Refik Anadol: art in a latent space

Pau Waelder

Refik Anadol. Unsupervised: Machine Hallucinations MoMA (2022)
Museum of Modern Art, New York

Refik Anadol (b. 1985, Istanbul, Türkiye) is a media artist and lecturer, whose meteoric career has taken him from creating video mappings on building façades in several European cities, to being one of the first artists in residence at Google’s Artists and Machine Intelligence Program, the founder and director of Refik Anadol Studio RAS LAB in Los Angeles, a lecturer for UCLA’s Department of Design Media Arts, and a successful artist with global recognition in the contemporary art world. In just 15 years, Anadol has amassed numerous awards and presented his site-specific audio/visual performances at iconic museums and events such as the 17th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, Walt Disney Concert Hall, Centre Pompidou, Daejeon Museum of Art, Art Basel, Ars Electronica Festival, and the Istanbul Design Biennial, among many others.

He works with a large team of designers, architects, data scientists, and researchers from 10 different countries and has partnered with teams at Microsoft, Google, Nvidia, Intel, IBM, Panasonic, JPL/NASA, Siemens, Epson, MIT, Harvard, UCLA, Stanford University, and UCSF, to apply the most innovative technologies to his body of work. He is represented by bitforms gallery in New York. 

bitforms is participating in the Art SG art fair in Singapore from 12 to 15 January 2023, presenting a selection of generative artworks by Refik Anadol. Niio supports the exhibition as technical partner, in collaboration with SAMSUNG, and is proud to present the artcast Refik Anadol: Pacific Ocean, which features excerpts from three pieces by the Turkish artist. The following article offers a brief introduction to the main aspects of Refik’s work.

Refik Anadol. Unsupervised — Machine Hallucinations — MoMA Dreams — F
Image sold on Feral File as NFT. 100 editions, 1 AP

Building a latent space

A trailblazing artist in the field of art and artificial intelligence, Refik Anadol uses large amounts of data and machine learning techniques to create his generative artworks and site-specific installations. His creative process often implies the creation of a data set from an archive of images, sounds, and documents or from measurements taken by sensors, radars, and other devices. The data set feeds a series of machine learning processes that generate an endless succession of audio-visual compositions, which can fill a large screen, a whole room, or the façade of a building. 

At the heart of the machine learning models that transform the original data into something else lies what is called a “latent space,” in which clusters of items are formed from similarities between them, which give rise to a set of variables. The latent space is therefore a space of possibilities, somewhat unpredictable, that contributes to shaping the final outcome. In Refik’s work, it is not only part of the machine learning model but also a concept that helps understand his generative pieces and installations as spaces in which creation is constantly exploring its latent qualities. Spaces in which the artwork is never finished. 

His recent installation at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Unsupervised: Machine Hallucinations MoMA (2022), clearly exemplifies the conception of the artwork as a latent space. Using the public metadata of The Museum of Modern Art’s collection, which comprises more than 130,000 pieces including paintings, drawings, photographs, and video games, the artist and his studio created a series of artworks that result from the interpretation of this data by means of a machine learning algorithm. The initial series was sold as NFTs in the exhibition Unsupervised on the online platform Feral File, the project being further expanded into the generative artwork installed at MoMA’s lobby. Casey Reas, artist and co-founder of Feral File, aptly described the artwork in terms of its latency: “What I find really interesting about Refik’s project with MoMA’s dataset, with your collection, is that it speculates about possible images that could have been made, but that were never made before” [1]. The artwork can thus be seen as a space of possibilities, but also as a simulated environment that becomes particularly meaningful in the context of the building that houses it.

Casey Reas: “What I find really interesting about Refik’s project with MoMA’s dataset is that it speculates about possible images that could have been made, but that were never made before”

Refik Anadol Studio. WDCH Dreams, 2018.

