Interview: Cyberphysical Architect and Artist Güvenç Özel at Coachella

Insight behind the music festival's 60-foot-tall "Holoflux" sculpture

Among the long list of titles he’s accustomed to citing, Güvenç Özel considers himself an architect first. Designing cyberphysical spaces—for a living, for provoking the senses, for shaping a locale—remains his primary passion and what drives him. According to the Turkish-born Özel, his work “investigates how contemporary technology and media shapes the socio-political and aesthetic landscape of digital culture.” He’s also a technologist, a professor at UCLA and one of the handful of artists commissioned by the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival to create a large-scale work for 2023.

Courtesy of Joseph Armario

Constructed out of steel and wood with a vinyl color-gradient surface, Özel’s 60-foot-tall “Holoflux” marries sculpture with architecture. From afar, the three-legged piece appears as a series of spherical forms, different from every angle. Up close, it’s possible to walk through and lay underneath, which alters how viewers interact with the it. At night, “Holoflux” disappears in a way, as real-time projections, graphics and flickering lights that change color create a different narrative. Altogether, Özel’s intention was to merge cyberspace with a physical environment.

COOL HUNTING sat down with Özel during a multi-course Outstanding in the Field plant-based meal at the festival to speak about his piece, as well as the future of AI and Extended Reality (XR), and machine learning in architecture.

Courtesy of Lance Gerber

How long have you been coming to Coachella?

I moved to LA in 2005 and started working at Frank Gehry’s office. And until I moved to Vienna in 2012, I came here [to Coachella] every year. It holds a special place in my heart. I feel like there’s something escapist about it. This is one of the few festivals in the US where you can see a lot of international acts. It’s much more diverse than any festival in this country. It gives you a preview, a whole survey of popular culture in the world right now. That’s fantastic.

Did you take that into account when you were creating “Holoflux?”

One hundred percent. I don’t feel like I have to cater to the crowd as an artist, but I feel like I have to consider their experience. I’m an architect first and an artist after. An architect needs to consider the functionality, the experience, the vibe. The artist needs to provoke. Needs to stir shit up. So I have these dual agendas. I want to deliver a good experience, but I also want to make people think outside of what they’re used to seeing at a music festival. I don’t think it can be provocative to the point where you’re making the experience miserable, but it has to make them think.

I considered the main thoroughfare, the axis, the opening to the main stage, the outdoor stage, the prime locations where people go back and forth. It had to be spatial and it had to consider how people could move around in this gigantic space, but also it had to be a visually, experientially, thrilling experience.

Courtesy of Lance Gerber

How did you do that with this piece?

I have always been interested in the intersection of technology and design. I think back when the role of technology was more about using technology to create complexity. As opposed to now, where technology is the design. The building is the technology. It is built into that system—whatever media integration, sensor integration, robotics, that is the building, that is the place where you occupy. As opposed to using a robot to build the building, the robot is the building. So I think that’s a paradigm shift between my generation and Frank’s generation.

You’ve been called an interdisciplinary innovator, a pioneer of XR. As a design researcher you’ve been credited with the first architectural application of augmented reality and have the first XR research lab in academia in the field of architecture. What does that all mean to you?

For me, it’s about the perception of reality. Our perception of reality, reality versus fiction, reality versus storytelling, how those things are negotiated through technology and architecture.

Courtesy of Lance Gerber

How are those things negotiated through technology and architecture?

With the invention of photography—the genesis of it is when the first humans saw their own reflection in the water. Then they had to invent a technology to emulate that, to simulate that. Humans invented the mirror. The mirror is the first media technology in the world, because it broadcasts reality in real time. It gives you visual feedback in real time. It’s like a camera, but a material, right? If you think about the mythology of the mirror, however, you think about the witch in “Snow White” who sees her own reflection in the mirror and it tells her that she’s the most beautiful. The mirror is used as a narrative for fiction.

Courtesy of Julian Basel

How did you tie all of those philosophies and all of those beliefs into the art that’s here at Coachella?

I was inspired in terms of the form of the installation by [David] Baum, who’s a physicist, who worked on the Manhattan Project with Einstein. And I think he’s the first true 20th century interdisciplinary that we know of. He was banished from the US during the McCarthy years—he had to move to London.

