A.I

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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