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Need an excuse to visit Melbourne? This is it


By Diana Simmonds


THEO JANSEN'S STRANDBEEST at Federation Square, corner Swanston and Flinders Street, Melbourne; February 1-26 2012. Free


You've probably marvelled at them on YouTube – ambling eccentrically along broad, windswept Dutch beaches – but I bet you don't know they're actually beautifully engineered demonstrations of evolution!


Artist Theo Jansen first began creating his strandbeest ("beach animals" in Dutch) in 1990. Since then, each successive generation of these kinetic "artificial life" sculptures has learned from the previous generation, incorporating improvements and adaptations, and discarding less successful elements – sound familiar?


The walking movement of the "animals" is powered by the wind alone. The initially elementary structures have evolved over the past two decades into increasingly complex creatures with a rotating spine and legs. they have a "stomach" (plastic bottles for storing wind energy) and "muscles" (pistons within the plastic tubing) and they are able to respond to their environment, becoming increasingly better at surviving the elements.


For the first time in Australia, Animaris Umerus – pictured here – will be roaming Melbourne's Federation Square plaza for the month of February. It's approximately 12 metres long, four metres high and two metres wide, with winglike sails; s/he is equipped with artificial intelligence so s/he can change course to avoid obstacles.


Eight strandbeest "fossils" will also be on display in The Atrium, so visitors can see how they have evolved from their simple origins to the complex forms, with highly developed nervous systems, that now enchant people all over the world.


Says Jansen, "These evolving sculptures each take on the survival skills of the last generation, using a rudimentary intelligence to dig into the sand when a storm is sensed, or to avoid obstacles like the ocean. Eventually I want to put these animals out in herds on the beaches, so they will live their own lives."

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