‘I Have Sold More Than $30 Million in NFTs’: Iconoclastic Digital Artist Refik Anadol in Conversation With Collector Adam Lindemann
The pair discuss NFTs, digital collecting, and the role of A.I. in art futures.
A.I. might be sweeping—and shocking—the art world, but that’s nothing new to Refik Anadol, the artist who has been cornering the digital art space with his algorithmic works for nearly a decade. Anadol’s experiments with code have been wide-ranging, but recently his so-called “data paintings” have set both the curatorial and popular imagination afire, dovetailing with the rise of the blockchain and the growing popularity of A.I. His mesmeric work has been installed at MoMA, showcased onstage at the Grammy’s, and earlier this year, stunned crowds in an exhibition at Jeffrey Deitch’s Los Angeles gallery.
It has also caught the eye and imagination of Adam Lindemann, the top collector-cum-art dealer behind Venus Over Manhattan, which, in March, staged its own “Beyond Digital” NFT exhibition. As a collector drawn to art that pushes buttons—and unconventional formats, as evidenced by his $32 million single-owner sale at Christie’s—Lindemann has naturally leaned into the NFT and digital art scene, snapping up, for one, Beeple’s landmark collaborative work with Madonna. Here, he and Anadol converse about generative art, digital collecting, and the role A.I. is likely to play in the future of art.
First question: who is Refik Anadol in the art world? You are new to us. Who are you?
I’m a media artist who has been working with algorithms and computer code for almost 14 years. I coined the term “data painting” in 2008, have been working with A.I. for the last seven years, and practicing in public arts for almost nine years—so, I started creating permanent public artworks that are open to anyone, of any age, and any culture. I studied at the UCLA Design Media Arts Department, where I got my second MFA degree, and I’ve been teaching for eight years as well as directing my studio in Los Angeles.
What were you doing before the advent of the blockchain?
In 2008, I was pretty confident about using computers—algorithms—to make art. Before blockchain, I had been learning about computer graphics, using generative algorithms to create very good data, and had been researching immersive environments.
When did you sell your first NFT, a digital work on a token?
November 2020 was the very first time—I learned about Nifty Gateway. But before that, I had been in touch with Pak and Beeple, and we had been talking about the medium. I had one private collector, who is a traditional collector who purchased my piece from a gallery. In 2018, that person introduced me to the notion of NFTs. The collector said that she could not sleep without putting the work, which is physical, into a digital wallet. That’s when I learned about what it means. I think that’s the same year very early platforms were coming up. But I had been mining Ethereum since the beginning, and I’ve been practicing and learning about the blockchain since the beginning because, working with computer graphics, I have a lot of GPUs [graphics processor units]—you know, research and resources. I was very early in the blockchain.
How many works have you sold in your career to collectors, and how many of those are tokenized and how many are not?
In my gallery practice, I’m totally independent. I do not have gallery representation, which is a very unique approach for artists. I work with galleries for exhibitions, but only for that project, for the time and space. And during those exhibitions, I create limited editions designed for traditional collectors who are collecting art without the blockchain.
How were those recorded? Is that a digital file?
Yes, they all come with a computer and a special handmade laser-etched certificate of authenticity, as well as a cloud backup. I use a custom computer for my collectors to be sure that the artwork is presented under the best conditions. I’m always in charge of the software—how it plays, how it works, and how it’s preserved for the future. For example, I’ve had works in the Salesforce lobby since 2014. It’s a lovely piece, large-scale, 40 by 80 feet—a three-dimensional data sculpture. I‘ve learned a lot about preservation, and how to be sure the artworks run for many years. With the blockchain, I started creating new collections to separate the two different worlds.
My work in the gallery world has its own presence, but I also create some editions in much larger volumes to reach my audience across the world because I feel that NFTs are a form of public art that can create accessible points for collectors globally. Sometimes those rare collections are hard to collect; they may be of higher value. I was always trying to create diversity in my collector base. In the last two-and-a-half years, I have created NFT collections, around 11,000 tokens, and sold more than $30 million in NFTs.
To my understanding, with those tokens, there are two types of Refik Anadol: the works that are looped where the work plays over and over again, and the works that are A.I.-generated.
Dynamic, yes. I had been programming my own world of imagination with data, and was making the computation strong enough so the artworks are never the same. It’s constantly evolving and changing, like life. Like a living painting, living sculpture, living architecture—living, living artworks. Starting about three years ago, I was able to create many artworks using real-time data. For example, for the Sotheby’s NFT collection, I was able to create three one-of-one pieces. They all use a custom computer software that validates your token and transforms into A.I. dreaming of the galaxies or Earth and Mars. Three different artworks. They’re always different, ever-changing.
Then I created another one in Barcelona, at Gaudí’s Casa Batlló, which was also an NFT public performance that brought 50,000 people together—one of the largest as far as I know. It’s the only NFT performing arts ever done in a public space.
Beautiful. I loved it.
