Domestic chickens inside the city limits of Lawrence, Kansas are no longer being threatened with slaughter. Any chickens elsewhere will have to fend for themselves.
This, it may surprise you to know, is disappointing news to performance artists everywhere and to one performing artist, Amber Hansen, in particular. It was Ms. Hansen’s ambition to do just that, kill a few chickens, and call it art. Following the axiom “I am an artist, so it must be art,” she secured a grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation for Visual Arts. Other donors—Charlotte Street Foundation and the University of Kansas' Spencer Museum of Art—stepped up with additional grants.
Ms. Hansen, a farm kid from Iowa and now a lecturer and artist in residence at the University of Kansas, had the idea to display chickens in their coops at various spots around Lawrence. She planned to recruit volunteers to tend them and at the end of a month, publicly slaughter them. This was to “reconnect” people to their food sources.
Since leaving farm life, which included raising some food animals for home consumption, Ms. Hansen feared she was losing the elemental association that exists between eating food and killing it oneself. It was her contention that the people of Lawrence would benefit from her The Story of Chickens: A Revolution. Society has been separated from the reality of food by the revolution in farm industrialization. Ms. Hansen herself tends toward vegetarianism, so her project might be considered a little in-your-face for those of us who indulge the flesh, so to speak.
“By building a relationship with the birds, the project will transform the contemporary view of chickens as merely ‘livestock’ to the beautiful and unique creatures they are, while promoting alternative and healthy processes of caring for them,” as she wrote on her project web site.
I can’t say why Ms. Hansen would want to move into the field of performance art; she is a lecturer in drawing and painting at the university. Perhaps she only wanted to broaden her artistic field by recalling her childhood farm experiences. Anyway, the performance was to conclude with a chicken-fry potluck.
The proposal aroused no small degree of hostility, especially from United Poultry Concerns, a vegan organization. She became the subject of articles in the Kansas City Star, Huffington Post and others. A good deal of the coverage adopted a, let us say, derisive tone. A spokesperson for United Poultry Concerns was actually sniffy about it. “We do not believe that live animals should be treated as museum specimens or be art objects and we certainly don’t consider the slaughter of animals to be artistic.”
A Lawrence bureaucrat, an assistant city attorney to be exact, rose to the occasion and pointed out that harming or killing a domestic animal within the city limits carries a fine of one thousand dollars. Chickens are permitted in Lawrence, ergo, any chicken within the city limits is domesticated.
If Ms. Hansen wanted to generate discussion on how Americans eat their food, and the slaughter and the blood that entails, she probably succeeded. We are much removed from the era when we knew the animals we ate. When I was a boy, we did kill chickens for our table. More than once as a rural pastor I witnessed the home-butchering of a yearling calf. The animals were all unnamed, and that seems a point to bear in mind. As close as we were to those animals, there was a distance we preferred to keep.
Karen Armstrong’s Case for God suggests that the practice of animal sacrifice was and in some religious practices remains a cultural memory arising from our Paleolithic hunter-gatherer ancestors. Hunters knew they inflicted pain and death upon creatures with which they shared the land. European cave art, almost exclusively renderings of prey animals, is a result of this melancholic awareness, a shamanistic device to honor and at the same time summon the animals that fed humans. They were creation’s sacrifice to human necessity.
So I actually have some sympathy for Ms. Hansen’s effort. I would not go so far as to call it art but do think she could reframe it as a 4-H project demonstrating how to keep chickens in the city. That interests me. There is quite a movement for urban poultry. Call it a fancy from childhood when I had a pet rooster; I would like to have four hens for the eggs. They would be very expensive eggs, however. To have a proper coop requires two to three thousand dollars, and I’d have to find a chicken sitter while vacationing. Plus, a pesky point, I need my wife’s permission. I am two for three at the moment.
Russell E. Saltzman is a Lutheran pastor, an online homilist for the Christian Leadership Center at the University of Mary, and author of The Pastor’s Page and Other Small Essays. His previous On the Square articles can be found here.