Released November 30, 2014
The New York Times Magazine | November 30, 2014
By Lawrence Weschler
On a blustery October afternoon, on a gently raised hill above Ypenburg, the Netherlands, roughly halfway between The Hague and Delft, the 66-year-old once-aspiring physicist Theo Jansen and several assistants busily prepared to launch an odd sort of species invasion. In a few weeks, Jansen’s strandbeests — the huge self-propelled beach-striding contraptions that Jansen has spent the better part of the past quarter-century conceiving, evolving and constructing from out of ever more ambitious concatenations of lightweight yellow PVC tubing and spiny white sails — would be strutting their improbably lifelike stuff up and down Miami Beach at Art Basel, to the drop-jawed amazement of all. But for the moment, Jansen had to carefully, with near-veterinary skill, slice and fold six of the wide-slung beests into two 40-foot-long shipping containers, so that they would survive the rigors of their Atlantic passage.
It was along this ridge, raised many years ago to shield the residents of the housing development down on one side from the noise of the highway on the other, that Jansen first established his winter studio compound (itself made up of several repurposed shipping containers) as a place where he could labor during the many months each year that he wasn’t able to actually parade his strange creations along the North Sea beach where they truly belonged (and where he kept a similar summer compound). Parts of superseded strandbeests lay strewn about the grounds, their yellow shafts blanched bone white, and a shed off to the side contained miles more straight, still-yellow PVC tubes, stacked in neat rows, waiting to be transmuted into future generations. (‘'Life, from its most primitive to its most advanced manifestations, consists largely of protein,'’ Jansen once told me. ‘'PVC is my protein.'’)
Jansen was snipping a cord-tie here, sliding a pipe sleeve there, reducing the beests into manageable segments, which his assistants were gingerly lugging downslope to the first of the two containers, sitting on a flatbed truck parked by the side of the highway’s frontage road. Francesca Williams, a registrar at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass. (which is managing an entire strandbeest tour of the United States), supervised the uploading of beest segments, checking items off the list on her tablet and occasionally rejiggering some of Jansen’s characterizations. (‘'Strangle rods?'’ she muttered at one point. ‘'Middle foot bones? I don’t think so: We’d better recast some of these terms for the customs people.'’) Her colleague Trevor Smith, the Peabody’s recently appointed ‘'curator of the present tense,'’ who was also in Ypenburg, told me why his newly renovated museum was the perfect anchor venue for the coming beest incursion. ‘'People forget,'’ he said, ‘'that Salem was once one of the most thriving townships on the Eastern Seaboard, its wealth grounded in far-flung sea trade, especially with Asia, hence the museum’s origins in a collection of all sorts of marvels and wonders the sea captains brought back with them from their various expeditions. And Jansen’s beests fit right in with that spirit of marvel, curiosity and enterprise, an entirely contemporary manifestation of the temper that animated the place’s collecting in the first place.'’
Jansen himself now came trudging down the hill at the head of a team delivering a particularly intricate segment (a geodesic tangle of crankshafts from which dangled four pairs of extended legs), and he immediately joined in, noting that he himself had only just returned from Nagasaki, Japan. ‘'The beests have been all over — to Melbourne and Buenos Aires and Taipei and London and Paris and Madrid, and even for brief one-offs at MassMoca several years ago and at a TED conference in Monterey — but where they are really very big is in Japan, we have a whole herd of them, as it were, migrating all about the place,'’ he said. ‘'Nagasaki was their fourth show in the country.'’ Jansen went on to relate how this recent visit to Nagasaki had been especially bracing, owing to the city’s atomic resonances and because at one point his hosts took him to Dejima, the artificial island beachhead that the Dutch East India Company used back in the days, from 1641 to 1859, when the outpost served as the otherwise resolutely quarantined Tokugawa shogunate’s sole trade window onto the West. ‘'Once a year,'’ he went on, ‘'specially vetted servants would carry the company’s headman on a paladin inland to pay a call on the emperor, not unlike us today, come to think of it, ferrying these beest segments down here to their containers.'’
