“I am a heavy believer in science fiction, and I love Philip K. Dick,” says Istanbul-born artist Refik Anadol, citing the author behind such novels as Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report and The Man in the High Castle. “One of the reasons I now live in Los Angeles is definitely the Blade Runner movie.”
Anadol might be a fan of sci-fi lit, but he’s the one bringing futuristic narratives to life through art installations powered by artificial intelligence (AI) and data manipulation. His team literally makes machines more human creating living art out of everything from photos and music to Wi-Fi and cell signals. In 2018, for example, he transformed 100 years of Los Angeles Philharmonic music into a grand artistic expression projected onto the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall. Last year, Machine Hallucination converted millions of NYC photos into an immersive digital experience that completely engulfed a century-old boiler room in Chelsea. Outside the U.S., his work has appeared in South Korea, Belgium, Dubai, China, Mexico, Spain, Sweden and elsewhere around the globe.
As a fan of sci-fi cinema, Anadol knows some people fear his work might bring to life a dangerous entity like a Cyberdyne Systems or Tyrell Corporation, but he sees the marriage of machines and humanity as a pathway to greater cognitive consciousness. Here’s hoping he’s right. We spoke with Anadol about his work, and he took us on a Matrix-type journey to “remember the future.”
You call yourself a media artist. Are there subcategories beneath that? For example, you refer to architecture-related works as “data sculptures.”
Media arts is the larger umbrella, a field dedicated to transforming any medium in the world. This means architecture can be a canvas, and a V-Sensor, Bluetooth signals, WiFi signals, car speed, decisions of a machine and social network activities can all become material in my own imagination.
How would you create artwork out of WiFi signals?
I have a public art project in a building in Oakland that visualizes invisible signals like wind patterns, temperature, WiFi, Bluetooth, frequencies and radio stations. I am exploring this invisible world of signals, what a space would sense and feel and hear. It’s very high level because architecture to me is beyond just glass, metal and concrete. It’s one of those new speculations: What will happen if we can see beyond what we can see?
What role do neural network simulators have in your art, and can you explain what they do?
I was very fortunate three years ago to become an artist-in-residence at Google’s Artist and Machine Intelligence group focused on training artists to use AI algorithms working with one of the pioneers in AI engineering. After this massively inspirational experience, I didn’t stop using AI in my work, from letting a boiler room in New York dream to transforming an old power plant in Berlin into a dreaming machine.
In this context, AI simply means a machine consciousness. I’m very interested in detaching ego from data. I am looking for how we can remember and dream together with collective memories. For example, imagine AI looking at a hundred million photos of New York. Machines can learn from this data and understand what is inside this image… the pattern, the color, you name it. I am training AI to hallucinate, generate, synthesize what it learned. Of course, machines cannot create very realistic outputs, but it has an assumption. It has potentially accurate but not perfect results. I am painting with machine consciousness, machine decisions. I know it’s very abstract, but that’s what’s going on.
How do you empower AI to be creative in a visually aesthetic way?
That’s what I am hopefully pushing more and more as a team. First of all, I’m not alone. We have a 12-person team with neuroscientists, AI scientists, data scientists, architects, designers and even entrepreneurs. It’s a very diverse group of imaginative people deep diving into these dreams, and there are many parts. There’s a data part, an AI part and also an aesthetics part, and that is where I am very hands-on: which color, which form, which speeds, which feeling.
Imagine this as a visual plan, like poetry that exists in these moments, and data becomes a pigment that you can paint with in this reality. In that context, it becomes much more challenging. What is it painting? How is it painting? What color is it using? I’m very hands-on with all the decisions, and that’s why I’m feeling the role of artist.
Is it fair to say that data is your paint?
Definitely my pigment.
What kind of data works best for what you’re trying to do?
My journey with data is now almost 10 years. I started with super simple sound and vision, and I grew up into social network data opacity using Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, human motion, EEG [electroencephalogram] data… I even use the memories of people. But what I find most exciting is the collective memories of humanity: what we are remembering, what we may dream. That is my big inspiration nowadays
I’m also deeply inspired by libraries and archives because I believe in learning to learn. If you learn to learn, life will be incredibly meaningful. If we have a chance to use libraries and archives more often, we will have a chance to create something functional — so not only art, but something that is helpful for humanity. It’s beyond egocentric art, versus truly functional pieces that can enhance and expand the power of the mind. That’s where my interest has been the last several years… knowledge as an input.
How would you describe the balance between technology and humanity in your work?
I think it’s 50-50. At least I am doing my very best to achieve that. As a human, I want to say that I am not interested in making humans more machine, I am more interested in making machines more human.
