"It's about time we rethink the notion of authorship"

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Opinion: after Dutch designer Daan Roosegaarde was forced into an awkward discussion about the ownership of his projects, Louise Schouwenberg suggests that "star" individuals shouldn't be getting all the credit.


Daan Roosegaarde is the Dutch boy wonder of innovation, who has won international praise with a range of spectacular technological projects. But fame is a fragile privilege. During a recent Dutch television interview the artist was confronted with criticism concerning the authorship of his inventions, culminating in a video message in which scientist Bob Ursem claimed to be the true inventor of the sophisticated technology behind the Smog Free Tower in Rotterdam. Was the public misled in believing Roosegaarde is the sole creator of his projects? The artist ran off the stage in annoyance and returned after a break of 18 minutes for some final minutes of uncomfortable accusations back and forth.

Immediately after the incident, a passionate debate commenced in the Dutch media. Many praise the critical questioning of Roosegaarde, and argue he should have given full credits to the true innovators behind his projects. Others are irritated by the accusations and point to the fact that all innovation is the result of collaborations, or they denounce the "typical sober Dutch mentality" of not celebrating those heroes who dare to stand out.

The public witnessed a clash between the romantic notion of single authorship in art versus technological innovations, which by necessity require collaboration. Each innovator has for sure taken inspiration and ideas from others, and is thus at best the co-author of a project. This is not a new discussion, nor is it a sated one. And if we look at contemporary art practices it's clear that single authorship has also become an outdated notion within this field. Which begs the question: why was Roosegaarde unable to simply answer questions on authorship? Why was he surprised, emotional and irritated by Ursem's accusations?

When reviewing the press releases and fact sheets on Roosegaarde's website, one can find information on the collaborative nature of his projects, such as: "The Smog Free project is developed by Daan Roosegaarde in collaboration with his team of designers and engineers at Studio Roosegaarde and expert parties as ENS Europe and Bob Ursem."

However, despite these legally upstanding formulations in the usually unnoticed notes of documents, in public appearances – which constitute a large contribution to his revered public persona – Roosegaarde allows introductions of being the "genius of innovation", the "visionary", without feeling the urge of mentioning those who were involved. There is, for instance, a striking image of Roosegaarde drawing and seemingly calculating formulas on a window.

It's not hard to think of good reasons why Roosegaarde would refrain from giving full credits to others: his name and fame are based on the promise of technological innovation, an aspect of his projects that in fact seems dubious. What remains is the spectacle, the grand gesture, which often threatens to border on blatant kitsch, which would never position him in the ranks of great artists. Think only of the Van Gogh Roosegaarde Bicycle Path.

What Roosegaarde can rightfully claim is the capacity to reach large audiences in the realisation and funding of gigantic projects that promise to become even larger in the future. Roosegaarde is the mediator between scientific discoveries and public reception. He's the one who has provided a spectacular casing for the scientists' accomplishments, or has found a practical application for existing technological innovations.

The Smart Highway, for instance, employs photo-luminescent paint – also known as "glow-in-the-dark" – of which first versions were invented early 20th century. The paint absorbs solar energy during the day, and illuminates at night. Roosegaarde has cleverly applied the material to mark the edges of roads, which might replace the conventional lighting systems alongside highways.

The Smog Free Tower contains an innovative filtering system, a technology that might someday solve air pollution in all major cities in the world. Currently the results are not yet overwhelming; Roosegaarde's tower only produces a tiny bubble of clean air in its vicinity, whereas it's main "product" is a range of jewels, made at the artist's studio from the filtered pollution particles. However, the inventors of the technology (from Delft Technical Universities) are confident that one day this purification technology will lead to major improvements in the fight against air pollution.

Who is responsible for the misunderstandings and who is to blame for launching premature ideas that claim to offer final solutions for such big problems as air pollution? Roosegaarde? Or should we look at the media and their obsession with stardom? After all, a "team of experts" doesn't quite convey the appeal of "the genius of innovation". The media and the public love heroes and, in extent, the hero that is Daan Roosegaarde. Additionally, he is embraced by the authorities and he receives large commissions to execute his presumed genius.

Currently Roosegaarde works on the re-design of the iconic Afsluitdijk in the north of the Netherlands. The prophesied spectacular interventions aim at attracting more tourists to this location with its well-known splendid views of vast emptiness, and its silence that is only disrupted by the sound of waves and passing cars. To me, the dyke commission raises the question whether a Disneyfication of public space is such a good idea. However, this issue is beyond the scope of the ongoing argument in the Dutch media.

