"This AI model will be the voice of nature": refik anadol on his exhibition at serpentine galleries

Designboom_ For Refik Anadol, a pioneer in the realm of AI art, activism, technology, and art converge as creative tools aimed at serving humanity and inspiring collective action for ecological preservation. On February 16, the media artist unveiled his first solo exhibition at London’s Serpentine Galleries — an exploration of AI’s potential to uncover new perceptions of nature. Until April 7, Echoes of the Earth: Living Archives will transform the iconic gallery into a psychedelic, multisensory canvas bridging light, sound, and scent to invite visitors to delve into a virtual underwater space and explore the depths of the Amazonian rainforest. The installation wraps the walls in generative images inspired by data of flora, fungi, and fauna from over 16 rainforest locations globally, collected using technologies such as LiDAR and photogrammetry.

While these intrinsically beautiful natural landscapes continue to perish, the new media artist remains hopeful in the role that both humanity and AI will have to play in catalyzing change. ‘If we can mimic what we lost, there is a high chance that the affected ecosystems may reappear around us,’he tells designboom.The exhibition brings together three of the Refik Anadol’s latest works built on the open-source Large Nature Model‘a scientific, educational, and art tool to help nature’, as Anadol sees it. The generative AI multimodal focuses on nature, and is trained on approximately 5 billion images of coral reefs and the rainforest, brought to life by AI in abstracted choreographies that invite interaction and contemplation.‘We are using nature as an input for AI to raise awareness of its beauty and complexity. At the moment, AI research is focusing on human reasoning and how to mimic it, but to me, nature needs a different focus that is very different to our logic,’ the artist shares.

Ahead of the launch of Echoes of the Earth, designboom spoke with Refik Anadol, uncovering his ambitions for the Large Nature Model, his hopes for art and AI to become political and scientific tools, and his profound appreciation for these complex yet fragile ecosystems. Read our conversation in full below.

esignboom (DB): Can you tell us about your upcoming exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery?

Refik Anadol (RA): In 2016 I met Hans Ulrich Obrist, the curator of Echoes of the Earth: Living Archives and artistic director of the Serpentine Galleries. This show is our studio’s recent attempt to transform one of the most iconic galleries in the world into a canvas. Our recent research called the Large Nature Model forms an important part of this exhibition, where we have started to create the world’s first open-source AI model about nature. We are using nature as an input for AI to raise awareness of its beauty and complexity. At the moment, AI research is focusing on human reasoning and how to mimic it, but to me, nature needs a different focus that is very different to our logic.

DB: What can we expect to see in Echoes of the Earth: Living Archives?

RA:In this exhibition, we have two new works that come from the Large Nature Model. Artificial Realities: Coral which we unveiled last year at the World Economic Forum that features coral reefs, and Artificial Realities: Rainforest. In the coral research, we found a way to create ultra-realistic corals that perhaps can be used as a 3D sculpture or a 3D sense of being underwater that can turn into a living ecosystem. We learnt that if we can mimic what we lost, there is a high chance that the affected ecosystems may reappear around us

DB: With this exhibition, how do you see the intersection of AI and art contributing to a deeper understanding of ecosystems and delving beyond this mimicry of human reasoning you mention?

RA:It’s a whole new perspective as nature is a much different ecosystem. It’s not about finding information or using human constructed reality — which we love. But nature needs new ways of perceiving, recording, and preserving through AI and data. I’m dreaming that it is a technology that we can trust, rely on, and almost use like a teacher of nature.

DB: This issue of perishing ecosystems and this idea of finding beauty in the natural environment is quite primitive, and you spotlight this with technology. How can humanity and AI be synchronous?

RA:It has to be. AI’s role is not just making our lives easy or making a better product. It is not just another tool for our egocentric belief systems. AI has to be in service of humanity, and bring more clarity, positivity, and solutions to our problems. And that is defined by humans.

For people who are trying to find new ways of helping humanity and creating positive impact, it doesn’t come from comfort zones. We have a responsibility as a studio to not just offer beautiful virtual worlds with AI and art, but to but highlight that we have something incredibly important that we perhaps lost, and find a new way to connect with nature through technology.

DB: What was the process of developing and training the model like?

RA:Our studio travelled to Australia and Indonesia last year to understand what it means to live in a rainforest. I’m also very closely working with a Yawanawá family, an incredible indigenous people that live in Amazonia. Our data is not just that which is available, but we are also adding new sounds, images, climate information, and more.

DB: What is next for the application for the Large Nature Model?

RA:I am diving into this model research with my team, finding new species, new perspectives. We have exciting upcoming activations around the world, working with this AI model. Also, since the announcement, I have met with incredible people who have been working with preserving nature in many different aspects. I met with scientists who have been looking at nature and AI from a very fresh perspective, conservation specialists, bird watchers, and most importantly in Davos at the World Economic Forum, I met many of the Latin American leaders who have been trying to preserve Amazonia who really respected what we were doing.

DB: It seems this artistic environmental conservation can be taken to a political level then. Do you think art has a more important role to play than some perhaps give it credit for?

RA:Of course. Art is, to me, the most powerful way of achieving great things for humanity. There are so many people taking different approaches with the art itself, but in Davos, when I met with presidents and ministers, they found that our AI research is not another product service. They completely understood that they have a voice and a role to play. It’s something that can help these people who have been protecting Amazonia, to amplify and justify how rich the biome in rainforest is.

They don’t need to talk forever to convince humanity, they just show the science. This AI model has more than half a billion data points dedicated to Amazonia. Now, we are using it as a scientific, educational, and art tool to help nature. If there’s a side in this politics, this AI model will be the voice of nature. I’m not doing this with just technology leaders in the world, I am also working with the people living in the rainforest for thousands of years.