When I saw that Anton Zeilinger of the Vienna quantum physics department was hosting a talk by the artist Koen Vanmechelen on the topic of chickens, I dropped everything and ran there in great excitement.
“It has finally happened,” I said to myself, “the great Zeilinger has finally lost his marbles!”
I was wrong, though: it was one of the most interesting talks of the year so far. Vanmechelen began his talk with a stylish photograph of a chicken. He said:
“To you, this might look like just a chicken. But to me, this is a work of art.”
It seemed absurd — here was a room full of physicists, being told that a chicken was art. But as Vanmechelen elaborated on his work, I saw that his work was not simply about chickens, in the same way that Rembrandt’s art was not simply about paint. In Vanmechelen’s words “It is not about the chicken, it is about humans!” Chickens are merely the medium through which Vanmechelen has chosen to express himself. Humans have such precise control over chickens, we breed them for specific purposes, we use them like components in a factory; no wonder Vanmechelen calls the chicken `high-tech’. So why not also use chickens as an artistic medium? Vanmechelen also enjoys working with glass, a seemingly unrelated medium, except that it allows him a similar level of self-expression and self discovery:
“I like the transparency of glass. You cannot see a window until it is broken. It is the same with people — it is through scars that we come to know ourselves.”
For Vanmechelen, part of his motivation to work with chickens comes from the strange and often profound experiences that this line of work leads him to. One notorious example was his idea to rescue a rooster that had lost one of its spurs. Perhaps to reinstate some of the glory afforded the chicken by its dinosaur heritage, Vanmechelen had surgeons give the rooster a proud new pair of golden spurs.
Shortly afterwards, Vanmechelen was taken to court in Belgium by animal rights activists. It seemed that, by the letter of the law, it was illegal to give chickens prosthetic implants. Vanmechelen defended his work and pointed out that he was helping the rooster, which would have otherwise been an outcast in chicken society, and the activists finally agreed with him. But the judge was adamant: there was still the matter of the law to be settled. Struck by the absurdity of the case, Vanmechelen asked: if prosthetic augmentation was not allowed, then what precisely was it legal to do to a live chicken? The judge unfolded an official document and read from a list. Legally, one could burn its beak, scorch its wings, cut its legs, and more in a similar vein. Needless to say, Vanmechelen did not have to face prison, but the incident stayed with him.
“I am not a scientist, I am not an activist, I am an artist. I do not pass judgement, I simply comment on what I see.”
He called the animal rights activists afterwards. He said to them, “I have done my job as an artist. Now you can do your job as an activist: change the law”.
Vanmechelen’s major work has much less to do with chickens and much more to do with people. The Cosmopolitan Chicken Project is an exercise in fertility. Travelling around the world, Vanmechelen collects chickens that have been selectively bred to suit their country of origin, and creates cross-breeds. He notes that each country has developed a breed of chicken that represents the nation; as an extreme example, the French Poulet de Bresse has a red crest, white body and blue-tinged legs, matching the country’s flag.
“When you put an animal in a frame, you halt its evolution,” he explains. “The chickens become infertile through too much inbreeding. Cross-breeding restores life and fertility to the species. It is the same for humans.”
Duality is also a major theme in Vanmechelen’s work: every organism needs another organism to survive. Humans have not simply enslaved chickens — we are in turn enslaved by them. There are over 24 billion chickens in the world today, about three and a half per person. Historically, we have taken them everywhere with us, to such an extent that researchers at the University of Nottingham can even trace the movements of humans through the genomes of chickens.
This duality can be seen directly in the theory of coding and information. Take two messages of the same length and combine them by swapping every second letter between the two. Suppose we separate the resulting scrambled halves and give them to different people. It doesn’t matter how many times you copy one half, you will never recover the message — you will stagnate from inbreeding the same information. But if you get together with someone who has different information that comes from the other half, you can combine your halves to discover the hidden message that was there all along.
By the end of Vanmechelen’s talk, I finally understood why Professor Zeilinger had invited him here, to a physics department, to talk about art. In isolation, every discipline stagnates and becomes inbred. I rarely go to see talks by scientists, but I always find talks by artists stimulating. Why is that? Perhaps the reason is not that scientists are dull, but simply that I am one of them. Sometimes, to unlock the riches of your own discipline, you need to introduce random mutations from the outside. So bring on the artists!