After they land in Miami Beach and then in Salem in the fall of 2015, the beests will spend the following year or two alighting at the Chicago Cultural Center (winter to spring 2016), the Exploratorium in San Francisco (summer 2016) and possibly in New York after that, among other places. And everywhere they go, visitors will be subjected to Jansen’s soaring contention that what they are witnessing is in fact nothing less than a new form of life — and indeed life in the very midst of going viral, and not just in the hackneyed cultural sense.
At this stage in any exposition of the strandbeest saga, listeners often tend to interrupt along lines like, ‘'Wait a second, we’re just talking flights of fancy here, works of art, figures of speech — right? — these creations of Jansen’s can’t actually be considered a species, they aren’t actually alive.'’ But the thing of it is that, as far as Jansen is concerned, yes, his strandbeests actually are taking on life, they are coming alive. Or so, anyway, he keeps insisting.
Jansen is a tall, clean decanter of a man still quite preternaturally youthful, somehow containing a mischievous Hals-like gleam in the outer trappings of an upright, dignified Rembrandt burgher. He was the youngest and most coddled of 11 children, born soon after the Allied liberation of Holland to a farm family that had been forced into cramped quarters in an urban apartment in the Scheveningen district along The Hague’s northwest seashore. Jansen describes his as a happy if somewhat impoverished youth. One afternoon, over lunch off Beestenmarkt Square in central Delft, he recalled for me how in the old days the plaza in front of us was thronged with cattle, and his father, who’d become a roving, bicycling health inspector, would bring him along when he was testing the cows for tuberculosis. Another time, as we found ourselves gazing upon Rembrandt’s ‘'Anatomy Lesson'’ in a nearby museum, noting the way the surrounding students in the painting gawp as the professor demonstrates with his own free hand the way the muscles in the cadaver’s bloodily exposed arm make possible a whole wide range of manual dexterity, Jansen recalled how as a kid he used to love dissecting chicken feet.
Adept at both drawing and math, Jansen put in seven years at Delft University of Technology on the physics track. But then he realized that he was never going to be happy ‘'working as a robot for Philips electronics,'’ and thereafter he gave himself over completely to the more ‘'hippieish'’ pursuits of music-making and painting that had been calling out to him all the while. Late in the 1970s, he and a group of friends managed to commandeer an abandoned school off a Delft canal (one that Werner Herzog had just abandoned after shooting ‘'Nosferatu'’ there) as their studio and living space, and he has been living there on and off ever since.
Jansen engaged in all sorts of extravagant happenings, perhaps most famously in 1980 when he fashioned a 13-foot-diameter lightweight lens-shaped helium-filled U.F.O., complete with dangling spooky-sound emitter, which he and a group of friends released into the skies over Delft one blustery afternoon, provoking an immensely satisfying ‘'War of the Worlds''-like panic. After that, he was ruined for any conventional painterly practice. The following year, he built a massive inkjet printer, or rather a paint-jet scanner-printer, that captured and rendered a wall-size version of whatever object you put in front of it.
By the mid-1980s, Jansen was also contributing a column every two weeks to the Dutch national newspaper De Volkskrant, or The People’s Newspaper, where he began hazarding all sorts of variously inspired (and sometimes cockamamie) schemes, like, for example, a new method for televising soccer matches (with the ball digitally fixed, continuously steady, at the very center of the screen as play, the players and the field swirled wildly about it); a new feature for passenger-jet flight, with the nose of the plane chopped clean off and the space immediately behind it converted into an observation deck, approachable through an airlock and entirely open to the elements (Jansen remains convinced and could almost convince you that the various air pressures would even out); and, another time, an arrangement of six mechanical plug-in timers, piggybacked in a way, one upon the next, that the outermost one could be counted on to sound off once every 23 million years (you never knew when such a thing might come in handy).
