“It won't work,” artist Refik Anadol says of Google Glass, those newly introduced “augmented reality glasses,” which have a battery behind the ear, a touchpad above the right temple and a little screen in the right-hand corner of the right lens. You can use them, Google's promo site says, to check the weather, ask directions or live-stream any event — or nonevent — happening before your eyes.
We are sitting outside Insomnia Café on Beverly Boulevard after most other businesses have closed for the night, and nearly everyone inside has either a laptop or a cellphone in front of them. But we can't imagine all of them wearing those glasses. Even on wispy-haired, airbrushed models, the glasses still look like props from an '80s sci-fi film.
“It's like the Segway,” Anadol says — something too awkward to catch on, even though it seems like a good idea at the time.
Even if he's skeptical about Google Glass, Anadol, who has a current exhibition full of screens and lights at Young Projects in the Pacific Design Center, doesn't doubt that people already often see the world through virtual lenses. “It's like the relationship people have to their phones,” he says. “I've seen people get angry in public when their battery dies — we have one layer always between reality and our ideas.”
His show at Young Projects is an attempt to slow down and draw out virtual spaces, to make data something visitors consciously see and feel. All lights in the show, which has the mouthful-of-a-title “The Active Apparatus and the Liminal Landscapes,” are black and white. “It's already so complex without color,” Anadol explains.
You enter to see two flashing white fluorescent bulbs to your right that recall '70s work by fluorescent-fascinated light and space artist Dan Flavin. Hung at eye level, at an angle, with a blurred black and gray grid projected over them, they click on and off. You hear this sound less and less clearly as you move into the show, past the James Turrell–informed corner projection of small white squares inside bigger squares (see photo), into the room with weirder, slowly morphing geometric video works. There, ethereal electronic music becomes more prominent, mixed in with the beeping and low whirring from projectors. Black, white and gray prints of geometric shapes hang on the walls and on the mirrored surfaces of Paul Young's showroom-turned-gallery. Projections of abstractly structural video imagery, sometimes evocative of architectural shapes and other times more like rock formations, play out on the prints. The video images change so gradually that sometimes you'll look away, thinking they're not moving at all, then turn back to see something completely different.
Anadol moved mirrors around and introduced new ones to Young's gallery, turning some so that you see the same video works — most hauntingly the horizontal stripes of Intervention 2.0 — reflected back at you from multiple angles. If you're in the gallery alone, which is the best way to experience the show, you might see your own reflection out of the corner of your eye and become convinced someone else is sneaking up on you.
“I had that feeling when I was installing the show late at night,” Anadol says.
He moved here from Istanbul last autumn, to enroll in UCLA's Digital Media MFA program. He already has an MFA in Visual Communication Design from Istanbul's Bilgi University and has done a number of large-scale digital works in outdoor spaces in Europe.
Young had been following Anadol's work on Vimeo and had an opening in his schedule. Part of the reason Anadol secured the Young Projects show was his willingness to install in the eight days between the end of the previous show and the Pacific Design Center's Design Loves Art night, when the galleries get more foot traffic than usual.
“For this show, I was highly inspired by a painting — Escaping Criticism,” Anadol says, pulling up on his phone a photograph of the 1874 painting by Italian artist Pere Borrell del Caso. It shows a boy who has just begun to shed his baby fat, wearing threadbare clothes. He's barefooted and climbing out of a formal gold frame. It's painted in the ultra-realistic tromp l'oeil style, and the boy looks as though he thinks someone's going to catch him. The frame could be the 19th-century equivalent to the screen, Anadol suggests, something you have to escape.
“The frame is killing everything,” he says.
He had been reading theory, too, partly because as a graduate student at a school with some of the smartest digital media scholars and practitioners working now on its faculty, that is what you do. He had thought about Lev Manovich from City University in New York, who asks why artists “able to introduce really new visualization techniques are exceptions” and Gene Youngblood, a theorist from Little Rock, who said as far back as 1970 that “it is no longer possible to discuss physical phenomena” without talking about the metaphysical, or virtual, reality, too.
“They're calling for new artists to juxtapose the physical and virtual,” Anadol says. “I would really like to be one of those artists.”
Some of the projects that pit the physical against the virtual in this current show feel like studies for public works, like the video Temporary Immersive Environment Experiments, in which lines of lights projected onto a black wall through a scrim repeatedly move downward, like a conveyor belt traveling to the floor.
“I think public space, it's so frozen, that people are going to lose their motivation to go out,” Anadol says, looking across Beverly Boulevard as if its stillness is evidence of this. When he participated in 2010's Ars Electronica, the celebrated art and tech festival that started in 1979 in Linz, Austria, he projected shifting imagery created via algorithm onto the spare, concrete Tabakfabrik building, sometimes making the building look as if it had itself become a 2-D projection. In 2012, he and artist Alper Derinboaz did the project Augmented Structures v2.0 as Distilled Urban Experience, mapping soundscapes from urban and suburban areas in Istanbul, translating them into lights via a mathematical, predesigned program and then projecting these lights onto the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art. The lights were sometimes smooth and sometimes aggressive, veering back and forth across the building's façade while a sound like firecrackers played from speakers.
“Projections are reality hacking tools,” Anadol says, meaning that making invisible things — like urban sound — visible in a public way can infuse something new and disjointing into the veneer of the real world.
His current project, one for which he has secured initial permission, involves projecting onto Frank Gehry's Disney Concert Hall. He will record the flamboyant Gustavo Dudamel conducting the L.A. Philharmonic, then translate Dudamel's movement into light that will play out on Disney Concert Hall's curved exterior, perhaps in celebration of the hall's 10th anniversary this fall, though nothing has been finalized, and dealing with L.A. bureaucracy is knotty.
The language Dudamel speaks to his orchestra — those frenetic gestures he makes that the musicians seem to understand — reminds Anadol of his own process, using software that doesn't entirely make sense but that allows him to do what he wants. “You are speaking with a computer to make something happens,” he says.
But he thought of himself as an architect more than a conductor when working on the Young Projects show. He mentions Intervention 2.0 in the main gallery, a panoramic view of structures that at first look minimal and then baroque in a high-tech way. “These are spaces that an architect can create but will not create, seen from an impossible perspective,” he says, adding that ideally, this is what happens when “artists go into space”: possibilities change.
REFIK ANADOL: THE ACTIVE APPARATUS AND LIMINAL LANDSCAPES | Young Projects | Pacific Design Center, 8687 Melrose Ave., W. Hlywd. | Through May 3