refik anadol on ‘glacier dreams’, his multisensory generative installation

Glacier dreams: at the interface of art, science & technology

A pioneer in the aesthetics of data and machine intelligence, Refik Anadol unveils Glacier Dreams – his latest AI data painting installation unveiled as an immersive, multi-sensory activation. At ArtDubai 2023 March, the new media artist opened the first chapter of his ongoing collaboration with Swiss private bank Julius Baer for their NEXT initiative. Presented as a three-dimensional space in which sound, Lightand fragrance come together in a hypnotic generative display, the synaesthetic project illuminating the beauty and fragility of Iceland’s volcanic glaciers that Anadol denotes ‘melting memories’. In several chapters, Glacier Dreams examines both the geological and aesthetic formations of glaciers while raising awareness of the dangers of glaciers rising sea level through the use of AI tools in innovative ways to “transform humanity”.

A call to preserve ‘the great sculptures of nature’, As Anadol puts it, Glacier Dreams sits at a thought-provoking intersection of multi-sensory experiences, machine learning and environmental studies. The project is based on an enormous data corpus with 85 million images and real-time sound bits as well as an extensive collection of weather data. Algorithms developed by AI and inspired by fluid dynamics were then trained on the datasets to reconstruct a dreamlike audiovisual alternate reality evocative of the beauty of these sinking landscapes. By interpolating the data with fluid visualizations and using data as pigment and AI as brush itself, the final installation unfolds as a poetic sequence of multi-sensory narratives.

Data flows hypnotically across every surface of space, breaking up into tiny fragments and reuniting. Through abstracted insights, the exhibition reveals the ever-changing nature of glaciers, their varied shapes and patterns, the dynamic plays of light and color of glacial ice, and the fluctuating weather patterns in the region as they evolve under the threat of climate change. Despite the weight and urgency of the subject, the work exudes optimism. Every pixel and data point in the piece is heavily laden with a sense of hopeful activism that inspires viewers to push for the preservation of these last, eroding “memories of humanity.” “The whole idea is to draw attention to glaciers, their beauty, structure and function, while emphasizing the dangers of their disappearance and the purpose of their preservation.” Anadol tells Designboom.

To learn more about the goals and processes of the collaboration from the artist himself, designboom spoke to Refik Anadol and attended an exclusive preview of Glacier Dreams in the Julius Baer Lounge at Art Dubai. Read our conversation in full below.

Refik Anadol launches the first chapter of Glacier Dreams at Art Dubai 2023 | Image © designboom

interview with refik anadol

designboom (db): What is Glacier Dreams and how did you start working on this collaboration?

Refik Anadol (RA): Glacier Dreams is part of the NEXT initiative on behalf of Julius Baer and curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist. It started as a powerful statement about how we can bring art, science and technology together and how we can drive meaningful action that goes beyond shiny pixels.

I have been doing research in nature for four years now. In my work I don’t try to imitate nature but try to find new ways to express it. In this case, thanks to Obrist, I was challenged to try something fresher and different. In the last seven years I have also worked with AI and worked with over 3 billion images in many different disciplines. But I’ve never been able to do comprehensive data collection from rooms until now.

This year we collect new datasets to create a corpus and archive of glaciers and begin our voyages in Iceland. Our next stop will be Greenland and then Antarctica and each chapter will have its own activation. Here we have an immersive three-dimensional space where sound, sight and smell come together controlled by AI, contemplating melting volcanic glaciers in Iceland and highlighting their beauty.

interview with refik anadol about his multi-sensory generative installation “glacier dreams”
The activation presents a multi-sensory experience in a three-dimensional space | Image © designboom

db: How did you compile the data sets for the installation?

RA: In the last few weeks we have been in Iceland to study volcanic glaciers and record real-time data from the environment. In terms of data collection, we focus significantly on photography, videography, drone-based analysis of glaciers and NERF – a new technique for reconstructing 3D surfaces. I personally have collected more than 10 million images.

We documented the weather and sound of glaciers as we walked along them, including their cycle acoustics. We also use weather station data studying temperature changes, wind, snow and rain patterns, their speed, gestures, etc. We looked at all of these patterns and turned them into a database.

interview with refik anadol about his multi-sensory generative installation “glacier dreams”
a mesmerizing fusion of sound, sight and scent powered by AI | Image © designboom

db: The installation is a really rich multi-sensory display that includes image, sound and even smell. How then was this database materialized in this physical experience?

RA: We have three steps. First we collect the data, then we classify, analyze and curate it. In the second stage, we use generative AI tools to train machines with the datasets and reconstruct new realities. As a studio we are always collecting our own data, training and interacting with our own models and trying to push the AI ​​training process in new ways.

In addition, there are also artistic calculations that are now a characteristic movement in my work – like fluid dynamics. I like to think of data as a pigment and find ways to create art with it. I believe there will be an ever-changing influx in data pigmentation, so I’m trying to uncover the aesthetics in the work.

interview with refik anadol about his multi-sensory generative installation “glacier dreams”
activation highlights the beauty and fragility of glaciers across Iceland | © designboom

db: I find it very interesting how the theme of nature is represented by innovative AI design tools and even preserved to a certain extent. What were your intentions behind it?

RA: Yes, I always try to find and see the beauty in things. We’re trying to figure out what else we can do with it. And AI, I believe, is a form of preservation – the preservation of humanity’s memories. But glaciers are also important. They provide 70% of the fresh water for mankind and unfortunately more than 10% of the earth is covered by glaciers that are constantly melting. I like to call them “melting memories”.

At the same time, they are also like beautiful sculptures of nature. Not unlike Monet or other artists, I am inspired by nature, but I only use current tools to reinvent the reality they expose us to. The whole idea is to draw attention to glaciers, their beauty, structure and function while emphasizing the dangers of their disappearance and the purpose of their preservation.

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