BARCELONA — Architect-designer Antoni Gaudí, legend of Catalan Modernisme, is often quoted as having said, “Nothing is invented, for it’s written in nature first.” Whether or not that’s apocryphal, his legacy suggested something holier than human at work. This year, one of Barcelona’s most visited Gaudí sites, Casa Batlló, found a contemporary analog in “Structures of Being,” a new audiovisual piece by Sofia Crespo projected onto the building’s façade on January 27 and 28. Crespo, an Argentinian artist who entangles AI and machine learning with natural life forms, possesses a Gaudí sensibility about our era of digital manipulation: The aim is not to discover anything completely new, but to look at existing things in a new way.
For a building erected in 1877 and renovated by Gaudí in 1906, it’s not Casa Batlló’s first foray into generative art. In 2022, the UNESCO World Heritage Site debuted a projection mapping project by media artist Refik Anadol, whose AI-based immersive room also lives in the basement of Casa Batlló, making a dizzying screensaver of the site’s tagged social media photos the final stop on visitors’ €29 (~$31) tour. Given UNESCO’s thick rulebook for the landmarks it has deemed worthy of preservation, it’s clever to add artwork that doesn’t need to touch the walls.
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“I do ask myself, ‘Would Gaudí like what we made if he saw it?’” Crespo wondered during an interview with Hyperallergic. “But his design was already upon an existing building. It makes sense that we are creating another layer of reinterpretation through this temporary installation.”
Crespo calls her 10-minute piece a “collage.” She and her collaborator, Feileacan Kirkbride — who together make up Entangled Others Studio — received the commission in the fall and spent a furious three months developing their first projection mapping of such scale. They researched the biological forms that appear in Gaudí’s designs and gathered open-source photographs of those mushrooms, jellyfish, seashells, and the like along with other data, including high-resolution ocean circulation models and recordings of polarized crystals. They trained convolutional neural networks on the patterns that appear in these data sets and translated the imagery to 3D motion across the coordinates of the entirely un-uniform Casa Batlló.
Coupled with a score by experimental instrumental composer Robert M. Thomas, Structures of Being is an undulating rainbow of stimuli that alludes to a narrative of searching, awakening, and religious ecstasy.
“I wanted to make something that people can look at and appreciate, no matter their background and without needing to read a long block of text,” Crespo said. “Then there is complexity for those who care about what is happening with the current landscape of climate change, or with what is happening culturally in Barcelona.” Kirkbride added that Casa Batlló is “often understood as a time capsule, and this piece is anchored in the present moment.”
“Every second breath we take is oxygen produced by the ocean,” he said. “Hopefully this interaction can give a surface that you can form an emotional connection to, which you wouldn’t have if you just read the latest IPCC report.”
The ocean patterns were provided by the Barcelona Supercomputing Center — deemed “the most beautiful data center in the world” — and part of the score was performed by the organist at Palau de la Música Catalana. In the soup of these elements, the individual artist starts to recede.
“I often get asked if generating with AI is something I do out of ego, if it’s something that makes me feel powerful. But when I go to a natural history museum, or I’m looking at the sea, I like that I feel really small,” said Crespo, who also happens to be an open-water diver.
Despite the adamance that Structures of Being is not merely an aesthetic confection intended to delight, it may be interpreted that way by a majority of the approximately 95,000 people who gathered in the closed-off street over the weekend of its presentation, their phone cameras pointed heavenward.
Thomas believes that instead of gleaning knowledge, the general public will experience a feeling. “The composition is so manipulated, I’m not expecting someone to identify, ‘Ah, this bit was inspired by this Catalan folk song,’” he said. (Which is good, because sonic specificity doesn’t quite come across.) “It’s a work of sublimation in which a cultural memory and its associations are embedded. It might come up for you again, years later, and have an effect.” Crespo considers it one more render exercise, another element over which she cedes control and accepts resulting serendipity.
The morning of January 29, Casa Batlló was back to business, the evidence of a giant squid exploding from a UNESCO building physically wiped but infinitely digitally preserved.