Don Leonardo Quixote
Friday, Jan 04, 2019
One day in 1984, a 36-year old Delft-based physics student turned painter took over a recently deceased artist colleague’s fortnightly column in the Dutch national newspaper De Volkskrant. The deceased colleague, Gerrit van Bakel, had been a well-loved artist whose work included a Day and Night Machine fashioned out of metals counterpoised in such a way that, owing to the various metals’ “coefficients of expansion” (i.e., their tendency to swell or shrink at different rates in different weathers), the entire machine could be expected to forge relentlessly forward over the coming years at a steady clip of a few dozen millimeters per month—van Bakel had been a decidedly patient man. His replacement, the physics student turned painter, Theo Jansen, proved somewhat more vividly pitched, spewing forth ideas at the rate, it sometimes seemed, of a few dozen million per week.
A tinkerer and a dabbler, a dreamer and a flaneur, Jansen used his column to variously propose a new method for televising soccer matches (with the ball digitally fixed, continuously steady, at the very center of the screen as play, the players, and the field swirled wildly about it); a telephone touchpad for those annoyed by increasingly tiny keys, which would instead consist of a mere six wide buttons—1, 3, 7, 9, dial, and hang up, with all the other numbers and symbols (2, 4, 5, 6, 8, 0, and so forth) occurring in the seams between those six keys, such that hitting the 2 would depress both the 1 and the 3 keys (that’s what those two keys depressed simultaneously would mean) while depressing the 1 and the 7 at the same time would mean 4, and so forth, all very intuitive and quite sensible, and a little bit mad; a new feature for passenger jet flight with the nose of the plane chopped clean off and the space immediately behind it converted into an observation deck, accessible through an airlock and entirely open to the elements (Jansen was convinced and could almost convince you that the various air pressures would even out and nothing untoward would happen to the gawking spectators, and just imagine the viewing experience!—again all quite sensible and not a little bit daft); a conga line of six mechanical plug-in timers, piggy-backed in such a way that the outermost one could be counted on to sound off once every 23 million years (you never know how such a thing might come in handy); or a meditation on the Montgolfier brothers and how even though they misunderstood the principle—figuring that it was the smoke rather than the rising heat from the fire that caused the effect—they still got their balloons to rise into the skies, though the latter explanation soon proved to be wrong as well, since in fact, as we subsequently came to understand, it is the fact that more molecules are colliding at the bottom of the balloon than at the top, that makes the thing rise—Jansen went on to observe that that explanation, too, will no doubt someday fall by the wayside, furthermore asserting that “phenomena like the rising hot air balloons give us the impression that we understand them, which is most accommodating of those phenomena, but at the same time stupid of us that we fall for it. Of course it would be even more stupid if we didn’t.” At another point, Jansen used his column to describe how “Memories in reverse are born in the brain as ideas which can live into the future.” Evolution, on the other hand, he once characterized as “inverse erosion.” Any complex organism, he opined another time, is essentially a tube, with a shortage at the front and a surfeit at the rear, letting the edible world slip through as it moves through the environment (funny, in this context, how often the brain is close by the one end and the organs of reproduction at the other). Another time Jansen simply quoted Michelangelo to the effect that carving was easy: “Just go down to the skin and stop.”
In other words, it was that kind of column. And then one day, several years into this journalistic dalliance of his—on February 24, 1990 to be precise—Jansen took note (quite early note at that) of the fact that the seas seemed to be rising, the high tides registering ever higher up the beaches with each passing season, a matter he pointed out that ought be of considerable concern to his fellow Netherlanders, citizens of the Low Countries, territories the preponderance of which famously lay beneath sea level. But not to worry, Jansen continued, for here, too, he had a plan. After all, he suggested, wasn’t the problem simply one of finding a way of transferring sand grains from the bottom of the beach up to the top, in the form of giant continuously maintained protective dunes, and if that was all there was to it, why not just invent a race of wind-powered beach creatures—Strandbeests, as he dubbed them—veritable herds of them, that could merrily perform such an ongoing task in perpetuity. In fact, he now informed his readers, he already had two prototypes firmly in mind, and he was planning to take the coming summer to build the things, such that they could be launched onto the coast in time for the first autumn storms. “Perhaps,” he concluded by way of blithe surmise, “the Dutch coast will look quite different in a year’s time.”
“I suppose I was a little over optimistic back then,” Jansen recently admitted to me. “I fancied myself becoming a hero by saving the entire country, like that proverbial boy with his—do you also have this expression in English?—his digit in the dam wall.” He’s a fetching, immensely congenial fellow, a wry enthusiast, a tall clean gleam of a man and still quite youthful looking despite being over sixty-five-years old. I’d gone over to meet with him nearly a quarter century since that initial epiphanic column, a column, which I’d just pointed out, seemed to have completely upended his life. “Yeah,” he continued, “it has taken a little longer than I expected. But I still think that we are going to get there.”
Jansen is the boy with a finger in the dyke. Though, reviewing material about him on my way over, I’d come to think of Jansen as something more like a cross between Leonardo da Vinci and Don Quixote (with maybe a smidge of Sisyphus thrown in for good measure). Leonardo for the wide-ranging aspiration and sheer protean inventiveness of the whole enterprise—the avid facility at drawing, the leapfrogging scientific bent of mind (after all, Leonardo too had been fascinated by the prospects for wind power and free-coursing hydraulics and self-propelled machines). And Don Quixote for the sheer over-the-top ambition and vision and knight-errant nobility of the project—for, if this wasn’t a case of dreaming the impossible dream and tilting at windmills, I don’t know what is, except that in Theo’s case, what he seemed intent on doing, if anything, was tilting and torqueing windmills into virtual horses, giant striding wind-whipped beasts of burden, with all the rest of us following up the rear and coming along for the ride.
