From art to ethical design; Studio Roosegaarde’s quest for a sustainable and aesthetic future

On: October 20, 2020
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About Victor Loye

“Waterlicht Museumplein” Creative Commons, ING Nederland, Accessed 20 Oct. 2020.

Bibi Kok, Ilian Velasco, Mattanja Ewida, Victor Loye

Studio Roosegaarde’s quest

Within our turbulent world, events such as political movements, climate change, or global pandemics, heavily influence people’s perception and behavior within society. Zeitgeist, “the general intellectual, moral, and cultural climate of an era” (Merriam-Webster), is the underlying spirit that causes these particular ways of thinking and behavior. Therefore, the zeitgeist influences different domains of society like fashion, technology, and art. Artists often create from experiences and feelings at that moment in time, but their work is more than a reflection of the contemporary zeitgeist; artists tend to exist at the forefront of society. They stretch the contemporary zeitgeist to courageous lengths, leading to creations that move, inspire, and change the possibilities that society has to offer (Quillet). This phenomenon of zeitgeist-based thinking and risk-taking is especially visible in the work of Studio Roosegaarde. Daan Roosegaarde is a Dutch artist, entrepreneur, and designer whose goal is to create a connection between people and technology within art.     

This relationship between art and science can be determined as one of the core concepts of “new media art”: artworks produced/conveyed by using recently developed and upcoming technologies. In contrast to traditional art, new media art changed the interaction between the artist, the artwork, and the spectators, in the sense that viewers are no longer expected to only contemplate an object but rather to participate in an experience, therefore becoming a user in a “scheme” created by the artist. New media art is often driven by cultural/societal issues and is often presented in innovative technological solutions. (Strehovec; Grau)   

Studio Roosegaarde’s work meets all the aspects of new media art. Within their creations, they strive to improve daily life in urban environments. Climate change and the deterioration of clean air, water, energy, and space are the main topics they incorporate within their imaginative and poetic urban stories (Studio Roosegaarde). Studio Roosegaarde holds a popular and influential position within the world of new media art. Besides the multiple accumulated awards, the visibility of Roosegaarde’s company within mainstream media and university curricula demonstrate their ever-growing popularity. In his book “Phaidon” on the relationships between people, technology, and environmental issues, Roosegaarde states:

“People won’t change because of facts or numbers. But if we can trigger the imagination of a new world, that’s the way to activate people. I don’t believe in utopia, but in protopia; step by step upgrading the world around us. Art is our activator.”

Studio Roosegaarde. Accessed 19 Oct. 2020.

Roosegaarde seems confident about the influence and relevance of his work concerning a better world. When assessing Roosegaarde’s approach, it is important to analyze these pieces of new media art in relation to a more sustainable world. By doing so, we can be introduced to new re-applicable technologies. Secondly, Roosegaarde’s creations can be used as a base for further sustainable thinking, a form of inspiration. Nevertheless, the confidence shown by Roosegaarde, and the media coverage his work gets, should not result in less of a critical eye. Roosegaarde’s notion concerning the necessity of imagination with the activation of mankind is an interesting stand and deserves further, yet critical, theoretical dissection.

Therefore, our question: ‘To what extent do new media artists contribute to an ethically designed and sustainable world?’ incorporates this idea of human ideological awakening together with the influence of art on innovations. To formulate an answer to this question, we analyze Waterlicht, a light installation by Studio Roosegaarde, through the concept of affordances. By doing so, we aim to clarify how people’s perception is affected through interaction with this piece. Secondly, we scrutinize the work of Studio Roosegaarde through existing frameworks defining ethical design. These analyses will be executed through a critical lens concerning the academic debate on awareness-politics and behavioral change.

Virtual flood

Waterlicht is an installation of projected lights, simulating waves above your head. The installation originated in 2015, made as a site-specific artwork for Dutch District Water Board Rijn & Ijssel, but over the years “Waterlicht” traveled to different countries.

WATERLICHT by Daan Roosegaarde in Museumplein Amsterdam [OFFICIAL MOVIE]. 2020. YouTube,

How does the viewer process an artwork? The concept of affordances is not about causing behavior, but about providing limits and possibilities to behave in certain ways. Through this concept, it is possible to steer behavior, including perception and interaction with an artwork (Jeong and Seungho). By analyzing which affordances are relevant in Waterlicht we get a better understanding of which design-choices are made to affect the public’s perception and, therefore, what cultural values are embedded in Roosegaarde’s projects (Light et al., 16). Thus, its affordances reflect which ideals, assumptions, and norms underlie the design-choices.

One definition of affordance that applies to Roosegaarde’s work is the Gibsonian understanding of the term, which “locates affordances in the relation between a body and its environment”. In this approach, objects are an integral part of the environment, which in turn directly affords humans, thus, inducing behavior through its design. (Jeong and Seungh; Sun and Hart-Davidson, 3537). This is why art-space can be seen as an interface that interacts with the viewers itself. Waterlicht is an artwork intervening in public space, in which the Museumplein in Amsterdam serves as an outdoor gallery. This spatial affordance can on the one hand lead to a more volatile experience of the artwork, while on the other hand, the work being public allows more people to see it than if it was in an art gallery.

