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A Plan to Clean Trash’s Final Frontier: Space

Toon Heesakkers

Toon Heesakkers

We talked to the artist and designer about environmentalism in the final frontier.

The Dutch designer, Daan Roosegaarde, is looking for something new. His last initiative, the Smog Free Project, created awareness for air pollution, targeting China, where it matters most. But his next artistic frontier is space—space waste, to be specific. It's the final frontier for all the rubbish humanity leaves behind.

Later this year, Studio Roosegaarde will present Icoon Afsluitdijk, a series of permanent and temporary works on a 20-mile-long dike in The Netherlands. This will include kites that produce wind energy, glowing microorganisms, and the Gates of Light, the centerpiece of the project. A retroreflective layer will be applied on 60 concrete locks at each end of a dike and which will alight with the headlights from cars. "When you drive past them, it's like you're in The Matrix," Roosegaarde promises. Creators spoke with Roosegaarde in person about his upcoming projects and how space waste can be used towards a spectacular light installation.

Photo by Willem de Kam

Creators: Hi Daan. Let's change viewpoints and have a look at our planet from space. What do we see?

Daan Roosegaarde: I see life, the desire to explore, but also the inability to do that in symbiosis with the rest of the planet. There is definitely something tragic in that. It is so beautiful, our planet is capable of so many things. But we, including myself, do so little.

You also added a lot of light to the world yourself, but I sense something is changing in the way you work. In your newest project you use reflection, luminous bio-organisms, and energy production. Are you looking at light differently?

I think we are making it more natural. We have shifted from an obsession with LEDs, microchips, and sensors towards a focus on nature. This is partly due to the fact that we are operating on a larger scale, but the lifespan of artworks must be longer too. In the beginning, around eight years ago, we were very fond of microchips and also showed that to our audience. Now, we think the way the lotus opens is way more interesting. It's still about technology, but it is more material-based.

So technology must become more natural?

Definitely. And we have to get rid of all those screens. Fuck apps. Nature is a great source of information and knowledge, and we only understand a small part of it. How can an owl fly without making noise? What can we learn from that? Can we apply that in the way we build planes?

Photo by Willem de Kam

Recently, you were at United Nations pleading for universal human rights for schoonheid. Why?

Schoonheid is a word that is both beautiful and typical Dutch. 'Schoon' means clean and beauty at the same time. Secretly we all have a desire towards schoonheid. That is why we travel in the first place. I think we should acknowledge that and also appreciate the choices we make more. For example, in the way we design cities. Schoonheid really is one of my key principles, even though I just realized that three or four months ago.

There are countries in the world that see 'beauty' and 'cleanliness' as a luxury they can't afford.

I thought that too, but I am not sure that's true. India is trying to implement a fundamental right to clean fresh water and sanitation in their constitution. There are three or four other countries that are very far along in making this a standard.

Ok, but now we are talking about the 'clean' part of schoonheid. How do you think about the other part, the 'beauty' part?

True, but what is beauty? I think it is more about finding your place in this world as a human, finding a place you feel connected to. A place that inspires you and triggers you, and where you see yourself as a citizen, not just as a taxpayer. I am not talking about a place where all the windows are clean and polished.

Do you mean that everybody deserves a place that desires or triggers him or her?

Yes! Sometimes we are only focusing on looking at computer screens. We are feeding our dreams to Facebook and Twitter, while our physical world is falling apart. And we expect our governments to pick up the pieces and rebuild it.

Studio Roosegaarde is becoming more international. Is The Netherlands becoming too small for you or do they just need you elsewhere?

The Netherlands is my testing ground, where we can make mistakes and prove ourselves. But I like being in countries that are unfamiliar to me, because it forces me to see things differently. Asia challenges me a lot. It asks questions that I can't answer, it invests in my ideas and constantly asks for more. The Netherlands is a good place to start, but after that there is a struggle to take it to the next level. We shouldn't complain, our project at the Afsluitdijk is unique. Who gets an opportunity like that? Designing one of the most famous dykes in the world? But at the same time, there are other places in the world that could use some of these ideas better, where the impact would be greater.

Photo by Willem de Kam

Are you looking to make an impact?

Yes, but I am also searching for the unknown. Places where people would say: Who the fuck is this? That forces you to let go of your ego and start thinking as an amateur again. That is very educational. Three years ago, I was an amateur in the world of smog, but now I am an expert, a bold statement, I know. But now I am back being an amateur in space waste. Yesterday, I was at the ESA, and that forces me take in a lot of knowledge. So, I have a new obsession.

Tell me about that obsession.

There are more than 1.2 million objects that are just floating through space because of us humans. Broken satellites, experiments gone wrong or any other form of waste. It is pretty intense, because if an object hits a satellite, it is immediately broken. And it might become such a problem in the future that it will be impossible to launch anything into space because it will hit chunks of space waste. Imagine: there is an Earth—which has a thin layer of atmosphere to protect itself—and beyond that, there is the universe in which everything is either hostile or indifferent towards us.

You want to pull the waste back towards earth?

Well, think about it: waste is light. That makes it very interesting. What if we use space waste instead of polluting fireworks for the opening ceremony of the Olympics? Space waste is a problem that we have to solve, but in order to do so we have to make people aware of the problem. It is also a designer's task to put something on the agenda. Five years ago in China, they were still denying the smog problem. They said it was desert sand or fog. Now people are really thinking, even in the Netherlands, about air quality. That is also a way in which creativity can change the world.

To learn more about Studio Roosegaarde's Space Waste projects click here

A version of this article originally appeared on Creators Netherlands. 

Related: 

The Smog Free Tower Is Heading to China

Meet the Dutch Designer on a Mission to Kill Smog

An Iconic Dutch Dam Is Getting Decked Out in Interactive Light Art