Animal Farms, Animal Factories
Deb’s very timely post reminded me to watch ‘The Chicken Coup,’ two videos which I found and bookmarked last night. (Thanks, Deb!) Created by artist/musician Nathan Meltz, the two-part short belongs to series of artwork in which Meltz explores the increasingly industrialized nature of food production (both animal and plant). In addition to ‘The Chicken Coup,’ the prints ‘Animal Farm,’ ‘Waiting for My Mechanical Bull,’ ‘Grazing Cow,’ and ‘Enviropig‘ depict nonhuman “food” animals as uniform, de-individualized pieces of machinery, engineered (and patented!) by equally impersonal human overlords. (Okay, so perhaps I’m reading my veganism into Meltz’s work, which is likely intended to be more welfare than rights in nature. Can you really blame me?)
In an interview at Sociological Images, Meltz describes his artwork:
In my machine world, animals are put on assembly lines, cramped together in feed lots, and, in the case of the chickens in The Chicken Coup animation, reside in an agricultural system designed by sadists. They all look the same because there is no diversity on the factory farm.
The two short videos in ‘The Chicken Coup’ depict the “life” (if you can call it that) of a “battery” hen trapped in an industrialized egg production facility. This one individual hen is constructed of steel and iron – as opposed to the other hens’ copper elements – in order to set her apart from the rest of her cage mates. Save for her eventual death and “processing” into animal feed and “pet” food, all the aspects of a life wasted on a battery farm are present: the chick’s emergence from her egg, straight into a cold, desolate incubator; the “sorting” of male and female birds (and the destruction of the “worthless” male babies); the mutilation of the hen’s beak so that, when her instinct to peck and scratch for food is frustrated, she is less able to redirect this behavior onto the bodies of her cage mates; her imprisonment, along with several other hens, in a tiny, barren cage; and the constant laying of eggs, which are then quickly ferried away from the expectant mother via a sloped cage floor.
It is here – with the never-ending expulsion and theft of egg upon egg – that the story reaches its climax. Meltz juxtaposes images of eggs laid by machine parts with real-life footage of a small flock of birds strutting around in the grass, pecking for food, basking in the sun, and enjoying one another’s company. Naturally, this makes for a startling and disheartening contrast. As the hen’s eggs – her potential babies – are stolen from her, one by one, she becomes increasingly frantic. The would-be mother’s desperation builds; images of an animated industrial animal factory are interwoven with scenes of a human/consumer preparing and eating a fried chicken egg. Her egg. Pieces of her body, depleted and stolen – for what? An omelet?
‘The Chicken Coup’ ends with just that – the angry (yet futile) coup of one lone hen. Our fair heroine makes a conscious decision to hold onto her eggs and destroy them rather than turn them over to her captors. A small victory, but a victory nonetheless. (The video’s conclusion brings to mind stories of similar acts of resistance among nonhuman animals, both imprisoned and free-living: cows who escape imminent death, elephants who defend their habitat against human encroachment, dogs who put their own lives at risk to rescue their friends.)
The ‘Animal Farms’ series seems to be an indictment of modern animal agriculture rather than animal agriculture in general (for example, the free-living chickens in ‘The Chicken Coup’ look as though they might be part of a backyard flock – which certainly makes for better digs than a battery farm, but still isn’t cool), yet it’s a striking piece nonetheless. In particular, I found myself dreading that most ominous human hand – appearing on occasion and never bringing with it good fortune, only bad. Looking up at a looming, larger-than-life human hand from the vantage point of the hen, the viewer gets a sense of how she must feel: scared, vulnerable, defenseless. “Humanity” – as represented in that single, disembodied, pitiless hand – must seem as alien to her as she seems to it.
Again, if you can call it that.