(Leonardo, incidentally, had lived from 1452 to 1519, the latter being the year of the death, as well, of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian and his replacement by his grandson, the Dutch-reared Charles V, who had three years earlier—following the death of his other grandfather—been named king of Spain as well. A good deal of the early years of the now-Madrid-based emperor’s reign were spent dealing with restiveness back in the Netherlands, complications he hoped to have smoothed over with the Pragmatic Sanction of 1549, in which he declared the Seventeen Provinces of the Netherlands one entity, rule over which was slated to pass to his own eventual heir, the then still quite young Philip II. As it happens, Miguel de Cervantes was born two years before that, in 1547, in a village just north of Madrid. When the young Cervantes was not quite ten, in 1556, Charles abdicated in favor of Philip, under whose rule the profligate Madrid-based court repeatedly fell into bankruptcy, while its Dutch provinces grew steadily wealthier and more and more resentful at continually having to bail out their Spanish overlords. A full scale Dutch Revolt erupted in 1568, one whose winding permutations, increasingly religion-inflected, would come to stretch over the next eighty years, clear through 1648, when the Dutch finally achieved full independence from the Spanish Crown. Two years after the start of that war, in 1570, Cervantes enlisted as a soldier in the Spanish Naval Marines, though his regiment was sent not to Holland but rather to Naples, from where, the following year, he took part in the naval Battle of Lepanto, in the Gulf of Corinth north of the Peloponnese, in which a Hapsburg-led Catholic alliance famously defeated the Ottoman fleet, with Cervantes emerging seriously wounded, having among other things lost the use of his left hand. Looking back, years later, following the wildly successful publication of the first part of his Don Quixote in 1606, Cervantes would boast how back at Lepanto, he “had lost the use of my left hand for the greater glory of my right.” By then, however, he had grown steadily less in thrall to Spanish imperial pretensions, and many commentators have noted how the entire “tilting at windmills” episode early in that book—windmills, after all, though existent in La Mancha, are much more evocative of the Dutch lands up north—contained a subtly veiled if distinctly barbed critique of the Spanish throne’s thoroughly hapless contemporary Dutch policies.)
Anyway, so there we were, my new friend, this latter-day Don Leonardo Quixote and me, seated on a bench along the wind-swept promenade overlooking Scheveningen beach, on the northwest cusp of The Hague. To our left loomed a diminutive commemorative cannon, its mouth trained on the sea, Canute-like, staring down the advancing tide. Down below, bulldozers raked the sand, combing the dunes back into acceptable shape after a spate of recent autumn squalls, while winter clouds went whipping by above.
Jansen pointed south toward the somewhat more remote stretch of beach where he puts his steadily evolving plastic-pipe beasts through their paces each summer, and then just up north to where, as it happened, he himself had been born, in 1948, the youngest of eleven children. His father had been a farmer, an occupation he had been forced to abandon during the depression, moving his family to a lot north of Amsterdam, right by a factory that made radios, and hence proved one of the first aerial bombing targets for the invading Nazis in 1940. The family was scattered during the war—the normally ebullient Jansen suddenly seized up as he described this phase of his family’s life, momentarily overcome with deeply suppressed emotion, before continuing on—but on the far side of those years they reconvened in a crowded apartment in the otherwise emptied out beachfront district of Scheveningen, which is where Theo was born. His earliest memories include the way his father and older siblings would all set off for various jobs each morning (his father bicycling off to spend the day administering TB inoculations), the small side table at which the three youngest took their meals in the evening after everyone had come home, how he used to love fashioning lenses out of clockfaces and other stray panes and then playing with light refractions on the ceiling while lolling in the bathtub, and perhaps most peculiarly, the way that every summer the kids would be forced out of their rooms onto air mattresses in the living room as the family earned extra money by renting out rooms to vacationing Germans (all of which he thoroughly enjoyed). At school, he was good in geometry, but was especially entranced by the prospect of flight (in high school shop class he invented a device for calculating the centers of thermal pillars of air when gliding), and he hoped one day to be a pilot.
He proved a somewhat lackadaisical student at the University of Delft, where he majored in physics while immersing himself primarily in “hippie-type” extracurricular activities, such as music-making, to which he remains thoroughly devoted, across a second stream of his life, to this day (“My work life these days,” he tells me, “is fairly solitary, just me and my beasts in the studio most of the time, but at night I turn much more social; I go out with people and my band, Mbungo Express, which consists mainly of me and a Zambian friend playing make-believe African music.”) Even his conventional studies were less than wholly conventional: assigned to study the electrical conductivity of copper, he instead documented the feedback loops of sound provoked by tapping copper pipes, instances of the then nascent (and still decidedly suspect) chaos theory. “They didn’t know quite what to make of me, nor I of them: I was being trained to be an engineer,” he says, “but the longer I studied, the less I could see myself working as a robot for Phillips Electronics, or some such.” He left school after seven years, married, though without a degree, and held a series of odd jobs, including as an assistant with the Medical faculty of the University of Rotterdam. But when that first marriage dissolved in 1975 (apparently over issues of relative conventionality), he decided to give himself over completely to art and painting (he’d been an avid amateur draughtsman all along).
A series of his landscape paintings around this time (dolled up with images of women in their underwear dallying in the middle distance) enjoyed a certain success, but his own heart was still in the clouds. (At one point, he traveled to Georgia to visit an older brother who’d taken up residence there and who introduced him to paragliding, and he even managed to smuggle an illegal such contraption back home). In 1980, tinkering away, he fashioned a lightweight lens-shaped helium-filled free-floating UFO that was 15 feet in diameter, complete with dangling spooky-sound emitter, which he and a group of friends went on to launch into the skies over Delft one blustery afternoon, provoking an immensely satisfying War of the Worlds-like panic stricken response among the population at large, the police careering in hot pursuit. After that (and the brief rush of notoriety that ensued when his authorship of the incident was revealed), he was ruined for any conventional painterly practice. The following year, fiddling away, he invented a painting machine—a sort of mammoth wall-sized ink-jet printer avant la lettre, only it was paint-jet and what it printed onto the wall in question was a life-size version of whatever three-dimensional object one put in front of it (say a couple seated on a facing dais). By the middle of that decade, he had his column, along with all those fantasies, and within a few years of that, he’d had his vision of the Strandbeests, lumbering away down on the beach, saving the world.
