A Conversation With DRIFT

A Conversation With DRIFT


Artists Lonneke Gordijn and Ralph Nauta founded their Amsterdam-based, multidisciplinary studio, DRIFT, 15 years ago. Now, working with a 64-person team, the designers use cutting-edge technology to create interactive and innovative natural and man-made structures that have been exhibited globally from London’s Victoria & Albert Museum to the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. On the heels of DRIFT's first-ever solo exhibition in New York at The Shed, The 10,000 spoke to Gordijn and Nauta about their process, mission, and the role of technology and sound in their practice.

The two of you met while studying at the Design Academy Eindhoven. What drove you to start a studio together?

During our studies we always discussed our different interests. Ralph has always been into science fiction, while I was always interested in natural phenomena. We realised then that these worlds may not be so far apart as we thought. Both of us would ask ourselves: “Why are things the way they are?” or “How can we change the world?” We would climb up an abandoned building and spend hours philosophising about this. We inspire each other to look beyond our notions of art and design and this drove us to found DRIFT in 2007 as a multidisciplinary studio. In our work we merge our interests in installations that remind us of being human in a rapidly changing environment in which technology plays a central role. 

DRIFT was founded in 2007—over 14 years ago. Was the studio always interested in showcasing the role of technology in society?

Our primary goal has always been to bring connections between nature and humanity. We believe that these connections are dynamic, but we need technology as a means to cultivate these connections, replicating and representing the existing natural patterns humanity has lost touch with. To this end we want to present a positive vision of technology. We want to play an active role in human-centered technological developments and show that nature and technology can work together as a single entity. Although it sounds paradoxical at first, we would like to show that technology can be utilised intuitively, to cultivate a deeper connection between humanity and nature. We embraced technology from the conception of DRIFT and were pioneers in this sense as we did this before the technological revolution that’s going on now. Now, technology has become a core pillar of many art practices, which is very fun to see. 

Header Image: DRIFT, Meadow, 2017. Installation view at Superblue Miami, 2021. Photo: Oriol Tarridas Photography

What role do you believe artists play in tackling environmental issues?

We are living in defining times: the world is changing desperately as a result of climate change. 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 don’t feel connected to nature, they will feel no urgency to alter the way we treat our home planet.  DRIFT wants to bridge this disconnect with the earth: we believe that by reconnecting humanity with nature through technology, we can create a sense of urgency of the health of the natural world and help acknowledge our dependence on nature. 

The studio often collaborates with engineers, computer programmers, and scientists for your projects. How important is that type of collaboration to your practice and what’s the result of these collaborations?

We develop all of the tech for our work in house. We have a team of over 60 which includes artists and designers, but also technicians and engineers. Because of this we can draw from different perspectives and create something at the intersection of art and technology. We all work with the idea that anything is possible, but the reality is that we are sometimes ahead in our thinking and are limited by current day technology. We are always on the lookout for the right technology to help create our vision and try to think of new ways to make our vision come true. The multidisciplinary approach has allowed us to create artworks we had envisioned for years, such as Tree of Ténéré. Combining perspectives allowed us to create a technological tree with a light choreography that responds to the environment the way real trees do.

How long does it take the team to realize and then complete the projects?

A lot of our work has had a long process from its conception. When we’re convinced about a certain project and want to make it happen, we don’t let it go for years. Because we want our work to closely resemble nature and its rhythms, we spend years researching before we actually produce the work. Back in 2007, we started researching and capturing the flocking behavior of starlings in an algorithm because we were inspired by the juxtaposition of freedom of the individual and safety of the group that can be seen in these murmurations. We wanted to translate this flocking behavior into a light performance, but the technology to create this did not exist yet. So, we produced Flylight. Flylight is an interactive light installation with an algorithm that responds to environmental triggers. The algorithm makes light move through suspended glass beams as if they were a flock of birds. It took 10 years of research before we finally found the tech to make this happen. 

A few of DRIFT’s projects—especially Meadow and the recently closed exhibition “Fragile Future”—revolve around kinetic sculptures that move in sync and are choreographed to soundtracks. How does the studio think about the technology of sound—and sound in general—in relation to its practice?

With our performance work we want to tell a story: a story of connection with each other and the natural world. A performance work demands a different type of attention: the work is only visible at a certain period in time and at a certain location so you need to ensure you are part of it or the moment is lost to you forever. By using a soundtrack we can involve as many senses as we can in the performance to create a truly multi-sensory experience. This way performance becomes a time capsule: a shared experience with the others who witnessed it that exists only in memory. Revisiting the sound makes you relive that experience.

Anohni contributed music to the “Fragile Future” exhibition, how did that collaboration come about?

We got introduced to each other by The Shed. We always imagined our performance Drifters to go with specially composed music; it adds a lot to the experience. We started working together with Anohni in New York when we were setting up the exhibition. We got to understand each other and it is always something special when you work with other artists.

What’s next for DRIFT?

There are a lot of projects on our calendar for 2022. We will present a large outdoor sculpture, Breaking Waves, in April this year for the anniversary of the Elbphilharmonie. We want to send a signal of joy and movement with an aerial performance of hundreds of luminous drones choreographed to the second movement of Thomas Adès’ Concerto for Piano and Orchestra which will be performed in the Grand Hall. The installation will premiere on April 28 and after nightfall on the 3 consecutive nights. 

Video courtesy of DRIFT.

DRIFT: Tree of Ténéré (2017) for Burning Man Festival, Black Rock Desert, 2017. Photos courtesy of DRIFT
DRIFT: Tree of Ténéré (2017) for Burning Man Festival, Black Rock Desert, 2017. Photos courtesy of DRIFT
DRIFT: Tree of Ténéré (2021), permanent installation in Deep Ellum, Dallas, Texas, 2021. Photo by Arjen van Eijk  Xinixfilms
DRIFT: Tree of Ténéré (2021), permanent installation in Deep Ellum, Dallas, Texas, 2021. Photo by Arjen van Eijk Xinixfilms
DRIFT: Fragile Future (2007) at Cidade Matarazzo, Sao Paolo, 2014. Photos courtesy of DRIFT.
DRIFT: Fragile Future (2007) at Cidade Matarazzo, Sao Paolo, 2014. Photos courtesy of DRIFT.
DRIFT: Fragile Future (detail) (2007) for 'Moments of Connection' at Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, 2021. Photo by Henning Rogge.
DRIFT: Fragile Future (detail) (2007) for 'Moments of Connection' at Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, 2021. Photo by Henning Rogge.
DRIFT: Drifter (2017), performance view in the McCourt Space for 'Fragile Future' at The Shed, New York, 2021. Photo courtesy of DRIFT.
DRIFT: Drifter (2017), performance view in the McCourt Space for 'Fragile Future' at The Shed, New York, 2021. Photo courtesy of DRIFT.
DRIFT: Shylight for 'Moments of Connection' at Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, 2021. Photo by Henning Rogge.
DRIFT: Shylight for 'Moments of Connection' at Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, 2021. Photo by Henning Rogge.
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