refik Anadol | STIRworld
    Machine Hallucination - the audiovisual exhibit was projected on every surface of a large windowless space Image: © Refik Anadol

Anadol’s practice produces site-specific parametric data sculptures and audio/visual performances. He initially studied photography and video before receiving his master’s degrees in visual communications from Istanbul Bilgi University and in fine arts from UCLA. He is known for embedding media arts into architecture and questioning spatial possibilities in the post-digital era. The artist invites the viewers to visualise alternative realities by redefining architecture and interiors. His work suggests that all spaces and facades have the potential to be utilised as canvases for media art. He tests new possibilities for experiencing digital space and how media technologies impact our understanding of what is real.

Machine Hallucination - the installation immersed visitors in a continuous flow of imagery reinterpreted by artificial intelligence | Interview with Refik Anadol | STIRworld
Machine Hallucination - the installation immersed visitors in a continuous flow of imagery reinterpreted by artificial intelligence Image: © Refik Anadol

Other site-specific performances by Anadol have been presented at the Walt Disney Concert Hall and Hammer Museum, both in Los Angeles; International Digital Arts Biennial in Montreal; Ars Electronica Festival in Austria; Outdoor Vision Festival in Santa Fe, New Mexico; and Istanbul Design Biennial, among many others. I talked to Refik Anadol over Skype, while the artist was driving his car along Santa Monica Freeway from his office in Central Los Angeles to UCLA where he has been teaching mediated space, media arts, and motion to media design students for the last five years. We discussed his fascination with light, media art, data, and machines, as well as their potential ability to hallucinate and dream. His inspirations come from science fiction, technology, interaction with computers, light itself, data analysis, and algorithms. Anadol speculates that the future of architecture will be beyond steel, glass, and concrete. In his relentless quest to discover the future, the artist is posing one provocative question after another, as he exploits his most invaluable assets—curiosity, imagination, and positivity.

Visions of America: Amériques, Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, November 6th, 2014, Project Partner: LA Phil | Interview with Refik Anadol | STIRworld
Visions of America: Amériques, Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, November 6th, 2014, Project Partner: LA Phil Image: © Refik Anadol

Vladimir Belogolovsky: You use algorithms that are able to narrate data into electronically animated paintings, making the invisible visible by colliding physical and virtual to create new experiences. How else would you describe what you do in the most accurate way?

Refik Anadol: That is very precise. But first, my work is a journey. Every time I explain what I do a little differently because I am on a journey, and I don’t entirely know where exactly I am heading. But I do have fundamental expectations from this journey. The fundamentals don’t change. What is changing constantly is technology—data, algorithms, and space. I had a strong vision of what I wanted to do in life since I started watching science fiction movies and later reading books. I was just eight-years-old when I first watched Blade Runner. It had a very strong impact on me. I did not understand English then, so I was affected directly by the imagery, architecture, and advertising. Images of the future were particularly bright and shining. I started using my computer early on, and that opened a new world for me, a new kind of space. I was inspired by the possibility of interacting with a machine. So, from the very beginning, I was aware of the machine’s potential and the power of architecture. Eventually, I realised that it was media art that I would like to explore as an artist for all kinds of spatial speculations using data and technology. That's what feeds my imagination. My idea is to produce and experience art that’s fresh, that could only be done in our time, right now. We have this incredible capacity for unbound imagination—we can remember, interpret, dream, and speculate in every single moment of life, just like I am talking to you and driving in LA at the same time. And different machines are assisting us as we speak. I love these interactions, and I particularly love how light can become a part of these activities.

VB: I wish in the near future, you could be a passenger in your driverless car, so you wouldn’t have to pay attention to the road, as you are doing right now.

RA: Well, I actually enjoy doing different things at the same time. And talking while driving is normal in LA, especially since traffic here is so slow. So, I would rather use my time productively. [Laughs.]

Archive Dreaming, Istanbul, Turkey, 2017, Partners: Google Artists and Machine Intelligence | Interview with Refik Anadol | STIRworld
Archive Dreaming, Istanbul, Turkey, 2017, Partners: Google Artists and Machine Intelligence Image: © Refik Anadol

VB: You convert data into parametric data sculptures and paintings. You call this process data visualisation and data dramatisation. You also refer to such visualisations as dreams of a machine. How is it possible for a machine to dream?

RA: This, of course, is speculation. We know that machines can’t dream yet. But we also know that machines can learn very quickly from the patterns of our own cognitive systems and potentially even generate their own ideas. So, I am very optimistic that eventually, machines will start hallucinating and dreaming. For now, it is my speculation, but there is no doubt in my mind that one day it will happen. What I am trying to show is a glimpse of an idea, a glimpse of the future. In our preparation, I want to ask such questions as – what will happen if machines can start dreaming? I want to speculate about something that will inevitably happen in the near future. We all have to be concerned about the future because eventually, we are all going to be living in it. I am entirely optimistic about the future. I am sure the future will be positive, and I hope we can all participate in imagining it. It is fears of the future that are blocking our imagination. I appreciate those who express their concerns, but I am very hopeful, and I am looking for the moments of serendipity in the relationships between humans and machines. What I like to explore is not to imagine humans becoming like machines, but making machines become more like humans. The idea is for us to learn from machines and for the machines to learn from us. I am very positive about such collaboration.