The room as Merzbau

Architecture, and more generally a real or simulated three-dimensional space as a container, are key elements of Refik’s work. Artworks such as WDCH Dreams (2018) or Seoul Haemong (2019) use the exterior surfaces of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and the Dongdaemun Design Plaza in Seoul as canvases, while Infinity Room (2015) and Pladis: Data Universe (2018) are conceived by the artist as “Temporary Immersive Environments.” The artist stresses this connection frequently in his interviews: “I’m interested in exploring the architectural domain as deeply as I can,” he has stated recently. “All my art works tend to have a physical connection to public space” [2]. However, the architectural space is not conceived in terms of static shapes and volumes, but as something fluid and malleable, a work in progress. 

Kurt Schwitters’ celebrated Merzbau installations from the 1920s and 1930s come to mind as an illustrative example of Refik’s conception of space. Schwitters began to alter the space of his studio in Hannover by putting together small artworks, found objects, and debris into structures that he would glue and fix with plaster, building columns and shapes that protruded from the walls. The sculpture was never completed, the artist always kept adding elements and reshaping the space [3]. In a similar way, the space occupied by Refik’s artworks is permanently reshaped through a process that stems from an accumulation of found materials, data that loses its original shape and merges into something new. In the Temporary Immersive Environment series, he specifically seeks to immerse the viewer in a “non-physical world” that questions their perception of space and their own presence [4]. The room is expanded and multiplied through optical effects, with the aim of creating a viewing experience that goes beyond staring at a flat projection.

Refik Anadol: “I’m interested in exploring the architectural domain as deeply as I can. All my art works tend to have a physical connection to public space.”

This conception of space as integrated into a Gesamtkunstwerk, the “total work of art” that has been the aspiration of opera composers, architects and filmmakers, is not, however, the only connection with architecture in Refik’s work. Interestingly, while Schwitters sought to merge all of his artistic practice under one term (Merz), erasing distinctions between painting, sculpture, and architecture, Anadol describes some of his generative art works as “data paintings” and “data sculptures.” These references to classical formats speak of a different type of space, confined within the limits of a screen or a wall, which nevertheless intervenes in the surrounding space by means of a trompe-l’oeil effect that creates the impression of three-dimensional shapes pulsating beneath and beyond a solid, thick frame. Artworks such as Virtual depictions: San Francisco (2015), displayed on an L-shaped media wall inside the main lobby of the 350 Mission building in San Francisco, seek to create an imaginary space that stands out spectacularly, but at the same time embeds itself into the surrounding architecture. The connection between the artwork and its location, though, is not only expressed in terms of how the screen is placed on the wall, but also in the data that gives meaning to the fluid elements that inhabit the virtual space.

Refik Anadol Studio. Future of the City, 2020.

Data is not just a bunch of numbers

Coming back to the concept of latent space within machine learning models, it is important to remember that Refik Anadol’s artworks do not only have an aesthetic dimension, as colorful shapes in fluid transitions or enormous mosaics of distinct elements, but also a conceptual dimension, expressed by the data that feeds the whole process leading to the site-specific installations and performances. Speaking about his project Quantum Memories (2020), the artist states the importance of this data and the meaning it conveys: 

“For me, data is not just a bunch of numbers. For me, data is actually a memory. From that perspective, I’m always looking for what kind of collective memory that we are holding as humanity, and how can we use these memories and turn them into a pigment or a sculpture that represents who we are as humanity.” [5]

Conceiving data as memory resonates with his ongoing work with all kinds of archives, from the 1,700,000 documents found in the SALT Research collections to the 587,763 image files, 1,880 video files, 1,483 metadata files, and 17,773 audio files in the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra’s digital archives. Every bit of information in these files has its own history and meaning, and has a certain association with another file, enabling the clusters and variables that will emerge in the latent space. The artworks may appear as abstract compositions or massive collages, but they are actually visual representations of underlying stories and invisible structures. As the artist puts it, they aim to “make visible the invisible world of data that surrounds us” [6]. This statement may lead to considering Refik’s work as a form of data visualization, but it goes well beyond this task, into what media theorist Lev Manovich has described as “represent[ing] the personal subjective experience of a person living in a data society […] including its fundamental new dimension of being «immersed in data»” [7].

Lev Manovich: “The real challenge of data art is how to represent the personal subjective experience of a person living in a data society.”