If truth be told, Jansen was telling me a few minutes later, as we now drove in his station wagon toward his winter workshop several miles inland, the idea for the Strandbeests hadn’t just risen out of nowhere. He’d been thinking about virtual life-forms of one sort or another for several years already, ever since reading the English evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins’s 1986 bestseller, The Blind Watchmaker. “That book had an enormous impact on me.”
The next few minutes were given over to a passionate disquisition on stick insects—that is the way Dawkins explained that in the distant past there had been nakedly vulnerable insects and dim-sighted birds, but how over time some of those insects, through random accidental mutation, had begun looking more and more like sticks, while to counter this tendency, their bird predators (again through random accidental mutations) developed sharper and sharper vision. The two creatures, as it were, created each other. Jansen, in thrall to this notion, went on to create a sort of simple proto-creature of his own on his primitive Atari proto-computer, a creature that consisted of just four abutting line segments, programmed in such a way that if the front tip of one of these creatures collided with the flank of another, the former would obliterate the latter. The creatures could do nothing but float randomly about on the screen and thus eat or be eaten, except that he also allowed them to bend randomly one way or another in the midst of their floating, with the survivors getting to reproduce into a fresh generation. He revved up his machine, digitally poured in dozens of creatures, and waited to see what would happen. In fact, he let the program run overnight and to his astonished delight the next morning, several of the creatures had evolved to bend themselves into perfect protective curls.
That had been fun; he even wrote Dawkins an excited letter about his adventure, though he received no response (he imagines the Oxford professor tossing the overly enthusiastic missive into the trash, wondering, “Who is this mad Dutchman and why won’t he leave me alone?”). Undeterred, he thereupon decided to concoct a walking program: he’d long been interested in walking, which is to say, continually stumbling forward in such a way that one catches oneself before tumbling completely. “In its essence,” Jansen elaborated, “walking is simply constantly changing your shape in such a way that you move forward.” He created a fresh program, once again made up of line sticks though with more complex joints and rules of jointure, and set that program going, complete with random accidental mutations, in such a way that only those creatures that managed to move across the screen the fastest would be allowed to reproduce into the next generation.
And it was in the midst of that process that, as he himself walked along the Scheveningen shore one day, the thought entered his head that maybe he “should pay a visit to the Gamma hardware store and check out their plastic tubing.” He bought himself a length of standard off-yellow PVC (polyvinyl chloride) plastic tubing (the sort that is ubiquitous nowadays in construction, plumbing, cable, and electrical conduits, and so forth) and took it back to his studio. And it was around that same time that he experienced his finger-in-the-dyke epiphany, going on to publish that seminal Strandbeest proposal in his Volkskrant column.
We negotiated a final series of loop-de-loops and exited the highway, veering up onto a steep sloping embankment shielding the residents of the relatively new housing complex of Ypenburg from the noise of the surrounding highway interchanges, the site of Theo’s winter compound, a portacabin the size of two shipping container crates mounted atop the embankment with the compound itself further shielded by a screen of tall windbreaker trees (that have grown out from the cuttings Theo himself planted when he first occupied the heights, three years into his PVC passion). “Here,” he explained, as we got out of the car and walked toward one of the sheds, “we find ourselves at almost the exact midpoint between The Hague, Rotterdam, and over there, Delft.” And, indeed, over to the east, one could make out the familiar Vermeer spires in the mid-distance.
Parts of abandoned (or perhaps, transcended) Strandbeests lay strewn about the grounds (their off-yellow gradually blanching to bone white with the passage of time), and a covered shed contained literally miles upon miles of straight (still off-yellow) tubing, stacked in neat rows, waiting to be transmuted into future generations. “Life, from its most primitive to its most advanced manifestations, consists largely of protein,” Jansen was now explaining as he led me into the workshop itself. “PVC is my protein.” (Other times he would refer to PVC as the cellular unit in his system, the building block out of which all his creatures derived.)
He went on to recount how his first experiments, back in the early nineties, had been “sad, pathetic, really hopeless” affairs (“I was so naïve”): he was using tape to connect the PVC rods, and the poor creatures kept tearing and collapsing from their own weight, nor did he seem able to get them to walk properly. “I would head out each morning during those summers, bicycling the ten kilometers from my Delft apartment to the beach, bubbling with ideas and optimism, only to trudge back, come the evening, completely depressed and deflated. Overnight, though, as I slept, it was as if I was being flooded with fresh ideas, as if from somewhere out in the cosmos, and I’d wake up with fresh enthusiasm, I could hardly wait to get out of bed.” Most of those ideas, alas, likewise came to naught.
I asked him why he hadn’t thought about using wheels. “Wheels are of course a marvelous invention,” he concurred. “Thousands of years ago, people rolled massive stones along rolling arrays of felled tree trunks—the trouble with that method being that you kept having to drag the tree trunks at the back of the procession to the front: very time consuming and hard on one’s back. The wheel originally arose as an automatic tree-trunk-bringer-alonger, that’s what a wheel is, if you think about it. And, yes, it was a wonderful advance, but really quite useless on the beach. I mean, try bicycling on the sand, it’s fun for a few seconds but very quickly you end up getting off and having to drag the bicycle along by your side. No, what you need on the beach is a cart on legs, a carriage that walks.”
