making the impossible possible
Longread — 23 Apr 2018 — Ingeborg de Roode and Pao Lien Djie
Lamps that perform a graceful choreography, drones that approach you like a flock of birds, a block of concrete that hovers overhead. These poetic installations by Amsterdam duo Studio Drift, who are Lonneke Gordijn (b. 1980) and Ralph Nauta (b. 1978), always offer us a special experience that heightens our awareness, an experience they subtly charge with all sorts of ideas about today’s world (ill. 1).
Nature as inspiration
At the core of the work of Studio Drift is the relationship between man, nature and technology. Nature turns up in various guises. Natural processes and their underlying principles often provide a solid foundation for their pieces. Sometimes Gordijn and Nauta directly apply elements from nature or forms derived from it. This interest comes primarily from Gordijn.
Her graduation project at the Design Academy Eindhoven (where both she and Nauta studied from 1999 to 2005) already revealed this fascination. In that project, entitled Fragile Future, she replaced the blowballs from various types of dandelions with LED lights (ill. 2). Gordijn came up with the idea after realizing that the light and seed head are alike in shape, and that she could use the blowballs to filter light.
The LED core of Fragile Future is a literal form of biomimicry, or biomimesis: the imitation of nature by man. The term is commonly used in science to denote ‘innovation inspired by nature’.1
Biologist Janine Benyus, co-founder of the Biomimicry Institute and the person who coined the term, notes that over time nature has learned to create conditions favourable to its survival. Benyus believes we can learn from that.
Besides imitating nature, Studio Drift often takes nature’s survival strategies as its point of departure. That was evident even in the first version of Fragile Future, which is interactive (later versions are not). Approach it and the lights start to flicker; venture too close and they turn off, as if broken. It’s a safety mechanism comparable to the way a ladybird plays dead when it senses danger. For Gordijn this design decision solved a ‘technical’ problem related to the fragility of the light installation.
In the installations Shylight and Meadow, we see ‘flowers’ that open and close, just like nyctinastic plants can close at night. Studio Drift’s inspiration drawn from nature goes beyond practical applications or solutions to a problem – which is usually the sole aim of biomimicry in science – but rather to an awareness of natural phenomena and their beauty. For example, the beauty of flight movements and our fascination with them inspired In 20 Steps and its sequel, Amplitude (ill. 3).2
"an unrushed moment in our fast-paced and hectic world."
Something else equally plays a role in Fragile Future: attaching the dandelion seeds is a labour-intensive process performed manually. It’s an example of slow design, which can also slow down the act of looking when one considers the process of making (ill. 4). This creates an unrushed moment in our fast-paced and hectic world, and in addition raises our awareness of the infinite complexity of nature.
Studio Drift gathers data derived from natural processes and translates it into moving installations with the help of software and computer technology. Algorithms based on the patterns of behaviour within a flock of starlings form the starting point for a number of designs. Luuk van Laake and Klaas van der Molen developed the first software programme for Studio Drift in 2007. It was based on the original Boids flocking algorithm from 1986 by Californian software engineer Craig Reynolds.3 Studio Drift applied this algorithm in Flylight, a piece made up of numerous suspended glass tubes, each containing an LED (ill. 5).
The light installation is fitted with sensors that detect the position of the observer. A computer translates this information into moving patterns of light. The light in Flylight comes towards the approaching viewer, in the manner of a flock of birds that senses an enemy. The movements within the flock seem random and based on individual choices, but they are in fact determined by patterns and codes that ensure the safety of the group. Flylight thus highlights the relationship between the individual and group, both within the flock and outside it.
A similar algorithm determines the lighting pattern in Tree of Ténéré (ill. 6), an installation that proved a showstopper at last year’s Burning Man, an annual festival held in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada. The light artwork takes its name from a rare tree in Ténéré, a desert region in the southern Sahara. The only vegetation within a radius of 400 kilometres, this acacia was a landmark for travellers but was knocked down in 1973 by a drunken driver. In this project the makers – the GAZM collective assembled for the occasion and comprising Zachary Smith, Alex Green and Mark Slee – pay tribute to the power of nature. At their invitation, Studio Drift designed the lighting programme for the 175,000 coloured LEDs on the tree. That programme was powered by three people who influenced the behaviour of light by their movement, pulse and brain activity, recorded via sensors in a head band. As soon as their movements synchronized, three smaller flocks of light gathered to form one big flock. In this way the installation alluded to free will, something possessed by man but not nature: shall we work as a collective or act independently of one another?
