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Towards an Ergonomics of Emotions

Contribution to DRIFT, Choreographing The Future, Phaidon, 2022

The graceful architecture critic, Ada Louise Huxtable, wrote in The Tall Building Artistically Reconsidered, that a high-rise “draws into its physical being all the factors that propel and characterize modern civilization. The skyscraper is the point where art and the city meet.”[i] We are sometimes fortunate to have art that is as profound as 100-storey structures, for art may have such a wide range of purposes, unlike buildings that have to stand for a long time. Art indeed can be seen as an index of our collective values, and achieve its most interesting state when it signals a shift underway. So it was when the freewheeling twists of postmodern architecture began to give way to more earnest design that considered its carbon footprint and local ecological impact. And so when Studio Drift creates work that piques our emotional and mental states, it can help us to recognize a global phenomenon taking hold, in which the form of the world around us will become consciously shaped by consideration of how it influences us to think and feel.


This is not to say that art and design will become effective forms of therapy very soon. They will not, and it is questionable whether that is even possible or desirable. But there is a set of emergent values legible in the oeuvre of Studio Drift that point the way to greater sensitivity to our troubled, collective mental health. One of the ways this is apparent is how the studio wields not only forms, linking them with eternal human experiences, but with science and technology as well, blending them to build bridges to the archipelago of human emotions. From this perspective, Lonneke Gordijn and Ralph Nauta, the studio’s founders, resurrect, in their unique way of developing craft with new mechanical or digital tools, the kind of fellowship between the arts and sciences that was regarded as normal before the scientific revolution and the dawn of the modern era.[ii] Their resulting works probe paths towards a contemporary quiet through aesthetic experience, achieving with their installations of materials and motion a slow and deliberate peace that is profoundly human and yet almost vanished in the accelerated, developed world.


A milestone for Studio Drift came in the monographic exhibition Coded Nature presented at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam in 2018. It provided a window into the complexity of Studio Drift’s approach to conceiving and making. Unlike most exhibitions, the show included evidence of process, glimpses of working methods and sketches, and samples of inspirations and references, from Christo and Jeanne-Claude to Philip Glass and James Turrell. As helpful as all this was to appreciating the works, the pain and triumph of each creation has a larger story of intentions and emotional impacts. To help contextualize these qualities, to illuminate why the works are so good, how they speak to a part of us we didn’t know was listening, and waiting to be spoken to, it is helpful to reflect on the artists’ histories.


Before attending the Design Academy Eindhoven, Lonneke and Ralph journeyed toward adulthood in supportive homes and sought out wonderment in their early experiences. They wove intricate fantasy worlds and approached nature, a complex concept in the Netherlands, with determined curiosity.[iii] Lonneke kept a garden, in a small town surrounded by farms, and learned the natural cycles that plants and indeed all things living obey in the end. She found inspiration in the work of Jim Henson in Dark Crystal (1982), a much-overlooked masterpiece of mystical world-building supported by experimental technology of the time. In fact, she aspired to work on such projects herself one day and to achieve the highest level of creative and technical mastery.


Gordijn discovered early her creative gifts, the endless stream of original ideas and observations she could generate that seemed fed by a vast ocean. When the time came to select a school for study, with characteristic Dutch directness she applied to her single choice, the Design Academy Eindhoven, full of confidence. Despite all her talent, she failed to be admitted on her first attempt. While she can laugh at the memory, with the wisdom that more than twenty years since that moment of disappointment, it must have been a bruising self-evaluation process. Yet, of course, it did not deter her, as she persisted and found her rightful place at the Academy in 1999. Her resolution has since been tested repeatedly as she has grown a flourishing studio of more than sixty people, but it has never failed. Her creative potency is supported by her continuous investments in building self-knowledge, embracing difficult new tools or perspectives as well as cultural awareness by, for example, spending weeks at time unplugged in every modern way, amongst indigenous people in South America. 


