3.10 / Review

The Stories of Chickens: A Controversy

By Rebecca Blocksome February 27, 2012

UPDATE: On February 29, 2012, artist Amber Hansen announced modifications to her project The Story of Chickens. The modifications will enable the project to be in compliance with city ordinances of Lawrence, Kansas, which allow city dwellers to raise domestic fowl but forbids their slaughter within city limits and limits the visibility of chickens kept on private property. Chickens will no longer be displayed, slaughtered, or eaten as part of the project. To read Hansen’s statement about the changes to the project, please visit the Rocket Grant program's Rocketblog!.

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Local Kansas City artist Amber Hansen has invoked a Great Chicken Controversy with her community art project planned for March and April. In The Story of Chickens: A Revolution, Hansen will create a “nomadic coop” that houses five chickens and will circulate it through high-traffic areas in the downtown Lawrence area over the course of a month. During this time, residents will be encouraged to feed, pet, and generally get to know the animals. At the end of the month, the chickens will be humanely slaughtered by a local farmer and will be prepared as a community meal at a local alternative art space.

According to the official project description, The Story of Chickens is meant to explore “the relationship of humans as both caretakers and consumers.”1 It was specifically designed as a local, community-oriented artistic practice and is supported by a Rocket Grant—a competitive grant awarded to Kansas City–area artists, funded by the Andy Warhol Foundation and administered by the Charlotte Street Foundation and the Spencer Museum of Art. In the age of the Internet, however, the local has become global. When food- and animal-rights activists (as well as self-declared art critics) from around the country learned of the project, they immediately protested with righteous indignation. A heated dialogue still ensues on the Rocketblog!.

The most interesting aspect of the controversy is the divide between the local reaction and the national and international responses. The Story of Chickens, along with the other 2011–12 Rocket Grant–sponsored projects, was originally announced in April 2011. At the time, it didn’t raise any eyebrows locally. However, in February 2012, a controversy erupted and has been dominated by voices from outside the Lawrence-Kansas City community. While a few local voices have joined in the project’s condemnation and several others have spoken in support of the artist, the community has been generally silent in the public debate. This striking split cannot be attributed solely to Midwesterners’ real or perceived cultural reluctance to engage in open confrontation. It seems likely that it also reflects a deeper understanding of food production and consumption that comes from living in a primarily rural agricultural state.

Kansas City built its reputation on the beef industry and, in fact, is still best known throughout the nation for its steak and barbecue. Although the Kansas City Stockyards closed in 1991, after 120 years of operation, the city’s cow-town roots remain strong. Food is central not only to the collective identity of the area but also to the economy: Kansas currently ranks third in beef production and fourth in total animal and meat production in the United States, and one in five people in the state is employed in a position related to agriculture and food production.2

The Story of Chickens

Amber Hansen. Drawings and a scale model of chicken coops for The Story of Chickens. Courtesy of the Washington Post. Photo: Rich Sugg, Associated Press.

And though certainly not everyone in Kansas grew up on a farm, the fact is that we are barely one hundred years removed from the pioneers who came to the Midwest and transformed the vast prairie into the breadbasket of the nation. This perhaps lends those of us who call this place home a certain respect for the land that is lacking in those who have never known anything other than steel skyscrapers, concrete parking lots, and the endless sprawl of expressways. It’s one of the hidden treasures of life in the flyover states.

In some ways, the Great Chicken Controversy is comparable to the recent dispute over Tom Otterness’s projects awarded by the San Francisco Arts Commission, in light of his early Shot Dog Film(1977). Viewed with only an outsider’s knowledge of the Otterness situation, the controversies seem similar: animal rights activists protest the killing of animals in the name of art.3 Yet, there is a distinction between San Franciscans’ outrage over what appears to be the senseless killing of a dog for shock value—Otterness has yet to give any compelling reason for shooting the dog—and Internet denizens’ outrage over the humane slaughter of five chickens for a community meal in Lawrence, Kansas.4

That distinction is fundamentally rooted in the sense of place. In a culturally sensitive postmodern world, we should be wary of moral absolutes that claim to be universally applicable. Instead, we must seek to understand values and actions that arise from specific contexts. Nonetheless, the culture gap between Kansas and San Francisco is real—not to mention the culture gap between Kansas and the nebulous world of the Internet. The ethicality of shooting dogs or slaughtering chickens in the name of art should not rest upon an abstract argument about which types of violence, if any, are permissible and for what ends. Rather, individual communities must wrestle with these deeper philosophical issues for themselves, and there may be as many different valid answers as there are people and times and places.

This is exactly how art can serve as a catalyst for public dialogue: it causes a viewer to reflect on the world in such a way that she comes to understand herself and her world anew. The beginnings of this (r)evolution can already be seen in Lawrence, and I am excited to see how The Story of Chickens transforms the community as it unfolds. For those in the rest of the world who are watching, I hope that they too might reflect on this project and its response and come to a deeper understanding of their relationships with other living beings—even if that understanding is different from ours.

 

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NOTES: 

1. “The Story of Chickens: A Revolution,” Rocketblog!.

2. Kansas Farm Facts 2010, U.S. Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service, Kansas Field Office, in cooperation with Kansas Department of Agriculture.

3. And Otterness is originally from Kansas, which makes it even more tempting to draw parallels.

4. Editor's note: Otterness publicly apologized for Shot Dog Film in 2008. Mary Frost, "Artist Apologizes for Decades-old Dog-Killing Incident," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 14, 2008, as cited in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_Otterness#cite_note-20.

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