Tiptoeing to inspiration

With the Spring Enrichment Program only a few weeks away, we look back at Theo Jansen's visit to campus during the 2017 Winter Enrichment Program.

In 1990, Theo Jansen drafted an opinion piece for a local Dutch newspaper. In it, he argued that a new creative vision had to be used to save the Dutch population from inundation. The Netherlands is a country long accustomed to solving massive challenges through creative engineering—namely with dykes, levies, pumps and the natural dunes on which Jansen spent much of his early life. That opinion piece changed his life. In truth, it was a sign that he had descended into a kind of mania.

"I painted for many years, until one day I got the idea to build a flying saucer. It was four meters wide and it could fly. So I launched it over the town, and the people on the streets really thought that there was a UFO flying over. I was on television and I was famous in my country for a few months. After that I could not paint anymore...that's when I had the idea for the Strandbeests," Jansen said during his 2017 Winter Enrichment Program (WEP) keynote address.

With the Spring Enrichment Program only a few days away, we look back at Theo Jansen's visit to campus during the 2017 Winter Enrichment Program. Jansen visited the KAUST campus in early January for WEP, delivering a keynote address and taking part in several workshops, and he was interviewed as part of the WEP on Air series streamed live on Facebook.


Going against the grain

Jansen's office is a strip of coastline in the north of the Netherlands, and it is there that he assembles his heaving Strandbeest creations. Imagine grotesque piles of orange electrical tubing seemingly thrown together for odd visual effect sitting motionless on the sand—they serve no discernible purpose and no attempt seems to have been made to put them to any obvious use. Jansen runs around them frantically—adjusting, tweaking, coaxing. Then, all at once and in a manner most confounding, they spring to life and wander across the beach as if by their own free will.

Jansen is an anachronism. He's a relic from a time before startup culture made its way into our daily lives. He moves in the opposite direction. In fact, he seems to delight in the complete uselessness of his inventions. Jansen is the creator of the Strandbeests—a pointless herd of quasi-living sculptures. He himself said they "steal your heart and waste your time."

"Strandbeest" is a neologism of the Dutch word for beach (strand) and beest (similar to the English word beast). Their strange, hypnotic effect on observers has come to fulfill a higher purpose—inspiration.

"It started off with a purpose. In the beginning I wanted to gather sand and build up dunes to protect the country from the rise of sea levels, but during the process I was so much more intrigued by the process of evolution that I forgot all about saving the country," Jansen said. "It might be useful that they just clean up beaches or plastics. Another idea is that while looking at these animals on the beach, this might make people more aware of the climate and of the Earth."

An infectious meme

Jansen's critical insight was a set of 13 numbers that are the basis for ratios that allow the creatures to walk elegantly upon hundreds of small feet. It's not a feat that can be explained—you must simply watch them walk to fully appreciate the magic of the math.

With the advent of the internet and 3-D printing, Jansen has been able to turn his critical insight into a virtual wave of strange walking creatures. His hope is that people are inspired to make the creatures their own with their own materials and with their own purpose.

"I put all my secrets up on my website, and now students from all over the world are recreating my Strandbeests," Jansen said during his WEP on Air interview. "Now these things are being 3-D printed in all corners of the world. This is totally out of control. There is an evolution happening on the internet. People are infected by the meme of the Strandbeest. They are building things, not being conscious that they are just a tool in the reproduction of the Strandbeest."


Jansen on creative thinking

"You would think that restricting [the materials] would also restrict the possibilities, but I have found just the opposite. Our brains are pretty good, but they are quite similar. So if you have been thinking of something, then someone else has been thinking the same thing," Jansen said.

Jansen hates labels, and he talks glowingly of a time when people created things free from the restraints of labels. The problem with labels, according to Jansen, is that people start to adopt them, and in doing so, restrict their free ability to create.

He is not, however, an advocate for complete freedom. In fact, in an interesting paradox, Jansen advocates for the freedom to be while advising that people restrict their options so that they might delve more deeply into one creative endeavor that will help develop more original ideas.

"Every day I wake up with ideas. Then I go to my studio and the tubes push me in a different direction—they don't want to do what I want to do. Then the next morning I have a different idea, but it is based on the experience with the material. The path is not very straight; it is unpredictable. I get advice from the tubes, and somehow I discovered that the advice I get from the tubes is better than my ideas. At the end, when the animals are finished, they are so much better than I could have imagined," he said.

- By Nicholas Demille, KAUST News