Presently, he advanced from tape to tie-cords (or as he refers to things, from the gluten to the chorda periods), and that was somewhat better, though the walking mechanism was still wrong. He was lost in a maze of sines and cosines, mapping out legs with two separate cranks, one for the upper limb and one for the lower, differing in phase by 90 degrees. The breakthrough, or rather two major breakthroughs occurred on a single night, at the end of 1991. First, he realized that the leg could have a far simpler structure if a single crank were moved up to the hip joint. (He proceeded to demonstrate all this on a plywood model he often takes around to classes and lectures.) The leg itself would need to be fashioned out of eleven rods, pivoting in relation to each other, such that everything would depend on the specific ratio of the lengths of the eleven segments, one to another. The goal would be to affect a long, slow stride with gentle curves planting the leg onto the ground and then pulling it off in such a way as to quickly bring it back around to the front of the next long stride (a leg in midair was deadweight, Jansen reckoned, the point being to have the creature moving along the ground-planted foot for the better part of the foot’s rotation).
But how could those ratios be determined? There were millions, and probably billions, of possible combinations, and even a computer working its way through all of them in brute sequence, especially in those days, would likely take decades to evaluate them all. But—and here came his second breakthrough of the night, a reversion to his Dawkins ideal—what if he were instead to program an algorithm whereby thousands of sets of such ratios could randomly compete against each other, the best virtual performers advancing forward as the basis for a new generation, generation after generation, until the algorithm itself naturally brought forth the best solution? He tried it, and his Atari literally chugged away for months, but eventually he had the magic ratios, eleven specific numbers (a=38, b=41.5, c=39.3, d=40.1, e=55.8, and so forth) that were to form the basis for all the walking beasts that were to follow.
The point was—and Jansen grew quite adamant about this—he had never modeled his Strandbeests’s walk on that of any naturally occurring creatures (specific insects or striding mammals of any given sort); rather, he’d generated his ratios in much the same way that nature itself had likely done—natural history understood in this context as a vast sort of calculating algorithm, with evolution unfurling over eons of time through the marvels of natural selection. No wonder, though, that his creatures began evincing such an uncannily “lifelike” gait.
In part for stability’s sake, Jansen went on to explain, the creatures became wider and wider, with an extended array of legs striding along side by side, their peristaltic rhythm enforced by a long perpendicular zigzag crankshaft churning parallel to the ground, a sort of spinal or vertebral cord. If the creatures were to be self-sufficient, he reasoned, they would need to be able to gather in their own nutrition, or energy source, which in their case would consist of the wind: wind would power the rotating spinal crankshaft, giving the creatures the wherewithal to move forward. So he began experimenting with different configurations of ever more elaborately cantilevered sails.
But what if there was no wind? The Strandbeests would need somehow to be able to absorb wind and contain that wind’s energy for future use, and he presently came up with the notion of the striding Beests compressing air as they walked and forcing it into arrays of emptied plastic water bottles spread in rows along the creatures’ flanks (over the years he emptied a veritable reservoir’s worth of plastic bottled water onto the side of his embankment), air which could in turn flow out at times of windlessness to churn the spinal crankshaft and power the legs. Lungs, as it were. The Beests had a tendency to march willy-nilly, often (and quite catastrophically) directly into the sea, so he had to concoct a way for the creatures to sense if they were approaching water (an empty tube dangling from their side, which could register, in simple binary fashion, if the free passage of air were or were not starting to be occluded by water)—“nerves,” as he defined the dangling tubes, which could in turn trip a series of “muscles” (a muscle, in Jansen’s conception, being nothing more than “an object which can grow longer or shorter,” and which he in turn created by having an inner rod slip piston-like in and out of an outer sleeve) which, when activated, could redirect the course of the errantly striding Beest.
Jansen set himself the arbitrary (though to him quite obvious and incontrovertible) rule that he would not deploy any technology beyond PVC or rubber tubing: no electronic timers or counters or crankshafts—his was a sensibility pitched to a preference for the resolutely analog in the face of the ever more digital. Everything had to be reconceived in terms of PVC, but that became possible when he understood that any given pipe or tube could be open or closed (bent or straightened), and experienced, as it were, as such, in an ever more ingenious compounding system of nerve sensors (shades of his 23-million-year alarm clock) which could function like logic gates or step counters, and presently come to operate, for all intents and purposes, as a sort of “brain.”
Jansen’s creatures progressed from generation to generation (and he took to granting them elaborate Linnaean names: successively Animaris Vulgaris, Animaris Speculator, Animaris Currens Ventosa, Animaris Subulosa Adolescens, Animaris Vaporis, and so forth). Not that progress was in any way direct or simple. As with nature, as with evolution (and as the years passed, Jansen grew less and less interested in the seemingly ever further distant goal of sand-shifting and dyke-plugging, and more and more entrammeled by the sheer marvel of the immediate evolutionary process playing out before him), there were countless dead-ends and haphazard detours; (“As how wouldn’t there be,” he once asked me, “random mistakes and mutations being the very engine of evolution?”). Some of them could be quite harrowing. “Until I came up with the expedient of sealant and O rings,” he related to me at one point, “the tube muscles exhibited all sorts of leakage and squishing, along with the occasional stray piston exploding out right past my head.” He laughed at the memories. “Making life, let me tell you, is fraught with danger.” Nor is it necessarily a pretty sight: “There was one occasion,” he was telling me a few minutes later, “when the wind picked up and a whole herd of Animarae Geneticae—the Geneticae were the first to be deployed in herds—and they all began rolling across the beach, sometimes rising and bouncing and tumbling meters into the air, like so many tumbleweeds.” More laughter, his eyes widening at the memory: “One has to admit, it was a marvelous sight.” He took to video-recording his Beests as they paraded down the beach, and sometimes the magnificently striding creatures would only barely make it out of the camera’s frame before they tripped over themselves and crumpled ignominiously. “Back to the drawing board,” Jansen recalled expansively with a fresh gleam.
