Diplomatic World on Koen Vanmechelen

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DIPLOMATIC WORLD GLOBAL ART FORUM KOEN VANMECHELEN The Belgian artist Koen Vanmechelen (1965, Belgium) is an internationally acclaimed conceptual artist. His work explores the importance of bio-cultural diversity, identity and community. He is best known for his Cosmopolitan Chicken Project (CCP) in which he cross-breeds domesticated chickens from different countries as an allegorical and aesthetic statement about the way in which diversity can shape the global cultural and genetic mix. The artist’s scientific collaborations around the project have earned him numerous awards including the Golden Nica Hybrid Art award in 2013. Vanmechelen has presented his work on almost every continent and is a regular contributor to the Venice Biennale. From spring 2017, his headquarters will be a former public zoo in the Belgian city of Genk, where he is creating a wildlife park, an educational and research center, and an urban farm, alongside his studio.

Black Medusa, 2015 76 x 43 x 32 cm Black Marble, taxidermy chickens, taxidermy snakes © Koen Vanmechelen Photo by Magali Merzougui The Accident, 2013 69 x 30 x 54 cm Taxidermy chicken, glass sword, wood © Koen Vanmechelen Photo by Magali Merzougui Mechelse Wyandotte – CCP20, 2016 160 x 120 x 2 cm Photo (lambda) print on plexi glass © Koen Vanmechelen



The artist explains: 2016 anchored a breakthrough in my reasoning after 20 years of cross-breeding chickens in the Cosmopolitan Chicken Project. When listening to Olivier Hanotte’s presentation (Olivier Hanotte is Professor of Genetics & Conservation in the Faculty of Medecine & Health Sciences at Nottingham University) about the role of chickens in Africa and developing countries, he gave me a wake-up call. He teased me to initiate and take action with the CCP. That is how the Planetary Community Chicken (PCC) was created and a new foundation, MOUTH, was set up to support the new scientific and social applications that evolve.

Using the chicken as a medium, Vanmechelen positions art categorically where it belongs: in the middle of society, engaging with people. His oeuvre is as diverse and hybrid as his Cosmopolitan Chicken itself: a unique mix of paintings, drawings, photography, innovative 3D-techniques, video, installations and wooden sculptures. The unifying theme remains the chicken and the egg. But nothing is what it seems. The core of the project is neither the chicken nor the egg, but crossbreeding and the diversity that comes from it.

In the CCP we have been crossbreeding chickens originating from all over the world. In the process of the PCC the time has come to bring back the diversification in our economical oriented processes. Our world has become inhabited by monocultures, not just physically by humans or animals but also politically, economically, sociologically and even on an artistic level. This is a danger for our species and our thinking. We have to break through this tendency.

When talking to artist Koen Vanmechelen the good listener has to step out of the borders of the classical art practice. Entering a world of multiple dimensions the artist obliges the audience to step out of a standard artistic frame. Science, Biology, Philosophy, Politics, Sociology, Economy and even Diplomacy enter the picture and are touched within this new framework by the artist’s thinking and practice.

We have to move borders to create a new fertility. This was the basic idea 20 years ago to start the CCP. The chicken is my metaphor for human beings and civilisation. The chicken was living on the edge of the jungle and the human world, before the domestication process was initiated. This small organism concluded that in order to survive it needed to connect to the world of human beings. To preserve fertility, we need a fertility stimulated by external factors.

We met at La Biomista, the artist’s new studio and foundation headquarters situated in a former public zoo in the Belgian city of Genk. La Biomista, literally 'mix of life', is in itself an all-encompassing art project, set up as a model for the philosophical ideas on which Vanmechelen’s work is based. Koen Vanmechelen engages himself in a visionary way towards society, steering and committing to a social context where the artist assumes responsibility to influence stakeholders in their efforts to shape and better the world. Globalization, racism, multiculturalism, genetic engineering, cloning, urban farming, sustainability, poverty are topics of interest in his research and practice.


When I interviewed Koen Vanmechelen he just came back from the United States, still impressed by the reactions he noticed related to the daily political situation. “I have a positive approach in my being, towards my

CCPPCCPCCCCP, 2016 107 x 183 x 1 cm Mounted neon sign, plexi glass ENERGY/MASS, Wasserman Projects, Detroit (US), 2016

This is important and my #1 rule, fertility always comes from the outside.

The Chicken’s Appeal

© Koen Vanmechelen, 2016

environment and artistic context, but in this special case we will have to defend our shared values and future visions.” Over time we have seen Vanmechelen's work evolve as the artist sought collaboration across disciplines and reached deeper into society.

