REFIK ANADOL
What Dreams May Come

How did Anadol arrive at such projects and practices, which combine art and technology in completely new ways?

How did Anadol arrive at such projects and practices, which combine art and technology in completely new ways?

In Refik Anadol’s artistic practice, machines can perform what once seemed strictly reserved to the domain of the living – to dream and imagine. This represents a revolution in the creative process that allows data and its endless possibilities to lead the way as the central creative catalyst. The display of Anadol’s work is not limited by institutional or gallery spaces, where his immersive installations have been projected onto the outside of buildings, from Frank Gehry’s rippling Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles to the bell tower of the former Church of St. Agnes, home to König Galerie. With his latest project, Architecting the Metaverse, Anadol moved his work to the interior of Zaha Hadid’s magisterial Dongdaemum Design Plaza in Seoul in summer 2022. How did Anadol arrive at such projects and practices, which combine art and technology in completely new ways?

ZHA x RAS, 2022, Architecting the Metaverse Animation

In dreams, we do not so much create new images as combine things we have seen or experienced in our own lives, a filtering mechanism that processes and reprocesses those impressions the world gives us. If this is true, it means that dreams are then limited to the database of human experience. So how can we incorporate and collaborate with alternative, machine-guided databases to dream differently or to witness the process by which machines themselves generate their own dreamwork?

In a word, this question has been the motivating impulse behind Refik Anadol’s artistic practice, which began in Turkey, the country from which the artist hails, and continued to the sunny climes of Los Angeles, where Anadol’s studio has grown into a full-blown Artificial Intelligence laboratory, a futuristic version of Andy Warhol’s factory, where computers and programming languages have become the stars in the limelight.

Anadol’s artistic journey was marked from the beginning by his earliest experiences with computers and science fiction, and Los Angeles is home to much of the fiction that has since become reality. The Refik Anadol Studio is charged with an equivalent energy, feeding off innovation and discovery. That computers are capable of cognition is a given for Anadol, and with that in mind, completely new possibilities for Artificial Intelligence emerge. Dreams are now imaginable without the limitation of the human, cerebral archive. For Anadol, new memories exist outside of the brain, though their actions and performances belong very much to the act of thinking, a process, a model for combining existing material into completely new images and spaces.

What is so compelling about Anadol’s odyssey is that the archaic division between human and machine has been effectively replaced by a desire for collaboration – between brain and computer, programming languages and the coded rituals of social organisation. Like the totemic structure of civilisations, Anadol’s art follows a logic of substitution - data for pigment, algorithms for brush - that renders it a continuation of painting, rather than a false break from that long established form of art making. This substitutional process goes a long way to accounting for the names that Anadol gives to his varied projects, the most frequent being the triumvirate of hallucination, memory, and dreams. These three are then modified by other terms – archive, machine, quantum – based on the specific programs with which they are designed and the spaces for which they are planned: Archive Dreams, Quantum Memories, Machine Hallucinations, to name just a few of the most recent endeavours.

© Image Tom Ross

Despite their often larger than life appearance, there is an inherent flexibility and malleability to Anadol’s works, which, continuing in a spirit of collaboration, move into and around the spaces where they are exhibited. The physical environment and the viewer are the final collaborators in Anadol’s universe, and their parameters are as undetermined as the images that are produced from a given database and programming language. In Architecting the Metaverse, created in dialogue with Zaha Hadid’s annular DDP building in Seoul, Anadol collected millions of personal photographs, stories, and keepsakes and fed them into an AI program that created intimate and haunting connections between otherwise disparate data elements. The results were then projected onto the surface of the DDP, in a performance that wrapped the architecture in a new vision of the city and its inhabitants that static presentations of archival material would otherwise be at pains to present.

