Koen Vanmechelen: ‘We need to rebalance nature to save humanity’

Koen Vanmechelen’s chickens are world-famous. The artist himself is often identified with his Cosmopolitan Chicken Project, which has been running for thirty years now. Yet Vanmechelen’s oeuvre extends far beyond the chicken: it deals with concepts such as diversity, identity and the restoration of freedom and equilibrium.

© Mine Dalemans

Evolution of a Hybrid

We are sitting at a large table in the brand-new, nearly finished headquarters commissioned by Koen Vanmechelen on the site of a former Zoo in Zwartberg, a suburb of the Belgian city of Genk. The impressive design is by Mario Botta, the Swiss architect. Its name is LABIOMISTA: a self-invented word that points to life in all its mixed, cross-pollinated and variegated glory. That definition of life is central to Vanmechelen’s work, and to our long conversation at LABIOMISTA. Meanwhile one floor down, staff are hauling in large installations, readying them for LABIOMISTA’s official opening next summer. There’s a lot of work still to be done.

The first thing that hits you when entering Koen Vanmechelen’s website is a hybrid headshot in two halves: Koen’s face merging with that of a chicken. The artist and his main work – the Cosmopolitan Chicken Project – are two sides of the same coin.

‘You could say life is a coincidence, a beautiful accident.’

‘I’ve been cross-breeding chickens since I was five’, says Vanmechelen. His parents gave him his first specimens, then an uncle got him an incubator. If that sounds like a typical farm-boy upbringing, Vanmechelen’s wasn’t: his father was an artist-philosopher, and his mother a fashion designer. His fascination with chickens, hatching and breeding had an evolutionary trajectory of its own: from knowledge over insight to artistic questioning.

More than art 

Koen Vanmechelen: ‘With LABIOMISTA, we don’t just produce art, we also underpin our art projects by the work of scientific foundations. And we translate all of this into actual development, via different farms, in Zimbabwe, Detroit, Addis Abeba and elsewhere. Those farms, started from exhibitions, give us the opportunity to both spread and embed our philosophy. That’s why we’re also working with NGOs, for instance with Chido Govera’s The Future of Hope in Zimbabwe’. 

‘At the National Gallery of Zimbabwe in Harare, I set up a Planetary Community Chicken Project, together with women and orphans from local communities. This was a clear signal, especially in an authoritarian place like Zimbabwe, because it confirms unambiguously that local communities are essential for our future survival’. 

‘The International Livestock Research Institute was quick to see the practical potential of our story, which is why we collaborated with them to start up chicken farms in Addis Ababa. They provide local communities with access to farm animals that combine diversity, fertility, immunity and productivity’
‘I learned how an egg becomes a chicken. Two thirds of the egg evolves into a chick, one third remains air. The chick has to pierce that chamber of air, in the process breaking the shell. If that happens in the right way and at the right time, the little chick gets to be born. So you could say life is a coincidence, a beautiful accident. Mother hens know perfectly well how to handle this, but when we humans try to mimic or manipulate this process artificially, a successful outcome is a lot less obvious’.

‘At thirteen, I started to wonder why we lock animals in cages, even though we love them. That was the earliest stirring of a theme that still fascinates me today – domestication. How do we define living spaces, and how do we subdivide them? How do we live together, and what are the limits of that compromise? Then I started making wood sculptures of chickens or chicken-like creatures, carrying their own cages on their backs. Observing my own work is the only way for me to understand the questions from which it arises. Those sculptures told me that I was focusing on the tension between freedom and imprisonment. That’s a dilemma that surfaces everywhere. I have the freedom to express my ideas to you in this interview, and you will capture them in an article. The revelations and questions of an artist are expressed freely, but trapped in their creations. This dilemma, this conflict is inherent in all art’.

‘A chicken actually always is a work of art, a cultural choice.’

“Chickens originated in the Himalayas, on the frontier between jungle and civilisation. They started their journey around the world from there. But their ‘migration’ has been determined by humans and their cultural interventions. Humanity has re-created the chicken to fit its own needs. In France, a Poulet de Bresse was bred to have a red head, white body and blue legs. The Chinese have produced a ‘silk’ chicken, the Germans a Dresdner chicken to mark the end of the World War, and the Turks a long-legged chicken so its legs resemble minarets… So a chicken is always a work of art, a cultural choice’.

