Theo Jansen 

This interview focuses on the Strandbeest structures by Theo Jansen —specifically the first exemplars in the Southern Hemisphere, at Cerro Timbó, Uruguay.

The dutch artist reminisces on the nature of his work and about the meaning of his moving criatures, how they could be interpreted as new ways of life and their relation to evolution, nature, the digital and shared creation.

Theo Jansen was interviewed by Andres Gobba, Matias Carballal and Mauricio López —co-founders and directors of INST— and by Carlos Abboud — Argetinian art collector, founder of the Cerro Timbó park, lawyer and entrepreneur —.

Mauricio López: In the presentation text of the Strandbeest’s book, you name them as new ways of life that do not use pollen or seeds, which is a kingdom plantae reference. You later talk about skeletons and that you would like to leave flocks of them on the beaches, which are all kingdom animalia references. So, to which kingdom do the Strandbeests belong? Could we talk about a new kingdom that transcends the existing ones and hybridizes them?

Theo Jansen: When making these animals I realized I was in fact sometimes repeating history. Because I have invented muscles and nerves, cells and senses, like a sort of brain. But I was not really looking for brains or things, nevertheless it turns out that the evolution of the beests somehow produced a kind of similar system to real evolution. In that sense, I would say it is a species which came out of my mind as a branch of evolution.

It is a sort of mime, a part of a mimetic reproduction. Part of a new world, you could say, where things do not reproduce that much physically, but in the brains of people. They jump from one brain to another.

And that is new. I think that the Strandbeests belong to the kingdom of the mimes.

They reproduce, you could say, because they jump from Youtube to a student's mind. Because of that, there must be hundreds, maybe thousands, of Strandbeests. And they do not survive awfully long on beaches, but they survive on bookshelves, in a student’s rooms. You find them everywhere in the world.

And that is a new branch of evolution, although many people think that it is not really reproduction because it is made by the hands of people. But if you look from the perspective of the Strandbeests, we are just piles of proteins. And just like the genetic code in those proteins causes a baby to come out of a pregnant woman, it can make little Strandbeests. They do not know how it works, but it works, just like students coming up with Strandbeests. The same way we do not know how exactly a baby samples its mother's genetic code. So, this is real reproduction in my eyes. Not only Strandbeests do that, I think all industrial products do that too.

Take the iPhone for example: the first iPhone came out in 2007. Soon after, there were only a hundred thousand of them, maybe. But look at how well they reproduce. We think that we are the ones that make iPhones, but in fact it forces us to make them. It is like a parasite.

People say that biodiversity is decreasing, but you could say it is exploding, in all things and objects. Because life is, in fact, nothing more than objects which reproduce to achieve copies of themselves. In a certain way you can see cars as animals which reproduce very well and are also predators. So, they eat us.

Because the whole city environment is eaten by these car beasts and we are so addicted to cars that we do not have any control over that, the same way I do not have any control over the students in the world that make Strandbeests. Because that was all happening behind my back, I was not aware of it. But this was happening all the time. So, I think the Strandbeest is an example of an object which reproduces because it makes similar objects to itself, by using Youtube and people, the brains of people, the hands of people.

Andrés Gobba:  To describe the creation and development of the strandbeests you have just used some words like “evolution”, “species”, “reproduction”, and “branches”. It reminds me of Charles Darwin and natural selection. Like the Strandbeests are becoming better, more conscious and in tune to where they live. Do you think that this type of evolution in species of Strandbeests is like natural selection?

TJ: Yes. Because as they get better, they reproduce even more effectively, so there are mutants now. So, reproduction of these beests will increase as they come off 3D printers, which you could compare to a pregnant woman. You put in the codes in the machine and an object comes out, which is made from those codes, the same way it happens with genetic code on a pregnant woman.

The printer uses a nylon powder. So, this is a very special printer, not a normal printer, because a normal printer you cannot make moving parts, but with this printer you can make Strandbeests in one piece, so it comes out ready and walks over the table.

Have you ever seen it?

Carlos Abboud: I´m not specialized in 3D printers, but I always thought that it was just blocks, pieces, but not movable parts, with joints.

TJ: Small ones, like these, have crankshafts as a strategy to open them. And you also have the bigger ones. There is a thin layer of powder spread out, then a laser melds some parts together in a pattern, and then it goes to the next layer, and finally there is a Strandbeest in the box. You must only blow the powder off, and then it walks over the table. So, it really is born in one piece.

