Refik Anadol: The Leonardo da Vinci of the 21st Century

Using algorithms and machine intelligence, media artist Refik Anadol combines media art and neuroscience creating meditative masterpieces. He traveled from Los Angeles to Istanbul to keynote at Turkey Innovation Week where we interviewed him.
Susan Fourtané
Refik Anadol

Media artist Refik Anadol's meditative data sculptures address the merging of cutting-edge technology and art. Using buildings as a canvas, his innovative approach used in his Melting Memories installation transforms the physical world into a dreamscape of archived dreams. 

He has been called the next Leonardo da Vinci and the great inventor of our time. Refik Anadol's installations mirror the artist's preoccupation with the study of human memory, from Ancient Egyptians to Blade Runner 2049.

"Blade Runner was the movie that changed my life."

"I was eight years old when I got my first computer. In the same year, I watched Blade Runner. It was super funny. It was the movie that changed my life," Refik Anadol told us during an interview at Turkey Innovation Week in Istanbul, where the artist gave a keynote presentation and exhibited his work in May. 

Melting Memories, the exhibition's title, alludes to Anadol's experience with unexpected interconnections among seminal philosophical works, academic inquiries, and artworks that take memory as their central theme.

Melting Memories is a reminder and a questioning of the emergence of a new space where Artificial Intelligence in not in conflict with individuality and intimacy but a part of a world of shared memories and dreams.

Refik Anadol: A tale of two continents

"The big difference I found is that in Turkey, specifically, the boundaries are much easier to break."

"I did my first project in Istanbul, using Central Istanbul --one of Turkey's first contemporary art centers-- as a canvas.

That was my very first innovation, I can say, as an art and design artist. But I also did lots of projects in Europe and also in the U.S. back in the early days.The big difference I found is that in Turkey, specifically, the boundaries are much easier to break," says Anadol.  

He explains that this is due to several reasons. From cultural context to rules and regulations. According to Anadol, the United States is a dream state.

"Like whatever you dream, if your dream is unique and has a purpose, if it has an impact on society and humanity, it can go wherever you want. So, I'm just geographically understanding the different expectations, I guess," he says.  

How Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall dreams

In 2014, Refik Anadol turned the façade of architect Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles --the home for the Los Angeles Philharmonic which opened in 2003-- into a marvellous canvas. Each night, for a limited time, the building came into life creating a bond with the viewers by displaying and sharing the building's dreams and memories.  

"This was one of the world's first performances using live sound data from 110 musicians, plus the conductor's body motions. Famous Finnish conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen was the conductor and the director of the L.A. Philharmonic," Anadol tells us. 

"The conductor controls the time with his music but he can also control the space with his body motions. We captured his body motion and attached it to the building, so he was literally performing in the mind of the space. It was a pretty interesting experience," he says.

"I was very lucky to work with Frank Gehry, the architect of the Disney Hall. He invited me to work with L.A. Philharmonic to celebrate their hundred years. So, to celebrate someone's hundred years, I said, we need your memories. That's what they did:

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They gave me a hundred years of memories of the institution, including every music they recorded, every concert they did, every image they recorded in this building, every video they shot.

What I did as an artist in residence in Google was to take the data and create this storyboard. The first chapter was memory, the second chapter was consciousness, and the third chapter was dream. Like in a very human capacity, human cognitive thinking." He explains how the storytelling goes:

"The building goes online, one night, in the near future and looks for some kind of file. Suddenly, AI kicks in and then creates those universes, and then at the end, it goes to a dream state, like a human. But at the end, we learn that the building was remembering a moment in its history. So basically, a story of a building that remembers one of its events."

Refik Anadol's Bosphorus installation in Istanbul 

"My journey started very humbly working with data, sound data, like motion data, architectural drawings, simple sensors, camera input, computer vision, and then I grew it on top of that," Refik Anadol explains about his beginnings as a media artist. 

"As I said, since I believe in science fiction, I found myself super inspired by the near future."

Refik says that what he finds in his imagination, his capacity of imagining sometimes is in conflict with the physical world because "we all are right now surrounded by a virtual world."

"When we're inside these machines, inside meaning, when we're looking through the lens of a machine, looking through a social network, looking through a world that is not physical here but there, that feeling was my big inspiration. It's a sense of displacement, meaning you are not physically there, you're not virtually there, you're in between these worlds," he says.

"So, to make a new meaning like this with art, I found that light is a perfect material that can be used to highlight this feeling, the feeling of being in the fourth dimension of both virtual and physical. But architecture is always my canvas: A building, a lobby, a wall, a glass, whatever it is."

He explains how he finds architecture to be the best canvas to narrate those kind of ideas. "That's why I'm obsessed with the visual of architecture. I'm obsessed with the light as a material." 

Parametric architecture: Data sculptures 

Refik Anadol and his team embed media arts into architecture with data and machine intelligence creating unique public art masterpieces.

In order to create architectural photographic memories using data and machine learning, Anadol trained algorithms with over 50 thousand hand-picked modern architecture photography datasets.

The result was an impressive new series of machine hallucination data sculptures. We asked him to explain more about his parametric data sculptures. 

"Parametric data sculpture is one of my first inspirations with data. First of all, I'm fascinated by machines. Machine as itself inspires me. Machines that transform our DNA, our genes, our every day, our culture.

And those machines are required to collect data. Computer scientists or the people who are in the industry are much aware of it. But the common humanity doesn't care about data in the first place, right?"

