Refik Anadol: The machines turning digital into physical

Bringing the physical and the digital together is a challenge few can meet. Refik Anadol explains how machine learning can revolutionise technological masterpieces.

After two long years spent in the digital space, the need to reconnect in the physical world has become stronger than ever. On the other hand, our digital presence is now more pronounced than ever before, so do these two worlds clash? Or will the physical and the digital intertwine like never before?

Enter Refik Anadol, artist and technological extraordinaire, machine-learning aficionado and keynote speaker at ISE 2022, who has found new and exciting ways to bring the digital world into the physical experience through the power of AI. As a media artist and designer, Anadol harnesses the power of data-driven machine learning algorithms to embed abstract, dream-like art into architecture.

Anadol explains: “My work focuses on humans, machines and environments, this has been my core focus for 14 years. I created my first immersive piece in 2010 and for the past 12 years, I was captivated by the potential of immersive spaces and immersive storytelling. I am also an academic and I have researched this field in depth and understand the potential of this technology, but I also imagine the future of architecture.

“I have always been inspired by science fiction, not in the ‘far off’ concept, but very much in the near future where technology completely and perfectly integrates into our lives and where buildings have ‘consciousness’: They hear us, remember us and dream with us. For me, it’s not sci-fi anymore because integrating this kind of technology in architectural spaces is creatively possible.”

In recent months, Anadol has made waves with impressive, machine-learning based art installations across the globe, with a 3D LED project, Nature Dreams, at a Salesforce lobby in the US [featured in Inavate EMEA April 2022] as well as prestigious projects in Europe such as an AI-driven sculpture at the 600-year-old Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, Italy.

For Anadol, the key to creating jaw-dropping spectacle is through the art of immersion. Creating a narrative and surrounding the individual in an ensemble of sights, sounds and smells that attach an onlooker to a piece on a personal level.

One of Anadol’s latest works, ‘Casa Batlló: Living Architecture’, is a dynamic NFT (non-fungible token) that combines real-time data from the façade of the iconic Gaudí building in Barcelona with real-time scent augmentation. This combination presents a new way to excite and immerse audiences.

Anadol: “I’m extremely honoured to become a part of Barcelona’s most visited experiences. There were 47,000 people on the streets celebrating Gaudi’s genius. To me, immersiveness is not just a bunch of projectors and LEDs, that just becomes another boring tech demo. To me, it’s a storytelling device, an emotional connection with the idea and the world around us. When I do an immersive project, I don’t just focus on the video and the audio, but other senses.

“We recently invented a new technique where real-time AI ‘dreams’ of flowers, the room ‘dreams’ the visuals and creates AI-generated sound and also the ‘scent’ of AI dreams. I’m at the cutting edge of multi-sensory, immersive environments and I believe that’s where we should go in the future to feel this invisible world around us.”

"It’s not sci-fi anymore because
integrating this kind of technology
in architectural spaces is possible." - Refik Anadol

For Anadol, creating experiences for experience sake is simply not efficient, he instead weaves narratives throughout the work, using technology to tell stories effectively. He explains: “Narrative is very important. I tell stories and try to create poetic experiences about the near future, but it’s still very challenging to be in a world where we are surrounded with hardware, software, phones and tablets. We are constantly in an ‘attraction mode’ and our attention is completely changing based on a notification. [It’s all about] taking the attention of my audience, art lovers, bringing them to a new space and letting them feel an idea or emotion in their mind and soul, and for that, I have the data and AI as collaborators.”

We increasingly live a double life in today’s world. After spending the best part of two years exploring the world through digital forms, we now live in a post-pandemic world where the need to engage both physically and digitally has never been stronger. Bridging the gap between the physical and the digital world could take on greater importance as the two continue to intersect rather than clash.

“I love the visual world, but I believe that our existential connection with the physical world is a must. The more we imagine jumping to a world where pixels are space, I don’t think we will create novel experiences that will ever change feelings,” Anadol explains.

“That’s why I like to work with NFTs as it is where the physical and the digital connects. That connection is where narratives are exciting, though it is not easy to do; you need information, knowledge, hardware and practice, but it will be the future of where these spaces connect.”

It is no secret that there has been a lot of talk surrounding the perception of AI and machine learning algorithms. Numerous horror stories from around the world have highlighted the potential for abuse by governments, police forces and nefarious hackers and fraudsters that have dampened the enthusiasm and acceptability of this technology.

For Anadol, using machine learning technology to create art opens the door for new conversations surrounding AI and machine learning, using the open format of artistic interpretations to spur questions and perhaps change attitudes for the future.

“I don’t do products or services, what I do is art which is an experiential feeling. In that universe, where you are open, direct and honest, there is a high chance of education. It’s not just a bunch of pixels in a shiny way, there is a depth to it.

“In the last six years of using AI, I have found myself responsible to explain what is going on behind the scenes while it creates [the artwork]. This creates a dialogue with the audience where they can ask questions: “What is the algorithm?” “Where does it come from?” “What is the narrative behind all of this?” This openness and direct communication creates a safer space. In Berlin, I had an audience of 200,000 in five weeks, that’s the highest audience in a gallery environment in Europe. People know the name of the algorithm, where data comes from and they feel safe, that’s my finding in the last six years.”

Looking ahead, it is clear that while this kind of approach is cutting edge and innovative, it may be some time before these kinds of emotional, architectural experiences enter the mainstream.

Anadol closes: “I believe we have some decades-long journey to determine how the technology is integrated in our life, but it’s a good time to be aware of what may be coming in the future so that we have better questions and answers. This is why I think art is so important: to ask questions and learn better, that should be the way of enjoying technology around us.

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