3. Pop(Corn): Refik Anadol
By Ann Guo
Published on March 15, 2022
As blockchain and NFTs amass more and more interest on a global scale, there are a few main players who emerge as the biggest fishes on OpenSea. Established contemporary art names such as Damien Hirst, or even Urs Fischer, are one of these art-giants turned digital art maestros. Another household name is now Refik Anadol (b.1985), Istanbul born-and-raised media artist who, since his undergraduate days in the metropolitan Bilgi University in Istanbul, has been using computational capacities to render large-scale installations on the walls and architectural structures.
As our society hurdles dizzyingly towards a future of meta-worlds and virtual living, artists like Anadol are using the material fact of our data trails—often stored in “clouds” as the conceptual context for boundary-defying artistic experimentation.
In his latest installation HOPE Alkazar in Istanbul, a small crowd of strangers in a cinema hall gazed about the undulating composition. And then there was dancing. Techno music drums were heard over speakers as people began to twirl and leap about, exuberant with childhood glee. Multicolored pixels scattered in the wake of their flinging shadows. There was a god-like feeling of control over the trails of these 1’s and 0’s, somehow transformed into a complex aesthetic pattern. But true control is derived from the AI technology beneath: an impressive array of sensors map 3D coordinates on our physical forms and adjust their computational projections accordingly.
Digital experiences like HOPE Alkazar marks a unique shift in the realm of global contemporary art. Not only do audiences interact in site-specific contexts to spark meaning, but they also provide the very substance upon which these hallucinatory immersions are founded. In the case of Anadol’s works, those building blocks are massive ledgers of publicly-accessed data, interpreted in terabytes of scale.
Born and raised in Istanbul, Anadol’s conception of collective memory in the digital universe is a form of living consciousness, a vessel for our shared stories and dreams. The artist’s other recent exhibition, Machine Hallucinations: Nature Dreams at König Galerie Berlin, ingests over 300 million public photographs of the natural world. Nature Dreams is also a minted NFT, one of many in Anadol’s repertoire, which sold for 1.2 million USD in January through König. As NFT artwork gains more international hype, there are few names that have risen as precipitously as that of Anadol’s.
Anadol has carved out a space for himself in the annals of crypto history. However, a more immediate, and often less understood element, of his projects is their potential to act as sites of public education. We create terabytes of data every year, which is all stored publicly. Our social media swipes, our taps on e-commerce, everything we do in relation to the internet creates an entire world of information which Refik categorizes as a form of memory.
To synthesize this memory into aesthetics, then, is also a way for Anadol to communicate the deeper picture of our digital environment—that we have created selves and worlds in a space that is unfathomably large and continuously growing; that the level of data tracking in current internet models is a public service and public governance issue; and that our collective entry into an alt-meta-existence has already begun, whether we like it or not. Read on a second layer, Anadol’s projects shed light on a truth more complicated, or more sinister, depending on your gaze, regarding the next frontier of human existence.
In the following interview, Anadol shares the development of his data-painting from thesis projects to NFTs, the future possibilities of crypto art and the meta-world, and his approach towards public awareness and education.
The following conversation took place in January 2022.
Top image: Portrait of Refik Anadol in front of his latest installation in Istanbul, HOPE Alkazar. Courtesy of the artist.
Ann Guo: Could you give us a bit of background on your artistic journey? How did you first get involved in building a "post-digital architecture," and how would you define that term?
Refik Anadol: I have been creating work as a media artist since 2008, when I did my very first media installation in Istanbul using architecture as a canvas, and when I started using custom software development techniques to create art. I think I coined the term “data-painting” in 2008, while in undergraduate studies in Istanbul. I use data to create real-time graphics and generative art. In 2011, my first data sculpture was also in Istanbul. In 2014, after getting my second MFA degree from UCLA, I opened a studio in Los Angeles. This was the most important chapter. The dream was to open a studio and practice as a team to go much deeper in data-driven experiences, data as a substance, and especially embedding media arts into architecture in immersive rooms, using projection-mapping, and practicing data-painting and data-sculptures. Our studio opened in 2014 and we became prominent in the public art scene. We developed novel software programming languages that could be applied to big data.
