‘It’s All Machine-Made’: Crossover NFT Art Star Refik Anadol’s New Installation at MoMA Lets AI Do the Creating, Generating and Dreaming
Consider the following proposition: after viewing all 130,000 works in the Museum of Modern Art’s collection, a person is asked to produce an artistic reflection. Assuming the person hasn’t died of exhaustion, what might their work look like? This premise is at the heart of Refik Anadol’s Without supervisiona recently unveiled project that feeds the museum’s collection into an AI that spits out ceaselessly changing works of seductive form and color.
We know machines can learn, we know they can create (thanks to AI image generators), but, asks Anadol, can they dream or hallucinate? If these questions sound eerily like Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? it is no coincidence. Anadol claims Ridley Scott’s film adaptation Blade Runner have haunted his thinking since boyhood, particularly the realization by replicant Rachael that her memories have been implanted.
At MoMA, Anadol plays Eldon Tyrell, a man eager to see the dreams and memories of a machine loaded with 200 years of art images.
“We feel museums have a responsibility to support artists who explore and critique new technologies like blockchain and artificial intelligence,” MoMA curators Michelle Kuo and Paola Antonelli told Artnet News. “With Anadol, we hope to give visitors a new experience and perception of art.”
Standing in MoMA’s cavernous lobby and watching Without supervision work is certainly a new experience. It fills a 24-by-24-foot screen with a restless sculpture, a mutant form that is red marshmallow one moment and luminescent cobweb the next. Blink and its shape, texture, color are all over again.
Strictly speaking, Without supervision plays in three aesthetic styles, or what Anadol calls chapters. “We started 18 months ago and the chapters are basically artworks where we reconstruct the brains of AI and influence them,” Anadol told Artnet News, noting that two of the works are generative and the other is pre-computed. “It’s all machine-made. We don’t know which work will play when and how.”
In basic terms, Anadol uses a UMAP algorithm to reduce the dimensional complexity of the archive and scan it for similarities. The result is what the artist calls “a data universe”. This is then run through generative adversarial networks (GANs) programmed to produce the visual associations it learns as it evaluates images. A curatorial touch is added with his team fiddling with parameters, such as the colour, the connection between data points and the specific moment in time and space where the work is created.
The installation will run through March 2023 and is surprisingly Anadol’s first solo show in North America. “I think a lot about the use of public spaces,” Anadol said. “I first came to MoMA in 2011 and to be in this place, [with Unsupervised being] some of the first things visitors see are amazing.” These visitors are transformed into unwitting creators through real-time inputs including movement, light changes and acoustic volume that Anadol has incorporated.
“The computer visualizations are subtly bent by this direct feedback from the atmosphere, like a river affected by the wind,” said Antonelli and Kuo. “Without supervision is open to chance and serendipity.”
The installation brings to the physical space a project that started online last year when Anadol imprinted his museum-style hallucinations as NFTs on the new media platform Feral File. The move saw MoMA join a wave of elite cultural institutions from the Uffizi to the British Museum capitalizing on the hottest art trend of 2021.
After bruising and with visits well below pre-pandemic levels, Without supervision not only engaged in the latest developments in digital art, but also offered a new source of income. The museum received 17 percent of primary sales and deducts five percent of all secondary sales. A quick review of the Feral File shows slow but steady trading of Anadol’s NFTs.
Viewing the collaboration as an opportunistic cash grab, however — an accusation leveled at some of the museum’s peers — would unfairly damage the project itself and MoMA’s track record of promoting creatives working at the intersection of art and technology.
“The primary success is that Refik creates work from the extraordinary collection of images that represent MoMA’s collection,” Michael Nguyen, head of operations at Feral File’s parent company Bitmark, told Artnet News. “As we continue to work with both, we’ll see Without supervision as the start of more exciting things to come.”
As shown in the 2017 exhibition “Thinking Machines”, which traced the early history of computer art primarily through works in the collection, MoMA has long been a place that proactively seeks out and platforms new artistic practices. Other landmarks include launching its first website in 1995, and uploading its entire collection to GitHub in 2015. Going back even further, from the early 1930s, the museum was one of the first American institutions to begin collecting photography, a medium that fell victim to the same accusations of undermining human creativity aimed at artificial intelligence.
For much of the last decade, Anadol has been diving deep into the world of AI alongside computer scientists, architects and artists from his Los Angeles studio. His shot at giant data sets – think petabytes – began in 2017 when he discovered an open-source archive of 1.7 million cultural documents in Istanbul called SALT.
Leveraging the supercomputers and AI expertise at his disposal as a resident of Google’s Artists and Machine Intelligence project, Anadol used SALT to create immersive media installations that revealed unexpected connections between documents. It is a feat of mass data and large projections that he has since repeated for the cities of Seoul and San Francisco, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Artechouse.
Unlike previous installations, Without supervision tackles the aesthetic basis of art itself, its mathematical, computer-based qualities. As Leland McInnes, developer of the UMAP technique Anadol uses, told Artnet News, “It’s wonderful to see my work applied to MoMA. There are deep connections between abstract mathematics and art, and Refik Anadol’s work realizes this interaction concretely.”
At MoMA, Anadol takes visitors on a journey through time, one that considers alternative art histories, images that were never made, offshoots of movements that never branched out. But it also points to possible futures, collaborations between machines perceiving the unimaginable and humans defining the indefinable thing called taste.
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