Walls of “intelligent” aluminum flowers, digital plants that light up and react to passers-by, “wired” clothing… The works of Dutch artist Daan Roosegaarde convey a strange synergy between technology and humanity, with a backdrop of organic architectural poetry. Interview with the creator.

Daan, your tactile and high-tech projects initiate interesting encounters between the city, nature and people—in particular the Dune series, which you first developed in the Maastunnel, an underground passage outside Rotterdam. This installation of digital “plants” reacting luminously to sounds and passers-by is very representative of your work, as it delicately mixes digital elements with organic references. This idea of interactivity in public space can also be found in your work Interactive Landscape. What is it about this approach that interests you? How has it been influenced by your background, your taste in architecture, and more precisely architectural design?

I’ll go back to when I was 16 years old and still in high school. Our class went on a field trip to visit the Netherlands Architecture Institute (NAi), which was presenting a big exhibition of incredible wooden models made by Arata Isozaki. I was completely fascinated. It was at this moment that I understood that I wanted to “make things”, to be somehow in touch with the world. My first interest was in concepts of scale and space, in particular the relationship between the body and its immediate environment. A few years later, I became interested in time and the calculations that go with it. That’s when I started working on concepts of interactivity.

Interactive landscape 'Dune'_ Daan Roosegaarde from Daan Roosegaarde on Vimeo.

In 2008, I went to Japan to meet the curators of YCAM (Yamaguchi Center for Arts and Media) regarding our interactive piece Liquid Space 6.0. As soon as I got out of the taxi and saw the museum, I recognized the building as one of Isozaki’s models. So we invited him to the opening, and he came. I have a photo of Isozaki and me at the heart of Liquid Space, talking about how architecture can create a link with the public in terms of real-time experience. He was passionate about the subject, which evidently stimulated his always sharp thinking. For me, this conversation was like coming full circle.

Liquid Space 6.0_ Daan Roosegaarde from Daan Roosegaarde on Vimeo.

That said, before that decisive visit to NAi, I always loved buildings and making things. I grew up in Holland, surrounded by dams and water. Some of these dams were especially steep, and my sister and I had fun putting wheels on cabinets and racing down the slopes. When I think about it, it was pretty dangerous. We couldn’t really brake; we could have broken our necks. But like all children, we were fascinated by the wild side of nature around us. We made our own improvised equipment, like pulling a cable across the swamps. Already at that age, I thought about how I could adapt to my environment.

Today, it’s true that technology plays big a role in my work. In my studio with my team, we spend a lot of time developing all this. But at the same time, we don’t just put on a display of machines and computers. We try to use technology to personalize or socialize a space. The question is how to marry nature and technology? I’m always asking myself how we can improve this analogue world, with the idea that it can be an extension of what we are. For me, the key is to reinvent, to “update” reality—in short, to make it more human.

But beyond this idea of updating reality, most of your pieces, such as Dune, function as a series, with versions that evolve over time. It’s as if code becomes your DNA, inspiring works-in-progress with a touch of poetry, for example Lotus, the organic and reactive wall strewn with “intelligent” aluminum flowers…Lotus - interactive art wall by Daan Roosegaarde from Daan Roosegaarde on Vimeo.

Yes, I would say that most of my works function as sequences of interactive stories. I have this wish that art will go on forever. That’s the main reason why I’ve been using technology since I was old enough to open a can of food, and that the viewer is a direct element of the artistic identity of my work.

Dune was directly inspired by a trip I made to Morocco when I was in my twenties. I was watching the horizon line of the desert. At first sight, everything seemed completely static. But I finally noticed that this line was constantly interrupted by moving silhouettes of nomads crossing the landscape. The hot air of the desert totally blurred the silhouettes, producing a curious effect in form. This fascinated me, and I always wondered how this would render in our urban environment, in a city such as Shanghai, for example. How could we blend this natural tactile sensation of objects with technology in futuristic landscapes that would remain emotionally connected to us? My idea is to reconciliate this interactivity and this poetry with our senses. So I thought of pieces such as Dune and Lotus as possible future “landscapes”.

Another important point about the idea of a series is that you don’t just cut and paste the same piece when you rework it for a new exhibition venue. I’d say it’s more like “copy-morph”. It’s also a way of learning from our previous shows, from the different interactions with the visitors. This feeds our updates. So if we show Dune in Shanghai, the interactive experience will be slightly different from the previous one in Hong Kong, for example. I believe it’s these little details that create a real interaction with the public.

