The following is excerpted from Phaidon's upcoming book on Daan Roosegaarde. The introduction, edited for brevity here, is written by Fumio Nanjo, and the truncated interview that follows is by Nico Daswani.
Design is undergoing change. It has shifted its thinking from simply solving problems to an approach oriented towards drawing attention to social issues. To do so is simultaneously to predict the future, and to put forward a proposal. As a result, design has become an important methodology in contemporary society, going beyond the realm of aesthetics to connect with business, politics, sustainability and environmental issues. Daan Roosegaarde's pioneering work has developed in relation to this shift. His work doesn't necessarily start with finding a solution to a given issue, although he has achieved some remarkable results with his work for the urban environment. It begins as a manifestation of his critical awareness, which he then elevates to a refined form of expression that can only be described as art.
Roosegaarde's early works, developed from 2006 to 2012, are an attempt to generate a dialogue with people using technology. They center on interactivity, with surfaces, colors or lighting changing according to the movements and voices of the audience. In Lotus (2010), semi-circular metal foils attached to the surface of a large dome open and close in response to the temperature of participants' hands. When it is warm, they open, when it is cold, they shrink again‚a basic principle from nature that inspired Roosegaarde to make them move organically.
As early as 2006, Roosegaarde had conceived the environmental work Dune, a field of sapling-like fibers that act as sensors and have LED lights on their tips. When visitors approach, the work welcomes them by lighting up the area around them, accompanied by electronic sounds. When someone speaks, the work reacts more acutely, pursuing the visitor with noises and flickering movement like an approaching creature. Environmental and naturalistic in its supple imitation of nature, Dune functions as a new techno-nature in the city.
At a time when most large cities are mired in problems caused by air and river pollution, as well as waste disposal, and when some island countries and major cities are likely to be submerged under water if atmospheric temperatures increase by just a few degrees, it is not surprising that environmental issues are growing in importance for Roosegaarde's practice. He approaches these issues from the standpoint of design and art, not only to raise awareness but also to find possible solutions. These works traverse the categories of prophetic art and speculative design.
The first work to present these interests was Sustainable Dance Floor (2008). This is a system installed under the dance floor of a nightclub in Rotterdam, which converts the pressure exerted by the dancers; steps into electricity used to power the club's lighting and DJ booth. Notable in relation to this is Waterlicht (2015-present), a grand intervention into the cityscape. It is a work of overwhelming presence that makes manifest a warning about environmental issues. It was achieved using LEDs and a newly developed lens that generates layers of light. This allowed for the creation of a horizontal membrane of light that floats in mid-air, extending over a vast area and at any height, which perpetually shifts and sways like waves. The work was conceived as an attempt to present what would happen if the water level rose in the Netherlands, a country that is protected by embankments.
Another work that acutely encapsulates Roosegaarde's interest in environmental issues is Smog Free Tower (2015-present), an elegant seven-meter-high tower that can clean up to 30,000 cubic meters of air per hour with the use of ionization technology. After being presented in Rotterdam, it was built in Beijing, Tianjin and Krakow, and it was further expanding in China in an attempt to improve the atmospheric condition of large metropolises y purifying the air. Building the towers also has a symbolic value—it is akin to a declaration of intent by a government to acknowledge an environmental problem and solve it.
Behind all these projects lies the concept of schoonheid. This Dutch word, which combines 'beauty' and 'clean,' resonates with all of Roosegaarde's works, where themes like clean outer space, clean air, clean energy, and clean water are given shape through visually stunning aesthetic expressions of sound and light. The philosophy that everything must be schoonheid forms the undercurrent to all of his work.
We are at a point in time in which people's thinking is changing. We are beginning to adopt a worldview where man is acknowledged to be merely a part of nature, the environment and the universe, just like all other living beings, and not the center of it. To become a sustainable presence within this world, we must change our outlooks. Driven by an environmental mission, Daan Roosegaarde's work precisely embodies this spirit of the times.
In so many of your works, like Van Gogh Path, Dune, Windlicht and, of course Smog Free Tower, you’ve created these pockets of utopia where you place people at the heart of the environment. To me, they feel like a political statement—a physical manifestation of the kind of world that you think we should live in. There’s a tension between creating places for dialogue, new ideas and collaborations to emerge, and prescribing a future that you want people to adhere to. How do you see your role within it?
