Evolving art: Majestic Strandbeest sculptures come to life on the beach
November 17, 2013
How many artificial animals can you encounter on a seaside walk? More than one if you frequent the Dutch coastline where Theo Jansen's moving artworks amble along with the help of their rudimentary senses. The complex wind-powered skeletal constructs that Jansen calls "Strandbeests," or beach beasts, are designed to stay on the beach and live off the sea breeze.
Created entirely from ordinary plastic tubes without any electronics, Jansen has through numerous evolutionary experiments equipped them with ingenious sensing mechanisms that can detect water, avoid obstacles and hammer the animal into the sand before a storm. Giving them the ability to migrate is the next principle he's attempting to master with his newest creature, the Plaudens Vela (fluttering sail beast), which will be a big step forward towards his final goal of creating a completely independent artificial animal.
Undertaking the task of manually evolving a new form of life isn't a challenge anyone would take up lightly, but Jansen was hooked when he tried to replicate the creatures that evolved within a program he designed years ago. Settling on cheap plastic tubes as his raw material, he began constructing his beasts through computer generated designs initially, and entirely freeform later on.
Varying their "DNA" by changing the tube lengths, he's created many majestic insect-like beasts that move across the sand in an almost lifelike manner. Two decades and multiple generations later he still hasn't deviated from using plastic tubes to create these creatures.
By adding recycled PET bottles, pumps and valves to these skeletons and through the clever use of air pressure, Jansen has managed to give his creations something akin to muscles, nerves and even a type of analog brain capable of reacting to its environment. With each species he evolves more senses and principles, refining them further in newer creatures and consigning the unsuccessful ones to the bone yards.
The Animaris Gubernare had a rolling plastic stomach on the ground which stored compressed air but turned out to be an evolutionary dead-end since it was too heavy for the animal to move around with. Herds of the creatures grew smaller as he began fine tuning senses on individual animals. A working sand feeler was the highlight of the Animaris Protinus, while the Animaris Adulari used a wagging nose and tail to help it sense the hard sand it could walk on.
"They are blind and deaf and they have to navigate somehow," Jansen tells us. "You can do a lot with compressed air. They have a sort of tongue, which is a long tube and as soon as air pressure is in there, it can feel if the sand is even or uneven, i.e. if it is hard sand or soft sand. It steers away from the soft sand, towards the sea."
However, strong winds had the Adulari tumbling and breaking its knees, so he combined it with the Protinus to create the Plaudens Vela, incorporating skis into the design to help it glide across the sand instead. Normally powered by sails, the creatures also utilize pistons to pump air into bottles, using it as a sort of wind stomach to power themselves so that they can escape in the case of emergencies, like a sudden wave of water. The sail component of the Plaudens Vela pushes the animal forward, while the bottle carrier part contains all the senses. With around 1,200 m (3,900 ft) of tubing and 60 bottles packed into its 120 kg (260 lb) frame, the Plaudens Vela is Jansen's newest species, a non-tumbling creature that can move even at low wind speeds.
Over time, the Strandbeests have learned to sense the strength and direction of the wind, the hardness of the sand and even calculate when it's low tide with a sort of timer by using air as the basis of their neural system.
"You can compare the timer with a sand clock," Jansen tells us. "Similar to how sand flows through, you have air flowing through a leak so it can estimate the time. The water feeler is a flexible tube, two inches above the ground that sucks air all the time. When it swallows water and feels its resistance it knows it is high tide. It can react by running out of the sea or it can start the timer. After three hours, it knows it is low tide."
Hard-wiring these reflexes into the creature's structure, however, is a labor intensive process. On a typical day, Jansen takes the sensing mechanism he's tinkered with at home, puts it on a bicycle, rides to the beach and tries it out on the animal. The next big challenge he's taken on is getting the animals to migrate between two locations 5 km ( 3 miles) apart on the Dutch coastline. A step counter that utilizes bottles and a pump will help his creations calculate the distance.
"When it leaves a certain place, the animal knows how far it is and where it is on the beach, because it depends on the pressure in the bottles," Jansen says. "After about a thousand steps, the pressure in the bottle drops, so that it knows it has taken a thousand steps. So when they travel from Kijkduin to Scheveningen, they know they have arrived."
Starting their migration at Kijkduin and pumping themselves up as they wait, the Strandbeests will have to make the decision to start with their sails spread out when the wind speed is right. As they walk, they'll need to feel the sand making sure that they stay on the border between the soft and hard sand, parallel to the coastline and avoid walking into the sea or loose sand. Counting their steps as they walk, they'll have to figure out when they've arrived in Scheveningen, turn around, put the brakes on and wait again for the right winds before starting off back. Jansen says that they'll need all the senses he's worked on and possibly some more if they're going to master migration.
It doesn't faze him, though, as he works through developing more sensory mechanisms, such as giving them the ability to sense atmospheric pressure to let them predict storms. Although he admits that there's a limit to the kind of senses that can be evolved.
"I would like to let them see but is very hard to do with tubes," Jansen tells us." You need to build a retina and lens. I want to create something that lives on its own and reproduces – that's the ultimate dream."
The otherwordly and (mostly) graceful movements of the Strandbeest Plaudens Vela and other creations can be seen in the videos below.
Source: Theo Jansen