Some of Refik’s installations directly address this condition of being immersed in data by means of projections that surround the viewer with visualizations of the data collected from archives, or in real time from sensors and other sources, as in Latent Being (2019) or Future of the City (2020). Others present data that relates to environmental systems that we usually ignore but that have a profound impact on our planet, and therefore in our lives. This is the case of Pacific Ocean (2022), the series presented by bitforms at Art SG in Singapore and on Niio as an artcast featuring three video excerpts.  

bitforms gallery booth at ArtSG Singapore presenting a series of artworks by Refik Anadol. Photo courtesy of bitforms.

Collecting data from High Frequency Radars (HFR) located in the Pacific coast of the United States, the artist has created a series of visualizations of ocean currents that seems abstract and realistic at the same time: the ebbs and flows of granular elements in shades ranging from dark blue to emerald green clearly evoke the surface of a raging sea, but they are also somehow unreal, impossibly merging numerous currents from different directions in beautifully chaotic, and even violent, clashes. HFRs are used to measure ocean currents and understand their impact and response to climate processes. The data collected from networks of radars in coastal zones around the world is crucial to protect the marine ecosystem and predict changes that will affect life on our planet. Seen from this perspective, the artworks acquire a somewhat unsettling tone and inspire an awareness of the ecosystems that we so often ignore, putting into question our anthropocentric view of the world.

Refik Anadol. Pacific Ocean A, 2022

Machine dreaming

Anthropocentrism and our inability to understand the agency of non-human entities and systems around us are underlying subjects in most approaches to art created with artificial intelligence. The perennial question of whether it is the artist of the machine that creates the artwork is still debated after 60 years of algorithmic art, now reinforced by the spectacular achievements of machine learning models in producing realistic images and coherent texts. In Refik Anadol’s work, the use of artificially intelligent systems leads to two interesting aspects of artistic creation: the notions of control and authorship. 

Terms like “machine learning,” “supervised learning,” “reinforcement learning,” and “training model” speak of the intention to use artificial intelligence as a tool to obtain predictable results, in which the machine is meant to produce a specific output. This perception of the machine as a mere instrument, fully controlled by a human, contradicts the way artists have used generative algorithms and AI systems to create their artworks. Nowadays, artists working with artificial intelligence understand machine learning as a way of exploring post-anthropocentric creativity, therefore using AI to reach beyond the confines of human imagination and let the machine bring in the unexpected, the incongruous, the unsettling, and even the impossible. In Refik’s work this approach is made clear in the use of machine learning models to create “dreams” and “hallucinations.” He has described AI as “a thinking brush, a brush that can think, that can remember, and that can dream.” This statement implies an interesting balance between letting the system loose and keeping it under control. In Archive Dreaming (2017), the installation is allowed to “dream” when a viewer is not interacting with it, so that this state is interrupted when a human takes control. In other installations, such as Machine Hallucination (2019), the system can create its own associations and reimaginings of the contents of a very precise dataset, so that its “unconscious” is nevertheless under a certain level of control. 

Refik Anadol: “the most important thing for me is creating a thinking brush, a brush that can think, that can remember, and that can dream.”

The question of authorship stems from the perceived control over the final output: if the artist had no control over it, is he the author of the artwork? Interestingly, while the Dadaists and Surrealists already integrated randomness into their artistic practices and many other artists have incorporated unpredictable processes or external agents into their work, authorship tends to be more fiercely contested when a computer is involved. Refik Anadol’s authorship is nevertheless palpable in the aesthetic and conceptual foundations of his work, which remain consistent throughout his career despite considering himself part of a large team of experts and working with increasingly complex AI technologies. He conceives the process as a collaboration, both when dealing with software and hardware and when teaming up with designers, coders, and researchers to develop a project. There are, however, crucial moments when decisions are made, and these are the moments when the artist states his authorship:

“There’s a collaboration between machine and human. With the same data, we can generate infinite versions of the same sculpture, but choosing this moment, and creating this moment in time and space, is the moment of creation.” [8]

Out of infinite possibilities, making a choice that determines the next step in the process and shapes the final output is a prerogative of the artist, who is finally the author of the artwork that emerges from a latent space.


