I have turned into a flower
A dandelion, if I may say,
Spewing out wishes
Like pink floss
Across the wind
That blows them away
Towards a forgotten end.
These words pour out of me as I speak with Ralph Nauta, the artist of the sculpture work Fragile Future, and the co-founder of Studio Drift. Here, Nauta speaks to STIR about the synergy of nature and technology in the work, the fragile dandelions in the work being a testimony to the precarious state of ecology in the present times, which seems to urgently call upon us to pay attention before it drifts towards a forgotten end, taking us along with it.
Studio Drift - The Beginning
Nauta, who founded Studio Drift along with Lonneke Gordjin in 2006 post graduating from the Design Academy Eindhoven, Netherlands, constantly explores the interlinkages between nature and technology through art, questioning human ethics, behaviours and actions in the process.
For Nauta, his interest in sci-fi and all things technology began rather early on. As a child, he reminisces, “I explored all the ways to escape reality and the planet we live on. I was not a big fan of society; rather, I was always next to society, looking at it rather than being a part of it.” It wasn’t until 1999, when he met Gordjin at the Design Academy, that he actually wanted to contribute something to the world. While Nauta excelled in technological craftsmanship, Gordjin brought in a vision of nature and sublimity. During conversations at school then, they figured out that the two were not so far apart from each other as one would think. As Nauta explains, “Technology is inspired by our natural environment. We realised that the two have a strong relevance to each other and subsequently started to combine the two in our work.”
Technology is inspired by our natural environment. We realised that the two have a strong relevance to each other and subsequently started to combine the two in our work. – Ralph Nauta
Studio Drift’s first commission then was to design a seat in a botanical garden. This was in 2007. As Nauta explains, “We made a bench with a pattern of a spider, which was about the influence of drugs. It was inspired by old NASA research where they gave the spider different kinds of drugs so one spider got tea, another coffee and so on and so forth, and everyone made a web. We used this web as a pattern on these benches. The project was a great success and since then Lonneke and I have tried exploring the intersection of nature and science and this is where we ended up now.”
Their latest work Fragile Future III, currently on display as part of the group exhibition Dysfunctional organised by the Carpenters Workshop Gallery at the Venice Biennale 2019, is a work Nauta and Gordjin have been working on for 14 years. Starting out as Gordjin’s graduation project, the inspiration behind it was the fragility and anonymity of a dandelion flower. Nauta describes how “when people have a dandelion in their backyard, they often call it an annoying weed, but if you place it in a museum, suddenly people go like ‘Oh My God, it’s a dandelion!’” For Nauta then, this experience was a realisation of how when you take a thing out of its context, the relevance and perception of it changes. It was also, as Nauta says, “relevant for learning how to look again at certain elements and details.”
However, creating a work which was symbolic of the co-existence of this relationship between nature and technology was no easy task. Yet, both Nauta and Gordjin strive to not just create an artwork, but rather imbue their work with “an uncontrollable natural element that emanates a natural frequency that you would normally have in nature like while walking the mountains or looking at the ocean or seeing a fire burning,” as Nauta describes. “These are things you never get bored of.”
An uncontrollable natural element that emanates a natural frequency that you would normally have in nature like while walking the mountains or looking at the ocean or seeing a fire burning, these are the things you never get bored of. – Ralph Nauta
Fragile Future, then, is made of intricate bronze LED circuits attached to real dandelions, the light itself responding to the space. This movement of light is what “gives the work life and causes a transformation of energy,” according to Nauta, since the work is “always moving like an organism, so you never get bored of it.” Perfectionists at heart and in their craft, both Nauta and Gordjin like to execute ideas to the maximum of their capacity and capability.
Nauta attributes their long-lasting fascination with the dandelion, creating different iterations of Fragile Future over the years to this longing for perfection and the drive to achieve it. He laughs, “I still love to make different sculptures with it. It’s like there is this endless form of life and I think that’s why people recognise it and I can keep telling the story for so long without getting bored of it.”
Nauta’s another deep-seated fascination is with the project Franchise Freedom, a performative sculpture, which he started working on 10 years ago. Taking the swarm algorithm out of another work Flylight, he worked with scientists and universities along with collaborating with INTEL, and other drone hobbyists to make drones both externally as well as in-house to physically project swarm patterns in the sky. What was interesting about the research on swarm patterns, as Nauta narrates is, “we implemented the scientific research of the swarming algorithms and at a certain point, it started circling on its own and we had to figure out like 60 different patterns to influence the swarm behaviours to get to the final visual of the way a swarm behaves in nature.”
Nauta may also link the work to the migration of birds that might be extinct soon in the performance’s next iterations. The 10-minute art performance, which was earlier showcased at the Art Basel Miami, Amsterdam, and Burning Man in 2018, will tour the world to not only offer the experience to as many people as possible but to also have multiple places as backdrops.
Do we need technology or nature to survive? Should we protect nature with technology, the same technology that might have disrupted the natural culture that we have evaded so extremely? – Ralph Nauta
Describing the concept of the project, Nauta explains, “It speaks about the question of freedom, like do you want to be part of a group or you have this illusion of freedom? For example, when you see a swarm of birds in the sky, you think it’s more free, but it’s actually all bound to rules. There is actually no freedom. It’s the same with ourselves in society. You have to choose which part of the fence do you want to be on? Do you want to be in a group completely protected but with no freedom whatsoever, or outside the group on your own, living a more risky and hard life, but free? You have to make a choice somewhere, but most people don’t even realise there is a choice.” The title then references this illusion of freedom. While Nauta has repeatedly chosen the road less travelled, our conversation ends with him asking me, “What side am I on”?
Working at the cross-section of nature and science, Nauta’s work opens a conversation about whether the two need each other? He goes one step further to pose the questions, “Do we need technology or nature to survive? Should we protect nature with technology, the same technology that might have disrupted the natural culture that we have evaded so extremely?” It is time we ask ourselves which side are we on or better yet, are the two sides mutually exclusive?