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Refik Anadol

AI, Algorithms, and the Machine as Witness


Machine Hallucinations: Coral Dreams, 2021. Courtesy Refik Anadol.

Refik Anadol is a Turkish-American media artist who addresses the possibilities of technology and what it means to be a human in the age of A.I. Through his mesmerizing visualizations based on data and coding, Anadol creates digitized dreams, bringing a new perspective of what art can be in the 21st century. In this interview, Anadol talks about his vision of creating human interconnection and the importance of bringing consciousness to the machine.

PLUS: I want to start by asking what comes to mind when you think of the term, data.

Refik Anadol: For me, data is a form of memory, a memory that can take any shape or form. Everything that is quantifiable becomes data. In that way, data can become personal – personally engaging with our own decisions, heartbeats, and Wi-Fi connection. I don’t think there’s anything wrong here. The problem always starts when what happens to this data. Most people monetize it, but some people are using it to express concerns or use them as a pigmentation. This diversity is exciting but also comes with ramifications. Any of us can solve any issues immediately, but the fact is that data is impossible to ignore; it’s material that entirely belongs to humanity. 


P: You are right! As it opens exciting possibilities, there are also opposing sides to the idea of data and its interactions with technology. Our devices can now listen, adapt and suggest our behaviors. It can be alarming how the data is used uncontrollably in our everyday lives. I am curious to know how you approach this balance and what expectations you have.

RA: I have multiple expectations. The first one is, of course, transparency with data. It’s still unclear what goes on behind the scenes of algorithms systems. That’s the challenge and the problem for many of us and the issues that society is facing. For us, data is open-source, meaning we don’t enter a password or use anyone’s [personal] data -we have some ethics applied when working with data. We only look for the collective memories, not to one’s person-centric data. The collective memories, I believe, belong to humanity in general. But not everyone enjoys creating situations that are more ethically correct or not product-oriented. The problem is that everyone is trying to make a product with this information immediately. But for us, we never imagined ourselves focusing on someone’s personal life.


P: Collective data is a vital tool in your work. Quantum Memories uses so-called ‘real-time’ data to explore the possibility of a parallel world by processing approximately 200 million nature and landscape images. In the context of ‘real-time,’ how is the data being processed and transformed into an immersive experience corresponding to its ever passing of time?

RA: For this project, we used computational data and generated a simple pattern that inspired our A.I to learn from 200 million nature photos. So technically, we gave an eye and a brain to our A.I. by using quantum computer results. So, this unit bit string transforms into a noise algorithm that triggers new values that look like nature. We basically computed quantum bits string into a noise algorithm, and that algorithm triggered a new visual language, which people were watching that I called “Quantum Memories.”

Machine Hallucinations: Coral, 2021. Courtesy Refik Anadol and Aorist. Photo: Oriol Tarridas.

P: This sounds like a rigorous process, and we can agree this is not a one-person job. Processing and researching the data must require a lot of time, teamwork, and energy. It is a heavily collaborative effort, and curious to know more about your team. 

RA: Ever since I was a kid, I never liked imagining by myself. I would always bring my friends to a new place and share my experience with them. And when I finished my MFA studies at UCLA in 2014, the ultimate idea was to open a studio. But what was challenging was that I wasn’t aware of how complex every project was. There were so many problems starting from data science to architecture. It’s always a new challenge all the time that requires certain expectations and experience. But, when you collectively imagine and work, this becomes a minor problem- it becomes much more fun to solve problems together. That’s the beauty of being a team! It’s not an ego-centric journey but a collective journey, and it takes a lot of time and effort to create a cohesive vision with different minds.


P: It truly is, and when great minds come together, extraordinary results are made.

RA: Absolutely. And it’s like when you are doing a school project. It’s not a boring startup concept but a pure art studio with pure artistic intentions. 


P: I find it interesting that your works are often embedded in an architectural structure. The work becomes part of its form. It provides an art experience within the art itself. Your team’s creation allows one to immerse themselves within the natural environment. With that in mind, what would be the unrealized ‘canvas’ that may anticipate you and your team?

RA: I think it will be to create the world’s most inspiring library. I believe libraries are where information becomes knowledge which eventually leads to wisdom. I’m not an architect, and I’m not trying to become one but if one day I had a chance to design or needed to design something, it should be a library, one that hopefully helps the world by being filled with inspiring knowledge and information. And I think the information kept there is in a sacred space.


P: Through your work, you ask: can we touch our memories and dreams, and can we truly interact with something ephemeral? I am curious about what it signifies to you about the non-tangible ‘data’ and why it’s essential to visualize the invisible.

