The Artists Behind DRIFT Discuss the Unparalleled Potential of Technology in Cultivating Connections with Nature
March 21, 2022
In a culture of seemingly endless digital distraction and one that continually prioritizes profit over the health of the planet, it’s easy to forget that technology and nature don’t have to be at odds. We know that innovation has its cost, and there’s no denying that mass production and subsequent waste have permanently ruptured our environment.
If we glean anything from Lonneke Gordijn and Ralph Nauta (previously), though, it’s that technology and nature aren’t inherently incompatible. The artists founded DRIFT, a multi-faceted studio based in Amsterdam, in 2007 and have spent the last decades exploring the intersection of these two realms. Experiential and immersive, their broad body of work harnesses the power of robotics, manufactured mechanisms, and even algorithms to visualize some of the most stunning and captivating biological phenomena and ecological cycles. Technology, for the pair, is a net positive, and their goal is to develop and explore its potential for good.
Colossal managing editor Grace Ebert spoke with Gordijn and Nauta via email in February 2022 about the origins of their collaboration-driven studio, how recognizing and internalizing patterns can help us realign with the world around us, and why nature and the inevitability of change is the only guarantee.
This conversation has been edited for clarity. Shown above is “Fragile Future.”
Grace: To start, can you tell us how DRIFT came into existence? How did you get to be a team of 64, and what do some of those roles consist of?
Lonneke: During our studies, Ralph and I would climb up an abandoned building and spend hours philosophising about why things are the way they are and how we can change the world. Ralph has always been interested in science fiction and technology where I have always been more interested in natural phenomena. We inspire each other and founded DRIFT in 2007 to create work in which we merge our interests. We develop all of the tech for our work in-house, and the technology we use for our work is getting more advanced and complex. Because of this, we have a constantly growing team that includes artists, designers, technicians, and engineers. Our multidisciplinary team allows us to draw from different perspectives to create work that illuminates the parallels between natural and man-made structures.
Grace: Has that always been your goal? To change the world? How would you describe what motivates you?
Lonneke: Ralph and I want to tell a story and stimulate reactions through DRIFT’s work. Reconnecting people with nature using technology is the main message and vision that we aim to convey through all our artworks. It is all about seeing further than the object you have in front of you and really connecting with it. Together, nature and technology have the power to deliver a meaningful message that is way past the simple function of DRIFT’s work. We are motivated to create work that allows us to bring this vision to life.
Grace: How much of the decision-making in your practice is driven by the two of you? Can you describe a typical day in the studio in terms of collaboration with your team?
Ralph: Because we currently have more than 60 people working for the studio, connection is crucial in decision-making for us. We strive to make decisions with our team by harmonising and understanding everyone’s ideas and visions. Although it is nearly impossible to always agree with each other, we reach an agreement by listening and combining perspectives. We achieve this by having regular meetings with the different teams. We use everyone’s different perspectives to our advantage which allows us to challenge the possibilities.
Grace: Obviously, technology has evolved considerably in the 15+ years that DRIFT has been in existence, and sometimes, you’ve had a hand in development, too–I’m thinking about the algorithm behind your drone-based work “Franchise Freedom.” How has your relationship with technology changed over the years? Have you drawn any conclusions about it after having studied and worked with it so directly?
Ralph: Our primary goal has always been to cultivate connections between humanity and nature. These connections are dynamic, but we need technology as a means to form these connections. Ever since we started DRIFT, it has always been our goal to present a positive vision of technology. We’ve learned that when technology is developed based on human instinct and intuition rather than the physical possibilities, we can create meaningful and human-centered technologies.
When we first started DRIFT, we had a vision of translating the murmuration patterns of starlings into a light sculpture. We started researching and developed an algorithm that mimics these patterns. It took over a decade for the technology to make this possible to exist and we developed “Franchise Freedom.” We work with the mentality that anything is possible, constantly pushing the boundaries of technology.
Grace: What does it look like to develop something based on instinct and tuition? How do those two tenets manifest in practice?
Ralph: Our oeuvre is the result of a continuous dialogue between opposites: sophisticated handcraft and innovative technologies; knowledge and intuition, etc. With DRIFT’s work, we strive to create another space where the internal conflict between technology and nature doesn’t exist. That being said, sometimes we must wait till the right technology is developed. We have a big cupboard with ideas and visions waiting for the right moment to come out. By listening to our intuition the creation of a new work can take years, but coming up with the idea is almost a natural flow of our thoughts. We focus on what feels right.
Grace: Where does the internet and its outsized, and sometimes harmful, role in today’s world fit into your understanding of technology?
Ralph: The internet has changed the world. It made our lives easier. However, it also changed us as human beings, in the way we think and act. Thanks to the internet, the line between reality and the digital world is fading rapidly. Our living environment is becoming a virtual place. This causes the relationship between nature, technology, and humanity to change once again. We believe that we live in a time where technology and nature are no longer opposites but are codependent entities. For DRIFT, inspiration and natural phenomena always stand at the epicenter of our works—technology is merely the means to bring our visions to life—whereas the internet allows us to share our visions with as many people as possible.
