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Daan Roosegaarde's Latest: Turning Wind Turbines Into Light Art

The artist puts his own spin on an icon of Dutch innovation.

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Windmills have long been a symbol of Dutch innovation, but in recent years, the Netherlands has become the site of a contentious debate over wind power. Despite a landscape still dotted with iconic Dutch windmills, many citizens are less than thrilled with wind turbines popping up in their backyards, and the resistance has led the country—and much of Western Europe—to invest in wind farms built offshore.

For the Dutch artist and inventor Daan Roosegaarde the negative perception of wind turbines is unwarranted. His latest project, Windlicht, aims to change it with an installation that connects a row of wind turbines with a neon green laser, transforming the wind farm into a mesmerizing light show in strong winds. "We wanted to connect the prestige of the windmills of our history with the ones of today," says Roosegaarde, whose previous environmentally minded work includes a LED-lit, virtual flood and a glow-in-the-dark highway. "We wanted to bring some poetry to windmills and to wind energy."

When he first began working on the project, Roosegaarde initially intended to redesign the windmill, but later decided that visualizing the wind power it was harnessing would have a more powerful effect. Along with a team of engineers and designers at his Rotterdam studio, he designed a software that would allow a laser on one turbine to follow a blade on the turbine beside it. A tracking system predicts where the blade will be, then sends a signal to the hardware attached to the center of the turbine, allowing it to adjust according to the strength of the wind and speed of the rotations.

Attaching equipment to a windmill isn't easy (on average, wind turbines spin at about 120 mph) especially in the windy western province of Zeeland, where the wind farm is located; as a result, the project took two years of trial and error before they landed on the final design. The result is spectacular: The blades are at times in and out of sync, making the lasers seem like they're engaged in a choreographed dance. The green color of the light gives the whole thing an extraterrestrial quality.

However cutting-edge the technology or otherworldly the effect, Roosegaarde's aim is for people to engage with the landscape and reflect on our impact on it. For inspiration, he looked to the Dutch village of Kinderdijk, where 19 mills from the 1740s still stand. "You would have seen these 300 years ago you would have thought they were from Mars," Roosegaarde says of the hulking windmills, which used to also serve as homes for the mill workers. "I’m missing that—I think now design is lacking a bit in spectacle and adventure. I wanted to make a thing that revitalizes that."

Windlicht is open for visitors on March 11-12 and 18-19 between 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. at the Eneco wind farm at St. Annaland in Zeeland.

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