Fancy Feat

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“Look. It’s moving.” That first feeble wave of a massive hand was enough for Dr. Frankenstein to claim victory: “It’s alive.” The pursuit of engineering life seems to have leapt far past those first monstrous lurches. In vitro meat producers make beef that never walked as a steer. Singularity suggests that lives can carry on without any bone or fleshy encumbrance altogether, as an immortal conscience in the computing cloud. (“Yesterday Dr. Will Caster was only human.”)

Making something walk is still a marvelous feat. Theo Jansen’s Strandbeest—giant, wind-powered, walking figures—recapture locomotion as an essential property of life.

“Since 1990 I have been occupied creating new forms of life,” the Dutch scientist/artist’s website  proclaims. Parked in a gallery or warehouse Jansen’s creations look like jungle gyms built from huge yellow drinking straws, or supersized toothpick model airplanes.

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Jansen is clear that his aim is to create species, not sculpture. On display in his traveling museum exhibition* are taxonomy charts mapping the succession of designs over the past several years, and rows upon rows of fossils—relics of the joints and bones he has used to construct the ‘Beest. These records are impressive in scope and scale, and give the visitor a sense of being in a natural history museum rather than an art gallery.

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Specimens in the Strandbeest exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum.

What makes the Strandbeest exhibit transform from a museum to a zoo, however, is when the creatures move.

Once they’re set to motion,** the tubes become shins, the triangle points become knees, and the racks of sticks on either side become wings. It takes just one or two rotations to transform playground equipment to mega-bugs. When I first watched a ‘Beest cross the museum floor, I heard the gasp in my own head and saw it on others’ faces: “It’s alive!”

The plastic menagerie attracted a crowd of all ages and dispositions, from toddler to senior and studious to boisterous. Almost all of these bipeds were drawn to the line where they could walk with the Strandbeest. A few of the youngest, and itchiest during the wait, suddenly turned cautious and shy when it came time for them to step up.  Almost everyone adopted a careful, watchful pace once they placed their hands on the ‘Beest’s “crossbar” (waist?) and began moving with it. Part of this could be chalked up to the liability of holding a museum exhibit in one’s hands, an instinctive resistance to breaking the golden “Don’t Touch” rule. The walkers’ eyes showed their was more to it. Their gazes inevitably wandered to the ‘Beest’s knees and feet, and to their own.

Watching the skeleton articulate the complicated series of hinges and strokes that guide each step, something that feels so simple is suddenly revealed as amazingly complex. I, for one, was slowed down by an awe-filled self-consciousness of all of the tiny, crucial movements that happen before my sole hit the floor.

The movement of living things, in its simplest sense, is a process of capturing energy and responding to stimuli, both as means and ends. Living creatures have adapted countless ways of doing so (some of us more gracefully than others.)The Strandbeest rely on air as their energy source. Some species have wings that flap in the breeze and pump air into “stomachs” made from recycled plastic bottles that store and release air to propel the appendages. More recent adaptations include “sweat glands” that draw moisture out of the tubes and sensors that help detect and divert creatures from wet surfaces.

The system of pumps alone is ingenious, but taking in energy and releasing bursts of air only gets the creatures to couch potato status. Jansen also had to figure out how to make the bones move in the smooth, steady pattern that we’d call walking. It’s a math problem that comes down to rotation and precisely measured length ratios that determine where the rods that make up legs and feet should be in relation to the ground as they complete a step.

To crack the code of biological legs, Jansen leveraged nature’s methods, and reduced the process to human scale with the help of modern technology. On his website he describes how he deployed computer-aided evolution to design parts for Animaris Currens Vulgaris, the first Strandbeest species to walk. Fifteen hundred legs with rods of random lengths were generated through a program. It then assessed which of these approached what Jansen calls the “ideal walking curve.” Out of the 1500, the best 100 were “awarded the privilege of reproduction,” which is to say run through the computer program again. Over the course of months, the computer model ran through several “generations,” refining toward that ideal curve. Ultimately Jansen arrived at what he calls the “eleven holy numbers” that describe the lengths of rods in that first successful leg.  “It is thanks to these numbers that the animals walk the way they do,” he says.

“Holy,” might be an overstatement to some ears, but it captures the superhuman scale of chance and variation behind the “success.” Jansen’s program tested millions of combinations, and those were only a fraction of the possibilities. It’s hard to read that without also having some reverence for the process —whether you choose to describe it in terms of science, spirit or otherwise—that moved through billions of numeric possibilities to every prancing paw, lumbering elephant limb, and stumbling baby giraffe stilt moseying around our world today.

The allure of Jansen’s project is not about how easy it is for a genius with an algorithm to create a walking PVC quadruped, it’s about how incredibly difficult and unlikely that is. The Strandbeest embody the magic improbability of naturally occurring designs that carry bodies through the world.

With the aid of planes and automobiles, The Strandbeest will continue a global migration, with upcoming stops in Chicago, Paris and Tokyo. No doubt they will give many more viewers reason to take pause and consider what it means to move.

*Photos and notes here are from my trip to see the exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum, which closed at the end of December.

**Indoors, they have human assistance. When they roam “in the wild” on their natural beach habitat, the Strandbeest are wind-powered.