DETROIT — According to artist Koen Vanmechelen, the chicken is the most domesticated animal in the world. “It gives us a lot of food — protein and eggs,” said Vanmechelen in an interview with Hyperallergic. “But another interesting part is that it also stands for culture, because in every country, we started to breed a chicken that tells something about the country.”
Chicken is what’s on the menu for Energy/Mass, the latest installation at Wasserman Projects, which includes live avian subjects, appropriate for the gallery’s location in the Eastern Market district — home to one of the country’s oldest continuously running farmers’ markets. This inter-media exhibition is the latest iteration of Vanmechelen’s 20-year-long work, the Cosmopolitan Chicken Project, which explores ideas of genetic diversity via an ongoing global effort to crossbreed the chickens of the world.
“In France you have the poulet de Bresse — red in the head, white body, and blue legs,” said Vanmechelen. “The Chinese make a hairy chicken, one that makes silk. Americans make the biggest chicken in the world! In Germany, they made one for the liberation of World War II. It is a cultural symbol. That’s why as an artist, I start to get interested — that it’s not only a biological thing, but it’s also a cultural thing.”
Vanmechelen’s first crossbreeding experiment took place between a French chicken and a Belgian chicken, at the border between France and his native Belgium, where he maintains a studio in the city of Genk. For Vanmechelen, the site-specificity of these crossbreeding events are crucial to the metaphor of chickens as agents of global exchange.
“You can only make the statement when you’re really in the country itself,” he said. “If you do this action on the border between Belgium and France, you have a huge debate — there were social entrepreneurs, biologists, scientists, philosophers — they all joined the conference [surrounding the crossbreeding project].”
The main gallery at Wasserman Projects is dominated by a luxury chicken compound: a huge, multi-wing coop that has two of the current generation of roosters from the Cosmopolitan Chickens (CCP), each accompanied by a couple of their local breeding hens, termed by Vanmechelen as the “Planetary Community Chickens (PCC).” A third wing of the coop is carpeted in hundreds and hundreds of meticulously arranged eggs, laid out under warming red lights to incubate. Breeding took place, loudly and with much flying of feathers, throughout the opening night reception.
“That one rooster is always at it,” observed onlooker Renee Wallace, executive director of Food Plus Detroit, and tireless facilitator and consultant to many food justice-related organizations around the city. “That other one, not so much. He might be more interested in the other rooster.” Wallace helped Vanmechelen connect with the Oakland Avenue Community Garden, which will be the permanent home of Detroit’s new hybrid PCC/CCP flock after the show closes. Working as he does with living materials, Vanmechelen doesn’t want his projects to be mere thought experiments; the work lives on by virtue of these genetically diverse chickens producing future generations.
Chickens act as a fairly good proxy for humans in a metaphor about diversity, but for that metaphor to work — as alluded in the show’s title — we also need duality. “The world has started to think, don’t focus on monocultures,” said Vanmechelen. “You need the other to fertilize your group, because otherwise it comes to an ending story. It’s inbreeding. We need the diversity to go on. Diversity is our nature.”
Vanmechelen’s emphasis on avoiding monoculture extends to his wider practice, which, in its blend of science, genetic engineering, and formal object-making, might be seen as a kind of creative polyculture. He also makes more static works that employ a range of media: There is a collection of taxidermy chickens with silvered crests and feet; a sign spelling out “PCC/CCP” in blazing white neon; a large-scale self-portrait of Vanmechelen, blowing a giant bubble filled with smoke, which is mirrored by a picture of a small, white taxidermy chick standing beside a comedically giant sculptural egg.
There is also a low reading shelf, displaying several massive encyclopedic volumes cataloguing the genetic code of the chickens on display nearby. Vanmechelen’s approach to animal husbandry is somewhat paradoxical — typically, selective breeding is employed as a device to cultivate certain outcomes, but in Vanmechelen’s practice, there is far greater emphasis on the process of creating the most diverse possible genetics and epigenetics within his Cosmopolitan Chicken. Vanmechelen also declines to cull outliers from his flock, a common occurrence, and one that makes sense if the desired outcome is controlling the characteristics of the breed.
“For me, the goal is not survival of the fittest,” said Vanmechelen. “Every chicken that is born into this project is an important one. I don’t kill it. It stands in its own environment. After 20 years, it’s 20 different chickens inside of the [current] generation of chickens. It’s about diversity, about immunity, about fertility.”
The books are accompanied by a video piece featuring people reading the genetic information as a mantra, which Vanmechelen sees as a realization of the genetics that we build together — through careful domestication of animal species, but also through our own human breeding relations, both directed and instinctive. In the back room at Wasserman, a nursery houses a brood of newly hatched chicks under red lights, the beginnings of the Detroit-Cosmopolitan flock.
“I’m very pleased with this installation, where the young chicks are growing, and people are reading their genetics,” said Vanmechelen. The artist has plans to return to Detroit, and will have a hand in renovations to a dilapidated house within the Oakland Avenue Community Garden’s footprint, which will be the future home of the chickens. Vanmechelen is clearly delighted in the chance that brings these chickens, most domesticated of all species, to live in an explicitly domestic setting. For its part, Detroit art- and chicken-lovers seem open to welcoming these new ambassadors of global community and local connection.