What are they?

Sculptures, art installations, kinetic experiments, inorganic life forms. Dutch artist, Theo Jansen, designs the Strandbeesten (or Beach Beasts in English) to mimic the natural biological processes underpinning digestion and mobility, with oscillating sails to feed on wind energy, bladders to digest compressed air, and muscles to operate spidery legs. Built from PVC tubing, bottles and sheeting, the beasts roam Dutch beaches, following wind patterns in a new and fascinating artificial life.

Jansen’s most recently evolved Strandbeest, the 12m long Animaris Umerus, will soon be coming to Australia. It will spend February roaming the central piazza at Federation Square.

First seen in an article in The Age, viewable here.

What do we think?

Jansen’s background in physics led him 20 years ago to develop a computer program that utilised a genetic algorithm to emulate natural evolution. In it, virtual creatures competed against one another to determine which would reproduce. The Strandbeest project, ongoing since then, brings this early program to life.

The use of simple, limited materials – PVC, nylon thread and adhesive tape – to create creatures of great complexity mirrors nature’s own production process. Jansen observes that in nature, almost everything is made of protein used in various ways: from it come nails, hair, skin and bones. He explains that “there’s a lot of variety in what you can do with just one material and this is what I try to do as well.”

Jansen’s constant references to natural processes – skeletons, digestion, self-preservation and catacombs – are no accident. Though his media are inert, he is nevertheless conducting a long, slow dance of evolution: each Strandbeest learns from the mistakes of the last, is built to survive better and for longer. Recent improvements include high-wind sensors linked to sand anchors that protect the Strandbeesten from toppling over, and bottles that store compressed wind energy and drive pistons in their legs to move to safety at high tide.

What have we learnt?

There is a lot of science to Jansen’s project. His use of materials, the sophistication of his creatures’ limb joints and his inclusion of ancillary systems, have all improved significantly over the last 20 years, a clear indication of a systematic, scientific approach. However, like nature itself, there is also a lot of art. The Strandbeesten have a magical quality to them, evoking the multi-faceted movement of crustaceans, the ponderous size of elephants, the alien forms of the imagination.

Jansen’s dream, like the dream of any parent, is for his offspring to outlast him. His poetry lies in the Strandbeesten continuing to roam the beaches of Netherlands long after he himself has passed on.

We look forward to meeting the Animaris Umerus in person next month. Until then, we must satisfy ourselves with this short and beautifully-shot documentary, A Portrait of Theo Jansen, by Alexander Schlichter.

5 thoughts on “Strandbeesten

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    1. Great TED video. Jansen’s extraordinary imagination makes me want to practice his investigative philosophy of evolution, not necessarily to moving animals but to the form and structure of architecture. Could it even be something we teach to our students?

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