Refik Anadol on A.I., Algorithms and the Amazon

Refik Anadol's newest collection incorporates artwork from the Yawanawa people and data from the Amazon rainforest.

In the past year, digital artist Refik Anadol starred in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), worked with luxury brand Bulgari and designed backdrops for the 65th annual Grammy Awards. But these milestones pale in comparison to his collaborations with the indigenous Yawanawa communities of Brazil, according to the artist.

“It was one of the most unforgettable experiences in my life,” Anadol told Observer. “They shared their language, they shared their food and home. And it was powerful.”

Man wearing glasses and black shirt stands in front of luminescent blue background
Refik Anadol has experimented with A.I. for the past seven years. Efsun Erkilic

Known for his large-scale installations, created with the help of artificial intelligence (A.I.) and generative algorithms, the Turkish artist’s multi-sensory and swirling installations have previously drawn from California’s environmental data, digitized recordings of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and millions of images of New York City. Anadol’s recent installation at MoMA, meanwhile, journeyed through two centuries of artwork collected by the museum.

Now, works co-created by the artist and the Yawanawa people will headline a new program in Mykonos, Greece, with Anadol’s sale proceeds benefiting the indigenous communities who worked with him. The collection will be unveiled between July 13 and September 3 at the inaugural edition of Encounters, a new cultural series created in partnership with HOFA Gallery and Greek club Scorpios.

Facilitated by Impact One, an impact investment initiative, Anadol traveled to the Amazon rainforest to meet and discuss the project with Yawanawa communities, later communicating with them via WhatsApp groups. “It’s very hard to collaborate across a rainforest, to be honest,” said the artist. Observer caught up with Anadol to discuss his newest project, his 10-hour river journey to the Amazon and his thoughts on the future of A.I. and generative art.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

Where are you based right now?

I’ve lived in Los Angeles for 10 years. I teach Design Media Arts at UCLA and also have had a studio here for nine years. But I’m originally from Istanbul, Turkey. I travel like a bird. I’m everywhere, every two weeks. But of course, I go back to Turkey as much as I can.

How long have you been working with A.I.?

In 2008 I started programming computers to make art with data — I think I coined the term “data painting” that year. A.I. became another layer in 2016, when I became the first artist-in-residence at Google. I learned how to train A.I. models, work with big data and create artworks with machine intelligence. People are now realizing that A.I. can do incredible things, which is a great moment for me and for anyone working with A.I. But it’s been seven years right now since my very first A.I. project.

Woman looks at massive digital square-shaped installation on lawn
Refik Anadol’s Sense of Healing. Courtesy of Ikona Collection

Some have expressed fears about the future of A.I., do you share their concerns?

Anyone working with A.I., I’m pretty confident that they see the potential but also the pros and cons. I believe A.I. is a very powerful technology that can take us to worlds that we don’t want. But it can bring incredible possibilities around topics we cannot solve without the help of A.I. And actually, one of the reasons we are doing this project with the Yawanawa family is because A.I. is so complex and beyond our civilized society, so we need new perspectives. My take is to bring ancestral wisdom to the dialogue to really open up the questions to a much wider context than just product and service.

How did you first begin working with the Yawanawa people?

My partner and wife had been researching the Amazon, so I heard about the family from her research. Our first encounter and first profound collaboration started last year, thanks to our partner Impact One that allowed us to travel and connect and deep dive into who they are. It’s a very special place where you don’t need a computer, A.I. or anything else. I don’t ever remember being inspired like this. I witnessed their dialogue, their culture, ways of learning, preserving knowledge and consciousness, how they treat nature and survived for centuries.

Two women sit on floor of rainforest, another woman stands up and looks to the side in long dress
A group of Yawanawa women in Aldeia Sagrada, Brazil. Camilla Coutinho for Impact One

Can you give more details on your collaboration with them?

So, there are two types of collaboration here. Number one is the origin of Yawanawa paintings. They have been practicing their art for years, but now they digitize their works. We got an incredible set of paintings from the young Yawanawa artists. These are their spiritual drawings, cultural life patterns, colors and forms that represent the thousands of years of culture in the Amazon. And then we co-created a special algorithm to give life to these paintings by using local wind data. We have a local sensor on site in the Amazon rainforest which takes real-time data of the wind speeds, direction, gust and rain. We connected their physical culture with virtual data to create this data painting series.

How did you get to the Amazon?

Okay, so the first meeting was really challenging. It was not the easiest, because we as humanity living in our comfort zones and technologically advanced worlds forget how nature actually works. Going back to the role of nature takes some courage and experience. From Cruzeiro do Sul, Brazil, the tribe came with special boats. And then it was an almost 10-hour journey, with the voices of jaguars and snakes and all kinds of animals. We had to leave all our fears behind. It’s a very special feeling.

People look up at large steel building with colorful projections across it
Refik Anadol’s WDCH Dreams projected on the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images

Where do you typically draw inspiration from?

Generally, my inspiration comes from science. My pure inspiration is mostly from science fiction and near-worlds, where we potentially are going as humanity. But what I’m really more inspired by is preserving humanity and using data as a form of one day creating a library of humanity where all data exists together, freely and openly, without any borders and passports. Nature is a very big part of this. Rainforests, for example, are one of the richest biomes in the world, we don’t even know how many types of species exist in this universe. It’s one of the most incredible and rich environments.

What are your thoughts on the attention given to generative art in recent years and months?

I’m very, very happy to see that. In research for my second MFA [at UCLA], I researched the beginnings of generative art, the beginnings of software art, computer art. Now it’s called digital art—whatever name we put, it doesn’t matter, but people were working with computers and algorithms.  Seeing the positivity and interaction and having a show at MoMA, I wasn’t expecting this level of engagement. MoMA is for us, as a studio, a whole different canvas that opened up a different dimension. I don’t think the work we do there represents me, it’s a representation of the whole generative A.I. artwork space. And that’s really powerful.

What’s next for you?

Right now, we are working on a very special project. I’m hiding the name a little bit, but more will be announced this fall. It’s our next big journey that I think will make a major impact. Also, beyond the Yawanawa rainforest research, we are creating the world’s largest rainforest A.I. model. Not like a Chat GPT or another service—it’s a gift to humanity. And next year, we will see a very unique take on how A.I. can be experienced, which is what we are now hardcore working on. All these things will converge into one project for next year, opening in Los Angeles first and then around the world.

Refik Anadol on A.I., Algorithms and the Amazon