The calibrations and recalibrations took years, across generation after generation of new Beest-types and fresh experiments out on the beach. “Sometimes I felt like those bicycle mechanics Wilbur and Orville Wright as they labored to take flight from off their own beach,” Jansen said. Which naturally provoked the question: given his own love of gliding and paragliding, why hadn’t he himself been trying to create Strandbeests that flew? “Well,” he replied, “increasingly as I came to see things, my job was to create animals that could survive—that, after all, is the whole purpose of evolution. Not nice animals or fun animals or pretty animals: but surviving animals. That had to be the sole focus. And in that context, flying animals, nice and fun and pretty as they might have been, would have been nothing more than a self-indulgent side trip. Besides which, it had already been done.” That answer in turn led to a wider consideration. “People talk about how beautiful my Strandbeests are as they parade down the beach, but you have to understand that I was never interested in beauty as such. I was interested in survival, so everything was based on a consideration of function, on how to make the things function better. The fascinating thing was—here again, as with nature—the better the functioning, often, the more beautiful the result.”
The early winter evening was fast descending as we stood on the embankment promontory, the Vermeer spires of Delft behind us, the sun fast slipping into distant sea to the fore. “That business about function and beauty,” Jansen sighed, “it is a kind of miracle. But then again, I experience pretty much everything these days as a miracle, especially when I’m on my own out there on the beach. Nature is so beautiful. The sea glistening—I am so attracted to it, as if I had emerged directly out of it: I’ve arranged so that my ashes will one day be scattered to the waves. Even up here, or back at home in Delft, I miss it. I could never understand conventionally religious people: who needs the miracle of walking on water? Isn’t water itself miracle enough? Water, nature, life!”
The next morning Theo picked me up at my shorefront hotel, right by the Canute Cannon, and we headed back into town, this time to the Gemeentemuseum, The Hague’s city collection. He wanted to show me pictures by some local antecedents of his.
Jan Porcellis’s Shipwreck off the Coast of 1631, for example, on loan from the temporarily renovations-shuttered Mauritshuis: a whole fleet of ships careering wildly toward the shore amidst lacerating storm-tossed waves, a man in a wind-whipped black cape, surveying the chaotically churning scene from a promontory to the side. “That’s my beach,” Jansen intoned, over my shoulder. “That’s Scheveningen. In fact, I think I know that storm personally.”
And design sketches by Simon Stevin, the remarkable Flemish-born mathematician and civil and military engineer (1548–1620) who, following the assassination of William the Silent during the Dutch-Spanish Eighty Years’ War, had become tutor and then advisor to William’s successor, Maurice of Nassau, devising all manner of fortifications and waterworks for him, and, in his spare time, a fetching sequence of sail-driven “land yachts,” wind chariots, somewhere between a float and a folly, that used likewise to glide along the beach at the Scheveningen shore, direct precursors of Theo and his Strandbeests.
And the local 19th century realist master Anton Mauve with his sand-gritty depiction of Horses Hauling Boats at Scheveningen, into which Jansen leaned in, smiling, before declaring, “Of course, those were the original Strandbeests, the age-old beasts of burden. Look at them strain.” He seemed to identify with that feeling as well.
And then, rounding the corner, quite unexpectedly (another visitor from the Mauritshuis), Rembrandt’s magnificent 1632 Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp. The professor demonstrating with his left hand, before the dumbfounded astonishment of his students leaning close in, the sort of movements made possible thanks to the actions of tendons, the ones he was exposing through his demonstration corpse’s dissected arm, with the calipers in his right hand.
The two of us stood there for a long moment, equivalently dumbfounded and utterly astonished. “When I was a ten year old,” Jansen related at length, “I used to love rummaging amidst the trash tossed out by a neighborhood poulterer, dissecting the occasional chicken leg I found there to expose its interior tendons.”
The inner group of students in the painting gaze fixatedly upon the professor’s living hand (this, after all, being the young Rembrandt’s celebration of both vision and of manipulability, the two things that make painting itself possible), but the outer group stare out from the canvas—at whom? At Rembrandt himself, presumably, hunched over his easel in the implied fiction of the painting’s creation, and beyond him at the similarly rapt audience who would have been attending the public dissection that brisk January morning, and beyond them (or through them) of course, at us in the present, the painting’s eventually envisioned audience.
But who do you suppose had been in the dissection’s audience that day in 1632, I now asked Jansen—because, as it turns out, according to recent speculation by the likes of W. G. Sebald (in his Rings of Saturn, which I’d recently read), the chances are very high that that audience would have included an anatomy-avid recent émigré to Amsterdam, Rene Descartes, who within a few years of that afternoon would be composing his own series of world-upending treatises likening the inner workings of the animal body to a sort of reflex machine, a robot, a striding contraption fashioned out of bone and muscle and tendon and nerve ending, all intermeshed and firing completely independent of any sort of soul, whose essence, he argued, would necessarily be something altogether other. Talk about an antecedent.
Descartes had been born in 1596 in La Haye—not Den Hage or The Hague, even though the place’s name does sound like that—south of Tours, France, but by 1619, ambitious to become a military officer, he’d joined the Army of Breda under the command of the Dutch Republic’s Maurice of Nassau and undertaken a formal study of military engineering, as established by Simon Stevin, of land-yacht fame, which in turn required deep immersion in mathematics. It was a few months into his service in that army, in fact, that he had his famous night of revelation in the room with the pot-bellied stove—the wellspring, he would later claim, of both his analytic geometry and his cogito. A few years thereafter he was back in France, but in 1629 he returned to Holland where he remained for the next twenty exceptionally productive years—which is how he happened to be in Amsterdam in January 1632 when Tulp dissected that corpse—publishing his Discourse on Method a mere five years later and his Meditations on First Philosophy four years after that.
The year 1632, as it happens, was also the year and Amsterdam also the place of the birth of Descartes’s foremost rationalist successor, Baruch Spinoza. (It happens as well to have been the year of Vermeer’s birth in Delft.) Spinoza’s ancestors were Sephardic Jews who’d been forced to flee the Iberian Peninsula in the wake of the post-1492 Inquisitions there (though in Portugal, as it happens, not in Cervantes’s Spain), but Spinoza himself would live to be excommunicated from the Amsterdam Jewish community, on account of the scandalous tenor of a philosophy that virtually melded God and Nature in a startlingly modern manner that uncannily anticipated Darwin’s formulations two centuries later.
