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We're feeding our hopes, dreams and desires into computer screens for likes – artist and innovator

Time is running out for us to handle the environmental disarray we've created. Artist, innovator and creative thinker, Daan Roosegaarde, is convinced there's a way out – we simply need to design it.

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Podcast https://soundcloud.com/rttv/sets/sophieco-visionaries 

Sophie Shevardnadze: Daan, it's very good to have you on our programme today. 

Daan Roosegaarde: Yeah. Thank you. 

SS: All right. So I suppose there is no traditional way of explaining what you do. It's like a XXI century sort of merger because you unite environmentalism, urban design, technology into something that doesn't quite have one name. Like, how would you name what you do yourself?

DR: I don't. I explore, that’s maybe, I think, way more interesting.

SS: Let's try to... let's try to figure out what it could be. Let’s come up with a name.

DR: I'm the son of a math teacher, kicked out of fine art school twice, Master in architecture. A lot of people telling me what I want could never be done and it's my job to prove them wrong. So you're right. I think.

SS: Munchausen? 

DR: Yeah, exactly. So I think it's sort of interesting to make connections between art, between design, between architecture, between technology and making new links in order to activate the world around us. When I was young, when I was 16, my parents always said, “You have to choose, you have to choose art or choose science”. And I don't want to choose. I want to do it all. So maybe it's more about trying to find the combination or making new connections between all those disciplines and being hybrid. There’s a true power.

SS: Well, I suppose that’s the epitome of our time. 

DR: True

SS: So you can really do anything you want. There's no limit to it.

DR: No. And you're always sort of an amateur trying to become an expert. And so you're driven by curiosity rather than definitions. And it was interesting when I was young, broke and innocent a long time ago, I worked in a second hand bookstore not so far from here as a student. But sometimes I would work late at night and it was a second-hand bookstore and the train would already leave. So they would allow me to sleep in the bookstore. And there was one space that was a little bit smaller than this space which exactly fit in a one-person mattress and that space was the Russian literature space: Pushkin, Gogol, Chekhov, Nabokov, Dostoevsky. So I would fall asleep being surrounded by these great masters and, you know, I really feel it sort of influenced my dreams at that time. But it's still there. 

SS: Yeah. They were big dreamers. 

DR: Yeah, exactly. Some of them are there in my brain as well.

SS: Did you read it as well? 

DR: Yeah, of course. There are here…

SS: Or were you just surrounded and you were like looking? 

DR: They’re here… I have a… Where… Where's my.... Oh here. Here was Russian literature. I'll find it. Yeah. 

SS: I take your word for it.

DR: I like Gogol. I like the city stories. 

SS: You like the crazy ones, right?

DR: Yeah, but it's sort of the world is brutal, but it's also poetic and it's sort of brutal poetry. And they have a tough life, but they find their own beauty in it.

SS: And is it something that would sort of explain your style in two words - brutality but poetry at the same time?

DR: No, I think what triggered me in the stories is the notion of the journey to explore and trying to find your own way in reality. And at one end, reality is very confusing right now today as well. 

SS: It is very confusing.

DR: We have rising sea level, air pollution, traffic jams, viruses in China. So how can we make sense of the world again? How can we add meaning to the world? And maybe that's why I create to be sane and in order to improve.

SS: So I'm gonna go through... 

DR: Oh yeah, you have a lot of questions.

SS: ...actually many of your projects to give the viewers an idea of what is that you do exactly. 

DR: Hit me.

SS: So, for instance, the “Smog Free Tower”, which is literally like a tower that sort of takes in air pollution and releases clear air and it's a great thing. And from Krakow to Beijing, they're like big hit. Do you think that it could be something that you could put up in every corner in every city? 

DR: Of course. 

SS: Why aren't they doing it then now?

DR: Well, because we live in a world where to pollute is for free. So what is the price of clean air? And you're right. I think the importance of clean air is getting more and more attention. Kids have asthma in big cities or people live shorter lives. 

