AI-powered artwork by Refik Anadol

In recent years, Refik Anadol’s name has become synonymous with new media art and aesthetics. Working at the crossroads of design, science and technology, the Turkish-born artist is known for creating data-driven installations that “address what it means to be a human in the age of AI.” They are often large in scale and spectacular in execution, many of them pushing the boundaries of what can be done with digital tools like machine learning and projection mapping. 

But Refik’s works are not only about catching glimpses of the future. His latest project is actually inspired by the collective wisdom of the past—and was co-created together with the Yawanawá people of Brazil. Titled Winds of Yawanawá, the series was initiated as part of Possible Futures: an on-going Indigenous outreach programme led by Refik alongside Impact One and Therme Art. It comprises a central video artwork and an NFT collection of 1000 unique digital paintings that harness live meteorological data from the tribe’s village in the Amazon rainforest. The data—which includes wind speed, gusts, direction and temperature—is then merged with the works of young Yawanawá artists to create striking visuals that are rich in memory and meaning.

The Winds of Yawanawa — a new digital artwork by Refik Anadol

Stills from the Winds of Yawanawá video teaser

A first-of-its kind collaboration

Possible Futures explains that the goal behind Winds of Yawanawá is two-fold. The first intention is to establish a creative collaboration that could help to preserve the natural and cultural heritage of the Yawanawá. With a total population of over 1200, the Yawanawá people live in villages nestled along the banks of the Gregório river, where they protect thousands of acres of endangered rainforest. Working together with chiefs Biraci Nixiwaka Brasil, Putanny Yawanawá and Isku Kua Biraci Brasil Junior, Refik set out to create a series of artworks that showcased the relationship these communities foster with their environment. The hope is that by creating an immersive experience that celebrates the Earth’s most vital ecosystem and its custodians, the series can help to “plant seeds for a more integrative approach to sustainability in the future.”

“We need collective wisdom. And if you think about collective wisdom, you will need ancestral wisdom. At some level, hearing the Yawanawá’s voices and how they are bringing their perspective to the dialogue is the most fundamental part of this project.” — Refik Anadol

The second goal of the project is to explore how Indigenous communities like Yawanawá could benefit from regenerative business models that use Web3 or blockchain technology. By offering a limited NFT collection that people can buy, Winds of Yawanawá makes it possible for a decentralised flow of income to go directly into the hands of the community. More specifically, proceeds of the sale will go towards the realisation of key development projects for the Yawanawá villages of Aldeia Sagrada and Nova Esperança. The official launch event of the project took place on 13 July 2023, and marked the opening of the Winds of Yawanawa NFT collection sale. Another round of sales will open again at the end of August, end of September and mid-October 2023. 

“This partnership that we are building with Refik is directly for our communities. It strengthens our village, it strengthens our culture, it gives us strength to defend and protect our forest. And it also shows us that we are not alone.” — Chief Nixiwaka Yawanawá 

The Winds of Yawanawa — a new digital artwork by Refik Anadol

Stills from the Winds of Yawanawá data paintings

Why AI?

This project comes at an interesting time for the creative industries, which is only beginning to peel back the curtain on the promises and perils of artificial intelligence. Every day, more and more designers are using AI to supplement their work, even as discussions stall over how we might regulate and use it. 

For Refik, who describes himself as being “obsessed with data”, AI technology is not something to be feared, but something worth testing and prototyping, especially in the art realm. In a recent interview, he stressed the importance of questioning not just what it is used for but also who. “I believe we have to bring new perspectives, fresh points of view and diverse minds, and we have to bring as many voices as possible to really unify this concept of machine intelligence,” said the artist. “It takes more than bringing brilliant people around a table. AI can generate some intelligence, mimic intelligence, it can do good things, yes, but making something for humanity needs everyone in humanity.”

This collaborative approach is what sets Winds of Yawanawá apart as an AI-powered artwork. With more projects in the pipeline, this iteration of Possible Futures marks a first exploration for how old and new technologies can be used in tandem to support environmental and global stewardship efforts.

The Winds of Yawanawa was created in collaboration with Indigenous communities from the Amazon

The Winds of Yawanawa was created in collaboration with Indigenous communities from the Amazon

Representatives from the Yawanawá community during the official launch event on 13 July 2023. © Lizett Diaz for Caravana.
Header image: The central video artwork during the unveiling. © Impact One.