Talk about yet another antecedent.
After the museum visit, Theo drove me over to the Electriciteitsfabriek—or rather I should say the largely decommissioned former Electric Factory power plant, which, Tate Modern-like, had been given over to a group of local The Hague artists to reconfigure as a cultural center. In one of their most ambitious ventures yet, they were preparing to launch a big Theo Jansen Strandbeest retrospective, with beach sand thickly strewn all about the floor of the place’s huge vault-like central industrial hanger in happy anticipation.
And it was here that I had my first in-person encounter with one of Jansen’s fully operational Strandbeests, in this case an Animalis Suspendisse, with its full crest of furling wind sails atop and sensing snouts to either side, standing there proud, expectant, on its artificial beach, waiting for the next coming breeze. Which of course was not going to be coming (we were indoors, after all). But Theo went over to a little side-cupboard and pulled out a metal canister filled with compressed air, with which, by way of a standard rubber tube, he now filled up the battery of empty water bottles strapped to the Strandbeest’s flank. He stepped back, flipped a switch, and suddenly, like that, the Beest was off and striding, confidently breasting the still air of the cavernous vault, its legs jutting forward—one and then the next and then the next—and then back and then forward again, in a vast peristaltic shuffle. Sensing that it was coming to the end of its allowed course (or rather, being prodded in this instance into sensing thus by Theo’s quicksilver ministrations, a flick here, another there), it came to a halt as its brain recalibrated, ordering the piston muscles at the hip joint to reconfigure themselves (one and then the next across the entire array) at which point it started up once again, returning back from whence it had started.
And the effect was entirely uncanny—or perhaps just the opposite: canny as they come. I was thinking of the Japanese Buddhist roboticist Masahiro Mori’s famous notion of the Uncanny Valley: the way in which a robot—or the animation, say, of a human face—that is 90% lifelike will be experienced as great, 95% greater still, 96% simply awesome, but 97% sheer disastrous calamity, because the approximation could then be said to have fallen into the Uncanny Valley. Before it had been a robot that was very humanlike (cool!), whereas now it was a human being with something—one wasn’t quite sure what—indefinably, creepily, repellently wrong (ick!). But there was nothing whatsoever icky about the Strandbeest in its resolute advance: in fact, on the contrary, it was almost a pure expression of awe. It was cute, it was adorable, and it commanded the admiration and affection it seemed to call out for.
In short, it seemed alive. Purposeful, resolute, canny. If it wasn’t falling into the uncanny valley, this might in part be because it wasn’t attempting to seem anything other than what it was (it wasn’t trying to ape a human being or even a giant spider): it was self-evidently a PVC machine, and yet, in its steady animation, it almost seemed to evince a soul (the very word animation, after all, deriving from the Latin anima). Ordinarily we think of the face as the seat of the soul, but our sense of soulfulness, especially when experienced from afar, equally lodges in a creature’s gait, its stride, its posture in motion—all of which provokes a sense of fellow feeling (that entity over there is also alive, just like us). Robots famously lack it (by contrast they seem all hesitant and herky-jerky), people with Parkinson’s disease sometimes feel themselves losing it (they decry the loss as one of the most horrible existential side-effects of the condition), but this Strandbeest had it in spades.
I was reminded of the Chinese moon probe, the ill-fated Jade Rabbit of a few seasons earlier with its famous last words, “My masters have discovered something abnormal in my mechanical control system . . . I am aware that I might not survive the coming lunar night . . . The sun has fallen and the temperature is dropping so quickly . . . To tell you the truth, I don’t feel that sad. I was just in my own adventure story—and like every hero, I encountered a small problem. Goodnight, Earth. Goodnight, humanity.”
How could one’s heart not go out to such an entity (one is tempted to say, creature)? And likewise, watching the striding Strandbeests, we can’t help ourselves: our hearts become lodged in our mouths.
But does that say something about them, or about us?
The Beest, winded, slowly wound down to a stop, which gave me an opportunity to ask Theo precisely that question. “Oh,” he responded, without a moment’s hesitation. “It is obviously them: they are very much alive.”
One never quite knows what to make of Theo at moments like this. There’s a wry twinkle in his eye and one can’t quite tell if he is being ironic: he never breaks irony, though, and he honestly seems to believe what he’s saying.
In his classic 1953 book, The Living Brain, the neurologist W. Grey Walter noted how while the nineteenth century had been in thrall to the prodigious profusions of life in all its varied and various manifestations, more recent scientists had become fascinated by life’s economy, its parsimony, and the astonishing range of changes it has been able to ring out of just a few simple elements. Turning his thoughts to the future possibility of artificial life—Dr. Walter thrummed through a series of increasingly ambitious thought experiments he dubbed Machina labyrinthea, Machina Sopora and Machina Speculatrix—he noted that breakthroughs in the imitation of cerebral activity, when they come, will do so on the basis not of looks but rather of activity, action in turn generated out of a few simple algorithmic approximations. Among the characteristics such a future imitation will need to evince, he suggested, will be the propensity to explore its environment rather than wait passively for something to happen; positive tropism (sensory susceptibility to the attractions of the environment); negative tropism (capacity to avoid dangers in the environment); discernment (the ability to distinguish between effective and ineffective behavior); optima (a tendency to seek conditions with moderate rather than most favorable properties); self-recognition; mutual recognition (the capacity for making out fellows of one’s own kind); and finally, internal stability.
One wonders what Dr. Walter (who died in 1977) would have made of Theo’s Strandbeests.
