Wednesday, 18 July 2007

Theo Jansen: A Modern Day Da Vinci

Theo Jansen is a Dutch artist/engineer who lives and works in Holland. Studying Science at The University of Delft Theo soon delved into a more artistic interpretation of science, spending 7 years painting and then progressing into kinetic sculpture. His earlier ‘sculptures’ included a flying saucer that actually flew over the town of Delft and brought the streets and police into commotion. He has devoted the last 15 years of his life to “making new life forms”.

Dubbed “strandbeests”, these skeletal animals are made of plastic electrical conduit and are powered by the wind. A large amount of technology, engineering and science has gone into these animals including genetic algorithms.

Genetic Algorithms simulate evolution to solve complex systems and measure for variables including ‘fitness’. In Theo’s case the algorithms are used to keep the animals in movement within the enclosed lines of the water and the inland edges of the beach.

Theo lets them roam free on the stormy beaches of Netherland and measures their success to update his model and “map the progress of mobility”. Eventually Theo wants to put a whole ‘herd’ of these animals on the beach and let them live in complete autonomy.

This type of work is indeed being researched with utilitarian ends in mind. Andrew Biewener a Professor of biology at Harvard studies the economy of movement and is developing robots with legs that will be able to handle terrain that wheels cannot.

Theo believes that these animals are actually much closer to real animals than the audiences first thought – “It's a sort of symbiosis. I live on these beasts - they give me income - and they live on me, because they need me to make them. You could also say they make me make them. It's already a life form that lives in the media. Many people understand what I'm doing without my having told them; even children, they don't know anything about evolution, but when they look at a beach creature they seem to understand what I'm doing. It's strange. Even in nature - butterflies need flowers, and flowers can't work without worms - everything depends on each other. It's a big symbiosis of many creatures.”

Some of the income that he speaks about comes from his BMW “defining innovations” advertisements, but it’s not hard to guess that he is a “bloody Volvo driver”!

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