RA: This comes from my childhood imagination. I believe that the systems and machines surrounding us are entirely based on this invisible language of their own existence. When we meet someone from a different culture, we can see them talking in a common language. But machines don’t do that, as they are designed for their language. And I think what is missing in this journey is this decoding technique. There is much more inspiration and imagination once you start to ask this question to the systems, the software, the hardware [etc.]. That is a whole new image for me, which is missing in general, and systems are not designed for it. 

Archive Dreaming. Courtesy Refik Anadol.

P: Data are forms and extensive collections of memories. You have encountered diverse sectors (climate, social, historical, cultural, etc). What is one thing that you’d want your audience to leave with? And most importantly, what do you personally leave with each encounter?

RA: With all our works since 2016 (since we started working with A.I.), we never leave our audience alone- in terms of process. We have always created a transparent, simple, and understandable process for the audience. It’s the educational side of our projects because we all feel responsible for these algorithms. We want to ensure our audience is enjoying beautiful experiences but also learning about what they are seeing, who made the algorithms, where is the data coming from, and which kind of software has been developed for this purpose. Because if you share very openly and directly, at least we have the chance to educate specific audiences who have curiosity. That’s an opportunity and advantage to learn more about what they see, merely bringing that to the surface. We also share our A.I model with neuroscientists and scientists. They are using our experiences and experiments in their clinics. There are so many examples like this that we are creating awareness in science, technology, and society. 


P: Some people categorize your work as futuristic and technological, but listening to your vision, made me feel like the work is imaginative because you’re warping time and space and breaking the four walls surrounding the audience.

RA: It is an excellent point and precisely what is happening. By the way, I love VR and AR, and not against all these tools, but I do believe there are many things yet to explore. Once the physical and virtual connect – this is an obsession for me. When they click, it’s what happens, and then that wall breaks other walls with the particular concept. Pretty much in every single project, for me, embedding media arts into architecture is exactly breaking that wall. Every surface wall of floors to doors is technically like an object and a canvas. They just need imagination. 


P: And when it comes to breaking the walls, a lot of that factor comes, of course, from the visual side. But there’s also the auditory element in your work that plays a vital role. 

RA: Sound is the most emotional material we are working on. It’s composing for certain data-driven narratives, which requires enormous work. I have been working with my composer friend for more than ten years now for all our jobs. He is remarkable in composing and enjoys these challenges we are going through. That’s why the reactions we are getting from these pieces are the meditative quality of imagination and spirituality. The music is the core emotion, and the narrative becomes more apparent. So we spend a lot of time making sure the feeling is accurately delivered to the audience. 


P: As humans have consciousness, you provide consciousness to the machine and transform data into pieces of art – memories within art.

RA: It’s like spending years of dreams in that state of mind is the core of these ideas. It’s not just machines or mathematical challenges at all. It’s just spiritually, and emotionally connected experiences. It’s a very original feeling that delivers in the form of art- which is very important in our studio. We try to make art without bias, which is a massive responsibility. We are not here to bring another problem; in fact, we bring beauty, and aesthetics and heal the mind through these beautiful experiences. That requires a purely emotional and soul connection through the lens of technology. 


P: Media art has only been introduced/ exposed to the public not too long ago and has the limitless potential for progress. With that in mind, in your thought, how will your work be transformed as technology advances, and do you think tech art will infuse our daily life even more?

RA: In the beginning, people were asking, “Can it be art? This is just software.” It was expected because people were not used to this experiential state of imagination. The resistance comes from the quick reference to everyday tools. But once people started experiencing this type of art and took time to understand the technology behind it, their perception changed. And that’s the moment when the art form becomes absolute and not just something new. To me, that was very inspiring. I mean, everything is a medium, and media art is using all of this in one medium. It took some time, but now I think people understand, and we have a significant audience.

And that’s the moment when the art form becomes absolute and not just something new.”

P: Digital art has seen a rise within the public world, and we certainly believe that this could be a chance where art could connect one another to think, imagine and revive. And I’m sure at the rate we are evolving, the time will come sooner than later.

RA: Most likely, the pandemic made people understand those things much faster. It’s not a coincidence that it’s evolving during the pandemic when people are more at home and questioning the physical connections in life. It just fell on the right time to speculate something fresh. Good or bad, but it’s about time. 


P: It is! Lastly, what does it mean for you as an individual and an artist to live in the age of artificial intelligence? 

RA: It is purely the chance and opportunity of having a friend that doesn’t forget, having a friend that can become a part of your journey as much as you want. It is literally in our hands to let these machines dream anything we wish. And to unlock the power is a massive process and journey, but not too far in the distance. You have to walk to reach it. Some people are very close, and others are intentionally running away. But it is a space where you can inhabit and enjoy life in different conditions. So to me, A.I is literally a near-future friend. 

This story is from Issue Four.