A.G.: You recently opened Machine Hallucinations: Nature Dreams at König Galerie in Berlin. Along with that, you created Hope Alkazar in Istanbul. Your synesthetic stories seem to reflect the miraculous world around us, while also delving into a universe of experimental distortion which uses public data as a source. What is your art meant to teach us as an audience? What kinds of new realities can we experience through AI algorithms and the synthesis of archival data?
R.A.: I think there are three important aspects of our artwork’s impact. In the beginning, the idea for our studio was to create art for anyone, any age, any culture, and any background. I personally hate all the bubbles in society that create closed cultures, barriers, and walls. I don’t like that problem of separation, and I think life begins from deconstructing those biases. Generating art for anyone in the world to appreciate is a really heavy responsibility, but I think it is possible when the right mathematical, universal language of algorithms, signs, and aesthetics of technology is in place. I do believe we can do that. That is the reason why we produce multiple public art experiences around the world, accessible to anyone with free participation.
All these projects come with AI-heavy research, and we always share our behind-the-scenes process: the types of data we collect, how many images we use, which algorithms we prefer, who invented them, and for which reason. In all our research, in all our projects, we always highlight the process. While this encourages copycats, I think it is our responsibility to share our production process with our audience.
In the beginning, the idea for our studio was to create art for anyone, any age, any culture, and any background. In all our research, in all our projects, we always highlight the process. While this encourages copycats, I think it is our responsibility to share our production process with our audience.
The other characteristic of our studio practice is our heavy use of cutting-edge algorithms, advanced technologies, and social media. In my opinion, data is not made of numbers, it is a form of memory. Humanity today creates enormous memories in our cellphones, smart tablets, and so on. Our artworks are mostly focused on collective memories, such as space, nature, urban, and things that belong to communities.
The Berlin exhibition, Nature Dreams, is one of those exhibitions where a 60-year-old, Brutalist building became a space for 200,000 people to convene and ponder. I think it's Europe's most visited exhibition at the moment. We had a one-kilometer queue, every single day.
I think [Nature Dreams] is Europe's most visited exhibition at the moment. We had a one-kilometer queue, every single day.
For that exhibition project, the concept was intrinsically linked with nature. In our practice, we really care about nature. For me, it's the most divine inspiration in life. We focused 300 million photos of natural elements and trained AI to generate a data sculpture. I think Berlin audiences enjoyed the meditation and dreaming qualities of the artwork. Set in a former church, it became some kind of a sci-fi slash public art, an incredible experience.
A.G.: Speaking of collective dreams memories, you mentioned that “internet architecture lacked a definable center and instead relied on an extraordinary collective hallucination.” When and how did you first get interested in this specific idea of data as collective memory, one that can generate emotional impact?
R.A.: Art does not necessarily need to be based on openly and directly sharing the technique and behind-the-scenes, but in our work, as I explained, transparency is an incredible asset. I think we found it very meaningful to try to create that language for our audiences.
But what happened in these artworks was a feeling of, “let's open this and try to make them public,” meaning free for everyone to access and enjoy. That intention generates an incredible audience – an incredibly aware audience. We also have artworks that use these immersive environments. We are trying to create this more divine connection between the audience, and the experience, the space, and AI and algorithms.
I'm not sure if this is one of the reasons that we generate this exciting audience. Another reason is the NFT aspect of our work. We have to be also aware that NFTs create a whole new subculture, a whole new universe on top of what we have right now in the world. The subculture inside Discord channels and social media activity is an amazing audience currently in the making. My dream, ever since I started playing games was, was always centered around the belief that physical and virtual space should connect. They should not be separated from each other.
