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Longread — 28 Sep 2018 — William Myers

The work of Studio Drift has evolved on a winding yet deliberate path, delightfully unrestrained by the traditions of either art or design. The aesthetic language the duo, Lonneke Gordijn and Ralph Nauta, have developed on this journey blends rawness with refinement, revealing the inner workings of phenomena while also inspiring wonderment about the unknowable, achieving a satisfying and modern mysticism. This language, realized in the materials, form, and motion of the objects and installations they create, often seems to aim at the same target as poetry: achieving emotional resonance.

A common interpretation of the works of Studio Drift, many of which are on display at the Stedelijk Museum in the exhibition Studio Drift: Coded Nature, is that the starting point of the projects is nature or a biological process. The projects are subsequently talked about as a type of lyrical biomimicry or even biodesign. But I think it is more precise to point to the human element, to observe that the origin or key inspiration of Studio Drift’s work are feelings, combined with fundamental questions about life. In the words of Gordijn and Nauta, their aspirations range from “making the struggles of humans visualized,” to “revealing the poetry of mechanics.”1

The art and design practices that emerge are a means to translate those feelings and fundamental questions into objects, performances, and installations. The ultimate goals of these works are not to make design more sustainable, or to uncover a hidden but brilliant engineering solution that evolution has developed. Instead, like most good art, the purpose of the work of the studio seems to be to make a lasting and unique aesthetic impression on the viewer, and to offer multiple layers of meaning to savor with the mind.

From this perspective, the output of Studio Drift can be thought of as a type of poetry. In the exhibition Coded Nature, the very title helps prime the visitor’s mind for the consideration of multiple or incongruous meanings, two of the tools of poetic verse. The title offers a compelling concept open to interpretation, as well as a contradiction. Contemporary science has suggested that the quantification of all natural phenomena is possible, even likely. Popular imagination, under this influence, upholds data like that found in DNA as a blueprint or software program—a code to produce a predictable outcome. We regularly regard such data systems as discrete and even deterministic. But these metaphors are inadequate and can be misleading.

Uli Westphal, Transplantation, 2014, sight specific installation at SMBA, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, 61 sub-irrigated planters, soil, bamboo, tomatoes, dimensions variable,  © Uli Westphal
Uli Westphal, Transplantation, 2014, sight specific installation at SMBA, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, 61 sub-irrigated planters, soil, bamboo, tomatoes, dimensions variable, © Uli Westphal

In fact, nature, as we observe its many dimensions, reveals devilish complexity and follows no code accessible to humans. Works of bioart such as the Mutatoes and The Cultivar Series by Uli Westphal help demonstrate this exquisitely. They are celebrations of mutation and polymorphism, two engines of evolution that deliver variety to ensure survival. For these works the artist collected hundreds of roots, fruits, and vegetables from markets around the world, then photographed them with drama and focus as if they were sculptures. The resulting images are aesthetically arranged with a degree of precision that mirrors the extent to which the subjects deviate so wildly from the “normal” tomato or lemon.

These works suggest that, rather than a code, what nature refers to as instructions is more like a musical score. A string of notes that can be played by numerous instruments in different tones and styles, at different times by people of greater or lesser skills, and in settings of different acoustics. The generated sound, and the resulting song, is unique in every instance, like two strawberries that develop different flavors based on their exact angle of exposure to the sun. A brief symphony of this type, using tomatoes and devised by Westphal, was brought to the Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam in 2014. This site-specific installation Transplantation brought together more than 60 varieties of the plant, including ancient species that were eventually offered for adoption to the local population.

Uli Westphal, Transplantation, 2014, sight specific installation at SMBA, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, 61 sub-irrigated planters, soil, bamboo, tomatoes, dimensions variable,  © Uli Westphal
Uli Westphal, Transplantation, 2014, sight specific installation at SMBA, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, 61 sub-irrigated planters, soil, bamboo, tomatoes, dimensions variable, © Uli Westphal

These kind of works are a helpful starting point to contemplate the boundlessness of natural phenomena, and the potential, even the need, to understand it through an artistic perspective in order to grasp its complexity and aesthetic possibilities. Further, artists can sometimes be detectors and interpreters of these songs or strings of music, whether they are heard out in the wild or in society. The artist Susan Hiller captures this idea succinctly, and leads us to the work of Studio Drift, which channels some of the harmonious as well as discordant music of our time into installations and objects: “By definition art is an anthropological practice…the role of the artist is to unveil codes not yet articulated within a culture…to look for new forms known but as yet not understood.”1

Projects such as Franchise Freedom, Fragile Future, and Drifters suggest that the work of Lonneke Gordijn and Ralph Nauta is frequently an effort to understand and materialize the nature of nature. Their processes can be thought of as searches for the essential character, patterns, behavior, or connections as they are found in the natural or built environments, or even in the internal, personal and emotional realms.

They describe a “pursuit of their creative proclivities and means of expression” via hands-on experience, by intuiting and building tacit rather than explicit knowledge. This comes across in something they have related in interviews and at public events, that one of their disappointments in the world is that we have not all grown up to understand or even care about how things work.

