Refik Anadol’s Sci-Fi Utopianism
Refik Anadol is a media artist and director from Istanbul, currently living and working in Los Angeles. Through explorations of space, achieved through immersive installations and experiences, his work examines the idea of memory.
Engram : Data Sculpture, 3+1 AP. 6M x 5M, 3MM LED Media Wall, Custom Software. “From February 7 through March 17, 2018, Pilevneli Gallery presented Refik Anadol’s latest project on the materiality of remembering
Anadol has been building upon the ideas of machine hallucinations and the melding of digital and physical space for a long time. Having spent time as a videographer, architectural photographer, and creative director, he brings these disciplines and ways of seeing to bear on his evolving algorithmically-based works.
Machine dreams of Mars
For this year’s CODAME ART+TECH Festival 2019『 SPACE 』, Anadol will be showing examples of his signature parametric data sculpture works, which he calls “machine hallucinations.” This will be his first time presenting work at the annual CODAME event, which will take place at Github headquarters in San Francisco this October.
“I’m really excited to be a part of the festival for the first time,” says Anadol. “I’m super excited about these Machine Memoir works and machine hallucination studies.”
To create the works, he explains, he began with 12 terabytes of datasets, images downloaded from the HiRISE telescope, which recorded the entire surface of Mars. (“Maybe our next home, who knows,” he laughs, and I get the feeling he isn’t really joking.)
HiRISE (short for “High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment”) is the most powerful camera ever sent from Earth to travel the solar system. Launched in 2005 by a team of planetary scientists, geologists, and researchers from the University of Arizona, SETI Institute, and other research institutions, HiRISE reached Mars in 2006 aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), an advanced spacecraft designed to observe Mars from orbit.
Explaining the artwork, Anadol says, “This is a study of celestial structure that you don’t see every day. We know it’s there, but we don’t see it; we have a feeling that it’s real. [The artwork is] a kind of AI research, where we’re trying to create a synthetic reality of the surfaces of Mars. [From the HiRISE dataset], we’ve got huge AI studies, which create synthesized data sculptures. I’ll be sharing one of these at the ART+TECH festival.”
To understand this, it helps to know a few things. First, Anadol is an endlessly optimistic thinker when it comes to technology and its possibilities. Second, while he isn’t a programmer himself, his varied artistic background combined with his network of collaborators in cutting-edge technology fields allows him to operate as a conductor of sorts, coaxing a visual symphony from a supercomputer.
A positive vision of the near-future
Fueled by movies and speculative fiction novels, Anadol’s utopian sci-fi visions began during his childhood, and have only grown more grand with time.
“I was eight years old when I first witnessed Blade Runner,” he recalls, when asked about his most prominent art and career inspirations. “That movie changed my life. I was so inspired by it, even though I didn’t know English yet. In the same year, I got my first computer. It was a huge change in my life, as you might guess. The first sci-fi movie, the first computer in the same year, it was just a huge inspiration.”
Film still: Cityscape from the film, Blade Runner, 1982.
Beyond that iconic film, Anadol cites a few other classic storytellers as key inspirations: “That movie [Blade Runner] is just a one window to a whole new universe. Of course, I learned about [authors] William Gibson, Philip K. Dick, and many others who are constantly dreaming about the near future. The cinema, for me, is the most inspiring medium of all because you can just literally create a reality by using the tools from reality to create something that is artificial but has a huge potential to immerse you with something almost real.”
Gibson and Dick, more often than not, depict a technologically-advanced world rife with disappointment, despair, and social problems that feel very similar to or extrapolated from those we face in the present. However, Anadol doesn’t take his inspiration from a particularly dark view of the future. Quite the opposite: he describes himself as a utopian.
“I’m more into the opportunities,” he says. “I’m an optimist. I’m interested in the more positive, utopian side of technology.”
While he says he is fully aware of the troubling potentials of modern technologies, like artificial intelligence, he remains positive. He says he finds his greatest inspiration for new artworks within the near-future opportunities of those emerging technologies: “I’m much more inspired by considering, ‘what will AI do to our humanity?‘ Or, I speculate on near-future scenarios, but in a positive way. I’m not interested in the negative mindset of depicting the all bad news or ethical issues around AI. I’m more interested in how we can narrate the near-future with this technology in a positive way, where our cognitive systems are augmented by it.”
He expressed this viewpoint poignantly after the tragedy of the fire at Notre Dame in Paris earlier this year. In response to the fire, which damaged the famous cathedral, he wrote on his Instagram account: “Dear friends, during AI research in our studio, we had a moment to recognize Notre-Dame de Paris, a masterpiece of Gothic architecture in our latent space with GAN algorithm. I highly believe machine intelligence can allow us to reconstruct our photographic memories which may allow us to expand our cognitive capacity and awareness especially during these sad days.”
The accompanying images and video showed a dreamlike, machine-learning-generated assemblage of images of Notre Dame. As its angles and shadows slide into one another, the spire and windows rising and falling like liquid, the rippling images evoke living memories of the site. This psychedelic effect is the result of a generative adversarial network (GAN), a class of machine learning systems that Anadol uses to create his work.
Three years ago, Anadol participated in an event in San Francisco where Google engineers showed (and auctioned off) early AI-generated artwork. At the time, he says, he didn’t understand how to use AI, though he was aware of its potential. After this first exposure to AI, he pursued opportunities with Google Artists and the Google Machine Intelligence Team. There, he had the chance to work directly with Mike Tyka, an artist and engineer whose work on DeepDream has been in part responsible for the popularization of the use of neural networks as a medium for art.
“While I was researching [AI],” says Anadol, “I was obsessed by memories and emotions.” In his artwork, he continually returns to questions of memory: how it feels, how to capture and play with it, and how to bring memories into the world so that they are visual, tactile, and alive.
The fire at Notre Dame was incredibly sad, he says, but also alive with potential: “It’s so sad, yet so exciting that from 75,000 images [online] we were able to recapture the memory of the observers who let the social networks know their memories.”
From those images, collected from Google, Instagram, and other public websites, Anadol collected the raw materials — the memories of visitors — with which to train the neural network which could then generate endless variations on those images. In this way, Anadol’s works also function as “time machines,” aggregating moments across multiple timelines from a given place in physical space (like the cathedral, or any other site he chooses to investigate), and then allowing the machine to “hallucinate” and free-associate.
By layering a vast digital archive of moments together, the past is not gone. Instead of vanishing and receding, it comes alive, and the site of inquiry becomes a space able to “dream” about what it has been and who has been there.
This concept blends futurism with bittersweet nostalgia in the case of Notre Dame, and with optimistic excitement when the subject is the planet Mars. With Anadol’s machine hallucinations trained on the largest, highest-quality data available depicting the entire surface of the Red Planet, he hopes to engage us in a collective memory of where we have yet to go.
Experience artwork by Refik Anadol at CODAME ART+TECH Festival 2019『 SPACE 』, October 25–27, 2019 at Github headquarters in San Francisco. Space is a canvas on which we write our stories, paint our dreams, and build our realities. The 2019 CODAME ART+TECH Festival explores the many facets of space. To learn more, reserve your ticket, or get involved, visit codame.com.
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