Entering the AI cave: Refik Anadol at Serpentine North

Echoes of the Earth: Living Archive presents Anadol’s years-long experimentation with visual data of underwater landscapes and rainforests

Using artificial intelligence to make art, specifically generative AI models based on algorithms, is currently the big trend in the art world. For Refik Anadol, AI is “a new pigment for me, a brush that can think, a canvas that every morning changes”, offering new discoveries and possibilities. The team of fifteen at his studio, founded in Los Angeles in 2016, have developed what they call a ‘Large Nature Model’, which they claim is “the world’s first open-source generative AI model dedicated to nature”. The ‘LNM’ combines a ChatGPT-style large language model with the ability to produce both images, texts and sounds.

Anadol’s studio has been working with data from the natural world for eight years. Around three of the four outer walls of Serpentine North is displayed Living Archive: Large Nature Model (2024). This work involves the projection onto the walls of constantly changing images generated by the LNM. These are derived from the AI program’s synthesis of a billion images collected from previously assembled sources, such as the Smithsonian Institution and the Natural History Museum, London, as well as Anadol’s own dataset, gathered from a three-month stay he made in the Amazon, and other datasets accumulated by his team from sixteen rainforests around the world. The AI also generates sounds which are based on 25,000 recordings of Amazon birdsong. The result was disconcerting; to this visitor, at least, it evoked the alien discords of Space Odyssey, only more random and seemingly without any unifying principle or direction. “We have all kind of different elements,” says Anadol. “We are bringing them together.”

Refik Anadol by Efsun Erkilic

Generative AI has clear practical applications in some areas of life, such as medicine or customer services. For artists, the salient question is how useful AI might be as a tool for creating interesting art – which, of course, depends on one’s definition of ‘art’ and ‘interesting’. “What we focus on is not human reasoning, we focus on the intelligence of nature,”says Anadol, who wants visitors to “think about AI differently”. In around 2008, he claims to have coined the term ‘data painting’ to describe his way of manipulating digital information artistically. In 2016, he was invited to be the first artist in residence at Google, where the ‘amazing engineers’ showed him and his team how to work with AI. He describes himself as a ‘first-generation AI artist’. As such, he believes he has a ‘responsibility’ to demystify AI and make its ‘invisible’ context visible.

AI can do sights and sounds, but it cannot yet generate tastes, tactile sensations or smells. When I spoke to the curator, Hans Ulrich Obrist, he referred to the anthropologist Margaret Mead’s idea that purely visual artworks do not hold the attention for long, but that the ability to appeal to ‘all the senses’ – as a religious ritual might do – would be more bewitching. Hence the idea, popular with Anadol and other digital artists, of the ‘mixed reality installation’. “It’s very physical, and it appeals to all the senses,” says Obrist.

In a press preview at the Design Museum last year, the creative team from the exhibition partner, Intuit Mailchimp, presented journalists with little flacons of ‘Eau du Email’. Similarly, Echoes of the Earth, in addition to sound and sight, has a scent. Anadol gave me a drop of this bottled fragrance on the back of my hand to try. Initially, it gave off a strong and not unpleasant smell that could plausibly have evoked a humid tropical rainforest. By the end of the morning, however, it had faded to a faint odour of wood varnish.

In the first inner gallery, which ran from one side of the building to the other, the ceiling was used as the screen for Artificial Realities: Coral (2023), with a video of a continuously changing underwater scene projected across its length and breadth. The scene was created by a custom-built AI model trained on 135 million images of underwater landscapes. Black beanbags were supplied on the floor. Beanbags, alas, seem to be universally uncomfortable, especially if you are meant to lean back on them and look up at the ceiling; not to mention the odour of people’s shoes, however fashionable, to which one is subjected through being closer to the ground. But perhaps that was all part of the immersive experience.            

Refik Anadol, Artificial Realities: Coral, 2023. Courtesy Refik Anadol Studios

The second inner gallery contained Artificial Realities: Rainforest (2024), the closest thing to a traditional display of artworks. On each of the two opposite walls were four oblong screens that looked like long white canvasses. Onto those on one side were projected four scenes: a branch of coral; a bird, and then a flower, both of which morphed from one species (real or imaginary) to another; and a river cutting through the forest, also gradually changing its form. All of these were derived from the images collected by Anadol’s team in the Amazon. The ‘canvasses’ facing them each contained the projection of what looked like a large internal picture frame, out of which a primordial soup of multicoloured globules, a sort of trompe l’oeil in AI, seemed to bubble up and recede incessantly: in fact, these displays involved the same raw data, only processed differently by the AI program. In other exhibitions (such as Machine Hallucinations), Anadol has projected similar continuously morphing images onto much larger surfaces.

Curator Hans Ulrich Obrist has been at the Serpentine since 2006 and is also currently its artistic director. I put it to him that an unsympathetic critic might ask how far the AI-generated images differed from an advanced sort of screen saver. Obrist demurred, arguing that Echoes is “a more holistic experience’ and more ‘immersive … almost like a Gesamtkunstwerk”. He also stressed the importance of installing digital art ‘in a way which transcends what you see at home’, or at the cinema, for example through the use of multiple screens. For Obrist, AI, like other digital technology, is about ‘world building’ – a phrase used in the title of an exhibition of art involving game engine software and other new technologies that was shown at the Serpentine in 2021.

Technology can also create, Obrist argues, ‘an almost spiritual connection to nature’. That does not mean that images of nature are more beautiful than the real thing, he says: “I come from the Swiss mountains, and it’s extremely beautiful.”Instead, he is fascinated by the idea that the operation of the LNM means that the images and sounds in the exhibition are in constant flux: “what happens is that there is a kind of an infinite possibility of recombining. It never repeats itself.”

Refik Anadol, Echoes of the Earth: Living Archive, 2024. Installation view, Serpentine North. Photo: Hugo Glendinning. Courtesy Refik Anadol Studio and Serpentine

This approach takes to extremes the idea of an artwork as something changing and unrepeatable – like a happening or an installation that self-destructs – rather than something with its own sense of closure, unity and completeness, a ‘foster-child of silence and slow time’, like a traditional painting or sculpture. In one sense, Echoes of the Earth is like Heraclitus’ river: you cannot step into the same exhibition twice. On the other hand, despite the continuous novelty, it is unclear whether revisiting Echoes multiple times would enhance the viewer’s imaginative perception or lend itself to new interpretations, as would be the case with, say, an exhibition of Leonardo or Turner.

Finally, whether the show itself creates a spiritual connection between the visitor and nature is open to question. There is no doubt that the natural world is being damaged on a vast scale by human activity – including by the development of digital technology. It is ironic that the encounter with nature presented by this exhibition is one of brightly coloured images on flat surfaces, enhanced and distorted by a machine, in a sterile, windowless gallery that feels almost like a cave, with not a single real plant or indeed any sort of natural object in sight, in the middle of an enormous, polluted city. The technology behind Echoes, with its psychedelic, hypnosis-inducing patterns, is very clever. Perhaps, however, rather than being a friend to nature, it risks setting itself up as a rival – or even a replacement.

Emma Park
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