Generative Art Sensation Tyler Hobbs Has Filled His Debut London Show With Old-Fashioned Paintings—Painted by a Robot, That Is

Inside a Mayfair gallery earlier this week, a gathering of London’s cognoscenti raised colorful textured glasses along a well-appointed table stretching the length of the room. Glamorous as it was, the scene was a typical enough art world gallery dinner, except for the fact that the usual attendees, who included magazine critics and an art historian from the Courtauld gallery, were toasting an artist whose star ascended during NFT mania, and they were clinking glasses across the table with people named things like “blockbird” and “shamrock.”

It was at Unit London, where generative artist Tyler Hobbs was inaugurating his first solo exhibition in the U.K. On view through April 6, “Mechanical Hand” includes three paintings on canvas, and 17 works on paper. Real canvas and real paper, that is. 

Hobbs became a sensation during the NFT bubble in 2021, best known for his highly sought-after “Fidenza” NFTs—a series of 999 algorithmically produced and randomized grids of color. In 2023, he remains a breakout as his market is one of few that appears to have survived the crypto crash. One of these pieces hammered down at Christie’s evening sale in London last week at £290,000 ($348,667). 

But the focus of the evening was definitely on IRL art. The artist, who studied computer science at university, made the works on view using algorithms, codes, and plotters—a sort of robotic arm directed by a computer—to create aesthetic compositions, which he then embellished by hand, either painting or drawing on the surface. 

Tyler Hobbs, Delicate Futures (2022). Courtesy the artist and Unit London.

Tyler Hobbs, Delicate Futures (2022). Courtesy the artist and Unit London.

Hobbs relates his work to the system-based practices of artists like Sol LeWitt and Agnes Martin, who took similarly methodical approaches to mark-making. Speaking to the room, Hobbs said that this type of work “can only be experienced in person.” And while sales of these physical works were indeed encoded on the blockchain, and there were two NFTs also displayed in the gallery on screens, there was little to no mention of the now-poisoned word “NFT.”

This detail didn’t deter the OG NFT collectors from feting Hobbs’s success. “I loved the work, and Tyler’s explanations for each piece made it all the richer,” Hobbs fan and NFT collector, blockbird, told me of the work. “I think this venture into the physical is a great move as it really helps explain and bridge the qualities of his algorithmic work to a new audience. For me as a digital-first collector, it still holds great appeal. I would love one of these in my home.”

And if celebrating, even in a whisper, an NFT artist was unusual for many of the esteemed art world guests, the state of affairs was new to the artist, too, who professed that he had never sat around a dinner table “in the middle of a gallery like this.”

Describing the exhibition, Hobbs said it aims to ask questions about the “adolescent relationship between humans and machines.”

“Computers and machines deeply influence our aesthetics, and I want to observe how that happens,” Hobbs said in a statement. “What implicit skew does the computer have, and what tell-tale signs does the hand leave?” 

The questions lend conceptual depth to the work, as they certainly feel very relevant as algorithm-assisted text and image generators increasingly take over many of our daily tasks, and we collectively ask how we can move forward using a combination of both physical and digital tools. 

Tyler Hobbs, Return One [Red] (2022). Courtesy the artist and Unit London.

Tyler Hobbs, Return One [Red] (2021–2022). Courtesy the artist and Unit London.

Of the works on view, the works on paper shone the most. The earthen-toned gouache of Aligned Movement recall an ancient Roman mosaic or an Aboriginal dot painting. The pastel-smeared paper grids appear as if generative art pioneer Vera Molnár had a baby with a Rothko color field. The pale pink and purple hued watercolor of Delicate Futures has something in it of Helen Frankenthaler’s soak-stained paintings. The larger works on canvas, such as the primely hung at the back of the room, Return One [Red], are markedly less successful. That one, in particular, I thought looked like a D-version Kusama painting. Like much machine-generated art, it was all very good at looking like something else, and not very good at looking like nothing else. 

But what do I know? Unit London director and cofounder Joe Kennedy told me the following day that the show had “pretty much sold out.” The show at Unit London is the beginning of a landmark season for the artist who will open another solo exhibition later this month at Pace Gallery in New York, coinciding with NFT.NYC. Prices for the works in the show start at £25,000 (around $30,000), going up to £300,000 ($360,000) for the red painting at the back of the room, which had sold to a Hong Kong-based collector by the end of the evening.

Tyler Hobbs: Mechanical Hand” is on view through April 6 at Unit London. See more of the works below.

Detail. Tyler Hobbs, Fulfilling System 1 (2020). Courtesy the artist and Unit London.

