‘Data Painter’ Refik Anadol Reflects on Historic MoMA AI Art Acquisition

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'Data Painter' Refik Anadol Reflects on Historic MoMA AI Art Acquisition
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In recent years, Refik Anadol has established himself as a leading figure in the digital art movement, captivating audiences in a way few artists have via the power of emerging technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and NFTs.

Both collectors and international curators recognize his work. With over $30 million in NFT sales alongside exhibitions in the world’s most revered art venues, Anadol unites the traditional art realm with the burgeoning world of tokenized digital artwork.

“We as artists are now blending the digital with the physical, creating experiences that bridge virtual and real worlds,” Refik Anadol told Decrypt. “I believe that where the physical and virtual connect is where the most profound artistic experiences lie.”

In October, The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City announced the acquisition of Anadol’s piece, “Unsupervised – Machine Hallucinations,” marking a significant milestone in art history. This piece not only stands as the museum’s inaugural “living artwork,” but is also the first to integrate NFT and AI elements into the esteemed collection.

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Described by The New Yorker as “one of the most crowd-pleasing—and controversial—exhibitions in New York City,” this 24-foot-tall digital artwork has not only enthralled visitors inside the museum with its real-time environmental data-driven display but also earned a prominent place in MoMA’s Gund Lobby.

“It’s a deep honor,” Refik Anadol told Decrypt of the museum’s addition to its permanent collection. “MoMA is one of the most important institutions in the world. When the MoMA defines these decisions, they become historic. For the last 200 years, all the artists in the archives were the pioneers of certain fields and movements.” 

Anadol recognizes the significance of this acquisition within the annals of art history, and its implications.

“It’s a recognition for the field of digital art—for those who use algorithms, software, hardware, sensors, and AI,” Anadol told Decrypt. “The acknowledgment from MoMA comes at a crucial time, with AI increasingly becoming part of our daily lives.”

Harnessing publicly available data from MoMA’s archives and responding to environmental cues like weather and sound, “Unsupervised” displays a vibrant interplay of colors and sounds, continually transforming when in the observer’s presence.

Due to its extraordinary reception, the exhibition initially slated for a three-month run was extended four times, becoming the longest-running display in the Museum of Modern Art’s history before the work was officially acquired.

AI-powered public art

Anadol started his journey in 2008, and coined the term “data painting.”

“The idea was to turn the information that surrounds us daily into pigments of material that can be painted, sculpted, narrated, and transformed into creative outcomes in various disciplines,” Anadol told Decrypt

In 2016, Refik Anadol’s career reached a pivotal moment as he was selected for a residency at Google, the first artist to receive such an honor. Collaborating with top AI engineers, this residency set the foundation for the cutting-edge projects he now creates with his studio.

Refik Anadol. Photo: Efsun Erkilic

Refik Anadol and his team have established more than 20 permanent installations across the globe, primarily emphasizing public art.

“We aim to continue producing worlds for humanity while exploring new methods of creating AI-driven paintings, sculptures, performances, installations, and more,” Anadol told Decrypt.

In September, Refik Anadol captured the attention of spectators with “Machine Hallucinations,” an installation cast upon the massive 580,000-square-foot dome of the newly opened Sphere in Las Vegas. The display, showcasing AI-generated data paintings, not only turned the dome into a monumental digital canvas but also set a new record as the largest AI artwork and the most expansive display of an NFT to date.

Prior to that, his projection on Casa Batlló in Barcelona in May went viral on social media platforms. Through his evocative “Living Architecture” displayed on the façade, Anadol breathed modern life into Gaudi’s legacy, drawing a crowd of 65,000 spectators.

One year earlier, the NFT of “Living Architecture” was auctioned at Christie’s in May 2022, securing $1.38 million.

One of his most recent projects, of which he is particularly proud, is “Winds of Yawanawa.” This project consists of 1,000 AI-generated artworks crafted in collaboration with the artists of the Yawanawa tribe of the Amazon.

“Our collaboration with the Yamanawa family represents a confluence of cultures and technologies,” Anadol told Decrypt. “With their art and our AI-driven methods, we created 1,000 unique data paintings that reflect their culture and the environment they inhabit.” 

Anadol’s team asked the Yamanawa artists to draw their dreams, which resulted in 13 paintings. They then fed their AI generative model with the paintings to create the artwork. The project is a non-profit endeavor, with all the proceeds going directly to the local community.

“We wanted to help them grow their culture and preserve their way of life in nature,” Anadol said. “It’s in a very special and respectful way that I’m calling it a co-creation. We opened a wallet for them and made the contract together, and we ensured that the family gets the commissions directly to their accounts”. 

Secondary market sales have now passed $10 million, and the resale royalties have already helped create infrastructure in the Yamanawa villages like a school and a cultural center, he said.

Understanding the audience

Anadol discovered blockchain early. He was present in the space at the inception of Ethereum and immediately grasped the possibilities he could explore as an artist. 

“The Web3 community holds a special place in my heart,” Anadol told Decrypt. “It’s a vibrant culture full of new perspectives. Blockchain and Ethereum have opened up new avenues for creativity, and I was certain from the start that I wanted to be part of this movement.”

Ever since, he’s been captivated by the movement, praising its vibrant and diverse culture.

“It’s there and it’s alive, full of colors,” Anadol told Decrypt. “And I love that new world. It’s a fresh take on many perspectives. It’s a technology that is, I think, extremely important.”

Meanwhile, while he thinks that the recognition by institutions like MoMA should be seen as an “encouraging sign,” it also implies a need to stay cautious. 

“Currently, financial considerations seem to overshadow the underlying ideas, with an abundance of financial jargon and strategies,” Anadol told Decrypt. “Cultivating and nurturing this culture is essential, and educating the mindset of collectors is a unique challenge. However, I observe understanding, support, and a sense of community. The amount of creativity and brilliant minds is fantastic.”

In the future, Anadol hopes to understand in a scientific manner how his art impacts the audience. Once again, he will rely on data. His team recently conducted a study at MoMA to quantify the brain data of individuals observing art. 

“I’m hopeful that we’ll soon understand the intricate nuances of AI-tokenized artwork at MoMA and its profound impact on the human psyche,” Anadol told Decrypt

His ultimate aspiration?

“Bring joy, and offer hope to humanity,” he affirmed.

Edited by Andrew Hayward

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