Q&A: Studio Drift Founder Lonneke Gordijn on Nature, Art, and the Limits of Technology

Q&A: Studio Drift Founder Lonneke Gordijn on Nature, Art, and the Limits of Technology

By Mike Chino
Why do some of Studio Drift’s projects take more than a decade to complete? Because the technology to create them doesn’t exist yet.

Lonneke Gordijn and Ralph Nauta founded Studio Drift in 2006—and in the years since, they’ve explored the intersection of nature and technology through captivating installations that boggle the mind—from massive blocks of concrete that appear to float in thin air to fleets of drones that flock and swarm like starlings. 

Dwell recently spoke with Lonneke about Studio Drift’s latest work, about her upcoming talk at Design Indaba 2020, and about what’s next from the boundary-pushing collective.

Lonneke Gordijn

I’d love to start at the beginning. Can you tell me a little about how you started working together with Ralph?

We met when I was 19 when we were still studying, and we became friends instantly. We were interested in each other’s opinions and ways of looking at the world. We also felt like we opened up each other’s perspective, and that was very enriching. That was the start of our friendship. Six years later we got into a relationship, and 10 years later, we ended the relationship—and now, 20 years later we’re still working together.

How would you describe Studio Drift’s mission today?

We are exploring how to reconnect people with nature through technology. We believe that you can align people with spaces by using frequencies of sound or movement that relate to frequencies that are in our nature. For instance, the human heartbeat, or breathing, has a similar frequency to waves coming from the sea, wind going through the grass, or the endless sparks of a fire. There is a certain nature that we as humans respond to very, very strongly—and it makes us feel calm, and aligned, and part of a bigger whole. 

Flylight by Studio Drift

When different people visit a space, they come from different situations—different realities. Everyone is on their own time, with different things on their minds. In order to communicate, and be really present, it’s important to align with the space, with ourselves, and with other people—and that’s what we’re trying to accomplish.

Drifter by Studio Drift

How would you characterize humankind’s relationship with nature? Do you see us as part of nature, or separate from it?

I see us as completely part of nature. What I find interesting is studying a certain plant, or the behavior of birds—and then seeing that humans follow exactly the same behavior. Nature has just a couple of patterns—of course, it has endless forms, shapes, and outcomes—but if you go one step deeper you’ll find these patterns.

Fragile Future by Studio Drift

For instance, dandelion seeds are designed as parachutes in order to find new spaces—I relate this to the human need to travel and go into unknown situations in order to make new connections, develop oneself, and form a global view of the world.

You can also find patterns at different scales—you can focus and zoom in on the cellular level, and see that the same kinds of patterns happen in plants, or in humans, or in the entire world. I find it interesting to shift between different levels of magnification, and then see the same patterns over and over again.

What role or responsibility do you think that artists and designers have in addressing environmental issues?

I think everyone has a role in this, but I think it’s specific for artist and designers. We are trained to think in different ways, and to explore. We come across natural laws that you cannot ignore, and I think it’s our responsibility to use this knowledge—to bring it to an audience, to express it, and to use it to find solutions.

A personal mission for me in the studio is to explore how technology is changing our lives in certain ways. Technology changes the environment—it has an impact on the environment—but it doesn’t really change who we are as humans.

Ego by Studio Drift for the opera L'Orfeo

I realized this because for the last year and a half we’ve been working on an opera that tells the story of L'Orfeo. It’s an ancient Greek myth that’s over 2,000 years old, but it’s still relevant because it’s about the limitations that humans have in their perspective, and their issues with their ego. Two thousand years later, the whole environment has changed because of all the technology we’ve invented, but we’re still dealing with the same problems because we’re still human. No matter how the environment changes, the biggest issue is usually ourselves. I think that we need to understand better who we are as humans by looking at nature—and then use that knowledge to address our future.

I also think that it’s the role of artists and designers visualize the future, and to confront the audience with visions of that future—because if you don't have a picture where you want to go, it’s going to be very hard to get there.

I’d love to learn more about your process. Where do you find inspiration, and what comes first when you’re starting a new project?

We are very interested in how the world works, and how humans work. Sometimes, we’ll be thinking about fundamental questions that play a role in our lives, and then we’ll see something in nature and it clicks—this is the same. 

In 20 Steps by Studio Drift

Inspiration comes from every moment—when you’re showering, walking, or biking—and it’s hard to pin down. I feel like the mind is trained to pick up different details and thoughts and make them click together—to combine things in meaningful new ways. 

Also, sometimes it’s a new technology—we think "hey, this is super interesting, but why is it used for this? It should be used for that." 

Are there any technologies or materials that you're currently excited about working with?

Everything is exciting! We’re working on a project called Materialism, which is an exploration of everyday objects. For instance, we took apart an iPhone (and many other objects), and then we tried to identify all of the materials, weigh them, and find out where they came from. Then we reconfigured these materials into little blocks and put them together into sculptures.

