Daan Roosegaarde: In search of Nature 2.0

Published on January 28th, 2008

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An Interview with Daan Roosegaarde

by Annet Dekker

Making things is like having a strange taste in your mouth, the ingredients of which you can’t yet identify. So you go in search of the ingredients. You start reading, writing, talking with others, travelling, stealing, whatever is necessary to get a hold of those ingredients.

Daan Roosegaarde began his studies at the Art Academy in Enschede as a sculptor, and continued with a Masters course in architecture at the Berlage Institute in Rotterdam. These two different directions form the basis for his interest in human conduct in a space that is designed with various media and technologies. In his installations Roosegaarde tries to construct a physical relation between the visitors and the outward appearance of the space. With a software programmer – and thanks to support from the Axis Stuifmeel company – he has set to work on designing and building his ‘liquid’ constructions. These are structures that investigate the dynamic relations among architecture, new media and human behaviour. Elements such as time, sound and movement are used to record human presence. In this manner a liquid situation arises in which the actions of the public continually affect a new balance between act, space and object.

Daan Roosegaarde began his studies at the Art Academy in Enschede as a sculptor, and continued with a Masters course in architecture at the Berlage Institute in Rotterdam. These two different directions form the basis for his interest in human conduct in a space that is designed with various media and technologies. In his installations Roosegaarde tries to construct a physical relation between the visitors and the outward appearance of the space. With a software programmer – and thanks to support from the Axis Stuifmeel company – he has set to work on designing and building his ‘liquid’ constructions. These are structures that investigate the dynamic relations among architecture, new media and human behaviour. Elements such as time, sound and movement are used to record human presence. In this manner a liquid situation arises in which the actions of the public continually affect a new balance between act, space and object.

Annet Dekker [AD]: From sculpture to architect via new media: a broad basis. Where did it all begin?

Daan Roosegaarde [DR]: I was travelling in Morocco, and was utterly fascinated by the desert. I was looking constantly at the horizon, at how that abstract line was continually being influenced by the nomads who were walking there, and by the atmospheric refraction from the heat. That is a picture that has always stuck with me. During the trip I did a lot of sketches, and only when I came back to the art academy did I begin to think about it and translated the sketches into a sort of materiality. It seems to me as a visual artist that that process is fascinating. I began making models, heated bedsprings with which I made flowing lines until they became an object, a sculpture that you could set up outdoors.

AD: Why bedsprings? A reference to Aladdin and his flying carpet through the desert?

DR: There were various reasons. First, there is the reference to dreams, sleep and all sorts of other things you do on a bed. In addition, there were lots of them available in the junk shop: a very practical reason. I am always looking around for what is on hand, and focus on that. But the formal aspect that grabbed me about beds is that in principle they are not pliant and flexible. They wanted to stay in the same form while I, on the contrary, wanted to make a flowing line. By warming the whole thing up the tubes began to bend or break and ultimately I got that flowing line, but the springs of course chose the shortest path. It would have been very different if I had used normal sheet steel. Now I got a tension that was palpable.

Aesthetically it became a beautiful sculpture, but what irritated me about the piece was its stasis. The whole process of making things is very dynamic: travelling, drawing, constructing, discussing with various parties, looking, putting it somewhere. And then it just stands there. You can look at it, you can think it is beautiful or ugly, but there is not really a relation with its surroundings or with the viewer. Ok, perhaps in a mental manner, but nothing more than that. That left me disappointed. The dynamic that you encounter when making things interests me, and I want to bring that across.

I have always been irritated by the ‘idiom of spaces or of architecture’. It’s a language that has been used since the Greeks to define space, and it begins with doors, walls and windows. A sum total of these is just a composite, while I’m interested making something that is never finished, and where the visitor, as the main parameter, makes it personal.

In my third year at the Academy in Enschede in 2002/3 I therefore got the idea of making a form that responded on the basis of sound and movement. I wanted to create a liquid space. I began with simple steel models, but it very quickly became obvious that if you want to have direct transformations, some sort of technology is indispensable. In cooperation the polytechnic and the university we therefore began to develop software, together with a bunch of hardware, electronics and mechanical stuff. Ultimately there was a shape of eight by four by five meters, the roof of which had an amplitude of a half meter, and which was also where the sound and light were. As you walked into the installation the steel bent and that set off the different scenarios. When you came in the installation stretched out and if you sat somewhere it slowly became smaller again. The physical reaction that arose through the interaction between the visitor and the space interested me enormously.

