Dutch artist and innovator Daan Roosegaarde and his team create landscapes of the future. The Yak spoke to him about how collaborative design can once again connect people to nature, how he’s helping the fireflies return to Bali and what motivates him to create ‘clean beauty’.
Daan, your projects are mind-blowing! How did this journey start?
My mantra ‘schoonheid’ is a Dutch word with two meanings: ‘beauty’, as in creativity, and ‘clean’, as in clean air and clean energy. For me, these should be fundamental conditions of daily life. Basically I always had people telling me what I wanted was not possible. So I’m happy to have a dedicated team of designers and engineers who now work to make dreams come true, and show how we can upgrade reality.
What do you hope to achieve as an organisation? Do you believe what you do is advancing human existence, or replacing our need for stimulation?
We first have to imagine a better future and only then can we create it. People won’t change because of numbers. But if we can trigger curiosity for a better world, that’s how to activate people. I don’t believe in utopia, but in protopia; improving the world around us step by step. Let’s use the power of beauty as a strategy to help people to accept change. Light is such a great language.
Your projects are so high-tech and innovative, it boggles the mind what you can do. But are they truly useful, and it what ways?
Works include WATERLICHT (a virtual flood showing the power of water), SMOG FREE PROJECT (the world’s first outdoor air purifier which turns smog into jewellery), SMART HIGHWAY (roads that charge throughout the day and glow at night), SPACE WASTE LAB (visualising and up-cycling space waste); the world’s first URBAN SUN (cleans public spaces of the coronavirus) recently SEEING STARS (switching off all the city lights to bring back the stars) and the new organic fireworks SPARK as an alternative for polluting traditional fireworks. So yes, I think many of these are useful.
How are your initiatives linked to dealing with the fundamental problems we face with the planet today? How are you effecting change, not just as artists, but practically?
I love to take a problem and transform it into a potential, look at it from a new perspective. Creativity is our true new capital. Art is a great activator; to make people curious, not scared about the future.
Your Seeing Stars project in many ways replicates Bali’s Nyepi Day of Silence, in that it encourages a collective mass switch off of all lights … how difficult was that to achieve, and what were the benefits, do you think?
In Seeing Stars, our UNESCO-partnered project, we bring the stars back to your street by switching off all the city lights. It’s a simple idea, but incredibly complicated to execute, with all the citizens, entrepreneurs and city government working together.
The city of Leiden was a remarkable experiment for the project: we called it Seeing Stars Leiden. In the wide vicinity of the Leiden Observatory, all the lights were turned off by thousands of citizens. Although it was cloudy, we suddenly saw Saturn and other stars in the historical streets. It was so mysterious to walk with so many people in a dark city. I felt like an astronaut on Earth. Finally, the rain stopped, and the clouds opened. Then, the whole city fell quiet. And stars appeared. Jupiter, Saturn, even the International Space Station.
At a time of biodiversity loss, climate crisis, and energy crisis (even the Eiffel Tower in Paris is being switched off) we show the beauty of less, together. All citizens, entrepreneurs and the government were involved in switching off the lights, which is extremely moving to see happening. We can reveal magic together. Join, share and let’s make this a global movement.
Everybody should have the right to see the stars through an unpolluted night sky. Looking at the stars makes us feel connected to each other, we are all part of the immense cosmos. This is the communal and universal heritage I strive for. Seeing Stars is an important step forward.
Tell us about your organic firework project…
SPARK is our organic firework idea, inspired by the magical light of fireflies, and the desire to update the ritual of fireworks. The result is a poetic performance of thousands of biodegradable light sparks which organically float through the air. SPARK inspires visitors to wonder and reflect.
All these projects are about finding a new harmony between people and nature, and bringing the power of nature back into our city life.
How is technology linked to our progress as an increasingly sustainably aware race on a planet that currently has 8.7 million species?
Technology is a great tool, but it needs to be connected to a dream. Are we going to be robot food, just feeding machines with our love and time? Or is technology helping us to become more human and explore new boundaries? The current climate crisis is for me ‘bad design’, we have created it with our behaviour. So we have to design, to engineer our way out of it.
What has been the most successful project for you, in terms of advancing your goals?
The next one I am going to create! But seriously, we just switched off the huge city of Leiden to see the stars again together. Walking through these dark streets with thousands of people, and seeing the stars in a collective way was amazing. During the speeches of the mayor it was raining, but right at the time the lights were switched off the clouds opened and revealed the ancient light. That collective experience changed a lot of minds and opened hearts. I loved that feeling.
What’s next for studioroosegaarde?
Well, light is my language and being in Bali I have rediscovered my relation with nature. So we are designing and building firefly gardens (kunang-kunang) in Pererenan with the Udayana University, Fakultas MIPA. Fireflies have disappeared in the last 20 years because of light pollution and pesticides. So we want to bring them back. A lot of Indonesians have very precious memories of them. It’s sad they are gone. For me they are the guardians, where there is clean water, clean air, clean soil, they are there. When they are not there, we know we need to improve.