SS: Allergies?

DR: Allergies. Yeah. And you feel the pressure of the polluted air. So I became inspired by smoke, by pollution. And I really wanted to show the beauty of clean air. And by making these clean air parks, which are 20 to 70 percent more clean and the rest of the city you create a sort of an oasis where people can see the future and can feel the future and indeed, to trigger the question, why is it not everywhere? That's exactly the meaning of that project. So you're getting the essence of the project.

SS: Exactly. 

DR: That was exactly the meaning.

SS: So you went further and you're doing this thing called the “Smog Free Bikes”, where you put a device on a bike that cleans the air. So are they making any difference? Because that's all I want to know, because I want to have kids in the future, and I'm thinking I want to bring them to a world where I know they will survive.

DR: Yeah. So the towers we need for public spaces which are for everyone. And at the same time, bike-sharing is becoming very popular in Asia. So we developed this sort of device on the steering wheel, which sucks up polluted air and cleans it and releases it so you can cycle and not be polluted. A lot of people, you know, want a car because of the pollution, but of course, more cars means more pollution. So we wanted to celebrate the bicycle. And we wanted to promote it and also give it some kind of lifestyle and some kind of coolness and some kind of meaning, that's also as important as the tech.

SS: And then you have conceptual stuff like “Waterlicht”. And what is that? Basically you sort of use lights to flood the public space, and you're saying, “well, this is what's going to be like if the sea levels rise”. That is an amazing idea.

DR: Yeah. “Waterlicht” is sort of like a virtual flood, a combination of LEDs and lenses, which shows how high water level would be in the future. We all know climate is changing. We all know our world is changing. 

SS: We’ll talk about that.

DR: At the same time, it's very abstract and people are like, “one and a half degrees...” - it's a bit confusing the numbers, don’t you think? So by making it very physical and by making a collective experience. And we had 50-60 thousand people one night, you know, looking at it, you activate people to not be scared of the future, but curious. So we do symposia, “Can we generate energy from the changing and tide? Should we build floating cities?” So I think the role of the art that I make is to activate people and that they are feeling more connected to the future and being part of the solution instead of being sad or angry or waiting.

SS: So I guess, like, every time someone like you tries to raise the awareness the big question is do you only attract the attention of, what you said, fifteen thousand people watching it, or do you actually... Does that wherever it is that you do, actually spur them to act?

DR: Well, that's the reason why I make it - art is an activator. Yeah. And sometimes there is a sort of a practical solution like “Smog Free”. That's like a local solution, very practical. And sometimes it's more about, you know, opening up the minds of the people, it's about showing the beauty or the wonder. I think it really depends on the conversation I'm having, you know, the questions I’m being asked, the thing that inspires me at the moment. The weird thing about the future is that the future is not “today five percent less worse”. It's something new, what we don't know. And so we first have to imagine the future in order to get there. You know what I mean? 

SS: So you don’t feel like the future is something rigid? You think it's fluid and whatever it is, you have to imagine... 

DR: Of course. We have to create it first in our brain and then once you can imagine it, you can, you know, construct it, engineer a prototype and make happen.

SS: And is it 100 percent depending on our thought and sort of visualising and realising. Or is it like a 50-50 faith and whatever it is that you do. What is it that you believe in?

DR: It’s a good question. I don't know. But, for sure I know we first have to imagine it. Otherwise, we don't get there.

SS: So this whole “follow the flow” thing is BS…? You know when they say “just follow the flow”...

DR: Well, it's not working anymore, It's crashing, no? Sort of. A lot of things are crashing…

SS: Regarding climate change - definitely. 

DR: Yeah and we don't have a solution and, you know, I'm a professor at universities. My students are mad, you know, because they need to spend so much time and love and energy fixing the plastic in the ocean, the air pollution. So they cannot create, they can only correct. And that's not a good age to be in, you know, a good area to be in.

