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Big (Beautiful) Data: The Media Architecture of Refik Anadol

Refik Anadol, "Virtual Depictions"
Refik Anadol's Virtual Depictions (2015)
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Refik Anadol, "Ameriques"
Refik Anadol, "Visions of America: Amériques," 2014. | Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

Data is everywhere: we have big data, open data, data sets, data mining, data management, data visualization, data smog, the data deluge, and -- if you can believe it -- being a data scientist was dubbed the sexiest job of the 21st century by Harvard Business Review. We’re scolded to manage our data properly, we fret about our data trails and yet, in all this data, it’s sometimes hard to find good data. Data shows that data will be increasingly significant in the future. Data equals knowledge equals power. Data dominates.

If all of this sounds dreadful, take heart: the data artist (not celebrated by HBR) rejects the all-too instrumental uses of data, perversely employing it instead in the service of beauty and delight.

Enter Refik Anadol. The bespectacled, black-haired 30-year-old artist has established a bustling studio in Silver Lake dedicated to exploring the creative uses of data in a series of innovative art experiences that are grand. Not only that, the artworks strive to open up a conversation about the city and its complex and dynamic relationship to the people who inhabit it. What can visualizations of our city -- its public transport, weather patterns, water usage and so on -- tell us about who we are and what we’re doing?

“We have all this data,” Anadol says cheerfully, “but what does it mean?” He answers his own question by musing, “I think a new kind of storytelling can occur.”

Refik Anadol, "Augmented Structures"
Refik Anadol, "Augmented Structures v1.0: Acoustic Formations/Istiklal Street," 2011. | Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

Anadol, originally from Turkey, studied a full array of media forms, including video, graphic design and media art, earning both a BA and MFA in the Department of Visual Communication Design at Bilgi University in Istanbul. Deeply influenced by "Blade Runner," which he saw at age nine, Anadol became obsessed with the intersection of architecture and media, wondering how he could take his burgeoning skills with media and make an intervention in built space.

To assuage this fixation, he headed outside with a projector and transformed the walls of a building at his university into a sea of movement, seemingly dissolving concrete materiality into fluid waves of images. Online documentation of the project garnered a huge international response. “That success led me to do another project in Germany at the SANAA School of Design,” Anadol recounts. Titled "Quadrangle," the project once again sought to transform physical architecture into imagery. “This time, the whole building became the canvas, it was a 360-degree experience. I learned how to use much more customized software to create the visuals, as well as how to create a whole new form of storytelling by using the existing geometry of the building itself in collaboration with SANAA team.”

Anadol was subsequently invited to design a large-scale media installation as part of the Istanbul Biennial in 2011, using the city’s well-known public mall called Istiklal Street, which is nearly a mile long and is traversed by millions of people. Old-fashioned trolleys travel down the street’s center, which is otherwise open only to pedestrians. Anadol captured sound on the street at differing times of the day and night, and then, using nine projectors, presented a massive visual reinterpretation of the sound as a site-specific moving image artwork titled "Augmented Structures v1.0." “The whole thing is a very dynamic form of sculpture,” Anadol says. “The sculpture is transformed in real time so every day you see a different quality of storytelling.”

Inspired to push farther, Anadol traveled to Los Angeles and enrolled in the Design Media Arts program at UCLA, where he worked with Casey Reas and other faculty members, earning a second MFA and honing his skills further.

For his thesis project in the program in 2014, Anadol wanted to interact with a major Los Angeles architectural landmark. He selected the Walt Disney Concert Hall, initially imagining that he would transpose a concert happening inside the hall to the building’s exterior, projecting imagery onto the already seemingly in-motion surfaces of the building and creating an experience for the city outside. This desire to share an art experience in public space is emblematic of Anadol’s temperament: he boasts an infectious enthusiasm and generosity, as well as an almost utopian zeal for what art can lend to our current moment of cultural transformation and emerging sense of literacy related to the impact and role of data today.

However, Anadol’s enthusiasm outstripped his abilities at that moment, and he was forced to scale back a bit. He turned instead to the concert hall’s interior, wondering how he might engage the space alongside the orchestra during a performance.

Refik Anadol, "Ameriques"
Refik Anadol, "Visions of America: Amériques," 2014.  | Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

“Esa-Pekka Salonen was super interested in the idea of using the interior somehow as a form,” Anadol says. “He said, ‘Varèse is an important inspiration. What if we took the first piece that he wrote when he arrived in the United States?’" The piece Salonen referenced was "Amériques," which was written by Varèse between 1918 and 1921 while the composer lived in New York City. Varèse was interested in playing with what he called “zones of intensities,” and the resulting 24-minute piece is a raucous, robust composition that engages a very large orchestra with 115 players. Anadol may have had to re-set his ambitions, but not by much.