© Stoffel Hias

Inside view LABIOMISTA – Studio Koen Vanmechelen, designed by Mario Botta (CH)

‘And here already there is a conflict. On the one hand, there’s monoculture and its short-term successes, but also its inevitable degeneration; and on the other hand the enrichment that results from cross-breeding and mixing genetic material, even though that does not necessarily lead to the most profitable result – at least from an economic perspective’.

‘My first work to really focus on that question was the one I exhibited at Watou, on the French-Belgian border. It was a cross between a Poulet de Bresse and a Mechelse Koekoek. It was immediately apparent that this crossbreed produced a nest of chicks that were all different from each other – transforming reproduction from a restrictive process into one filled with a multitude of possibilities. Another outcome of this experiment was the evidence that crossbreeding produces an increase in fertility and immunity. Thirty years of sustained crossbreeding have resulted in the Cosmopolitan Chicken now having 13 million base pairs of DNA indicating genetic diversification from the standard, as compared to 4 million for an industrial chicken. This is how sustained crossbreeding can exponentially increase life’s potential’.

© Eliza Deacon

Mkataba y Arusha, Masai, Tanzania, 2014 Library of Collected Knowledge - Arena de Evolución

You’re using crossbreeding and genetic enrichment as a biological metaphor to question identity and diversity. But isn’t that a dangerous path? Plenty of environmentalists are fundamentally opposed to invasions by exotic, non-indigenous species. Couldn’t that biological metaphor also be deployed in opposition to the power of diversity?

Koen Vanmechelen: ‘That’s exactly why I don’t limit myself to biological metaphors. Chickens are also a cultural-biological subject, shaped by human choices. We’re not talking about wild animals or untamed nature here, but about culture. The fact that thirty years’ work on the Cosmopolitan Chicken Project has tripled the diversity in the DNA material just goes to show that an artistic approach can produce freedom and choices’.

‘This direct connection, nature - culture - economy, crops up a lot, and often raises the question: When does humanity’s use of nature cross the line into abuse?’

‘Humanity’s first intervention was to restrict the chicken’s freedom of movement, changing its behaviour. The rooster, previously monogamous, turned polygamous. The hen, previously laying just 12 eggs a year, started producing one every day. This direct connection, nature-culture-economy, crops up a lot, and often raises the question: When does humanity’s use of nature cross the line into abuse?’

‘This also brings us to the question: When and how does nature react to our intervention in order to restore the balance? To call it the Revenge of Gaia is perhaps going a bit too far. But we are in the midst of a revolt of the pendulum, in other words: a restoration of the equilibrium. My work poses a question fundamental to this process: Where exactly is the outer limit of human intervention, and when do we cross it?’

‘These days we’re not just experiencing a fightback from nature, which we have abused too much; there’s also a reaction from the local level against the global one, or at least against globalisation as it has happened until now. The local level is generous, but has been ravaged in order to construct the global level. This has impoverished the local level. This imbalance must also be redressed. In my art projects, I set this counter-movement in motion by re-crossing the Cosmopolitan Chicken with local chickens, in order that the huge genetic diversity that has been built up centrally may re-fertilize some of the productivity at local level. If we don’t work to redress these imbalances throughout the world, the one thing that results from globalisation will be the revenge of those left behind – as we are witnessing already at various places across the world’.

© Koen Vanmechelen

Collective Memory, Marble, steel, 230 × 400 × 190 cm, Global Campus Human Rights, EIUC, Venice (IT), 2017 © Koen Vanmechelen

You talk a lot about destroying and restoring balance, but does nature really care about balance?

Koen Vanmechelen: ‘Not about balance, but about restoration. Humanity should play a subservient role in that process. That is difficult to accept, because our species has been a complete success over the past two hundred years. We’ve propagated ourselves on a massive scale, we have taken control of the planet and we’ve come to see ourselves as a species destined to ‘improve’ on nature. But even medical science has seen the folly of those ways’.

Grand ideas, profound insights and long-term visions all require time to mature.

‘Which means that our mission to save the planet reflects, first and foremost, the need to save ourselves: if humanity won’t change its position in the pecking order of the natural world, the main effect for us will be our own destruction. If we don’t try to understand how the planet actually works and how we can be a constructive part of that process, we will be hurting ourselves most of all’.

But that presupposes a long-term perspective. The economy calculates the future in yearly quarters, politicians plan for the next elections, and people in general are also increasingly thinking in shorter terms.