And then one day, several years into this journalistic dalliance — on Feb. 24, 1990, to be precise — Jansen took note (quite early note at that) of the fact that the seas seemed to be rising, the high tides registering ever higher up the beaches with each passing season, a development, he pointed out, that ought to be of considerable concern to his fellow Netherlanders, citizens, after all, of the Low Countries, territories much of which famously lie beneath sea level. But not to worry, for here, too, Jansen had a plan. After all, he suggested, wasn’t the problem simply one of finding a way of transferring sand grains from the bottom of the beach up to the top, in the form of giant, continuously maintained protective dunes. If that was all there was to it, why not just invent a race of wind-powered beach creatures — strandbeests, as he dubbed them — veritable herds of them, that could merrily perform the task in perpetuity. In fact, he informed his readers, he already had two prototypes firmly in mind, and he was planning to take the coming summer to build the things, so they could be placed onto the coast in time for the first autumn storms. ‘'Perhaps,'’ he concluded by way of blithe surmise, ‘'the Dutch coast will look quite different in a year’s time.'’
‘'I suppose I was a little overoptimistic back then,'’ Jansen admitted to me one afternoon as we sat in the cluttered study of his Delft homestead. ‘'I fancied myself becoming a hero by saving the entire country, like that proverbial boy with his — do you also have this expression in English? — his digit in the dam wall.'’
The boy with his finger in the dike. Though, over the months of our get-togethers, I came to think of Jansen as something more like a cross between Leonardo da Vinci and Don Quixote (with maybe a smidgen of Sisyphus thrown in for good measure). Da Vinci for the wide-ranging ambition and sheer protean inventiveness — his avid facility at drawing, his leapfrogging, scientific bent of mind (da Vinci too had been fascinated by the prospects for free-coursing hydraulics and self-propelled machines). And Don Quixote for the sheer over-the-top ambition and vision and knight-errant nobility of the project, for, if the strandbeests weren’t a case of dreaming the impossible dream and tilting at windmills, I don’t know what is, except that in Jansen’s case, what he seemed intent on doing, if anything, was tilting and torquing windmills into veritable beasts of burden.
Jansen told me that he had actually been thinking about the fundaments of life for several years before he proposed the strandbeests, ever since reading ‘'The Blind Watchmaker,'’ the 1986 best seller by the British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. ‘'That book had an enormous impact on me.'’
The next few minutes were given over to a passionate disquisition on stick insects. In the distant past, Jansen said, channeling Dawkins, there were nakedly vulnerable insects and dim-sighted birds, but over time some of those insects, through random, accidental mutation, began looking more and more like sticks, while to counter this tendency, their bird predators (again through random, accidental mutation) developed progressively sharper vision. The two creatures, as it were, created each other. Jansen, in thrall to this notion, went on to create a sort of primitive protocreature of his own on his primordial Atari computer, a creature that consisted of just four abutting line segments. Across a near endless sequence of ‘'generations,'’ spread over a long night of machine-generated-and-evaluated permutations, the creatures grew ever more sly and cleverly adaptive. After that Jansen began trying to model the mystery of walking by deploying stick figures in a similar fashion. ‘'In its essence,'’ he said, ‘'walking is simply constantly changing your shape in such a way that you move forward. But how exactly does it work?'’
And it was in the midst of those cogitations that, as Jansen himself was walking along the Scheveningen shore one day, the thought entered his head that maybe he ‘'should pay a visit to the Gamma hardware store and check out their plastic tubing.'’ He bought a length of standard PVC pipe (the kind that surrounds cable and electrical conduits) and took it back to his studio. And it was around that same time that he experienced his finger-in-the-dike epiphany, going on to publish that seminal strandbeest proposal.
