"I try to make new forms of life," says Strandbeests creator Theo Jansen

So the Strandbeests abuse students for their reproduction. Or are you happy with this species you’ve created? Of course, I’m an amateur because I don’t have any experience in Afghanistan minefields. Marcus Fairs: Tell us the story of how you first came up with the idea of building Strandbeests. Today we think of a cat as a pet but actually the cat has other ideas. The spine makes a circular movement, and that circular movement is transformed by a number of tubes to a walking movement by the shoe which is under there. You could see this proportion of thirteen numbers as the DNA code of the Strandbeests. When I leave this planet, these animals will be a new species on   Earth. Theo Jansen: I have forgotten about that because during the process I got so much more interested in the history of evolution that I forgot all about saving the country because this dream, at that moment, was more important for me. Theo Jansen: Well, I’m Theo Jansen and I’m a kinetic sculptor. It was born in a 3D printer. “So this was in fact a way to save Holland from drowning in the North Sea, which is rising.”

He later started building such machines himself using plastic tubing from DIY stores, but quickly forgot about the original purpose of the “beests” and instead became   fascinated by the possibility of creating a new species of man-made animal. Theo Jansen: In the middle the beests have this sort of spine. So there’s a real evolution going on which you cannot stop any more. And this particular movement is to do with the proportion of the lengths of the tubes which are in-between the spine and the shoe. Theo Jansen: Well, you could say that the beests and I are living in symbiosis because the beests cannot do without me, and I cannot do without the beests anymore. Of course that was not true. Now in all corners of the world you see appearing these small beests, and this Strandbeest reproduction went into an acceleration a few years ago. Marcus Fairs: It’s to destroy mines in Afghanistan. Here is a transcript of the interview:
Marcus Fairs: Tell us who you are and what you’re doing here on Miami Beach. So this was in fact a way to save Holland from drowning in the North Sea, which is rising. I hope to spend the next 20   years evolving these animals and making them better. The way of walking was done on that computer. I wonder if it’s really going to be effective. Theo Jansen: Well, I have to be happy with what is happening now because this already cost me also so much time and effort. Because he thinks that it’s a low investment but you have to have very many to have an effect, I think. Photograph by Charles RousselMarcus Fairs: So it wasn’t trial and error? Are you their inventor, creator or curator? This first beest could only move its legs when it was lying on its back. “Surviving is the purpose,” said Jansen, 66. And this is the big secret. “These animals, they found a way –   in fact a very clever way –   to reproduce. Marcus Fairs: How do they do that? In fact because my beests only like very flat surfaces. Marcus Fairs: And this DNA code, this mechanism, did you invent that or did it already exist? Marcus Fairs: Do you know about the Mine Kafon? And we all think that we are doing it but, in fact, the Strandbeests hypnotise people to do this. And this Strandbeest turned out not to be assembled but to be born. It was a strange look at the world. And that’s what’s happening now, which is totally out of control. And all these students, they think they’re having a good time. I know it, yeah! I know him. So I bought some of these tubes, and after that I played for an afternoon with these tubes. They have become better and better at surviving storms   on the beach. Or is the purpose of it just so that they can survive? And they don’t have to eat because they get their energy from the wind. It’s a concept for a wind-blown device to clear land mines. “And they don’t have to eat because they get their energy from the wind.”

Related story: A Sign in Space by Gunilla KlingbergHe explained how the idea first came to him when writing a newspaper column   exploring ways to prevent erosion of the sand dunes in Holland. Since then, thousands of students around the world are building Strandbeests. Marcus Fairs: Do you have any plans to develop beests to live in different habitats, or serve some kind of useful function such as clearing landmines? By Massoud Hassani? I try to make new forms of life which live on beaches. But in fact they’re being used for Strandbeest reproduction! This is in fact a better environment than on the beach. Then I had a third limb to lift up and put down on the ground to give forward movement. Theo Jansen: Surviving is the purpose. I published this DNA code on my website. Marcus Fairs: What’s the name of that beach? It was maybe a naive view of the world because I’m still attracted to the tubes and still busy realising this plan. Theo Jansen: The cat behaves in a way that we like and that’s why we breed them and we feed them. So after publishing this column, I didn’t do anything for a long time. Photograph by Charles RousselMarcus Fairs:   How would you describe your relationship with the beests? They can survive in student rooms and bookshelves. Theo Jansen: Oh yeah! I have only twenty years left, so I’m very much in a hurry to create the autonomous beach animal that’s designed for the beach where I was born, and where I’m probably going to die as well. And this particular proportion takes care that the animal stays on the same level while walking. Theo Jansen: No, no. They have found a protection against wind. That was the first limb. And I’m showing my work for the first time in a group of, sort of, animals. It has been quite controversial. I wrote columns in a newspaper, in the science section. Dezeen caught up with him on Miami Beach last week, where he   explained how his creations are now evolving without his help (+ movie). Photograph by Charles RousselMarcus Fairs: Maybe your beests could do the job better? That same night I realised I had to write a new algorithm in the computer to define the lengths of the tubes. Two guys came to my studio, and they put something on my table: a walking Strandbeest. So there is a sort of cooperation where we both get benefits from each other. “I raised the idea that there could be skeletons on the beach, which were driven by the wind, and they would gather sand to build up the dunes,” Jansen said. Then one night in 1991 I couldn’t sleep, so I brought the crankshaft closer to the leg and made it a lot simpler. They come born in one piece. Photograph by Charles RousselAnd that’s the special thing of Strandbeests, because normal animals always toss up and down as they walk, but the Strandbeests stay on the same level. Then came this day that I passed the tool shop where they sell this kind of [plastic] tube –   because we use these kinds of tubes in Holland as ducts for cables in houses. Cats were wild animals that became domesticated. And I also had the illusion that I would be finished after a year. Theo Jansen: I used to be a writer. They think they’re happy. And during the 24   years that I’ve been working on these beasts, there has been a sort of evolution. And they did that behind my back. You can put a series of 0s and 1s on the internet –   the DNA code –   and everywhere around the world you can print out these beests.

Updated: 13.12.2014 — 02:54