Thank you. And that piece recorded the 50,000 people also using real-time data from the building with the weather pattern, such as winds and rain and snow and humidity, which then reflects the change in the dynamic NFT.
Was the Barcelona work a generative work?
No, it was a generative loop, an interactive piece at a Christie’s auction. It was sold for, I think, $1.4 million. That was the piece that was ever-changing in real-time. The collector got a computer, again with custom software, but we also projection-mapped the building to bring it to the metaverse with a beautiful event.
But if it’s generative, the computer is constantly changing and altering it so at such time that you’re no longer here in this life, it will continue to change.
That’s a living artwork, in my mind.
And it will change with respect to the weather in Barcelona. Are the generative works more important than the loops?
Yes, because that’s the future. As an artist working with code and algorithms, it was always my dream to create living works, But unfortunately, the quality and the computational power were not ready. Back in 2017, I met with Jensen Huang, the CEO of Nvidia, a very powerful company that makes the GPUs of computers that we need to use to create computer graphics, but also the A.I. They have also collected my work and supported our studio journey for the last six years. That’s how I pushed the medium to the edge and developed new algorithms. Since then, I have realized that the more technology goes beyond our limits, the more we can create something never seen before. It’s a really interesting correlation: being on the edge of technological innovation allows us to make things that have never been seen.
But let’s say you have something that engages A.I., like the Barcelona work, and you tokenize that, the actual work is not on the token. In fact, the token becomes just like a certificate because the work is too big. So the actual work lives on a computer?
So it cannot live on the blockchain?
No, not yet because the blockchain cannot handle the computation required for the piece. I proxy the computation on a machine, and that machine is custom-made by me, and then the code is backed up, the software is backed up, and the system is backed up. Perhaps in 10 to 15 years, collectors want to change the computer. Well, it is doable. For all this future-forward thinking, I have created a foundation for the studio that will be responsible for the longevity of the works. So whether I am here or not, there will hopefully be living beings who will be taking care of the maintenance.
Are the recorded works on chain?
Yes. If it’s NFT, it’s on the chain. But there are some works in the past that are not all tokenized yet.
And for example, at the Jeffrey Deitch show, it was said to me that those works are not tokenized.
Only the masterpiece. The masterpiece, the largest media of all the pieces, that’s tokenized.
And how much was that one?
Did he sell it?
Yeah. Two of them already sold. The third one almost is; [it’s] between a couple of people, I guess.
Thank you. And one sold to a museum, one major collector.
Now, explain to me, are you an artist? Or are you a digital creator?
I’m an artist. I mean, I call it media artist specifically because media artist is a medium that is thanks to Peter Weibel—we just lost him, the director of ZKM. He is the person who started the moment, I will say, in the late ’60s. ZKM is a museum in Karlsruhe in Germany. It’s the only media art museum in the world that has preserved art that uses digital mediums, and software for over 40 years… I have many works in the collection.
As a media artist—I love the name—why did you decide to tokenize some works and not others in the Jeffrey Deitch show?
Well, because I believe that the masterpiece, which I do believe will be going to the museums and prolific collectors, represents the future. It is tokenized and it has a different royalty model because it is on my smart contract. One collector bought a triptych piece and they asked for an NFT blockchain. I said, “yes, no problem,” because when someone specifically asks for it, I never say no.
As the first media artist exhibited at MoMA, how have you experienced the response?
First of all, two years ago when we started working on the project during the pandemic, it was a very interesting thought that a museum such as MoMA and I were collaborating. It’s a dream for a living artist—it’s a dream to be in a building full of my heroes, the heroes of humanity, the heroes of the art world. I mean, it’s just an incredible opportunity and privilege and honor.
Did you read the Jerry Saltz article in New York magazine?
Yeah, I did. I’m sorry, but we got 24 reviews and two of them were negative—and his was the most shallow, the most disrespectful. Apparently, he only stayed a few minutes… He didn’t even watch the whole piece. He didn’t even see the generated piece. He only saw one piece and there were three artworks exhibited. I was laughing so hard because I thought that he would be taking a smarter view and consider the future that the artwork represents. In fact, he fell into the path of gatekeepers, saying, “This work doesn’t belong to that, this work represents that.” He revealed his gatekeeper language; he couldn’t see the potential of what the artwork can mean for the future. He only focused on his eight minutes of seeing, so he had a very shallow surface view, a very clickbait-y approach.
Whether they like you or not, it makes people talk about you. It makes you a polemic, which I think is ultimately valuable to you.
But I want to say one thing. I think it’s a very common pattern for people who are pushing the boundaries of new things to face this. I think these are self-anointed gatekeepers: people not ready for change, not ready for a new world. I’ve always encountered those people in my journey since the beginning. It’s a very common pattern for me, so I didn’t feel it was fresh at all.
Your works have taken on a certain signature look and feel. Has your direction in life brought you to this place where you are now? And where does it go from here? For example, when I was watching the Grammys, I immediately saw that a Refik was a background to the show.