Archive Dreaming, Istanbul, Turkey, 2017, Partners: Google Artists and Machine Intelligence | Interview with Refik Anadol | STIRworld
Archive Dreaming, Istanbul, Turkey, 2017, Partners: Google Artists and Machine Intelligence Image: © Refik Anadol

VB: What you are saying is very refreshing and reassuring, although it is against the current zeitgeist because there is so much fear of the future, whether because of AI taking away our jobs, or the climate change encroaching on our territories.

RA: I feel that there are too many people now who are telling us so many things that can go wrong. But I don’t see enough hopeful scenarios and positive imaginations. What we need instead are daring ideas for how to approach all kinds of problems and fears. I also worry about the future, but it doesn’t stop me from being positive and believing in my imagination. Of course, in addition to the advancement of AI and climate change that you just mentioned, there are also such problems as poverty, data breaches, data hacking, ethical issues, and so on. But I want to work on improving the world. That's the only way we can survive.

WDCH Dreams, Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, 27th - October 6th, 2018, Project Partners: LA Phil, VER | Interview with Refik Anadol | STIRworld
WDCH Dreams, Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, 27th - October 6th, 2018, Project Partners: LA Phil, VER Image: © Refik Anadol

VB: You said, "Buildings can dream. Colours may be heard, and sounds may be seen.” Could you elaborate on that?

RA: Yes, I was always very playful with my ideas and dreams—I projected light in my bedroom. I recorded my voice and played with it. I was always playing with projections, recordings, and so on. Playing with data, eventually became very natural to me. I started using it as a pigment. Using algorithms allowed me to go deeper. They allowed me to have a dialogue with the data. It is like a discourse for me. That was a huge leap for me, and I completely reconsidered my work and its potential. Now I believe architecture can go way beyond its functions. I believe that architecture will be capable of having a dialogue with us, to respond to our needs. It will be able to live with us even on an emotional level and again, it will be able to dream with us. Architecture will become more humanistic and, in a way, humanised. Such architecture can be imagined only by machines. Imagine, what could happen if we teach a building to remember or dream! For example, in my project for the Los Angeles Philharmonic on Walt Disney Concert Hall, which was designed by Frank Gehry, I speculated about what such a dream could be like in the future. I want to speculate on all these ideas about machines and buildings being able to dream.

  • WDCH Dreams, Walt Disney Concert Hall - Anadol employed 42 large-scale projections to create data sculptures based on machines’ interpretations  | Interview with Refik Anadol | STIRworld
    WDCH Dreams, Walt Disney Concert Hall - Anadol employed 42 large-scale projections to create data sculptures based on machines’ interpretations Image: © Refik Anadol
  • WDCH Dreams, Walt Disney Concert Hall - the artist describes the work as an example of what a ‘dreaming’ building could look like in the future | Interview with Refik Anadol | STIRworld
    WDCH Dreams, Walt Disney Concert Hall - the artist describes the work as an example of what a ‘dreaming’ building could look like in the future Image: © Refik Anadol

VB: By projecting images to buildings' facades you imitated their dreaming. What can we expect from such abilities of buildings to dream in the future?

RA: To me, the LA building was like a case study. I showed what a building dreaming could be like in the future. The building was fed data from the LA Phil’s digital archives collected over 100 years, including performances, hundreds of thousands of image files, 40,000 hours of audio recordings, and so on to enable it to have the capacity to dream. We employed 42 large-scale projections to create data sculptures based on machines' interpretations. Imagine all our buildings becoming almost life-like creatures that could connect with us on every level, even emotionally. I think the future of architecture is beyond steel, glass, and concrete. It is time for buildings to assist us in more than just sheltering us. I am interested in speculating on bringing new meanings into architecture.

Infinity Room, Worldwide, from 2015, Project Partner: Epson | Interview with Refik Anadol | STIRworld
Infinity Room, Worldwide, from 2015, Project Partner: Epson Image: © Refik Anadol

VB: You said there is poetry hidden in data. How so?

RA: Absolutely! Our memories are living beyond physicality. For the first time in history, we are leaving our digital traces for machines to analyse and interpret. These are tangible traces, in a way. The results of such analysis and even dreams can be seen and touched. I want to find out what else can be done with them. What can we learn from such interactions with the machines? There are so many unknowns.

VB: Is there a post-digital future of architecture? How do you imagine it?

RA: Machines can assist us in expanding the boundaries of the universe we know. And my speculation is that that universe will be as complex as our consciousness. That world will eventually unleash all our potential, all of our senses. Everything we know can one day be seen, heard, felt, and touched, all at once. The world we know today—architecture of concrete, steel, and glass—is just three dimensions. The machines will help us to transform the idea of space into something much more sensual. That world will change architecture in more ways than we can possibly predict today. 

Infinity Room, Worldwide, from 2015, Project Partner: Epson | Interview with Refik Anadol | STIRworld
Infinity Room, Worldwide, from 2015, Project Partner: Epson Image: © Refik Anadol

VB: It looks like you stopped driving. Have you arrived?

RA: Yes, I am now at the front of my school.

VB: Then let me ask you the last question. Do you see your work as art, entertainment, or research? What is it to you?

RA: Of course, my work is art because it comes from my imagination! My key intention is how to give depth to a surface. This art is multidimensional and multidisciplinary.

I am constantly dreaming, and more and more people approach me to initiate and commission all kinds of projects; they ask me to share with them my dreams. [Laughs.]

What do you think?

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