[1] Refik Anadol, Casey Reas, Michelle Kuo, and Paola Antonelli. Modern Dream: How Refik Anadol Is Using Machine Learning and NFTs to Interpret MoMA’s Collection. MoMA | Magazine, November 15, 2021.

[2] Dorian Batycka. Digital Art Star Refik Anadol’s First Supporters Were in the Tech World. All of a Sudden, His Work Has Become White-Hot at Auction, Too. Artnet, May 18, 2022.

[3] Gwendolen Webster. Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau. A dissertation presented to the Open University, Milton Keynes, 2007.

[4] Refik Anadol. Liminal Room. Refik Anadol Studio, November 19, 2015.

[5] Claudia Pelosi. Machine intelligence as a narrative tool in experiential art – Interview with Refik Anadol. Designwanted, December 19, 2020.

[6] Refik Anadol. Virtual Depictions: San Francisco. Refik Anadol Studio, October 1, 2015.

[7] Lev Manovich. Data Visualization as New Abstraction and Anti-Sublime., 2002.

[8] Refik Anadol, Casey Reas, Michelle Kuo, and Paola Antonelli. Modern Dream. op.cit.

Get to Know Shaun Gladwell: Moving image, painting, photography, sculpture, installation, performance, VR & AR artist

Where did you grow up and where do you live now?

I grew up in a small suburb connected to Sydney called North Rocks in the west away from the coast.  It was mixed, lower middle class and solid middle class in other areas. I found it exciting at times and desperately boring at times as well. I now live in London and mostly spend my time in the Southeast of London.

Shaun Gladwell Studio

Where did you go to school and what did you study?

I went to a state school in North Rocks and then after graduating I went to an art school in Sydney called Sydney College of the Arts. I stayed there for a few years, got an Honors degree and then jumped to an another art school.  

My Masters study was at the College of Fine Arts University of New South Wales.  I studied painting although by the time I left Sydney College of the Arts, I was already experimenting with video and other technology so for my Masters degree I was mostly moving between lots of mediums.

What does your workspace / desktop / studio look like?

I’ve got a physical studio space in Southeast London that’s connected to a gallery space called the Drawing Room.  It’s a medium sized space with a beautiful view of London. It’s very much a painting studio. It’s really messy, there are big unstretched canvas on the wall.  There’s oil, acrylic, aerosol, it’s a real mess. I do work in VR through other studio spaces.

When did you start working creatively with technology?

A lot before officially studying video performance and installation. I was creatively using technology in my painting process. I was interested in taking reproductions of paintings and scanning them, altering their dimensions and then re-painting those manipulated images through Photoshop.  

The Photoshop image of say a distorted Gainsborough or a Reynolds painting from British society portraiture going back to the 1700th or 1800th century would then become the proprietary sketch for a very detailed painting. So that’s probably when I started looking at this interface or this connection or somehow a conversation between technology and something more traditional.  

Self Portrait Spinning and Falling in Paris, 2016 Single channel High Definition video, 16:9 (installed 4:3), colour, silent

In 2009-10 you were the official Australian War Artist and the first to use video for your project. Can you describe your experience working on the ground with the Australian military in Afghanistan and talk about the process of creating Double field/viewfinder (Tarin Kowt)?

This commission with the war memorial  was very different for me. I was heading into a very difficult, unknown space and couldn’t control the elements around me like I do here in this studio or like I think I’m doing in this studio.

To work in an environment like that required a different kind of thinking. I wanted to explore ideas that I already had in my practice so that’s where Double field/viewfinder came from which was really me taking this technology into the theater of war but also knowing that technology was entirely integrated into that experience and supporting that experience and probably most of the technology I was using was actually developed through military objectives.  

Video recording technology and digital video was so familiar to a lot of the soldiers because they are technologists. I decided to hand cameras over to them and let them record video.  It ended up becoming quite intense because the soldiers took on the project as if their lives depend up on it. It almost was like a military drill so that was quite interesting for me and then letting the soldiers know that it was an experiment and getting their feedback after was equally important.