As Nauta recalls his time maturing, it seems he saw and felt in dimensions other young men did not have access to. He perceived more of the world than other people his age: the injustices and inaccuracies, the hypocrisies and the sheer arbitrariness of powerful forces shaping the world. For Ralph, fitting in was not really an option in a society that exalts the status of a banker and dismisses the auto mechanic as simple. He rather found escape into the visionary power of sci-fi on the screen and page. Skating served him as a release, as entry into the physicality of a moment and freedom from the intense emotions his sensitivity provoked, while granting isolation and a sense of unity. He continues to admire the solidarity among skaters, the mix of “vegans and thieves” who turn up at the skate park every day, all set equal and in unspoken confederacy by the pairs of blades strapped to their feet. Ralph grew into the kind of person who held tightly to his convictions. In balance to that relative belief brittleness, his mind could be plastic, so as to be able to take apart and reassemble complex machines. Such activity fed a hunger to know and to make, leading to his acceptance at the Design Academy Eindhoven in 1999.


When Ralph and Lonneke met at school, they had an instantaneous connectivity, despite being vastly different people. They shared the quality of a daring imagination, and allowed that to guide them into close friendship. They found or invented their adventures together, finding new frontiers and testing themselves in a blissful and fearless evolution towards adulthood. And they connected in thought on every topic under and beyond the sun, from the utopias they envisioned, to the essence of consciousness, to the patterns of nature. It was also at this time the two made early works, separately as students, that would anticipate their future. 


Lonneke, while still holding interests in film and animation, undertook a formative experiment involving plants. She buried seeds in individual pots, then exposed them to numerous circumstances, variations of light, water, soil conditions, temperature, anything that could be adjusted. What resulted was an index of variability, a potent metaphor for vulnerability and coincidence told through small plants all along the spectrum between flourishing and barren. This is a sharp lens through which to view aspects of the human condition, the reality of our fates being the product of thousands of small forces, much of them outside of our control. What might we not realize is making us weaker, sapping us of nutrients both physical and social? We are in many ways no different than the plant. How do we know if we are in the right metaphorical soil or getting the right light? There is both a depth and simplicity here that will return in future works, along with themes of progression and illuminating parallels between biological behavior and human nature. 

Ralph developed, among other sensibilities and tools, his own species of critical stance. Telling are two projects completed as a student: braille advertisements and an at-home slaughtering platform. In the former, text that you might expect to appear on a billboard was translated into large, physical forms, the raised surfaces that compose the language, but made so big as to be obstacles or otherwise impractical or cumbersome for a public space. On the surface of it, such a project might appear to be about accessibility for the unsighted but in fact it captures the absurdity of how much space we collectively surrender to the visual pollution of advertising in our public sphere. The surreal character of the oversized braille helps one see the actual surreal nature of how dominant the messages of capitalism are shouted all around us. In the latter project, the concept of locally-produced food is brought to its logical and ethical conclusions. Shouldn’t all of us who partake in meat taste at least once the experience of slaughtering a fellow mammal, to hear its last shriek or whimper as it bleeds out, for the sake of our dining experience?


Overall, the working environment of the academy was a boon to Lonneke and Ralph’s practice, not just because it was the place they met, but because of the curricular emphasis on materiality, reinterpreting traditional methods of making, and finding an individual voice. The supportive and challenging working environment is one where students originate from many backgrounds yet are equalized and pushed to do some of their most original thinking. Studio Drift is but one example of the resounding success of DAE as a generator of graduates prepared for the 21st century; that is, people prepared to thrive in the post-Philips, post-industrial sectors of the economy, which witness the highest value-creation no longer happening from the serial production of objects but rather in more abstract endeavors: influencing or creating new cultures of use, staging emotive experiences, or responding to design’s social impact.