The eminent science-fiction writer and futurologist Arthur C. Clarke, for his part, was adamant in his conviction that tools invented by man (the brains of primordial hominids grew exponentially in the millennia immediately following their recourse to the first primitive tools—think of the first scene in the Clarke-based film 2001: A Space Odyssey) who then invent newer tools (since such hominid brains are dialectically shaped by their interaction with those ever more complex tools) would one day (soon) completely replace him (think of the last scenes in that film). “We need look no further for the famous ‘missing link,’” Clarke argued, near the very end of his life,
—it is us. As Nietzsche said, Man is a rope stretched between the animal and the superhuman—a rope across the abyss. It may be that intelligence and creativity can only arise from organic life, because only living creatures, by their very nature, can evolve from simple to complex organisms. It is a little difficult to see how a lifeless planet could progress directly from metal ores and mineral deposits to electronic computers by its own unaided efforts. But though intelligence and creativity can arise only from life, they may then learn to do without the fragile organic substrate that they now require.
One need not necessarily be quite as mouthwateringly avid at the prospect as Magus Clarke to nevertheless marvel at the formulation.
Looking at such questions from the far other end of the telescope, the neurologist Oliver Sacks, recently writing in the New York Review of Books, noted how,
The jellyfish nervous system, like the animal itself, is radially symmetrical and may seem less sophisticated than a mammalian brain, but it has every right to be considered a brain, generating, as it does, complex adaptive behaviors and coordinating all the animal’s sensory and motor mechanisms. Whether we can speak of a “mind” here (as Darwin does in regard to earthworms) depends on how one defines “mind.”
Turning from there to the question of how one defines “life,” an associate editor of Scientific American, Ferris Jabr, writing on the NY Times opinion blog recently used Theo Jansen’s own case as an occasion to argue that “Strandbeests are no more or less alive than animals, fungi, and plants. In fact, nothing is truly alive.” He went on to note how,
Some things we regard as inanimate are capable of some of the processes we want to make exclusive to life. And some things we say are alive get along just fine without some of those processes. Yet we have insisted that all matter naturally segregates into two categories—life and nonlife—and have searched in vain for the dividing line. It’s not there. We must accept that the concept of life sometimes has its pragmatic value for our particular human purposes, but it does not reflect the reality of the universe outside the mind.
In other words, “life,” Jabr contends, is a concept, not an actual aspect of the world-in-itself, as philosophers might phrase things. “The real reason Strandbeests enchant us,” he concludes, “is the same reason that any so-called ‘living thing’ fascinates us: not because it is ‘alive,’ but because it is so complex and, in its complexity, so beautiful.”
One is reminded of the famous passage in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations where he has been yammering on about “language games” for some time and then entertains a possible objection that he has not yet specified what he means by “game.” At which point he launches into a fairly exhaustive taxonomical exposition, trying to establish what might apply in common to, say, “board games, card games, Olympic games, and so on,” moving on past tic-tac-toe and chess and beyond, eventually arriving at the conclusion that there are no properties common to all of them, that rather “We see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing,” a situation for which he prefers to use the immensely suggestive notion of “family resemblances.” Wittgenstein then suggests that were he presented with one final supposed objection, that there is after all “something common to all these constructions—namely the disjunction of all their common properties,” he would counter: “Now you are only playing with words.” Which, when you think about it, is a really funny answer, a Keatonesque feint as one of my professors once suggested, since what is playing than another sort of game?
But I digress from my main theme here, which is Theo Jansen’s own sense of the status of the liveliness of his Strandbeests, which is to say whether or not they are alive in any meaningful sense. Because not only does he insist, as we have seen, that they are “forms of life” (whether he is speaking with tongue in or out of cheek, it’s not exactly clear), but he goes on to up the ante of that claim. Or perhaps, in the vocabulary we’ve been considering: he certainly seems to move the goalposts.
For, as far as Jansen is concerned, the notion of life-forms needs to be very broadly understood. For starters, he argues—closely following his man Dawkins in this—that we should stop thinking of life solely in terms of genes, and that “memes” (cultural tropes) also constitute every bit as profoundly a form of life. Everything, all life, is information, is code multiplying itself. Thus, one day, he was telling me that his Strandbeests were already propagating themselves exponentially all over the world because they had begun appearing in ads and videos widely broadcast over YouTube, and every individual who’d seen these images had in a certain sense taken their memetic material into their own life. (St. Anselm, the high medieval friar who famously advanced the decidedly squirrelly Ontological Proof, might well have gone for such a slippery claim, that the sheer idea of something could be thought of as real in the same way a table is real, but others might not be quite so willing.)
Going further, later in that same conversation, Jansen challenged me to, “Imagine a wooden machine that would go into the forest to chop wood to make a machine that would go into a forest to chop wood.” Okay, I responded, warily. Well, he insisted, such a machine already exists. Yeah, I responded, if ideas “exist,” then I suppose this one does, too. But no, he insisted, this one really does, whereupon he went on to describe a chain letter, which if you think about it (or such anyway is the way he thinks about it) is nothing other than paper (pulped wood) reproducing itself in exponential fashion. If you (or anyway, I) ever so tentatively objected that, actually no, wouldn’t such chain letters rather merely constitute a case of human beings performing a compounding action (and of course human beings are alive, nobody’s argued against that—except maybe Jabr, and who knows where his tongue is in his cheek), Jansen would be likely to object, as he did the day were talking about all of this, in a dialectical ecstasy all his own, that yours (mine, ours) was merely a case of unsustainable (albeit damnably persistent) anthropocentrism. “Stop always putting yourself, in our role as human being, at the center of everything. Look at things, in this instance, from the point of view of the sheet of paper; human beings are merely a vehicle for paper’s propagation. Man is just a pile of protein molecules in the shape of a person, and as such has interactions with all sorts of other packets of molecules, organic and not.” (I imagined the ghost of Spinoza smiling down from above—or wherever.)