Interpreting flight movements in Flylight and Tree of Ténéré did not provide the immediate experience offered by observing a real flock of birds. But Studio Drift achieved exactly that with Franchise Freedom, a performance that premiered in late 2017 at the Art Basel art fair in Miami Beach. Three hundred illuminated drones flew across the ocean towards the beach, only slightly slower and further apart than actual birds, mesmerizing an audience of hundreds (ill. 7).
For some time, Gordijn and Nauta had wanted to transcend the physical limitations of Flylight, but technology didn’t allow it. During the development of Franchise Freedom, however, they discovered that after a certain amount of time the existing algorithms make the group of drones fly constantly in a circle. Together with Wilco Vlenterie, who had just graduated from Delft University of Technology on the subject of swarms of drones, Studio Drift developed a new algorithm that allowed drones to respond to one another all the time and thus behave like a real swarm. In this feat of advanced programming, they analyse and decode nature in order to generate new codes that allow it to function in another guise. Gordijn and Nauta were the first to achieve this with a swarm of drones. Some months later the same technology was applied during the opening ceremony of the Winter Games in South Korea (February 2018), but that involved a pre-programmed choreography to depict the Olympic rings.
Franchise Freedom addresses both freedom – as well as its irrevocably associated limitations – and the relation between the individual and group. If one of the parameters changes, the behaviour of the drones also changes, just as birds are constantly reacting to one another. A bird in the sky can be seen as a symbol of ultimate freedom – no wonder we say ‘as free as a bird’ –, but freedom is, to some degree, an illusion.
Works like Franchise Freedom are the result of a high-tech effort that would be impossible without collaboration with researchers, universities and tech firms. This project involved Intel, which developed the drone technology. Microsoft turned out to be the appropriate partner for the augmented reality installation Concrete Storm, in which HoloLens glasses were used (ill. 8). Together with such partners and the twenty people working at the studio, Gordijn and Nauta always try to stretch the boundaries of technology. Besides companies that they occasionally team up with, they enjoy long-standing relationships with some partners, too. For example, they still work closely with Reith Laser, a laser cutter from Wijchen (NL) who produced the metal components for the first version of Fragile Future back in 2005.
Science fiction plays ‘an important role in society, because it challenges researchers and technicians to materialize what artists, filmmakers and writers have imagined.
Of the two Studio Drift founders, Ralph Nauta has a stronger fascination with the future of technology. That focus on the future, and desire to make possible what now seems impossible, is becoming increasingly important in the work of Studio Drift. Gordijn and Nauta emphasize that they had developed that attitude even while studying at the Design Academy. There they learned to simply get to work, make things, persevere, and seek collaborators where necessary. Those lessons bore fruit: should the desired technology not exist, they challenge specialists and companies to team up and develop it. The results vary from a unique type of LED to a flying object that can revolve around all its axes.
This interaction and exchange benefits all involved. Luuk van Laake, who worked on the algorithm for Flylight, became so enthusiastic that he has continued to develop light installations together with creative partners, in addition to his work as an engineer and researcher. And Cees Wiersma, who came up with a click system for the modules of Fragile Future, extended his customer base from the usual buyers of precision industry products to design labels like Moooi, who in turn benefit greatly.
Their work is a poetic translation of the Anthropocene
Man and his responsibility
In the work of Studio Drift, nature and technology come together almost as a matter of course. Their work is a poetic translation of the Anthropocene, the era of man. A 2.0 version of the world as we know it, in which nature and the world shaped by man have, for some time now, not been considered as separate entities but as an amalgam of the two. And in contrast to doom scenarios that present such a fusion in negative terms, Gordijn and Nauta seem to embrace this development. That said, they usually refrain from making explicit statements.
In their more recent work, however, they have become more outspoken. In both The Obsidian Project and Materialism, for example, they draw attention to the use of materials. What are our responsibilities in this regard as makers and consumers? The Obsidian Project is a quest to find ways to apply synthetic obsidian. The material is formed as a result of a highly specific method of processing chemical waste, which in turn creates raw materials with what is claimed to be almost zero emission. In the form that Studio Drift gives it, the glassy substance acquires a quality that highlights the message: we see ourselves reflected in a by-product of our consumer society (ill. 9). Nauta and Gordijn’s ideal is to build a factory to process chemical waste, with useful utensils of obsidian as ‘by-products’. The mirror object is a first expression of this project proposal, which certainly deserves further elaboration in the future.