CA: For a long time, man has reproduced animals in objects, in sculptures or in the toys we had, that looked like little horses. So, when students do this kind of innovation, they use the Strandbeest as a model. Even though they could have used something else, they could have just taken a picture of a horse and reproduced the horse, but instead, they used the Strandbeest. It is quite interesting, because it means that the Strandbeests occupy a place, which I am not sure how to name it, but that serves as a model of reproduction or as a kind of basis.

TJ: Yes, you call that cyberspace, or the environment of the internet. Well, it is in fact no location at all, it is not located somewhere but it is everywhere. And I call that a new branch of evolution.

ML: Thinking in a contemporary way where creation is open source, collective and collaborative, how do you see the creation of the Strandbeests, when you do not manufacture it anymore, can you imagine an autonomous future of Strandbeests?

TJ: It is already here.

AG: But in the same breath, you previously said that when you were manufacturing Strandbeests, you had this creative dialogue with the tubes, and you made them be what you wanted them to. So, I think that the ones you made with your own hands, your craft, are a different species from the ones that are 3D printed. Did you know in advance what it would become? What species will it be born as?

Because, when you interact with your craft, with the tubes, I think the creation of these animals is more like natural creation, an act of procreation.

CA: That is why the book is called The Great Pretender.

AG: Like you were God.

TJ: In the beginning I did, I thought I was God, but I came back on it. It feels more like it is a sort of fight between the tubes and me, a sort of loving fight. In fact, I do not think the tubes, the tubes think me, so I am not a god, I am just a slave.

ML: Which one are you? An artist, an artisan, an engineer, a biologist? A slave?

TJ: Those are labels which people always want to put on somebody, but the way I see myself is this: having landed on this planet, and I am surprised that this is all even happening, that you are sitting at that table, and that I exist at all, there is something so strange in this and still such a miracle to me. Evolution theory does not give us any clue about our consciousness. I mean, I experience the same world that you probably experience as well, but it is such a miracle that you landed in your body and I landed in my body. When you just called me an engineer, or an artist, I say I just landed on this planet. I do not know what is happening here anyway, so it is like all those specificities are correct, but we are…

CA: Witnesses.

TJ: Yes. We are just witnesses. Animals which came to this world and, of course, I have much more in common with you than I have with a dog, but in fact we are the same thing. And, when people ask me: “are you an engineer or an artist?”, I say: “at the beach I feel like I am living ten thousand years ago, in the wind and rain, I feel more like an Eskimo than I feel like an artist.” So, “are you an artist or an engineer?” I am an Eskimo! I want to be an Eskimo, I mean. I want to experience the rain and the wind on the beach.

ML: Thinking about how our contemporary life is constantly mediated by devices, could Strandbeests be mediating-devices between life and our own understanding of it?

TJ: Well, they might. I mean, when I have an exhibition somewhere and I talk to the people there I am quite astonished that they understand this surprise that I still have about why we exist. And they seem to follow me in this surprise. And of course, we all have our agendas, I have my agenda, you have to do this, you have to go to the dentist, you have to go to the doctor and you have to work to earn money, those are all things which belong to life as well, but sometimes it is good to really be aware of what kind of miracle we have been dealt, and I noticed that people see that, even children, they seem to understand that life is a question of wonder again and that we should all have those moments when we realize this is, in fact, not normal.

CA: Looking to the stars is a sure way to get a slap in the face.

TJ: Yes, you are nothing!

CA: Coming back to the associations that happen when someone makes a 3D print, when they reproduce the Strandbeests. I have witnessed (to use the concept of witness) some people’s reactions when they see your beests moving. And I still do not understand it, in the sense that everybody understands the beests but I think nobody really understands the beests. Because it is very difficult to understand what makes it different from the other horse toys we talked about. There is something in the movement that is not related to its form, because it does not have that shape. By now, someone would have put some hair on it or whatever, or a device that makes a horse noise, but you choose exactly the opposite, you said: “It doesn't look like a horse, okay!”. Who cares if it does not look like a horse but look at it now, and even if it does not look like a horse there is still some kind of magic that I do not understand and I am not sure I want to understand it.

