A Dialogue Between

»At the moment, anything is open to imagination,
and I’m pretty sure that many creators are building their
own architected metaverses.« – Refik Anadol

»At the moment, anything
is open to imagination, and I’m pretty sure that many creators are building their own architected metaverses.« – Refik Anadol

It is no surprise that Refik Anadol was an early progenitor of NFTs, which he spoke about with Hans Ulrich Obrist on the occasion of Zurich's first NFT ART DAY ZRH in 2022 and as part of the inaugural NFT and metaverse conference in Switzerland, organised by E.A.T. / Engadin Art Talks and elementum. There is much debate about the relationship between so-called “digital art” and NFTs, which can at times be hard to distinguish. Anadol is a pioneer in both fields, so hearing from him on the origins of his journey to displaying and working with machine intelligence and blockchain sheds light on the specific identities of these technologies, as well as their relationship to the larger infrastructure of societies. What is the future of NFTs in Anadol’s practice, and how is that related to questions about their public and users, who are, after all, a necessary element in the networks of Anadol’s practice?

Quantum Memories, 2020, 10M x 10M x 2.5M AI Data Sculpture, commissioned by the National Gallery Victoria, Melbourne

DESIGNBOOM: What, in your opinion, is the most fascinating aspect of Refik Anadol’s artistic practice?

Hans Ulrich Obrist: As Zaha Hadid – who is one of Refik’s inspirations – told me, there should be no end to experimentation. Refik’s experiments with technology and blockchain have always had a collaborative focus.'

DB: Which specific topic within the field of NFTs did your conversation address?

HUO: His practice is decentralised, generative, and often has a charity dimension. It has what Mariana Mazzucato calls a mission economy at heart. Refik’s work raises some of the key questions such as: can a machine learn? Can it dream, can it hallucinate? His consequent work with archives where he splits AI algorithms to archives, shows us the future is invented with fragments from the past. Another important aspect is how he uses blockchain for new public art. Landmarks and public squares become his canvas, and he shows us possibilities for new hybrid architecture. Refik has a holistic approach that goes beyond the restrictive binary of physical and digital. The conversation addressed all these many dimensions of his practice. We also discussed gaming, his video game project, and my interest in games and world building. The Julia Stoschek exhibition I curated explores the relationship between gaming and time-based art. I also invite you to read more on Gabriel Masan’s projects.

DB: You were one of the first people working with “Data Painting.” Can you explain what it is about and how you incorporate it into your work?

Refik Anadol: I coined the terms AI Data Painting and AI Data Sculpture to describe site-specific three-dimensional, dynamic sculptures at the intersection of architecture, media art, light studies, and AI-based data analysis. I envisioned AI Data Paintings moving beyond the integration of media into built forms, translating my logic of a new media technology as well as my vision of post-digital architecture into spatial design. In 2008, during my last year of undergraduate studies in Istanbul, I took a very inspiring lecture course on a software called PureData by Koray Tahiroglu, a wonderful artist and a professor at Aalto University. The software was developed primarily for sound artists, but it also displayed an inspiring visual computing capacity. It was in that class that I coined the term Data Painting by simply plotting series of sensors mostly used in physical interaction design. I also took a deep dive into VVVV, a software that I have been using in almost all of my real-time projects since 2008. It provides an incredible community and visual programming language that can be used without any single line of code. Later in 2012, during my studies at UCLA, I explored processing and began working on Data Paintings and Sculptures thanks to Casey Reas, a pioneer in the field and a wonderful mentor who changed my entire perception of generative art.

A ZHA x RAS collaboration at Meta-Horizons: The Future Now, 2022, DDP Design Museum, Seoul, Korea

DB: Stepping outside of the art world, do you think your methods of “Data Painting” have the potential to be beneficial for science and other aspects of humanity?

RA: Wishfully thinking, yes. This question has been very important for our research into neuroscience, nature, and architecture, especially during the pandemic. We believe that immersive and multisensory spatial experiences, when combined with meaningful and cuttingedge data visualisation techniques, can create a healing power. There are countless medical studies in progress about the use of gaming technologies and multimedia for pain management as well. There is infinite creative potential in machine algorithms that can take various shapes for the advancement of humanity. We have been researching wellbeing aspects of our works in collaboration with UCLA Neuroscientists since 2020. We also collaborate with scientists at Harvard and UCLA to create tools for them for better data visualisation that will aid their research in the long run.

Architecting the Metaverse is the result of a six-month collaboration between Refik Anadol Studio (RAS) and Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA). An immersive art project at the intersection of architecture, art, technology, and artificial intelligence (AI).
© Photo Kyungsub Shin

DB: Why do you think NFTs are particularly popular in the arts?

RA: In the blockchain world, art operates in a decentralized way - that is, without the presence of a value-giving gallery patron. It is an innovative system with the potential to adapt to change through smart contracts. I think that all this transparency has had positive results, especially for digital artists who find it difficult to find a place for themselves in the traditional gallery world. I find this aspect very inspiring. It has the potential to revolutionise the digital art world. It also allows innovative creators to program their smart contracts for dynamic artworks, imagine new ways of presenting generative art, and create meaningful and purposeful charity projects. Our latest NFT collection allowed us to donate $2.5M to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, and the success of this fundraising project covered the entire cost of an operation day at the hospital to support the families and children.

DB: What do you think about the metaverse and its impact on the NFT market?

RA: At the moment, anything is open to imagination, and I’m pretty sure that many creators are building their own architected metaverses. We are also building our own one called the DATALAND! It will be the world’s very first multi-sensory metaverse project, marking a turning point in the aesthetic convergence of virtually enhanced physical and augmented reality. It also brings together the world’s leading neuroscientists, AI and computer graphics pioneers, olfactory and real-time biosensing technologies as well as collaborations with innovation leaders. We think that DATALAND will have impact beyond the creative communities of the digital world and create value for many people.

DB: What do you hope visitors take away from your talk at NFT ART DAY ZRH?

RA: As a protagonist in my field, I’ll do my best to bring to the surface the positive potential impact of the medium I am working with and share the outcomes of experimental and experiential aspects of NFT Public Art in order to bring hope and inspiration to the discourse. I have had the privilege of exchanging incredible ideas with Hans Ulrich Obrist, and his vision and guidance always allow us to create more insightful views of recent innovations.

DESIGNBOOM, founded way back in 1999, is an art, architecture, design, and technology news magazine based in Milan, Athens, Berlin, Beijing, New York, and Tokyo. www.designboom.com.



Refik Anadol (b. 1985 in Istanbul, Turkey) lives and works in Los Angeles, California, USA. He received his MFA from UCLA’s Department of Design Media Arts.

Refik Anadol is a media artist, director, and pioneer in the aesthetics of data and machine intelligence. His body of work locates creativity at the intersection of humans and machines. In taking the data that flows around us as his primary material, along with the neural network of a computerized mind as a collaborator, Anadol paints with a thinking brush, offering us radical visualisations of our digitised memories, expanding the possibilities of architecture, narrative, and th...
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