Furthermore, a distinction can be made in high-level and low-level affordances, of which the low-level can be seen as more concrete feature-oriented and individual affordances, whereas high-level are more abstract and affect the habits of individuals (Bucher & Helmond). Low-level affordances of Waterlicht are thus located in the materiality of the medium and its specific features. According to Norman, this conception lies in the user-oriented design of the work. This conceptualization of affordances links to an important design vision of Studio Roosegaarde, namely the intuitive way of interacting with the artwork. This translates into how the audience is immersed in their projects, through the use of spatial elements, such as size, movement, and light, all in an organic way (Norman).

On the physical affordances of Waterlicht, the work consists of light-rays projected across Museumplein at about three or four meters high, of which its blue color and wavy movements simulate water. These physical aspects can also be classified as sensory affordances, which is a term by Hartson relating to the reaction process of the viewers (Jeong and Seungho, 2013). This concept refers to how Roosegaarde’s work enables the audience to have sensory experiences.

The bigger picture

Apart from these physical and sensory affordances, Waterlicht is also an aesthetic installation that enhances the viewers’ experience of public space on an emotional and intellectual level. As researched by Hall and Robertson, public art has different benefits such as the meaning it can hold for people, communicating a shared sense of belonging or connection to place (Hall and Robertson). These benefits point to emotional, or sometimes called imagined affordances (Nagy and Neff, 5). As The Netherlands are located below sea level, Waterlicht shows this with the projection of the water level, reminding the viewer of the Dutch water infrastructure and the artificial relation with the landscape we inhabit. This relationship between technology, nature, and sociality is a constant in the work of Roosegaarde Studio.

With this installation, Roosegaarde in a way says ‘see what I see’, as artists can communicate their thoughts or feelings through their work, providing the audience with new insights. An intellectual affordance is how new ways of thinking are provoked (Overhill). Through the experience of Waterlicht, the public is reminded of this idea of flooding, or the bigger issue of global warming.

Although, it can be questioned how and if these intellectual affordances provoke reflection or contemplation in its users. Here, the focus is on enhancing awareness, but how much does this installation rely on the spectator’s previous knowledge of the matter? As stated by Hall and Robertson, public art can provide educational value or to promote attitudes for social change (Hall and Robertson). But it should be mentioned that the perceived affordances are dependent on the individual’s experiences (Gibson; Heft) and cultural context (Heft). One can say an affordance only enables action because of the culturally learned behavior or pre-existing knowledge of an individual (Heft). So, one person may have a different interpretation, perception, and interaction with the artwork than others.

This brings us to the discussion of Waterlicht’s high-level affordance (Bucher & Helmond): sustainability and behavioral change. Waterlicht is not causing behavioral change in the sense that by looking at the artwork one directly transforms their lifestyle to a more sustainable one. In contrast, it provides viewers with the opportunity to think about the issue of global warming. As Roosegaarde puts it, pro-topia, the vision of art as an activator for a better world.

Riccardo Annandale, Man holding incandescent bulb, 20/10/2020, photo from

Raising awareness

When addressing social issues, a common objective of most causes is to raise awareness, but is raising awareness enough to bring about actual change? The idea that awareness can be a catalyst for change assumes that lack of concrete action is due to the need for information or knowledge, specifically scientific knowledge. This belief is referred to as the information deficit model; a popular communication model born in the 1980s which assumes that action will be prompt if people are provided with enough accurate information. Although this model has been highly criticized and studies have shown that people usually do not change their perspectives even when provided with more information, it is still widely used, particularly in issues such as climate change (Christiano and Neimand).

When thinking of these issues, there is now a consensus among many people that action is needed if we want to avoid more drastic consequences from the impact we humans are having on the planet. But how do we go from knowing to doing? Scientists have been warning us for decades, yet sufficient action has not been taken; clearly, science alone cannot solve these issues. Government and industry have also fallen short and perhaps what is needed is a deep cultural change and for the fields of art and science to further merge on climate change research. (Galafassi et al.) Art stands out from other approaches as it offers an alternative way of communication that tends to resonate with people much more than scientific studies. It also provides a space for experimentation where new exploration of existing and future methods can happen (Galafassi et al.) free of market pressures. 

Ethical and sustainable design, from theory to real-world innovation

Raising awareness, as discussed above, is not enough to change people’s behavior. Ethical and sustainable design has been the subject of many studies, conceptualization, and discussion across the field. The issue with Waterlicht is that as a work of art whose goal is to raise awareness, it has no practical bearing and thus cannot fit the framework that we are about to develop. 