AD: After Enschede you went to the Berlage Institute. Did you want to go from sculpture to architecture in order to make something bigger?

DR: Scale is something that I am constantly searching out, but it is not so much a question of larger, largest. What’s so beautiful about architecture is that you are dealing with several parties that all want and make their own things. It has its own context, and that fascinates me. For large projects you have to deal with different parties, from the Department of Transportation to a Port Authority, with whom you have to negotiate, and that all have their own input. As I said before, it is not only the interaction between the visitor and the work that I find interesting, but also the interaction, the process during the making. That is one of the reasons that I set up Studio Roosegaarde. I find it interesting to stick a software programmer, a materials fabricator and a cultural institution in one space and see what it could be meaningful to realize. For me they are all ingredients for a successful project; a software programmer has his input by writing the software, a machine shop by producing a piece of frictionless equipment, and the cultural institution places it in a theoretical or cultural discussion. But what I find incredible about architecture is its enormous drive for development, depth and research, certainly compared to the art world. That too is an increase in scale that is interesting.

I am not so much interested in designing buildings, as in making something that stands in a relation to something else. That can be a social relation, or a cultural one, or even a technical or theoretical one. Public space is the most suitable place for showing this, because that is the environment where people live, their habitat. Furthermore, the interesting thing about public space is that there is a unsuspected dynamic, something that you can not influence or even take into account. If you want to make installations, you have to enter into a relation with the visitor. But in a gallery the average visitor’s attention span is one to three minutes, while if you put something into public space you force people to enter into a relation with it because it is simply in their path. There you can stumble across – and cram in – an unprecedented diversity. The context then defines the work.

AD: Why is interaction so important for you?

DR: I want the visitor to enter into some kind of relation with the work, and get feedback flowing back and forth. I am not interested in saying something like ‘I find blue beautiful’, or ‘I find red beautiful’. It only becomes interesting when blue next to red begins to mean something else; I find that transformation important. I want to materialize that effect, make it physical, not just taking place in the mind.

I’d like to eliminate the whole idea that, like artists, I make something that people can look at. I find it annoying when people walk into my installation and the whole time they are there they are being reminded of the maker, behind the screens but constantly perceptible. It used to be you had performance art, where the artist did something for the audience. The public looked on, and that was the show. Now sometimes you have the situation, as with Liquid, where suddenly the visitor becomes the performer, because he or she wants to know what happened there and how the object is going to react to it. Now and then I’ll watch, and at those moments it’s a good question who the artist is. It’s about making something that generates something and sets it in motion. It’s a sort of hands-off approach.

The challenge is to make something that is going to respond in its own way, that not only has an ‘off’ and ‘on’ but that has a personal relation and its own will. The nice thing about software is that you get one thing if you clap your hands once, and something different if you clap your hands twice.

AD: Do you think that the public recognizes such communication, and can communicate and possibly reflect on the work?

DR: The important thing is that the technology merges into the object so thoroughly that it is hardly visible, so that people can no longer trace it or go looking for the gimmick. If it is good, a natural communication exists, where you can expect some things and others not, just like the meeting between two people who aren’t acquainted with one another. In principle there must be an object that you see, and not a technical marvel.

In the first installations that I did there were twenty or thirty different options in them, which resulted in totally random actions. We then went back to much larger pieces. You come in and something happens. Gradually you also learn how you can get perception and experience to coincide. That is the key. Then something happens together with something that is more than before, you slowly get to know the object, and then you begin to play with it to create a new situation.

AD: With the title Dune 4.0 you seem to be saying that a new version of nature is on its way – a technological nature. What is nature for you? Does it respond only to human actions, or does it learn from them and create its own identity?

DR: The latter – absolutely! I think that nature is evolving in a new way. Rather than oxygen, it will seek data.

