Artist Builds Wind-Powered Sculptures That Walk and Evolve

Make sure you're ready for the march of the windwalkers.
Derya Ozdemir
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Imagine a sculpture that looks like a mutated huge animal -- then, picture it walking toward you. To make it even freakier, it does so without needing any electric power. Instead, it gets its energy from, you guessed it -- the wind. 

Dutch scientist-turned-artist Theo Jansen has spent most of his life designing and constructing such wind-powered creatures that can walk the Earth's beaches called Strandbeests ("beach animals" in Dutch). His extraordinary creations, which he describes as a "new form of life," are the perfect mixture of art, science, and engineering.

He was trained as a physicist, but he later turned to sculpture and has since created over 30 self-propelled Strandbeests.

Jansen originally envisioned his creations as wind-powered animals wandering the beaches that, in the face of increasing sea levels, moved and stacked sand on the shores of Holland to build barricades against flooding. Then, his interests shifted to broader questions like how life begins and changes as evolution occurs.

His large-scale kinetic sculptures are made from commonplace materials like zip ties and yellow plastic tubes made of PVC, which is a Dutch electricity pipe. The creatures have developed into a more sophisticated form since their inception in 1990, and at this point, they are able to respond to environmental conditions.

According to Jansen's website, a big animal is around 397 pounds (180 kg)and holds an average of 1.2 to 1.8 miles of (2 to 3 thousand meters) PVC tube in it. There are also PET bottles in them, which are a type of wind stomach for the animals, storing wind with the help of the wings. The wings on the back of the beast are connected to a crankshaft, and on the crankshaft are pumps that pump air into the PET bottles to high pressure. They can use this pressure to drive their muscles.

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Strandbeests have multiple generations that are categorized into time periods similar to geologic eras and are divided into 12 periods of evolution.

Jansen told The New Yorker that he calls his starting days where he was just taping tubes together the Gluton Period (1990-91). Animaris Vulgaris, his first tube-and-tape creature, wasn't able to stand up and could only lie on its back and move its legs. Then came the Chorda Epoch (1991-93) in which he began to link the tubes using nylon zip strips. Here he created Animaris Currens Vulgaris, the first animal that could stand and walk.

Getting the legs right was challenging, so he used his computer to run a genetic algorithm for leg design. The most natural solution looked to be a foot that pivoted at the ankle and a double-jointed leg that enabled the foot to rest on the ground as long as possible before rising for the next stride. The basic Strandbeest design now employs numerous pairs of these legs mounted on a central crankshaft, resulting in a galloping-herd motion.

The most recent versions of the "species" can change their direction when they come into contact with water and store wind to travel when there is no natural breeze.

In another interview with Stir World, Jansen compares his engineering process of the animals to evolution. "The extinct beasts can be seen as artifacts or representatives of the period from the evolution of the beach animals," he stated. Over the years, his builds have become a lot more resilient, but he still has to help them on the beach as their creator. Although, he says, "there are signs that give hope that by the end of my life they will be able to live independently on the beach."

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