From this idea and practice I founded the Open University of Diversity (OpUnDi) as a think tank for new research in diversity, immunity and fertility. If I wanted to keep my fertility as an artist, I needed others to preserve my practice. Science, sociology, biology, philosophy, all came to my path to nurture and to grow me as an artist. By doing this, the other parties involved also kept a fertile ground thanks to this exchange of stimulating ideas. We are constantly looking for the biggest knowledge, the knowledge we don’t know yet.

© Koen Vanmechelen

This is my #2 rule, every organism is searching for another organism to survive. Let’s go back to the drawing board and my first sketch. The Red Junglefowl, the source of life for all chickens, gave us his DNA, as chicken and humans started a unique symbiotic relation. Domestication started by humans and we created monocultures. In consequence fertility decreased. I created the CCP and started to crossbreed chickens since 1999 to counter this process of monocultural domestication and with the ultimate aim of creating a truly cosmopolitan chicken. As a result we have today The Book of Genomes, a scientific art piece developed using the latest DNA mapping technologies. This book evidences the 13 million SNP DNA in the CCP, as opposed to the 4-5 million in a regular commercial chicken. That is wonderful and unique, it means we have a chicken with significantly increased diversity, improved immunity and strong fertility. CCP is our collective memory, far away from industry and politics. CCP is free and ready to live. Over time, the need to redistribute the diversity we had created, became clear. The CCP now gives us the unique opportunity to refresh gene pools of domesticated chickens worldwide to strengthen immunity and fertility. For a truly sustainable process, I figured out we also needed to add an element of productivity and economics, what I deliberately refused during the development of CCP. CCP was an art environment without economic or industrial reality.


Finally we need to grow La Biomista as a laboratory, and with the inclusion of all the complexity and duality, we can create a new era. An era that is defined by balancing dualities; where productivity joins diversity and where local meets glocal.

COSMOPOLITAN CHICKEN PROJECT (CCP) Koen Vanmechelen first gained international recognition in the late nineties, with the launch of his Cosmopolitan Chicken Project (CCP). He began to crossbreed domesticated chickens from different countries with the ultimate aim of creating a truly cosmopolitan chicken. Behind the project is the understanding that all chickens alive today are themselves a story of diversity ‒ all originally descended from a single bird, the Red Junglefowl.

Pyramid of Brains, Pyramid of Time, 2001 Artist sketch

This is my #3 rule, diversity is not enough.


© Koen Vanmechelen

With the insight I gained during my conversations with Olivier Hanotte, we started the Planetary Community Chicken, creating a new dimension and sharpening my artistic concept. We moved forward and evolved to PCC (mirroring CCP). Which means diversity and productivity are crossed. We keep the roosters from CCP and crossbreed with commercial chickens from the local markets.

The chicken, enriched by the convergence of diversity and productivity, global and local, can get out of its controlled environment and will be more resilient and adaptable, starting a new evolution, one that embraces the intrinsic complexity of life. As human beings we should step out of our protected environment and embrace the complexity of our social model too. Evolution means also accepting complexity. We need to embrace the risk of diversity to survive. In consequence it means that duality is accepted on different levels.

The crossing brings diversity to the local flock. By introducing a new ‘global genome’, it breaks through the cycle of genetic erosion that results from local inbreeding and the industrial highly efficient mono-cultural production. The local chicken provides the necessary characteristics suited for the local environment and resistance to local threats and in turn strengthens the cosmopolitan genome. By activating PCC we search for a new balance between diversity and productivity, global and local issues. In this case global meets local and local meets global. The process is an ongoing cycle, where we unite and diverge continuously.

In conclusion I come back to our human society. 20 years ago when I made my original drawing, the Red Junglefowl was on top. The Red Junglefowl lives at the feet of the Himalaya Mountains and has spread its genes all over the world. But today the human being and his ideas stand on top of my drawing board. Our ideas can be dispersed all over the globe in all its complexity and diversity, but this concept can easily decrease to a commercial idea. Our next step should be that we bring monocultures back together to create something new. A new social model, bridging politics and economics, philosophy and art. This is my story, which holds everything together.

But, as Vanmechelen sees it, these purebred industrial or domesticated chickens are artificial human design constructs and representations of monocultures. The Cosmopolitan Chicken Project began as his attempt to disrupt that process and open up new evolutionary pathways to allow complexity back in. It has become a never-ending exploration of the impact of cultural and biological diversity on society as a whole.

