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Creatures on the beach: Theo Jansen on TED.com

Dutch sculptor Theo Jansen shares the story of his “Strandbeests,” eerily lifelike kinetic sculptures that he has built from plastic tubes, old lemonade bottles and plastic ties. He hopes that these artificial life forms, as he calls them, will one day survive on their own, crawling the beaches of Holland. (Recorded March 2007 in Monterey, California. Duration: 8:25.)

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I would like to tell you about a project which I started about 16 years ago, and it’s about making new forms of life, and these are made of this kind of tube: (points to construction of conduit tubing) electricity tube, we call it in Holland, and we can start a film about that and we can see a little bit backwards in time.

(Film begins of Jansen moving a creature’s frame onto a beach, creature moves limbs as it is moved, as if it is walking.)

(Narration:) Eventually these beasts are going to live in herds on the beaches. Theo Jansen is working hard on this evolution.

(Jansen:) I want to put this forms of life on the beaches. And they should survive over there, on their own, in the future. Learning to live on their own, and it’ll take couple of more years to let them walk on their own.

(creature walking by itself aided by wind)

(Narration:) The mechanical beasts will not get their energy from food, but from the wind. The wind will move feathers on their back, which will drive their feet. The beast walks sideways on the wet sand of the beach, with its nose pointed into the wind. As soon as it walks into either the rolling surf or the dry sand, it stops, and walks in the opposite direction.

(cut to panning shot of warehouse full of creatures)

Evolution has generated many species. (cut to creature with fan like wings on a beach) This is the Animaris Currens Ventosa.

(film cuts to animal walking, to audience applause, then to a group of various animals walking)

(Jansen:) This is a herd, and it is built according genetical codes, and it is a sort of race, and each and every animal is different, and the winning codes will multiply.

(walking animal “Animaris Ondula”)

This is the wave, going from left to right, you can see this one. And now it goes from- yes, now it’s gone from left to right. (animal at seaside, begins walking away from water) This is a new generation, a new family, which is able to store the winds. So the wings pump up air eliminate bottles, which are on top of the- and they can use that energy in case the wind falls away, and the tide is coming up, and there is still a little bit of energy to reach the dunes and save their lives, because they are drowned very easily.

(film ends, Jansen walks over to animal on stage)

I could show you this animal. (walks animal across stage to applause) Thank you. So the proportion of the tubes in this animal is very important for the walking. There are 11 numbers, which I call the 11 holy numbers, these are the distance of the tubes which makes it walk that way. In fact it’s a new invention of the wheel. It works the same as a wheel- the axis of a wheel is staying on the same level. And this hip (points to ‘hip’ of animal’s leg) is staying on the same level as well. In fact this are better than a wheel, because when you try to drive with your bicycle on the beach, you will notice it goes- very hard to do. And the feet just step over the sand, and the wheel has to touch every piece of the ground in between. So, 5,000 years after the invention of the wheel, we have a new wheel, and i will show you in the next video- can you start it please? (video starts of ‘Animaris Rhinoceros Transport’ walking) -that very heavy loads can be moved. There are some- there’s a guy pushing there behind, but can also walk on the wind very well. It’s 3.2 tons.

(cut to animal walking jerkily across sand)

And this is a- working on the stored winds in the bottles, it has a feeler where it can feel obstacles and turn around. (close up of pieces of conduit shifting positions, causing the Animaris to walk in the opposite direction) And that stuff, you see, is going to it the other way.

Can I have the feeler here? OK. Good. (assistant brings out feeler) So, they have to survive all the dangers of the beach, and one of the big dangers is the sea. (holds up glass of water) This is the sea. And it must feel the water of the sea. And this is the water feeler. (touches tube hanging from a bottle on the feeler arm) And what’s very important is this tube. It sucks in air normally but when it stores water, it feels the resistance of it. So imagine that the animal is walking towards the sea. As soon as it touches the water it shoot here a sort of sound of running air- (assistant works feeler as if animal is walking, causing air to move through feeler tube. Jansen puts the tube in the water and adjusts valve on feeler until water moves into tube with sucking sound). Yes! So if it doesn’t feel, it will be drowned, OK?

Here we have the brain of the animal. (assistant brings out conduit with array of tubes hanging from it) In fact it is a step counter- and it counts the steps- it’s a binary step counter. So as soon it has been to the sea, it changes the pattern of zeroes and ones here- (demonstrates how tubes change positions via pumping motion of walk to indicate the binary number of steps)-and it knows always where it is on the beach. So it’s very simple brain. It says, well there’s the sea, there are dunes, and I’m here. So it’s a sort of imagination of the simple world of the beach animal. Thank you. (assistant leaves).

One of the biggest enemies are the storms. This is a part of the nose of the Animaris Percipiere, and when the nose is fixed of the animal, the whole animal is fixed. So when the storm is coming up, (adjusts tube on nose, and pivoting hammer swings repeatedly, striking a rigid pole) drives a pin into the ground (laughter)- and nose is fixed, whole animal is fixed. The wind may turn, but the animal will turn always its nose into the wind.

What- Now another couple of years, and these animals will survive on their own. I still have to help them a lot. Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen.