Here’s Your Chance to Play With a Wind-Powered Strandbeest
Theo Jansen gathered with a small group of people last week to bring Animaris Suspendisse back from the dead. All 43 feet of it was standing in the exhibition hall of Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, stately and inert like the fossilized remains of a long-extinct creature. But Animaris Suspendisse was not designed to stand still. It was built—out of PVC pipe, mostly—to move.
Jansen is the Dutch artist behind the Strandbeests, a family of artificial creatures designed to crawl their way across sandy beaches. Animaris Suspendisse is the biggest one ever created. Like most of Jansen’s beests, the Animaris Suspendisse is usually vitalized by wind, converted into propulsion via a complex motion-system of Jansen’s own creation.
On this day, though, Jansen was showing the museum staff—referred to as “Interpreter Operators” during this exhibition— how to pump the beest’s stomach full using an air compressor. Animaris Suspendisse is part of Jansen’s first large-scale exhibition in the United States; it’s important that the Interpreter Operators know how to operate, maintain, and repair the oversized crawling machine, in case it breaks down during its three-month stay. The exhibit—on view until January 3—will feature seven full-sized beests, some of which you’ll be allowed to interact with and push around the exhibition space. There will also be sketches, videos and photography documenting their design. “There are so many moving parts,” says Trevor Smith, curator at the Peabody Essex Museum. “Literally.”
Jansen built his first Strandbeest, Animaris Vulgaris, in 1990. It was the first one capable of walking on its own, and was, to hear Jansen tell it, a primitive thing. “I recently saw it again,” he says. “It was quite a pathetic animal.” Compared to his more recent Strandbeests, the construction of Animaris Vulgaris was pretty slipshod—the animal’s PVC tubing (the same material Jansen uses to build all his creatures) was lashed together with tape. But in that haphazard assembly were the makings of a mechanism that today drives his beests with a remarkable smoothness.
Every Strandbeest has a crank leg system of 11 tubular parts. These tubes are perfectly proportioned to one another, so that the beest’s movement glides along a horizontal line. Jansen developed the beest’s “genetic algorithm” in 1991, and has used this system to design new beests with similar movements.
Though they all walk with the same spider-like crawl, the beests have evolved extensively in the last 25 years. Animaris Suspendisse, for example, can sense when it’s near water and retreat. Jansen believes this evolution is dictated as much by the beests as it is by him. Every summer, when the weather is nice, Jansen pushes his beests further, making them less reliant on human intervention.
Jansen describes his beests as a new life form, and the vernacular he uses to describe them reflects this way of thinking. The pumps that push the Strandbeests’ legs up and over sand? Those are muscles. And the valves attached to each pump? Those are like nerves cells, he says. The whole system together turns the Strandbeest into a relatively primitive brain, which allows the sculptures to interpret and react to their surroundings like primitive animals. “It’s not a protein-based life form,” Smith says. “It’s a PVC-based life form.”
The magic of the Strandbeests always has been in imagining that these inanimate objects are somehow alive in ways we can’t quite comprehend. “They do kind of project a kind of sentience,” Smith says. “They certainly draw a sense of empathy. It’s the strangest thing.”
Jansen says any living system hinges on reproduction. Ideally, he says, the Strandbeests would replicate on their own; he imagines them consuming PVC tubing and performing some sort of self-assembly. “I would succeed in doing that if I had a few more million years to work on it,” he says. “But the fact is, they’re reproducing already behind my back.” Early on, Jansen published the leg-crank proportions on his website, allowing anyone crafty enough to build their own modified version of Jansen’s beests.
The Strandbeests will keep evolving in a joint effort between Jansen and the legion of beest enthusiasts who are pushing the animal’s capabilities forward. The end goal, Jansen says, is to evolve the Strandbeests to the point where they don’t need him or any other human to survive. “My hope is that before I leave the planet, I leave a new specimen to the world,” he says. “I have this dream that the animals will live independently from me, but it’s not true yet.”