I prefer free range eggs. For me, there’s something creepy about confining living creatures in cramped wire cages and forcing them to spit out produce on an industrial scale. It’s just one of the many moral dilemmas that we as consumers face every day.
Turns out Austin Stewart – American artist, lecturer, microcontroller programmer and circuit designer – feels the same way. His latest project, Second Livestock, envisions kitting out caged hens with virtual reality goggles, microphones and movement sensors to fool them into thinking they’re scratching around outdoors along with the rest of their confined feathered friends in a “free range grub-fest”.
What he’s gone and done I find absolutely brilliant. Under the guise of providing a solution to maintain the profitability of conventional chicken farming, he engages the ethical debates of contemporary animal husbandry and our increasing fixation with virtual reality.
Says Stewart: “My purpose in making art is to learn through questioning cultural and personal assumptions about the world and share that learning. Though the work addresses various ethical quandaries, its goal is not to convince my audience to take sides in the debate, but to share in the experience of quandary on issues that will shape our future.”
In Stewart’s virtual free range world the battery hens’ enclosures are built to provide a comfortable and healthy home. Omni-directional treadmills provide them with the freedom to move freely in the virtual world. Virtual tasty morsels appear where their real food trays are located. Each enclosure has independently filtered air to keep communicable diseases and parasites from spreading through the facility. And, although the animals spend their entire lives in a virtual world, light pipes use sunlight to illuminate the building during daylight hours to ensure the birds produce sufficient levels of vitamin D.
When presenting Second Livestock to audiences, Stewart keeps the aesthetics of his presentation intentionally poor – mirroring the presentations frequently given at technology conferences and trade shows.
Then, to demonstrate his CCI (Chicken-Computer Interface), he gets a volunteer from the audience to strap on a human-scale VR headset and place their hands on the treadmill. Though scaled to size, the virtual cameras are still aligned at angles that correspond to the anatomical position of a chicken’s eyes. Apart from being quite disorienting, it also forces the volunteer to experience the world as a chicken.
You might think Stewart’s watched the Matrix trilogy too many times. I think he’s damn clever.
To find out more about Second Livestock and other cool projects that make you think, visit www.theaustinstewart.com