I think maybe the word ‘activist’ is the right one to use here. Not activist in the sense that we go to protest and scream, ‘This has to go!’, but activist in the sense that you make proposals for what you want the world to look like: ‘I’m done with fossil fuels. I’m done with pollution. So this is my proposal for a new world.’ Maybe I’m more like an activator than an activist. I’m not a minister. I’m not a mayor. I can’t say, ‘€20 billion in green energy today.’ What can I do? I can create. I can make things. ‘Okay, let’s make a clean-air park. I can do that. Let’s raise some kick-starter funding. Okay, I can do that too.’ We spend our own time, money and energy on it. You do what you can do in order to make your own reality.
When you work on these pieces, are you thinking that in order to get people into that space you need that moment of reveal? Is there an element of magic, or doing something people don’t expect?
Yes. I want to grab them and shake them up a bit. For example, with Gates of Light, where the headlights of the car reveal this beautiful architectural blueprint, people play with their headlights. They use the big light or they brake so that the red light reflects in their mirror, which I never thought of, but which is actually a really good idea. When the audience does things that I never imagined, that’s the fun part. There are wedding couples taking photos in the Dune pedestrian tunnel. There are couples who get married with the Smog Free Ring. When you do things in public spaces, reality gives interpretations to it that I never thought of. That’s really exciting. When we got a photo of the wedding couple with the Smog Free Ring—that was a good day in the studio because suddenly we were making a connection with the world around us. That’s beautiful. I think the notion of storytelling and making a human connection is important. Otherwise, people just stick to their own pattern. Imagination is a way to break that barrier.
At the same time, we’re over-saturated with images. There’s a twenty-four-hour news cycle. We have psychologists now talking about this phenomenon of compassion fatigue. There’s this gradual lessening over time of our capacity to feel compassion because we just can’t cope with the amount of negative images we’re bombarded with. If we’re being surprised, it’s potentially for a commercial purpose. It’s to try and get your attention.
Yes, you’re treated as a consumer. You’re basically a product. We’ve become robot food.
More broadly, should our work in the arts seek to address this broader idea of compassion fatigue? In a way, you do it thematically—you talk about environment and sustainability. How do we help bring compassion back? How do you do it when people either feel defensive, because there’s a big banner behind it with a corporate ad, or because they feel as if they just can’t deal with it?
Exactly. It’s too big. We need to make it small. That’s why I made the Smog Free Ring. The pollution we’re dying from—it’s too big, so we try to make it small. We make it into a ring. It’s a story. You can take it home. You can share it. You can show it. You can wear it. I think there’s an incredible power in making it physical. If you use the word ‘app’ in my studio, you’re more or less fired. We don’t believe in screens. We’re very interested in what happens when technology jumps out of the screen. That’s why the notion of interactivity is so important—you feel that you’re somehow part of it.
The viewer is part of the making of the work?
Yes. Viewers are part of the identity of the work; they’re activators.
When you talk about identity, especially when you look at some of the political realities in Europe, where we have so much more polarization, do you feel like some of our identity crisis is related to a lack of belonging?
I think people have a hard time believing in things now. There’s also a lack of curiosity about the future. When I look at the 1960s and 1970s, it was all about the future—people in every creative field was coming up with stuff like walking cities, floating cities, Concorde, ‘The Jetsons’ cartoon, Star Trek. People were just curious about what the future would look like. We don’t have that today. We’re scared: ‘The robots will take over our jobs. AI will dominate us. China will own everything.’ There was an interesting article in The New York Times. It said that our fear of the future makes us incapable of envisioning a collective future and prevents us from making a real change. We prefer to keep what we have, although we know it’s bad, rather than investing in something new. We’re sort of stuck. There’s a lack of a collective vision. That’s why we don’t dare to go that extra mile forward.
