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September 06, 2005

Ars Electronica


StrandBeest and the Fossils of New Media Art

I've just come out of a presentation by Theo Jansen of his StrandBeest, huge creatures made out of electrical tubing, cable clips and other cheap materials. Jansen is an engineer/artist who has spent the last 15 years evolving the StrandBeest as wind-powered walking beasts that roam the sand of the beaches where he lives. They are beautiful creations, awe-inspiring in their complexity, and graceful in their movements.

Jansen has used evolution simulation to develop more efficient joints for the creatures legs, and has now developed techniques (using plastic bottles and netting) to store the wind that blows along the beach and use it as power for the StrandBeest. His current research is in developing systems of 'liars' - simple yes/no logic gates powered by air and tubing. He is developing these into networks that are either dynamic, and therefore can drive movement, or are static, and can store information. He believes that the StrandBeest will be able to count their steps, realise when they are approaching the sea, or even pass knowledge on to new generations of beasts.

The presentation was part of this year's Ars Electronica festival, a series of exhibitions and symposia on the theme of 'Hybrid'. I've been to a few of the talks, but much of the interpretation of the Hybrid theme has been far too esoteric and academic, and I don't have the stomach for that kind of debate any more. I caught the end of Neil Gershefeld's presentation via webcam of his FabLabs and Internet 0 projects, which were very inspiring, and perfectly addressed the Hybrid theme by taking digitisation into real production. David Weinberger followed with a very interesting thesis on how we are moving into a third mode of structuring knowledge, away from Aristotlean tree structures and taxonomies, and towards a cloud of dynamically structured (*not* unstructured!) links, tags and conversations.

But the highlight by a long way has been the StrandBeest. I don't know whether it was Theo Jansen's dry wit, the anthropmorphic delight his creatures create, or sheer awe at their technical complexity, but he enraptured the audience, and earned a standing ovation at the end. By taking engineering back to basics (his work is often compared to Da Vinci's unbuilt prototypes), Jansen's evolving working method somehow reminded me of current trends in bottom-up development in software and interaction design.

I didn't expect to find that the most inspiring work at Arts Electronica wasn't electronic at all. In contrast, much of the new media work being exhibited looks tired an old, and could have come from any festival in the last 10 years. The StrandBeest look like they could have come from any time in the last 1000 years, and somehow look more futuristic because of this. By taking engineering back to basics, Jansen's work offers inspiration for new ways of thinking about software and interaction design. Most of the other work here looks like it has reached a dead end, playing out variations on interaction models (stand in front of a screen and wave at something, move things around a table to make music, etc, etc) that don't seem to have moved on for a decade. The StrandBeest might look like fossils, but they've got more life in them than anything else here. [Posted by matlock on test]

Related: Interview with Theo Jansen

Posted by jo at September 6, 2005 01:46 PM