3 Oct 2020

Kinetic artist Theo Janssen: the evolution of Strandbeests

From Saturday Morning, 4:26 pm on 3 October 2020

Dutch artist Theo Janssen creates amazing kinetic sculptures that have spread across social media. His Strandbeest are large surreal animal skeletons that walk by themselves across beaches, powered by wind. He talked to Kim Hill.

Janssen has been making the Strandbeest by hand from things like PVC pipes and ski poles for the past 30 years. He's even trying to get them to 'evolve', by sharing the open source instructions of how to make them, with the world.

He says that while he is essential to the process, the design of the beasts arise from something greater and he's more of a catalyst.

"At the moment I'm working on... an extension of the leg system, sort of puppet legs that imitate the legs on the front of the beast, and it seems that you can make this tail of legs as long as you wish.

"And they can carry extra things like a power wing, which pumps air in the plastic bottles to store the wind, so I think it's a new possibility for carrying things.

"The power wing is a wing that waves into the wind, and there are little pumps connected with that wing that go up and down, just like a bicycle pump. And they pump air into soda bottles to high pressure, and the animals can use this pressure in case the wind falls away, because they can drive other pumps and then the animal can walk or do other things.

"You have in fact the principal of a muscle. Muscles turn out to be very handy if you want to survive on beaches."

Janssen says he turns the power wing on when needed.

"But in the future they could get sensors for the wind, the wind power and wind direction, and they can open the animal when to open the valve to start or stop pumping.

"There's no computer in the beast, it's all mechanical. It's a sort of yin yang between complexity and simpleness.

"It can't be too complex, because I can't make a mechanical computer of 100 megabytes or something. So it has to be a very simple switching system which only works with 1 byte; 8 bits. It's digital but not electronic, but you can also switch digital on mechanical pumps.

"It's binary, you have this on-off function, and these nerve cells in the animal work on compressed air and can be either one or zero, in the same way a computer works, but it's only mechanical. So if you have a series of zeroes and ones, you can build a sort of brain, which takes the decisions for the animal based on the outer information coming from the sensors.

"So the wind is very important, also the hardness of the sand, also if there's water about - this information goes into a sort of brain and then the animal takes action. But I must say I help the animals a lot."

Janssen's work was heavily influenced by Richard Dawkins' work The Blind Watchmakers.

"What I'm doing on the beaches; I try mutations. Most mutations don't work - most of my ideas don't work, but sometimes there's some hope and then I build on that, and then something succeeds sometimes.

"And if you keep on working long enough you get a real evolutionary process, which I couldn't think of in the beginning - how the animals are evolving.

"The path is very capricious you could say - you cannot predict what the development of the beast will be.

"People see me as an intelligent designer, like there's a hand of God, but it's an overestimated intelligence because usually my ideas don't work. It's just the ideas of reality that you bounce on when you're working and playing with the beast, those are better than my ideas."