There’s fear but there’s also, in many parts of the world, a lot of tech optimism. There’s this idea that technology will fix everything; this kind of Hegelian feeling that everything, at some point, can be rationalized. Time and time again, in our thirst for technological progress, there are these unintended consequences that can have so many ramifications for so many people. One obvious example is the atom bomb and Oppenheimer never wanting it to become "the destroyer of worlds." Every time you create something, you create new possible consequences. If you invent the car, you simultaneously invent the possibility of the car crash. Do you feel a responsibility to try to plan for the unknown unknowns and unintended consequences?
Absolutely. The Space Waste Lab we’re working on, for example—there are a lot of international agencies involved because we’re tracking 29,000 particles larger than ten centimeters in space. We’re shooting light up in the sky to track space waste at an altitude of 200–20,000 kilometers. We’re very careful in selecting the partners we work with. We had a number of big oil companies who wanted to invest in our projects, notably in the Smog Free Project. We declined because we realized it was just window-dressing. I could never have looked at myself in the mirror. It would never make the project grow in a real way. I find partners with the right intentions and who become co-owners of the project. After two to five years, they pick it up and they make the project grow. You can really do that by selecting the right partner.
So how do you mitigate that? Because art takes a life of its own once you put it out there.
I’m aware of this. As an artist, you need to accept that in the end, it’s up to society. I’m like a tennis player, who hopes that someone hits the idea back so we can keep playing.
So you’re opening up this space for imagination. However, many of your pieces present tangible solutions as well. Where do you think that comes from?
Maybe it’s a Dutch thing. Because we live below sea level, we have to be practical in order not to drown. Maybe it’s my education, being surrounded by mathematics and scientists. Or maybe it’s just my idea, because I don’t want to hide in a white cube with a sign, "Please Do Not Touch." I’ve always felt trapped by definitions. The first question people always ask is ‘Is it art? Is it science? Is it design? Is it architecture?’
I purposefully didn’t ask that question!
I swear to God, if somebody asks me that question one more time [laughs]. I’m not interested in defining things—I’m interested in exploring.
Let’s take the Space Waste Lab, for example. You said you didn’t know anything about it.
Most people will look at that, and say, ‘Why is this guy doing something on space waste? He doesn’t have the expertise.’ If you were an artist in a more conventional sense, you’d give an interpretation of the problem. I think one of the reasons why people are interested by your work is because you’re creating these beautiful visuals, but you’re also offering tangible solutions.
I see it as a journey. Sometimes it’s more poetic, like Waterlicht, and sometimes it’s more functional, like Gates of Light. I think it stems from a desire to create an impact. That’s the word. How can we make art that isn’t elitist but resonates with our life and our culture? A lot of the challenges we’re facing—rising sea levels, CO2, traffic jams—are the result of bad or unconscious design. We’ve created it. It’s not nature. So we can do two things: we can either be in mourning mode or we can say, ‘The best way to fix bad design is good design’ and design our way out of it. And I feel it’s my job as an artist to come up with proposals, get some smart people in a room with a pizza hotline and say, ‘OK, nobody leaves until we have a solution,’ and then go out there and present it to a sheikh from Dubai, or to a minister, or a student, and say, ‘Hey, why don’t we do this?’
Of course, there is an entrepreneurial side to it. My entire family was in trading—they’d import spices from Dutch Indonesia. The entrepreneurial bit is part of my DNA, so why wouldn’t I use that skill? I know it makes it hard to define what I do, but maybe that’s a good thing. It makes it less sellable in a commercial way. I don’t have a gallery but I have my own studio. And when I meet other creative people we share the same struggles and the same language. It’s very much like a group of people with a big dream.
At the same time, there’s a quest for purity in your work—purer connection between human beings and the environment, cleaner air, removing waste from space, but also removing noise and distraction in order to be able to see. It’s almost as if you’d like to provide a sacred space.
True. You know who would be one of my favorite clients? The Vatican. If you think about it, for historical artists, churches were what multimedia installations are today—you have sound, light, space, stories that you don’t understand because they’re in Latin but you listen to them anyway. I’d love to make something that people can believe in and make them feel part of the world.
Is that a spiritual thing or are you a bit of a neat freak as well?