Nature and technology have a lot in common. However they evolve, the components of these two entities live and die. That’s why I like to re-situate elements of nature using new approaches, both futuristic and organic. This sort of “new nature” is at the heart of my work. It’s a form of techno-poetry.

In many of your works, movement seems to be at the heart of the interactivity: viewers moving around the work as in Flow 5.0 (which was included in the Imagine exhibition this spring at Stedelijk Museum Den Bosch); or the work itself moving, as in the series Liquid Space, where the piece physically interacts, growing, shrinking or lighting up like a kind of choreographed robotic ballet…

Smart Wall FLOW 5.0 by Daan Roosegaarde from Daan Roosegaarde on Vimeo.

The concept is the same—to update our senses by reconnecting them with nature. We need this “new grammar”, because the general rhythm of our lives is affected daily by our overexposure to multiple forms of media. I’m interested in what happens when technology comes out of the screen to become an integral part of our walls, our cityscapes, even our bodies. What would a Facebook plaza look like? Could we create “intelligent highways” capable of generating their own electricity? These are all topics that interest me, always with the same idea of making the world more interactive, more sustainable.

So it’s not surprising to find you working for a program dedicated to interactive sound and light pillars such as Sensor Valley 8.0, commissioned by the cultural center of Assen in the Netherlands. You had already developed object-forms of this caliber for the projects Lunar and Marbles…

Sensor Valley is the largest-ever concentration in Europe of pillars using sensors to trigger light and sound sequences that interact with the public. The people of Assen call them “knuffelpilaren” [literally, “hug pillars”], as they react directly to not only movement but also touch. The city has a long history with sensor technology. Studio Roosegaarde’s experience in social design and innovative LED research won us a place among 125 other projects selected to be on permanent exhibit in the entry hall of the new cultural center. It’s an interesting project, because it contributes very concretely to this idea of improving the world through the daily behavior of residents, using these tactile landscapes that integrate the city, light and the population. It’s very stimulating. There’s even a restaurant that put a dessert representing these luminous pillars on its menu.

SENSOR VALLEY Interactive hugging pillars by Studio Roosegaarde from Daan Roosegaarde on Vimeo.

One of your more recent projects is related to the fashion field. Intimacy references “wired” clothing with dresses composed of “intelligent” aluminum leaves, which become transparent by virtue of these infamous principles of interaction

Intimacy explores the relationship between intimacy and technology in the form of a second skin. The question is how far we can take this experiment, while remaining true to the idea that this use of technology makes us more human. These dresses were an incredibly quick success. We’re already working on the 3.0 series. It’s fascinating, because I’m not familiar with the fashion world. It’s great to be able to enter it through this project.

Intimacy 2.0 Interactive fashion by Studio Roosegaarde from Daan Roosegaarde on Vimeo.

You often use the pronoun “we”. Even though you’re known as a solo artist, your core of collaborators at Studio Roosegaarde seems very important…

Great painters such as Rembrandt and Rubens also worked within artistic communities. It’s ideal for transcending the visionary and technical approach. I totally adhere to this concept, even if the period is different and the medium has changed. The studio is a super tool for developing and expressing the emotions or ideas that I can have with my team of designers and engineers. We are very enthusiastic about creating special things. Within the team, some are devoted to developing our proprietary system Microchip, for the controllers and the software, while others are specialized in hardware and interactivity.

Managing a creative studio when you’re an artist is like following a balanced diet. If I chose to focus exclusively on lucrative projects, while neglecting the creative parameter, the resulting pieces would be boring. On the other hand, if I only focus on artistic activities, I won’t be able to develop the technology that feeds them. Harmonizing these two approaches creates the necessary tension. It’s a kind of suspense that leads to a magical side, a bit like a dream lab. 

Where will the dream manifest itself next?

Currently we’re working on several large-scale, long-term interactive installations in the cities of Shanghai, Eindhoven and Stockholm. But my latest baby is the “intelligent highway” that I mentioned earlier. It’s an interactive, sustainable project developed with the company BTP Heijmans. We’re also working on a few on-site installations, of which the most intriguing is no doubt the renovation of a big mining tunnel for the Sydney Art Biennial, where we’ll show all the versions of Dune.

interview by Laurent Catala

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photos: Daan Roosegaarde Studio



Published in Digitalarti Mag #10

Digitalarti Mag, the international magazine about art and digital innovation

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