Rather than choosing and crossing different breeds selected for specific purposes or superior traits and efficiency, Vanmechelen’s breeds are chosen for their various cultural characteristics. After nearly two decades, the CCP now encompasses the genetic diversity of over 20 different strains of purebred chickens from all over the world. Its genetic diversity is three to five times that of a normal commercial chicken, strengthening its resilience, immunity and fertility and providing living proof of ‘survival through the other’. In the millennium year 2000, Vanmechelen presented his first ‘crossing’, the Mechelse Bresse, a ‘crossing’ born out of the Belgian species Mechelse Koekoek and the French Poulet de Bresse. To date, twenty-one purebreds have been included in the CCP.

PLANETARY COMMUNITY CHICKEN (PCC) In 2016, Vanmechelen launched the Planetary Community Chicken (PCC) as a natural response to the positive outcomes of the CCP, and as a way to take his art and findings on diversity out into society. PCC starts from a crossing between the Cosmopolitan chicken and the local commercial chicken to create a robust community chicken for the world, The artist calls on us to reach across the borders to think, to come into

Installation view, Planetary Community Chicken, National Gallery of Zimbabwe, Harare (ZW), 2016

© Koen Vanmechelen


Rendering La Biomista – Studio Koen Vanmechelen, Genk (BE)


contact with other cultures, and above all to have mutual respect. The project focuses on the importance of diversity and local, small-scale community farming for long-term sustainability. The project starts with the idea that, every year, a rooster of the newest CCP crossbreed will be paired with a local commercial hen somewhere in the world. This chicken will absorb the genetic pool of the CCP rooster and the local commercial hen and produce a vital community chicken that can provide its host community with eggs and meat. The introduction of a new ‘cosmopolitan genome’ to the local flock puts an end to the ongoing cycle of genetic erosion that results from local inbreeding and industrial highly efficient mono-cultural production. It promises greater resilience and adaptability. In turn, the local chicken provides familiarity and the necessary characteristics suited for the local environment, as well as resistance to domestic threats. In each community into which the PCC is introduced, Vanmechelen makes an art exhibition the venue for the crossing and, through it, encourages public discussion about the value and meaning of diversity and identity. The beauty of ‘the other’, the coming together of the global with the local are visualised in a wide variety of works. The new crossbred chicks hatch in the galleries and museums – with exhibition materials often constructed and recycled by local communities – before being transferred to selected free-range flocks.

© Medialife, 2015

OPUNDI OpUnDi combines the different Foundations that originate from Koen’s work. But it is more than this: The Open University of Diversity is Koen Vanmechelen’s intellectual platform and forum, with the objective to create an inclusive community of innovative minds and thinkers around the topic of biocultural diversity, the central theme of Koen’s oeuvre. OpUnDi has become a think tank and a meeting place for cross-pollination. Scientists, philosophers, artists and other experts from different domains are invited to make the OpUnDi community stronger and more diverse. Debates, symposia, conferences and expert meetings are organized and informed by the works of art that will be on permanent display. OpUnDi serves as an intellectual space where art and sciences can intersect.

MOUTH MOUTH is a not-for-profit foundation that brings together art, science and people to explore the applications and impact of biocultural diversity. MOUTH harnesses the research potential of the CCP project through the provision of open-access samples and data for basic biological and medical research and through genetic livestock research to improve nutrition outcomes, empower women and raise the incomes of vulnerable

people. MOUTH also supports community led projects based on Vanmechelen's work and Public engagement events under OpUnDi.

balance. An exploration into the diversity of species is returning to the source of life, from where man stepped out into the world and began to interact with the other.



The first art exhibition that results from the establishment of MOUTH is Ethiopia / Incubated Worlds. Ethiopia / Incubated Worlds opened 23 February in Genk (Belgium) and presents the story of an evolution, an enquiry into how societies co-exist and evolve. The exhibition marks the launch of an art-science collaboration between the Belgian artist and the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in Ethiopia. Incubated Worlds explores the ways that biocultural diversity can shape our lives and contribute to the development of smallscale sustainable food systems in sub-Saharan Africa. Incubated Worlds celebrates a further stage in the life of the Cosmopolitan Chicken.

In 2017, Koen Vanmechelen moved his studio and foundation headquarters to La Biomista, situated in a former public zoo in the Belgian city of Genk. La Biomista, literally 'mix of life', is in itself an allencompassing art project, set up as a model for the philosophical ideas on which Vanmechelen’s work is based. La Biomista hosts Vanmechelen’s first Open University of Diversity and related foundations. The site is also where the artist's animals live and breed. It is both a laboratory and a library of biocultural diversity.