You can plant trees in an urban environment, but how much sense does that make? It is more interesting to seek a new content, an upgrade, in which you can look at what meaning the change has. The function of nature can be to equalize things. It can also be a function to nourish and to reveal; I believe ever more strongly in that. Nature itself is unpredictable, frightening sometimes, it very clearly has its own identity. Strangely enough, we have people who want to control it as much as possible. I try to turn that around. Of course, in a 21st century manner – thus technology becomes nature.

To me, my work has been natural for a long time now, but not yet for others. For instance, if I walk into the space where Liquid stands, and the installation gets bigger, for me that is a natural feeling, it literally opens itself up. Ultimately it is a very banal naturalness: you, walking through a corridor and the corridor moves with you, you, walking into a room and it stretches with you. At the same time I also want to give my objects a double side, both very sensual and very dangerous. I do that because I believe in diversity.

AD: You are increasingly inclined to artificial intelligence. You set the parameters and the interaction and the machine does the rest. How far will you go with it?

DR: A very long ways! Let art become more dangerous again! If I walk into Liquid and a make a lot of racket and the roof comes plunging down toward me, I still find that scary. It makes me aware that what I do has an effect. Perhaps I do want to couple physical consequences to behaviour. I think that you have to explore these borders.

AD: Do you want to improve mankind?

DR: I wouldn’t call it ‘improving’. I do want to make an opinion or behaviour visible. Whether that behaviour is good or bad doesn’t matter; my chief concern is letting it be seen. I want to make the relation that you have with what you do and the effect that it has on the rest of the networks in which you move visible.

During the Cold War identity was based on the fact of which side of the Iron Curtain you lived on. In place of the Curtain there are now networks, one world wide network. Now it is no longer a question of where your rockets are aimed, but how fast your modem is, whom you are in contact with. I can imagine that you go in search there, and make visible relations that have always been there.

I want to make the networks visible, and the effect they have on the individual. If you walk down the corridor past Dune, it lights up where you walk. That is very visual and general, but you could go much further. For instance, what effect does it have if there are several people in the space with the installation at the same time? The installation will increasingly act as an interface, an intermediary between different people.

AD: What was your inspiration for Dune?

DR: It was a mix of things that were dreamed with things that can be seen in reality. It is futuristic deja vu. It always has to do with what happened in the past and things that are going to happen in the future, blended together in the present. What I mean is that it does not run chronologically. The relational network is so diffuse, if you change a parameter somewhere, the rest changes too. Things don’t run chronologically either. When I talked about the bed sculptures it seemed as if there were first the nomads and the desert and then the beds, as if there is an orderly sequence in making things; that is rubbish. Only when I finish a sculpture and look at it from a distance, then I can see where it came from.

But Dune is based on nature and walking in an landscape and in the harbour where there are lots of lights and activity everywhere. I myself then linked them together. In art there is often a mystification of reality, while I, on the contrary, am interested in banality, in the now, you, and the thing, and what happens there.

With Dune in the Netherlands Media Art Institute I wanted to enter into a relation with the corridor itself, with the people who walk through it, with the everyday actions that take place there. Rather than you having a situation where there is no relation between you and your space, you try to make something that responds to it in a quiet manner – not to demand attention every time, but to make a situation that reveals the relations between you and other people, you and the space, you and the outside world.

The best thing is an installation that responds to its environment that never has to be turned on or off any more. An installation that is always on, collects data and processes it and defines its own identity on that basis. That’s where I see my task as an artist, to make that connection and realize objects of that sort. That’s why I think its sad if only the analogue, the tangible, the aesthetic is seen, because for me that is all just intended as the vehicle for realizing the soft construction. For me aesthetics is nothing more than a gate to entice people to come inside, to challenge them to become a participant. Things should be ever more merged together, that is something that we are busy with now. We’re also developing all sorts of special things. But sometimes you go down to the home improvement centre and another time you work for four months on one detail. I am very deeply occupied with seeking out new materials, myself. I think that that will emerge in a more extreme form in my future work. I also think that that is where the craftsmanship lies, in having all the things fuse together so that they are hardly there any more.

AD: Is that connected with what you call liquid?