In 1972, Victor Papanek, a design expert at UNESCO contemplated design as “the most powerful tool with which man shapes his tools and environments” (Papanek, p.1) and linking it with the need for it to be ethical, thus recognizing the need for designers to ask “how good” rather than “how much” (Papanek, p.104). From this perspective, various authors like Manzini have tried to come up with guidelines (Cumulus Working Paper) or methodologies (Clark et al.) for ethical and sustainable design. Both works think about the issue at hand with complementarity and provide a fitting lens to create and assess ethical and sustainable design. Indeed, Manzini’s guidelines revolve around three criteria that make a solution sustainable, namely, “consistency with the fundamental principles”, “low material-energy intensity” and “high regenerative potential” (Cumulus Working Papers, p.11). The first criterion relies upon values of social justice, redistribution of wealth but also the relationship between people, society, and nature such as the need for conservation of biodiversity, etc. The second criterion invites the designer to reflect upon the overall efficiency aspect of a given design, “taking into account the overall life-cycle of the related artifacts” surrounding its operationalization. Finally, the third criterion is concerned with the design’s regenerative influence upon the environment it is implemented in.

The “D4S” (design for sustainability) methodology developed by the United Nations Environment Program provides innovators with different ways and concrete examples to implement those criteria (Clark et al.). From redesigning an existing product to creating new product designs, it introduces different perspectives on approaching innovation, putting sustainability as the key high-level affordance that every design should aim for.

GATES OF LIGHT by Daan Roosegaarde [OFFICIAL VIDEO]. 2020. YouTube,

The question is then, do Daan’s innovations follow this framework? His Gates of Light project could fit into the redesign model of D4S’s methodology. Interestingly, it’s not applied to a product per se but rather on an infrastructure. In this project, his studio was asked to bring light on the Afsluitdijk, in the Netherlands, but one of the key constraints was “no maintenance” (Kunsthal LIVE, 1:13:00). Noticing the fact that light was already present on the road at night (namely passing car lights) and inspired by butterflies’ wings that reflect light, he came up with this sustainable solution reflecting the light using the old floodgates as support.

Applying Manzini’s three criteria to this project we can see how this project is a way more ethical solution than simply adding streetlights to this highway portion. Indeed, regarding the first criterion, as there is no electrical current, the need for maintenance is greatly reduced, and once installed is virtually free for everyone. By using light that’s already there, the low energy criterion is fulfilled. Finally, this project produces way less light pollution than street lights, as there is only light from passing cars and thus, when it is needed. Also, this way of repurposing existing infrastructures, making it visible, and transforming them into hybrids of practicality and art, proves how aesthetics, innovation, and sustainability can work hand in hand. 

According to the D4S methodology, another way to achieve sustainability is to create “new design products” (Clark et al., p.7). Despite involving higher uncertainty than simply redesigning something, it also offers more sustainable potential. The process towards new design is described as involving three rather straightforward steps: policy formulation, idea generation, and product development. The first step is all about the goal and strategies to attain that goal. The second step is finding actual solutions to the issues raised and, finally, the last step is the production and testing of prototypes. 

SPACE WASTE LAB by Daan Roosegaarde [OFFICIAL MOVIE]. 2020. YouTube,

The studio Roosegaarde’s Space Waste Lab project is a good example of this process. The starting point was simple, when we send stuff into space, we create waste. From broken-down old satellites to parts of rockets, those objects orbit the earth with no possible decay, which could, in the long run, trap us on our planet and render space exploration and conquest impossible (End of Space – Creating a Prison for Humanity) as well as risking to impact working satellites and disrupt digital communication, creating even more waste in the process (Space Waste Lab | Studio Roosegaarde). Daan Roosegaarde identified this issue and is trying to design solutions to it, effectively achieving the first part of the D4S methodology. However, according to his website, the idea step is still under process with mentions of creating artificial shooting stars shows or a giant mirror reflecting the sunlight, which could replace the role of both poles should they melt entirely (Space Waste Lab | Studio Roosegaarde). Interestingly enough, the project also tries to raise awareness on this issue by pointing lasers on waste objects, in order to create discussion and open the debate as to what we should do with these.

Paving the way for a new path

In the process of answering the question ‘To what extent do new media artists contribute to an ethically designed and sustainable world?’, we analyzed artworks of Studio Roosegaarde beyond their aesthetic contributions and under the lens of their benefit to society. An important thing to note is that the framework around ethical and sustainable design discussed above does not fit Waterlicht because of its artistic nature. It lacks the practical element that innovation should have. On the other hand, the two other projects from Studio Roosegaarde we studied, Gates of Light and Space Waste Lab fit perfectly. Indeed, applying current thinking and methodologies around ethical and sustainable design on those works allowed us to determine and assess an artist’s, namely Daan Roosegaarde, contribution to innovation, paving the way for a new path: designers and artists working hand in hand to make our society both more aesthetic and sustainable.

Reference figures

Annandale, Riccardo. 20/10/2020

GATES OF LIGHT by Daan Roosegaarde [OFFICIAL VIDEO]. 2020. YouTube,

SPACE WASTE LAB by Daan Roosegaarde [OFFICIAL MOVIE]. 2020. YouTube,

WATERLICHT by Daan Roosegaarde in Museumplein Amsterdam [OFFICIAL MOVIE]. 2020. YouTube,

“Waterlicht Museumplein” Creative Commons, ING Nederland, Accessed 20 Oct. 2020.


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