‘Double Field/Viewfinder’ by Shaun Gladwell (2009-10).Photo: Department of War Studies, King’s College London

In 2016 you co-founded an Indie VR Content Collective with producer Leo Faber called Badfaith. You’ve mentioned the name of the collective is a reference to the Sartrean philosophical concept. Do you believe VR can be an antidote to certain social forces that cause people to act in bad faith? How do these ideas factor into your practice?

Firstly, the name BadFaith is connected to the concept of Jean Paul Sartre as well as Simone de Beauvoir.  Each philosopher or thinker has versions or signs and symptoms of ‘bad faith’ within their thinking or within their ideas around the concept so it can be quite nuanced and complex to talk about ‘bad faith’ depending upon who I’m  footnoting or referencing but I think technology can also potentially generate bad faith as well just depending upon how the technology is used. Like any technology if it’s being used as a weapon or a tool for something else.

The same technology has very different outcomes and effects and I think that the fact that bad faith was always about simulating a kind of presentation of self or position even down to the occupation of the waiter as Jean Paul Sartre’s famous example goes, then that immediately becomes relevant to technology like VR which is a very powerful simulator that we all now have access to as consumers rather than it being locked up in university research labs or tech developers so we’re going to see all kinds of different forms of bad faith in a kind of hard boiled sort of I guess bare life to use Giorgio Agamben’s  term in relation to VR.

Virtual reality pioneers Shaun Gladwell and Leo Faber talk Badfaith Collective

What projects are you currently working on?

Good question.  I’ve got a few long term projects related to shows and a few little ones that are more like doodles.  I do some sketching in video. I go out and ride my bike and follow the line on the street and it’s kinda like a video drawing. I’m really excited about doing more of those in London, really simple raw works.  I still draw, still like to printmake and paint. But I love VR and AR.

I’m trying to run that full spectrum. I  don’t want to lose out on the idea of working with materials and using substance and stuff and getting dirty.  Like in VR sometimes I can feel like it’s just too much of a pure space which does not reference the gunk, junk and the abject reality of my body or the world.  

Have you done any work in AR? Do you find VR or AR to be a more compelling medium? Why?

I’m developing an idea for a show in AR now.

The distinction between AR and VR is quite enormous.  VR completely arrests your sense of sight and hearing and when you start to include kinetics and haptics then you aren’t given a frame outside of the frameless space you’ve been immersed within while AR still gives you the reference physically and optically and and conceptually to your immediate environment as it then starts to augment that space so you still have some reference to that space if it’s to be defined as AR.  So I think they are so different for me given those kinds of boring different textbook definitions. Some ideas could be better wrapped up in VR and others in AR.

In a field where hardware and software can quickly become obsolete, how do you approach documentary and archival processes for your work?

Usually I’m sorta just hopelessly producing work that will very quickly be its own ruin because that sort of archival and documentary process has changed.  I’m only just now bringing it all in to a central nervous system but then it would of course be better managed through you guys in terms of the digital phase which is great.

It’s amazing to start off in art school and go from prints to slides you put a in projector right through to this system that you guys are working on. I think it’s an incredible arc as to how I’ve used technology to archive my work or to document the way that it’s been shown from a slide projector to the cloud in the space of my professional life and student years.

Who are some contemporary or historical new media artists that you admire? What are some of your favorite works?

Caravaggio’s use of optics back in the day.   Interesting to think of these early examples of people who have used technology.  Galileo’s drawing of the moon after he developed the telescope are some of the most beautiful images I can think of from the sides of both art and science.

In terms of new media artists, I  like everyone, Raqs Media Collective to Pipilotti Rist.  I’m interested in why people are using technology and sometimes I’m also interested in the result but there is always some interest to me as to why people are picking up the camera and trying to make episodic TV series and calling it art or making a series of elaborate performances around their sculptures and calling that video.  Probably the one artist who I really love is Stelarc the Australian guy who auments his body with technology.