The building’s architect, Frank Gehry, was also enthusiastic about Anadol’s proposal and provided the artist with the 3-D models of the hall. “It’s a very intimate space,” continues Anadol, who knew that the intimacy would require precision and care in creating a seamless immersive experience.

Rather than simply project images, however, Anadol was also interested in integrating Salonen himself. “I thought it was interesting that the audience does not see the conductor’s real communication with the orchestra, and what is happening there is very unique. This, too -- how he is transferring what is in his mind into music -- can also be a form of storytelling, and I wanted a way to include this in the visuals as well.”

Anadol integrated the conductor into the visuals by capturing his gestures with a 3-D camera system and tracking his heartbeat with sensors; this data was then added into the visual mix of algorithmic unfolding occurring in real time.

The stunning, immersive performance, titled "Visions of America: Amériques," was a feat of real-time computation in conjunction with the musical performance that energized the extraordinary space of the concert hall, transforming it into an almost organic participant in the orchestral experience, merging human and nonhuman, sound and image, light and space. The images were by turns abstract, seemingly dissolving the architecture into mesmerizing, immersive shapes and also figurative forms, referencing the built environment.

Anadol has since come to call this kind of work “media architecture,” and he and his artworks are in high demand.

Refik Anadol, "Virtual Depictions"
Refik Anadol, "Virtual Depictions: San Francisco," 2015. | Photo: Courtesy of the artist. 

Since 2014, he has become increasingly involved in using open source data about cities for numerous projects. In 2015, he won a competition to create an installation for Kilroy Realty Corporation at 350 Mission Street in San Francisco, for example. “We used open source data provided by the city of San Francisco and asked, 'What happens if an artwork has intelligence and is aware of what is happening in the city?' Can we take those motions and create a media sculpture?” "Virtual Depictions: San Francisco" was the result of these questions. Displayed on a massive 40-foot by 70-foot screen, the project introduces what Anadol calls a poetics of space and a new form of history, capturing, reflecting and storing changes in the city over time in the 21st century. Standing outside the piece on the sidewalk, viewers are treated to a massive, constantly moving abstract imagescape with rich colors and luscious forms. The piece is immediately arresting, once again seemingly dissolving a solid plane into fluid form.

Here in Los Angeles, Anadol is working on a number of public art projects, including "UnderLA," a project that uses the L.A. River as a canvas as part of the city's first public art biennial, Current:LA Water, which launches July 16. He and his collaborator, Peggy Weil, will project data visualizations related to water from the 1st Street Bridge and at a second location, Origin of the L.A. River.

Anadol is also working on a piece for the L.A. Department of Transportation for a new building coming to downtown Los Angeles in spring of 2017. “I will be transforming the façade of the building into a live sculpture by using real time GPS information from the city,” Anadol says. “It will become a live installation, and every day will be a different story in the life of the city.”

He's also working with other kinds of data. For example, a collaboration with the L.A. Philharmonic and a neuroscientist team attempts to visualize emotions in real time. “Sensorial devices like a smart watch can measure heartbeat, galvanic skin sensors can measure body temperature and a camera can tell by the surface of your face how you feel,” Anadol says. “This is where we are going,” adding with his trademark optimism, “That is pretty inspiring.”

Refik Anadol, "Infinity"
Refik Anadol, "Infinity Room," 2015. | Photo: Courtesy of the artist. 

Other projects by Anadol include an immersive artwork called "Infinity Room," which is part of a larger initiative the artist has dubbed “Temporary Immersive Environment Experiments.” In this case, Anadol has constructed a cube with four projections and a set of mirrors that together have the capacity to radically transform our perception of the physical space. Working with a team of interns in his studio, Anadol is continuing this investigation of physical and virtual space by creating a virtual reality version experienced through a headset, adding an intelligent and provocative art experience to the flurry of sometimes nauseating spectacles currently being produced for VR. And he and his team are also crafting an opera for VR, pondering the spatialization of sound.

Taken together, Anadol’s artworks reckon with our contemporary moment when data is, to put it mildly, prolific or when, to put it more caustically, our every move is captured and calculated. What, he asks, can a poetic approach to data give us? How can the architecture of the 21st century in cities such as L.A. engage beauty, delight and data together? And can the transformation of data from algorithms into time-based sculptures offer a new form of storytelling? Anadol certainly thinks so, and the citizens of L.A. will soon be able judge for themselves when his public installation takes up residence at the new department of transportation building downtown.

Upcoming events: "UnderLA" by Refik Anadol and Peggy Weil at Current:LA Water," Saturday and Sunday, Jul 16 and 17, 8:30–11:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, Jul 30 and 31, 8:30–11:30 p.m.; and Saturday and Sunday, Aug 13 and 14, 8:30–11:30 p.m.

Top image: Refik Anadol, "Virtual Depictions: San Francisco," 2015. | Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

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