Refik Anadol | “WDCH DREAMS”
Sometimes, no matter the hype you hear or the videos you scour, an encounter with artistic expression surpasses any expectation. Such is the case with Refik Anadol’s latest project. Using advanced methods of data compression, algorithmic processing, machine learning, and light projection, Anadol has catalogued the 100 archival years of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, transforming the information into a stunning visual celebration that brings the Walt Disney Concert Hall—the fantastical Frank Gehry- designed home of the orchestra—to vivid life.
Anadol’s work exemplifies the cutting edge. The Turkish-American artist was selected for one of the first Google Artists & Machine Intelligence Residencies, and has usedthe knowledge gained there to push the frontiers of art to keep pace with an age of neural networks and intelligent machines. “Two years ago, we met with Kenric McDowell, the A.I. curator at Google,” he tells me. “I did residencies, but before then I had never paired with an engineer that is really one of the mind-blowing, cutting-edge researchers in the field of machine learning.”
But Anadol, a self-described media artist and director, didn’t always think his artistic expression would push him to create such immersive dreamscapes. “I started as a photographer and videographer. I truly enjoy architecture photography,” he says. “But I found it pretty quickly like a sanctuary, like a comfort zone. I felt like it’s a little bit too repetitive, it’s too safe, and there is not much commonality.”
Working with a group of Japanese architects, Anadol fervently wished to interact with the spaces he was viewing and photographing, and he came to realize that he wanted to use architecture as a canvas, and light as a medium. “I wasn’t inspired from architecture. I was inspired from space. It’s space that you cannot build.”
WDCH Dreams (The WDHC standing for “Walt Disney Concert Hall”) is divided into three parts—“Memory,” “Consciousness,” and “Dreams”—each showcasing various aspects of a computer-conceived interpretation of data from the LA Philharmonic’s immense archives, processed via the space of the building itself. As Anadol sees it, it is as if the concert hall itself is doing the remembering, the thinking, and the dreaming.
“I thought ‘Memory’ could be the very first chapter of the story, where the Hall just loads the entire archive into its own skin,” Anadol explains. “We take every folder, every image, every sound recording in the archive, one by one, and let the archive load itself into a RAM or buffer so the building goes through its nostalgic folders, finds the first music directors, finds the first iconic moments in time, and the building plots them for us.” This is displayed as a sort of supernova of imagery, thousands and thousands of frames depicting events, happenings, sounds, and pictures throughout the LA Philharmonic’s rich history scrolling and snaking and exploding into life on the textured surface of the Hall.
Anadol continues: “The second chapter is ‘Consciousness,’ where everything starts to change.” Here, Anadol allows the neural network to categorize the information, finding similarities among the vast 45 terabytes of archival data. “The second part is completely organic. The building starts to look at its own entire history,” he says. “Suddenly, we see a bunch of Big Bang moments. Data universes appear in front of us, as emotional as possible.” This stage appears as a galactic field of colorful, celestial clusters, organized by the neural network by its own logic.
The third chapter is “Dreams,” the strangest and perhaps most beautiful part of the piece. Anadol grows visibly excited as he explains it. “It is completely a machine hallucination. An architectural cultural beacon reconstructs its own skin, and even reconstructs a memory.” During this chapter, onlookers gasp as the exterior of the Walt Disney Concert Hall—a building with no parallel surfaces, as Anadol makes a point of mentioning—begins to collapse upon itself and redevelop into a swirl of imagined future LA Philharmonic moments, uproarious and chaotic and surreal. “The building makes an artificial sea, an artificial ocean on its own skin by using data points. And at the end, we land in a moment that the building even starts to dream hallucinations. And we realize that we were actually witnessing the entire cognition of a building, going from opening the operating system to a point that it imagines. The journey between these two is the story.”
By bringing a building to life, and by digitizing 100 years of LA Philharmonic history—an institution that is entering into what it hopes will be another 100 years—Anadol seeks to display both what new worlds are available to us through technology and what can be achieved by art. “Hope is one of the most important keywords when we talk about A.I. or machine intelligence, and institutional memory. Hope is the most important keyword for an institution like the LA Philharmonic, because they are predicting their near future. They are looking at their history to animate their future, which is one of the most amazing things I think I’ve ever heard.”
It was also extremely important that WDCH Dreams be public, and free of charge. While the exterior projections have concluded their run, Anadol and his team redeveloped the small Ira Gershwin Gallery inside the building as an immersive and interactive companion installation.
Through the end of the year, anyone can go and explore the digitized archives and data universes created through Anadol’s project. “Ideas that may transcend hope and inspiration should be public,” says Anadol. “You should be able to feel and know that you can go to that location specifically to feel the emotions we are looking for. And that’s what I think is a very powerful part of the art. You don’t need walls, you don’t need ceilings, you don’t need a door to go inside. You just need to go.”