Theo Jansen: Engineering Life
2014-12-04 | Text: Brian Hayden | Photo ©: Uros Kirn, Loek van der Klis / strandbeest.com, FaceMePLS, Julianna YY, duimdog / flickr.com | 3828

A strange new form of life has found a home on the beaches of the Netherlands. Moving on dozens of jointed legs, these creatures feed on the wind that fills the giant, transparent sales on their backs. These animals are called strandbeest, Dutch for “beach animal.” Because they lack eyes, they use special antennae to avoid the dangerous surf. But the strangest thing about them: they are made almost entirely of plastic tubing.


The strandbeests are the work of one person – Dutch artist Theo Jansen, who began creating them in 1990. They began as an idea in a newspaper column he wrote, but only a few months later they had grown into an idea that obsesses him to this day. Jansen describes himself as both an engineer and an artist. His interest in “the progress of mobility” he considers engineering, while admitting that, as an artist, he has a “desire to sculpt the world around him and give it shape.” While many call his creations “kinetic sculptures”, Jansen prefers to speak of them as a new form of life. In his book, The Great Pretender, Jansen put it this way: “I have tried to forget nature and genuinely create a new kind.” This dream, born 24 years ago, still drives him.

Since 1990 Jansen has built more than 25 species of these creatures. Each species differs from the others, sometimes radically. Like any other organism, strandbeests find the means of sustenance in their environment. But unlike plants, who derive nutrients from the soil and sun, and unlike animals, who eat plants and one another, Jansen’s creatures consume wind. Just like other animals, strandbeests move on their own, and a few of the more recent species are aware of their surroundings and, using this knowledge, are able to avoid danger. Jansen even claims that his creations have found means of reproducing.

Jansen did not always work with beach animals. He studied physics at the University of Delft, but quit that field to become a painter. “It was a hippy time,” he explains. Even before he began creating strandbeests, Jansen made unconventional works of art. While still a university student, he made a “UFO” out of the same type of tubing that he would later use to make his strandbeests. This UFO sent Delft into a panic, making its way into local newspapers. Later he invented a “paint machine”, which worked like a camera: it captured the silhouette of whatever was in a room, and then reproduced it with paint.

Although it may seem that inherently artificial processes like engineering and art are incompatible with such natural processes as evolution, Jansen has found methods of combining them. This means that Jansen did not use the standard engineering approach, although it often gives quick and reliable results. For Jansen the problem is that such an approach is surprisingly uncreative. If a group of engineers were given the task of creating something that could move on its own across the beach, Jansen claims that most of them would create something very similar – some sort of robot with electronic sensors and cameras. A robot like that would be very effective, but it wouldn’t be very interesting. As strange as it may sound, Jansen says that constraints and chance are aids to creativity, even though they force artists and engineers to work longer and harder. Accidents give rise to new ideas, just like mutations give rise to new traits in the natural world. Constraints force the engineer-artist to forget obvious solutions and find other, more creative possibilities. When Jansen began creating strandbeests, he choose one very important constraint – he would work with only one material, just like nature weaves organisms out of protein alone. Jansen chose plastic tubing. Jansen explains his choice this way: “I tried to take the same strategy of trying again and again, but – obviously – I didn’t have millions of years.”

Working with plastic tubing was not easy. One of the first engineering challenges was joining the tubes – Jansen literally had to find a way to put his beach animals together. He spent an entire year creating one strandbeest only to discover that its joints, which were made from adhesive tape, were too weak to support the animal’s weight. Cable ties turned out to be a better solution, being both stronger and longer-lasting, and a beach animal joined with them was the first one to be able to walk. After three years of experimentation Jansen found yet another means of joining tubes – a heat gun. Even at this stage, however, Jansen found room for improvement: an important breakthrough occurred when he began joining the tubes on low heat instead of high. The lower heat required more time, but created stronger joints.


For the beach animals to be truly independent they would have to learn to avoid danger. The beach has two main threats – excessive wind and the surf. At first Jansen created passive defenses against the wind. He built his strandbeests so that they, like windvanes, always faced downwind. One even had an anchor. Soon, however, Jansen began to consider more active measures. In addition to always facing downwind, one of the new species – Animaris Percipiere Rectus – could drive a stake into the ground, anchoring the beast in place. This defense proved to be highly effective – the animal can survive gale-force winds. Too much wind, however, can be just as dangerous as too little wind – if the wind dies down at low tide, waves can carry the strandbeest out to sea.  The beach animals needed a means of keeping wind in reserve, so they could avoid the incoming tide. Jansen fitted a pump to small wings and put it on a strandbeest; when the wind blows against the wings, it drives a crankshaft connected to the wings, and the crankshaft compresses air to a pressure of six atmospheres. The compressed air is then stored in bottles. Although it’s tempting to imagine that these bottles are lungs, they are really more akin to a fuel tank, or the fat in a camel’s hump – they are a fuel reserve or a source of nourishment in times of scarcity.

