“Art means total freedom, no algorithms but my own” - an interview with Koen Vanmechelen

By Anna Savitskaya - Monday, October 2, 2017
“Art means total freedom, no algorithms but my own” - an interview with Koen Vanmechelen

Koen Vanmechelen is a contemporary Belgian conceptual artist who is best known for his work ‘Cosmopolitan Chicken Project’, which explored the themes of bio-cultural diversity through the study of a chicken and its genetic ancestor, the red junglefowl. Science and technology play an important role in his art and many critics have explored this relationship. Koen Vanmechelen’s thinking seems to depart from the realms of art, which sets him free to explore his subjects from new and original viewpoints. The Cosmopolitan Chicken Project was a worldwide breeding program, allowing Vanmechelen to study the human-bred creatures, diversity issues and the ethics of his crossbreeding activity.

“Art means total freedom, no algorithms but my own” - an interview with Koen Vanmechelen

Koen Vanmechelen is a contemporary Belgian conceptual artist who is best known for his work ‘Cosmopolitan Chicken Project’, which explored the themes of bio-cultural diversity through the study of a chicken and its genetic ancestor, the red junglefowl. Science and technology play an important role in his art and many critics have explored this relationship. Koen Vanmechelen’s thinking seems to depart from the realms of art, which sets him free to explore his subjects from new and original viewpoints. The Cosmopolitan Chicken Project was a worldwide breeding program, allowing Vanmechelen to study the human-bred creatures, diversity issues and the ethics of his crossbreeding activity.

This year Koen Vanmechelen appeared at the Venice Biennale for the sixth time, where he presented his new monumental contemporary sculpture ‘Protected Paradise’.

Artdependence Magazine: Not very much is known about your work before 2000. What were your main themes at that time?

Koen Vanmechelen: My first works were mainly wooden constructions, assemblages, and bird cages. They fitted within the Belgian assemblage art tradition. From the start, my themes were about conflict: domestication and de-domestication, open and closed, freedom and duality. In the nineties, I evolved into a conceptual artist and my path quickly led me to a multi-, trans- and interdisciplinary approach. Science and technology became essential ingredients of my work. During the late nineties I launched my core work, the ‘Cosmopolitan Chicken Project’ (CCP). 

AD: You are using very diverse media to express yourself. The newest technology on the art scene seems to be virtual reality (VR). Have you thought about doing something with VR?

KV: In 2013, I received the 'Golden Nica' award in the 'Hybrid Art' category for my pioneering work on the edges of art, science, technology and research. I collaborated with scientists who use cutting edge technology. At the moment I am using drone technology. The moment VR presented itself as useful in my line of work, I used it. It was in 1999, when VR was used for my work ‘Virtual Fighters’.

Installation view, The Cosmopolitan Chicken Project, The Appeal of the Chicken – CCP, Museum Valkhof, Nijmegen (NL) © Koen Vanmechelen, photo by Alex Deyaert

Installation view, Planetary Community Chicken, Ethiopia, CosmOpolitan Gallery, Genk (Be), 2017 © Koen Vanmechelen, photo by Kristof Vrancken

Installation view, Planetary Community Chicken, Socle du Monde, Biennial of Herning (DK), 2017 © Koen Vanmechelen, photo by Goele Schoofs

AD: Why, from all the species on earth, have you chosen to work with chickens?

KV: The chicken picked me as a young boy. I started keeping some eggs and coops with chickens in my room. From then, I followed this bird, and it followed me - the most domesticated animal in the world. It has co-evolved with the human species for the past 7000 years, changing the very fabric of the cultures it was adopted by and being transformed by them into indigenous breeds that reflect the typical cultural characteristics of their community. This led to an incredible biocultural diversity. After human and chicken encountered each other on the border of the Asian jungle and the domesticated world, their fates have become intertwined. For me, the chicken serves as a metaphor for humanity and social processes, especially biological and cultural diversity. Each country has a typical 'national' chicken. The standard French chicken, the Poulet de Bresse, has a white body, blue legs, and a red head. It is a living French flag.

These descendant breeds are all human-made end-points, even sometimes literally so, in the sense that they are often infertile. Man made a frame around these living animals. The ‘Cosmopolitan Chicken Project’ reflects on that. What if we started diversifying again? Instead of breeding, I am crossbreeding species. After many years of crossbreeding, I discovered that each successive generation of my Cosmopolitan chickens is different. More resilient, it lives longer, is less susceptible to disease, and exhibits less aggressive behaviour. Genetic diversity is critical for livable populations. It is essential to life.

