The Dutch artist Theo Jansen is the creator of a new form of life. He builds artificial animals, wind-powered beings that live on the beach. In Ypenburg, a new residential development near The Hague, he develops these artificial creatures in a magical workshop situated on the top of a hill.
The story of the Strandbeesten, as Jansen calls them, began 17 years ago. On the 24th of February, 1990 he published an article in the well-known "Volkskrant" newspaper. He described constructions that could live on the beach and put sand on top of the dunes to protect the flatlands of Holland against the rising of the ocean.
It started as a sort of mental play, but Jansen stuck with it. He decided to make his vision come to life. He began to build his own constructions out of thin, yellow, plastic tubes. In the midst of his work, his vision deepened. He began to see, in the creation of these artificial animals, the very roots of life--of existence. He saw a new Evolutionary path wrought by the dictates of Art over Biology, an Artistic Evolution. Jansen's ultimate dream is to build a whole herd of these Strandbeesten, capable of being put out to pasture and left to roam free. They should live there, in the wild, multiplying and striving for survival as beasts of Nature. His dream sounds like "science fiction". Some people think he is scientist or a crazy ingeneer. Others think he is a genius. But who is Theo Jansen?
The art critics compare him to Alexander Calder or Jean Tinguely. He sees himself in the tradition of Leonardo da Vinci.
The film accompanies Jansen through four seasons, while he creates a new generation of Strandbeesten. It depicts his open-mindedness, his doubts and courage, his setbacks and ultimately, his visionary power.
On the flat sands which have been left bare by the ebbing tide stands a man with his creature. Thoughtfully, almost tenderly, the man arranges the rods in the belly of the being. They are thin plastic tubes, which are weaved into each other according to a higher engineering principle. The form is reminiscent of a prehistoric insect. The wind whips around the fragile, man-sized construction. Final adjustments. A moment of silence, only the wind blows unceasingly over the sand. The low-lying sun casts a long shadow. The quiet is broken by a loud hissing. With a shaky first step, the creature starts to move. The legs of the creature, which are made of bent plastic tubes, make rash movements, press themselves into the sand and pull the body forwards. The man carefully observes the being which has come to life. The man is called Theo Jansen. He is an artist and a technician, a scientist and an inventor. His dream: beings made up out of simple building materials, which live independently on the beach and are able to move and develop. He wants to apply the evolution of the living to the world of machines.
Seventeen years ago Theo Jansen works out his first plan about the evolution of machines. On the 24th February 1990 he publishes his article „Strandlopers“ in the Dutch newspaper "Volkskrant“. Strandbeesten are independent creatures piling sand up to dunes to protect the flat lands of Holland against the stormy flooding sea. What starts as a combination of thoughts is now becoming Theo Jansen's life task.
Simple tubes of plastic, commonly used for electrical wires, are forming the basic construction for his creation. Those tubes are cheap and everywhere available.
A few designs, some changes of prototypes and the first creature is born - one year after the idea arose from his imaginations. It's 2 meters long and wide and only half a meter high - the basic design. Theo Jansen will call it: Animaris vulgaris.
It consists of 16 mobile elements moving as legs do.
But the first construction is without success: too heavy and unstable to really walk. Jansens dream seems to be unattainable. But he goes on with the evolution of the strandbeesten.
Jansen builds a dozen of creatures which he assigns to seven generations. Each generation is based on the knowledge of the former one.
They are all driven by the power of wind: sheer mechanically, no computers, no electronic sensors, no electricity. Only plastic tubes.
The result of the previous evolution is Jansen's Vaporum Generation derived from the latin term for steam. This generation is in Jansen's mind a quantitave leap of his evolution. From plastic tubes structured one in each other Jansen designs a crafty and exceptional system of pressure driven legs, each connected with another by smaller tubes. Pressure in this system is created by a rotating sail. Once the pressure has reached a certain value, a valve is opening and the beast of the beach starts moving. As the first creatures are depending on wind, Jansen enables the creatures now to operate independantly. Living beings need food as a kind of energy supply; the food for his latest creature is the wind.
Theo Jansen takes the chance to promote the evolution of his designs in Ypenburg, a modern housing estate on the outskirts of The Hague with a hundred detached houses, all of the same shape, for young families. The Government Law necessitates allocating a certain part of the total expenditure for such housing projects to be spent for the purpose of arts and culture. A blessing for Theo, since he may benefit from this over a period of three years.
The housing settlement is shielded from a near-by motorway junction with an artificial earth embankment. There, on the top of the hill, between the motorway and the housing estate, Theo Jansen is developing his fabrication of the creatures. Two porta cabins provide a workshop and storage room for him. On a small area of sand he is testing his designs. A three meter high fence hides his products from the view of vehicle drivers. The hazard of a pile-up would be too big, if those creatures would all of a sudden start moving. During the summer he invites all the people from Ypenburg to his laboratory to celebrate. During five days there are art exhibitions, films, lectures and music.
A small area with sand at Ypenburg is only a test area. The true environment is the beach. At the end of each stage of the development a certain moment will come when Theo Jansen takes his creatures to the beach, their final destination. For a short time the beasts will come to life, among the huge port facilities of the Europort of Rotterdam. There, on the beach, the creature has to prove its worth: success or faulty design?
For Jansen this is also the hour of birth of the subsequent generation. This new generation incorporates the experience of the previous one, but is based on new principles. Jansen's ideas circle around the development of the Vaporum generation. The next generation is taller, several meters high and weighs some hundreds of kilograms with greater wings to better sore the wind into the bottles. The evolution continues.