I’m attracted to Theo Jansen’s work not only because of how cool it is (you must watch the video to appreciate it; still photos won’t do it), but also because of what you might call the naive hubris of such a project. Jansen, a Dutch artist, builds complex mechanisms out of PVC that move on their own and which blur the line between art and engineering. He’s gotten a lot of attention in recent years, but like so many things I’m just now hearing about him; if that’s also true for you, read on.
What do I mean by “naive hubris”? I don’t know if Jansen is truly naive, but listen to him talk about his creations as “new forms of life” and his dreams of them “living” in herds on beaches as something that could go on after he’s gone. It sounds naive because you and I know they’re not really alive — not even close — and because they look so fragile that you know they’ll break before long and they’d have to be much more sophisticated than this in order to repair themselves, let alone to become self-replicating or conscious.
It’s probably a good thing they aren’t self-replicating. Imagine a beach crowded with these things wandering around, bumping into each other.
As an artist, Jansen is using our in-born tendency to attribute intention to anything complex that moves. In a world full of predators this was a good trait to have. Today it means that In some ways we’re wired to see Jansen’s creations as “alive,” at least at first glance.
What does it means to be truly alive, as distinguished from being merely a complex machine? Biologists have plenty to say about that, and the theme is a common one in science fiction. Jansen is exploring it through art.
Learn more at Jansen’s website, www.strandbeest.com. And here’s his TED talk, in which he talks about his creations as life forms:
(Update, Oct. 19, 2013: Replaced the top video after it went missing.)