SS: So let's talk about technical things more because you're saying, yeah, ok, this whole ordeal with climate change is not why but how, right? So whatever it is that you do...

DR: Yes, very good. I'm so tired of the “why”. We all are like, “Why should we...?” Everybody knows the “why”. Forget about the “why”. We know we have to be sustainable. OK, there are some people who still disagree, but, you know, they'll figure it out. So it's about the how - how do we make it happen and how do you make a world which is better for us?

SS: How do you help rephrase that question with what it is that you do? Technically.

DR: Well, I use technology to bring solutions. I use art and design to show the beauty of the new world so that people will accept it more evenly. And I'm trying to make new connection, which before never existed. 

SS: What do you mean by new connection? 

DR: Well, for example, the “Space Waste Lab”. It's a project I'm working on very intensively now with ESA and NASA, the space agencies, there's more than 8.1 million kilos of space junk floating around our universe...

SS: Tell our viewers what it is. Yeah, it's basically what, like green lights...

DR: So we started launching satellites, rockets from 1953 - Sputnik, Apollo, Chinese, Russian, American, a lot of countries. And they started to collide. So you have more than 8.1 million kilos of junk floating around our universe. And because they have high speed, 27 thousand kilometers per hour, when they hit an existing satellite it’s like a bulb... So it's a threat to our day to day communication and nobody really knows how to fix it. So we launched Space Waste Lab to visualise real time where the space junk is with light…

SS: Green light, right? 

DR: Yeah, sort of a tracking...

SS: It’s green light above your head…

DR: Yeah. And it's really like it's right there. Phase two is to fix it. So we finally have an official mission now to develop a sort of small cube satellite with a net, like a fisher captures fish. It's more complicated, but similar principles.

SS: What do you mean by “fix it”? How can you “fix”...  

DR: Well then, we grab it, we capture it. 

SS: And? 

DR: But then the second phase is that once we have it there, what should we do with it? Maybe it's not a problem, but a potential.

SS: You can’t really... Where do you get rid of it? I mean, what you pull it to Earth instead of the atmosphere. What do you do with it?

DR: Let's do an exercise. So if you have a net, you have the space junk captured and it's floating here and then you have the Earth's atmosphere. So when in a controlled way we have a little engine you can... it hits the Earth's atmosphere in a controlled reentry. What happens then? It...

SS: Dilutes? 

DR: No, what happens when...

SS: Dissolves? 

DR: It burns. 

SS: Burns, OK. 

DR: So what happens when something burns? It gives... 

SS: Combustion?

DR: Light. 

SS: What, light? OK.

DR: Light! Yeah. So that's what we're working on now. Waste is light. So we're creating artificial shooting stars as a replacement for traditional fireworks. So we cleaning up the universe and we have a new way of fireworks. So we're going to government – Dubai is spending 8.2 million U.S. dollars on fireworks every year, Netherlands - 77 millions, Moscow even more. 

SS: You really are a dreamer. 

DR: No, it’s not dreaming. We're going to the ministers and say, take that budget that you're already spending and you spend it on this ESA-Roosegaarde project to clean up the universe, and you have a new way of firework.

SS: What did they say, the ministers?

DR: They didn't say no yet. So we're really good there. Yeah. So I think in three to five years, we will have that realized. And so am I smarter than ESA or NASA? No, because they're really smart. But what I can do as a designer, as an artist, is look at it in a different way and say, it's not waste, it's a shooting star. So I designed the last 2 percent and it changes the project completely. And suddenly, you know, there's Disney, there are cities there are... So you make new connections between space industry and tourism, cities, et cetera. That's the stuff that we're doing here. That's the stuff that really excites me.

SS: So what made you all of a sudden switch from like climate change and smog to taking care of the waste in atmosphere?

DR: Well, I want to live in a world where pollution does not exist, you know, and I think it's weird that we accept pollution, air pollution, water pollution, space pollution. Especially space, you know, that's our new frontier. We should learn from the sort of mistakes that we make on planet Earth and everybody has a right for clean space, don't you think? It should be something that is sort of... 

