A flock of drones that fly like birds, drifting blocks of concrete, a choreography of opening and closing flowers. The work of Studio Drift is challenging the distinction between the wonders of nature and the creations of man. Their work goes beyond replicating nature; it questions the very essence of it.

Studio Drift combines the efforts of artists Ralph Nauta and Lonneke Gordijn. We are invited into their lively and spacious studio in Amsterdam, that is filled with installations in progress. Surrounded by intriguing sketches and experiments, we talk to Lonneke about their drift to connect – to nature, to each other and to oneself.

Combining drifts

Lonneke and Ralph met at the Design Academy in Eindhoven and started Studio Drift in 2007, two years after their graduation. “It wasn’t really intentional, but we naturally developed a joint style. Our work merged together. And after a while, we started to define our work and initiated Studio Drift,” Lonneke explains.

As Lonneke describes it, their work is about the connection between people and their surroundings. “We all recognize the moment of pure happiness when you have a good conversation and all elements of that moment are in tune. In that same manner, you can be aligned with your natural surroundings.”

“When you look at the clouds passing by in the sky, when you are listening to the sound of the waves arriving at the beach or staring into a fire. These repetitive movements calm us down. We use those movements of nature to recreate this feeling of being in tune – with ourselves, with each other and with nature.”

Lonneke also finds this state of calmness while harvesting dandelions, which she does every year for their continuous work Fragile Future. “How the dandelion thinks, behaves... there is an intelligence to it, it works as a community. In a single plant, I recognize how we as humans behave. That is the most beautiful thing to discover.”

Technology versus nature

In the era of smartphone addiction and information overload, using technology to recreate the calming effect of nature might seem contradictory. Isn’t technology the thing that distances us from nature? Lonneke passionately disagrees. “Technology in itself doesn’t mean anything. Technology is created by people. It is not overstimulating in itself; it is how we handle it.”

Studio Drift uses technology to bring objects or environments to life, which allows the audience to sympathize with those objects. “But,” Lonneke acknowledges, “it does require lots of research and correct programming to capture the right feeling. Sometimes the movement can be quite aggressive. We continue our work until it hits the right spot. It’s a very intuitive process.”

To her, nature and technology are not oppositional at all. “In nature, there is an endless chain of stimuli and organisms that react to each other. Think about the flock of birds and the predator that disrupts its shape. And as humans, we cut a piece out of the chain and isolate it – that’s what we call technology. We control the input and calculate the output. By using technology, you will learn about the complexity of nature. And essentially, this complexity of nature cannot be captured within the frame of technology. Because there will always be new, unexpected stimuli.”

Blocks and boxes

Ever since humans are domesticated, technological systems facilitate our modern lifestyle. This isolation of technology from nature leads to the disconnection that we experience. “Some systems feel like they are being forced upon us. They do not feel natural, because there is a missing link.”

To Ralph and Lonneke, it is important to question those systems. Why do we live how we live? And can we bend an existing system into something that feels natural? One of those systems that does not feel natural are blocks and boxes, on which the installation Drifter reflects.

Filmshot from Drifters, a 12-minute film in which the concrete block represents the basic element of our built environment

“Blocks are a system designed by people; they do not exist in nature. A single block doesn’t do anything, it is only functional in combination with other blocks to build something. Especially a concrete block feels inhumane, heavy and merciless. It is an obstacle. But when it starts hovering in the air, it suddenly comes to life. You can relate to the object. The movement gives it a different feel.”

Lonneke is fascinated by the way we structure our lives in both physical and mental boxes. “Boxes are safe, because every corner is visible. You see what you get. But at some point, the box becomes a prison that we want to break out off. That is strange and fascinating to me. We have designed this structure, but it also distances us from our real needs.”

Free the drones

In their own work, they aim to let go of pre-set boxes and set their creations free. “Intervening public space is especially interesting because it creates an audience that normally doesn’t visit galleries or museums. We are actively searching for the audience and how to connect to it.”

Setting their work free becomes literal in Franchise Freedom. The autonomous flying swarm of lighted drones has roamed the skies of Miami, Amsterdam and Burning Man. The drones engage with the natural environment and react to unexpected stimuli.

An autonomous flying swarm of hundreds of drones, Franchise Freedom exposes the tension between individual freedom and safety in numbers.

Franchise Freedom is the result of years of study on the characteristics of flocks of birds. “Flocks of birds are very similar to groups of people, when you look at them from a distance. We are not always in control.” And even though we associate birds with freedom and independence, that isn’t always the case. “Sometimes the birds are leading, sometimes they are following. They pick a direction, but also react to external factors such as predators. They make the same kind of choices as we do, day in and day out.”

From control to evolution

It becomes clear that plants and animals are moving along with the rhythm of nature, while we as humans try to fight and control it, even though we will always be part of nature. “Technological innovation is part of evolution. A lot of technologies are envisioned and prototyped, but only a few of them work well, resonate with our needs and become successful. To me, that is exactly the same as natural evolution.”

From that perspective, we do not have to be scared of technology taking over. “I trust in human leniency, but Ralph and I don’t agree on that,” Lonneke laughs. “To me, technology isn’t frightening. I hope technology will take some of our workload and create more room to connect with each other.”

New technologies offer a lot of possibilities, such as artificial intelligence. “Artificial intelligence is such an abstract concept, similar to the internet. In the past 500 years, knowledge has been categorized and fragmented among different disciplines of science. I believe artificial intelligence will be able to connect those fragments again. We have this need, this tendency to connect. That’s where we need to go.”

And eventually, we will end up with nature again. “But from a whole different perspective. Evolution is our goal; becoming better people. Technology is only helping us to get there. So, what exactly is nature, and where do we this want development to go? That is what we need to talk about. And we, at Studio Drift, want to be a part of that conversation.”

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