In the movement, and I am sure you mentioned to me once the mechanical explanation, but I am certain it is more than that. You cannot reduce the explanation of this magic – well, maybe magic is too much - but I think it is a kind of magic, or a sensation. There is no room for indifference, nobody looks around indifferently, everybody looks at it fascinated. Maybe there is no answer to this, but it is something I wanted to point out.

TJ: For me, there is also something which I do not understand about how or why I achieved this. I guess I just got lucky in that the movement came out this way. But I have a theory: there is a similarity between real animals walking and the Strandbeests walking, that similarity originated in the computer program. The legs must give support to the beest, so if they are left hanging in the air they do not have any use, because of that you want the legs to touch the ground as much as possible, so it can support and give balance to the beest. So, one of the criteria in the computer program was that they should not spend too long in the air before they touched the ground. And I think obviously real animals do the same thing, and we do it as well. We do it for support, so you do not stand on one leg all the time waiting for the second leg. And that has a mechanical reason,  you do not want to fall, that is why you balance yourself and the same thing happens in the Strandbeests. So, my theory is that you perceive that when you see something walking, because our eyes are overly sensitive to walking animals, since evolutionary speaking an animal could mean something to run away from or to eat. And when you see something walking and recognize an animal movement in there, but it is in fact just a bunch of tubes, it creates a contrast. We think: “This is not possible. This is not an animal; this is just a bunch of tubes!”.

ML: In a primitive area of the brain, you say, it is an animal, because it has the shape and walks like an animal.

TJ: And then it quickly switches on something in your brain, and everybody says: “ah! It is just a bunch of tubes” and then they smile.

CA: This is both a comment and a question: I dare qualify you with those labels that you rejected some minutes ago, as an artist, because I think there is a parallel between realism in paintings, or any other way of reproducing reality. At first, we thought that if we were hyper realistic, or tried to be hyper realistic, that would work better. And we ended up understanding that a mirror reproduction was not essential. The essence comes from something more and I am sure that nobody who paints has a computer formula to say: “oh! They will feel that this is moving even if it is not moving”. The artist just adds that to the painting in an intuitive way. I say all this because until this morning I was fascinated by the movement of the legs, but when you see the nose, there is something particular that appears, how can you reproduce a nose, normally my nose does not move, as the legs of the horses move, but which animal has this movement? I do not know, maybe the anteater, but it is not the same. Even though you reproduced a nose movement, everybody looks at this movement and finds it quite fascinating. So, it goes beyond reproducing. And that is why I say you are an artist.

ML: Also, you say that you have not thought about the beauty of beests, or if natural evolution is beautiful per se. Will these beests have time to develop vanity, maybe like the peacock?

TJ: There are two kinds of beauty, I think, in nature: the first one is elegance, like the one you can see in a horse’s gait. Somehow you read the millions of years of development when you see the elegance, the fluency of a horse walking and the efficiency of a horse’s gait, so this is a sort of mechanical beauty. In the tail of the peacock there is some beauty which did not come from necessity, or survival. In fact a peacock cannot walk very well because of its beautiful tail, but there is a sexual evolution, the sexual beauty which exists in there. And this is something miraculous because the lady peacocks really like those nice big things, it is part of their imagination, you could say.

And it all started, probably, with little feathers which allowed the peacock to do some things, but ladies somehow fell for that. The peacock tail then passed on to the next generation, as a matter of preference, of imagination, so maybe the female already had it in its imagination, how a male peacock could be in the future with a very big tail. Because of that the next generation of female peacocks also have this preference, and the males mutate to have bigger tails in response to that. This is what you call an explosion in evolution, and the beauty of peacocks come from the imagination of the animal. All animals have imaginations, and somehow, they can realize it. People say: “God made us in His image”, this is in the Bible, somewhere. This is somewhat true, we imagined our partners and we created our own bodies, you could say, from our imaginations.

ML: There is a belief that progress towards digital is equal to progress in general. But in your work, you propose a return to analog and handmade. What role does that play in it?