SS: You mean, in case we’re too overpopulated so we can live up there? 

DR: Yeah, or overpolluted. It's unacceptable. So I was walking around... We're now here in the studios. We have a team of project managers, designers, engineers, architects. And I was walking around as we were working on a lot of other projects. And I saw this huge black image with a lot of white dots and this big dot in the middle. And I asked, what's that? You know, it looked like the sort of abstract American painting, this Jackson Pollock. And they said, that's space junk. It's the 8.1 million kilograms. Like, what?! That's crazy. So that's typically a project we initiated. I spend my own money and time on it. And now the clients are coming in investing. So that's going to be fascinating one. A bit crazy, but good. 

SS: Daan, what do you say to all those skeptics that are like, you know, “there is no climate change, it's always been there, this is a cycle, you guys just don't remember, this is all BS and this is just to scare people off”? 

DR: OK. I'm really curious how the weather is on their planet, because on my planet it’s very concrete. You know, people are scared of change and that's very normal. People have to get used to new ideas. That's also very normal. But I think we shouldn't hide or be scared. We should be curious and invest in new ideas to survive in the end. It's about that. And it's not just that it's necessary. It's also fun. And there is sort of a joy in making radical ideas happen. And there's sort of a joy in having people look at reality in a different way and open up their mind. And that can be via a book or a movie, but it can also be about public art and design. So design is not just a chair or a lamp or a table, but design is about improving life. And it's really fun to work on that as well.

SS: But I feel like you're so different from every other modern artist or installator that I’ve met because there's so much about self-expression and the commentary on this or that event…

DR: I'm not so interested in that. 

SS: Yeah, cause you like couldn’t care less...

DR: I’m not so interested in “Me and My Teddy Bear”. I had a teddy bear. Yeah. Yeah. I cried when I was... Yeah, great... No, I'm not so interested in that. So it is definitely about me and my feelings, of course. But I want to talk as much about “we”, the world, as about me, my personal relationship with that. I think, when you do something that gives something back to the people, to society, it somehow is way more rewarding than if I just do it for myself. I just don't think it's that interesting. I don’t think I’m that interesting.

SS: But everything that you're doing right now, which is really looking forward into the future and shaping it for the best, is this something that happened within the past 5-10 years when we started talking about climate change?  

DR: Yeah, I think it's definitely something of this age. Like maybe 20 years ago…

SS: ...you would be about “Me and My Teddy Bear”, right?

DR: Yeah, you would buy a Hummer and would be really cool. I don't know how it is with you guys. But if you buy a Hummer now…

SS: Hummers were cool in the 90s. 

DR: Yeah, but if you buy a Hummer now… 

SS: You’re like, looser…

DR: Not that much. So it's very interesting. Our design, our notion of what is beauty or what is luxury or what is normal has changed. And sustainability is in that not just that word, but it's about that we are aware that you, we, us are connected. And if I do something stupid to you, in a way it will influence me as well. And so the more you understand that relationship we are in, whether we like it or not, but it's you know, we're all crew on Earth, not just passengers, we're all part of it, whether we like it or not. And the more you are aware of that relationship, the more you can interact and play. I think that's life. That's it.

SS: It’s funny you say that. I think Internet did all of that, right? Because I was talking to this great lady, she's very huge in artificial intelligence. And we were saying that everything that's going on right now, especially with AI and Internet, it really reminds us of when they invented the atomic bomb only when it blew up, it only blew up in a certain place. But if something were to blow up now... 

DR: ...it's everywhere. 

SS: We don't understand that it’s going to go bad everywhere.

DR: Yes, so we have a really weird relationship with technology, I think, right now. Today, you, me, all of us, we've become sort of robot food. We're feeding our hopes, our dreams, our desires, our money to computer screens. And what do we get back? You know, a “like”. That's a bad deal. So when is technology jumping out of the screen? When is technology helping me to keep me healthy or to keep me informed or to keep me, you know, feeling connected? And I miss that. So we will live in an area, the post-screen area, where we will look less at all these screens and it will be more in harmony or it will help us more. 