Why is this topic of authorship such an important one, and why is it causing so much heated and even hostile debate? Why devote this article to the embarrassing exposure of a much-deified artist? Because authorship is a fragile but very important aspect of any art practice and any design practice. Only authors are able to develop original views on the surrounding world, collaborate with other authors from various fields of expertise, and are able to translate those views into surprising and innovative artworks or designs.

Does Roosegaarde's flaw of not emphasising the names of collaborators turn him into a fraud? Or is it merely a sign of foolish vanity? I am inclined to think the latter. A collaborative effort inherently blurs the lines of authorship, but that is not a bad thing. As such, collaborative projects benefit from the strong and distinct voices of authors, and giving credits is part of such good authorship.

Take for instance the Turner Prize 2015 winners Assemble: a highly creative and productive combination of free spirits, authors in their own right. Even on a semantic level they present themselves as collaborators and provide an excellent example of a changed practice.

Maybe it's about time we redefine artistic practice and rethink the notion of authorship, if only to prevent such pitiful events as described above.


Louise Schouwenberg is an art and design critic, and head of the Contextual Design masters programme at Design Academy Eindhoven. Dutch to English translation is by Ben van der Wal.

  • davvid

    I feel like many people have this problem pretty well figured out already. There are many highly collaborative projects that provide a list of credits. But there is always a hierarchy to the credits. And sometimes top billing is shared between multiple collaborators and is usually reflected in some kind of co-branding. But some people are credit hogs. I can’t tell who in the instance described above was a credit hog. I work for someone and no matter how much work I do on a project, my boss is still the leader. He started the company. He secured the client. He created an identity, a studio, office standards, office culture, expectations, contacts etc. He bought my chair, my computer, and he pays the bills. But that also doesn’t mean that I’m invisible to the world. I still receive some credit. And I also get paid money.

  • 0!0

    He was quite right to walk out of the interview. The interviewer was awful.

    • Pundit

      He got called out. His ego couldn’t handle it.

      • Sim

        Exactly!

    • Sim

      The interviewer was gracious and magnanimous. He usually will do anything for his guests apart from licking their feet. Roosegaarde was being childish and small-minded.

      If you work with people and they help you further your work, you should acknowledge and encourage that, otherwise you erode the foundation beneath their work and income.

      • Francois

        Sim, my goodness. Please get your facts straight. Look at the episode of College Tour with (Google) Eric Smith. No graciousness what so ever. So at least this is not always true.

    • pipo

      No he was not and it’s not the point anyway.

  • Morgan

    “Or should we look at the media and their obsession with stardom? After all, a ‘team of experts’ doesn’t quite convey the appeal of ‘the genius of innovation’. The media and the public love heroes and, to an extent, the hero that is Daan Roosegaarde”

    “Designer Daan Roosegaarde has installed the ‘largest smog vacuum cleaner in the world’ in Rotterdam to help improve the city’s air quality”

    I read the first quote, scrolled down and read the related story. There is literally no mention of any other team members or collaborators in the related story.

  • Good ideas

    A good idea will find its way out there one way or another. Dan Roosegaarde has become a channel for good ideas. Can we blame Roosegaarde for creating that channel? No. Can we blame him for not sharing credits for the ideas that come through his channel? To a certain extent, yes (although in this particular case I suspect his age might be a mitigating factor). Can we blame the media, and ultimately ourselves, for spurring on the lone genius myth? Definitely.

    • Sim

      “Can we blame him for not sharing credits for the ideas that come through his channel?”

      A fair and honourable person never bites the hand that feeds him (or her) and gives credit where credit is due. I guess Mr Roosegaarde needed to learn that lesson on public television.

  • Francois

    First of all, Daan always acknowledges that what he creates is a team effort. By focussing only on this one picture, where he writes on glass, and leaving out the other public statements, it is easy to say he is claiming all the credits. The problem is, it is not true.

    Secondly, Bob Ursem has been working on this technology for more then 17 years, which is great. Apparently it takes quite a vision to build a tower and start public debate. And one needs to have a vision in order to say: “We do not need to accept air pollution.” It takes guts to be this bold. And that is exactly what Daan did. And he needs to be given credit for that.

    Thirdly, Ms Schouwenberg calls herself a critic. Her problem is, her article is not a critique. It is a long description of Daan’s work, ending with an opinion without any argument to support it. This is what I call profiting on someone else’s problems.

    • Sim

      “Apparently it takes quite a vision to build a tower and start public debate. And one needs to have a vision in order to say: “We do not need to accept air pollution.” It takes guts to be this bold. And that is exactly what Daan did. And he needs to be given credit for that.”