Detail. Tyler Hobbs, Fulfilling System 1 (2020). Courtesy the artist and Unit London.

Installation view, "Tyler Hobbs: Mechanical Hand" at Unit London. Photo by Marcus Peel courtesy the artist and Unit London.

Installation view, “Tyler Hobbs: Mechanical Hand” at Unit London. Photo: Marcus Peel, courtesy the artist and Unit London.

Installation view, "Tyler Hobbs: Mechanical Hand" at Unit London. Photo by Marcus Peel courtesy the artist and Unit London.

Installation view, “Tyler Hobbs: Mechanical Hand” at Unit London. Photo: Marcus Peel, courtesy the artist and Unit London.

Tyler Hobbs, user_space, 36 (2022). Courtesy the artist and Unit London.

Tyler Hobbs, user_space (2022). Courtesy the artist and Unit London.

Installation view, "Tyler Hobbs: Mechanical Hand" at Unit London. Photo by Marcus Peel courtesy the artist and Unit London.

Installation view, “Tyler Hobbs: Mechanical Hand” at Unit London. Photo: Marcus Peel, courtesy the artist and Unit London.

Installation view, "Tyler Hobbs: Mechanical Hand" at Unit London. Photo by Marcus Peel courtesy the artist and Unit London.

Installation view, “Tyler Hobbs: Mechanical Hand” at Unit London. Photo: Marcus Peel, courtesy the artist and Unit London.

Tyler Hobbs, Aligned Movement (2020). Courtesy the artist and Unit London.

Tyler Hobbs, Aligned Movement (2020). Courtesy the artist and Unit London.

Installation view, "Tyler Hobbs: Mechanical Hand" at Unit London. Photo by Marcus Peel courtesy the artist and Unit London.

Installation view, “Tyler Hobbs: Mechanical Hand” at Unit London. Photo: Marcus Peel, courtesy the artist and Unit London.

Installation view, "Tyler Hobbs: Mechanical Hand" at Unit London. Photo by Marcus Peel courtesy the artist and Unit London.

Installation view, “Tyler Hobbs: Mechanical Hand” at Unit London. Photo: Marcus Peel, courtesy the artist and Unit London.

Tyler Hobbs, By Proxy Yellow 1 (2021). Courtesy the artist and Unit London.

Tyler Hobbs, By Proxy Yellow 1 (2021). Courtesy the artist and Unit London.

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The U.K.’s Asian-Focused Esea Contemporary Museum Reopens With a More Diversified Staff and Program—But Skepticism Lingers

The light was back on and jovial chatter was heard again at the corner of Thomas Street in the U.K.’s Manchester this month. After a long hiatus, one of the most prominent centers dedicated to Chinese contemporary art in the west has reopened its doors with a new identity that embraces much wider East and Southeast Asian roots.

Esea Contemporary opened with a group exhibition called “Practise Till We Meet,” which was a demonstration of the center’s determination to start all over again. Featuring an ensemble of ethnically East and Southeast Asian artists presenting bodies of work that explore the diasporic experience, as well as trauma, this modest exhibition is a deliberate move to bid farewell to its past life as the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art.

The venue went through a major overhaul following the art community’s allegations of institutional racism (the center’s former management team and its board of trustees was dominated by white names) that nearly got the non-profit defunded. But some are not sure the institution has gone far enough.

"Practise Till We Meet" (2023) installation view, at Esea Contemporary. Photo courtesy Jules Lister.

“Practise Till We Meet” (2023) installation view, at Esea Contemporary. Photo courtesy Jules Lister.

The launch event also coincidentally coincided with the re-opening of the Manchester Museum after a £15 million ($18 million) facelift, which now includes the U.K.’s first permanent gallery dedicated to South Asian art. Although London remains the largest home to Asians, according to a 2021 census, the region that encompasses Manchester also has one of the highest presence of Asian populations in the U.K. Asians, including Chinese and other Asian ethnicities, are among the second biggest ethnic groups in Manchester.

The selection of works and artists in Esea’s debut show “Practise Till We Meet,” curated by the Guangzhou-based independent curator Hanlu Zhang, can be interpreted as a statement for the center’s direction. Although most of the works on show are not new, they address current, unresolved issues facing many in the Asian diaspora.

Koki Tanaka, <i>Vulnerable Histories (A Road Movie)</i> (2018), commissioned by Migros Museum of Contemporary Art. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Jules Lister.

Koki Tanaka, Vulnerable Histories (A Road Movie) (2018), commissioned by Migros Museum of Contemporary Art. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Jules Lister.

