With AI breakthroughs, the rise and crash of crypto, and an intense market for all kinds of NFTs over the past two years, one thing has become clear: artists working at the forefront of digital art represent an important evolution in art-making—and until now, the art world hasn’t wanted much to do with them. Refik Anadol is one such artist. He has had residencies at major tech companies like Google and NVIDIA and has sustained partnerships with many more. And this week, timed with Frieze LA, he will debut his first show in Los Angeles with dealer Jeffrey Deitch, known for identifying rising talent.
“Refik is maybe the biggest deal in the field of digital art, but until now there hasn’t been much crossover in the mainstream art world,” Deitch told ARTnews. “I’d tell people I’m making something with Refik Anadol, and I’d just get a blank stare. No one knew who he was, but that’s no longer that case.”
Deitch and Anadol met at a dinner at Lincoln Center about a year and a half ago, hosted by an arts patron who was putting together a small group of people “known for making things happen,” as Deitch put it. Deitch had first seen Anadol’s work in 2018, when Anadol had transformed the facade of the Los Angeles Philharmonic with a projection on its walls. The projected work, WDCH Dreams, was made by training a neural network on 45 terabytes of data from the Philharmonic’s digital archives. The neural network then “dreamed” different ways of visualizing this data, spinning a mesmerizing light show. After seeing this work, Deitch knew he wanted to do something with Anadol.
“I love the way you can put a flat screen in the wall and plug in this data and you have a moving painting. Something you can watch hour after hour,” said Deitch. “I think that he’s opening up something that’s going to lead to tremendous innovation.”
Deitch will be showing Anadol’s works in a solo exhibition titled “Living Paintings.” The works in the exhibition will use data from sensors gathering wind, temperature, and air pressure measurements that have been spread across the city he has called home for the past 10 years.
The show comes on the heels of Anadol’s most impressive coup to date, a show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Titled “Unsupervised,” its sole work is similar to pieces from “Living Paintings” and WDCH Dreams, and it used data and AI to create a flow of ever-transmogrifying images. The reviews from critics have been less than ideal. The New York Times likened the show to a “screen saver,” while Artnet News compared the works to a very big “lava lamp.”
But like many digital—and at times immersive—art experiences, Anadol’s work attracts hoards of visitors, even as it’s panned by critics. Anadol’s installations in Athens, Melbourne, Venice, Istanbul, and beyond have exposed millions of people to his art, which is often projected onto large buildings or shines out of monumental screens.
Anadol bears a difficult burden as an ambassador of technology, especially AI. Critics and a public that is increasingly skeptical, and even fearful, of how AI will come to impact society seem to want negative criticism of these technologies and, even more so, the companies behind them. Despite this, Anadol remains an unabashed optimist.
When Anadol got his first computer on his eighth birthday, it changed his life, his explorations of the internet, gaming, computers, and beyond, shaping the sense of awe he wants to re-create in his work.
“I want to keep that childish imagination with machines and try to keep it as hopeful as possible,” Anadol said. “That’s [my] ultimate goal since childhood.”
It’s easy to connect Anadol’s optimism to his experience working with and being funded by tech giants. After all, he was Google’s first artist-in-residence. He freely admits that he went to tech companies to access the best the medium had to offer, as the early digital artists of the 1940s also did when computing power was in the hands of the few.
“While the art world was sleeping, very honestly, the tech world was ready for pushing the boundaries,” said Anadol. “I was able to work with the best ‘pigment,’ the best ‘brush,’ the best hardware, the best algorithm.”
Ultimately, Anadol is more of a pragmatist than he might first appear.
“I’m pretty confident the world that we are going [toward] may not be as bright as we may imagine, but I want bring inspiration, hope, and joy [into the world] before things may go wrong,” he said, adding that he sees the main importance of his work to be its meditative qualities. “Creating experiences is much more important than just talking about not doing.”
While some detractors might liken Anadol’s work to that of the big tech companies he has worked for simply because he uses AI, the artist and his studio have fought to use only public domain data in an effort not to violate everyday people’s privacy, which often isn’t the case with those companies. Many of his exhibitions also come graphics that explain how AI works, in an effort to demystify the technology for viewers.
“We [at the Anadol studio] have a very significant take on how to practice with AI without breaching privacy and free will,” Anadol said. “It takes more time but it’s doable.”
Casey Reas, an artist and professor in UCLA’s design media arts program, taught Anadol when he was completing his MFA nearly a decade ago. Since Reas had him as a student, he’s been impressed by Refik’s ability to mobilize ambitious projects.
“I’m honestly in awe of his ability to bring people into the vision to collaborate, to encourage really ambitious ideas, just through that sort of infectious enthusiasm,” Reas said in a phone interview. “It’s something that I just don’t see, and it’s a really extraordinary thing.”
Refik’s MFA thesis exhibition included a prototype of WDCH Dreams, complete with a scaled model of the LA Philharmonic building. It took Refik around six years to materialize the project.
“He doesn’t stop at the machine output,” Reas said. “He builds on top of it. He has other layers of interpretation on top of that. But it’s also important to talk about what the work is and what the work isn’t. I really do feel that sometimes the text around the work may inflate what it’s actually doing, but the work itself can be experienced directly and can be impactful.”