The evolution of the Strandbeesten

There are moments, which can change an entire life. When in 1990, Theo Jansen entered a store to buy a plastic tube for an art project, he did not know that this day would coin the rest of his life. Previously, he had developed the idea of the “Strandloper” -a creature that spends its life piling up sand to protect the Netherlands from the dangers of the sea -for a weekly column in the Dutch newspaper Volkskrant. He had just decided to dedicate one year to this idea. And one year became 17 years and the „Strandloper“ led to the evolutionary development of generations of Strandbeests.
In Spring 2003, I met Theo for the first time at his workshop in Ypenburg, a suburb of Den Haag. This meeting would also coin my life – from this day on I was fascinated by the Strandbeests and the imagination of Theo Jansen and I decided to accompany Theo’s work with the camera.
In September I visited Theo again on the beach and we made this interview about the new generation, creativity and the art of telling a good story.

WUNDERDING: This year has seen the creation of a new Strandbeest generation, Animaris Mulus with the Caterpillar. How is this generation proving itself so far?
THEO JANSEN: While working here on the beach with the Caterpillars, you get the real life experience of the sand and you see how they react to the wind. For instance, when trying to let the Caterpillars walk in the wind, the wind pushes the Caterpillars to the side – so they always walk a little bit at an angle to the wind. The combination of the Caterpillar and a classical Strandbeest may be the way forward because the Caterpillar can carry a lot of weight and it can walk over very uneven terrain. Also, you don’t have to lubricate it and sand doesn’t get in the joints either, because it no longer has joints. The Caterpillar has a lot of advantages, but the classical walking system can carry sails which the Caterpillars aren’t able to do. So, maybe the combination of a Caterpillar and a classical walking system is the system which works. You could see it as two parents getting children and combining their genes to a new creation- more than simply “one and one is two”. Of course, it didn’t always go smoothly this year but I have some hope that the combination will work in the future.

Theo Jansen on the beach of Scheveningen (near the restaurant The Fuut).

WUNDERDING: How will the Caterpillar generation develop?
THEO JANSEN: Every time something breaks, you more or less know how to solve the problem for the next year. So, the Caterpillar will change in the winter and I will bring a new Caterpillar to the beach next year which will be slightly lighter and have more rigid edges so that it doesn’t break all the time – which is what is happening now all the time. I’m also working on other Caterpillars which have legs and which are supposed to walk lighter than the Caterpillars I have now. Maybe it’s not really necessary for their survival but I just want to try out a lighter walking Caterpillar and see if that might be a beginning of a new generation, another branch on the tree of evolution.

WUNDERDING: You’ve been working on the evolution of the Strandbeest for 27 years. What is it that gave you the energy to keep on going?
THEO JANSEN: I think it has to be in you somehow to be an irrational optimist- an optimist without reason. That means that you need to be a little bit naive and not think too much about the results but think of enjoying your work. If you enjoy what you’re doing, then it is easy to go on. Another thing with the Strandbeest is that people always liked them from the beginning. That gave me a lot of encouragement. There were a lot of people who could understand what I was doing, even kids. Even when there was no walking animal at all, the dream seemed to appeal to people other than me. I think the combination of that sort of natural naivety in myself and the universal appeal of the dream, worked well for the Strandbeest.

WUNDERDING: Can you still remember when you first went and bought the first plastic tubes for your first ever Strandbeest?
THEO JANSEN: I’ve always been a dreamer. I had a dream of becoming a pop star or rock star- that obviously didn’t come true. And I have always had this dream of becoming a famous painter as well but that didn’t come true either. Coming back to the first animal, which I recently saw again in an exhibition in Mexico a few months ago – it could only move its legs when laying on its back and it had a very complicated leg system; it looked quite pathetic I must say. At the moment I was building it, I thought it was really going to work, but from my perspective now, I think “How could anybody have wanted to continue developing this?”. It just had plastic cellotape around it, and that leg system was so complicated it would never have worked. But I know now that at that moment, I was naive enough to believe in it.

WUNDERDING: Were there moments in which you thought of stopping, despite your naivety?
THEO JANSEN: But there were moments of course. As a person you get messages from other people
all the time. Some people judge messages from as a little bit more negative than what was meant- they spiral and become depressed. And other people are able to fool themselves a little bit by interpreting what other people say in more positive light than the reality of it. So they go into an upward spiral and they become a super optimists. I think Strandbeests are a sort of balance between reality and a fairytale. There’s a fairytale you have to believe in, but the fairy tale has strong roots in reality as well. You could say it’s a balance between imagination and reality- and I like that balance. For example, I like that sometimes you are not really sure if the other person can believe what you’re saying.