SS: Is this what you’re hoping for?

DR: I'm really tired of, you know, feeding machines. Yeah. I'm just robot food.

SS: Because everyone I speak to right now, they're pretty much convinced that this is an irreversible thing where we're going to become half-robots and then eventually we're gonna become robots. And then artificial intelligence is the future. I mean, I don't really believe in the whole scarecrow of singularity period thing, but I do feel like there's something that is beyond my control in terms of what will happen to me as a human being in the future.

DR: That's a good comment. So I think there's a George Orwell scenario - we’re dominated. But there's also a Leonardo da Vinci scenario where we use technology to fly. And I was thinking about it this morning. I was at TWA Terminal in New York Airport. This is beautiful old terminal built in 1971-72. And it was built in a time when people were curious about the future. You know, we would go to the Moon. We had the Jets and the Сoncorde. People were curious about the future. And you could feel that in that building. And it's weird today that somehow we're sort of scared of the future. Robots take over our jobs or will dominate us, like you just said, or the Chinese come and buy everything or anything. I hope and I think that the project that we do here, that I do, help people to become curious again towards the future... 

SS: Not only curious, but hopeful, because now I’m... 

DR: Yeah, hopeful and that they are a part of it. You know, it's not just like, oh, it's the robots. Is that the world we want to live in? No. So, yes, what you're saying is absolutely scenario, but it's just one of the scenarios. And we are going to be a part of that. We are part of that conversation.  

SS: There’s something that worries me so much. I suppose like curiosity is one thing that is taken away from us right now and you're trying to sort of in your own way reinstall it and people. But also I feel like the hope in the future... Because you're absolutely right. Before people were like, no matter how bad things were it's gonna be better tomorrow. And now we don't know what's gonna happen. So we're looking to future like, do I want to be there? I mean, I don't know. How do you bring back that sense of agency, not only curiosity, but the sense that you're in control?

DR: Well, first of all, you have to decide that you're not just a consumer, but you’re a maker. So you make decisions, you make things, you make choices. And in that way, you influence the world around you. So you need to take ownership and you need to accept that you're a part of it. And the second is and that's the beauty of making things, making projects. There's such a beauty in putting an idea, realising it and putting it out there. When we placed the first “Smog Free Tower” in Beijing and made these clean air parks people got “wow, can you do that?! Are you allowed?” I like “sure”. So you sort of throw a rock into the river, you create the ripples and you start surfing on them. And by doing that, we just made a statement and we showed that clean air locally could be possible. So we set a new standard and indeed we got questions. Why isn’t it everywhere? What's the price of clean air? We had Chinese people capturing the wind in bottle glasses and they would sell it. So you activate the discussion. If you approach reality in that way and show the beauty of clean air, clean water and clean energy, you feel more part of it and you are part of it. And that's very rewarding.

SS: But it's really the human nature that I question more, because somehow, no matter what kind of genius things we humans invent, like from dynamite to Facebook, we managed to make everything catastrophic. 

DR: True, true.

SS: And no matter whether you have iPhone 1035 in your hand or not, we still keep killing each other for a piece of land and a piece of bread.

DR: Amen. We can do good things and we can do bad things. Yeah, it's true.

SS: But do you question... I mean, here, OK... Here's an idea for...

DR: This was not on your list I guess?

SS: Here's an idea for your new project or installation. 

DR: Hit me. Tell me my new project!

SS: How do we synchronize technological evolution with human evolution?

DR: Exactly. So you need technological innovation and you also need social innovation. That's absolutely right. So you need to create an environment where what you do has not a negative impact on the other. And that is a certain awareness and that's a fuzzy topic and a fuzzy word. I’m highly aware of that. We just launched our new Holocaust project, a Holocaust Memorial. 