He told me how his first experiments, in the early ’90s, were ‘'sad, pathetic, really hopeless'’ affairs (‘'I was so naïve'’). He used tape to connect the PVC rods, but the creatures kept tearing and collapsing from their own weight; nor did he seem able to get them to walk properly. He advanced from tape to tie-cords, and that was somewhat better, though the walking mechanism was still all wrong. He was lost in a maze of sines and cosines, mapping out legs with two separate cranks, one for the upper limb and one for the lower, differing in phase by 90 degrees. The breakthrough, or rather two major breakthroughs, occurred on a single night, at the end of 1991. First he realized that the leg could have a far simpler structure if a single crank were moved up to the hip joint. (He proceeded to demonstrate all this for me on a plywood-board model he often takes to classes and lectures.) The leg itself would need to be fashioned out of 13 rods, pivoting in relation to one another, so that everything would depend on the specific ratio of the lengths of the 13 segments, one to another. The goal would be to create a long, slow stride with gentle curves planting the leg onto the ground and then pulling it up in order to quickly bring it back to the front of the next long stride.
But how to determine those ratios? There were millions, probably billions, of possible combinations of the 13 figures, and even a computer working its way through all of them in brute sequence, especially in those days, would most likely take centuries to evaluate them all. But — and here came his second breakthrough of the night, a reversion to his Dawkins ideal — what if, once again drawing on those earlier experiments, he were instead to program an algorithm whereby thousands of sets of ratios could randomly compete against one another, the best virtual performers advancing forward as the basis for a new generation, generation after generation, until the algorithm itself naturally brought forth the best solution? He tried it, and his Atari chugged away literally for months, but eventually he had the magic ratios, 13 specific numbers (a=38, b=41.5, c=39.3, d=40.1, e=55.8, and so forth) that were to form the proportional basis for all the walking beasts that followed.
The point was — and Jansen grew quite adamant about this — he never modeled his beests’ walk on that of any naturally occurring creatures (specific insects or striding mammals of any given sort); rather, he generated his ratios in much the same way that nature itself had most likely done so, natural history understood in this context as a vast sort of calculating algorithm, with evolution unfurling over eons of time through the marvels of natural selection. No wonder, though, that his creatures began evincing their uncannily ‘'lifelike'’ gait.
In part for stability’s sake, Jansen said, the creatures evolved to become wider, with an extended array of legs striding along side by side, their peristaltic rhythm enforced by a long zigzag PVC crankshaft churning parallel to the ground the entire width of the striding beast, functioning as a sort of spinal or vertebral cord. If the creatures were to be self-sufficient, he reasoned, they would need to be able to gather in their own nutrition, or energy source, which in their case would consist of the wind: Wind would power the rotating spinal crankshaft, giving the creatures the wherewithal to move forward. So he began experimenting with different configurations of ever more elaborately counterbalanced sails.
But what if there was no wind? The beests would need somehow to absorb and contain earlier wind energy for future use, and he came up with the notion of the striding beests compressing and storing air into empty plastic water bottles spread in rows along the creatures’ flanks, air which could in turn flow out at times of windlessness to churn the spinal crankshaft and power the legs: lungs, as it were, or, perhaps more accurately, ‘'air stomachs,'’ as he took to thinking of them, or maybe body fat. The beests had a tendency to march willy-nilly, often (and quite catastrophically) directly into the sea, so he had to concoct a way for the creatures to sense that they were approaching water (an empty rubber surgical tube dangling from their sides, which could register, in simple binary fashion, if the free passage of air were or were not starting to be occluded by water) — ‘'nerves,'’ as he defined the dangling tubes, which could in turn trip a series of ‘'muscles'’ (a muscle, in Jansen’s conception, being nothing more than ‘'an object which can grow longer or shorter on command,'’ and which he in turn created by having an inner rod slip pistonlike in and out of an outer sleeve), which, when activated, could redirect the errantly striding beest to reverse course.