According to Anadol, he was mainly fascinated by the machine language itself. "Not the coding, but the language that powers LTE signals, social network data, large archives, sensory information from a building," he says.

Making the invisible visible 

"I'm very open and unbiased about the data, but trying to make a new context by creating a poetic output from those datasets. And, to make it happen, you have to do parametrically thinking because the data is, sometimes, a very boring material." Boring in what sense exactly, we asked.

"Boring meaning the original intent of the data is already there. But to make art with it, you have to be on the next level of creativity. You have to find another algorithm to make the invisible visible.

I think that's what parametric data sculptures are." 

Melting Memories 

Refik Anadol-parametric data sculpture
Refik Anadol's Melting Memories installation exhibited at Turkey Innovation Week 2019 / Photo: Tolga Uslu - Büke Göker

Standing in front of Melting Memories, the viewer is transported to a world of meditative emotions, an almost hypnotic dream state. There is an obvious communication with the entity, a feeling of sharing which increases the longer the viewer interacts with this beautiful, powerful, and majestic creation. 

"I'm very obsessed with our emotions and memories. Those are the last two things, I hope, that will be our private domain. Maybe not. But I'm trying to learn how we can visualize and remember, which very personal moments, without breaching the privacy," he says. 

"Just looking at the pattern of remembering, the pattern of literally remembering, based on a huge neuro-scientific research, take the moment of remembering data signals, and turn it into art," Refik explains.

"So, to make it happen, I collaborated with Adam Gazzaley, UCSF professor, an incredible neuro-scientist, and he taught me how to use external algorithms.

This artwork Melting Memories, for example. And then after that, I am even able to use different emotions and of course, make art from those emotions. So now I'm using emotions as a pigment, I can say." 

Video above: Data Sculpture for Melting Memories: Design and developed at Refik Anadol Studio.

Refik Anadol's interest is all about architecture. "I hate that architecture is stuck in the reality of life. Architecture is stuck in the reality of physics, gravity, right? I mean, you can't build a building without the glass, steel, or concrete. You can't use fluid structures. You can't make things that are in flux to make a living building. There is no way you can do it by just using traditional materials.

So, my interest with the building started with this performance idea to perform the space, to narrate the space," he explains. "To narrate the space to give a new narrative to that space. I found that the performance, an ordinary performance, is a perfect way to bring a building into life."

Refik Anadol: The Leonardo da Vinci of the 21st century 

Refik Anadol: The Leonardo da Vinci of the 21st Century
Media Artist and Director Refik Anadol / Photo source: Refik Anadol 

Born in Istanbul, Turkey, award winning media artist and director Refik Anadol lives and works in Los Angeles, California. He is a lecturer and visiting researcher in UCLAS's Deparment of Design Media Arts. Refik tells us more about his beginnings. 

"I did all my first pioneering project in Istanbul. So, it's kind of a pattern on innovation that I found. For example, during my studies, I was very lucky to work with one of the major minds from Europe. I worked with Peter Weibel from ZKM, who was the first professor who decided to collect media arts in the world."

Refik works in the field of site-specific public art with a parametric data sculpture approach and live audio-visual performance with an immersive installation approach. His works explore the space among the physical and digital entities.

The result is a hybrid relationship between architecture and  media arts with machine intelligence. 

"As a media artist," he says, "I'm using any available technology in my work. But also, as a director, I am creating a different scale of performances all around the world, such as recently Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.

I was able to work with Peter Sellars, like I'm trying to be in kind of multiple mediums instead of just stuck in one medium. And that's why a director is another title that I found similar to cinema, but in a different context."

In the video below, media artist Refik Anadol and director Peter Sellars discuss their vision for bringing Schumann's 19th century masterwork to life in the 21st century by using machine intelligence and algorithms. 

Refik Anadol is not only a media artist and designer; he is a spatial thinker.  He is utterly intrigued by the ways in which the transformation of the subject of contemporary culture requires rethinking of the new aesthetics, techniques, and dynamic perception of space and time.

Anadol builds his works on the nomadic subject’s reactions and interactions with unconventional spatial orientations with data and machine intelligence.

Embedding media arts into architecture, he questions the possibility of a post-digital architectural future in which there are no more non-digital realities. Refik Anadol invites the viewers to visualize alternative realities by presenting them with the possibility of re-defining the functionalities of both interior and exterior architectural formations.

Refik Anadol’s work suggests that all public spaces and façades have the unconditional potential to be utilized as the media artists’ canvases. 

"Once you bring the machine intelligence, which is machine learning algorithms, AI algorithms, then you suddenly have a cognitive capacity in your hand as an artist. You can let the building learn, let the building dream, let the building become kind of human. Those are part of my imagination with the built environment. So, that's what it means," he says.

"If you look at the Renaissance, the artist, the painter, could get the pigment from the world, the best pigment he could touch. That artist could take the best brush in the world and paint these beautiful, beautiful pieces in an architectural environment, on a wall, in a museum. 

But right now, what's going on is that I am getting the best algorithm in the world. I can get the best machine in the world that can create AI algorithms. I can get the best LED screen in the world to make art with it. I think we have a very similar pattern in time," he says. 

Refik Anadol's impressive list of multiple awards received, prizes, and residencies include Microsoft Research's Best Vision Award, German Design Award, UCLA Art+Architecture Moss Award, SEGD Global Design Award, University of California Institute for Research in the Arts Award, and Google's Art and Machine Intelligence Artist Residency Award. 

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