Internationally acclaimed conceptual artist Koen Vanmechelen explores the bond between art, science and philosophy. Central themes to his art are biocultural diversity, identity and community. Like in LABIOMISTA, the artist's new studio and headquarters, a unique art project conceived by Koen Vanmechelen and located in Genk, Belgium, that celebrates biocultural diversity and wants to show how man and nature can live together in a more sustainable way. The 6th of July LABIOMISTA officially opens its doors to the public. In the enormous 240.000 square meter area, a previous municipal zoo, and before that a coal mine, a new project is born, carried out in partnership with the city of Genk, that will inject new projects and ideas to the city, and the rest of the world. LABIOMISTA (literally “mix of life”) has collaborated with Swiss architect Mario Botta, who has designed the Ark, the entrance to LABIOMISTA, and the Battery, the new study and headquarters of the artist, a 5000 m² space, that contains an eye-catching greenhouse and an enormous eagle aviary. LABIOMISTA also hosts Vanmechelen’s Open University of Diversity- which includes the 5 foundations of the artist-, a permanent external exhibition space, and a park area of more than 9000 m² , inside which the animals of the artist live and breed: chickens, llamas, dromedaries, alpaca, ostriches...
Central in Vanmechelen’s work is the chicken, which is seen both as artwork, exhibited all over the world, and as a metaphor of man and society. At the end of the nineties Koen Vanmechelen became world famous with the launch of “Cosmopolitan Chicken Project” (CCP), a worldwide project of breeding of chickens of different nationalities, that connects art and science as a symbol of global diversity and that has produced, following subsequent breedings, more resistant and sustainable chickens. The project has attracted the interest of scientists, international organisations, and also governments. It has recently been applied in the context of an important project against poverty, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Strongly committed in the field of human rights, Koen Vanmechelen has promoted, in the context of the 58th Venice Biennale, the world project “Human Rights Pavilion”, in collaboration with the Global Campus of Human Rights, Fondazione Berengo, and the MOUTH Foundation. The project was launched during Glasstress, an exhibition to show artworks created in glass in the former furnace of the Fondazione Berengo Art Space in Murano with internationally renowned contemporary artists whose work engages human rights issues, amongst whom Ai Weiwei. Koen Vanmechelen is the curator of the 2019 edition of the exhibition, together with Brazilian artist Vik Muniz.
“With the Human Rights Pavilion, I want to explore the complexities of human nature, the possibility of a universal concept of human rights, and the role of art in its development”, says artist and curator Koen Vanmechelen. “I firmly believe that in the Anthropocene, the era in which the human impact on the Earth’s geology and ecosystems reaches critical proportions, art can help in the development of this much needed new universal concept of human rights, taking into account local sensibilities. Connecting the universal with the local and making human rights not or less controversial”.
Over the next 18 months, the evolving artwork will gain weight and momentum through the dialogues, travels, correspondence, explorations and creations of Vanmechelen during a world-tour on almost all continents. The Human Rights Pavilion will develop at different global locations: from Belgium to Mexico, from London to New York, from Sydney to Tokyo, to Helsinki… Roaming about, the evolving pavilion-to-be will gain form through contact with people and organisations involved or interested in human rights. Debate on human rights will be stimulated in all locations, through so-called SoTO dialogues in Cosmocafes. Those are local hubs to debate the conditions for sustainable coexistence of individuals and human cultures with each other, and with other species on the planet. The focus is on the existence of a body of human rights to which humans, and by extension nature on our planet, are entitled.
We have met Koen Vanmechelen in Murano, Venice, at the inauguration of the Human Rights Pavilion.
What is the aim of the Cosmocafes?
Cosmocafes, that develop in those places in the world where my exhibitions take place, want to promote conversations around a table. Not only do they stimulate minds, but also senses: the eyes, the smell… I think it is important for people to understand that Cosmocafes are about human rights and culture, and that there is more going on than a lecture, because lectures are for those who really understand the meaning , but there are many ways of communicating, and that’s why we have to trigger all senses. Cosmocafes are called SoTo Dialogues, which means: “Survival of the others”. Normally it is : “Survival of the fittest”, so it means that you are here for me and I’m here for you. In a dialogue it works like this: I say something, you say something, and in the middle of our conversation there is a kind of solution. I think we have to envisage these dialogues on another level: for example: local- global. One of my statements is: “The global only exists by the generosity of the local”. I think we have lost the local somewhere. The word generosity is the biggest word because in the past we took everything from the local and we forgot that we had to ask, and then we made it global, but nowadays, if you look at gilets jaunes for example, it is the local that says: “Everything is happening, but where are we in the story?”
What is the relationship between “local and “global” in the Human Rights Pavilion?
