The Beach animals: machines made out of PVC tubing and sails moved by wind energy that wander the shores of Scheveningen, the Netherlands – they show that man is by nature an artist and an engineer
‘What makes us human?’ The work of Dutch artist Theo Jansen has played with the boundaries constructed in our societies between science and art, living beings and machines, creator and creation. His strandbeesten, the plural Dutch word for ‘beach creatures’, were born out of Jansen’s desire to engineer a machine – to shift sand from the bottom of the shore to the top, thus enabling the shore to be reinforced against the rising sea levels his own hometown of Scheveningen in the Netherlands has seen in recent decades due to climate change.
Out of that impulse to fashion a tool, a technology, to ward off the effects of global warming, Jansen became dominated by the beach creatures which his initial idea gave rise to.I became intrigued by the origins of life that I forgot to save the land from sea level. I see life as a great miracle». And adds: «Animals and plants are complicated and, at the same time, perfectly working machines. Everything has undergone millions of years of development and we have become well-functioning machines. There is one point that I cannot figure out. Why I ended up in my body and someone else like you in your body. I ended up in the body of myself and experience life that way, but why did I end up in this body? If I observe the life around me objectively, we are all machines».
The ‘creatures’, as Jansen refers to, are made out of PVC tubing and sails. Their legs are able to move thanks to wind energy, although Jansen has also constructed a way for them to store wind energy and continue moving along the beach even on windless days. Jansen hit upon the ratio for spacing the legs that resulted in the strandbeesten’s distinctive, lifelike gait by running an algorithm that simulated the process of evolution in nature. The best ratios competed against one another and resulted in a specific one that Jansen has shared publicly so that anyone can construct strandbeesten on their own using that blueprint: «Disclosing my information provided the best protection. No one can recreate my work without publicly accusing themselves of plagiarism. I never wanted to deal with legal formalities, which is why I never applied for a patent on the walking system of the beach animals. As I have released my ‘secret’ numbers from the paw system, I have seen students all over the world get excited to build their own beach animals», Jansen says. «These students feel they have found a hobby; the reality is that their brains are used for the reproduction of the beach animals. In contrast to the coronavirus, the ‘strandbeesten virus’ does move through cell towers and computer screens: it settles in the heads of many enthusiasts».
Jansen expects that we will see even more viruses in the future. «It is one of the tests of our time, apart from the climate crisis. The Corona virus has thrown us back on ourselves and challenged us to look more inward as a society. This has to do with the distribution of capital, but also with the attitude of life». That approach toward life is also needed in addressing climate change, the Dutch artist believes: «We inhabit this planet with far too many people, we should be more aware of that. A mental revolution is necessary, in which we will renounce material values and appreciate nature, life, and our environment. This can be achieved through art and culture».
The artist’s radical approach to invention and creation could perhaps signal a new way of interacting with and working within our ecosystem. While most human inventions are aimed at controlling its environment or producing an effect regardless of its consequences, Jansen’s process is notable for its centering on the environment itself. In constructing what he considers to be living creatures, Jansen models them on the way that life forms interact with their ecosystems and adapt to their surroundings. And in that new path forward, he thinks that art has a vital role to play. «The walls between art and engineering exist only in our minds». This division between art and science (inclusive of technology), seems to fall on either side of the fault line of progress: art is viewed as being something extra, an unnecessary addition to life, while technology/science is viewed as being practical and utilitarian.
But for Jansen, the two disciplines are inextricable to the human condition. «Man is by nature an artist and a scientist. The institutes have made the separation. Art is no less to society than science and technology. The artist is also an engineer; however, he has a bigger area to play, he makes mistakes, which gives him the freedom to take other paths. The artist should motivate us to live life. The engineer should create the conditions for living life. Art should give us a reason to live. When I am working on the beach, I see myself more as an Eskimo than an artist. An Eskimo who has no sense of a museum or university, yet he is busy with technology making improvements to his kayak and surroundings. That’s how blank I want to be about the world».
Jansen’s ultimate dream is that his strandbeesten are able to survive «My Utopia is a way to make myself immortal by keeping my spiritual descendants alive. My beach animals are my spiritual children, as it were. You set out a memetic path in the future, as it were. It is the desire of all humans, and artists, to leave something behind that will continue after we die. And it will always be true that at some point in time we shared our planet’s air with the creatures that wandered the shores of Scheveningen. «I hope that with my work I can motivate ourselves to save the world».
Theo Jansen is a Dutch artist who builds walking kinetic sculptures that he calls a new form of life. His “Strandbeests” walk the coastline of Holland, feeding on wind and fleeing from water. Theo Jansen has been working for 16 years to create sculptures that move on their own in eerily lifelike ways. Each generation of his “Strandbeests” is subject to the forces of evolution, with successful forms moving forward into new designs. Jansen’s vision and long-term commitment to his wooden menagerie is as fascinating to observe as the beasts themselves. His newest creatures walk without assistance on the beaches of Holland, powered by wind, captured by gossamer wings that flap and pump air into old lemonade bottles that in turn power the creatures’ many plastic spindly legs. The walking sculptures look alive as they move, each leg articulating in such a way that the body is steady and level. They even incorporate primitive logic gates that are used to reverse the machine’s direction if it senses dangerous water or loose sand where it might get stuck.