I am pretty sure this is more ethically correct, hopefully. If we learn who we are properly, we have a chance to make the machines more purposeful and impactful for humanity. I’m on the very optimistic side of this journey. I’m not only just driven by the fears and negativity [of what can happen with AI], I’m on the side of what else we can do with this. With this mindset, you can create a whole universe with technology.
Since the beginning of humanity, technology is always in our hands. We discovered fire. We cook with it, we create communities, but with the same technology, we create guns and separate each other. It’s all about what we are doing with technology. We need technology to survive, that’s for sure, but then how else can we expand the power of mind? That’s why I’m in this 50-50, literally in the middle point where humanity connects with technology.
What do you think artificial intelligence can teach us about human intelligence?
That’s a very hard question because we still don’t know who we are. Even a neuroscientist can’t describe consciousness. We have some limitations here as humans, but there’s a lot to be learned.
We know that machines can mimic many things we are doing in a certain capacity. In our minds, we can remember and eventually dream and imagine much better. “Much better” simply means expanding the power of the mind like thinking, imagining, learning, remembering. All these cognitive skills can be extremely next level. If it’s done purposefully, it will eventually be very impactful for us. Of course, ethics is important in this dialogue with machines and humans and data, but assuming we are handling that part successfully, we’ll have massive success.
Again, I’m not thinking about how machines will take over humanity. I don’t think this negativity will be happening soon, and I don’t think — hopefully — we are that weak in this journey. Again, if you can understand the potential in a purposeful way, it can impact the future of our cognitive skills.
In art shows where you’re, say, showing the images of New York or creating art on Walt Disney Hall, do you create the images ahead of time, or are they created in real time by computers?
I have two types of imagination. Several artworks that I’m creating use an instant machine as a collaborator, meaning algorithms and mathematical data sets are creating the forms. These are endless pieces that are never the same form again. The other pieces are frozen experiences, or cinematography experiences, which are narrated like a feature of the cinema. In that world, it’s not two dimensional like a TV, it’s more like a three-dimensional experience. For example, [with the Machine Hallucination] in New York, you can step inside the world and become a part of the story. You can hear 22 channels of music, and you can see the walls and the ceilings and the floor becoming a canvas. These are what I call speculations about the future of cinema where architecture, technology and the media arts are purely connected.
What is the future of cinema?
It’s hard to say, but I can tell you that we are working on several ideas right now.
How do you think the art experience changes when the individual is fully immersed in it the way they are in so many of your projects?
As I said, architecture is beyond glass, metal or concrete. I think the future of spaces will be incredibly diverse, intelligent, and I believe the space will remember and even dream. This is one of the feelings I’m trying to speculate. Just imagine what will happen in environments that can think about and become a part of your mindset or problem or happiness. Before the machines become too dominant in our life, I feel like spaces are much more inspiring locations. Spaces provide shelter and help us survive Mother Nature, but they are also where we keep going for our existential reasons. I feel like spaces are powerfully important canvases for artists, and that’s where I feel the serendipity comes in that context.
How does your artwork embody the current relationship between man and technology, and how does it provide a positive road map for how those relationships should evolve?
I believe art should be for any age, any background and any culture. That’s my number one mission as a media artist. It is a very heavy responsibility because I didn’t start my journey [to be a gallery artist], I started doing artwork for the public space. Once you decide the piece should be for any and all backgrounds, it becomes very challenging to create a narrative and purpose that stays true to that. And then eventually the technology is evolving, but the artists are also responsible for the time that they are living in. We are reflecting our imagination based on what we are seeing and what we learn. What I think people are feeling, at least in my work, is [the idea of] remembering the future. That is the feeling I am going for. There is the reality we are based on — our instincts, who we are, memories, emotions, our dreams — and feelings are embedded in the experience of creating that moment, which, again, is remembering the future.
You have several upcoming projects scheduled to debut this year. Are they still on schedule?
We had many finished projects that couldn’t go live because of COVID-19. I’m very proud to say Data Crystal: Portland was a very unique project that took 1.8 million images from the city archives and transformed them into a physical data cloud using advanced robotic 3D printing. It’s the world’s first data sculpture, truly-AI driven, in a physical form and hanging in the air. It’s interactive, so not just an abstract form, and you put a meaning on it and discover those memories. I’m calling it a living sculpture.
I wanted to ask you about the title Machine Hallucination. Why reference hallucinations as opposed to, say, dreaming?
I’ve been debating these keywords a lot. Dream is a process that our consciousness knows is happening and we have almost no chance of interacting with it. It’s most likely wired into the consciousness redefining the memories, recreating our past, and hopefully it will be used for our future. A hallucination is a process that’s most likely happening because of a disease or an alteration of our perception by a substance. When AI doesn’t decide to design and the human comes and tells AI to dream, it is a hallucination. The machine is literally using a human to say or to see or to write something. That’s a hallucination, not a dream.
Like an acid trip.
And humans are the LSD.