Dialogue between Refik Anadol and Anab Jain
50 Minds for the Next 50. Imagining Heritage in the Digital Dimension Session
New media artist and designer known for data-driven machine learning algorithms that create abstract environments
Designer, futurist, filmmaker and educator, and co-founder and director of a multi-award winning design studio, Superflux
Vision for the Next 50
In the Next 50… Heritage collaborates closely with the tech world, AI and data institutions, and encourages creators to come up with new ways of remembering, living and archiving heritage.
In the Next 50… The rich history and heritage of the past are recognized as a basis to envision a better future for humanity. Heritage encompasses not only built heritage but also stories and narratives by which we can feel empowered and connected.
The dialogue between Refik Anadol and Anab Jain focused mainly on synergies between built heritage and digital technologies. As digital artists, Anadol and Jain elaborated on projects that explore diverse digital tools to imagine a better future for culture and heritage. Jain explained that the future is like sediment atop rich history and heritage, which is crucial to make better decisions for humanity. Heritage should encompass not only built heritage but also the stories and narratives, as well as the planet. Anadol highlighted the close connection between tangible heritage and virtual technologies, including AI and digital data. He shared his interest in building public archives that allow anyone in the world to access heritage data, irrespective of their age or background.
Your work is very beautiful and stunning. Essentially, you use data as material for your art. Over the years, you have created data paintings and sculptures with the intention of finding meaning behind the idea of the data. But what is really interesting is that data is used to justify everything in society. It's the purview of the powerful, a symbol of the rational mind, occupying a place on the pedestal. But your work seems to challenge that perception of data. What have you found? How have you dealt with this challenge of turning data into something that's so ephemeral, and perhaps not as important as we would like to believe?
First of all, my journey with data started in 2008. In 2016, during my residence at Google Art and Machine Intelligence, I coined the terms ‘AI data painting’ and ‘AI data sculptures’. But the context and discourse were actually connected. To me, data is a form of memory that can take any shape. I think preserving data heritage is not so different. I do believe the world is not yet ready for data as heritage. But I think we have much more information about the physical context of life.
I find incredibly inspiring those moments when data becomes an abstraction of reality, for example, environmental data as wind patterns, temperature, humidity and rain, and much more of the information we can gather in life, in nature. It’s not too different from Monet dreaming of the atmosphere.
I’m also very much inspired by the idea of architecture as a canvas, when data and architecture connect through the lens of light, which is a whole new symbiotic relationship. It generates a new form of sculpture. I was fortunate over the years to be close to UNESCO World Heritage and to incredible buildings. We even tried to find meaningful connections between data and UNESCO heritage. As an artist, I find it incredibly inspiring when the physical and the virtual connect.
What is also inspiring is how we can transform the physical world in a way that is not just shiny pixels but as a discourse, maybe through filmmaking, like designing a narrative or context. Where do you find these inspiring connections that can be explored, especially in the digital realm? When in the multiverse or metaverse, in the age of ‘verses’, it goes beyond the physical world of life. Where do you see that connection?
That's a great question. My studio, Superflux, explores the idea of experientially imagining different possible features and bringing them to life. This is where perhaps the connection of digitalization comes in.
So the idea is seeing the future as a continuum: there is no future without the past, there is no future without our plural histories. And maybe the way to bring up plural histories into the future is through digitization, or through real interaction, or through simulation. I am originally from India and live in London, and both my parents are conservation architects in India who have worked to list UNESCO World Heritage sites. So I have grown up with a lot of love for UNESCO’s work, having spent my childhood around ruined castles and forts. I carry that with me in my work, but the future is buried in the bones and actions of the present and the past. So whether it's through digital means or any other means, the future is also as much of our idea of heritage as the past.
Building on that idea, because you are working a lot with archival materials, in a way you are working to preserve our digital heritage. Would you agree with that?