It was soon after leaving Design Academy that Lonneke and Ralph founded their studio in 2007, and quickly became busy producing work inspired by Lonneke’s graduation project, Dandelight. The design’s fusion of biological and technical components, in a way not before seen, exuded delicateness but also revealed stripped-down, metallic, technical components. That work helped support new projects, and brought the studio to the attention of curators and collectors. It was also at this early time, during a visit to the Design Miami fair, that Ralph and Lonneke made a key observation and decision: they didn’t really feel a fit with design shows, they were closer to art, and they recognized that the artworld had more flexibility and was moving faster. They also seemed to intuit that their work was about emotional connection which at that time had been largely outside the design discourse. Being so far ahead of their time, they had to become artists.


Another formative realization arose through the experience of watching an audience interact with the work Shylight for the first time. This work appears to be autonomous in its motion, emerging from a metallic frame in the shape of a pod, then enlarging, almost blossoming outward as its intricate, geometric silken folds catch the air on their downward journey. The visual magic achieved has to do with our deep-seated recognition of how these elements associate with birth, of biological emergence and agency. This is combined with variability in behavior, with each Shylight cycling through different paces and pauses that suggest at one point being reluctant and another more assertive as they drop and then retract upward. When the artists observed people enraptured by the motion of the lights, they understood that it generated emotional resonance, that people could suspend disbelief and think of these creations as beings, even feel a stir of empathy towards them. Further still, they witnessed how people were delighted by that imaginative journey, how it made them, even if just for a moment, feel once more the wonder of being a child.


Shylight can be thought of as an example within the theme of provoking emotional response through motion. It is joined there by the works such as Meadow, Franchise Freedom, In 20 Steps, Drifter, and Amplitude. While different thematic categories sometimes include the same project, these works all share a focus on motion and draw inspiration from biological phenomena. That is not to say they mimic living things or try to represent, comment on, or integrate with them, but rather to observe nature as a starting point. Then, the artists detect the patterns, shapes, colors, sounds, textures, and movements that feel universal, that might trigger, as Shylight, ancient switches in the mind that most of us are not conscious of, but developed over thousands of years and helped us to survive as cooperating, social creatures.


As humans we are drawn to motion, just as we are to warmth and light, and the bright colors of fruits and vegetables that can signal nutrition. Motion can be complex, as it can indicate opportunity as well as a threat. Small insects that are quick can be unnerving, but a family of swans gliding by on the water seems tranquil. Or consider how the speed at which you wave goodbye or nod your head can communicate the depth of your feelings. It is by intuitively capturing of such motions, combined with shape, texture, and color, that the artists achieve an emotive cue. Franchise Freedom is a powerful example of how to harness motion for an effect of feeling. While it is sometimes misunderstood as copying a flock of birds, the work was developed, through countless iterations, until the artists could detect a combination of curiosity and affinity from watching the drones. The viewer projects onto the machines the emotional states they can imagine them having from their kinetic choreography, from togetherness and security to fear and loneliness, all the way to playfulness.


Franchise Freedom is also a work that links with another important theme in Studio Drift’s practice, that of community. Other works that prioritize community thematically are Drifters, Tree of Ténéré, Flylight, and The Particle Plan. These are projects that directly engage via interactivity with multiple people or reflect on the inherent tension between the individual and the group. In the case of Tree of Ténéré, it is the former, the staging of community through linking individuals, via the real-time recording of their biometrics by Muse headbands, and then using those data to change lighting patterns of 175,000 LEDs, attached as leaves to a barren tree. The site-specific installation at Burning Man in 2017 brought people together and supplied them with a reason to remain, to see how the addition of their own data would alter the collective, and hence the patterns of lighting. Beyond that curiosity, the bond of such a temporary community can foment the feeling of belonging we all so naturally crave. Thus, the highly technical project is, in part, about an essentially primitive desire.


The work Drifters is a layered and poetic film populated by symbols. Giant blocks are seen emerging from individual, separate environments and then gliding towards one another in defiance of gravity, ultimately fusing together to form a monumental structure. It presents a futuristic and yet pre-historic aesthetic simultaneously, and leads one to think of animism, or the belief system of many indigenous peoples, that objects, creatures, and even places have their own spirit or soul. Without words, but set to dramatic instrumental music, the blocks are the film’s characters, forming a community or collective, with each component fundamentally identical. It is an ancient human struggle visualized, of negotiating the extent to which we are free or individualistic. Even the most harmonious communities never have the complete answer, as the vicissitudes of the human condition ever frustrate the working systems or rules of any community.