Memorable works include Koki Tanaka’s Vulnerable Histories (A Road Movie) (2018), a multi-channel video installation that charts the discrimination, violence, and trauma experienced by the Korean diaspora in Japan, descendants of Korean migrants who came to the country during various wars. The honest discussion about their psychological struggle with their hybrid identities is particularly moving.

A colorful series of photos—Matter Out of Place (2017-2018), Souvenir (2018), Unhide Diego Garcia (2018)—by the Manchester-based Audrey Albert, a native of the island of Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean, who has Chagossian origins. With these poignant works, she introduces the audience to the lesser known history about her displaced roots.

Isaac Chong Wai, <i>Two-Legged Stool</i> (2023), commissioned by Esea Contemporary. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Jules Lister.

Isaac Chong Wai, Two-Legged Stool (2023), commissioned by Esea Contemporary. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Jules Lister.

Liu Weiwei’s mixed media project Australia (2017) tells the story about the artist’s younger brother Liu Chao, who is adamant about emigrating to Australia. Although the project was created nearly six years ago, Liu Chao’s determination to leave his native China echoes today amid the recent “run movement” in the country, which is seeing Chinese people fleeing their home country.

Berlin-based Hong Kong artist Issac Chong Wai presents Two-Legged Stool (2023), the only new work commissioned by Arts Council-backed Esea Contemporary. The work, which creates an optical illusion of a stool that appears to be two-legged from one angle, and three-legged from another, references the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s 1980s remarks about the complicated relationship between China, the U.K., and Hong Kong. “There have been talks of the so-called three-legged stool. [There are] not three legs, only two legs,” he had noted. The work is shown alongside Chong’s acclaimed video series Rehearsal of the Futures: Is the World Your Friend? (2018), which depicts the slow body movements seen in protests and the police’s tackle of demonstrators.

While the show attempts to serve as a platform for diverse narratives, and while efforts have been made to be inclusive (the curator’s statement in Chinese is printed in traditional Chinese characters, which are used in Hong Kong and Taiwan, rather than simplified characters adopted in mainland China), some members of the East and Southeast Asian communities in the U.K. that Midnight Publishing Group News spoke with remain skeptical about the center’s re-launch.

A viewer admiring Audrey Albert's work <i>Matter Out of Place</i> on show at exhibition "Practise Till We Meet" at Esea Contemporary. Photo: Jules Lister.

A viewer admiring Audrey Albert’s work Matter Out of Place on show at exhibition “Practise Till We Meet” at Esea Contemporary. Photo: Jules Lister.

The new Asian presence in the institution’s leadership appears to include members who are predominantly of Chinese heritage. “What about the representation of other cultures from East and Southeast Asia on the management level? I would prefer to wait and see what they are going to do next,” said one Manchester-based East Asian culture practitioner who declined to be named.

In response to such concerns, an Esea Contemporary spokesperson said they “welcome the community’s engagement and reflection to help us achieve what we are setting out to construct: a platform for the ESEA art community at large.”

“We plan to work with a diverse range of guest curators across future projects, as well as continuing efforts to grow our board of trustees, staff team and artistic advisory panel,” the Esea spokesperson told Midnight Publishing Group News.

There is reason for optimsim; the center’s director Xiaowen Zhu is busy cooking up big plans for the coming year. Two more shows have been planned, and she is looking into diversifying the center’s programming to include more live, in-person events.

“No terminology is perfect in terms of representation. We hope we are doing the right thing. We are also figuring things out along the way,” said Zhu. “People’s excitement and curiosity are definitely very encouraging for us.”

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Why It’s Worth Savoring Leonor Fini’s Enchanted Surrealism at Kasmin + Other Things to See and Read

Well, one month of 2023 already gone. I started the year with a New Year’s Resolution to write a bit more about art outside of the automatically must-cover big shows or controversies. That’s hard—every pressure of media life pushes towards becoming a brain in a vat plugged directly into trending topics.

But I do want to try! Despite the general bad vibes of our moment, people go on doing and saying interesting things and trying to figure it all out. We’ll see how the year goes. In the meantime, here are a few things I saw and liked, or read and felt worth recommending, in the last weeks.


Things to See

Work by Leonor Fini at Kasmin

Work by Leonor Fini at Kasmin. Photo by Ben Davis.

Leonor Fini at Kasmin

Leonor Fini (1907-1996) is a Surrealist great, and also one of those figures who has been greatly under-appreciated. I mean, just a few years ago, it took New York’s Museum of Sex to give her a first big American retrospective. More recently, the Argentinian-Italian artist’s star has been ascendant, with her declaration that she wanted to be seen as a “witch rather than as priestess” making her perfect for the feminist-Surrealist vibe of the recent Venice Biennale. Kasmin’s mini-survey has Fini’s numinous, libidinal paintings accompanied by her theatrical self-made outfits, freaky masquerade ball masks, and even a pair of clip-on gold devil horns. The show contains magic, maybe in metaphorical and non-metaphorical ways.