Jansen set himself the arbitrary (though to him quite obvious and incontrovertible) rule that he would not deploy any materials beyond PVC, rubber tubing, Dacron sails, plastic bottles, string or cord-ties, and the like: no electronic timers or counters or engines — his was a sensibility pitched to a preference for the resolutely material in the face of the ever more relentlessly virtual. Everything had to be reconceived in terms of PVC, but that became possible when he understood that any given tube could be open or closed (bent or straightened). Considered as such, as an ever more ingenious compounding sequence of binary nerve sensors that would function like logic gates or step counters, the system as a whole could begin to be seen, for all intents and purposes, as having a ‘'brain.'’
As the years passed, Jansen took to granting succeeding generations of his strandbeests elaborate Linnaean names: Animaris Vulgaris, A. Speculator, A. Currens Ventosa, A. Sabulosa Adolescens, A. Vaporis. Not that progress was in any way direct or simple. Jansen was growing less and less interested in the seemingly ever more distant goal of sand-shifting and dike-plugging and more and more captivated by the sheer marvel of the immediate evolutionary process playing out before him. There were countless dead ends and haphazard detours. (‘'As how wouldn’t there be,'’ he once asked me, ‘'random mistakes and mutations being the very engine of evolution?'’) Some of them proved quite harrowing. ‘'Until I came up with the expedient of sealant and O-rings,'’ he told me at one point, ‘'the tube muscles exhibited all sorts of leakage and squishing, along with the occasional stray piston exploding out right past my head.'’ He laughed. ‘'Making life, let me tell you, is fraught with danger.'’ Nor is it necessarily a pretty sight. ‘'There was one occasion,'’ he said a few minutes later, ‘'when the wind picked up and a whole herd of Animari Genetici — the Genetici were the first to deploy in herds — all began rolling across the beach, sometimes rising and bouncing and tossing meters into the air, like so many tumbleweeds.'’ His eyes widened at the memory: ‘'One has to admit, it was a marvelous sight.'’ He took to video-recording his beests as they paraded down the beach, often for minutes and hundreds of yards at a time, though sometimes the magnificently striding creatures would only barely make it out of the camera’s frame before they tripped over themselves and crumpled ignominiously.
The calibrations and recalibrations took years, across generation after generation of new beest types and fresh experiments at the shore. ‘'People talk about how beautiful my strandbeests are as they parade down the beach,'’ he said. ‘'But you have to understand: I was never interested in beauty as such. I was interested in survival, so everything was based on a consideration of function, how to make the things function better. The fascinating thing, though, was that — here again, as with nature — the better the functioning, often, the more beautiful the result.
‘'Right now the big task is still to fit the beests for sheer survival,'’ Jansen added. ‘'If they are ever going to reproduce on their own, they are first going to have to be able to survive those autumn squalls.'’ For a while he’d been trying to contrive a barometric system whereby the beests could sense oncoming storms, readjust their positions, snout facing into the approaching front, then hammer an anchoring spike into the sand, but that system proved too unwieldy. He was also working on an elaborate system of counterpoised pistons that allowed beests to reverse their course, should they approach either the sea on one side or the ‘'too fluffy'’ dry sand on the other, but that, too, was proving too heavy. So, mind-doodling, he came up with an alternative scheme (flying buttress exoskeletons) that he is eager to refine next summer. Jansen patted the snout of one beest with fatherly pride, breaking into another smile. ‘'I really think we’re going to make it, though,'’ he said. ‘'We’re almost there. All I need is another 20 years.'’
