Forget fireworks. RISING’s 4-hour light show is a vision for our times
By Ray Edgar
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Daan Roosegaarde was despondent – an unnatural state for the optimistic Dutch designer. But who could blame him? By 2019 Roosegaarde’s Rotterdam studio had captured the world’s imagination with a string of award-winning projects: a dance floor powered by people, a smart highway that eschews street lighting and glows in the dark, the Smog Free Tower that, like a giant vacuum cleaner, sucks up 30,000 cubic metres of polluted air per hour and releases clean air, to name just a few.
And yet Roosegaarde still faced negativity, annoyingly couched as pragmatism. Two tiresome words would reliably torpedo any new idea: “Yes, but …” Yes but it’s too expensive. It’s too cheap. It’s too fast. It’s too slow. It’s too beautiful. It’s too ugly. It cannot be done. It already exists.
“I have no problem with constructive criticism,” he says. “But we want to move from ‘yes but’ to ‘what now?’ ”
Two annoying words were dragging him down, creating a barrier to action. “I realised I had to use that energy and transform it,” he says.
Then he had a breakthrough; a way to shift the dial. Roosegaarde hacked one of his favourite designs, Friso Kramer’s Revolt chair. Put the volt into Revolt. Anyone sitting in the office chair uttering “yes but” receives a short, sharp shock to their own butt. Befitting a designer with international clients, the chair’s voice recognition identifies naysayers in Chinese, English and Dutch.
Daan Roosegaarde during Spark at this year’s Auckland Arts Festival.Credit:Jinki Cambronero/Studio Roosegaarde
Compared to his more ambitious environmental projects designed to inspire action, Roosegaarde admits that the Yes But chair was crude and prankish. But as behaviour modification, it was immediately effective. “Some clients walked out,” recalls the impish 43-year-old. “But fortunately the good ones stayed.”
He also felt much better. “We have a strict no-arsehole policy,” he says, explaining the core values behind his enviable work-life balance. A team of 15 operates from a refurbished glass factory in Rotterdam and employs a fluctuating number of experts as required.
“We have a dozen projects on the go at any one time,” Roosegaarde says via Zoom from Bali, where he is part of an international team designing Nuanu, a 44-hectare eco-city. Later he’ll fly to Melbourne to present Spark at the Rising festival. Like so many of his projects, Spark revolves around light and bioluminescence (seen in fireflies, algae, and butterflies). This expansive light show, which will transform evenings at Fed Square from June 7-10, upends tradition with environmental solutions. It offers an alternative to expensive and air-polluting fireworks.
Visitors at Spark at this year’s Auckland Arts Festival.Credit:Studio Roosegaarde
Inspired by the natural glow of fireflies, Spark is made up of hundreds of thousands of biodegradable bubbles that reflect and absorb light. A cloud of bubbles measuring 60-plus cubic metres lifts on eddies as light sculpts and frames the surrounding environment – both natural and built. Local context makes Spark unique in each of the cities it appears (London, Bilbao, and most recently, Auckland).
Unlike fireworks, which might last for 20 minutes, Spark will run for four hours each night. During the event a small technical team fine-tunes the installation, accommodating any wind changes. “It’s like a sailing ship, you keep on adjusting it,” says Roosegaarde.
Another major difference is the lack of sound. “It’s still spectacular, but in a different way,” he says. “Spark is more like a campfire. And what do we do around the campfire? We come together and tell stories, and that’s the role of public art.”
Indeed, it’s the combination of intimacy and sustainability that attracted Federation Square to host Spark. “The approach [Studio Roosegaarde] are taking is so fantastic and magical, but compared to other outdoor light spectacles this has sustainability and softness built into its DNA,” says Melbourne Arts Precinct CEO Katrina Sedgwick.
Roosegaarde’s job description includes designer, artist, engineer and entrepreneur. He’s also a guest professor of environmental design and architecture at Tongji University in Shanghai and the University of Monterey in Mexico. Projects range across art and design.
“On a spectrum of practical and poetic, some are more solution-driven, like the Smog Free Tower,” says Roosegaarde. “Some combine it, like the van Gogh path, which has sustainable lighting and a homage to the famous painter. Spark as well has beauty, wonder and awe, but it’s also a very concrete example of an alternative for the heavily traditional polluting fireworks.”
Daan Roosegaarde’s Spark is part of this year’s Rising festival. Credit:Studio Roosegaarde
Even the Smog Free Tower carries an art component. Always looking to avoid waste, the studio devised a solution for the filthy byproduct of the smog-capturing artwork. They compressed the carbon into smog-free jewellery. A phenomenon emerged. Couples were turning away from diamonds and exchanging smog-free wedding rings as a symbol of hope – for the future and their marriage, according to The New York Times. King Charles is said to own a pair of smog cufflinks. The jewellery sales help fund new towers.
Roosegaarde sees himself following in two classic Dutch traditions: the practical and the artistic. The former builds dykes and bends nature to its will, epitomised by the 32-kilometre Afsluitdijk dyke that protects the low-lying Netherlands from flooding; the latter are landscape painters such as Jacob van Ruisdael, who were “obsessed with the Dutch sky and the Dutch light,” Roosegaarde says. “But they had paint and canvas and I have biodegradable materials and new technologies.”
Landscape is, however, the operative word. Roosegaarde works outside both the frame and the gallery. In this respect he feels closest to the land art of the 1960s and ’70s: “James Turrell and Walter De Maria … used landscapes as a canvas [and] created a new type of area where people could be amazed. The art I make fits in that tradition of landscape art.”
Monumentally scaled artworks such as Waterlicht use lasers, LEDs and humidity to visualise dire sea level predictions for the year 2100. Crowds across the world have been horrified by the sight of “water” metres above their heads. One of Roosegaarde’s grandest artistic interventions, Seeing Stars, does nothing but organise a city to turn off lights for 90 minutes. Under the slogan “lights off, stars on” nature itself is on display – “the heaventree of stars” and its “nightblue fruit”, as James Joyce memorably described.
“What can we learn from nature to make our landscapes more natural?” Roosegaarde asks. “We will have cities that are grown, not constructed. We will have trees that glow instead of street lights. We will understand better systems, where waste for the one is food for the other. My job is to have the crazy, beautiful, radical idea, protect it and allow it to be fed by knowledge, influence, feedback.
“Every project in the beginning, usually people say ‘it’s not possible’, ‘not allowed’. And once you show it’s possible, it’s safe, etc, the main comment is ‘that’s great, why is it not everywhere?’ ” he says, laughing. “I had that with Sustainable Dance Floor, Smog Free, but also Spark. Now that we’ve … shown that it can handle these complicated city environments, we’re having calls every day. It’s non-stop. It’s the future. A good idea inspires, but a great idea activates.”
No buts about it.
Spark is at Federation Square, June 7–10. The Rising festival runs from June 7–18, rising.melbourne
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