Installation view of Alfatih, "Day in the Life," at Swiss Institute

Installation view of Alfatih, “Day in the Life,” at Swiss Institute. Photo by Ben Davis.

Alfatih at Swiss Institute

The Switzerland-based new media artist’s slick, strangely engaging black-and-white digital animation in the basement of the S.I. centers on the doings of a seemingly super-intelligent cartoon baby, looping endlessly through different permeations of daily domestic rituals (cooking, taking a bath) within the confines of some kind of stylish domestic purgatory. If someone told me that I would be moved by something best described as—I dunno—“Yoshitomo Nara meets Spielberg’s A.I.” or “Limbo meets Boss Baby,” I wouldn’t believe them. But that’s why you don’t judge an art show based on pithy little riffs like that. A vignette where the enigmatic child plinks at the piano as rain pours and lightening strobes all around continues to circle in my brain long after I have left the cartoon creature to carry on with its own devices.


Installation view of Carrie Schneider, "I Don't Know Her," at Chart

Installation view of Carrie Schneider, “I Don’t Know Her,” at Chart. Photo by Ben Davis.

Carrie Schneider at Chart

A 16-mm film installation concentrating on a looping image of the Mariah Carey “I don’t know her” meme (the singer pretending not to who Jennifer Lopez is, often used to cast shade), multiply abstracted and reprocessed. It’s an old-fashioned film film showing a phone showing a meme made from a TV show clip of a pop star talking about another pop star. Of course there’s a Pavlovian ’90s nostalgia element to just seeing Carey’s stone-cold quip reframed as art, but I Don’t Know Her (as the work is called) wrings an unexpected bit of beauty from freezing this circulation of media into a shimmering suspension, the image abstracted and pockmarked as it acquires personal associations like a worn-down lucky penny. Fun and brainy and weirdly hypnotic.


Things to Read

Why Is Everything So Ugly?” by the Editors, in n+1

From the Winter issue of n+1, the scene-setting lead editorial on “the New Ugliness” made the rounds last month because it names something worth naming: the generally crappy, greige-colored sameness of the urban creative world now, presented via an entertainingly and convincingly cranky ramble across the full landscape of consumption, from architecture to advertising. “One paradox of the new ugliness is that it flattens the distinction between the rich, the very rich, the superrich, and the merely fortunate by ripping them all off in turn.”

TikTok’s Enshitification” by Cory Doctorow, in Pluralistic

A nice complement to the n+1 rant, and maybe its internet-specific corollary of the “New Ugliness.” The trigger for Doctorow’s screed is a consideration of the implications of recent revelations about how TikTok “boosts” key creators with the end of luring them into their platform with a fake sense of its potential. But really this is a famed web thinker’s master theory of why the internet feels so bad now, backed up by a pretty convincing, historically informed political economy of platform capitalism’s tendencies towards making its own services worse over time, i.e. “enshitification.” (While you are at it, Christopher Byrd’s conversation with Doctorow for the New Yorker last month is also well worth checking out.)

Finding Awe Amid Everyday Splendor” by Henry Wismayer, in Noema

As an argument, this one is a bit scientistic for my tastes, but I like its summary of the history and present research on the aesthetic concept of “awe.” The key argument here is that, in calling us to visceral awareness of our own smallness, awe is actually our brains signaling that we need each other. It is thus an emotion that “binds social groups in common purpose” (from which it follows that a society so jaded that it can’t make time for real moments of awe is also one that has lost one of its resources of holding itself together).


Things Also Worth Mentioning…

Outside Dunkunshalle for the book launch of Filip Kostic's Personal Computers

Outside Dunkunshalle for the book launch of Filip Kostic’s Personal Computers. Photo by Ben Davis.

Rachel Rossin’s Dunkunsthalle in FiDi

The scrappy art space in a repurposed Dunkin Donuts is worth keeping an eye on. It was a great site last week for the launch of L.A.-based Filip Kostic’s Personal Computers, a very amusing, long-in-the-making compendium of found photos showing the surreal lengths some hobbyists go to kit-out their PCs (gotta love the guy who built his CPU tower into a taxidermied beaver). Watching random passersby seeing Kostic fans packing the space, then peering slowly up at the “Dunkunsthalle” name in signature Dunkin lettering, and trying to figure out what was going on, was a bonus.

