Studio Drift

Interview & Photography by: Mart Engelen


Fragile Future, Brazil 2014 by Studio Drift
Oil on canvas, 218.8 x 201.9 cm
Sheldon Museum of Art, University of Nebraska


Studio Drift was founded by Lonneke Gordijn (born in 1980 in Alkmaar, the Netherlands) and Ralph Nauta (born in 1978 in Swindon, UK) in 2007, since when they have been producing multi-disciplinary installations, sculptures, objects and films. Works by Studio Drift have been acquired by the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, Museum Voorlinden in Wassenaar and numerous private collectors. Their work has been exhibited worldwide at leading museums, fairs and institutes including the World Expo Shanghai (China) and La Biennale di Venezia (Italy). Time to have a conversation with this talented couple about their art, design and inspiration.

Mart Engelen: You could say that the old school principle was that someone who graduated as a designer would develop products that might then be marketed widely by manufacturers. But your installations and designs were very quickly identified as art and then actually bought as art. Was this in fact the idea when you began Studio Drift?
Lonneke Gordijn: Neither of us really made products during our training. We were always busier with concepts and installations. You made objects or situations against the system. And we didn’t really have a strategy when we graduated. We actually started making what we found very interesting. There’s emotion in this. We are looking for some kind of experience that touches you, that touches us and that is still interesting every time we look at it ourselves. That’s the point for us. You have to make so many concessions if you work as a product designer for industry.
You have to be so good that you can design something in that way and I don’t think that’s our strength. Our strength is in making those few pieces that can also give a lot of people an experience. It is not so much about having those things; it’s more about the feeling you get when you look at them. Like the Shylight in the Rijksmuseum.
ME: Where do you think the fine line between art and design lies? And when does design become art?
Ralph Nauta: I think you would do better to ask for a definition of art. And fit what you yourself do inside it. In the end, you can do anything; a play can be a work of art. Or a film, even a website. Why shouldn’t design be art? Why, in fact, is this a relevant question in this respect? It’s more; you have a set of skills that you inherit or learn in your youth through your training, or you teach yourself something. Ultimately, you want to tell a story or convey a message. In art, it is sometimes so much the case that if an object can have a function people often really wonder whether it is art. But a functional object can also tell a story. We’ve never made functional objects but …
LG: You can also take a good look at the function.
RN: Yes, that can actually be very interesting. For example, Ai Weiwei uses chairs in his work. Why is that art? If a product designer creates a chair that tells a story, it is less likely to be seen as art compared with Ai Weiwei. Is that simply because he is in the market as an artist or is it that people don’t know how to deal with either object. And they stick very firmly to what they know. What is interesting in my opinion, and I think in Lonneke’s opinion too, is the reason we started to work together and that we like looking at society as a whole as a structure and examining why there are certain patterns that work and what this means and how can we add something to it.
ME: Your philosophy is to create a dialogue between opposites such as nature and technology, knowledge and intuition but where exactly do you complement each other creatively?
LG: That’s a good question. We are quite different, but our dialogue has never stopped since we met. We were always in discussion, marvelling at how the world was put together. Ralph had a theory about that and I responded. We stimulate each other enormously. Nothing I say would ever occur to Ralph and vice versa. It’s still interesting to have that discussion. We both look at things from a very different angle, but we always get to the same point. There is never one single truth; there are several truths and we try to bring them together. For example, I was never interested in science fiction; a war in space—that didn’t interest me at all. But Ralph said, “That’s not what it’s about. I’m not into the story. The point is the technologies that have been thought up, perhaps in the future we can think about how society is depicted in those movies.” And through him I started seeing those movies very differently. Until then, I hadn’t watched them, but
he made them interesting for me and you can look at them in a different light In contrast, I draw a lot of information from things I see in nature and I connect them with all sorts of other things. Because I see a lot of links between really tiny things and big things in nature. Economic systems, the road network. They are all interconnected and I find that very interesting. And in some way or another they become a story. After thorough discussion, a time always comes when we agree with each other. And then we know it’s alright.
ME: Who were your heroes when you were studying?
RN: My heroes were Arlo Eisenberg, Jon Julio, B Love Hardin, Terje Haakonsen. You’ve probably never heard of any of them.
ME: That’s right.
RN: They are pro inline skaters and pro snowboarders from that time. But then, and even now, I don’t really examine what other artists are doing. It is more that I come into contact with them, but more as an equal or as a co-creative than looking up to them.
ME: But you don’t have to look up to them …
RN: No, it’s more than that. I don’t look at what they do because that bit of creativity and how you develop is something you naturally do yourself. The less I know about what others are doing the purer my own thoughts are. The purer the reflection of myself is in the things I find interesting. These are indeed natural processes, and that is indeed science fiction.
ME: And you Lonneke?
LG: I lived for a while in London during my training and at the time there was a huge installation by Olafur Eliasson at Tate Modern: a huge sun with a mirror on the ground. I went there so often to look at it and it fascinated me every time. How you could in fact change the behaviour of a whole group of people with very simple resources. That really inspired me. But dance and ballet also inspire me.
ME: We are now ten years further on. Have your sources of inspiration changed?
LG: Not really. Your frame of reference changes. You know a lot more. You appreciate many things much better. But every time we make something that works and is good, I think you can relate it back to how you think as a child. The same themes play a role on many different levels and at different times in your life but in a different way.
RN: These are the things that used to keep you awake at night as a child because you thought they were really cool and you felt it through your whole system. That can be experienced in many ways.
LG: Yes, the more you travel and the more you see of the world, the more people you meet, the more connections you make—that makes me very happy.
ME: Movement is very important in your work, can you tell me something more about that?
RN: Movement and light, the use of light; the point is that it is a direct translation of energy. If you do it in the right way, and we try really hard, you feel that it has a kind
of new life. That’s always what we aim for in our work. That it moves in a certain way and you simply feel that it has taken on a life of its own, but that is in the very fine details.
LG: I think that with movement and light you address a certain intuition that everyone has and feels but that you can’t easily put into words. Movement communicates almost directly with your heart, with your feelings. And we want to make things that a very large number of people understand intuitively. And it simply takes a long time before we reach that point. Because movement is not just the magic word.
ME: Your work is also described as very poetic. I recently saw the Shylight in the Rijksmuseum and I think it is absolutely beautiful and, indeed, poetic. Is that Lonneke’s female touch?
LG: I guard that a lot. I don’t stop until the last little detail is achieved. When I believe in it myself. But we have our own language for this. Ralph understands it too.
I don’t think it only comes from me. Nor does the technology only come from Ralph.
ME: I was very impressed when I saw the video and photos of the In 20 Steps installation which was shown at the Venice Biennale last year. It came across so strongly—the combination of old and new—partly because of the location. It would lose a lot of its force if it was in a large white space. Can you tell me some more about it?
LG: You’re right. We made it specifically for that space and the clarity of the glass almost disappears in the space when the installation hangs motionless.
ME: Why the title In 20 Steps?
RN: The idea came from showing a movement that you saw in the past in photos of, say, a horse running.
ME: A sequence.
RN: Correct. You can see all the different positions at a glance and there are twenty of them. Ultimately, it is about the concept of flying. People always want to try to rise above the earth. We do too and pretty much everything we do is about flying. We can never achieve it because as human beings we are confined to the earth. But the point is not to give up and always to believe that we will succeed one day.
LG: By the way, space plays a hugely important role in our work and so we have for example made the same project in a totally different way for a totally different space.

—Copyright 2016 Mart Engelen


Studio Drift
Photo’s by: Mart Engelen