Jansen also introduced “evolutionary” processes into his development of the strandbeests. One design element “evolved” by Jansen was their legs. Each leg consists of eleven rods– the problem lie in what lengths to give each of them. Creating their legs was a very complicated mathematical problem, and Jansen decided opted to solve it by the “evolutionary method.” Even if there were only ten possible lengths for each rod (when in reality every rod could have any of an infinite number of lengths), one would have to calculate billions of variations. Jansen found an easy way to reduce that number: he had the computer generate 1500 random ratios for the lengths of the leg parts. This process was repeated until Jansen found the ideal ratio. He calls this process “evolution in the computer”, and deems the length of the rods in their legs to be the “genetic code” of his creations. The result is a leg that moves elliptically, like a wheel, making it ideal for moving across sand. By selecting only the most effective codes, Jansen wanted to artificially recreate the “survival of the fittest” principle: the fit survived to reproduce within the computer, while the unfit died out. Later evolution moved from the computer to the beach. Jansen created seven nearly-identical strandbeests, each differing from the others only in the lengths of the rods in its legs, and held a race on the beach. Only the fastest strandbeests had their designs copied – they “produced offspring.”


In the latest stage of development, which Jansen calls the Cerebrum, he is focusing on the creation of “brains” for his beach animals. One of the most fascinating aspects of the strandbeests is that their artificial intelligence does not rely on electronics, unlike other, more familiar forms of AI. Jansen says that he is trying to put their nervous systems through the same chain of development Nature took with animals: first muscles, then nerves, and then brains (brains are, in Jansen’s opinion, ultimately accumulations of nerve cells.) Jansen began to make his creations “intelligent” by giving them by two types of “feelers” – a “water feeler” and a “soft sand feeler”. The water feeler consists of a simple hose with an open end – when the hose begins taking in water instead of air, resistance increases, and the animal reverses. The soft-sand feeler detects tension when the animal moves from the hard, wet sand onto the soft sand, which it is harder for the strandbeest to cross. Together these two feelers keep the animals from two dangers – getting stuck in the sand and getting swept off by the surf. Even after this innovation, however, the animals sometimes found themselves in danger. To solve this problem, Jansen invented a step-counter for the strandbeests, giving them a “conception” of where they are on the beach. Since then they have “known” when they are between the dunes and the sea, on the hard sand, where they are safe and can move best. Jansen says that this step-counter is a sort of rudimentary brain. In the future Jansen plans to give the strandbeests more and more sensory organs, giving them a greater number of “senses” and more information about their surroundings, in the process making them better able to fend for themselves.

When Jansen is asked about the future of his creations, he talks of grandiose plans. He imagines a day when the beach animals will live completely on their own, without his or other human help. “These animals will survive on their own, just like you raise your children ... Тhere comes a day when you kick them out of your door and they live their own lives…”  That day, unfortunately, has still not come, as Jansen admits: “I have to nurse them – they don’t yet survive on the beaches.” In The Great Pretender Jansen says: “The beach animals will be my brainchildren, my memories in reverse. Just like real children, they will be … cared for and trained to withstand the perils of the beach. There comes a time when they get shown the door…Then they must fend for themselves. Once that happens, I can breathe my last with a light heart, knowing for certain they will get by.”


Jansen’s talk about the strandbeest’s independence raises a question: how will the strandbeests reproduce? Evolution is, after all, impossible without reproduction: reproduction is the means by which evolutionary changes are passed on and spread. All true organisms are able to produce copies of themselves. If strandbeests are to truly become a new form of life, they will need to reproduce. But how?

Of course, the strandbeests cannot reproduce in the conventional sense of the word. They cannot produce copies of themselves from external materials, thereby simulating the process of reproduction. A strandbeest will never give birth to another strandbeest and will never build another one out of plastic tubing. For this reason, Jansen uses a few metaphors, which convey his thoughts on this issue.

Jansen says that he lives in symbiosis with the strandbeests. He creates the strandbeests, cares for them, fixes and improves them, and in exchange they guarantee Jansen art grants, which in turn pay for the construction of new beach animals. Sometimes Jansen makes less benign comparisons: he says that he is the “host” or “victim” of the strandbeests, just like a person can be the host of a parasite or virus.

In the second metaphor Jansen equates reproduction with data transfer. Whereas living things transfer genetic information by reproducing, information about the strandbeests – their “genetic code” – is spread through Jansen and the media. Jansen compares the strandbeests to chain letters. Even though chain letters cannot make copies of themselves, they are copied and spread by humans. Chain letters can even evolve, picking up new traits and losing old ones in the process of copying. This form of evolution and reproduction differs from evolution in the natural world, since changes in chain letters and strandbeests appear only due to external factors, and not due to internal organic development. Nevertheless, Jansen’s metaphor is a compelling one.


Whether or not they are a truly new form of life, the “beach animals” have an effect on people. They are shown on television news programs and in thousands of videoclips (including a BMW ad), written about in several languages on the internet and in magazines. Theo Jansen himself is in demand as a public speaker. Models of strandbeests are sold as construction sets, but many hobbyists construct their own. A search for the word “strandbeest” on YouTube will give many such results – among them are even beach animals made from Lego bricks. It seems that Jansen’s creations will, in one form or another, truly live on as his “children.” 


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