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

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 And if we look at contemporary art practices it's clear that single authorship has also become an outdated notion within this field.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.