That’s interesting. No, it’s definitely an intrinsic desire to improve myself and the world around me. We can do better and we should do better. There are places in the world where waste from one system is food for the other system. It becomes circular. Singapore or the Netherlands, for example, where the relationship between nature, people, and landscape is more balanced. Have you ever read Paul Hawken’s Drawdown? It’s a great book. He put forward 100 ideas on how to fight global change, the food industry, technology, all scientifically checked, and also what kind of investment is needed. You should really check it out. Most solutions are already there—it’s our hidden capital. So yes, I think it all boils down to my intention to improve things and not be satisfied with the world we live in.
You’re dealing with complex issues for which there’s no silver bullet. And we know that in order to solve them we need time, commitment, political will, trial and error. I remember you once said that "Waiting for politicians is boring, so we shouldn’t ask for permission." But at the same time you acknowledge that for change to happen you need citizens, artists but also politicians and business leaders. You’ve been to Davos, where all these people intersect and have these conversations. Do you think it’s still a valid model, or are these problems just too complex and we need to find a better way?
I think the model is still valid. I’m just worried it’s already too late. But we have an obligation to be positive. Do you know how much money we spend on a war every day? Somewhere around €1.9 billion per day. Every time we have this discussion about innovation, people say, ‘Yes, but it’s expensive.’ ‘No. You know what’s really expensive? War.’ What I’d like to propose is a war-free day. One day, no war. I don’t think people will miss it that much for a day. And we can spend that money—1.9 billion—on new ideas. There are so many great ideas out there that only exist on paper and are waiting to be tested. We need to invest in them. And we’re not doing that. But also, we need a sort of collective vision. You know, when I take a short flight by plane, it’s the same as driving a car for the whole year, in terms of pollution. I mean it’s horrible. And I fly every week: guilty as charged. And why is that? Because years ago, when they designed the airplane, nobody cared about clean air. It wasn’t on their wish list. Now if you design a plane, it will be on the top of the list. We live in an economy defined by time and money. But we’re transforming to a new economy that’s about clean air, clean energy, clean water, a sustainable future. So it’s not only about money or technology, but about setting values, new standards of what we find important. I think we can do it. We have an obligation to be positive…
Yes. To try, to create, to learn, to fail, to push, and to evolve. It was so cool the first time I was in Davos four years ago. People challenged me. They pushed me to think harder. On the way back, I realized it was time to think bigger. It was a really powerful moment for me.
I wonder if you have any thoughts on how to make the creative fields more inclusive so that they can really be an engine for change, of structural inclusion, and not just a window for it.
I think creativity is our true capital. When I lecture I always show this slide about what some prominent thinkers concluded are the ten most important skills in 2020. The top three spots are occupied by Complex Problem Solving, Critical Thinking, and Creativity. Robots and computers are not particularly good at any of them. So yes, machines will take over the garbage collector, the taxi driver and the accountant, but that means that our unique human skills will become more important: the ability to learn, the desire to learn, the desire to create, the desire to share. We need to trigger the diversity within ourselves.
Mark Twain is credited with saying that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes. You were talking about fear earlier. Arguably we’re going through a challenging time in the history of humanity. Where do you think we’re heading?
I think we’re faced with two options. There’s the George Orwell scenario, where technology will dominate us, or there’s the Leonardo da Vinci scenario, where we’ll dominate technology. Whether we like it or not, technology is our language. It shouldn’t be regulated by governments or corporations. It’s our toolkit. It’s like air—everybody owns it. At the same time, it needs to be fueled with ideas of what we want the world to look like if we want it to work. What do we want from technology? What does technology want from us? What do we want from the world? What can we give to the world? If we’re continuously allowing the powers that be to treat us as consumers, we’ll never go anywhere. People complain that computer companies are taking our data. Well, what did you expect? If it’s free, you’re the product.
What do you think about misinformation in this context? The strategy now seems to bombard people with so many facts, real or fake, that eventually we’re not really sure who or what we can trust.
I think the best way to deliver a message is to bring it as close as possible to the people. If I discuss pollution in terms of nanoparticles, people will look at me in a funny way, but if I say, ‘It’s like passively inhaling 16 cigarettes per day,’ they get it. I see it like throwing a rock in a river and creating some ripples. I put a Smog Free Tower in Beijing and learnt from that. I’m like a happy infiltrator, you know?