The thing of it is, as I increasingly came to feel whenever Jansen would take one of his creatures out for a stroll, they really do appear to be alive. Purposeful, resolute, canny. They don’t fall into the uncanny valley that famously afflicts so many other robotic assaults on the absolutely lifelike, perhaps because they aren’t trying to seem anything other than what they are: They are self-evidently PVC machines, and yet, in their steady animation, they almost seem to evince a soul. Ordinarily we think of the face as the locus of the soul, but our sense of soulfulness, especially when experienced from afar, equally lodges in a creature’s gait, its stride, its posture in motion — the very word animation, after all, deriving from the Latin anima. All of this provokes a sense of fellow feeling: That entity over there is also alive, just like us. Robots have famously lacked it (by contrast seeming hesitant and herky-jerky), people with Parkinson’s disease sometimes feel themselves losing it (they bemoan the loss as one of the most horrible existential side effects of the condition), but these strandbeests are full of it. When we say, speaking of life, which is otherwise famously difficult to define, that we know it when we see it, are we perhaps acknowledging that there is a specifically aesthetic component to that recognition? Watching the strandbeests breasting forward in full stride, we can’t help ourselves: Our hearts become lodged in our mouths.
But does that say something about them or about us? One time, as one beest, winded, slowly wound down to a stop, I asked Jansen that other version of the question that had been haunting me all along. ‘'Oh,'’ he responded, without a moment’s hesitation. ‘'It is obviously them: They are very much alive.'’ You never quite know what to make of Jansen at moments like this: He never breaks character, though, and he honestly seems to believe what he’s saying. For starters, he argues, following his man Dawkins, we should stop thinking of life solely in terms of genes; ‘'memes'’ (cultural tropes) constitute every bit as profoundly a form of life. Everything, all life, is information, is code multiplying itself. Thus, one day, Jansen was telling me that his strandbeests were already propagating themselves exponentially all over the world — not only because he had posted his famous ratios as open code for anyone else to use (‘'And you wouldn’t believe the sorts of things people are coming up with,'’ he says, with thoroughgoing relish, ‘'often more marvelous and inventive than any of my own efforts'’ — not to mention all the crossover model kits and 3-D printed versions, both licensed and unlicensed, that have begun popping up all over the place), but also because his beests had begun appearing in ads and videos. In one ad, in which Jansen served as a paid spokesman for BMW, he was heard to proclaim, in true Renaissance fashion, that ‘'the walls between art and engineering exist only in our minds.'’ Likewise, perhaps, you were given to grumble, those between art and commerce — although Jansen’s continuing development of the strandbeests was now being supported to no small extent by these sorts of commercial endorsements. The point for Jansen, though, was that every individual who saw these images had in a certain sense taken their memetic material into their own life, and the beests thus began partaking of life in the form of lived ideas.
Seeing that I was a bit dubious about this last near-ontological vault, Jansen challenged me to ‘'imagine a wooden machine that would go into the forest to chop wood to make a machine that would go into a forest to chop wood.'’ O.K., I responded, warily. Well, he said, such a machine already exists. Yeah, I responded, if ideas ‘'exist,'’ then I suppose this one does, too. But no, he insisted, this one really does, whereupon he went on to describe a chain letter, which if you think about it (or such anyway is the way he thinks about it) is nothing other than paper (pulped wood) reproducing itself in exponential fashion. If you (or anyway, I) ever so tentatively objected that, actually no, wouldn’t such chain letters merely constitute a case of human beings performing a compounding action (and of course human beings are alive, nobody has argued against that), Jansen would be likely to object, as he did the day we were talking about all of this, in a dialectical ecstasy all his own, that yours (mine, ours) was merely a case of unsustainable (albeit persistent) anthropocentrism. ‘'Stop always putting yourself, in your role as human being, at the center of everything,'’ he said. ‘'Look at things, in this instance, from the point of view of the sheet of paper, for whom human beings are merely a vehicle for their ongoing propagation.'’
Jansen was quiet for a moment, seemingly lost in thought, and then resumed all the more vehemently: ‘'Plastic PVC tubes entered my life one fine September day in 1990, and since then, the strandbeests have ruled my life. They’ve become an addiction, a disease, a virus if you like. A virus that has commandeered and refuses to leave my body. I am their victim: The strandbeests are forcing me to make them.'’