Yes, that's a perfect point. In 2016, I was very fortunate to work on the very first archive in Istanbul called SALT, an Open Source Initiative with 1.7 million documents. This was the very first example of using AI and public data in an immersive environment. It was a very inspiring experiment to speculate about the library of the future. I do believe humanity needs this library of the future, where every single open, honest, ethically correct piece of data on the memory of humanity is accessible, like a kind of Alexandria. Over the last six years, we've worked with incredible information from different archives and cultural institutions. Recently, Gaudi Casa Batlló, a UNESCO World Heritage site, challenged us: What does it mean to preserve cultural heritage by LiDAR scanning? How can we use blockchain as a means to preserve a library? I do believe that this imaginary library – a library which holds every single piece of information in the world that is accessible to everyone – where interaction can occur between AI and data would be an incredible feature of the imagination within physical and virtual worlds.
So my work is deeply connected with public data and archives to create public art, which is for anyone at any age or background in the world. The main challenge is how to make it inclusive and exciting, inspiring education, discourse and context. I found that archives of humanity, such as any UNESCO information or building, can be one of those very important pieces of data.
I also had this very childish dream to invent the language of humanity, which I believe can only be invented by the archives of humanity.
The world of virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and extended reality (XR) is profoundly changing, practising the physical and the virtual worlds. Do you find any extreme practical experiences where both physical and virtual experiences are bridged and explored by technology? Do you see any ramifications? Do you see any advantages that we are unaware of?
That’s a really interesting question, something that we’re exploring at the moment with cognitive scientists and neuroscientists because one of the interesting things that happens in our work is placing people within physical simulations of alternate worlds. We believe that this physical embodiment of one possible reality is really important because we are not just rational minds, thinking with our brains. We are thinking through our bodies, and it is important to have that embodied experience so that we are perhaps able to make more informed decisions about the future. Some cognitive scientists have recently found that we cannot imagine our future selves without thinking of it as somebody else. But we do remember episodic memories, that is, key events of our past. So if we are able to get people to pre-experience the future, then they are able to store those experiences as memories. That's where there's an interesting blur between the physical and the digital. Can we create imaginative ‘episodic memories’ and infiltrate the digital world with these alternative views and plural worlds so that they become part of people's cognitive experiences? So things that currently seem impossible, like being carbon neutral, could become a possibility because we can see that world and how different it would be. We could create something more meaningful for future generations. I think there is a big role that technology can play.
But I also believe that we need to be empowered with the stories and narratives that we tell each other because that's what connects us as people. Heritage is a very rich term but it is not just physical buildings, it is also our physical planet and all species and all heritage on which we are built. So when we see current visions of the future, they are very seductive and completely unrealistic, and perhaps not what the world will be like, which will be messy.
Heritage constantly reminds us that the future is a sediment on top of a rich history of sedimentary layers. I think acknowledging our histories and heritage is the only way to consider making better decisions about the future. I think that there is no future without histories or heritage. That's the connection for me.
When it comes to tying in the digital world with art and heritage, we will probably need to find a way of correlating data. I think data is the footprint for humanities. I was talking with Prof. Ian Hodder from Stanford University who has been excavating Çatalhöyük in Anatolia, Turkey. We have worked with 25 years of findings. It was an incredible moment when I learnt that nobody has ever worked with AI on such an incredible archive. There is a lot of room to truly understand these incredible archives, and we were so happy to see such a legendary archaeologist and anthropologist enjoying using AI, which showed how a 25-year body of work can be restructured and become an experience. There is a lot of headroom for the next five decades. Prof. Hodder said that data is a trace. Data is not so different as finding something archaeologically important as Çatalhöyük. He found exactly the same meaning in cloud computing as in the archives of humanity. It was fascinating to think like this.
Our recent Gaudi Casa Batlló project was an experiment on using blockchain and new technologies that doesn’t forget or destroy, which hopefully is more profound. Maybe it's a very good time to reimagine archiving of the future. The future will not only be made by the tools we have right now but by the tools of the tech giants, a world that is inventing the future.
I strongly believe in collaborating very closely with the tech world, working with AI and date institutions and, most likely, creators to come up with new ways of remembering, living and archiving the future. I do believe we have enough tools but just need more opportunities to deep dive into these ideas.
I think imagining what our future heritage sites will be – digitally and physically – is a fantastic thought on which to leave everyone.
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Five dialogue sessions covering five themes take place in 2022, each joined by thinkers in paired dialogue from diverse regions. The interdisciplinary dialogues inspire new visions for the next 50 years of World Heritage.