In Helsinki’s Cosmocafe there will be a fisherman who will speak with a high level chef, who will prepare beautiful and multicultural dishes. The local fisherman will tell a different story compared to the chef’s one and I am sure that in the mind of the chef something will happen, and that the story of the fisherman will make him think. In Cosmocafes we invite different people, of different professions, expert in what they do, to make real conversations, not like the ones happening on the internet, where there is too much fake news. If in a Cosmocafe you put together a social entrepreneur with a scientist and an artist you will have a fantastic table. It’s all about creativity and in art the biggest freedom is art. What the Declaration of Human Rights is missing is the book of creativity, of freedom of thinking. Here, at the Fondazione Berengo Art Studio, in my artwork Collective Memory, I have put the Encyclopedia of Human Rights with different sculptures on top. If you put this artwork in the Parliament everyone starts to protest. If you put it here, in an exhibition space, people say: “Well, let’s think about it”. Let’s think about Venus, for instance, represented in one of the statues, that stands for fertility. Is it a right or is it not a right to be fertile or to be not fertile?
What is your idea of Labiomista?
It is a place where I would like to work with communities. It is a community project, even if it is a high level art project: I think that art has to be brought to communities, to inspire people. I think that every gift that you have mustn’t be kept for yourself and must be shared, otherwise it’s a crime. Let me put it in another way: art is a gift, this gift is knowledge, that mustn’t be kept for yourself, but shared with the world. It is a responsibility that you have towards other people. If we speak about human rights there will be knowledge, so we will share it. If you don’t do it, you become a simple player in the field of consumption, and this is a very horizontal feeling. If on the other hand you have an idea and you think it has the potential to grow, you bring it to another level. It is a vertical way of progressing, which means capacity to grow. Labiomista promotes the development of local and community activities. For instance the restaurant will be created by the community. This corresponds to my vision to support sustainable communities, linking the local to the global, and connecting art with society. The revenue deriving from LABIOMISTA’s entry fees will be reinvested in the park’s public role, and in neighborhood projects.
Can you explain your work with chickens and how communities have benefited from it?
In my work chickens have a central role, and are both artwork and metaphor of man and his relationship with cultural and biological diversity on the planet. I cross breed chickens all over the world, and I have created 20 generations of chickens combining traits of species from all over the world. After 24 years of crossing I have obtained a chicken strain that holds the most diverse DNA of any domesticated chicken flock in the world. The DNA diversity of the chickens that you buy at the supermarket is three times lower than the offspring from the Cosmopolitan Chicken Project. Therefore this chicken, which is an ongoing project in the field of art freedom, becomes more sustainable. By cross breeding it with a local commercial chicken I obtain chickens with an exceptionally diverse DNA, strong enough to conquer the environment and good enough to produce an egg every day. This project has been taken up by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), the largest centre in the world working to improve food security and reduce poverty in developing countries through research for a better and more sustainable use of the live stock. They have told me: “We need your initiative because we are carrying out the largest project against poverty in the world and we need a chicken that goes into the communities.” So, together with ILRI and supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Roslin Institute, we are implementing a project in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to give people living in the poorest areas a more resilient chicken. Coming from the art, that’s quite something… In April 2018, together with partner scientists and government officials, we opened Incubated Worlds in Addis Ababa, which is at the same time research centre and artistic installation, a unique combination of art and science to improve nutrition and income in Eastern Africa.
How do you collaborate with scientists?
I have 5 foundations. One is CosmoGolem, a global project on children’s rights. We go to developing countries- so far I have been to 33 countries around the world - and show kids that they can express themselves through poetry, stories, dance and visual arts… Then: The Walking Egg, a project on fertility, approached through the intersection of art and science, in collaboration with the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology (ESHRE) and the World Health Organization (WHO). The Cosmopolitan Chicken Research Project (CC®P), that was created in 2008 and is the first foundation set up to explore the scientific possibilities of my work; the MOUTH Foundation, that brings together art, science and people to carry out a new and more constructive social and ecological balance. The foundation supports me in the implementation of all my artistic projects; and COMBAT, the NGO coordinating ComingWorldRememberMe (CWRM), a project commemorating the one hundredth anniversary of the start of the First World War. The ultimate goal of CWRM is the production of 600,000 small clay statues, one for every person killed on Belgian soil during WW1. Therefore I am always busy with these projects and my pieces of art are the start and the knowledge to bring them the world. This is what art must do. I am not interested in art to decorate a shiny wall. I think that art has real content.
Why is diversity a central theme of your art?
Because If we lose our diversity we don’t have anything. I don’t look like you and you don’t look like me, but that’s a good thing. We also have to learn from ourselves and understand that we can be selfish, so we have to try to balance the fact that we are selfish. That’s the way of living together, trying to understand, because being selfish means having fear of sharing. The opposite of love is fear, so being selfish is having some fear because you are not open to love.
Opening picture: Artworks, installation view beneath The Battery – Studio Koen Vanmechelen, LABIOMISTA, Genk (BE) . © Koen Vanmechelen, 2018. Photo by Kris Vervaeke