Studio Drift broke down the components of an iPhone for Materialism.

Studio Drift broke down the components of a Volkswagen Beetle for Materialism.

When you see these materials, you get a sense of the complexity of an iPhone—how many countries the materials come from, and what it takes to create an object. The precious metals come from mines—but we often don’t think about that. I think that in order to change that, and to demand from companies that we want things to be done in a different way, we have to know that we are all responsible.

Many of your projects—like Franchise Freedom and Shylight—appear to take on a life of their own. How do create that effect? 

For Franchise Freedom, we developed an algorithm that makes the drones fly in a particular way—it’s based on the swarm behavior of starlings, and the choices that birds make. We devised the algorithm to create revelations between the audience and what they are seeing. It’s not just a visual thing—it’s a very emotional thing too. At first, we visualized it on a computer, but when the drones flew it didn’t feel right to us—we had to fine tune it to create the right emotional response.

Franchise Freedom by Studio Drift

For Shylight, the movements are completely choreographed—we designed every movement—but for Meadow, the flowers interact as a group, and they open and close. We designed the possibility for them to interact with each other—we don’t know exactly what they’re going to do—but we made sure that their movement creates the right emotional response, and that the movement is based on how certain patterns in nature work.

Meadow by Studio Drift

We don’t want you to be able to say, "Hey—after 15 minutes it start over again." We want to create these endless movements and experiences that you can actually get lost in and feel immersed and hypnotized by.

Some of your projects take a long time—five or even 10 years—to finish. How do you know when a work is complete? Or is a work ever complete?

 Well, sometimes we struggle with a project because the technology doesn’t exist yet—we figure out how to do it, but the technology isn’t available, or it’s still under development.

Other times we find it’s very hard to finish because when you work with movement, you have so many possibilities. It’s very good that we have deadlines—usually, once a project gets close to realization, we find clients or exhibitions and set deadlines, because otherwise we’d never finish it.

The moment that we consider a work finished is when time after time it evokes the right feeling—a hypnotized state of mind.

Are there any ideas or concepts that you’ve always wanted to explore—but the technology just isn’t there yet?

Yes, we are currently working on a project called Coded Coincidence that’s based on the behavior of elm seeds, which can fly on the wind. We made a room with multiple wind machines that create patterns and vortexes, and in that room the seeds traveling around as they would in nature.

We are still figuring out how we can create the flight patterns of these tiny objects and enhance them with light—but they need to be super lightweight, they must be able to take off by air, and they cannot have wires—so we’re looking into wireless electricity.

It’s been incredibly hard—we have the technology, but on the scale that we want to use it, it’s probably not safe for humans to enter the space. Of course, we want to make it interactive so that people can enter the space, and have the blowers and the seeds react based on where people walk. This is one thing that we are exploring at the moment, and yeah—we have no solution yet. It’s frustrating!

I’d love to talk a little bit about your most recent work, Ego for the opera L'Orfeo. Can you tell me about your inspiration, and your goal for the project?

It was an equal collaboration with the director, Monique Wagemakers, and the choreographer, Nanine Linning. We started off by listening to the opera, and figuring out what this 2,000-year-old Greek myth still has to tell us. The problem of the main character, Orfeo, is basically everyone’s problem—we are all caught in our perspective.

We wanted to manifest the perspective of Orfeo, and to have all the dancers, singers, and extras live in that reality. As Orfeo’s perspective changes, this shift is performed by a massive 4.5 meter x 9 meter x 9 meter block called Ego, which is composed of handwoven fluorocarbon.

It’s like a puppet—it can transform and shift into all kinds of different forms. I'm super happy with the result—it really opened my eyes to what you can do in theater, and how it differs from our other work. Telling stories is different from bringing people on an inward journey. It’s just an amazing project.

You’ll be speaking at Design Indaba at the end of February. What are your plans for the event?

We’re developing a talk to better explain what the focus of our work is all about—I think many people think of us as lighting designers, however that was 10 year ago and we’ve moved on. We want to be part of a global discussion about the challenges facing the earth.

The focus of the talk is going to be about how we can tune people toward the same wavelength in order to come to a consensus and make decisions and move forward—and that can be done through experiences.

I’d like to work with a local musician and composer on an experiment with the audience to try and bring everyone on the same wavelength and see how they transform. I’d like to see how they look at each other, how they feel, and see if they enter a different state of mind. I think we should try and become more attuned to others in our lives—in the way we build cities, and even in the way we speak to each other.

Fragile Future by Studio Drift

Any other plans for the coming year?

We are working on Coded Coincidence, and we made a different version of Ego that will be exhibited at Pace Gallery in March during the Armory Show. We also have lots of talks and conferences this year—we’re seeing that our field is getting wider and more interesting because we’re searching for discussion. And we’re working on bringing a big solo exhibition of our work to the United States. I can’t confirm where or when, but that is one of our big plans.

Lonneke Gordijn

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