DR: Yes, but liquid does not mean without friction. Liquid means that it is adaptive in a particular manner, that it can adjust itself. An piece can also be problematic, annoying, irritating, friendly or aggressive.

AD: I find that a striking characteristic of your work is precisely the coarseness, the almost industrial design. Doesn’t that distract from the intention of making an object liquid, from having things fuse together with one another?

DR: I also want to reveal how the form came about, that it is a part of a process. Output in which the technology is not invisible irritates me. Certain mechanical elements make a specific sound, they peep or snap…

AD: When do you decide whether or not to exhibit something?

DR: For each project I try to seek a relation between the hard and soft construction. The soft construction is the software, interaction, things that are physically tangible. The hardware is the vehicle. The parameters differ for each project.

It is an interplay between my instinct as a sculptor to produce a sculpture on the one hand, and on the other hand my fundamental urge to let go of all that in order to give the visitor more room to enter into a relation with the piece. Dune has something real, and something unreal about it at the same time. It is ‘Alice in Technoland’.

AR: What do you mean by ‘Alice in Technoland’?

DR: Dune has something strange, something poetic. But is also just about tubes, and in the outside world about the wind that lashes away at it and the little vandals that want to smash it up. The last thing that I would want to do is to seek out a sort of idyll, go and show somewhere in a white cube where everything is beautifully finished. I want to show precisely the hard reality that embeds virtual reality, and that’s why the form looks so ‘rough’.

AD: What is the difference between amusement and your work?

DR: Despite the fact that I make interactive installations that are emotional or play off feelings, I am always critical with regard to my senses. That is also the difference between a carnival attraction and an interactive installation. You constantly ask yourself, why am I feeling something? What is it? Where does it come from? How should I situate it?
My work must have critical feedback. It doesn’t try to just stimulate and entertain, it can also have unpleasant or annoying sides, or provoke. In amusement everything runs perfectly, smoothly, without obstacles.

For me, when I start to make something, I am acting out of an internal need, not external pressure that says ‘you’re going to do this, make something beautiful from it’. For me, the real work is the dynamic in the studio every day.

AD: Do you feel a connection with the movement that is characterized as ‘emotional architecture’?

DR: I see the potential in it. It is interesting to produce architecture that is coupled with the behaviour of the user and which is responsive, adaptive, that mutates space in real time. If, for instance, I am walking through Dune 4.0 and, depending on where I am I hear sound in front of me and behind me, that gives me an enormous spatial feeling. It gives me the idea that I can go in any direction. That is also the reason that there is sound in it, to let the experience go on longer.

All the installations that I have made up to now are prototypes for eventual implementation in architecture and public space. Showing is a wonderful laboratory for trying things out, to see what will work and what doesn’t. You must phase things, and this is a way you can do that.

The most important thing for me remains the journey itself, the discovery, the exploring. I make a piece because I want to discover something, but by the time it is finished I’m already busy with something else. In that sense every installation is a follow-up on an earlier one, in which a detail is being worked out further. In this way things are always getting ‘copy-morphed’. The best thing about the process is that you are constantly placing yourself in a situation that you don’t know. You are in a process in which you go in search of ingredients, data, things that you can realize. It’s that process that is most interesting for me. That’s why I believe in the high production of work and innovation, because when things are in movement they have the capacity to change, and of course that’s what it is all about.

AD: What characterizes Studio Roosegaarde? To what extent does it reflect a new means of production?

DR: It’s characterized by the coherence among its various parts. It would be absurd to say that I make the installations all by myself. The studio is a network in which collaboration takes place. Every person there has his own individual contribution to add. Everyone also gets credit. What we have is not a copyright, but more a sort of ‘commonright’. People outside the studio can possibly use – or reuse – things again so long as they do that under the umbrella of Studio Roosegaarde. I don’t think that you can just set software that you’ve worked on for a year out with the garbage, for anybody to pick up, but you also must not block all access to it either. I am also dependent on fresh input from outside. Therefore the Studio offers space, technology, infrastructure and knowledge. Studio Roosegaarde is really a moderated platform. I think that that is the only way to let things develop to the best results.


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