For DRIFT, inspiration and natural phenomena always stand at the epicenter of our works—technology is merely the means to bring our visions to life—whereas the internet allows us to share our visions with as many people as possible..—Ralph Nauta
Grace: Your work deals a lot with pattern, whether that be something found in nature like murmurations, the heads of flowers, or in the recurring actions, desires, and limitations of humans that seem to repeat across centuries. Can you speak to the idea of pattern and how it both physically and conceptually plays into your practice?
Lonneke: In our work, we mimic the patterns and frequencies present in our natural environment. These patterns are all around us: waves crashing onto shores, the wind blowing into trees, and the murmuration patterns of birds in flight. However, humanity seems to have lost touch with these natural patterns: our heartbeat, thoughts, and breathing are essential, yet often overlooked rhythms. We believe that by mimicking these natural rhythms, we invite people to get back onto the same wavelength and restore connections to the natural patterns in our environment and within. In doing so, we believe we can live more harmoniously, connected to ourselves, each other, and our natural environment.
Grace: Your show, Moments of Connection, is on view now in Hamburg, and all three of the kinetic sculptures included are spectacularly multi-sensory and immersive. I’d love to know more about your focus on the human interaction with your works, especially when they tend to be so grand and allow for multiple ways of experiencing and approaching them (through visible, auditory, and spatial means).
Lonneke: With our work, we really want to tell a story; an uplifting and hopeful new way of thinking about each other and our place in the natural world. By involving as many of the senses as we can, we mimic the natural environment as closely as we can. This is why a performance piece gives certain advantages, in comparison to a permanent work.
As the exhibition Moments of Connection is only visible for a certain period of time at a specific location, it almost becomes a time capsule: an experience you share with a group of people. This forms a connection with that group; a connection that can be felt and contemplated years after, rather than a memory of only a physical object.
Grace: The individual experience and fleeting nature of our perceptions do lend themselves to the time capsule comparison, and yet, I see your works dealing with timeless themes. They’re also often shown in multiple different spaces across many years. How do you balance those two ideas when creating?
Lonneke: In the uncertain times that we live in, nature can offer us support and give us the only direction we can trust. Thus, nature is a constant theme in DRIFT’s works. Most man-made objects have a static form, while everything natural in this world, including people, are subject to constant adaptation to their surroundings. Our kinetic sculptures are the result of how an inanimate object can mimic those changes that express emotion. By keeping this nature theme constant in our work, we want to create a feeling of connection with nature.
In the uncertain times that we live in, nature can offer us support and give us the only direction we can trust…Most man-made objects have a static form, while everything natural in this world, including people, are subject to constant adaptation to their surroundings.—Lonneke Gordijn
Grace: You recently released “DRIFTERS,” a collaborative video work that shows massive concrete monoliths hovering over New York City as a way to rethink our built environments. What visions do you have for shifting what we’ve always done in this realm?
Ralph: Representing a portal to another world, the films portray a group of concrete blocks that float through both familiar and imagined environments in New York City and elsewhere, passing through lush nature and dystopian urban settings. The experience culminates in the transition from the film into the physical realm, as a monumental concrete monolith appears, in an atmosphere of hopeful levitation. The film is a futuristic perspective on how cities can break loose from the conventional system.
In this time, it is essential to reconsider the way we live and how we construct our society and environment. We want to break through set ways of thinking and structures, in order to restore our connection to Earth. “DRIFTERS” takes place in New York, the cultural center in the world that dictates how people should be living, versus a city that is built based on how people live. The infrastructure that was once serving humanity is now leading. “DRIFTERS” breaks loose from that system and invites viewers to think of alternative scenarios.
Grace: Given the breadth of your practice in considering aspects of the climate crisis, consumerism, the human condition, etc., what are some of the issues you see as most pressing or urgent affecting today’s world?
Lonneke: We are living in defining times; as a result of climate change our world is changing rapidly. However, humankind seems to react to the changing planet extremely slowly, numbed by the motionless environments we live in, with little contact with nature. When people lack the feeling of being connected to nature, they will feel no urgency to make a difference to the way we treat our earth. We want to bridge this disconnect with the earth: we believe that by reconnecting humanity with nature through technology, we can create a sense of urgency for the health of the natural world and help acknowledge our dependence on nature. DRIFT is continuously working on creating experiences that bring people together and connect them cultivating a collective mission.
Grace: What are you currently working on? What’s next for you?
Ralph: There are a lot of exciting projects coming in 2022. In April this year, we will celebrate the fifth anniversary of Elbphilharmonie with a large outdoor spectacle, called “Breaking Waves.” Choreographed to the second movement of Thomas Adès’ Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, hundreds of drones will send a signal of joy and movement to the world in the Grand Hall. The installation will premiere on April 28 after nightfall and go on for three consecutive nights. For the rest of the year, DRIFT will keep doing what we have been doing for years, connecting humans and nature through technology.