In 2018, embedding metaphorical consciousness on to Walt Disney Concert Hall, media artist Refik Anadol activated Frank Gehry building to “remember and dream” collaborating with The L.A. Philharmonic for its 100th year anniversary. Collaborating with Artificial Intelligence, utilizing interior spaces and exterior architectural façades as his canvas, Refik Anadol builds data works which he calls “data sculptures” and “data paintings” in which he composes various kind of data, from seven millions data set from NASA to 54 terabytes of data from the archives of L.A. Philharmonic feature in. Reinventing functions and forms of his visual data narratives for each project, he experiments with public space, adding new layers to urban experience through reviving institutional and collective memory.
Can a building dream? How can brain recalling memories be demonstrated? How have media technologies changed our conceptualizations of space? On the intersection of technology, media arts and architecture Anadol keeps inventing new questions, exploring new possibilities that machine intelligence offers on digitization of institutional memory and possible uses of it in other areas, from health care to history of art.
Digging into his extensive research on memory and his site-specific public art projects, we talked with Refik Anadol about his projects around both public and private spheres, starting with Infinity Room to more recent ones such as WDCH Dreams. Developing projects as a resident artist at Google’s Artists and Machine Intelligence Program since 2016, Refik Anadol tells us the emergence of WDCH Dreams starting as the subject of his master’s of fine arts thesis at UCLA’s Digital Media MFA program. Now a lecturer and visiting researcher, Anadol holds a master of fine arts degree from UCLA’s Department of Design Media Arts and a master of fine arts degree from Istanbul Bilgi University in Visual Communication Design.
Having received a number of awards and prizes, his wide range of site-specific audio/visual performances and public art projects have been exhibited in Walt Disney Concert Hall(USA), SALT Galata(Turkey), Pilevneli Gallery(Turkey), ARS Electronica(AUSTRIA), Zorlu Performing Arts Center(Turkey), Hammer Museum (USA), International Digital Arts Biennial Montreal (Canada), l’Usine | Genève (Switzerland), Arc De Triomf (Spain), Zollverein | SANAA’s School of Design Building (Germany), santralistanbul Contemporary Art Center(Turkey), Outdoor Vision Festival SantaFe New Mexico (USA), Istanbul Design Biennial (Turkey), Sydney City Art (Australia),Lichtrouten (Germany), Sven-Harrys Museum(Sweden).
Yonca Keremoglu: Considering the production process of Infinity Room (2015), what was the most significant evolution in your projects since then?
Refik Anadol: When I think of it, Infinity Room stems from a childish memory. As a child, I used to dream about transforming places a lot. Though I used to play with Army Men and toy cars as an alternative, I did weird things with the spatial elements of the house such as creating a place in the attic of our house or re-designing the window of the room. In fact, my mom had considered taking me to the psychologist as my interests differed from conventional methods of a play. I always dreamed about changing and transforming spaces, and Infinity Room was actually the output of those dreams. It was a project I started off as, “What story could a room – the simplest form of space; four walls, a ceiling and a floor – tell?”
The idea of the project started in 2012 while having my second Master’s degree at UCLA. I was taking a highly inspiring class from a legendary professor Jennifer Steinkamp where she had brilliant questions. Brainstorming with her helped me a lot on finding ways to implement my dreams into projects and create perfect sequences. At the time I couldn’t make a project that big as a student. Even though Infinity Room is just a room, it’s still a place that needs construction, four projections, complex drawings and engineering. I was able to realize the project only in 2015. It was first launched in Istanbul. Later it travelled to 29 cities. It was transformed into a global project with almost two million viewers and has been to every single continent in the world. This is mind boggling. The beauty of the possibility that an idea can reach so many people with all kinds of backgrounds and ages. I don’t have any other projects that reached people in such extent.
Having created many local projects, most especially the projects in public spaces, definitely changed my life. My main reason of moving to L.A., changing to a new system of education was to be able to create projects in public spaces. I never had a special interest in going to exhibitions, museums, or galleries. At that time I had prejudice against the “let’s go see some art” approach. How appealing could it be if you’d already known what you were going to see. The same thing applies to what I do. If I know the result of what I’m doing, without the element of surprise, I don’t do it. Thus, I gravitated towards public art. Inherently, public art must have an idea regarding its surrounding. So I began to think more localized about that. Nowadays I make projects in public areas in cities such as London, Dubai, Seoul, New York, Boston, Istanbul, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Briefly, I can say that what has evolved significantly is the idea itself and the fact that it’s more localized.
