“The wall between art and engineering exists only in our minds.”
About the artist
Theo Jansen has created a whole new species using nothing but plastic tubing, wind and his own imagination. His Strandbeesten are evolving into a low-tech entity with a rudimentary brain and survival skills.
He is a creator in the most fundamental sense of the word. For over 30 years he has been building generations of a new species that will eventually survive its creator and continue to evolve on its own. Yet his creatures don’t involve multimillion dollar machines or mindboggling gene-splicing technology. Jansen builds his skeletons from yellow plastic tubes held together with tape and rope. Every new generation incorporates lessons learned from its predecessors and is tested on the beach of Jansen’s native The Hague. Hence their name: Strandbeesten: beach beasts.
Jansen studied applied physics, but before graduating, he changed directions and decided to become an artist instead. To him, art and science are not separate worlds, but rather two related ways of applying imagination and creativity to natural laws and phenomena. He started working on his Strandbeesten after creating a flying saucer and a painting machine.
Rather than use wheels, these creatures rely on the mechanical movement of legs and joints. They move sideways like crabs or imitate the undulating progress of caterpillars. Sails catch the wind, which serves as an energy source. The Umerus (2009) introduced a propulsion system in the shoulders. Since the Calceamente (2014) all Strandbeesten have large feet that enable them to navigate rough surfaces. Recent generations have also learned to float so as not to get bogged down in sand.
In the meantime Jansen has also developed a system to store wind energy and a piston-driven neural system that basically constitutes a rudimentary brain. As opposed to the black box of digital technology – usually associated with artificial intelligence – the whole mechanism operates in plain sight and is much sturdier. NASA has recently asked Jansen to think about a low-tech reconnaissance robot for their upcoming mission to Venus. That would make a Strandbeest the first earthling to set foot on the planet.
Photo credits: Loek van der Klis, Adriaan Kok, Marco Swinkels, Divera