For fifteen years Theo Jansen from Holland has wholeheartedly
devoted himself to create a new form of life. His "Strandbeest"
(beach beasts) seem so organic that from a distance they
could be mistaken for huge insects or prehistoric mammoth skeletons,
but they are made of materials from the industrial age: flexible
plastic tubes, adhesive tape. They were born inside a computer
as an algorithm, but they do not require engines, sensors
or any other type of advanced technology in order to walk. They
move thanks to the force of the wind and wet sand they
find in their habitat of the Dutch coast.
From his laboratory in Ypenburg, Jansen studies the history
of biological evolution to provide his new generation of creatures
with greater and greater capacities. His dream is that one day
they will learn how to evolve without his intervention and continue
their lives as any other organism, subject to cycles of nature.
All those who observe for the fist time the beauty of one
of Theo Jansen's creatures moving around the sand understand
immediately that the work of this engineer, scientist and artist
is something special. However, during more than a decade he has
remained in the dark and has only recently been discovered by
the international art community. In the last decade, dazzled by
the digital revolution, his works could seem rudimentary, above
all compared to the sofisticated productions his contemporary
colleagues have been carrying out in the field of robotic art.
Nowadays, in the age in which the coexistence between technique
and nature in pursuit of sustainability is an urgent priority,
his design strategies are more relevant than ever.
Jansen's creatures begin to take shape as a simulation inside
a computer, in the shape of artificial life organisms
which compete among themselves to be the quickest. Jansen studies
the winning creatures and reconstructs them three-dimensionally
with light and flexible tubes, nylon thread and adhesive tape.
Those moving around more efficiently will donate their "DNA"
(length and disposition of the tubes forming their movable parts)
to the following Standbeest generations. Through this process
of hybridization and Darwinian evolution, creatures become
more and more capable of living in their environment, and can
even take decisions to guarantee their survival. The "Animaris
Sabulosa", for instance, buries its nose in the sand
to anchor itself when detecting the wind is too strong to be still
Jansen is already working on the seventh generation of
beach creatures. His latest pieces can even carry passengers inside
- the "Animaris Rhinozeros, a two ton giant which
can be moved just by one person -, reaching those places where
there's no wind or sand, thanks to a clever system of impulse
based on compressed air stored in soda bottles.
In the future, the Dutch artist expects his creations to become
more and more anatomically sophisticated: they will develop muscles,
a nervous system, and some kind of brain allowing them to take
complex decisions. And some day, he hopes his beach creatures
won't need him to keep on evolving. Entire herds on the beach
will compete for being the fastest and more stable, and will transmit
their DNA autonomously to following generations, already completely
incorporated in their ecosystem.
After leaving his studies in physics, Theo Jansen began
his artistic career in the 70s as a painter. Subsequently, he
began to be interested in areas such as aeronautics and robotics.
His "UFO," a flying saucer shaped airship he used to
terrorize the people from the Dutch city of Delft, and his "painting
machine", a robot which draws graffitis on a wall, showed
his skill to apply his engineering knowledge to different artistic
projects. At the beggining of the 80s, Jansen began to create
algorithm programs of artificial life simulation. His interest
in designing living and autonomous organisms via software made
him begin his series of kinetic sculptures "Strandbeest,"
a project which has brought him international recognition. Among
other awards, Jansen has received the special jury prize in Ars
Text originally published in ArtFutura's 2005 catalog.