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  • Drifter, Studio Drift, 2017, mixed media with concrete, robotics and tracking system. Photo: COURTESY PACE GALLERY, NEW YORK / GERT JAN VAN ROOIJ

Beyond nature

Jane Szita reviews Studio Drift’s Coded Nature exhibition

Like a large-scale conjuring trick, an enormous block, seemingly made of concrete, greets visitors to Studio Drift’s Coded Nature exhibition in the Stedelijk Museum. Slowly bobbing and gyrating far above visitors’ heads, it’s a gravity defying enigma: there are no wires and no tracks. The only clue to how it’s done is a low-pitched humming motor sound. Are there drones inside? Studio Drift – Lonneke Gordijn and Ralph Nauta, who founded the outfit in 2007 – refuse to say. ‘We never tell,’ says Nauta.

Drifter, as the block is called, is the opener and great attention-grabber of Studio Drift’s first solo exhibition (and the Stedelijk’s furthest foray into technology yet), having also stolen the show last year at the Armory fair in New York. And, as a monolith evocative of 2001: A Space Odyssey that floats like a cloud (though a particularly blocky and noisy one), it does a good job of continuing the consistent theme of the Amsterdam-based designers’ work: its combination of nature and science-fictionesque technology. This narrative is strong enough to link together the varied range of pieces on show in Coded Nature, which covers the studio’s decade of output.

Studio Drift. Photo: COURTESY PACE GALLERY, NEW YORK / GERT JAN VAN ROOIJ

‘When we met, we were students at Design Academy Eindhoven,’ says Lonneke Gordijn. ‘My big interest was nature, while Ralph was a science fiction fan. I’d never seen a sci-fi film. He taught me how to look at them, and we were able to interest each other in these very different worlds.’ Pieces like Franchise Freedom marry these contrasting, often conflicting spheres. Present as a video recording in the exhibition, Franchise Freedom – a cloud of 300 luminous drones that flew over Miami Beach like a flock of starlings – represents the kind of balance they are able to achieve. In this case, computer algorithms added starling flight patterns to the drones’ software, enabling them to fly in the same eerily beautiful murmurations seen in the birds. The result is harmonious and lovely, but also oddly disquieting.

When Studio Drift was founded in 2007, Gordijn had already attracted attention with her delicate light sculpture, Fragile Future (2005), which involved painstakingly glueing dandelion seed heads, seed by seed, to LEDs, and powering them with bronze electric circuits. The piece has become Studio Drift’s signature work, recreated for a variety of different venues and now part of the Stedelijk’s permanent collection.

In this exhibition, the latest Fragile Future iteration fills a room to stunning effect. Ethereal and haunting, each one of its uncountable number of dandelion clocks was, like the original, picked and glued by hand. The staggering amount of work involved (today undertaken by a studio staff of 20) helps to explain why Coded Nature took three months of preparation. ‘We’re very hands-on,’ says Gordijn. ‘The making is a big part of what we do.’

Studio Drift. Photo: COURTESY PACE GALLERY, NEW YORK / GERT JAN VAN ROOIJ

Light is a major Studio Drift theme, brought to life by algorithms that react to user movements. In this way, pieces like Tree of Ténéré (an interactive collaboration for Burning Man that delights with its many thousands of colour-changing LED leaves) beautifully usurp the miraculous nature of the real thing. Shylights, an installation of silken lampshades, mimics the circadian rhythms of flowers as the shades open and close in a hypnotic choreography reminiscent of the movements of jellyfish. In all of these, the question is: when technology perfects its mimicry, what happens to nature itself?

The answer may be provided by the ‘augmented reality’ work, Concrete Storm. Visitors don special glasses (HoloLens from Microsoft) to watch hologram images glide over an installation of concrete elements, forming a spectral forest of stone ‘trees’ buckling and fragmenting in the wind. Concrete Storm embodies the ambivalence that, even more than technological innovation and perfectionist execution, really animates Studio Drift’s work. ‘I was always more from the dark side of things, while Lonneke is more focused on the positive,’ says Nauta. In Coded Nature, the two views are never perfectly reconciled, leaving the viewer energised by a doubtful truce between optimism and pessimism, familiarity and strangeness, and organic and cybernetic visions.

Jane Szita is a freelance writer

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