Sunday, November 28, 2010

Final Artist Review: Theo Jansen and Dan Roe

Theo Jansen

           Theo Jansen was born 1948 in Scheveningen, Netherlands.  He attended Delft University of Technology and chose to focus his studies mainly on physics.  Jansen first began his career as an artist through paintings and drawings, and then decided to take his art in a different direction and somewhat simultaneously utilize his degree in physics that he obtained.  He built a flying saucer in 1980 that he proceeded to fly over Delft University, which as one could likely guess, essentially freaked out the townspeople. 

Though his breaking work of the flying saucer was essential to his development as a new style of artist, it wasn’t until he conjured the idea what is known as the Strandbeest that he was able to define his conceptual career.  In 1990, Jansen began the development of his new creation which is comprised of animal skeletons made up of anything from plastic bottles and tubing to cable ties, nylon strings, adhesive tape and plain old plywood, all powered by wind.   These “animals” have progressed into several generations over the past twelve years.  

The creatures are able to “walk” solely through the raw power of wind and are very large in size; so large, in fact, that unfortunately they are not able to be displayed in a gallery setting.  One must visit the beaches the animals live on in order to see them up close and in action.  He has built them increasingly stronger, and over the years and they are now more able to stand against the forces nature has to throw at them while on the beaches.  The multi-legged walking creatures that have been designed solely to roam the Dutch coastline have become increasingly intricate in their constructions and movements as well.  They have even been able to flap their “wings” through the power of the wind and make themselves “lay” on the sand in order to avoid an approaching storm.  Eventually, Jansen’s goal is to place the kinetic animal sculptures out in herds on beaches, where they would “live their own lives.” 

The role that Theo Jansen has taken on is somewhat godlike in the sense that he has created animals to be able to live freely on their own.  Jansen’s role as a present-day creator has certainly lead him to face some likely problems that a god would in that he is required to make so many intricate decisions regarding his animal creations.  However, Jansen’s techniques are purely of the scientific nature.  He has dealt with all of the blueprints of the creatures in a computer program he designed that allows him to calculate the most effective construction concept possible, but as of late, he feels he knows the ins and outs of the creatures basic designs and has done many through trial and error. Each of Jansen’s kinetic animal sculptures are comprised of 375 replaceable tubes, yet each creature has its own “genetic code” in a sense.  This particular code affects the way in which it is allowed to walk through wind power.

Works by Theo Jansen

Dan Roe

Dan Roe grew up on a small family farm where he was constantly getting his hands on machinery that was laying about, and was able to use his repairing and designing skills to implement his own take on functional art pieces later on in his life. 

While attending Western Michigan University, Roe focused his studies on psychology and neuroscience.  He was particularly interested in the various biological bases behind brain injuries, disease states, and normal cognitive aging.  Roe states that he also was able to develop an interest in artificial intelligence, the mathematics of networks, graph theory, as well as other assortments of current ideas pertaining to the cognitive sciences.

Through Roe’s Ph.D. studies at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, he was able to focus mainly on the theories and areas of cognitive neurosciences.  He gained a strong background in the intricate understandings of the sites and mechanisms of action of antipsychotic drugs, which eventually landed him the position as an instructor of abnormal psychology.

Though his career was taking off in a very scientific direction, Roe still possessed the simple longing for creating what he dubs as “artful machines.”  He quickly began to discover that his interest in the natural sciences and his drive to create these machines very much complimented each other.  The way he perceived it, designing and building the technologies were simply a new mode of study of the scientific factors he loved.  Once this realization came about, his exploration began to take on a very new path of its own.

One of the main states of mind that Dan Roe chooses to live his life by is the idea that “how we deal with our challenges defines the sort of people that we are.”  He says, “as for me, I increasingly turned to old interests, skills, and habits.” 

Dan Roe says he began constructing works “from the remnants of a world that I increasingly felt estranged from, paradoxically, I found my place within a community.”  He essentially had started to finally realize that others had certainly come before him that had the same frame of mind in the same sense.  Roe, as well as many others like him, referred to their ways of finding discarded technology and using them in new and innovative ways as “dumpster divers.”  Many of the ways he acquired the bits and pieces he used to make up his artful machines were truly recovered from dumpsters at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

The collision collective is one group Dan Roe was able to showcase his works in this field with.  The collision collective is basically as an offshoot of the MIT student art group, ATat (Arts and Technology at tech), whose charter was to host events showcasing art incorporating technology.

Once Roe felt he had finally discovered his niche, he began to experiment with working with the sun’s energy. He viewed solar power as providing a unique advantage to any kinetic work (things you don’t have to plug in.)  A challenge simultaneously presented with this particular type of use of power is that one must use what little energy is provided more thoughtfully than if you did simply plug it in.  In order to achieve this, Roe had to spend a significant amount of extra time optimizing the overall design concept to maximize the efficiency of the power being utilized.  Roe realized that the key to solar power utilization was to efficiently store up energy and use it in bursts.  “We are often the most innovative when we are challenged to make do with what we have.”

He began his building experimenting with brass and low temperature lead alloy welds in order to connect together the wires between the main pieces.  However, a colleague then suggested the use of steel wire paired with various bending techniques that began to shape a more useful and inexpensive method of shaping as well as protecting the sculptural pieces from damage.  Through simply varying the length and gauges of these steel wires, Roe was now able to place electrical components in a controlled manner relative to one another.  He could now draw the geometry and flexion characteristics of the electromechanical inventions with the simple steel wire. 

This synthetic form of art in which Dan Roe chose to focus on creating has become a way to explore the world in which he lives in and has lived in in the past.  According to him, “it is also a delightful waste of time.”  His machines are designed according to his particular conceptual basis that is meant to emphasize his idea of minimalist design elements.

Dan Roe’s main concept in creating these solar powered machines is to make a statement on the advances in information technologies and how it is increasingly a part of one’s everyday life.  In producing more organic sculptures such as his solar powered flower piece, he has developed a new way of making good use of old and easily discarded materials to make something worth looking at.  He specifically states that he is not interested in finding solutions to practical problems, like others in his field, but simply wishes to produce his kinetic designs to create “flowing, graceful movement, and that are increasingly autonomous in control and energy acquisition generation after generation.”

Works by Dan Roe

In essence, both Theo Jansen and Dan Roe are creators of a new media form.  They have different techniques in that Jansen constructs his animal sculptures of simple plastics, tubes and wood, and Roe chose to comprise his robotic sculptures of discarded technologies and wires.  The two artists deal with kinetic sculptural pieces, meaning that the art can simply move without having to be plugged in or battery operated.  This technique for sculptural pieces is certainly an innovative way to utilize various technologies that are often overlooked, such as the simplicities of wind and solar powers to drive an object to move.  


  1. Hi Allie, I just saw this nice review. Thanks! I just want to add
    that if you like my work you really need to check out Mark Tilden and
    Dave Hrynkiw. I have various links and refs to them on my web site,
    including this one to the BEAM wiki:

    They are the real creators. My robots are so influenced by their
    work, I just love them. And Jansen and Ganson. Dave of "Solarbotics"
    sells me solar cells and other electronics from time to time. He's
    awesome and he has kits so you can build your own robots. Also, in
    the spirit of Tilden and Hrynkiw, I'll share any of my designs.

    I plan to upload some of my non-robotic art as soon as I get some good images.

    Thanks again, and take care,
    dan roe

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