In partnership with the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and the Ethiopian Institute of Agriculture Research, the discoveries from the Cosmopolitan Chicken Project are being harnessed by scientific research. In 2017, as follow-up to the African Chicken Genetics Gains (ACGG) Project backed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Cosmopolitan Chickens are to 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 uniting of the global with the local. And 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 and low-resource settings, where the chicken remains an important 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 a means to greater social cohesion. It is significant that Ethiopia is at the heart of Incubated Worlds. Ethiopia is the cradle of civilization. Through Incubated Worlds, it becomes the laboratory for a new

La Biomista is situated at the intersection between city and countryside, industry and community. According to Vanmechelen: "This is a place thas has both the physical and mental space needed for biological and cultural diversity to flourish. Its position between the domesticated and the wild helps bring new fertility to the neighborhood, which in turn will spread to other parts of the city. La Biomista will show how various cultures can come into contact, and how humans, flora and fauna can co-exist in enriching ways that have perhaps been forgotten. My work at La Biomista navigates between and across disciplines, positioning diversity as the foundation for sustainable living and offering up an alternative to traditionally monolithic, mono-cultural approaches to development." The 24 hectare site will be open to the public in 2018. It consists of three parts: a villa, park and studio designed by influential Swiss architect Mario Botta, each one representing a different identity: humans, nature, and the interplay and tension between them. As visitors enter this world, a pair of stellar sea-eagles look down upon them from their cage above the studio, while the red jungle fowls, the source of all domesticated chicken life, continue to forage just meters away. A new exploration between man and nature begins. It is a search for a new, more sustainable balance. Text Bruno Devos in collaboration with Studio Koen Vanmechelen www.koenvanmechelen.com www.mouth.be


DIPLOMATIC WORLD GLOBAL ART FORUM ATHAR JABER For centuries, the human body has acted as a means for artists to understand and describe humanity. Keeping with this practice, Athar Jaber aims to research the expressive potential of the contemporary human body. Symptoms of the current condition are reflected in the physical imperfections, defects, and deformations found in his sculptures. To maintain a visual and technical connection to Western aesthetic tradition, he attempts to give shape to the contemporary person and their innermost thoughts, fears, agonies and suffering. The sculptures convey a disturbed, internally tormented spirit, vulnerable to the violence of life. The departure from classical sculpture challenges its reverence to beauty. A perfect body is an unsuitable reflection of a person’s physical and psychological fragility. Hence, the body must be deformed, amputated, alienated, and manipulated. Then, it begins expressing a reality representative of the human condition—a condition that finds entropy in its very essence. Entropy is the tendency for things to change from a state of order to one of disorder and decline. Its course carries violence, whether gradual or abrupt. His sculptures strive to explore the physical marks left by entropic processes. The variety of techniques the artist uses (carving, sandblasting, acid erosion, shooting) scrutinize decline caused by the natural course of time, and sudden damage caused by exercised violence. The work seeks to highlight an inevitability each one of us is subject to—our very own form of decline. In addition to that, an acceptance of time’s natural processes and an acknowledgment of time as an element that bonds us. They aim to stand as a testimony for the possibility of beauty in the face of decay.


Athar was born from Iraqi parents in Rome, in 1982. He currently lives and practises his profession as a sculptor and professor of sculpture at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, Belgium. He is also PhD Associate in the Arts at University and Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Antwerp.

Having moved around a number of countries and cities helped reinforce a sense of belonging that went beyond geographical borders. This notion acted as the framework to his sculptures, in a desire to outline a common human experience across culture and time. Having been brought up with images of the gulf war, themes such as suffering and violence became inevitable. Meanwhile, growing up in Florence allowed him to develop an understanding of the classical sculpture that embellishes the city—sculpture defined by its quest for ideal beauty. Athar seeks to explore the contrasting conditions of violence and beauty that have played a significant role in his development as an artist.

Opus 5 nr 1, 2015 26 x 39 x 44 cm Carrara marble (Statuario) © Athar Jaber Opus 5 nr 6, 2015 39 x 39 x 42 cm Carrara marble © Athar Jaber Opus 5 nr 8, 2015 26 x 21 x 39 cm Carrara Marble © Athar Jaber Opus 5 nr 5, 2015 12 x 12 x 20 cm Carrara Marble © Athar Jaber Opus 5 nr 4, 2015 15 x 22 x 25 cm Aurora marble © Athar Jaber, courtesy of The Barjeel Art Foundation

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