Refik Anadol's Data Dreams

Feature by Jyqa Patano

Wind of Boston

Wind of Boston

Data sculptures are an attempt to move beyond the screen, meant to deliver an emotive response from the audience through the poetic exploration of what is hidden in the mind of the machines around us. This comes from Refik Anadol when the Casper & Casper team attended the In the Mind’s Eye event at the NGV.

The Turkish-born, LA-based artist is known prominently for his work on WDCH Dreams: a three-dimensional data sculpture across the Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall that lasted for a month in the latter half of 2018. Anadol is skilled in integrating science and art; since 2014, he has been looking for ways to use his art as a means for social commentary in an age where technology is an ever-present facet of daily life, and his talk at the NGV confirmed his commitment to capturing the dynamic connection between human and machine.

Refik Anadol

Refik Anadol

If these walls could talk…

Data collection is nothing new. Globally, billions of bits and bytes are transmitted every day, not just through the internet, but from CCTV recordings to credit card transactions to remote scientific experiments.

Anadol focuses on the kind of data housed within buildings of art and culture, and contributes his own to the collection, albeit only for a period of time. His work usually comes in the form of public art installations, where he imagines and presents the mindscape of intelligent systems through modelling and layering various data streams, capturing a portion of the data universe formed by human life and the environment. 

In an era of increasingly smart technology and AI systems, machines that continuously learn are no longer a possibility, but a reality. To learn is to be able to remember, in any capacity and to any extent. Insightfully, Anadol treats this data as akin to malleable memory that can be sculpted in such a way that we, as humans, can understand their ever-increasing complexity. 

To dramatize data, you must first understand it. You analyse it. Play with it, try to find relationships […] and instruct stories and meaning. And then, you throw it all away, chuck it in the bin, and wipe your hands clean. All that’s left is your understanding of the processes that gave rise to data and the humans and the relationships in between. Then you create something new from scratch.
— Refik Anadol, In the Mind’s Eye (2019)

Waking up to a Dream

Anadol’s dramatised data network is displayed on the surface as a shifting ‘skin’, no longer hidden away in data archives, but worn on the very establishment that houses it. On the outset, WDCH Dreams is a multi-layered, synthetic augmentation of modern architecture that truly strips the concert hall down to its bare structure before building on it again, using computer-aided design (CAD) methodology and programs such as CATIA for structural design, machine-generated learning structures, and photogrammetry models to achieve the end result.  

WDCH Dreams is an actualisation of the metaphorical consciousness of and within the Walt Disney Concert Hall (WDCH). Using 42 large-scale projectors with 50K resolution, 8-channel sound and 1.2-million luminance, this ‘consciousness’ becomes an undulating display on the stainless-steel bones of the concert hall.

He collaborated with researcher Parag K. Mital and the Artists and Machine Intelligence program at Google Arts and Culture to apply an intelligent system Anadol cites as his artistic collaborator. This intelligence organises parsed data nearly at 45 terabytes, consisting of thousands of image, video, audio and metadata files that amount to almost 40,000 hours of audio from 16,471 performances. He also worked with sound designers Robert Thomas and Kerim Karaoglu, who augmented selections from the LA Philharmonic’s archival recordings with the use of machine-learning algorithms, creating a historical soundscape that matched Anadol’s artistic vision. 

The goal was to encourage onlookers to step away from passive reception and turn towards active interaction, and to achieve this, Anadol also featured an immersive companion installation inside the concert hall. The visitor, via touchscreen, can have personalised experiences with the archive data in a non-linear fashion: by viewing it via a sunburst timeline with all the highlights of the LA Philharmonic, or by delving into a data universe that can be uniquely manipulated by each person.

Disrupting with Meta-Remembrance 

Anadol does not just recall the memory of an architectural landscape, but the interpersonal networks behind these machines. WDCH is as much of an onlooker of human relationships as humans are observers to the events that transpire within its walls. The visitors remember what the concert hall remembers of them and others around them, and this interaction also adds to the data networks inside WDCH.  

WDCH also follows his early 2018 installation Melting Memories. He employed a different set of data involving the motor movements inside the brain as his base. He then ‘sculpted’ the piece using tools provided by the Neuroscape Laboratory at the Unversity of California, San Francisco. He produced a recollection of data paintings, augmented data sculptures and light projections displayed in the Pilevni Gallery in Istanbul.

His art reflects a fascination with life given to machines by the very humans that connect with it. This, in itself, can be traced as a hallmark of everyday, technologically-infused life.

WDCH Dreams

WDCH Dreams

WDCH Dreams

WDCH Dreams

As a global artist, Refik Anadol’s work extends between public art, installations, audio-visual performances and photography. As an influential contemporary, he acknowledges the role of science and technology in the acquisition of data that his art can communicate in its own way. 

WDCH Dreams is one among many statement pieces that highlight technology a tool for celebrating the relationship between art and science, real and synthetic, and human and machine.


To view more of Anadol’s work, visit his website or his Instagram

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