23 November 2007

Evolving Seaside Species

'Strandbeest', astonishingly beautiful kinetic sculptures which from a distance resemble giant insects or prehistoric skeletons come alive, are the progeny of artist, engineer and sculptor Theo Jansen.

For 16 years Jansen has been designing and refining consecutive generations of Strandbeest ("beach beasts") to survive autonomously in roaming flocks on local Dutch beaches. His creatures 'digest' fuel, walk by flapping their wings in response to the wind, perceive obstacles in their path through simple binary sensors and to protect themselves from harm in oncoming storms, hammer themselves into the sand.

"The beauty in these machines is their mechanical and conceptual simplicity. By copying the evolutionary process, the inventor has managed to create startlingly organic-looking machines, with a depth of creativity and beauty many of today’s electronics lack... He uses genetic algorithms to create artificial life, including a measure of “fitness” for his creations. The creations which are most successful at walking along the beach are bred together and regraded for future designs."

Constructed from the simplest of materials -- plastic tubing, adhesive tape and lemonade bottles -- the animaris' startlingly elegant walking motions evolved from trial and error. The key to their fluid movement lies in the proportions of the tubes - Jansen's 11-number 'holy code' - and on their axis of motion, which replicates the wheel.

"This may be where the future of design ought to be found. By looking more to nature around us, we can evolve creations of much greater complexity and more akin to naturally produced objects. This may be the direction we must head in to create cradle-to-cradle sustainability: rather than the clean-cut, single-function, straightforward inventions of the past, we may need to embrace the complexity inherent in nature."
In the meantime, it's not difficult to imagine these poetic beasts, many larger than elephants, as future artifacts in a post-human world, silent but for gusts of lonely winds on the shore and the hypnotic swarm-of-insects/wind-rustling-branches murmur of Strandbeests' whirring parts.

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