But wait, I countered, wasn’t he, if anything, their god? ‘'It is true,'’ Jansen replied, ‘'that up till now they do require my ministrations to help them realize their destiny. But no, I am not their god. I am their slave.'’
Evenings, back at my hotel along the Scheveningen coast, I had been doing a lot of reading. For example, Elisabeth Kolbert’s ‘'The Sixth Extinction,'’ a brave and fierce meditation on the history of life on Earth and the eradication of most of the great variety of animals that once lived here. At one point, she was describing how, during the last mass extinction, the fifth one, when that asteroid plowed into the Yucatán, provoking the sudden, almost overnight, dying off of the dinosaurs, only a few, nondiverse species survived through into the next life epoch. Now we are seeing a similar extinction, and what will most likely survive will be the so-called ‘'weed'’ creatures — rats, squirrels, cockroaches and, well, at least this far, humans. And, I found myself wondering, plastic?
But then, the question kept nagging: could mere plastic ever even rise to the level of weeds? The eminent science-fiction writer and futurologist Arthur C. Clarke was adamant throughout his life in his conviction that tools invented man (literally expanded the Cro-Magnon brain), who in turn invented more complex tools, and so forth, in an ever-compounding synergistic upward spiral, each side bringing out ever greater sophistications in the other till one day soon, Clarke was convinced (and was quite unsettlingly pleased, at that, in his conviction) our tools will replace us entirely. ‘'We need look no further for the famous ‘missing link,' '’ Clarke argued, ecstatic, near the very end of his life, ‘'it is us. As Nietzsche said, ‘Man is a rope stretched between the animal and the superhuman — a rope across the abyss.' "
Looking at such questions from the far other side of the matter, the neurologist Oliver Sacks, writing in a recent issue of The New York Review of Books that I happened to have with me, noted how the extraordinarily simple jellyfish nervous system nonetheless ‘'has every right to be considered a brain, generating, as it does, complex adaptive behaviors. . . . Whether we can speak of a ‘mind’ here (as Darwin does in regard to earthworms) depends on how one defines ‘mind.' '’
Turning from there to the question of how you define ‘'life,'’ an associate editor at Scientific American, Ferris Jabr, writing on this paper’s opinion pages not long ago (I had brought the clipping with me), used Jansen’s own case as an occasion to contend that ‘'strandbeests are no more or less alive than animals, fungi and plants.'’ In fact, nothing, he went on to insist, is truly alive. (Nor is anything else entirely nonliving.) ‘'Some things we regard as inanimate are capable of some of the processes we want to make exclusive to life. And some things we say are alive get along just fine without some of those processes.'’ In particular, Jabr pointed to how viruses, non-self-sustaining bits ‘'of DNA or RNA encased in a protein,'’ while capable of incredibly efficient reproduction and evolution, can only do so by introjecting themselves into a living cell and ‘'hijacking'’ its capacities. ‘'We have insisted that all matter naturally segregates into two categories — life and nonlife — [but] have searched in vain for the dividing line.'’ The reason being that it’s not there. Life, he goes on to suggest, is a concept, a useful concept (it is in our heads, and perhaps can’t help but be), ‘'but it does not reflect the reality of the universe outside the mind.'’
Which in turn reminded me of the famous passage in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s ‘'Philosophical Investigations,'’ which I then tracked down over the web, where Wittgenstein has been yammering on about ‘'language games'’ for some time and then entertains a possible objection that he has not yet specified what he means by ‘'game.'’ Whereupon he begins a fairly exhaustive taxonomical exposition, trying to establish what might apply in common to, say, ‘'board games, card games, Olympic Games and so on,'’ moving past tick-tack-toe and chess and beyond, eventually arriving at the conclusion that there are no properties common to all of them, that rather, at best, they evince a network of ‘'family resemblances.'’ At which point, Wittgenstein suggests that were he presented with one final supposed objection, that there is after all ‘'something common to all these constructions — namely the disjunction of all their common properties,'’ he would counter: ‘'Now you are only playing with words.'’
