DRIFT to Stage Massive 1,000-Drone Performance in New York’s Central Park in October

Studio DRIFT, the moniker for artist duo Ralph Nauta and Lonneke Gordijn, will stage a performance of Franchise Freedom, their famed drone performance, in New York City‘s Central Park later this month, the artists told ARTnews.

“From the beginning, it has been a dream to fly [Franchise Freedom] in Central Park. New York is such an amazing city, with all of these different cultures living together in harmony, growing and learning from one another,” Nauta told ARTnews. “Central Park is also a place that gives people a chance to breathe and reconnect to nature in a concrete jungle. That has always been the mission” of the artwork.

Studio DRIFT last staged Franchise Freedom in December in honor of Art Basel Miami Beach’s 20th anniversary. The work premiered at the fair in 2017 and has only been staged a few times, including in 2020 in Rotterdam in honor of frontline workers during the early days of the pandemic.

The upcoming October performance will be even grander than the past iterations, however, due to its scale. While previous performances typically used around 300 Intel Shooting Star Drones to create swirling vortices and evocative amorphous shapes, the Central Park performance will use 1,000 drones to light up the Manhattan sky.

There will be three stagings of the performance, over the Lake at Central Park, on October 21, at 7 p.m., 8 p.m., and 9 p.m. Studio DRIFT will broadcast a simultaneous livestream with an accompanying musical performance by Joep Beving.

Every staging of Franchise Freedom is “unique,” Gordijn told ARTnews, because it must be created anew for each new venue. “We have to take into account where people will be and how to make them experience it in the best way,” she said, adding that their technology has improved dramatically since they first staged it. “The visual experience should be stronger than when we started.”

The Central Park performance has been in the works for five years, according to the artists, due to restrictions around drone flights in the city. Unmanned aircrafts were banned from New York City airspace in 2017 under the de Blasio administration, and it was only in late July that Mayor Eric Adams announced a new police-managed permitting process to facilitate drone use in the city, with the expectation that it would be primarily used by city agencies and their commercial partners.

However, the Adams administration drew harsh criticism from activists and civil liberties groups in August when the NYPD announced that it would use drones to surveil communities during Labor Day Weekend festivities, particularly J’ouvert, an annual celebration of Caribbean and West Indian American culture in Brooklyn.

Nauta and Gordijn said that New York CIty’s new permitting process for drones largely resulted from their advocacy, starting in 2018.

“We first went to Central Park [in 2018] to visualize it in our minds,” said Gordijn of the long journey to realize Franchise Freedom in New York. “Then we started speaking with different cultural partners, who put us in contact with the authorities. We had to wait until the new mayor was installed, but then Covid happened and a lot of processes were stopped.”

“It wasn’t the Mayor’s first priority,” she continued, but Adams did later change the rules for how such works could be staged.

The Central Park performance will be the first drone permit of its kind, the result of DRIFT working in concert with the New York City Parks Department and over a dozen federal, state, and municipal agencies, the artists said.

The New York City performance of Franchise Freedom is sponsored by Therme Art, a cultural subsidiary of Therme Group, a Vienna-based company that creates large-scale “wellness centers.” Therme has also provided funding to experiential art startup Superblue and the Serpentine Galleries in London.

“Therme has a long-term relationship with Studio DRIFT and we’ve wanting to do a partnerhsip with the team for many years. I like to think its the beginning of our relationship with DRIFT in the US,” Robert Hammond, president and chief strategy officer for Therme Group US, told ARTnews. Hammond, who co-founded New York’s High Line park, said the company is planning on opening ten Therme wellness centers in the US, with art expected to play an integral role.

“Experiencing art outside of galleries is so much more interesting. You can reach people who maybe didn’t think they were interested in art,” Hammond said, pointing to DRIFT as an ideal partner in that goal of Therme.

As ARTnews reported last December of the Miami Beach performance, “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.”

The artists said that the meaning of the work has stayed consistent even as the world around it has changed since 2017.

“What we are trying to express here is something universal,” Gordijn said. “It is nature showing how swarming works, showing how we as human should behave. In that sense, it is a work for all times and all cultures. The planet is teaching us that the only way to move into the future is together. This is an idea from old times. As an artist, this is the meaning of the work. That hasn’t changed.”