SS: Absolutely beautiful by the way. 

DR: Yeah. 104 thousand people were arrested and deported and murdered here in the Netherlands. And seventy five years ago, there was the liberation of the death camp Auschwitz and the Dutch government commissioned us, “can you make a monument for it, for those people, for that important moment in time?” And what was interesting is that this was not about function, but this was about the memory and remembering them, but it was also about the future and showing the importance of freedom to our generation, which did not really experience war in that way. So we actually took the notion of the rock. So in the Jewish tradition, at a grave you don't place flowers, but you place a rock. And that was really interesting. So we started to absorb the rocks with fluorescent pigments, light emitting pigments, which under a very special light become light emitting. And 104,000 victims and 104,000 rocks, which should have glow at light as they sort of breathe. And what I'm trying to say is it created the place.  I've seen Holocaust survivors come there with their grandchildren sharing stories and it was like goose bumps. And after that, the hard work, all these rocks spread to all 170 municipalities in the Netherlands where these people were deported. So it went from very national, big to super local. And to see old ceremonies that people organized and reading the names and the traditions and the stories... I went to them incognito. They didn’t know... 

SS: To every single one of them?

DR: No. It was too much. But some of them. And it was so humbling to make something and that people take ownership. And they start to wonder: history, future - what's my role in it? So I think there was a beautiful example how art and design can activate and help people to remember that they're part of the world. Yeah. It's not just waiting for government or being mad.

SS: You tackle so many ideas in the studio that are born and then you make them come to life. But then...

DR: I start it and I finish it. Everything in between is, of course, large, large groups of people.

SS: But I really wonder which ideas get born in this office that even for you they’re way too far out there, that can't or haven't come to life? 

DR: Oh, man. There's a whole archive of ideas.

SS: Just give me one.

DR: Oh, geo-engineering, weather control. 

SS: Which geo-engineering?

DR: So in a way, climate change for me is a notion of bad design. You and I, we have created it with our pollution, with our behaviour. 

SS: So what, like airplane is bad engineering? 

DR: Well, no – the weather. The way the weather is behaving or the climate, sorry, the climate is behaving is for me bad design because it's not very good for us and a lot of animals and plants. So can we design weather, can we design climate change? Can we actively participate? We've designed it unconsciously. We've  our pollutions, we've our factories. Can we turn it around? The problem is we don't know the real impact of that yet. And you can be really right but also really wrong. So it's a big ethical discussion. Like, should you do that? I think that's an incredibly fascinating topic that I haven't made up my mind yet about it.

SS: I'm going to come back for another interview just on that topic.

DR: Yeah. Let's do it. Yeah. And actually, the Russians and Middle East are very active in these kind of things.

SS: When are you coming to Moscow? 

DR: Hmmm... I’m there... I don’t know, let’s check.

SS: So we're going to do that interview when you come to Moscow. 

DR: Yeah? You wanna do geo? Oh, that's cool. Yeah! Let's make some weather. 

SS: And we’re going to talk about the dress that you designed that becomes transparent once the person is turned on.

DR: I knew that will be on your list. 

SS: I was thinking, why didn't he design it like a t-shirt or a suit for someone of the opposite sex to see when he’s turned on seeing me… So that’s your next mission.

DR: Oh, no-no-no. We did. We did. We did. It's not a very known project, but we yes, we made a garment for ladies, which the more you like somebody, the more transparent it becomes. And indeed, then the guys went, “OK, but what about us, what about me?” So we made a suit for men, but then it only becomes transparent when they lie. 

SS: Oh, wow...

DR: So it's all horrible, I know...

SS: That’s amazing actually?  

DR: Because it would just go all the time. So that was a “good-bad” project. 

SS: All right. Daan, thank you so much for this wonderful interview. 

DR: My pleasure. That was fun. It was a good conversation. 

SS: I hope to see you soon. Good luck with everything.

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