The methodology of Studio Drift, often working with engineers, scientists, or other artists, necessarily relies on a strong command of material science. However, in some cases their work goes another step and foregrounds the theme of materiality, bringing to our attention not only what an object they make consists of, but what composes the world around us. Such works include The Obsidian Project, Concrete Storm, Nola, and Materialism. The first of these involves a novel process of burning chemical wastes that produces synthetic obsidian, that is, volcanic glass that naturally results from cooling lava. There is a glimmer of promise in this work, that otherwise toxic waste could be transformed into useful objects, thereby making the economy of making somewhat more circular. But in creating mirrors with this material, which is unusually effective at absorbing light and heat, it prompts a viewer to see themselves in this product of waste, to be implicated as a consumer responsible for helping change what is currently a doomed system.


The work Materialism takes a similar stance, but illuminates a dimensions of material consumption in a more direct way, by presenting the de-constructed or “de-produced” components of everyday objects. In some cases, this is a source of surprise, as in finding horsehair in a Volkswagen Beetle from 1980, or the sheer quantity of plastic and copper in a single meter of electrical cable. The materials are presented in pure geometries and colors, offering three-dimensional indexes of consumption that make visual rhymes with some iconic works of abstraction from the early 20th century, such as those produced by Malevich, af Klint, and Mondrian. These sculptures are also about the increasing complexity of technology, such as from the Nokia 3210 from 1999 to the iPhone 4 from 2010. Whereas the innards of the former could be roughly understood with basic knowledge of electronics, the latter, largely assembled with ultra-precision automation, requires considerable specialized knowledge to even begin identifying its parts. In sum, the work, like the studio’s approach to materiality generally, is about erecting bridges of understanding between people, with the current technosphere containing so many black boxes few people even think about, and the earth, on which it all relies, at least for as long as it can.


The thematic richness of Studio Drift’s work is a testament to Lonneke and Ralph’s sustained commitment to producing experiences of emotional arousal and connection. Their projects offer the rare combination of appealing to a broad audience, while having depth, piercing through to ideas and tensions that are eternal. The artists also have the boldness to take on completely new media or topics, rather than rely on proven approaches, challenging themselves. In fact, apart from their very capable collaborators, now countable in the several dozens, it is their interactions and conflicts with one another that seem to generate fertile ground for new work. While most people avoid conflict at work, for its emotional riskiness, Lonneke and Ralph embrace it. That is, they seem so comfortable in the knowledge that their goals and overall values are aligned that they are unguarded in their interrogations of the other’s ideas or assumptions in a way that refines their collective efforts. By jumping seamlessly between debate and the dialectical, they arrive at more perfect truths, and then channel those into works that satisfy both of them in their emotional, technical, critical, and aesthetic sensibilities.


The fruit of these labors are projects that can be seen as where fields like design and architecture seem to be headed. As priorities shift towards more inclusion, sensitivity, and mindfulness about how the built and digital worlds influence our thinking and feeling we may hope for design approaches that are more therapeutic. Slow design as a discourse and the emergence of dumb phones are only the beginning. Collective traumas, such as that inflicted by a pandemic, or by systemic forces that leave populations disadvantaged, are, at last, finally coming into view for the majority and the powerful. The art of Studio Drift may be expressive and singular, but its universality glows with the values of the best design, with unmistakable empathy and elegance. This illuminates a path forward for all the applied arts.






[i] To confirm quote, my copy of the book is in New York (!)

[ii] See Applied Curiosity, by Hugh Aldersey-Williams, in Design and The Elastic Mind, MoMA. 46-57.

[iii] See (source on Nature / Netherlands, TK)

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