Roger Norville is back with another dispatch from the 25th annual Cannabis Cup…
I met God today, and his name is Theo Jansen.
No, I did not meet God while munching on space cake in a corner coffeeshop. I met him on a wooded hill in Delft.
After enduring a near-heroic early wakeup I was still an hour late leaving this morning. I took the inter-city train to The Hague and made my connection to Delft, a little city made famous for their blue and white ceramic pieces. After a short tram ride I set off on foot through a neighborhood of identical starkly square homes that looked like something out of A Clockwork Orange.
Rising out of this antiseptic environment is a small hill topped with trees. Littered about are the skeletons of a man’s life work, and nestled among them is a small green cottage. This tiny workshop is the birthplace of new life form. This is where the strandbeest was born.
Coming up the hill I was met by a smiling man with wispy, graying hair. Wearing a toolbelt and dressed for the fall weather in a thick workshirt, Theo Jansen was busily applying a new innovation to his creature.
“It started when I used to write for the local paper,” he explains. “I wrote a column suggesting that someone could use the PVC tubing that is so prevalent in The Netherlands to build creatures that could go off and live on the beaches.”
With the idea germinating in his head, a few months later Jansen decided to take up his own challenge. He began experimenting, building legs and joints out of PVC tubing, and in the process began the evolution of a new life form.
While his first prototype wouldn’t even stand on its own, twenty-two years of constant tinkering has produced some astounding results. The Strandbeests now resemble large winged insects made from thousands of PVC tubes interacting according to a vital 13-point motion equation (“The beest’s DNA code,” claims Jansen). These creatures can move along certain surfaces on their own, and by storing wind power in plastic bottles the strandbeests can move their tails, raise and lower their wings, and sense when they are approaching inhospitable territory, like water and soft sand.
It’s this detection system that Jansen is currently trying to improve. “I just came up with this yesterday,” he says. “With this evolution the creature can detect soft sand and water four metres further in both directions.” As he speaks the strandbeest lifts its tail and and flings it back down, seemingly of its own volition. Out of the tail extends a long thin tube, its new antenna. It looks to me like the new idea worked perfectly, but Jansen jumps into action, pulling clamps from his toolbelt and rearranging a mess of tubes.
“Usually my ideas are wrong, but the plastic shows me the right thing to do.”
I left the creator to continue with his work and explored the boneyard scattered among the grounds, a collection of earlier strandbeests bleached white by the sun. There are also some strandbeests in perfect health that can be pushed or pulled along. Up close it’s easy to admire the inherent simplicity in such complicated machines. Therein lies the trick in creating new life forms I suppose.
“When I began I thought this would take a year to complete,” says the happy inventor. “I still have twenty more years to evolve the strandbeests, it is a shame that I don’t have a million.”
Sauntering down the hill I looked over my shoulder and saw Theo Jansen had already re-engrossed himself in his new device. Punctuated by blasts of air pressure the strandbeest’s tail flapped up and down, Jansen tinkering with his scraggly hair blowing in the wind, a man gleefully engaged in creating giant brainless monsters that he dreamed of setting loose on the beaches to roam free, and I think I heard him whistling a happy little tune.
Back in The Hague I had time for only one of two planned outings. Though I was very excited to see the Louwman Museum, the world’s oldest automobile museum, I thought the art of MC Escher with his perspective-bending take on infinity would be a more fitting for a side trip from the Cannabis Cup.
Housed in a former royal residence, the Escher Museum is a three-storey immersion into the reflective world of one of the world’s great artists. While the collection isn’t huge, it certainly is iconic. So many pieces that have become ubiquitous in popular culture: the self-portrait in a silver globe, the impossible staircases, the birds morphing into fish, all the biggies are here, and the layout is accessible and informative.
[Photo by Andrew Crump CC 2.0]
Back on the quick train the Amsterdam central station I marveled at how busy and blatantly efficient the rail system is here in Holland. The trains run often and they run on time. There is signage everywhere that is updated in real time and you never see someone running for their connection. Here lies another bunch of great ideas ready for implementation in North America.
Back in the ‘Dam it was another scourge of the coffee shops to end the day. Visiting all twenty-four of the competing shops is a challenge that appears less and less plausible as the week begins to wane, but it sure is fun trying.