Christopher Simpson

• Chicken art and Canadian politics

Reprinted from What’s On Queen, Dec. 1997 In 1997, Ottawa performance artist Rob Thompson caged a man and a woman to protest the conditions of commercially bred chickens.

Considering the spate of controversy surrounding Rob Thompson’s recent performance-art in Ottawa, a naive observer could be forgiven the impression that caging two people for a week is somehow “strange” or “peculiar.”
Of course, nothing could be further from the truth.

Despite those critics who doubt the validity of Thompson’s art, he is in fact following a long tradition of avant-garde aesthetes, not the least of whom was the late, great Rudolph Schwarzkogler who amputated various portions of his body until he ran out of material and died.

Leaving aside philosophical concerns regarding performance-art — such as whether it should be considered “late-modern” or “postmodern” (particularly in view of Ihab Hassan’s carefully reasoned 1980 article, “The Question of Postmodernism,” in which he concludes that he really isn’t sure) — there is still the matter of its remarkable allure and powerful effect.

Indeed, if Thompson’s recent piece is to be condemned for anything, it should be condemned, not for being too radical, but for being too mainstream. Performance-art has become such a common method of propagating an idea that, regardless of its proper dialectic position within modernity, it should at least lose its status as a “subordinate” or “alternative” art form.

And Canada has contributed more than its share of talent to the field.Few would argue that the most successful Canadian performance-artists in recent years are Parizeau and Bouchard who combine the comedic talents of Laurel and Hardy with the political sophistication of Abbot and Costello. But many others, albeit less spectacularly, have displayed their own form of artistic genius.

Consider, for instance, the recent meditation on public vs. private housing. No debate could have raised awareness in quite the same fashion as Preston Manning’s performance piece entitled “Stornoway.” And art critics will long remember Jean Cretien’s innovative 1996 piece, “I Talk to the Homeless,” which so poignantly highlighted the distressing, and mostly ignored, tragedy of mental illness brought on by serving too long in an elected office.

It is precisely this ability to drive home important messages without benefit of rational thought that makes performance-art so valuable. Rob Thompson could hardly have chosen a more suitable method to highlight the living conditions of commercially bred chickens than by paying two people $2000 to sit in a cage for a week.

Having conceded the validity of his project, however, we are not then compelled to overlook its few, but glaring, weaknesses.

In the first place, his indexical symbology would have been more accurate had he placed two women in the cage rather than a man and a woman, since hens, by and large, tend to be female. By mixing his gender-related imagery, he not only compromises the overall integrity of his work, but also destroys the otherwise natural connotations that could have been developed vis a vis the broader canvas of women’s issues.

Nor should he have allowed Eric Wolf and Pam Meldrum (the “chickens”) to speak. A more demanding artistic standard would have restricted their articulation to clucks — although an argument could have been made for Eric Wolf, as the rooster, to occasionally crow.

Still, despite these, and other lapses in the execution of his work, Thompson’s piece succeeded in its overall effect. Not only did it create a visually disturbing image concerning the main issue of fowl-slavery, but when we remember that over 80 people applied for the position of “chicken” it also vividly carried a strong subtextual message concerning the effects of mass unemployment.

Other good news is that Thompson may have inspired an artistic response. According to recent reports, an unidentified commercial chicken farmer living in the Niagara Peninsula is thinking of producing his own performance piece dramatizing the conditions of free-range chickens. In this work, up to twenty people will spend their nights perched on wooden rods. During the day, of course, they will strut around a dirt yard eating food from the ground with their mouths.

Works like these will assure Canada of its proper place in the artistic pecking order.