Josh On relaunches

The project, debuted in 2001, is a net art classic and a very early and important example of what Albert-László Barabási recently termed “dataism.” Via crisp, no-nonsense web animation, it compiles a catalogue of the names on the boards of the major companies in the U.S. and shows how they interlock. The new version of TheyRule has updated data for our even more corporate-dominated present, with an autoplay feature endlessly walking you from one end of the network to the next via branching graphics. The site is searchable by name or company, so it can serve as a research tool—but it’s also very much an artwork, something like an x-ray image of the economy so that you just see the unsettlingly alien bone structure underneath.

The artist modestly calls TheyRule a “one-liner,” but it’s a one-liner that hits, maybe even more than when it first launched.

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An Extremely Intelligent Lava Lamp: Refik Anadol’s A.I. Art Extravaganza at MoMA Is Fun, Just Don’t Think About It Too Hard

Refik Anadol: Unsupervised” is being touted as Artificial Intelligence’s triumphant arrival in the museum-art canon. So I went to see the splashy installation currently in the Museum of Modern Art’s ground-floor annex with a mission, to get a glimpse of what MoMA-approved A.I. art promises, or threatens, for the future.

Born in Istanbul and currently based in Los Angeles, with a studio of more than a dozen people, Anadol was known for many years more for interactive public-art commissions than for work in museums and galleries. He boasts collaborations and support from the likes of Microsoft, NVDIA, and Google. In the recent past, his stock has dramatically soared—which makes sense given the fact that his work engages with three trends that have lately shaken up the art conversation: immersive installation, NFTs, and generative A.I. “Unsupervised” combines a bit of each.

Here is what you see at MoMA: A towering, high-res screen where abstract images morph hypnotically and ceaselessly. Sequences run a few minutes each, toggling between different styles of animation.

The most crowd-pleasing of these simulates a seething, gravity-defying cloud of colorful fluid, the palette based on colors derived from the works in MoMA’s collection. New colors are constantly swirling into the image and taking over, the whole thing surging in and out restlessly, like a psychedelic, drugged-out ocean wave. The high-res screen renders the simulated rainbow gloop convincingly thick and dimensional.

Refik Anadol: Unsupervised

“Refik Anadol: Unsupervised” at the Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Ben Davis.

While this mode is the most visually memorable, it is also the one that has the least clear connection to the ostensible Big Idea of the show. “Anadol trained a sophisticated machine-learning model to interpret the publicly available data of MoMA’s collection,” the show’s description explains. “As the model ‘walks’ through its conception of this vast range of works, it reimagines the history of modern art and dreams about what might have been—and what might be to come.”

This premise is more directly enacted in the other two types of animation, which are also harder to describe. One evolves endlessly through blobby, evocative shapes and miasmic, half-formed patterns. Sometimes an image or a part of an image briefly suggests a face or a landscape but quickly moves on, becoming something else, ceaselessly churning. It looks like this:

A third type of animation does much the same, but with jittery networks of lines connecting different key points as the art-inspired shapes define themselves. I’m not totally sure what these vectors suggest, but they give the image texture and atmosphere. It looks like this:

Art History, Without the History

You can tell, in these latter two types of animation, that “Unsupervised” is manifesting art-like images specifically inspired by some constellation of works in MoMA’s collection. Despite a screen that appears as punctuation between sequences displaying dense graphics related to what you have seen, the exact operation is not really clarified.

The ever-new, synthetic images of Anadol’s “Unsupervised” are blobby and chaotic, and look exactly like what art made via Generative Adversarial Networks most often looked like before the breakthroughs of DALL-E and its A.I. ilk captured the imagination of the public last year: Woozy, semi-random, art-like visual outputs, with wispy, unresolved edges. They look a little bit like preliminary sketches for art you might have seen in the original data-set (or in the galleries)—if you squint.

"Refik Anadol: Unsupervised"

“Refik Anadol: Unsupervised” at the Museum of Modern Art. Photo by Ben Davis.

The effect is pleasant. What it is not is anything like what MoMA says it is: an experience that “reimagines the history of modern art and dreams about what might have been.”

MoMA has spent recent decades trying to move beyond the formalist ideas of art that it inherited from its founding director, Alfred H. Barr, Jr. with his famous graph of Modernism as a bunch of styles mechanically branching off of one another. Generally, contemporary art historians would insist on rooting meaning in culture and context. Abstraction means one thing when its Gee’s Bend Quilts, another when it is Abstract Expressionism, still another when it’s Tibetan sand painting, and still another when you put a bunch of images into an A.I. blender and remix them.