AD: The central theme of your work seems to be biological and cultural diversity or biocultural diversity. How can it be applied to humans and what role does a human play in it? Is he a part of this diversity or someone controlling it?

KV: Homo sapiens have undoubtedly been manipulating diversity for a very long time. It is quintessential to evolution and survival. Diversity is the glue that binds life on Gaia, the living system we are all part of. It means breaking the tendency of all living things to achieve a monoculture, a de facto state of infertility. It requires effort, breaking out of what I call ‘the cage’ and starting to move, looking for the right temperature and place to hatch. Leaving paradise, reinventing the self and the interaction with others and the other. We need them as much as they need us to survive. The result of the creation of more diversity is a starting point for the very same process. Worrying though is the huge loss of diversity in nature, caused by the human animal. We need de-domestication and rewilding.

Virtual Fighter, The Cosmopolitan Chicken Project, The Appeal of the Chicken – CCP, Museum Valkhof, Nijmegen (NL) © Koen Vanmechelen, photo by Alex Deyaert

Manneke van glas, glass, 1998 © Koen Vanmechelen, photo by Peter Labarque

B1, wood, grain, breeding lamp, 1985 © Koen Vanmechelen, Photo by Alex Deyaert

AD: Where is the border between art and science in your project?

KV: I am certainly no scientist. My thinking departs from art. Science plays a part in my work since it complements artistic creation. Together art and science can reveal the vicissitude of nature, as David Rothenberg states in his book Survival of the Beautiful. They both engender knowledge. Science can deliver facts and technology with which I can work, but it will never steer or limit me. Art means total freedom, no algorithms but my own. I like that.

AD: Could you please tell us a bit more about the art-science collaboration between yourself and the International Livestock Research Institute in Ethiopia. ‘Incubated Worlds’ explores the ways biocultural diversity can shape our lives and contribute to the development of small-scale sustainable food systems in sub-Saharan Africa. What is the aim of this collaboration?

KV: In partnership with the International Livestock Research Institute, the Ethiopian Institute of Agriculture Research and MOUTH (one of my foundations), the discoveries from the Cosmopolitan Chicken Project are being harnessed by scientific research. In 2017, as a follow-up to the African Chicken Genetics Gains (ACGG) Project (backed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation), Cosmopolitan Chickens will be crossbred with chicken strains selected according to productivity and farmer preference in sub-Saharan Africa. The resulting crossbred chicks will be known as Ethiopian African Planetary Community Chickens (EAPCC). They represent the merger of the global with the local. They are part of a quest to optimise the balance between diversity and productivity. The EAPCC combines the greater resilience of the genetically diverse Cosmopolitan Chicken with the productivity of the ACGG-selected strains. 

The ultimate aim of the ACGG project is to identify sustainable, high productivity poultry stock able to help communities in developing countries living in low-resource settings, where the chicken remains a major source of nutrition and income. In many of these countries, women are primarily responsible for keeping chickens. So the EAPCC also becomes a tool for the empowerment of women and leads to more social cohesion.

AD: Are you trying to attract peoples’ attention to the problem, or are you trying to solve it (and if so, how far did you get)?

KV: We are living in crucial times, looking for balance. Finding a new balance often implies returning on your steps and finding a new road ahead. For us humans, this involves answering difficult questions about our identity, about life and the role of diversity and the possibility of transformation. I show that answers lie in crossing and transdisciplinary collaboration. I want to reveal the sophisticated beauty in seemingly ordinary things and accentuate our role in the chain of life and time. I ask very simple questions around tough answers and try to find a way through the maze, inviting others to join me. 

Protected Paradise, Mixed media artwork (bronze, marble egg, glass fiber egg, recycled plastic, recycled glass, steel) 12 x 10 x 7 m, Garden of Palazzo Franchetti, GLASSTRESS 2017, Biennial of Venice (IT), 2017 © Koen Vanmechelen

Protected Paradise, Mixed media artwork (bronze, marble egg, glass fiber egg, recycled plastic, recycled glass, steel) 12 x 10 x 7 m, Garden of Palazzo Franchetti, GLASSTRESS 2017, Biennial of Venice (IT), 2017 © Koen Vanmechelen, photo by Domi Diaz

AD: Tell us more about your participation at the Venice Biennale. Is it an absolute dream and holy grail to any artist to present artwork at this event? How did it happen?

