This is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. For almost 20 years, Dutch artist, scientist, engineer, self-described “kinetic sculptor”, and visionary Theo Jansen has been creating a completely new breed of animal. Fostering their evolution, his “Strandbeest” (translated into English as “Beach Beast”) are multi-legged creatures that roam the Dutch coastline feeding on wind.
17 years ago, Jansen created a computer program that uses genetic algorithms to emulate evolution. In it, virtual four-legged creatures competed against each other to determine which ones would reproduce. Looking to bring the experiment to life, Jansen found his own building blocks of life: plastic tubing.
“I see it now as a sort of protein — in nature, everything is almost made of protein and you have various uses of protein; you can make nails, hair, skin and bones. There’s a lot of variety in what you can do with just one material and this is what I try to do as well.”
His animals in motion are really something that has to be seen to be believed. Check out the trailer for Alexander Schlichter’s upcoming film on Jansen, “Strandbeesten”:
Removed from views of civilization, watching the Strandbeesten is almost like being hurled backwards in time. Gargantuan and spiny and insectile, from a distance it’s not at all hard to believe they’re completely organic creatures. Ancient skeletons from the trenches that walked out of the oceans and have taken up residence on the beach.
Jansen has said “The walls between art and engineering exist only in our minds.” Despite being made from relatively simple materials – the tubing, nylon thread, and adhesive tape (although I suppose you could also argue that human beings are made up of relatively simple materials like water and carbon) – his creatures are bogglingly complex and highly developed. They have fully-functional legs and stomachs that literally store wind to be “digested” later. Designed to live on the beach, each individual creature has it’s own “genetic code” in the varying lengths of tubing used for their appendages. In total Darwinian style, Jansen races different beasts along the beach. The winner gets their code passed down to the next generation. The loser doesn’t. It’s survival of the sculptural fittest.
Here is a fantastic and comprehensive video of Jansen himself presenting at TED:
In the future Jansen hopes to evolve the Strandbeesten every further, giving them muscles, nervous sytems, and a brain allowing them to make decisions. He’s already half-way there. His “Animaris Arena” sported a long trunk that would, sensing the threat of being toppled over by the wind, hammer a pin into the sand to anchor itself, while “Animaris Sabulosa”, buries its face into the sand to stabilize itself in the same situation:
His largest animal ever, “Animaris Rhinoceros Transport”, is a two-tonne wind-powered behemoth. Though heavy, it’s engineered so well that it can be put into motion by the wind and a single person:
To me, it’s not the success of the engineering that is most meaningful. All the magnificence and importance of these two decades can be distilled into the look on Jansen’s face, at the end of the trailer for “Strandbeesten”, as he watches his animal slowly walk away. We’re trained to think that once something has been toiled and thought out and given all our energy it should be kept and treasured. Despite the setbacks and complexity of all his work, his animals are created with the ultimate intention to be set free. All of his effort is put forth into creating something that will, if successful, outgrow its need for him. So much desire extended in the hope of being left behind.
In the end, his goal is the same as every mother and father in every species that’s every existed: “In the future I hope that these animals will develop that they can live on their own and I don’t have to cure them any more and at the end of my life that they will live for a long time after I’m done.”
Theo Jansen is a genius, and the poignancy of his love for his art is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.