Materialism can be viewed as a three-dimensional infographic about the use of materials in the manufacture of everyday items (ill. 10). The size of the blocks represents the amount of raw material required. The aim of this work is to convey a sense of wonder about the manufacturability of our world and to highlight the vast quantities of material we extract from the earth. Without pontificating, Studio Drift does at least make us pause and consider this fact. This suggests that their recent work is moving in a more socially critical direction, one that Nauta describes as ‘passive activism’. But even the early work Oillight (2008) falls into this category (ill. 11). The idea behind this lamp, which is composed of 3D-printed miniature oil drums, is to express the relationship between the lamp’s dimensions and the fluctuating price of oil: the higher the price, the smaller the lamp, because higher prices lower the number of drums that can be made from the polyamide that is produced from oil. The reverse also applies.
Animated objects in utopia or reality
Besides making observers aware of their position in the world and connecting them emotionally with its complexity, Gordijn and Nauta make people part of their universe. Their interactive installations draw visitors into the works, especially when the installations possess animistic traits, such as the ‘birds’ that gather in flocks, and the ‘flowers’ that present themselves at their most attractive. Even Drifter, a big block of concrete that measures 4x2x2 metres and floats slowly through space, which was enthusiastically received at the Armory Show in New York in 2017, takes on the character of a living creature (ill. 12). The effect is given added emphasis in the film Drifters as the block sets off to find its place in the system (ill. 13). In the end, this behaviour and these tendencies can all be traced back to the strongest force of all: the will to survive.
By being able to identify with the ‘characters’ in the installations, observers can open themselves up and experience the movement to the full. That movement allows Studio Drift to speak to the viewer’s feelings. The physical object becomes the medium that must convey the essence, a medium that must look as perfect as possible because ‘perfection creates invisibility’.
The less your eye is distracted by imperfections, Gordijn explains, the greater the possibility that viewing the work becomes an ultimate experience. She was interested in creating animated objects from an early stage, even making animations as a student. Her greatest aspiration back then was to develop characters in the studio of Jim Henson, creator of the film The Dark Crystal and of The Muppet Show.
Although much of the work by Gordijn and Nauta points to a world that is still emerging, and that they want to help shape, in Drifter they recall a utopia from the past to convey the magic of progress. For how is our perception of the world affected when we realize that what now seems natural – an environment made up of big, very strong and stable structures – was previously seen as utopia? Will allowing a big block of concrete to hover seem just as natural in the future as the concrete city is today, which Thomas More described as a future dream in his 1516 book Utopia?5 The installation plays with patterns of expectation and belief in the notion of progress.
Influenced by Dutch Design?
At the time that Gordijn and Nauta studied there, the Design Academy was still considered a stronghold of Dutch Design. This 1990s movement strongly emphasized a contemporary reinterpretation of traditional techniques, and unusual applications of materials and unfamiliar manifestations of familiar objects. Droog Design, the most important platform of Dutch Design, often presented works that incorporated a dose of humour and in which the idea itself was ultimately of paramount importance. Such conceptual thinking seems to have had little influence on Gordijn and Nauta, who prefer to stress the experience more than the idea – and more than the appearance, too. At the Design Academy, both of them clearly travelled in a different direction, working on highly tangible projects geared towards the experience they create. Apart from an animation film, Gordijn’s designs included a series of non-functional chairs. Nauta developed not only a functional grinding iron for inline skates, but also a timber block on which to slaughter animals, so that everybody can truly experience what meat consumption really involves.
The sky is the limit
The first project they further developed together when they set up Studio Drift in 2007, two years after graduating, was Fragile Future. In this key work they fused nature and technology, with which they immediately rose to international prominence. We have already touched on the aspect of nature. Over time, the dandelion seeds on the LEDs changed little, but the technical aspects did. Their work evolved from small light installations, with custom-made electronic circuits on a support made of timber, acrylic or concrete, into generation 3 (2009), which consists of transparent rectangular modules of conductive metal, each with three light points, which gave Studio Drift unlimited possibilities to create a unique composition for any location. The Fragile Future Chandelier 3.5, purchased by the Stedelijk in 2015, marks the transition from a light object of relatively modest size to larger site-specific installations (ill. 14). For the exhibition at the Stedelijk, Studio Drift has made the biggest Fragile Future installation to date: five hundred modules, and including Fragile Future Chandelier 3.5 (ill. 15). The ability to respond to various spaces is now an important aspect of almost all their other works.
