I first discovered Theo Jansen's work just over a year ago and immediately started correspondence with him. Today, we sat down for what is a key interview in the roster bringing together the worlds of science and art in the most natural and unexpected ways.
Theo Jansen studied physics at the University of Delft, Holland before becoming a painter. After his seven year career in painting, he started work on the UFO project which entailed the creation of an actual flying saucer that flew over Delft in 1980 causing pandemonium in the town and attracting considerable attention to his work.
For more than 10 years now, he has been working on the genesis of new nature in his Strandbeest creations which he envisions becoming completely autonomous, intelligent, wind-powered life forms. As an introduction to this work, here is his presentation on this fascinating project for TED:
Theo Jansen: The art of creating creatures
What prompted you to quit your studies of Physics at the University of Delft and becomes a painter?
I was young of course. The hippy period was there. I was distracted from my study by all these new dreams of people and a lot of friends of mine were artists and so I decided to become one as well and started becoming a painter.
And have you continued painting?
No, it stopped as soon as I started the UFO project at the beginning of the eighties and then the UFO project had such a success also media wise and I had been famous for about three months in my country for that and so I chased it more or less on bigger projects. After that, I couldn't paint anymore, sit in my studio and just paint. It wasn't possible anymore.
Following on from your painting, you seem to have had a desire to “work outside the box” and pursue new forms of expression through the painting machine and light sculptures. How did these projects develop?
After the UFO project, I had to do something more technical things and my interest for physics which has never been away during painting, it was really a rebirth in the technical interest after the UFO so I wanted to make something technical.
The painting machine was something interesting because in those days there were no printers yet so it was quite unusual to paint with a painting machine like that especially as the perspective of the images that came out of the painting machine because it made real size photos in front of the wall so the distance didn't matter at all. If a chair was standing a meter or 100 meters it would be the same size. That was the special thing about the painting machine because you could also make the opposite perspective objects with it so I also made photographs of chairs and tables which were in opposite. Things which were closer were smaller and things which were bigger were further away from the wall so it's just the opposite of normal perspective.
What did you learn from them?
My mind was really going on thinking. It made me change my living just for a lot of dreaming about abstract 3D forms in my head and the possibilities of machines. It really did change my thinking and my attitude. I was asked to write a column for a university magazine that really was sort of, this is a Dutch expression, “a stick behind the door”. That means that someone is standing there beating you up when you don't do your homework.
And did this work have any influence on your Strandbeests?
It surely had as this column really forced me to think about anything in the world and because every time I tried to find new, strange perspectives on reality and in effect, the strandbeests they started off as a column in the newspaper and that is about 18 years ago now and in the first period after that nothing happened. I had written the column and then half a year later, I got the idea of going to the shop and buying some of these tubes. I started playing with it and I did that for an afternoon and in the period of the afternoon, I decided to spend one year on these tubes, on these conduits because I saw so many possibilities in there. It turned out to be more than I could ever think of all those years ago.
"...I discovered that I was making new forms of life and by doing that I hoped to get wiser about our existence and our own forms of life."
The motivation changed. I started off building robots that could gather sands and build up dunes to save us from the raising of the sea level and during working I discovered that I was making new forms of life and by doing that I hoped to get wiser about our existence and our own forms of life.
I have all kinds of theories about symmetry and about multiplying, the sequences in evolution by doing evolution again and new, I think I discovered a lot about the mechanism behind it.
I wrote about this in my book The Great Pretender where I have written many theories about life.
The Animarus Rhinoceros Transport
Are your creations entirely built according to functional parameters or is there some poetry in their design?
Well, the strange thing is that I don't want to make something beautiful. When I work, I always work on function and it turns out when it's finished, it usually doesn't function that well but I surprise myself how beautiful it appears.
Their forms are very beautiful, very poetic.
There's nothing I can do to that. That's sort of this secret artist in me which I'm not aware of secretly making beautiful things.
You have mentioned that the next step in your work is giving your creations brains. Have you made progress in this phase and what does this entail?
Well, the progress is that the nerve cells don't eat that much any more.
Would you briefly explain the nerve cells to put things in context?
Well, the nerve cells are the element, the basic element of the brain. You could also say it's a sort of computer. In a computer, the nerve cell divides where there is an input or output and my nerve cells work in the way that the input is zero and the output is one so it's the opposite from the input and that means if there is air on the input, pressure on the input there is no pressure on the output.
"...the brain will in future contain a time mechanism which runs parallel with the tides of the sea so they will know in advance when the sea is coming..."
Also, they have sensors which feel the water of the sea. That works quite well these days. They have a sort of tube which is going very close to the ground sucking in air all the time. As soon as it comes into the water, it swallows the water of the sea and then it feels the resistance of it and then it immediately goes the other way out of the sea again because it's longer.
One minute into the rolling surf, they're lost because they're sucked in and cannot come out any more. Future Strandbeests will have step counters which will be reset by feeling the water and they run away from the sea and they count the steps away from the sea so they know where the sea is.
This is what you could call a very primitive imagination. We have our imagination,we have a sort of mirror world in our head which represents the real world around us. It is a copy of the world and our world is very complex but the beach animals world is very simple. On the right hand side is the sea, on the left is the dunes and there's no disposition toward those two elements and so these nerve cells, one nerve cell, works quite well which it does now then the possibilities are endless.
