Thursday, August 14, 2008

Meet Theo

There are some times in life when you meet someone or become aware of a person in some forum when you realize that true genius exists. These individuals walk a thin line between madness and innovation. They do not believe that boundaries to thought or limits to concepts exist so they perform feats of genius that normal humans cannot comprehend. These chance meetings are few and far between. In fact, I can only think of a handful of people that I have been exposed to in my life that I believe fall into this category. Theo Jansen certainly is one of them.

Theo was born in the Netherlands in 1948, and in the late sixties / early seventies he studied physics for seven years until he gave it up to become an artist. In 1990 he had the brilliant idea to create a new form of life from the proliferation of plastic conduit that the government requires for all electrical installations in the Netherlands. That’s right. I said “a new form of life.” The basic building blocks of Theo’s new form of life aren’t what we’d expect from biological organisms (DNA, proteins, cells, etc.). Rather, the basic components are pieces of plastic conduit, sheet, bottles and twine. Check out this video, and be sure to watch it in its entirety. There are many other videos on YouTube.

Now, I understand that we may be pushing the definition of what we classically consider life, but these Strandbeests of his walk on the very ragged edge of that definition. They move. They evolve. They are autonomous. They make decisions and perform directed action based on those decisions. They reproduce. And most importantly, they are a beautifully complicated, yet very simple at the same time. Just some tubing, bailing wire and the love of a mad genius. Granted, the evolution and reproduction of these creatures must come about through a secondary agent (Theo), but most flowering plants can’t pollinate themselves either. They need bees, bats and birds to reproduce, and there are many examples of organisms with much more complicated life cycles. I didn’t really intend to get into a discussion (with myself) about the definition of what life is here, but these elegant creations force the issue.

I first came across Theo at a SolidWorks conference a year or so ago. He was speaking about how he uses software to improve the evolution of his creations. The title “kinetic artist” just doesn’t seem to fit. It seems almost insulting based on what he is doing. I think what separates him from so many other engineers and artists is that he treats these Strandbeests as though they we his children. He honestly seems to care about them. He truly is insane, but insanity is sometimes what is needed to erase the imaginary lines that we have drawn in the sand and change our perspectives on life in general. As Jansen says, "The walls between art and engineering exist only in our minds." As does every other wall. Thanks, Theo.


Hippy said...

Does he do basements?

Dan said...

He's from Holland, Hippie. They don't know what basements are...