Yonca Keremoglu: The spectrum of the areas you’ve exhibited your works is quite wide. You’ve created numerous projects experimenting many different fields including public spaces, festivals, buildings, galleries, museums. Which of these fields excite you the most?
Refik Anadol: Public space is an important field for me. A public space doesn’t have a door, a ceiling or a floor. There’s no beginning or an end. It’s an idea that’s open to anyone, anytime. You have to create such an idea that it should be able to live by itself in anyway, but at the same time it should be aware of its surroundings, inspire people to ask questions and interact with them. I think this is one of the biggest challenges an artist can take on. If there’s no challenge, the artist won’t have the chance to grow. So I can say that I dived in on purpose. On the other hand the conventional media; a bronze statue, a painting, a metal piece or a concept art is more compatible with nature. A bronze statue can last 200 years without any renovation. But when you start to make art with technology, longevity – vital concerns – start to emerge.
One of the outputs of the technology that started in the 21st century are high tech devices that have vital concerns. Yes, we’re able to say bigger things but we’re also aware that those LED screens only last for 20 years. Where will they be in 2000 years? After 2000 years, will humanity examine those black screens when they look back to the age we’re living in? Will they dig these from the ground? What were we talking about to one another? These are both anthropologically and archaeologically important questions.
Yonca Keremoglu: Melting Memories(2017) exhibition was a gallery experience. How did the research process evolve? What kind of questions about memory triggered the project?
Refik Anadol: Just like everyone else, I love to remember and talk about my memories. The concept of time is closely related to memory. We’re all aware that the concept of time has a strong correlation to memory. I’ve always had an obsession about memory, remembering and lifelogging. Data are also a form of memory. Our likes, posts, comments, the cars we use and GPS are also a memory. Interestingly, the concept of memory in the 21st century doesn’t boil down to the cognitive and neurological system of the humans. We’re in a position to interact with machines. I found this topic interesting and we began to work on it with the outstanding professor and a neuroscientist, Adam Gazzaley. He is the head of a lab called Neuroescape at UCSF. He has a project called “glass-brain”, aiming to make the invisible visible by using data. He was researching about the brain activities of a person in a multisensory state and what the neurons go through in the process. His aim was to create a game that could fight depression, and turn that game into a medicine. It was a brilliant idea. Having the similar concerns and same desire and excitement to decipher the algorithm by using data, I was really excited when I first emailed him. He gladly accepted to help me out and we formed an amazing synergy. Thanks to the neurologists and scientists in his lab, we started seeking the answers to questions such as, “how can a big brain sensor be used?”, “How should big data be handled?”, “How can data transmitted from the brain be read?” and “What can be done with the read data?”. Being a part the University of California as both an alumni and a researcher, I had the chance to access a large data set and work with a sample whilst doing the research. In these data sets, there were extended researches on brain and memory shared by groups which have accelerated the speed of my work. I can’t give many names working with John Does. Instead of concerning ourselves with what memory belonged to whom, we detached the ego from the data and delved into the energy signals that are the representation of the moment of reminiscence. As a result, I transformed these outputs into sculptures. In terms of exhibiting the project, I wasn’t sure sure if the public space was a fit for an intimate idea like this one. I thought it would be better understood and monitored if it was placed in a gallery space rather than a public space. The Pilevneli Gallery and Murat Pilevneli also have a special place in my life.
In 2012, before moving to L.A., Murat Pilevneli had kindly proposed to make an exhibition together at his then exhibition space, Pilevneli Project. It was a valuable proposal due to being a checkpoint to observe my development in the last six years. I really like the new space. The data sculptures made perfect sense reuniting after 6 years with the new space of Pilevneli Gallery, at Melting Memories exhibition. My dream was to localize the works in such a way that they’d become a part of architecture and turn into a media wall, through the use of the height of the perfect gap on the second floor of the gallery – a space that emerged with great design concerns of Emre Arolat.
