Update: Lawrence, KS officials have banned the project, saying the proposed art installation would amount to animal cruelty.

The Kansas code allows “with respect to farm animals” for “normal or accepted practices of animal husbandry, including the normal and accepted practices for the slaughter of such animals for food or by-products and the careful or thrifty management of one’s herd or animals, including animal care practices common in the industry or region.” How does the re-contextualization of these same practices as art and giving them public visibility suddenly make them criminal? What are the lengths to which we will go as a society to refuse to examine our own practices?

Amber Hansen’s project seems to have hit a double target: the denial in which we live regarding the cycle of life, death and consumption, as well as the prevailing expectation that art is entertainment and spectacle – not so much a venue for exploring serious ethical issues. This case  is a perfect example of why controversy in art is healthy.


Previous post: February 17th, 2012

How does one gauge the success of public art engaged in social issues? It seems that a lively conversation around it would be one good sign. Art today — controversial or not — aims to provoke new ways of thinking about ethical, political or social issues. If the issue is really current and important, one can expect the conversation to be heated.

Such is the case with Amber Hansen’s community art project “The Story of Chickens: A Revolution.” Although the project has yet to open, it is already causing a lively debate amongst animal rights groups, arts activists and the blogosphere at large.

Beginning in March, Hansen will unveil phase one of her project — a chicken coop which will house five chickens near the metropolitan area of Lawrence, KS. Kansas residents will be invited to play, feed, pet and otherwise interact with the chickens during their one month residency in the coop. After one month, the chickens, as tends to happen with their farm-raised brethren, will be butchered by a local farmer and served at a potluck to be held at the Percolator Art Gallery.

Hansen’s project is meant to challenge viewers to consider their relationship with the animals they eat, the dearth of live animals in urban areas, our disconnection from our sources of food. Some critics, however, oppose the project, complaining that it does not reveal the abuses of industrial farming, or that it turns chickens into a spectacle, or that it concludes in butchering the chickens.

Given the robust discussion about art, animals and ethics that the project is already provoking, Hansen may have already begun to accomplish even more that what her work initially intended. The Kansas University Spencer Museum of Art, and the Rocket Grants Program, have maintained their support for Hansen amidst the controversy. The Museum has initiated a lively online discussion, where one can encounter various points of view and arguments over ethics and our treatment of animals. For this, they deserve our full support.

When art asks uncomfortable questions, those who are disturbed by the artwork frequently attack the organization sponsoring it, which is why many arts organizations tone down their programming. Those arts organizations that persist with their mission of stimulating civic engagement are to be commended for their courage and principled approach.Controversy and debate can be enlightening and enriching, censorship and fear of controversy, on the other hand, arrest the conversation and petrify our thought.

You can join the conversation around the project here.