It’s striking to see MoMA tacitly let a new high-tech formalism through the door, one even flatter and less historical than Barr’s—as if the curators were so excited by the wonders of A.I. that they didn’t notice. What the endorsement of “Unsupervised” as an alternative-art-history simulator insinuates, for its audience, is that art history is just a bunch of random visual tics to be permuted, rather than an archive of symbol-making practices with social meanings.


Dreaming… Reimagined?

Describing his works that use A.I. to make generative art out of huge datasets like “Unsupervised,” Anadol speaks of them as machine “dreams” or machine “hallucinations.” But the terminology, once more, mystifies what is going on.

"Refik Anadol: Unsupervised"

“Refik Anadol: Unsupervised” at the Museum of Modern Art. Photo by Ben Davis.

As Jorge Luis Borges once wrote, citing Coleridge, in dreams (I guess I have to specify here, in human dreams) emotional causality is reversed: “Images take the shape of the effects we believe they cause. We are not terrified because some sphinx is threatening us but rather dream of a sphinx in order to explain the terror we are feeling.”

But there is no emotional text to Anadol’s endless animation at MoMA. At most, the installation conveys a generalized awe at the machine’s superhuman capacity of visual analysis. (The fact that the soundtrack is a kind of shapeless, droning synthesizer score that is almost a cliché in “futuristic” video work doesn’t help.)

I sat through two hours of “Unsupervised.” I can’t think of a single image in it that evoked any feeling in me besides curiosity about what it might be referencing. As one might expect, they are just semi-random acts of syntheses and recombination of properties, expressing nothing about anything in particular except for the machine’s ability to do what it is doing.

Mis-recognizing Dystopia

I would contend that scraping away the ill-considered metaphors (e.g. reimagined art histories, dreaming) helps to better see what’s really happening in front of your eyes.

This would be nitpicking, though, if it weren’t for the fact that what these poetic readings of the technology are doing is selling us on a certain style of thinking about A.I. as a creative proposition, at a time when A.I. text-generation and A.I. image-generation are being deployed so fast that society is racing against the clock to catch up with the implications—as if “move fast and break things” hadn’t been discredited as a motto.

It is because Anadol has created such a purely decorative, cheerleader-ish style of A.I. art—so different than the critical lens that artists such as Hito Steyerl and Trevor Paglen have brought to the subject in recent years, with great impact—that he received so much support along the way from the tech giants. Indeed, his positivity is probably an unstated condition of that support.

Refik Anadol: Unsupervised

“Refik Anadol: Unsupervised” at the Museum of Modern Art. Photo by Ben Davis.

In the last few years, I’ve noticed a pervasive and perverse rhetorical sleight of hand in the art-tech conversation. Call it the willful misreading of dystopia. You hear technologists reference artworks that are meant as sci-fi cautionary tales but, weirdly, purely as positive design inspiration, divorced from their prophetic moral or ethical substance. The recently trendy idea of the “metaverse,” which comes from Neal Stephenson’s grim take on virtual reality in Snow Crash, is an obvious example.

Anadol is a notable dystopian mis-reader. When he refers to his works as “machine dreams” and “collective hallucinations,” he often says his inspiration is Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. In a TED Talk, he describes having his imagination fired by the moment in that movie when the android Rachael realizes that her memories are not real, but implants. “Since that moment,” Anadol says, “one of my inspirations has been this question: What can a machine do with someone else’s memories?”

Blade Runner is a melancholy work about the uprooted sense of self and collapsing sense of reality in a future where humanity and machine are no longer distinguishable. None of this seems to register with Anadol, just the idea that machine-generated memories are cool.

"Refik Anadol: Unsupervised"

“Refik Anadol: Unsupervised” at the Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Ben Davis.

Anadol’s first work that used A.I. to generate infinite new outputs based on a massive dataset was Archive Dreaming, executed in spectacular installation form in 2017, as an application of the experiments he had been engaged with at Google’s Artists and Machine Intelligence Program. It looked at 1,700,000 documents and generated ever-new images based on them.

In that same TED Talk, Anadol claims that Archive Dreaming was inspired by Borges’s famous short story The Library of Babel, which envisions a universe that is one never-ending library, whose books contain every possible combination of characters. But The Library of Babel was an intellectual horror story, a parable about the nihilism that results when all meaning collapses into nothing. When the inhabitants of Borges’s library finally realize the implications of the world they live in, they commit mass suicide!

The point is, these cultural references are mined in the most superficial way—very much as MoMA’s archive is sucked up in Unsupervised and stripped of real substance outside of pure visual inspiration. And so, you can read this style of art as emblematic of a moment in which tech aesthetic of perpetually novel gadgetry is dominant while the humanities, with their unprofitable baggage of historical and moral concerns, are being allowed to wither.

