[October 21st 2005]
"When the weather was beautiful I thought it was a waste of time to sit in front of the computer"
Interview with Theo Jansen
Theo Jansen is a Dutch artist with a background in science. For the
last 15 years, he has been evolving a series of wind-powered animals,
made of plastic tubes. When these constructions are fed by wind, they
set into motion and transmute into organic-looking creatures; or
beach-animals as Jansen calls them.
Theo Jansen received the Jury's Special Price in the Interactive Art category at Ars Electronica Festival 2005. Sebastian Campion met him for a talk.
Long before becoming an artist, you studied science. What brought you from one discipline to the other?
Well, I liked science very much. A science teacher in high school inspired me and because of him I began studying science at the university. But when I got there... well, the subject still attracted me a lot but I had to do all these exams and it was just like working in an office. I couldn't stand that. I was already painting a lot so after seven years of science studies I began studying art instead and then became a professional painter. That's what I did until 1979 when I created a UFO - a flying saucer - which brought the science part back into my work again.
Did you miss science after all?
I didn't miss it. It just came back when I was making the UFO. It was fun to calculate the forces and thinking of the construction.
You have been developing the beach animals for about 15 years. How has the project evolved over the years?
The first beach animal I created didn't have very strong joints. It couldn't even walk or stand, but one night I had a vision about the principle of its feet. So, based on the simple PCV tubes that I still use, I built a computer model and tried to calculate the best way to create a walking movement. This process went on for some months, day and night before I found the right proportion between the lengths of the tubes. The philosophical ideas were not really there from the beginning, but they have grown more complete with the years. It's not important just to make things, but also to reflect about them.
Did real animals or organisms inspire you?
I didn't try to imitate animals. I just wanted to make something new. Afterwards, it turned out that real animals already used the same principle so when people look at the beach animals they often recognize the movement of an animal. But it wasn't my intention.
Apart from using a computer for engineering purposes in the early stages of the beach animals, have you ever been interested in using the computer as an integral part of your artistic work?
Before making the first beach animal I spend some time writing evolution programs of worms that live on the computer screen. I also had periods when I was addicted to the computer. Therefore, I recognize what many people have in the computer world. They jump in at morning and jump out at night. It was also fun for me in a period but after a while I thought: is this my life? When the weather was beautiful I thought it was a waste of time to sit in front of the computer.
Did you have a need for the physical and uncontrollable environment that nature offers?
Yes, I think I did. Because of the beach animals I am often outside in rain and storm and I like that a lot - apart from the heavy storms. I have often been alone on the beach with a herd of animals and when the wind came by, the whole herd would collapse and roll over the beach. Everything would go out of order.
In some sense, we experience nature through you. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that many people find your work fascinating?
Yes, maybe people miss being close to nature. That is probably why they recognize my fun and want to be a part of it. I can be fascinated with very little things. The clouds stimulate my imagination and sometimes I just sit somewhere and go on dreaming for a long time. Your head is also a computer. When you're dreaming you are simulating a world in which you are living. During the night, it's a dream you can't control and during the day it's more like a second life in your head. It's all interpretations of the real world.
You also make people smile. Why do you think that is?
I think they see something in me that they recognize in themselves, perhaps something from their childhood. They want to help me, they want to go with me and join me in my dream. That stimulates me very much. I think that somehow the beach animals are really personal. Some people, who never saw them before, recognize me in the animals when they see them. It's strange but it also feels good. I mean, then I know that I am the inventor and that nobody else could have done it. I am a melancholic type but still, I like to make a joke and I think that is expressed in my work.
After so many years, are you in control of the beach animals or are they really controlling you?
They have always controlled me. I obeyed their laws. Only recently they do what I want.
What will be the next steps?
I think the next steps will be their brains. Now they have stomachs and can walk on air. But the brains are something, which they really need. Right now, I can only leave them alone for 5 minutes and if I want to extend that period they really must learn to think for themselves.
In order for people to live and work, the Netherlands has been forced to design and cultivate its nature like no other country in the world. It seems that your work conceptualizes this pragmatic relationship with nature.
Well, I think the Netherlands will become one big city at a point. It is inevitable when you live in a country with so many people. You cannot afford to leave nature as it is. Some people believe that the dunes should be left in their original state, but I think it's strange to let things become how they were 500 years ago. Of course I prefer to have nature around me, but it doesn't have to be with the exact original vegetation for nostalgic reasons. Nature is moving and making new things.
Theo Jansen: www.strandbeest.com
Photos by Loek van der Klis and Adriaan Kok