TJ: Well, I had a serious computer addiction at the end of the nineties, especially 3ds Max, the computer program. And I made Strandbeests in there, there are some examples of it in the book.
And I really liked it, but then I realized that I was not living in the real world, I was living on a computer. And it is something which a lot of people do nowadays, you know all those kids who have iPhones. And it is so fascinating, and so addicting, that you forget to enjoy the real world. So, then I decided that this is not what I wanted for my life, I want to play with the real stuff. Of course, in a computer you can simulate a lot, so you can simulate the Strandbeests in there, you can build it extremely fast, which I also did in drawings. Usually the Strandbeests start with a drawing on paper and on the next day I go to the beach and I build something with the tubes just like the drawings, which are in fact three dimensional drawings, so, instead of a line with a pencil you just put a tube in there. And I noticed that, of course you can build tubes in a computer, but the real ones are a little bit more chaotic, I mean they have more diversity than the computer ones. And the reality on the beach is also a little bit more chaotic and you get more mutations in three-dimensional drawings than you have in computer drawings. You also have the human factor in there, people seeing a structure which I made on the beach and thinking if they will destroy it or not, you never have this problem in a computer.

AG:  One of the differences between virtual reality and the real world is time and aging. When talking about species of animals, aging is a part of them and of us. And you mentioned that today you were lubricating the joints of the beests, and that this was necessary because of time and aging. I think that the noticeably bigger difference between the digital world and the real world is time, and how it acts as a huge vector that changes species.

TJ: The fluctuation of the tubes is larger than in the computer, yes.

CA: You do not use computers anymore.

TJ: Just for email. I do not use computers anymore, yes.

AG: Do you still use your Atari?

TJ: I used to. I was building the Strandbeest in Atari and then moved to a floppy disk and then went on to a better computer, where you could make them three dimensional. So, there was a time when I was, in fact, making the beests on the Atari.

ML: When beests change their environment, landscape, or atmospheric conditions, as is the case here in Uruguay, how do they react? Will they adapt to survive? Will they develop new skills or evolutionary branches?

TJ: This is the first exemplar in the world which lives in an environment other than in the Dutch beaches. I think the temperature plays a role here, they might have to adapt to that. So, they might become different from the Dutch coast beests somehow. The sand here is different as well and, of course, they have a stable here which I do not have on the beach because in Holland the beests are always outdoors, and I did not dare to do this here because the weather will influence the PVC very much, I think.

CA: And the strong winds.

TJ: Yes. Well, the wind here, as soon as it comes from the valley is quiet, then it rises steadily, but as soon as, like today, it comes from the other side, then you have this moment in which you think there is no wind, but suddenly everything runs away. So, they should develop. If you continue with this confrontation for a few hundred years here, it should continue to develop things to survive these problems in this small environment.

Matías Carballal: This is very personal work between you and the tubes, and the time is limited, so, you always work alone, or do you have a team that collaborates with you? Or does the private process add value to the creation of the Strandbeests?

TJ: I really prefer to work alone, I must say, but of course I cannot do that. There are other parts to my work, like maintaining the exhibitions when I travel, I have a son in law who does that, answering emails, etc. So, there are other people taking over things nowadays, and it is a real luxury that I have these people and have a wonderful team, I must say. Because of that, I can work just on innovation and that is a real privilege and I really like to do it. In that way, I work alone, and other people work separately from me.

ML: And lastly, in your perspective, what is the role of human creativity in the future and this new world that is coming?

TJ: I think now because of current economics, and a boom happening in the whole world, there are so many more people who can eat, have a house, have a car, and have a life. They now have this luxury of being specialized in their imaginations. So, I think creativity and imagination will have a big role in the future. Because up until now, everything revolved around how I can eat, how can I live, how can I earn money. But these days, we went beyond that, in fact, we have the same kind of luxury as the old nobles, the aristocrats, which were very much into arts and imagination because they had the money and time to do that.

ML: Well, thank you very much.

TJ: Such a pleasure. Such a pleasure to have you here. For me it is very stimulating that people see what I do and see the book. It was very encouraging to talk to you. So, thank you.

AG: Thanks to you, and thanks to...

TJ: Thanks to Carlos, yes!

* This interview was recorded at Cerro Timbó in Maldonado, Uruguay on March, 2020, and was made possible by the generosity and support of Carlos Abboud. This transcript has been edited and slightly condensed for clarity.

Carlos Abboud is an Argentine lawyer and food entrepreneur based in Uruguay and France. He is also a collector and founder of Cerro Timbó, a space dedicated to promoting art in the landscape.

Mauricio López, Andrés Gobba and Matías Carballal are directors and founders of INST and MAPA.

Theo Jansen is a Dutch engineer, scientist and artist, known for building large mechanisms that are able to move and evolve on their own and which are collectively entitled Strandbeests.

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