Over the past decade, the duo have evolved from designers of special objects like the Ghost Chairs (ill. 16) to inventors and producers of innovative, performative installations with an increasingly autonomous and poetic character. Their work touches on developments in the consumer society of today and invites us to reflect. Light and movement are often the key elements that come together in some installations.
Especially over the past year (2017), there has been a major scaling up in the size and impact of their installations, in the funding involved, in the complexity of the applied technology, and in the size of the firms that collaborate on the projects. For Gordijn and Nauta this development aligns perfectly with the ambition that they always harboured.
When they first took part in the Design Miami art fair in 2008, through Galerie Vivid in Rotterdam, they understood that their future lay on an international stage. They immediately received more attention, and importantly more clients. During the fair they made contact with the Carpenters Workshop Gallery, with whom they started to collaborate a year later, and from 2016 on they have worked with Pace Gallery: both are major players on the international scene, with branches on various continents.
In some respects, Studio Drift can be compared with other Dutch designers/artists who make (interactive) installations, think big, collaborate with researchers, work for international clients, and move between disciplines, such as Joris Laarman (1979) and Iris van Herpen (1984). International studios and collaborations that aspire to a similar interdisciplinarity include teamLab (2001, Tokyo/Shanghai/Singapore) and Troika (2003, London). This is a generation of creative minds for whom boundaries and conventions present no obstacles and who refuse to be pigeonholed.
Gordijn and Nauta admit to feeling a kinship with the artist duo Christo and Jeanne-Claude, who do not alter their ambitions or the impressive scale of their projects when they encounters opposition. Instead, they persevere for as long as it takes to succeed. For their exhibition at the Stedelijk, Gordijn and Nauta selected from the museum’s collection work by four artists with whom they feel an affinity. Christo and Jeanne-Claude are of course among them (ill. 17). Also included are works by James Turrell (because of the importance of light in his work and his emphasis on perception), Philip Glass (who, like Studio Drift, often works with repetitive elements) and Floris Kaayk (among other reasons because of his desire to make the impossible possible) (ill. 18).
The affinity that Gordijn and Nauta feel with artists who create ambitious and sometimes utopian projects is understandable. After all, making the impossible possible has become the norm in their own work. Perhaps the sense of wonder they arouse in a hectic digital world is their most important strength. It allows observers to open up to the beauty of both nature and technology, both of which they celebrate. And no matter how beauty should be understood — as a (temporary) result of evolutionary development, with or without a functional purpose, or as a ‘spiritual mystery’,6 — Studio Drift’s work can offer almost everybody a special experience. That makes Lonneke Gordijn and Ralph Nauta two of the most interesting artists of our time.
1. Janine Benyus quoted in the short film What is Biomimicry?, available at http://www.biomimicrynl.org/wat-is-biomimicry.html
2. The way in which flight movements are represented clearly refers to the studies by English photographer Eadweard Muybridge (1830‒1904). Using twelve cameras with fast shutter speeds, he captured the movements of animals and people.
4. Quotes and the like are taken from conversations with the authors, February and March 2018.
5. ‘But now their houses are three storeys high, the fronts of them are faced either with stone, plastering, or brick, and between the facings of their walls they throw in their rubbish. Their roofs are flat, and on them they lay a sort of plaster, which costs very little, and yet is so tempered that it is not apt to take fire, and yet resists the weather more than lead.’ Thomas More, Utopia, book two, chapter two. Transcribed from the 1901 Cassell & Company Edition by David Price. Taken from: Gutenberg.org.
6. The opinions of Professor Alfred Russel Wallace, OM, FRS., as expressed in an interview with Harold Begbie, printed on p. 4 of The Daily Chronicle (London) in the editions of 3 and 4 November 1910. Taken from Michael A. Flannery, Alfred Russel Wallace: A Rediscovered Life, Seattle/Washington: Discovery Institute Press, 2011, pp. 145-152. The English text is available at http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S746.htm