It was an epic experience. It was my first exhibition in years, so it needed to be meaningful and inspiring. Interestingly enough, it turned into a public reaction. I couldn’t understand how this happened. This wasn’t an engineered experience, but an artistic output. The fact that it reached almost 40 thousand people and that the experience per person lasted more than 52 minutes wasn’t only a formalist love, but it turned into a reaction, which would bother me when we considered it in terms of shallow ways like social network where people are captivated by the beauty of formalism. Of course, the fact that media arts being trapped in a small bubble in Istanbul and the work being unique in its field had a positive outcome in this massive interest. This was an exhibition I felt really good about. Melting Memories revived my memories in many ways.
Yonca Keremoglu:There were both data paintings and sculptures in Melting Memories. Both having a performative act, is it the size of a work differentiating data paintings from data sculptures?
Refik Anadol: When a work relates to architecture, I call it a “data sculpture”. Due to its size and its relation with the wall that creates the space, it goes out of what we call a painting, with a frame and borders. I think, in regards to our spatial perception, a digital wall of five to six meters can be considered a sculpture. Painting works were the ones on 65” digital screens. In terms of their size they were more approachable. I consider myself as the first person to use the word “data painting” in 2016 since we haven’t found anyone else who used or speculated this word. Data is such a liquid and living material that I didn’t think it was right to approach to associate it with pigment. In these works, pigment is what is considered a quantified experience, concurrently having its concerns such as a painting. It seemed more appropriate to use a hybrid name.
Yonca Keremoglu: Do you define yourself as a data artist?
Refik Anadol: Yes, nowadays they also call me “AI Artist” because of my works with artificial intelligence or a “Data Sculptor”. I think both of them are limiting definitions, that’s why I prefer to call it media artist because it sounds more inclusive and meaningful. Due to its similarities, I link my works with cinema. I form relations with my team in a similar manner to a director’s when creating a movie. For each project I’ve made so far, I planned the project, found and dug out the data myself as well. Certainly, working with bigger institutions such as NASA, Google Arts & Culture, source of the data has become more distinct. For example, working with NASA was one of the most interesting collaborations in which data of MARS come through GPI. (Gemini Planet Imager).
Yonca Keremoglu: Archive Dreaming, which emerged in collaboration with Google Arts & Culture Residency and then was exhibited in SALT Galata. How was the project set into motion?
Refik Anadol: After we opened our studio in 2015, I exhibited Virtual Depictions: San Francisco (2015), my first work in a public space, which caught the attention of Silicon Valley. It is a point where the word “data sculpture” and the spatialization of the data sculpture started to spread. Right at that moment, AI experts that conducted many researches kept emailing me, creating awareness about the subject. Among these, Google organized an event in 2016 in San Francisco. It was the auction of the first work of art that was being held by an AI. They invited me as a data artist to this event and introduced me as a next collaborator in this field. This was a huge opportunity. Then I started to work as a resident artist at Google Artist & Machine Intelligence Program; a network that Google brought artists together with machine intelligence, pairing an artist with an engineer to solve whatever problem that artist may have. Coming from Istanbul, I started thinking about what I could do in Istanbul. Just at that moment, the director of SALT Research Vasıf Kortun invited me to talk about whether we could collaborate on the upcoming exhibition projects about archiving. I wanted to welcome the opportunity from Google on a project like this. Could we predict the library of the future together? Could we depict the library of the future? I offered this idea to Google and a wonderful, six-month-long project emerged. As far as I know, it was the first project in the public space about AI. It was a first in the field of arts in terms of the algorithm that was used in. With the support of SALT Research and Google, it turned out to be a great experience that changed my life. It has been 3 years since I started to work as an artist at Google Artist and Machine Intelligence Residency. WDCH Dreams (2018) was the continuation of the same team. Dreams of an archive changed its dimension, leading us to depict the dreams of a building this time by taking WDCH archives.
Yonca Keremoglu: How do you see the archives in the future in the digitalization process?