Which, when you think about it, is a really funny answer, because what is philosophical playing but another sort of game?
My last evening in the Netherlands, I found myself reading the art critic Lawrence Gowing on Vermeer, a resident of Delft like Jansen, where I came upon the passage in which Gowing describes Vermeer’s achievement as ‘'a slender and perfect plume thrown up by the wave of Dutch painting at its crest.'’
And turning out the light, drifting off to sleep, I couldn’t help thinking of Jansen and his project, of digits and dikes, of life and extinction, and the rich imponderabilities, 23 million years on out, of what just might survive and what just might persist.
The next afternoon, as we trudged back up the hill to fetch the last beest segment, Jansen was talking about the Ypenburg housing development down below, how this area right here, six miles from the current shore, must have once constituted the coastline, because when they were excavating the township’s shopping center, they came upon a whole graveyard, not just a single skeleton, that was nearly 6,000 years old — fishermen mostly, but also a mother with her newborn child in her arms, something like 41 separate skeletons. ‘'Of course,'’ Jansen commented, ‘'organic material eventually decomposes, but plastic'’ — he reached for the next segment — ‘'plastic is forever.'’
Would the strandbeests outlast Jansen? More to the point, could they at some point keep evolving on their own? ‘'It ought to be possible,'’ Jansen assured me. ‘'It’s all a question of information, of code, of better and better code: the proper extension of muscles, better ways of striding forward or sensing danger. And I’ve been working out methods in my head, a sort of plug-and-socket configuration whereby the beests could transfer such genetic information by way of a long tube of memory laid out in binary format, inserted from one into the other, in such a way that it could then readjust ratios of one sort or another in the recipient.'’ Here he paused, briefly. ‘'I’m not suggesting it wouldn’t be tricky. First of all, of course, a beest would have to be able to find and latch on to another of its own kind, then the two of them would have to decide which of them was the dominant, which they should be able to do by comparing their respective counter-recorders, and then the dominant would somehow need to insert his code — the information itself, not any sort of material packet — into the other.'’ Another pause. ‘'Of course there would be mistakes over the passage of time, but mistakes are a crucial part of evolution. The point is that over time, the herd would keep improving or at any rate rendering itself more fit to the changing environment, and doing so on its own.'’
Jansen shifted the weight of his beest segment as he continued down the hill. ‘'Just another 20 years,'’ he reiterated. ‘'And the funny thing is, I’ve just given up my Delft apartment and am moving back to Scheveningen, to a glassed-in apartment six stories up, overlooking the beach, just a few hundred meters from where I grew up. I want to spend my last 20 years where I spent my first'’ — he grinned — ‘'ending up in diapers at the very place I began in diapers.'’ Maybe, I suggested, by then he would have come up with a beest for that sort of problem.
We arrived at the container, and the crew lifted this last segment up into the crate and now finished strapping everything down tight. On cue, a Dutch customs official arrived in a little sedan; he got out, approached the container, peered in, reviewed Francesca’s carefully revisioned manifest, peered in again, shook his head. But after the crew closed and locked the container doors, he slid a thin metal thread between the latches so as to seal the package, and patted his approval along the flank of the cargo hold.
The driver revved up the engine, and off the flatbed went, coursing toward the harbor, veritably teeming with its lively cargo of strandbeests lumbering toward Miami Beach to be born.
Lawrence Weschler is the author of, among many other books, “Uncanny Valley: Adventures in Narrative.”
This article is adapted, in part, from the text that accompanies ‘'Strandbeests: The Dream Machines of Theo Jansen,'’ a book of photographs by Lena Herzog, published next month by Taschen.
A version of this article appears in print on November 30, 2014, on page MM32 of the Sunday Magazine with the headline: Dream Walkers.