Evolution through wind and PVC: Theo Jansen at RISD

Theo Jansen demonstrates his Strandbeests' "water feelers," which respond to moisture by rapidly firing leg pistons.

Theo Jansen demonstrates his Strandbeests’ “water feelers,” which respond to moisture by rapidly firing leg pistons to move in the opposite direction.

Theo Jansen, a Dutch polymath engineer-artist extraordinaire and the father of kinetic, wind-powered “Strandbeests,” came to RISD Friday night to deliver a lecture to a packed auditorium Although not a household name, Jansen is somewhat of a rock star at RISD.

His talk was presented by RISD/Brown STEAM, a group dedicated to promoting cross-disciplinary work between STEM fields and the arts. They demonstrated a five-foot tall cardboard Strandbeest of their own. Collaborative partners included RISD Government Relations and the RISD Programming Board.

Jansen is known for merging physics, engineering, biology, and art in large PVC kinetic animals that walk down the beaches in Holland on their own accord. These beasts move their legs with pneumatic PVC cylinders powered by compressed captured air. They have a purely mechanical nervous system that is able to respond to its environment by changing direction once it detects water or shifty terrain, by anchoring itself into the ground when it senses a storm coming, or by sending smaller “scouts” in front to test the surroundings.

In the talk, Jansen ruminated on the evolution of his career, imagination, and the beasts themselves.

Here are some of the most resonant thoughts Jansen shared Friday night, after the jump.

The path of your career and work is often random.

Jansen spoke of how his dream, since he was a little boy, was always to be a pilot. He wanted “to spend the rest of his life in the clouds.” But, his eyes weren’t good enough, and he had to find something else to do. He went to university and studied Physics for seven years, but never ended up graduating. He then decided to become a painter. Jansen said his whole career was “not my road. I was just taken by circumstances.”

His work often took a similarly capricious path. Many of his works and ideas didn’t work for some unforeseen reason. Yet, he continues to create. Jansen starts a new beast each year in October, works through the winter, and brings it to the beach in May to run experiments on it. By fall, Jansen declares the animal ‘extinct’ and pushes it to the boneyard, starting work on a new design based on what he learned.

Evolution is not just in biology.

Jansen demonstrated how the leg operates in a continuous movement that allows the beast to walk level to the ground. To find the proportions that would allow for that ideal motion, Jansen used an Atari computer program to execute a simulated process of natural selection. He started out with 1,500 leg lengths, then ran a selection and reproduction program for a month to test, eliminate, and duplicate possibilities. The result was 13 numbers, the ideal proportions to make his system work.

He calls these numbers the “DNA code” of the Strandbeest. Jansen described the evolution of the Strandbeest as determined by his own process of natural selection during experimentation. Some of the ideas and components work, and are able to survive the stormy, sandy conditions of the Holland beaches, and some don’t. He “passes” in a way, these successful traits into the next generation of animals.

Technology, biology, and art work together.

The wind-powered movement of Jansen’s animals is achieved by storing and releasing compressed air from soda bottles, captured from wing or fin-like sails. This air powers PVC pistons, forming a muscle system. Jansen uses valves to act as a peripheral nervous system, controlling the contraction and relaxation of the PVC pneumatics. Pistons regulate other pathways – when air pushes through one, it can stop air flow in another. Complex arrangement of these act as “logic gates.” Jansen explained these valves as communicating with each other, telling each other “yes” or “no,” “open” or “close,” comparing these yes and no’s to the 0 and 1 binary digits that form the foundation of digital electronics. Jansen explained, “What you can do with electronics you can do with air.”

What works and what doesn’t is determined by the material.

Observing how all components that make up the human body, from skin to eyeballs, are made from the building block of protein, Jansen picked PVC conduit as his “protein” for the Strandbeests. Jansen explained how he is humbled by this material. He said he “wakes up every morning with a brilliant idea,” hops on his bike and heads to his studio. Yet, by afternoon, his idea is often “a little less brilliant.” The PVC “protests” his ideas. Jansen said his tubes create the animals and dictate what they can do. And after 22 years, Jansen exclaimed he is still “in love with these tubes.”

Play around (You don’t really have to grow up.)

Jansen shared stories of how much fun he has with his many projects. In 1980, Jansen was “attacked by an idea” to build a flying saucer and send it off over his town. With some friends, their dogs, and a tank of helium, he filled up a blinking, beeping disk and pushed it off a cliff over the town. The whole police force turned out that night. He interviewed people in the town afterwards to see what they “saw.” One person claimed to have seen a UFO the size of a nuclear reactor.

Jansen’s familiarity with his material, PVC conduit, started as a kid when he used them to shoot paper blow darts. Jansen seemed to still carry a degree of childhood playfulness and imagination. Jansen talked about his Strandbeests as if they’re real, biological creatures. He illustrated his animals as migrational creatures, explaining that they move five kilometers away down the beach, and then stop to wait for the wind to turn, which sometimes takes weeks. “But…” Jansen said, “they are very patient animals.”

Image via Kenji Endo ’18.

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