We have to be also aware that NFTs create a whole new subculture, a whole new universe on top of what we have right now in the world.
A.G.: Speaking of NFTs, how has minting and selling your works as NFTs influenced your audience’s perception of your works? People are starting to understand what an NFT stands for. How has that changed the perception of value for your art? Does this add complexity to the viewer experience?
R.A.: I started in the blockchain culture almost eight years ago. From 2014 to 2017, I was personally involved in crypto and in mining. I first dabbled in NFTs in 2018 when one of my collectors from Zurich decided to call me and say, “Hey, I really need to mint this artwork to my wallet.” Since our projects are mostly using computer graphics, we always have remarkable GPUs in the studio.
My dream, ever since I started playing games was, was always centered around the belief that physical and virtual space should connect. They should not be separated from each other.
I was very lucky that in the summer of 2020, I started to follow the NFT moment and was constantly be a part of the community. I have seen it grow from day one. Last year was remarkable. Our works were sold at Sotheby's for USD 5.1 million. The MoMA collaboration [Unsupervised: MoMA seen through the mind of a machine, 2021] was also incredibly important. MoMA, one of the world's most important museums and cultural institutions, trusted our studio to do a collaboration. This was incredibly meaningful because MoMA was recognizing and assigning value to our AI data paintings and AI data sculptures, something I hold dear to my heart.
We are currently doing a collaboration with Space X for the St. Jude Hospital to create revenue for cancer research at a children's hospital. We are in this very active in this ecosystem. We do not see it as just an economy for us, but a tool to create new models of sharing, in service to other institutions.
So we have been very thoughtful in the NFT journey. We are also very grateful to our collectors. Last year we generated an additional 11,000 collectors from the 11,000 tokens we made, who are super active and super supportive. This eight-figure journey for an art studio is a dream. It created economic independence, and that turned quickly into another journey.
This eight-figure journey for an art studio is a dream. It created economic independence, and that turned quickly into another journey.
We call it Dataland. We are creating our own metaverse, but with a very serious direction. We are bringing mental health and wellbeing into the equation, using multisensory inputs and generating next-level physical and virtual experiences. The first one is opening in Los Angeles this year. It will be a physical space where you can go into a portal and enjoy our metaverse called Dataland.
A.G.: You are using such massive amounts of data. A lot of it is public data. But the common internet user still doesn't fully grasp how much of their own data is streamed into private servers with no transparent data trails. Now that the concept of data decentralization is gaining more popularity, some have advocated for sovereignty back into the hands of the users. The ways you synthesize data through algorithms and then present them as public installations can act as sites of public education. Is that your intention?
R.A.: One-hundred percent. I think that education and bringing awareness to issues are some of the most powerful elements when creating art. For me, art is always responsible for bringing awareness to certain situations. What is very powerful is understanding that some systems are still made of invisible designs. Even though some companies are doing their best in terms of data protection, I don't believe they are as accurate as they say they are.
For me, art is always responsible for bringing awareness to certain situations.
Our art experiences create a level of awareness, at least thanks to raising this question: “how did this guy connect all these data sets?” And when I say, “You know what? This is your data. This is what you are living behind you. We are not doing anything else. That is what you are doing. In all actuality, as collective humanity, you are all sharing your memories.”
Memories are made public. Nobody is protecting them. And this data will stay and exist in databases because that is what you agreed on. At least, as a studio, we are producing art installations and not producing other harmful products. That realization brings an “aha” moment for many audiences.
Simultaneously, we are also working with climate resilience groups for the United Nations. We have worked with climate change activist groups and are helping them to visualize other datasets. So we are not just showcasing social media data, we are also helping NGOs by creating meaningful public art experiences to bring more awareness to contemporary issues through the lens of data aesthetics.
A.G.: So these are activist projects?