Would you tell us about the animaris speculata that remained attached to its mother acting as a kind of scout? How did this develop and would you tell us a little about how it worked?
Well, it didn't work really well. I've advanced
Is this something you discontinued?
Yes, I stopped the process because I found better ways to feel the soft sand. The animarus speculata worked with a wire in there and there was a lot of friction. It would work a lot better now because the lungs, the wind stomach, plastic bubbles would be a lot better to feed the speculata. It turns out that when the animals run into the soft sand, then the pressure goes up in the animal and you can do this quite easy with a big force that can be pulled out again. These days, they are quite able to walk on soft sand as well, the dry sand.
As well as your beasts, there are the programs you’ve developed from the worms simulation to the algorithms you now use for the evolution of the Strandbeests. How have these evolved over time?
I used the computer mainly to develop the lengths of the tubes in the feet. In the middle of each animal there is a sort of backbone which makes a circular movement. The circular movement is transformed into a complex movement down to the toe, the feet. That translation is very much depending on the length of the tubes in between and there are 12 tubes which determines the movement of the toe. The combination of lengths is very important so I wrote a genetic algorithm in an Atari computer to develop the right proportion of the 12 tubes and those were 12 numbers, a sort of genetic code which survived best and these genetic codes are just 12 numbers and I call them also the 12 holy numbers. They determine how the animals walk like they walk.
How important is the environment to you and your work?
Well, I don't think the PVC pipe which I use is very good for the environment. Of course, I never leave them on the beach as part of the environment. The way I work with wind energy is...
Would you consider the environment a partner in creation?
Yes, especially the big dangers on the real beach is the storms. They must always walk with their nose into the wind. When the wind comes sideways they blow over. I work now on programs so they always know where the wind comes from and they put their nose into the wind. Seagulls do the same thing when they are standing on the beach otherwise they would blow away as well.
The place where I work now is quite inland, about 10km inland to have a sort of sandpit, 30m x 50m, here I'm working on them until they're mature enough to go to the real beach because they're not strong enough to survive a very long time in the beaches more than 5 minutes.
So you have a nursery or training area?
Yes. Because the elements on the real beach are a lot worse than they are here. I really must train them a lot better. I think in about 4 years, I'll go to the real beach with the animals and I will have a sort of mobile studio which runs after them and I can do my repairs and hopefully I won't have to do it every third minute like I have to do now.
What was the last thing to surprise you and what did you learn from the experience?
There was an exhibition by a guy called Gerritcan Vakal. He was a Dutch artist and he died in '84 and he made also machines that run on the difference in temperature between day and night. They run very slow. I think they do 3cm a year and he put one of these machines in a desert in Nepal somewhere, he put them in the beginning there and it will be on the other side in 38 million years so that's very funny I think.
Are they still working.
Well, I think the machines never worked but the thought is very good. He is one of the artists that really inspires me. Always when I have an exhibition, I try to include his work.
Generally speaking, art and science tend to make for strange bedfellows with resistence from both sides. Photographer Felice Frankel for example refuses to accept that her work is art and the art world in general is having a difficult time coming to terms to massive influx of new media. Why do you think this is and how do you think the divide between the two can be improved?
Well, I think it is just another matter of what is in people's minds. It's just the institutes that make the people. I mean somewhere where you earn your money, it's what you are. I mean I think engineers are more artists than they want to know and because they work at the university they think well I'm an engineer I'm not an artist. People tend to exaggerate what they think they are. Artists do the same. This world tends to split up just because of psychological reasons.
"If you didn't give anybody money any more, you'll see the real artist and you'll see the real scientist and they'll probably be one person."
Well, it's something you cannot force, these boundaries, these institutions give money. You tend to do what gives you the money or recognition. I think if those elements were not there like you have for Eskimos who doesn't have any institution, he doesn't know he's an artist when he makes a little piece of art and he doesn't know he's a scientist when he makes a piece on his canoe to hide him so he can shoot the seals.
If that is the purpose to be blank again and have no prejudice feelings about what you do, I think money would change a lot. If you didn't give anybody money any more, you'll see the real artist and you'll see the real scientist and they'll probably be one person.
Is there any advice you would give parents to nurture children in learning the skills you use?
Yes, well I think when kids go to school they'll usually learn a lot more from each other than they learn from their teachers. So I think putting in a school doesn't matter, if the environment of the kids is okay, they will learn a lot. They might not when they go to economic school or something, they might not become an economist. I don't think the direction or the subject of the school matters so much, I think the mentality is more important than what you study.
And was there anything in your own childhood that led to your current work? (outside playing with pipes)
No, I had a very average family. I don't know how this all came. I think the hippy times did a lot (laughs).
What kind of impact do you hope your work will have both in practical and artistic terms?
What I see now, a lot of people seem to recognize what I do in their own imagination and follow me in my fairytale and become sort of partners or participants. Obviously they don't work with me but stand behind me, support me and really talk with me as if they are part of my project. That of course is something for an artist is very nice when people seem to understand your work.
In the future I hope that these animals will develop in the end that they can live on their own and I don't have to cure them any more and at the end of my life that they will live for a long time after I'm done.
It was a pleasure to do this.
Theo Jansen Wiki
Theo Jansen (Art Futura)
Wild Things Are on the Beach (Wired)
Theo Jansen (TED Profile)
Theo Jansen (Galerie Akinci)