Koen Vanmechelen: ‘True. Grand ideas, profound insights and long-term visions all require time to mature. Only when all trajectories and storylines have been examined, will you achieve real insight’.

© Stoffel Hias

Installation view, La Biomista, Exo-Evolution, Globale 2015, ZKM | Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie, Karlsruhe, 2015 © Koen Vanmechelen

With your own vision so ecologically eclectic, how is it that you are so strongly committed to human rights, an especially anthropocentric concept?

Koen Vanmechelen: ‘For starters, nature should be seen as a human right. When the natural world is off balance, it creates tensions in society – we already see this happening in cities and rural areas that are becoming uninhabitable due to climate change, for example’.

‘The problem is that we have no clear parameters yet to decide which interventions we approve of and which ones we don’t.’

‘Moreover, I’ve started to think of human rights as a form of collective memory, a bit like the DNA of the Cosmopolitan Chicken. That’s why two years ago, I produced a work that combined the ‘canon of human rights books’ - our collective memory – with some chicken legs, as a symbolic representation of the fact that both cultural and biological diversity are a part of humanity’s fundamental rights’.

‘At the same time, however, I have to conclude that our collective knowledge of human rights is presumed rather than a real, practiced fact. Everyone sees ‘human rights’ as a self-evident part of human civilisation, but no one teaches these rights. As a consequence, we live in societies in which everybody has their own idea about what human rights are. On the one hand, that fragmentation is an expression of the freedom that is the cornerstone of human rights, but on the other hand, it is a threat to those rights as well, because we are losing the historical context of this fundamental concept, and of the connection it can foster between people of various backgrounds or generations’.

‘A second work of mine on this topic reuses those books of knowledge and memory and places a child on top of them – a Greek child, from the civilisation that gave us democracy. And that child has the composure and the look of someone who knows where they’re going with that knowledge. That work is placed in Venice, at the instigation of the Global Campus for Human Rights’.

The work suggests that there is a set corpus: that knowledge of human rights exists as a rounded whole and is bound between leather covers. The child seems to guard that knowledge rather than develop it further.

‘Strength propels societies while power is all about manipulation. What really interests me is mutation: change that is beyond control.’

Koen Vanmechelen: ‘I don’t see it like that at all. The child looks towards the future and that act in itself is an expansion of memory. The books form the basis, but the essence is the child’s look towards the future. The child is the carrier of renewal’.

But in your work, you’ve specifically chosen a Greek child, which represents European civilisation. Should the future not be conceived and examined from a wider perspective?

Koen Vanmechelen: ‘With this reference to Greece, I’m trying to express that the future has a need for clear foundations in the past. Also, the child is bigger than the spectator. This creates a very special effect’.

On the one hand, you call for an ecological rebalancing and for human humility, on the other hand you advocate for human rights. Both perspectives would require a fundamental change in social structures and personal attitudes. But can humans be engineered at all?  Should a Cosmopolitan Human Project be set up, similar to your Cosmopolitan Chicken Project, to create a new, cosmopolitan type of human being?

© Stoffel Hias

Cosmopolitan Stranger, Hotel de Inmigrantes, Manifesta 9, Open University of Diversity – Studio Koen Vanmechelen, Hasselt (BE), 2012

Recovery is key 

In his artistic projects, Koen Vanmechelen is constantly looking to restore balances that have been upturned. But LABIOMISTA, the new building in the park of the former Zoo at Zwartberg, is also a significant intrusion on nature and on its surroundings. How does he plan to redress that imbalance? 

Koen Vanmechelen: ‘You’re right, this is a wounded place. It had already been ripped up to mine coal; and even after the shafts have been filled up and covered over, the wound remains. I think recovery in this case means recognising the unique location of this park, and therefore also the uniqueness of this building. The park is located in between mansions, communities, industrial and agricultural zones, and a nature area. This has given LABIOMISTA a mission: to be a transit zone between industry and nature’. 

‘This location is also a good way to stop the conversation about art being limited to people who talk about art for a living. It’s the surrounding communities who will be crucial to the discussion about art, and the impact it has on their lives’. 

‘With the various foundations, all to be housed at the former residence of the mine’s director, we’re preparing a number of conferences, themed on ‘the Survival of the Others’. Not the survival of the fittest, or those who are best adjusted, but of the others – that’s what we want to focus on. And that is our way of recovering, restoring and redressing the wound that has been inflicted on this place’.