R.A.: Yes, of course. We never enjoy leaving these projects alone. Whenever someone reaches out to us, we always have this “yes” layer. We like to help these institutions tell their narratives as well as possible.
A.G.: For the UN, what kind of data were you using?
R.A.: It was research based on climate change. We compiled S&P data on companies and their environmental impact.
We also did a project called “MRI of the Earth” in collaboration with Google Arts and Culture. We visualized sea-level change, CO2 change, population, extreme weather events, and their correlations with wildfires and others. We made these data sets more visible to the world, with the tools we have been generating over the years.
A.G.: How do you reconcile this reality that blockchain and Bitcoin and redundant data sets use massive amounts of energy? How do you see the relationship between crypto art and the environment developing? Your projects addressing climate change and wildfires, for instance, also use high GPUs and blockchain technology.
R.A.: It is impossible to ignore this problem. All of the technology available and used throughout the world is part of the problem. This is not necessarily a Bitcoin problem, not necessarily a cell phone or social media, or data problem. Every single technology that we have generated is most likely created with power, and thus is the part of the problem,
Of course, blockchains are adding to the problem right now. Still, they represent a relatively, very, very low, proportion of energy consumption around the world, like zero-point-something level. But that percentage may increase by a lot if the technology is not controlled. It may be out of control very soon. So we did a lot of experiments with different blockchains last year, with blockchains that are mostly called proof-of stake-networks.
We tried our best to use different blockchains to learn the ecosystem and understand the capacity of those systems. There are lots of hiccups. I mean, from the collector’s point of view, people are still not happy in certain conditions. We tried Tezos, we tried Algorand, we tried Flow, we tried Ethereum, and BitMart.
We tried our best to experiment with all these chains, not only the ones that are harmful to the environment nature, which are called proof-of-work. I'm still learning, to be honest. But experimenting is the one way forward, to be honest. By experimenting, we will get closer to choosing the right chain behaving for the most convenient conditions for collectors and artists.
These are exciting days, but I would not say which chain is the best or makes the most sense. What we are learning is that everyone is going through the proof-of-stake network, which includes Ethereum, with a 2.0 version apparently coming out this summer. So that is the good news. The trend towards proof-of-stake is a very nice, positive signal that will make for much more meaningful transaction models, I guess.
We practice in four different blockchains in one year to understand the full landscape. I don’t like to talk about it, instead, I just do it and learn. It is my belief that doing things to talk about them later is better than talking but not doing things. We plunged right in and tried, we tried to use proof-of-stake and to use proof-of-work networks, and throughout the process learned how they worked and how they behaved. We also learned about the collectors’ reactions. I mean, if there is no collector, there is not a good ecosystem. That creates a really interesting dialogue between the collector and the artist.
A.G.: Exactly. And lastly, what is the favorite place in which you exhibited? If you were to visualize the city that encapsulates everything that you are doing artistically, which one would it be?
R.A.: I think Istanbul, my hometown. I still very very much love this city, where, I guess, I got my foundational education of life. I owe so much to Istanbul for teaching me the necessary basics. But also I am very happy about Los Angeles, to be honest. I think this city is one of the most inspiring cities in the world. It is where cinema was reinvented, and where you can find some of the most brilliant minds of the tech world. These two cities are, for me, some of the most inspiring ones. But Dubai also comes to mind. I was there, and I was shocked at how extremely new and innovative the city is.
I mean, honestly, every single city is an incredible canvas. I believe in cities more than ever, more than anything else. Cities are the most exciting living organisms. Maybe countries are becoming a little bit of something of the last century. Cities, today, are the true representation of communities to me.
Dubai also comes to mind. I believe in cities more than ever, more than anything else. Cities are the most exciting living organisms.
Ann Guo (she/they) is an arts writer and anthropologist based internationally, and most recently in Istanbul and Seattle. Ann’s favorite artists include Anicka Yi, Hera Büyüktaşcıyan, and Glenn Ligon, amongst a growing list of many others.