There’s a great question. I started Machine Hallucinations back in 2016, and that aesthetic has become my signature—these fluid dynamics where particles or molecules, however you call them, are shapeshifting and creating these forms.
In 2016, when I did my Artists + Machine Intelligence residency at Google, I was the very first artist residency for A.I.—the first artist in that program. I was 100 percent sure that I wanted to visualize how a machine could hallucinate and how a machine could dream; I never thought that a machine would ever think about a static form or that a machine could only create something frozen. So that’s how I started creating those aesthetics, and over the last seven years, I created many different styles, speeds, forms, and viscosities. My algorithm has maybe 64 parameters, and every single data and every single A.I. model creates different forms and shapes.
Do you have the tools to continue to evolve?
Yes. And actually, the most important part is making it in real-time and ever-changing so it’s never the same, like at MoMA. So every time when there’s a breakthrough, a moment of change, I try my best to go beyond and re-invent.
So my feeling is that the reason people discovered NFTs and the tokenized digital world is because of the crypto boom. Because of the explosion in the value of Bitcoin and Ethereum, those crypto whales wanted to diversify out of their large positions, with large gains, and also have some fun. I guess it’s more exciting to acquire an image than to just have a number on your screen.
But then the crypto bubble burst and now we’re in the aftermath. Do you have a feeling about where this world is going? I’m worried that as the number of new wallet growth slows down and while Ethereum tokens are worth less, there will be less demand because a lot of it was just speculation. How is the crypto winter and the burst of the bubble going to affect the whole world of digital collecting?
From my perspective, as an artist, having created work for almost a decade, I see nothing negative. In fact, it’s positive. I think this is a situation that really depends on the artist and the assets. As an artist, I’m seeing incredible positivity around the collections, around the collectors, with the major museums. I’ve been [exhibited] in the Pompidou, MoMA, and many other major museums—Kunstpalast, ARKEN Museum, and there are more coming. So I feel like I’m in a moment of deeper value than I was five years ago. But I think in some situations it may not be the case. Again, it depends on the artist or the creator, and it depends on the situation and the exhibiting of the work. Art is art, and it won’t be affected by the medium in which it is exhibited.
Do you have a feeling about this digital art world of NFTs? Where will we be in five or 10 years?
I really hope we get diversity. I really hope to bring this to as many people because first of all, artists are most likely introverted people who don’t want to share, who don’t want to create everything publicly. But for artists who have been extroverts, who have been sharing their work across digital media, we are privileged by our own practice. I think here’s exactly where the role of a gallery comes in. Galleries are very important to bring that attention and their values to new discoveries and new artists.
I think it all depends on the gatekeeping process. I do believe that it’s not only about the creators, but also the people who are allowing people to practice their work. NFTs are just one tool, but without exhibiting them, without feeling them, and just leaving them on the cold browsers of a computer is not where we should go. We should be exhibiting, sharing, and discussing this in panels and forums, with critical reviews. This is a whole ecosystem that needs to grow and become relevant.
How do you feel about the many PFP projects? Personally, I feel very strongly that CryptoPunks, Bored Apes, all those things, are interesting community-driven collectibles but they are not art.
They are not art. They are just artifacts. They are objects. I don’t think they are art yet.
What about the interest in generative art? How about the huge boom at Art Blocks, Squiggles, Tyler Hobbs’ Fidenzas, and Dmitri Cherniak’s Ringers? Where do you see that going?
I am so excited. First of all, I am a student of Casey Reas, the inventor of the software that all this art has been using for many years. He was my mentor, my teacher, from whom I learned coding about 11 years ago. And by the way, Casey Reas and Ben Frye together created Processing, a free software allowing artists to create and work with code. I’m really grateful to see those movements finally receiving value because anyone researching generative art can go back to the ’60s and see many artists working with code and computers in their early stages.
Nothing is new about creating generative art. But what is amazing is that finally there is an audience—collectors. Finally, we see the value of generative art. So that’s really, really inspiring and exciting. I think this will evolve more and more. We will see more creative ideas around code and blockchain. We will see much more interactive art around this topic and we will see many more exhibitions around this. Right now at LACMA, there’s an incredible digital show, and at the same time, I opened our show with Jeffrey Deitch Gallery, which is creating a beautiful dialogue between the past and the future.
Say we’re 10 years into the future and Refik has been creating work for a whole other decade. Kooking back at 20 years of Refik’s creations, what will the message be? What are you saying to the world?
I want to make art for anyone, any age, and any background. I do not believe in the elitist borders of things that separate us. I am trying to find things that connect us. I’m trying to bring inspiration, hope, and joy to humanity. I will not drop this mission and inspiration in my mind. I am always trying my best. And I am trying my very best to also demystify the role of A.I. and how it works. I do believe the next decade is all about defining what is real or not.
As an artist working with A.I., I do have a responsibility. In every single installation and exhibition I do with A.I., I dedicate significant time and resources to show what goes on behind the scenes—the name of the algorithm and where our data comes from. I think it will be more and more important in the next 10 years for anyone working with A.I. to explain how it works.
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