Fragile Future 3, 2009, design installation 2018, left: Fragile Future Chandelier 3.5, courtesy Carpenters Workshop Gallery, London. Fragile Future Chandelier 3.5, collection SMA, acquired with generous support Mondriaan Fund 2015. Photo Gert Jan v Rooij
Fragile Future 3, 2009, design installation 2018, left: Fragile Future Chandelier 3.5, courtesy Carpenters Workshop Gallery, London. Fragile Future Chandelier 3.5, collection SMA, acquired with generous support Mondriaan Fund 2015. Photo Gert Jan v Rooij
Drifters - trailer
Installation view Studio Drift: Coded Nature, 2018, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. Drifter, development 2008-2016, realization 2017, mixed media with concrete, robotics, tracking system courtesy Pace Gallery, New York Photo: Gert Jan van Rooij
Installation view Studio Drift: Coded Nature, 2018, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. Drifter, development 2008-2016, realization 2017, mixed media with concrete, robotics, tracking system courtesy Pace Gallery, New York Photo: Gert Jan van Rooij

They expected to see this desire for knowledge, stirred when we were children, to be present in all of us throughout our lives. From the automobile, to the toaster, to the tiny computer running our smartphones: we are all intensely reliant on what are essentially black boxes, machines that operate in ways few of us understand.

This knowledge gap highlights one of the themes that goes unseen and unspoken in many of Studio Drift’s works, that is the effort to reveal the mechanisms and processes behind how things function, as well as their making, as seen in Fragile Future. In this work components like electric circuits and batteries that are ordinarily concealed in everyday objects are exposed in all their rough-hewn glory. 

This approach is not as simple as making a clock-face transparent; indeed, the unfinished aesthetic in Fragile Future is offset by the delicate fragility of the dandelion’s tiny winged seeds. Such thoughtful juxtapositions characterize much of the work of the studio, offering proof of human skillfulness in an elegant way, using motion to depict intellectual and emotional tensions, or illuminating the hidden materiality of everyday objects. A potent example of this combination of techniques can be seen in Franchise Freedom.

The uncertainty and apparent improvisation of the motion of the drones is a visualization of the contention between the group and the individual. It would be a mistake to call this particular work biomimetic, for it is in fact quite human-centered; not in a selfish or narrow way, but in how it brings to life invisible, collective struggles, as described by Lonneke Gordijn and Ralph Nauta, through an artificial medium that resembles one from nature. It is the distillation of such ideas that makes the work remarkably resonant.

Franchise Freedom - a flying sculpture by Studio Drift in partnership with BMW. Music composed and played by Joep Beving. www.studiodrift.com

Just as poetry takes language, compresses it, and adds music, so Studio Drift does with Franchise Freedom: it distills the complex concept of freedom with respect to the group and the individual, and then adds to it, in the form of the flock’s movement, a kind of music. Often the goal of poetry is to achieve emotional resonance, and Gordijn and Nauta crafted the behavior of this flock towards the same purpose. In an iterative process that involved considerable resources, time, and insistence from the artists to get the behavior just right while working with engineers to program the drones, the goal was not to find a system of flying patterns that most closely resembled that of birds. Instead, they “relied completely on their emotional intuition.” They were only satisfied at the moment when the movement was moving to them, when it took on that unnamable yet unmistakable quality that allows you to connect with these entities, so that they seem alive or at least they seem like much more than the sum of their parts.

The work Drifters offers layers of meaning in a similar way. It is ostensibly about silent, floating blocks finding their way, of merging into a grid or system greater then themselves, finding a hive or building a swarm. They appear to be guided by an unseen but essential force like magnetism or a super-natural gravitation, like that depicted in the ultimate scene of the film 2010: The Year We Make Contact that gives birth to a star. The presentation prompts a viewer to wonder if such unification is natural, ideal, or perhaps even detrimental to each monolith, onto which viewers may project human qualities. And we are likewise led to ask: what is the logic or cosmic purpose that holds this system together? And is there an analog in the social world?

One possible answer was suggested by Studio Drift in conversation recently: specifically, Gordijn pointed to research by Yuval Noah Harari as reported in his recent book Sapiens: A Brief History of Human Kind (2014), that suggests organized human life, civilization as we know it, rests on our ability to share a fictional narrative. This can be thought of as our ability to believe in concepts that reside solely in the imagination, such as gods, nations, money, or human rights. Without such cognitive capacity people would form group populations of only about two hundred or so individuals; exceeding this number leads to a breakdown of cooperation and absence of shared goals and, eventually, violence, as observed in primates. In turn, groups splinter and form anew, with their group identity resting mainly on the bonds of extended family.

This considered speculation in the realms of evolutionary biology and neuroscience helps form meaningful connections between Drifters, and current political events. Specifically, this refers to the splintering of coalitions into ever smaller and more extreme pockets, the rise of tribalism and populism, and the loss of collective agreement about sources of truth. These are phenomena that characterize the critical and often worrying developments of our time, but they are rooted in the same tensions and trade-offs present during the ancient origins of civilization and the eternal conflict between the individual and the collective. As Lonneke Gordijn has rhetorically asked “Do we want real freedom?”

Today, the evolving concept of freedom alongside the simultaneous necessity for both reliable sources of fact and a set of collectively-shared symbolic delusions or fictional narratives, provides a rich terrain for artistic response. The film Drifters is one such response that wordlessly speaks across languages and cultures and can aid the viewer in sorting out their positions and feelings about such important issues. By savoring the immensity of these concepts and tensions that are as old as humanity, Studio Drift can be seen as a generator of a timeless, improvised poetry. The rhymes and verses of its creations are unbound from any code; they rather drift into and out of rhythms, like a work of jazz.

About the author

William Myers is a freelance curator and author based in Amsterdam who has worked for MoMA, the Guggenheim Museum, Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt, Science Gallery Dublin, Het Nieuwe Instituut, and Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). His widely-acclaimed books Biodesign and Bioart focus on the links between scientific advances, design, and art. See more at: www.william-myers.com

William Myers
William Myers

Sources
1. All quotes are from an interview with Lonneke Gordijn and Ralph Nauta by the author, 24 May, 2018.

Footnotes
1. Susan Hiller, Thinking about Art: Conversations with Susan Hiller, ed. Barbara Einzig (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press 1996), p. 214.