      Right, so someone works on developing a technique for 17 (SEVENTEEN) years and then he has to be grateful because Daan Roosegaarde runs off with it and gives no credit for this person’s work of 17 years? The sign of a small-minded attitude in my honest opinion.

      • Francois

        Actually, if you read the article, Daan gave credits to Bob Ursem.

        • However

          Yet in the interview, when he was given the opportunity to acknowledge Bob Ursem’s work, he didn’t. Instead he looked up at his PR team, asked for their advice, and walked out.

          Another ‘Daan Roosegaarde’ project is the sustainable dance floor. That project had a history before he joined it. He certainly didn’t come up with the idea. Döll Atelier voor Bouwkunst came up with the idea whilst designing the WATT sustainable dance club in Rotterdam, then ENVIU joined in on it, then TUDelft joined (as mentioned in the Bob Ursem clip), then finally Roosegaarde. Yet still it’s a ‘Roosegaarde’ project. In fact his website states: “Studio Roosegaarde created the design and interactional concept of the first Sustainable Dance Floor.”

          Yes we should give Roosegaarde credit for his success and ‘vision’. Yet he should take the opportunity to give credit where credit is due.

          • Francois

            I guess you could be right. He could have handle it differently. In hindsight, you always can, isn’t it? What I object to in my first post, was, that some people tend to interpret his reaction during the program in a certain way, jump to conclusions, start to be judgemental, without knowing all the facts. This is not helping anybody.

            Secondly, the real issue is about ownership of ideas and acknowledgement of contributions. Fact is that in their press release a lot of people/institutions were acknowledged, among them Bob Ursem.

            https://www.studioroosegaarde.net/uploads/files/2015/09/05/233/Press%20Release%20Smog%20Free%20Project%20Roosegaarde.pdf

            The whole excitement that emerged in the media probably caused a focus on Daan as a person because he took the whole idea to the next level, with jewelry, a Kickstarter project, plans to build towers all over the world and giving a positive message to the people. At some point things get their own dynamics.

            But I feel we have to differentiate between their original message and what emerged from the media frenzy that followed.

          • However 2

            Indeed, in hindsight we could always have handled things differently. As one of the comments above mentions, he’s relatively young so maybe still has some lessons to learn in how to handle these kind of questions. As far as I understand the TV programme is usually an upbeat and positive affair, which possibly explains why he was unprepared for such an ‘attack’.

            On the subject of the media however, I feel he himself has to take some responsibility. One of his unique assets is precisely his ability to bring these ideas to the media and sell them to a broader public (the ‘next level’ as you describe it). That is in fact one of the key secrets to his success.

            The ‘media frenzy’ was very much of his own making (and not, for example, that of Bob Ursem’s). So in that sense we can’t just point the finger at the media and say it was their fault. You could never, until this point, describe Daan Roosegaarde as a victim of the media – quite the opposite. But I expect he will grow from all of this. A storm in a tea cup, as they say.

        • pipo

          There is a huge difference between giving credit to and mentioning when legally obliged to do so.

          • Francois

            Sure!

  • SVK

    I think that what this all boils down to is – one of my favourite words in English – propriety.

    A short while ago a group of design students at my husbands work had completed a very succesful project. They launched their own media campaign, without discussing it with the other people involved (or the university) and without giving appropriate credit where credit was due. The technique that they had worked with was not theirs nor was the place where it was realised. But all that was only available to them because several companies and organisations and the university had made an effort to come together and to start this (risky) undertaking together.

    My husband – as their teacher – was also not mentioned. At the end of the day it was written down to youthful behaviour. But like Roosegaarde’s behaviour it could be compared to locusts who eat a farmers complete crop and then move on. No man is an island as they say, so it would behoove Mr Roosegaarde to admit that his island is connected to the mainland with a wide tunnel.

    As I said: propriety.

  • H-J

    I thought it was totally clear that it wasn’t Roosegaarde who invented those fancy technologies, he just implements them in a superficial way for the general public to understand, that subsequently garners a lot of attention.

    Is that art or marketing? I don’t know. Not a big fan of his work anyways. But it’s not his fault that people assume he’s some kind of genius who does this all by himself, in that way he could have reacted a bit better to the critical questions and clarify the team aspect a bit better.

    It’s the same in the entire creative field. There are hundreds of people working in an office like BIG or OMA for example, but when we discuss their projects, also here on Dezeen, we shift it towards Bjarke or Rem directly and praise or criticise them and not the hundreds of people that produce these projects sitting in front of their computers and foam-cutters, not to mention we never credit the craftsmen and -women who actually build these projects on site with their bare hands. So it’s no surprise this whole discussion about authorship is a mirky one and in general in my experience it’s always a team effort.