Is that how you envision your career in the future? As the rock thrower making ripples?
Yes. The future right now is the Space Waste Lab.
So what’s the story with that project?
It’s a problem. There’s an orbit of space junk circling around the planet. More than 29,000 particles larger than 10 centimeters. And nobody really knows how to fix it. If any of these space waste particles hits a working satellite, that satellite will break down. No more GPS, and with our future 5G, no more Facebook, no more websites, no more banking. What we did was to visualize, through huge lines of light, this space junk and track it in real time. We have these pyramids of light real-time tracking the junk above our heads. We presented it at the beginning of October in the Netherlands and then it should travel to Luxembourg, where they have a space mining program to attract new business, and then to NASA Houston. The second part is to take a leap. We spent billions of Euros to send materials up there to space. Can we use the space waste to print houses on the moon? When they hit each other, can we generate energy from the crash to fuel other satellites? If we attract a terminally broken satellite to the earth in a kind of controlled way via a net, and it goes through the atmosphere, it burns. Can we use it to create artificial falling stars as replacements for fireworks, which are very polluting?
I’m not smarter than ESA or NASA, but I can add a fresh perspective to it. Because right now, to clean up space waste costs billions of Euros. Who’s going to do it? All the countries with a space presence say, ‘It’s not our problem.’ Everybody is blaming each other, but the reality is that sooner or later, a piece of space junk is going to hit a satellite and as this will collide with more particles, that nobody will be able to communicate for weeks or months. We are creating a layer of junk around our Earth.
What do you think is the ultimate goal of what you do?
I guess I’d like to live in a world where projects like that are no longer considered special. A world where my grandchildren would ask, ‘Grandpa, what did you do when you were young?’ Then I’d say, ‘We built this smog tower in Beijing that sucks up pollution and gives clean air,’ and then the child would ask, ‘What is pollution?’ They’d have no notion because it wouldn’t exist anymore. I’d love to live in a world where the things I do now are completely obsolete. A world where bicycle paths are light emitting because, ‘Come on, are you really going to burn street lights the whole night? That’s really stupid.’ Until then, we have quite some work to do.
I think people change for two reasons—love and desperation. The love and curiosity groups are quite small, whereas the desperation and fear groups become bigger and bigger. Whether we like it or not, the bigger the desperate group becomes, the more likely it is that change will happen.
I wouldn’t be so negative. The history of the world is punctuated by people and movements who achieved and inspired quite extraordinary things.
It’s funny that you mention this. I was watching an old documentary about John Fitzgerald Kennedy yesterday. He was talking about the decision to go to the moon not being dictated by the fact that it was easy, but because it was hard. That’s really powerful. Look, ten years ago, I was broke. I’ve been kicked out of school twice. When I started doing what I do, everybody said, ‘You’re crazy.’ But look at me now. I can play, I have a great team, I can take my own money and start a new project. It’s always scary when you create your own reality, but it’s also exciting because it stems from your curiosity. Sooner or later I’ll go to space because of the Space Waste Lab, but I’m afraid of heights. So I’m pushing myself now. I went paragliding. You’re stuck within this frame of aluminum and plastic, and then you have to run, and then suddenly the earth isn’t there anymore, and you just can’t stop. You don’t look down, you look forward. And for about one and a half seconds you think you’re going to die, and then the wind catches you, pushes you up and you slowly land. It was beautiful. I’m pushing my fears, but no matter what, they’ll always be there. They’re part of my identity. I don’t try to erase them, because it’s good to be scared as well—it’s part of who you are—but I try to tease them and push them a bit, and it’s a great way of getting to know myself.
We’re always talking about happiness as being comfortable. No, that’s not right: do things that annoy you. Do things that you’re scared of. It’s really fun. You push yourself. I think if we challenge ourselves more, and we base our decisions on curiosity, not on fear, we‘ll have a whole different attitude. Not, ‘What if it doesn’t work?’, but ‘What if it works? Not, ‘What if it’s not possible?’, but ‘What if it’s possible?’