Refik Anadol: Physical data such as books, records, documents have a certain perfection. This world exists from the very beginning and we have accepted its perfection for thousands of years. On the other hand we have the power of artificial intelligence; turning data into knowledge and knowledge into wisdom – a power that could change the relationship between these three topics. What would happen if we could change the way we look at data and the way we organize it? What if we try to see that is unseen? How do we figure out what is inside when we go to a library? Is this what we type into a boring search bar? I could never get that big picture feeling anywhere. The possible outputs when we apply AI to a big data, to be able to get some meaning from that outputs, get inside it and see the differences. I had this personal trouble about this story. Once a book or an archive is digitalized with artificial intelligence, I think it’s a groundbreaking idea to be able to show the relationship between the sum of its parts and the whole, the archive. We should start thinking about how we’re going to live without a search bar in the near future. We all got used to Google Search, maybe a brain computing interface can be invented in the future so we wouldn’t need a search engine. However there still is a step before reaching that world. I think here is that step. The possible outputs when we apply AI to a big data, to be able to get some meaning from that outputs, get inside it and see the differences. This could only be achieved through AI. To do away with this corporeality is not an audacity, on the contrary, an effort to read data more efficiently. It is a valuable course for humanity.
Yonca Keremoglu: Do you see your projects interconnected with each other, feeding one other? Was WDCH Dreams a sort of sequel to Archive Dreaming? What were the biggest challenges of the project?
Refik Anadol: It’s about the notion of reinventing myself. I always find inspiration from previous projects but it’s important to be able to say something new. First of all, Frank Gehry is my hero. The way he expresses and transforms the architecture is a whole different world. The importance and meaning of architecture were very valuable to me, since I started my works with architectural photography. When I first moved to L.A., the first building I came across with was the Walt Disney Concert Hall, the home of the L.A. Philharmonic. Having arrived in L.A. at 2:15 in the morning, I saw a weird dark thing with no lights instead of that shiny bright Walt Disney Concert Hall. The building seemed incredibly alone and isolated. Apparently they shut off the lights at night to save energy. I would have never guessed that. I remember regarding the building as an entity that could make a sound, think and learn from itself.
Inspired by this idea, I thought that this could be my case study, so we started working on it. My team that I conducted researches in Istanbul was a small one. I remember saying goodbye to them, seeing it coming that I was going to a brand-new world in L.A. To carry out my project, the first thing I did was to email Frank Gehry and then to L.A. Philharmonic. Of course, neither of them replied. At least not to a student. Everyone at school including the professors thought that not in any way I could easily approach to WDCH since it’s one of the most important buildings in the world and keep asking me whether I was sure to carry on with it. I was intended to carry on with the project and loved the fact that apparently I was aiming high. Meanwhile in 2013, Microsoft Research was bringing 10 Ivy League students together in Seattle and awarded the best project idea based on design and technology. I was invited for the first time as an artist and I didn’t know that at the time. I got on the stage and talked about the project for 8 minutes. Can a building dream? Can a building live? Can it learn from itself? I presented those questions that sparked the project.
As a result, I gained an award that was materially and morally valuable. When I returned to school with that award, I transformed from Refik the student to Refik the researcher. Money changed things too. Most important of all, Frank Gehry replied. Moreover, L.A. Philharmonic replied. They wanted to realize the idea, not just because I came up with the idea, but because it needed to contribute to them, too. And that contribution was that it was L.A. Philharmonic’s 100th anniversary. They wanted to celebrate it in such a way that, it wouldn’t be just another cliché firework shows, but a purposeful and impactful 100th anniversary celebration that will be an exemplary work for next 100 years, whilst honoring the last 100 years. Thanks to the replies of Frank Gehry and L.A. Philharmonic, challenge continued and the project started to come to life.
The fact that Google was supporting me throughout the project was a priceless advantage. We’re talking about a 17-year-long archival record with nearly 70 thousand audio records, every piece they have made and performed by L.A. Philharmonic. Each Mahler, Beethoven, Stravinsky song, all the photographic records of the building that were taken in the last 15 years, all of the video records that were taken in the last 75 years, and more. I had to create a story from those. And the building had to be the canvas. I divided the projects in three parts; the memories, the consciousness and the dream. In the first chapter; memories, the building opens itself one night, the information starts to load. There is a software inside it and it decided to come to life on its own. We understand that these data suddenly start to expand to the façade. The building is looking for something but we don’t know what it is. At that moment we hear what is in the folder. We can only see the data of first concerts, voice records, raw data without interference.
The second chapter is consciousness. There is a moment where AI is kicked. It tries to understand the relationship between the data and all of a sudden, the data turn into clusters and starts to spatialize. The building starts to interact with the façade and reminisce about three to four performances of the music directors that live in our time and starts to dream about them. One of them is the conductor of L.A. Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel.