KV: This is the sixth Biennale I have attended. Ever since my first visit to Venice in the early 90s, the Venetian brain touched me. I immediately realised that this city was my original nest and understood at once ‘hic et nunc’  - the intersection of reality and myth, land and water, past and present - that life is multidimensional. I call these accidents in time. Accidental encounters have become central to my work which has a strong focus on the themes of duality and identity, transformation through movement and contact with the ‘Other’. This is what I call cross-fertilisation. Venice continues to be a place of accidental encounters for me. During my first Biennale I displayed a work which I  think of as ‘The Accident’ (half glass, half taxidermy chicken). It is an ode to contemporary glass. I’ve also shown a work called ‘Infinity’ (2009) and pieces called ‘Nato A Venezia’ (Loredan, 2011) and ‘AWAKENER/LIFEBANK’ (Franchetti, 2015). This year I will show ‘Protected Paradise’ (Franchetti). 

For ‘Nato a Venezia’ I invited scientists from various universities to come to Venice where I showed the Mechelse Fayoumi, a cosmopolitan chicken with Egyptian genes - referring to the first, cosmopolitan fertilisation of the Venetian Renaissance. Two years ago for ‘AWAKENER/LIFEBANK’ the camel that escorted me over the Canal Grande was accompanied by people from the slow food movement (food, contact). Now, I bring industrialists to the city, people working in recycling and sustainability for ‘Protected Paradise’ (industry). Without the first accident, each of the following new accidents would not have happened. It was a movement from the individual to the intellectual, the actual to the universal.

AD: You will be showing your new sculpture ‘Protected Paradise’, which demonstrates the fragility of humanism and the impact of individual choice, consisting of symbols: eggs, trees, cages – the contradiction between life and liberty versus obstruction, despair, hopelessness, no way out. What is the message?

KV: A protected paradise is a contradictio in terminis. A paradise does not have protection. No walls, no gates. It is protection; all its elements are in continuous connection and harmony. I express this through the combination and confrontation of the various materials and elements. Their respective philosophies contribute to the meta-idea behind ‘Protected Paradise’. The work is a kind of nature morte with a strong message to the coming generations. Life always finds its way. The future rests on top of-of the cage. This egg, a recalcitrant object, born out of the fire, water, sand, and air, will determine its future, unprotected, surprising. It rests on a human-made cage, constructed out of recycled material, collected from the past but transmogrified. Sculpting new life and a hopeful future from ‘Nature Morte’, that responsibility is ours. 

There are six elements:

•          The sea of glass are the foundation out of which all other parts spring.

•          The two bronze trees of knowledge and spirituality, Ygdrassil-like, who melt into one surreal fairy tree.

•          The monumental egg of marble, the only natural, fossilised element.

•          The giant bronze claw of history, also caged, trying to touch the grandeur of the past.

•          The cage is made of recycled plastic and refers to the cages we make in our lives. It promises hope.

•          The egg of fibreglass is a mix of natural and recycled, culture and nature, anticipating a new birth, an explosion. 

For more information please visit: www.koenvanmechelen.bewww.mouth.be

Image on top: The Chicken’s Appeal, 2016 © Koen Vanmechelen

This interview first appeared in our printed issue of Artdependence Magazine #5/2017

Anna is a graduate of Moscow’s Photo Academy, with a previous background in intellectual property rights. In 2012 she founded the company Perspectiva Art, dealing in art consultancy, curatorship, and the coordination of exhibitions. During the bilateral year between Russia and The Netherlands in 2013, Perspectiva Art organized a tour for a Dutch artist across Russia, as well as putting together several exhibitions in the Netherlands, curated by Anna. Since October 2014, Anna has taken an active role in the development and management of ArtDependence Magazine. Anna interviews curators and artists, in addition to reviewing books and events, and collaborating with museums and art fairs.

Telegram Channel

ArtDependence is now also available on the messaging platform Telegram. Telegram is a cloud-based mobile and desktop messaging app with a focus on security and speed.

Subscribing to the ArtDependence Channel allows you to easily stay up to date with the latest ArtDependence news.

Subscribe to the Newsletter

Image of the Day

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Femme au béret orange et au col de fourrure (Marie‐Thérèse), executed 4 December 1937. Oil on canvas. 24⅛ x 18⅛ in (61.2 x 46.1 cm)

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Femme au béret orange et au col de fourrure (Marie‐Thérèse), executed 4 December 1937. Oil on canvas. 24⅛ x 18⅛ in (61.2 x 46.1 cm)

Search

About ArtDependence

ArtDependence Magazine is an international magazine covering all spheres of contemporary art, as well as modern and classical art.

ArtDependence features the latest art news, highlighting interviews with today’s most influential artists, galleries, curators, collectors, fair directors and individuals at the axis of the arts.

The magazine also covers series of articles and reviews on critical art events, new publications and other foremost happenings in the art world.

If you would like to submit events or editorial content to ArtDependence Magazine, please feel free to reach the magazine via the contact page.