Jansen was quiet for a moment, seemingly lost in thought, and then resumed all the more vehemently: “Plastic PVC tubes entered my life one fine September day in 1990, and since then, the Strandbeests have ruled my life. They’ve become an addiction, a disease, a virus if you like; a virus that has commandeered my body and refuses to it. I am their victim: The Strandbeests are forcing me to make them.”
But wait, I countered, wasn’t he if anything rather their god? (In so saying I was reminded of the Emory-based Dutch primate primatologist and ethologist Frans de Waal’s comment that the Dutch as a group are neither theistic nor atheistic, they are apatheist, they don’t care, God is just not that interesting a topic for them.) “It is true,” Jansen replied, “that up till now they do require my ministrations to help them realize their destiny—that may not always be the case. But no, I am not their God; I am their slave. Their happy slave.”
There was an Edward Steed cartoon in the New Yorker not too long ago, which kept coming back to my mind those days in Scheveningen. Two cavemen: one of them, hammer and chisel in hand, laboring over the proverbial stone wheel; the other, perched atop a rickety walking contraption, a high chair with handlebars controlling claptrap stilt legs elaborately improvised out of crude planks and bailing wire and culminating in snowshoe-like feet, and the wheel guy is looking up at his friend atop the walking contraption and assuring him, “No, I like it. I just don’t see the point.”
Particle Fever, the recent documentary by Mark Levinson, Walter Murch, and physicist David Kaplan on the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland and the discovery of the Higgs boson, ends with a gorgeous sequence where the camera zooms in on some Paleolithic-era cave paintings in the Chauvet Cave in France, and then seemingly through them onto whiteboards scrawled over with all manner of physics equations and then through those back to the cave paintings and so forth. (One is given to realize that CERN is only a few hundred kilometers and just 30,000 years removed from Chauvet.) Then one of the film’s main protagonists, Stanford theoretical physicist Dr. Savas Dimopoulos, comes on screen, by way of conclusion, to ask, “Why do people do science? Why do people do art? The things that are least important to our survival are the very things that make us most human.”
Evenings, while I was visiting with Theo, back at the hotel and just before going to bed, I was reading Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction, a brave and fierce meditation on the history of life on earth, and the prospect facing both life generally and human life in particular in the harrowing climatic period up ahead.
I was also reading Lawrence Gowing on Vermeer—the passage where he describes the latter’s achievement as “a slender and perfect plume thrown up by the wave of Dutch painting at its crest.” And turning out the light, drifting off to sleep, I couldn’t help but think of Theo and his project.
“We think we live in the real world,” Jansen once wrote in one of his columns, “but that’s simply not true. We live in our image of the world. We dream our lives.”
“The dream is fed by the senses on the one hand and by an internal source of thoughts and ideas on the other,” he continued. “There’s a very special someone circulating in that dream, the ego or the ‘I’ figure. Self-awareness could be said to come from observing the experiences of the I-figure in our imagination.”
(Thus Cogito Theo.)
More recently, regarding his Strandbeests, Theo wrote: “Tubes enclose the air; the air sends the animals on their way; muscles and nerves draw in the air and blow it out. Air is the principal ingredient of the Strandbeests. They are assembled in fact from solid shafts of air protected by a layer of plastic.”
“I have made many animals from shafts of air without the plastic coating. It makes a world of difference, but those do tend to blow away easily.”
In that sense, apart from everything else they may yet be, Theo’s are machines for realizing fantasy, for embodying flights of fancy, and for elaborating dreams. And in that sense, they are precisely, as his friend the photographer Lena Herzog would have us see them, dream machines.
On other days, though, Don Theo Leonardo de la Mancha Den Hage is anything but fantastical, beavering away at his project, knee-deep in his travails, scrunched in tight, adjusting this sprocket and that tie.
Climbing out from under the snout of one of his more recent creations, our last day together, he wiped his hand off on a dirt rag and gazed, for a moment, into the future.
“Of course the big task up ahead,” he told me, returning to an earlier theme, “will be to fit the Beests to be able to reproduce themselves from generation to generation, without any assistance from me. It ought to be possible,” he assured me. “I’ve been thinking about it the last few nights as I drift off to sleep. Because at the end of the day, it’s all a question of information, of code, of better and better code: the proper length of muscles, better ways of striding forward or sensing danger. And I’ve been working out methods in my head, a sort of plug and socket configuration whereby the Beests could transfer such genetic information by way of a long tube of memory laid out in binary format, inserted from one into the other, in such a way that it could then readjust ratios of one sort or another in the recipient. First of all, of course, the Beests would have to be able to find and latch on to another of their own species, then the two of them would have to decide which of them was the dominant, which they could do by comparing their respective counter-recorders, and then the dominant would insert his code into the other. Of course there would be mistakes over the passage of time, but mistakes are a crucial part of evolution. The point is that over time, the herd would keep improving or at any rate rendering itself more fit to the changing environment, and doing so on its own.”
He was quiet for a moment, reeling himself back in. “But such thoughts are for another day,” he said. “Right now the big task is still to fit the Beests for sheer survival. If they are ever going to reproduce on their own, they are first going to have to be able to survive these damn autumn squalls.” He went on to show me how he’d been working on a binary sensor for gauging drops in barometric pressure: the approach of a storm and the direction from which that storm might be coming. At that point, he said, the Beest would reposition itself perpendicular to the approaching front, its snout facing straight into the wind “like seagulls do.” (“The problem always comes when the Beests take the brunt of the storm from the side.”) He went on to show me how he’d just been reshaping the snout so that it would be more aerodynamically sleek and therefore better able to disperse the headwinds. And then too, he showed me how there at the snout, the Beest would be programmed to slam a stake into the sand and further hammer it into the ground, all the better to hunker down and survive.
Theo patted his Beest’s snout with evident (fatherly?) pride, breaking into another smile. “I really think we’re going to make it, though,” he concluded. “We’re almost there. All I need is another twenty years.”
* * *