If you just so happened to look up at the Miami night sky over the last three evenings at the right moment—say, between 7 p.m. and 7:08 p.m.—you likely caught a glimpse of a swirling swarm of light. You weren’t dreaming, and it wasn’t a new UFO design. Instead, it was the work of Amsterdam-based artist duo Ralph Nauta and Lonneke Gordijn.
Studio DRIFT, as the artists have long been known, staged a performance of Franchise Freedom, their famed drone performance, in honor of Art Basel Miami Beach’s 20th anniversary. The work premiered at the fair in 2017 and has since been staged only a few times, most recently in 2020 above Rotterdam in honor of frontline workers during the early days of the pandemic.
After opening remarks by Nauta and Gordijn in a small park across from the Miami Beach Convention Center, a mass of fairgoers grew silent as 300 Intel Shooting Star drones rose from behind the building and flew back and forth in concert with an emotive, minimalist piano score by Dutch composer Joep Beving. At times, the swarm briefly formed a double helix before flowing into more amorphous shapes and even a swirling vortex.
As the piece concluded, the drones formed the words “20 Years Art Basel Miami Beach” and then “DRIFT Supports Steam+,” referring to a program that places artists-in-residence at all Miami Beach public schools.
Franchise Freedom is strangely meditative, and the real magic of the performance is that, as the drones twist, turn, disperse, and reform in unison, they no longer appear as machines, but rather as an organic mass. This is by design, Gordijn told ARTnews after the performance.
“We are not so interested in drones,” she said. “We are interested in what we do with them. All of our work is about the natural world and the organization of nature. This is a self-organizing swarm.”
She continued, “We love to explore this because it gives us a feeling that we belong, or that we are part of something bigger. That is what we really want to communicate to people.”
Nauta and Gordijn began developing the performance in 2007 with their work Flyflight. Like Franchise Freedom, that work produced non-pre-programmed flight patterns through an algorithm. The newer work, however, comes after a decade’s worth of research by the artists into starling’s flight patterns. Franchise Freedom uses an algorithm developed by Nauta and Gordijn that mimics the birds’ murmurations so that the drones both fly in unison and react to the world around them.
The future of their drone work, according to Gordijn, would be to include more real-time interactions in relation to other stimuli, including people. But solving the technological hurdles is a small part of the process. The duo will then have to explore how to use it in a meaningful way, Gordijn said.
At the core of their work is the creation of environments that allow people to commune together and to reconnect with nature amid an overstimulated world.
“When you create an environment where the overall energy is very calm, you will pick that up immediately, because it is always the overruling energy that speaks to you,” Gordijn said. “We deliberately create those spaces where you get time given back to you, instead of your time being taken away.”
See a preview of the performance below: