"We are visualizing the memories of machines."
Media artist Refik Anadol is exploring how the perception and experience of time and space are radically changing now that machines dominate our everyday lives. His work questions what it means to be a human in the age of machine intelligence.
Below, Refik catches up with us about the modern creative renaissance, data memories and how technology is directing the path of humanity.
What is your creative inspiration?
I’m a science fiction lover. I’ve always been interested in the near future, even before working with technology, algorithms, artificial intelligence, etc.
Cinema, for me, is the best medium in the world, because it allows you to make something unreal that feels real, almost like dreaming.
In my work, I try to create a new narrative that can only exist now because of what is happening to humanity in this landscape of machine-driven experiences. We are surrounded by machines that can compute our data, compute our emotions, our desires, our memories, our decisions.
I am obsessed with libraries and archives. I am obsessed with [the place] where data becomes knowledge. How do you know you learned something? When you go to a library, how do you know what exists there? These questions are very fundamental; the search bar is a very primitive tool for humanity, relatively speaking.
So my thought was, how can we take this analogy and look for the pattern of how machines can learn? Can I paint what machines learn? And, most importantly, if machines can learn, does that mean they can dream?
You’ve talked a lot about using technology to explore modern thought and psychology. What are some recent projects you’ve worked on that illustrate this?
One project was an amazing collaboration with Adam Gazzaley, a professor at University of California at San Francisco. With him I was very fortunate to learn how to use EEG, which is designed for listening to human brain activity, and we were able to develop our own algorithms that can create a connection of the moment of remembering. Meaning, we were able to create these ethereal abstract data sculptures visualizing the moment of remembering, which I’m calling Melting Memories. This is an exciting future of using technology, science and art together.
A year ago, I created a project for Walt Disney Concert Hall and the LA Philharmonic. They were looking for an exciting installation to celebrate their centennial that would also look ahead to the next 100 years. And for me, the next century is all about machines. So we took 100 years’ worth of data, every single document, every image, every sound bite and used them as a material with AI to bring the building to life and produce its dreams.
Our most recent project is called Machine Hallucination. It takes 113 million images of New York City downloaded from online by an algorithm called Style_GAN by NVIDIA, then reconstructed New York City from the machine’s perception.
We are visualizing the memories of machines, looking for the unknown for humanity.
What is your inspiration for creating machines’ consciousness?
Exploring what it means to be human. I thought, instead of making humans more machine, can we make machines more human? If we understand what it means to be a human in the 21st century first, and then try to make machines more human, perhaps we can understand the transition from machine to human. And that as a modeled reality makes more sense to me.
Would you say that data is the new raw material for creativity?
For sure, absolutely. And I think what makes data so exciting for me is that it’s not just data, it’s kind of a memory. It’s a memory for a moment in life.
If you look at early humanity’s reaction to data, experiences and information, humankind always left behind some sort of marks that are detectable and human readable. Right now, we are using machines, but the data, the memory, the information we are leaving behind is not human readable – it’s machine readable.
In a thousand years, if we do not preserve ways to read this data, I’m not sure if humanity will progress like we did in previous generations. Clearly data is an essential form of information that will lead humanity to the next level, but the question is, are we really aware of what we are saving? Are we really aware of what else we can do with this information? I’m not sure.
How are these tools we use everyday shaping our imagination, our dreams, our memories, and everything that connects to these experiences?
In previous generations I don’t know if humans were aware of these evolutions, what they were transforming into. But right now we are in these exciting times, transforming from physical to virtual world, from human to machine world, to machine consciousness – I think this is something very different, very special that other generations couldn’t perceive.
But the question is are we taking advantage. When we discovered fire, we cooked with it, we created communities, we sat together and ate together. But now we use the same tool, fire, to create guns and kill each other. It’s the same potential of imagination. So are we using technology to come together and create communities, or are we using it to destroy each other?
What advice would you give to brands?
Let me just say, I don’t do commercial work for brands. But what I do is take what a brand stands for, their values and ethics, and create an artwork inspired by that and by the tools they’ve created and what those tools mean for humanity. What kind of narrative can we create from that output? It’s often different than what the brands would think of. I think when imagination kicks in, it creates a discourse and a context beyond just selling something. I think that’s a much more honest way of creating something meaningful for humanity.