Koen Vanmechelen: ‘The question is not whether we want to engineer human beings, their bodies and their abilities. We are already doing that, and increasingly so. A few decades ago, the first heart transplant was a highly controversial event, today it is an almost commonplace surgical procedure and we are all happy for it to be so. The problem is, however, that we have no clear parameters yet to decide which interventions we approve of and which ones we don’t. We need to achieve some sort of consensus on this’.

Do we have a consensus on cloning and genetically modified organisms? If the engineering has a therapeutic end, if it is focused on helping people in trouble, I think there is a lot of support for that kind of intervention. However, if the engineering is to do with procreation, there is not that level of support, and personally I don’t see any reason to start cloning people, for instance. So it is crucial that we have a clear and well-argued public debate on these matters.

But that hardly ever happens. The first use of the atomic bomb was not decided by referendum.

Koen Vanmechelen: ‘That’s right. But what keeps us from learning from history? In any case, I want more public debate, both in quantity and quality. Not to slow down progress, because that would be a bad idea, but for us to be much more aware of how we apply that progress’.

You are constantly talking in terms of recovery, remembering, well-considered social choices. But you seem to have little eye for power and inequality, and its impact on humans and society.

Koen Vanmechelen: ‘Perhaps I don’t talk a lot about power because I don’t often think about it. I do think a lot about strength, which is what propels societies. But power is all about manipulation. What really interests me is mutation: change that is beyond control’.

‘That is not to say that I am blind to what goes on in the real world, it’s just that I can’t really relate to the mind-set of someone who craves power. I do think that politics is overly obsessed with power. That’s why I believe that the world should not be governed by politics, but by culture – and just to be clear: by that I don’t mean that artists should rule the world’.

‘To my mind, culture is the strength of humanity, expressing itself in matters such as human rights, public spaces, and also art. It would be better if we were governed by a centralised expression of this strength than by centralised power, like we are now’.

But is it even possible to centralise culture in such a way?

Koen Vanmechelen: ‘Perhaps not. Perhaps that’s when strength mutates into power. But I work from the assumption that those who work in the cultural sector have no interest in power’.

I have to say that sounds very idealistic.

Koen Vanmechelen: ‘An artist is motivated by the desire to change the world, not by the power to possess it’.

There are many forms of power, not all of them to do with ownership. Artists are very much obsessed with symbolic power: the ability to define what is important or unimportant, to define what is beautiful or ethical, and the desire to play a crucial role in those debates. There are few other disciplines in which status is as elemental as art. In one of your newspaper columns, you yourself talk about the abundance of large egos in the art world.

© Stoffel Hias

Outside view, LABIOMISTA – Studio Koen Vanmechelen, designed by Mario Botta (CH)

Koen Vanmechelen: ‘That’s true, yes. But when I see great art, I don’t sense that hunger for power. I just feel the inner strength of the work itself, not the petty character of the artist’.

In your own artistic work, and even more so in the context you provide for it, the question the work poses seems more important than the form it takes. Should ethics outweigh esthetics in art?

Koen Vanmechelen: ‘Vision should always be more important than technique. Of course, a work must exhibit technical ability, but in such a way that it doesn’t detract the attention from its essence. You don’t want to create a work that is only judged by the quality of the welding. You want to create something that touches people in their shared humanity, because you the artist are giving form to an idea that inspires viewers to feel love, or anger, or something else’.

‘You want to create something that touches people in their shared humanity, because you the artist are giving form to an idea that inspires viewers to feel love, or anger, or something else.’

‘And because my art has a social focus, I’ve set up foundations early on that allow me to work with the autonomy of an artist, while still getting the latest input from biology, sociology, philosophy and other sciences, on all issues that move me. This is because I feel that artists need to benchmark their own artistic vision against the body of current knowledge. In my case, on topics that include fertility, immunity, diversity and human rights’.

‘On the other hand, art should not compete with journalism, because that’s a competition it can’t win. The confrontation between individual inspiration and current information must result in work that has a powerful, universal appeal. But whether and how that happens is a process you can’t control.’

The essence remains however how the individual artist shapes this confrontation between his own inspiration and the wider society. Otherwise, the explanation that accompanies the art becomes more important than the art itself.

Koen Vanmechelen: ‘Of course. And I think my work is appropriately configured for that. But does everyone feel the same way about this? That is the question, of course. Everyone’s taste is different in that respect. And so, what is beautiful can also be ugly at the same time’.

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