And the last part was the Dream. Finally, the building starts to dream. It begins to create surreal places with the existing data. One night, it downloads all pictures about itself, remembers the first time Frank Gehry painting it while sailing. At last, we understand that we’ve been watching what the building had gone through when he was trying to reach a memory. We were watching a building remembering its memory of Gustavo Dudamel’s performance, playing Mahler’s Symphony No:1, that is one of WDCH’s first performances. It was a 15-minute performance. It was on for 6 days, and we have reached a great crowd. In the end, I realized that L.A. was my second home. It is a really bizarre city, actually. 92 different languages are spoken. It is a multi-national city, yet for a big city big everyone is disconnected from one another. A city with little randomness. That’s why creating something that brings the people together creates a great synergy. That was the reason why it was in a public space. It is free and open to everyone. It was an extraordinary experience to see such a famous building evolving and being watched by thousands.
Dealing with the data and the building were the biggest challenges. None of the surfaces of the building are parallel to one another. I used 42 projections and they were the brightest projections in the world. It was a difficult project in every angle. The second challenge was, of course, the data. A 45 TB data, with 100 years of history. I felt the heavy burden created by this responsibility, and that was a challenge at another level.
Yonca Keremoglu: Are there any upcoming projects in the health industry using AR/VR technologies?
Refik Anadol: We’re doing three researches at the moment. With UCSF, UCLA and UC Berkeley. We’re officially doing scientific research at the moment. They are about emotions and memories. We try to understand both sides. AI is the fastest method to make something of the big data. The following two years will be very exciting. New projects are coming.
Yonca Keremoglu: Recently I came across your Instagram posts: architectural photographic memories trained with GAN algorithm to create machine hallucinations; ones that are trained on a hybrid dataset of Gothic and Renaissance era architecture. In what ways do you think machine intelligence can be applied to history of art? Can it act like a dead artist and continue to produce new works?
Refik Anadol: Actually, it is the reincarnation of memory in some way, to be able to brought back to life. I can’t say no, but I’m well aware that we’re far too behind to say yes. For now, all we have is photographic memories that we produce and share collectively as humans. In August, the Machine Hallucinations exhibition is going to be opened in New York. All these tests were the works of it. In its dream, it sees the hallucinations of a place about other places. I regard this work based on the works of living legends such as Zaha Hadid, Tom Mayne, Frank Gehry living the dreams of all the eras; Gothic, Renaissance, Constructivist Architecture, Modern Architecture… We’re doing a big research, not only do we use it, but we’re also looking for new ways to create new stories for artificial intelligence. We can roam in the mind of a machine with a camera and make it relive a moment. It was the test for this. It could be the output of it.
Yonca Keremoglu: Working with Artificial intelligence in numerous projects, how do you evaluate the impact of artificial intelligence on humanity?
Refik Anadol: I think it’s best to remind ourselves, as humans, when we first discovered fire, we cooked with it, but we also made weapons with it. The same goes with AI. With the same technology, with a single-line code we can find a cure for cancer and with that same code, we can also make the most evil invention of the world. There are similar relations between AI and previous inventions. The question is: “Where do you want to stand in the spectrum? Do want to make that evil invention, or do you want to find the ideas that will enhance the cognitive capacity with creativity like how the food is cooked, or how a cure for cancer is found?” I am on the optimistic side. In my version of the future, machines don’t overrule us or destroy us. In the future I’ve dreamed of, people are more caring towards nature, they believe in the objectivity of the AI to see it as an opportunity to solve problems. Thus, robots won’t steal our jobs but on the contrary, giving us new ones. Not everyone has to imagine the future like this but we should know that as humans we tend to think more negatively having instincts that are the default properties of our DNA. I think that the ideas that will carry us beyond will no longer come from survival instincts. Discovery of fire is related to survival instincts, but linking AI with survival won’t be the same thing. I think we need to alter our mindset.
Yonca Keremoglu: What are you reading lately?
Refik Anadol: I am reading two books nowadays. One of them is The Art of Memory by Francis Yates. It’s a very interesting book. The other is Eric Kandel’s In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind. It’s a great read. These books broaden my mind, I am doing memory research nowadays. Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants? Is also a different speculation. Apart from these, I try to follow the news about neuroscience.