WUNDERDING: How do you manage to make people believe in your story?
THEO JANSEN: It’s quite pretentious to say that you are the
new god and that you are building a new animal for humanity for the next centuries, but I have a lot of hope and ambition for this fairytale project. It’s nice to make people think that you believe in something which doesn’t exist, as if your life has led itself away from reality, but of course you have to come back to real life. I think human beings have so much potential of imagination; we are the most imaginative animals and that gives us the ability to move between dream and reality. That’s what the Strandbeest aims to do as well I think.

WUNDERDING: It took over 10 years until you and your work became known to a larger number of people. What brought the breakthrough?
THEO JANSEN: I think the coming of the Internet was very, very important – a milestone in the development of my work. The YouTube videos especially went everywhere. They got many likes and comments and people would share them. It was spread all over the globe and became viral. There came a moment when I was a bit famous and it happened so fast, just in a couple of years. So that was a big step in the development. On the other hand, after 2007, there have been Strandbeest exhibitions which travelled around the world and those got a lot of attention as well. I think those two stages were big steps in getting public attention- the internet and exhibitions.

WUNDERDING: That was your breakthrough for the public perception. Which technical developments were most important for the evolution of the Strandbeest?
THEO JANSEN: I think after 2 years I discovered that I could use zip ties, cable ties to make the joints and the joints became a lot stronger; I still use about 100 cable ties every day for temporary constructions. After two years they give up, but zip ties are still very important in the Strandbeest development. By heating the zip ties, the material becomes very soft and you can make all kinds of shapes. I discovered that after 3 years of working on the beasts, and that was technically also a very big step. Then the pistons came and the pressed air, the Vaporum period. And that gave so much more possibilities because since then the animals have muscles- objects which become longer or shorter on command. You could use muscles for all kind of purposes; muscles are really a very big development in the Strandbeest evolution. Somehow I was not looking for muscles but it turns out that the animals, the Strandbeests, they walked the same path as real evolution. But I realised afterwards that if you have muscles you need to have nerve cells to trigger the muscles. And if you have a lot of nerve cells you have to have a sort of brain, and those same developments happened with the Strandbeests.

WUNDERDING: One quality which is required for your work is creativity. How do you manage to keep creative over such a long period of time?
THEO JANSEN: I don’t think I am creative. I try to be, I have ideas and you could see them as mutations. My ideas are mutations. I try them in reality and these tubes always protest. They don’t want to do what I want to do, so they push me in another away. My ideas are generated, in fact, after my experiences with the tubes. So the path is very capricious and unpredictable and when the animal is f inished, it is not really based on my ideas – it’s based more on the ideas of the tubes. And in the end, when the animals are f inished, I’m surprised myself how beautiful they becameand that’s also because of the tubes. There’s a lot of dialogue between me and the tubes, and somehow if you follow their instructions, then the animal will maybe not function that well but it will be beautiful.

WUNDERDING: Is there a generation which you have grown particularly fond of?
THEO JANSEN: Well, I must say I have a weak part for the f irst animal because that’s how it all started. It was not a very big animal, just two by two meters. And looking back at that one is of course seeing that that was the beginning. It couldn’t do anything in fact. I also have sympathy with the animal which I’m working on, because it generates the dreams that could work better in the future. So, I think the f irst and the last animal are always very important.

WUNDERDING: Is there an ultimate goal in their evolution?
THEO JANSEN: The ultimate dream of course is that they will survive on their own. There are some sub-dreams, such as getting them to survive the storms, which is not easy, and survive the sand, because the sand is always in the joints. Next winter, I want to work on a classical walking system that, instead of a crankshaft, has a caterpillar movement, so it doesn’t have hinge joints and you don’t have to lubricate them anymore nor do they get worn out. Of course I can make animals that could survive for years here but if they have hinge joints then they will always get worn down but if they don’t have hinge joints, they can live for ages. That is my ultimate dream. But of course, as soon as I’m working I come across other problems which I have to solve, but I think the ultimate goals are a layer over all these. And I think other people have this more, but at least physically – so you have two ways of reproducing yourself. There is that the one below here and the one with the mental children. So you could see the Strandbeest as my mental children, my mental offspring, and I still have to nurse these children all the time. But there comes the moment when I kick them out of the door and I can quietly die, knowing that they will live in the future, just like real children.

WUNDERDING: The Strandbeest are your mental children. You have three “real” children which sometimes help you with your work. Do you think that your children will one day continue your work?
THEO JANSEN: I don’t want to put that task on the shoulders of my children. They have to have their own life but if they want, of course I would be very happy. But it’s not necessarily my children that do this- it could also be other people. There are some people who are infected by the Strandbeest virus and so I had to hypnotize them a little bit more and maybe they will be the next Strandbeest builders.

WUNDERDING: Thank you Theo!

If you would like to know more about Theo Jansen and his Strandbeesten, please visit Theo´s website.

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