The results provided a kind of porous membrane of memory that ensconced Hadid’s building without ever displacing or destroying the site, making the architecture even more specific, grounded, and alive. In addition, the programs that Anadol employed were able to create an entirely new cognitive map of Seoul by allowing the mechanisms of AI to construct correspondences based on machine logic, which is uncannily adept at finding and engendering affinities that might escape the engrained codes of human intelligence. According to the 19th-century German architectural theorist Gottfried Semper, the foundation of culture begins in an act of weaving or knotting together elements that had previously existed separate from one another. This process of threading was also the beginning of the modern discipline of architecture, and Anadol’s woven strands of archival data pay tributeto these processes, putting the futuristic appearance of ephemeral imagery into a foundational history of building practices, thereby making Hadid's structure echo both past and present. In the form of production and presentation, Anadol managed to create new memories while carrying the collective memories of architecture into the future.

Anadol’s works do not just dream or remember, they also hallucinate. But how can a machine hallucinate? To imagine such a process is clearly difficult and risks anthropomorphising a hardwired computer; but this is something that viewers of Anadol’s Machine Hallucinations: Nature Dreams exhibition at König Galerie in Berlin in late 2021 did not have to dream up themselves: the results were on the surface of the St. Agnes Church and filled its former nave space. There, Anadol’s AI Data Paintings shone like a pencil of light, harkening back to the earliest reproductive technologies for producing images. Each new media contains the traces of those that came before it, and like links in a chain, Anadol’s moving paintings put their own digital history on display in the dimly lit nave, like futuristic cave drawings.

Machine Hallucinations – Unsupervised , 2021, from the series Dreams, MoMA, 17”x 22”, AI Data Painting

Maybe it is not the computer that is hardwired, but our own expectations and judgments about our relationship to it. What makes Anadol’s work so pioneering in this field is that he does not use the human metaphor of hallucination so as to document a similar process in machines. Rather, Anadol – and this is what makes his work shatter the paradigm of digital art – allows his machines to hallucinate in their own language, to build and paint of their own will. The computer is not just another instrument in an artist’s toolbox. Understood more imaginatively, Anadol’s work curates an experience in which the algorithm can paint on its own, if it chooses to do so. What other verb could be used to describe this desire other than to dream? Hallucinating is simply dreaming with eyes open.

Outside the context of physical space, Anadol has also been at work on projects that viewers can both see anywhere through a digital device, and also collect, own, sell, and trade in the form of NFTs. For many, the NFT is simply a method of assuring provenance and complete transparency in the blockchain marketplace. But for Anadol, the non-exchangeable token is also a platform for continued investigation into the capacity of programming languages and Artificial Intelligence to create completely new works of art. In Unsupervised, Anadol fed a database of millions of images from the Museum of Modern Art in New York into a filter that combined said works into alluring and hallucinogenic combinations that collectors can purchase as NFTs.

Unsupervised is part of Machine Hallucinations, Refik Anadol Studio’s ongoing project exploring data aesthetics based on collective visual memories

The title of the project, Unsupervised, alludes to the autonomy of the systems that Anadol employs, which create on their own, though with some modicum of guidance by members of his team. Or, said differently, the machines themselves become curators, bringing together an enormous archive of visual material into a new context for its display. There are of course elements that Anadol chooses to focus on, so the project is not completely arbitrary; but its outcome is never predetermined. The interplay between what a program selects and what inputs are determined by a human actor is a gesture of inclusion on Anadol’s part, opening the closed circuitry of artist and artwork into a more complex system of actors in which no single input has complete control over the outcome of a given process.

The fact that Anadol’s Unsupervised took advantage of the database of one of the great temples of modern art in order to borrow its methods of curation is an astounding feat, providing unique NFTs, which then have a provenance all their own, to which their collectors are given open access. What’s more, Anadol uses the mechanisms of the still burgeoning blockchain marketplace to produce something with aesthetic value, not just any image or file, but a work of art. The fruits of such endeavours reveal that Anadol is more than just a theorist of machine-human interaction; his works actually perform the very possibility and reality of such relationships and do so while also being attuned to their value as artworks, as things to be seen and experienced. The idea of the blockchain is essentially one derived from a desire to grant all users open access to the currency and works that are exchanged therein, so why not make something truly unique and beautiful in the process? This is what happens when dreams become reality.