Last Tuesday, at 10 pm local time, medical workers and patients at the Netherlands’ Erasmus MC hospital—currently the epicenter of the country’s Covid-19 response—flocked to the windows. Outside, above Rotterdam’s inky black Nieuwe Maas river, a swarm of mysterious floating lights were rising in gentle flight. Shimmering, they swirled into a mass both organic and out of this world, visible not only to the people inside the hospital but to many of the city’s inhabitants who, like so many around the world, are confined to home.
The people behind the mesmerizing lights are Lonneke Gordijn and Ralph Nauta, whose collective DRIFT has been using technology to “manifest the phenomena and hidden properties of nature” since 2007. The mysterious swarm they created is what they’ve dubbed Franchise Freedom, an autonomously moving herd of 300 illuminated drones, programmed to fly using a biological algorithm derived from a decade of research into starling murmurations, flocks in which thousands of birds cohesively fly in an ever-morphing geometry in response to the stimuli around them. In the wild, murmurations are a means of “managing uncertainty and maintaining consensus,” through quick, uniform decisions taken to protect the pack. In DRIFT’s performance this week in Rotterdam, they are a way to show gratitude to health care workers in a country where the coronavirus has already claimed more than 5,200 lives, and the best thing the herd can do to stay safe is stay apart.
“When people look at starlings, they think they’re looking at one of the most free, natural movements they can imagine,” Nauta says. “But when you look closer, you see the birds are working together as a safety mechanism.” But, as is the case in all controlled systems, “there is an ongoing desire to break out of it, rebuild, break, build. It’s this beautiful, non-free behavior, this duality of the swarm.” That duality—of individualism and community—is what the drones are mimicking to enrapturing effect. And that quality of separate togetherness feels particularly reflective of life in lockdown, especially when one takes timing into account. May 5 was the 75th anniversary of the Netherlands’ liberation from the Nazis, a national holiday usually filled with parades and country-wide celebrations, which have all been canceled due to the pandemic.
The message of Franchise Freedom comes with a challenge to rethink what freedom really is. Prioritizing individual freedom now means compromising collective freedom in the future. This idea seems particularly resonant in the Netherlands, which has faced criticism from its neighbors in the European Union for not having stricter coronavirus mitigation measures. “The world is one superorganism, so if we fail to work together for the benefit of the entire Earth, we will never find a true solution,” Gordjin says. “This often means that individual interests are in conflict with those that serve the bigger picture. Real freedom is to find a way within a group to be free.”
Gordijn credits the work of Stefano Mancuso, founder of the study of plant neurobiology, with helping articulate this concept. Mancuso credited plants’ network structures with aiding their survival; starling murmurations do the same thing. So do drones programmed to fly in unison and communities working together toward herd immunity to ward off disease. “Mancuso describes how nature can only make decisions based on the collective consciousness,” says Gordijn. “That’s why we feel [the performance’s] relevance for this moment. Nature is always in [uncertain] circumstances because animals and plants don’t know what to expect. Humans are experiencing this right now as well, and we find it strange, but it’s actually very natural to not have control.”
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Because of its message, and because it can be operated and experienced from far away, Franchise Freedom seems perfectly calibrated to this moment of social distancing. The drones even fly 6 feet apart—“showing how you can still poetically move together with 2 meters distance from each other,” says Nauta. So it’s easy to assume that the project was developed in response to museums closing, people retreating inside, and everyone’s new desperation for communal experiences without congregation (think: people on balconies cheering for doctors and nurses from Rome to New York). But the installation has been flying since before the pandemic necessitated such innovations—first at Art Basel Miami Beach in 2017, and then at Burning Man and over NASA’s Rocket Garden in 2019, set to a live performance by Duran Duran. Gordijn and Nauta’s dream of a kinetic sculpture that could express their starling algorithm has lived inside of their collective consciousness since even before drone technology was capable of pulling it off. “It’s been a 12-year journey,” says Nauta, “of going to universities and influencing people to start the research to make this happen.” For a long time, all they had was their algorithm and a vision of its potential physicality. And then Intel signed on.
Back in 2008 the technology company became the first to help DRIFT program a set of drones with the starling algorithm. It was a letdown. “The first time the drones were lifting off, we were so excited,” says Gordijn. “We looked in the sky … and we didn’t feel anything. We were so disappointed.” Intel assured them that the drones had been deployed exactly how the algorithm had dictated, and the company considered it a success. But for Gordijn and Nauta, it didn’t feel right; it wasn’t organic. They went back to work, speeding up some movements, slowing down others, adjusting the light intensity. Eventually, it clicked. “To get the technology done is one very important thing, but if you don’t program it in a way that resonates with people, it has no meaning at all,” Gordijn says.
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As more tech leaders show interest in the intersection of their industry with nature and art, Gordjin and Nauta see an opportunity to bring them into the critical conversations they have been engaged in since they met two decades ago at Design Academy Eindhoven, where they bonded over the worlds that had provided them refuge in their youth. For Nauta, it was different societies in science fiction, “where you could relate to different planets and cultures, maybe somewhere you could fit in more,” he says. “Then Lonneke showed me the natural world, it’s vast undiscovered, endless inspiration.” Together, they discovered how far away fantasy worlds were comprised of elements already found in nature—planets based on zoomed-in images of cells, aliens that look like insects. “I think we are so earthly that the human mind is not capable of making up any fantasy that is not a combination of aspects that are already in nature,” she says. “That is what we’re doing with our art.”
With every iteration of Franchise Freedom, Gordijn and Nauta are building upon their own murmuration, an ever evolving interdependence. Their partnership—which began as a friendship, evolved into a decade-long romance followed by separation—has always been underscored by their creative relationship. “I think that is why we understand this connectedness very well, because we really had to relearn to communicate and to get into the same frequency [instead of] not listening to each other. I’m very happy that we survived, because the work that we make together is still the love of our life.”
The collective around them is responding and reshaping too. “We pulled this off in a little more than one week,” Gordijn says of the May 5 drone performance to celebrate health care workers. “Everyone wanted to collaborate. We got the funding in place. Normally things would take months to organize; it’s such a huge organization to pull this off. Now everyone is at home and they have time. People are wanting to get their hands dirty and do something. The togetherness of creating this was incredible.” Everyone, it seems, wants herd community.
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