"Refik Anadol: Unsupervised"

“Refik Anadol: Unsupervised” at the Museum of Modern Art. Photo by Ben Davis.

And Then There Are the NFTs

Don’t get me wrong. “Unsupervised” is amusing enough on its own, if you look past the cloud of mystification. It’s a bit like an extremely intelligent lava lamp.

But if it seems a little vacant, there is reason to suspect that MoMA is incentivized not to ask too much of it.

With his background, Anadol was well-positioned to become one of the biggest stars of the NFT art scene during the crypto boom of 2021. In fact, his “Unsupervised—Machine Hallucinations—MoMA Dreams” line of NFTs based on MoMA’s collection is being sold on Feral File, the NFT marketplace from the well-respected art-technologist Casey Reas (one of Anadol’s former teachers at UCLA). “Ten years ago, when we asked, Can we mint machine memories and dreams in the blockchain of one of the world’s most inspiring archives? I wouldn’t have imagined that was possible,” Anadol enthuses in MoMA Magazine. “I mean it was a very Philip K. Dick idea, but I feel like we are, right now, truly doing it.” (Finally, a way for MoMA to play a part in bringing the cheerful world of Total Recall closer to reality!)

MoMA itself gets a percentage of the sales of the digital artworks—17 percent of primary sales and 5 percent of secondary. Surely showing “Unsupervised” prominently at MoMA has to be considered as a great ad for the associated line of NFTs that sends profits back to the museum (you can see the spike of trade in them that coincides with the show opening on OpenSea). The curators have been promoting the show with conversations featuring both Anadol and Reas, where they talk as much about NFTs as about the installation.

It may be that the exact same thing that makes this genre of work commercially appealing for people buying NFTs—its untroubled techno-philia—is what makes it feel flat to me as an artistic statement. The suspicion that MoMA is incentivized to fast-track this kind of art is going to linger.

Sadly, the melting of commercial and non-commercial borders strikes me as more prophetic of “what might be to come” in art than any of the images summoned up by the machine in the gallery.

“Refik Anadol: Unsupervised” is on view at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, through March 5, 2023.

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Parallel Shows in London and Berlin Conjure Up Political Utopia, Using A.I. and Celebrity Deepfakes

This will sound terribly jaded, but, in the spirit of honesty: artists Annika Kuhlmann and Christopher Kulendran Thomas presented two types of exhibitions I normally would have walked out of.

On the first floor of their show at Berlin’s KW Institute for Contemporary Art is a political video documentary; on the second an all-too familiar Ab-Ex relaunch. So many biennials later, I’d rather read about a political uprising in a book by an anthropologist than hear about it from an artist. Abstract painting, for its part, can be enjoyable in a straightforward way, but, these days, it is often employed not because of what it is, but because of who made it. These kinds of encounters are often with art that doesn’t need to be art, but rather art that is promoted simply because it supplies a window onto a subject of importance.

“Another World,” where the focus is on the Tamil Tigers, an ex-militant organization once based in northeastern Sri Lanka, is not that. Rather, Kulendran Thomas and Kuhlmann’s exhibition is so self-conscious as to what it means to think through and with art—and so forceful in that self-consciousness—you cannot help but be intrigued. And so I stayed; it stayed.

Christopher Kulendran Thomas The Finesse (2022) in collaboration with Annika Kuhlmann. Installation view of the exhibition Christopher Kulendran Thomas. “Another World” at KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin. Photo: Frank Sperling

Kulendran Thomas, a Berlin-based artist of Tamil descent, alongside his German collaborator Kuhlmann, created “Another World” as two parallel exhibitions simultaneously on view at KW and the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), London. Its central work, The Finesse, a newly commissioned video work, is projected onto a mirror, and facing it is another screen showing slow-panning footage from a forest planted by the Tamil Tigers. Sandwiched in between the two are the viewers, collapsing three image-situations into one. The video itself is based partly on early 1990s archive footage featuring a member of the group who speaks with other-worldly eloquence about the Western fictions of democracy and freedom. A democracy should allow us to choose between different systems, she says, but in the West, there is only one. Her wit and charisma are of a type made for political influencing; her TikTok would be irresistible—and this, partly, is what the work is about. 