He collaborated with a philosopher and a neuroscientist to develop the theory of the holoflux, which talks about how human consciousness, scientifically, is connected to the machinations of the universe. That intelligence goes beyond the material world as we know and there’s a different set of parameters where intelligence and the way the universe behaves about how things connect in human consciousness and that’s something that evolves. And it was considered to be hokey science at the time. People looked down upon it.

Courtesy of Lance Gerber

What’s changed?

Right now, 21st century, Elon Musk is talking about the universe being a holographic projection. These ideas are being entertained as scientifically and potentially plausible. So for me, what’s interesting is this notion of interdisciplinary, you as a designer cannot exist in a disciplinary vacuum, you have to reach out and collaborate and understand other people, integrate them into your work and let them integrate you into their work and be able to maintain a civil discourse that is about intellectual collaboration.

How does your work achieve this?

In a symbolic way, “Holoflux” has a three-prong form. It has three legs. One of them represents humans, the other represents nature and the third one represents technology. In our popular culture, these things are presented and rendered as things that are separate from each other, right? But they blend together, they move together, they come together. That’s why their form is continuous and creates a silhouette in the skyline where these three things are coming together.

Materially speaking, “Holoflux” has this kind of iridescent texture to the fabric that it is covered with that makes it look like a rendering from a distance. It is meant to question your notion of reality. Is this a physical object or a digital object? And why does it matter? Why do we have to have this divide? Human creation is an extension of nature. Why do we have to dismiss our creations as “artificial?” We are an extension of nature, we’re doing what nature gave us. There are modes of developing technology, through our intelligence or through our means is actually an extension of the intelligence of nature.

Courtesy of Lance Gerber

Is it most exciting at a certain time of day?

The night is really exciting. It goes from the cycles of how we depict reality through the—I call it the vernacular of the digital—which is like a simulation, first of three dimensionality and then a simulation translucency because they’re the cycles of how we develop simulation technology, how we imitate those materials, and then it transitions into AI, which is how we start to imitate creativity. We use the most contemporary machine learning models to develop the second half of the show, and I call it a show because I think it is a display of expression. It has a start, a midpoint, a crescendo. But what most people don’t realize is in order to dial in the AI to get exactly what you want, you have to do so much work.

How is it trained?

It’s trained on large language models and it is matched with visuals. If you have a good understanding of literature, and how literature equates to visual language, you can dial it in to make it look exactly like what you want it to look like.

You are using words to program images to broadcast onto the piece?

Yes, it’s a hybrid of sculpture and architecture. From afar you perceive it as an object but when you go near it, it’s architecture. For me that relationship, like Frank Gehry, between sculpture and architecture is really important to me—that dialogue between the perception of three dimensionality of an object versus a space. When you bring like your own language into the mix, you start to integrate storytelling and you start to tap into the entire history of literature and philosophy, and that makes the show so much more interesting.

Lance Gerber

Did you write a literature inspired algorithm?

Yes, and I also handmade collages and sketches as the initial image. I programmed the algorithm to say, start with this image, generate from this image and these symbols. Then it becomes about collaborating with the algorithm, exerting control over the algorithm but without putting it in a straightjacket. You want it to do what you want it to, and you want to take advantage of what it can do, but you also want to have a hand in it. And it’s a really difficult thing to do. For me, the most important thing is about human-machine collaboration rather than using AI to generate animation. To me, it’s about how can we do this to enhance our creative process.

What’s your take on AI replacing humans? 

I think the wealthy and the privileged are going to use it to get ahead. I don’t think that there will be like an outside nonhuman entity that’s going to take over, I think the humans are going to merge with that non-human entity, the ones that have the privilege to do so, to get ahead and they will. As opposed to this outside entity that’s going to destroy us. Humans will destroy humans as they always have.

Courtesy of Tyler Borchardt

Is there anything from this project that you’ve learned that you’re going to apply to forthcoming projects?

So many things. I think perception of depth, and the relationship between two dimensionality and three dimensionality, and the way in which distance plays a role for that. Beyond the technical things, I learned so much about contrast—and how visual perception is so dependent on contrast. Very simple. Light versus dark. Shadows. The basis of photography. How it affects projections: the way in which people see and perceive three dimensionality because it’s not a screen. It’s not an image. It’s a three-dimensional object that is being mapped.

Hero image by Lance Gerber, courtesy of Coachella