The narrative of Tamil Eelam’s independence movement (a proposed autonomous Tamil state that the Tamil Tigers were fighting for) is neatly slotted into the context of the media spectacle of OJ Simpson’s trial, which took place at the same time—so neatly that I am not sure which parts of the film are authentic, and which not. It is not so difficult to manufacture a VHS grain, recreate an old Yahoo search, nor, it turns out, render a deepfake of Kim Kardashian, who appears in The Finesse, though slower, more immovable, and perfectly mesmerizing. With the same eloquence as the young Tamil, and with reference both to her Armenian roots, and, indirectly, to her early adjacency to the media vertigo of the Simpson trial, Kardashian’s avatar argues that certain people are less prone to believe in the fictions of capitalist hegemony. Certain circumstances—such as that of the Tamils in Sri Lanka, we can infer—require you to be more realistic when it comes to how stories are fabricated as truth in newsrooms and on the internet.

Christopher Kulendran Thomas The Finesse (2022) in collaboration with Annika Kuhlmann. Installation view of the exhibition Christopher Kulendran Thomas. “Another World”
at KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin
2022. Photo: Frank Sperling

In another segment of The Finesse, contemporary recordings follow another young Tamil investing in the legacy of the once-imagined Eelam state, now more than ten years lost. But the possibility of that history and its politics to become wearable as an identity for the young woman in the present is put into relief by a phone call she gets from an older friend or relative. It was a fantasy we had, says the voice on the other end of the line, who questions what it is that the younger generation expects to get out of identifying with it now. And the viewer— themselves caught inside the projection—wonders too.

It is through such sober, whip-smart interjections that Kuhlmann and Kulendran Thomas consistently install self-consciousness into their narrative while smugly escaping the dangers of romanticism. What I like about the work is that it does not allow us to take its politics at face value; rather, it is laced with an irony that has generally not been tolerated in the art world since the DIS-curated Berlin Biennial in 2016 (where Kulendran Thomas also participated). There is a critical tension without which we would risk collapsing into the neo-essentialisms of post-truth. Eloquence, charisma, and charm, too, are art forms, which each cease to function as modes of manipulation once we accept them as such. In parallel, the extent to which these conversations and monologues are scripted, made deepfake, or not, likewise loses importance.

Upstairs, Being Human, a video work from 2019, is screened on a translucent wall, dissecting the space. The rooms on either side of it are lined with the abstract paintings, which, it turns out, are generated by AI and executed by Kulendran Thomas’s studio, as are their sculptural counterparts. Climaxing like a pop song, the screen occasionally lights up to reveal the other side of the room. Art and modernism are part of the same ideological image circuit as Kardashian and Taylor Swift (whose deepfake reflects on the possibility of authenticity in Being Human) and the propaganda machines that would render the Tamil Tigers terrorist insurrectionists, or not. The theoretical implication is that we are completely immersed in the simulacrum, but it is also plain beautiful; as an experience, enchanting.

Christopher Kulendran Thomas The Finesse (2022) in collaboration with Annika Kuhlmann. Installation view of the exhibition Christopher Kulendran Thomas. “Another World”
at KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin
2022. Photo: Frank Sperling

In The New York Times, critic Travis Diehl wrote about the London-chapter of the exhibition, a mirror of the KW show. “If Kulendran Thomas genuinely aims to offer new political possibilities, count me as a skeptic. If his goal is to ruin contemporary art, he just might,” he says. Here, Diehl refers to the zombie abstraction that is part of the installation of Being Human, and, perhaps, to the generally unplaceable morality of the tone. But this is far from a threat to contemporary art. Rather, after a summer where structure, relational aesthetics, and good intentions stood in for artworks at ruangrupa’s Documenta 15, “Another World” retains a medial self-consciousness that presents a hopeful glimpse for its future. The element of spectacle in both works—The Finesse peaks in an exhilarating rave scene—might have come across as cheap in its pop appeal, but it is precisely this hint of cynicism that makes both works at once disturbing and intelligent.

In recent years, the discourse around politics and art has seen a loss of distinction between the sphere of representation and reality, taking, for instance, images for actions, depictions, or reflections on violence as that violence itself. But “Another World” does not let reality become subsumed by its image; instead, it asks the audience to continually observe the line between the two, even as it blurs. And the experience of sitting inside of Kuhlmann and Kulendran Thomas’s infinity mirror, oddly, makes you quite sure of what parts of reality that survive the spectacle of media and what truth rises to the surface of a deepfake. There is so much, in fact: the intelligence and humanity of the protagonists (real or not); the pleasure and fun of imagining another world, and in being surrounded by images of it; how political dreams and artful fictions can overlap in certain moments, and in others, crucially, diverge. And while you may not be able to spot the difference, you will feel it.

“Another World” is on view through January 22, 2023, at the Institute for Contemporary Arts, London, and through January 15, 2023, at KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin.

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