Published  28/07/2019

Koen Vanmechelen – interview: ‘Now everyone is talking about diversity, but that is just a hashtag diversity’

Koen Vanmechelen – interview: ‘Now everyone is talking about diversity, but that is just a hashtag diversity’

In a joint venture with the Belgian city of Genk, the artist Koen Vanmechelen has built a €22m ecological park that presents art as an instigator of community development


A sprawling 24-hectare public park was inaugurated this month in the sleepy city of Genk, an hour east of Brussels. Labiomista, the brainchild of the artist Koen Vanmechelen, is a multilayered project: as well as housing the artist’s new 5,000 sq metre studio and acting as an exhibition site for his large-scale sculptures, the park is framed by animal habitats and research facilities. Vanmechelen sees initiative as a metaphor for our relationship with the natural world and acts as a culmination of Vanmechelen’s ambitions over the course of his two-decade career.

His most well-known enterprise to date is the Cosmopolitan Chicken Project, which launched in 1999. Vanmechelen took a chicken breed from Belgium and another from France, mating them on the border between the two countries. Next, he took one of the offspring – a black chicken, among many white and grey animals – and mated it with an English breed in the middle of London. Every year since, he has added a new breed from a new country to the genetic line.

Cosmopolitan Chicken Project art installation beneath The Battery, LABIOMISTA, Genk (BE). © Koen Vanmechelen, 2019. Photo: Tony van Galen for the city of Genk.

The aim has been to create the most diverse kind of multicultural chicken, carrying within it the genes of all the different breeds that exist in the world. Highlighting the benefits of genetic diversity – greater immunity, fertility and resilience – the project embodies what Vanmechelen is always seeking to advocate through his work: the breaking down of barriers along with an embracement of cultural diversity.

This quest to make a case for the benefits of biological and social variation has informed much of the artist’s output, most notably through collaborative projects that are grounded by his experiments with animals. Vanmechelen’s ambitions to breed the most “cosmopolitan” kind of chicken resulted in another project, the Planetary Community Chicken, which focuses on bringing healthier chickens to farms around the world, in order to create sustainable local farming methods. Most recently, he has been looking into the immunological potential of camels, with the intention of harnessing the antiviral properties found in the animal’s milk.

Labiomista is a site described by the artist as “pregnant”, housing a collection of rare tropical birds, which have been brought together to breed; as well as llamas, emus, camels, ostriches and alpacas, not to mention the chickens. Dotted around the quiet grounds are various information boards that aim to relay, not always successfully,Vanmechelen’s curious research findings and beliefs. They punctuate the walking path that takes visitors around the impressively imposing buildings, designed by Swiss architect Mario Botta, before leading them out into the sparse wilderness that makes up most of the park. The site is surrounded by local industry on one side (a car showroom, factories) and Belgium’s only national park on the other. The land’s history is also compelling – and poignant – in relation to its current function, once operating as a zoo for abused animals dumped by bankrupt zoos and circuses.

Cosmopolitan Culture Park, Cosmopolitan Chickens in front of their barn, LABIOMISTA, Genk (BE). © Koen Vanmechelen, 2019. Photo: Jeroen Verrecht.

Labiomista was made possible with the support of the city’s mayor, and the hope is that it will bring new life into Genk, a former mining town that saw a major employer, a large Ford factory, close in 2014. Its multicultural population, one of the most diverse cities in Flanders, is regularly referred to by Vanmechelen and no doubt chimes with Labiomista’s purpose. The hope is that the park will provide a new model for how to make art a core part of communities. Whether or not Labiomista’s take on art encourages long-term interest from its audiences, only time will tell, but it certainly convinces as an architectural site that can be used for a variety of purposes. Maybe that will be its actual calling.

The Cosmopolitan Chicken Project is included in Food: Bigger than the Plate at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (on until 20 October 2019), a show that explores how people are reinventing how we grow, distribute and experience food. The artist also features at the Design Museum Gent in Creatures Made to Measure, which questions how humans and animals can live together sustainably.

Allie Biswas: Labiomista seems to be a culmination of your longstanding interest in “living art” and your history of making these kinds of projects, starting with the Cosmopolitan Chicken Project. How did you come to initiate CCP?

Koen Vanmechelen: First of all, the CCP comes from my youth. I already had an interest in birds – pheasants and chickens – by the time I was five years old. As a little kid, I was curious about how a chick comes out of his egg, how it hatches. I discovered it’s a real struggle. You have to find the right corner to break the shell of the egg. That was my first interest in life, actually – how it starts and how difficult it is to break the boundaries – to find the right moment, the right corner. This fragile life that then grows and develops … I also discovered how a lot of things depend on their environment. This led me to other questions later on, about how we shape spaces for each other.

Cosmogolem, marble, steel, 12 x 8m, Cosmopolitan Culture Park, LABIOMISTA, Genk (BE). © Koen Vanmechelen, 2018. Photo: the city of Genk.

AB: Can you describe your earliest works?

KV: I made animals using wood, which looked like cages. I made them like you construct a cage, but in the form of a bird. Those were my first sculptures. They brought forward the contradiction between captivity and freedom. Later on, I realised the chicken is actually a cage in itself. Because we domesticated the animal from a wild bird; we made it into a cultural and productive thing and changed its DNA, narrowing it down to what we wanted it to be. And that conclusion made me think; can we actually do that? Can we put a frame around a living animal? That’s a social question. Can we block evolution? Then I came up with the CCP. All of a sudden, I realised that we have to crossbreed these different iconic chickens from all over the world. Crossbreeding as a drive of evolution. That was the birth of the real content of my work.

If you start to talk about crossbreeding, and the advantage and disadvantage of crossing, and you do this in a museum setting; this is a big social statement in itself. It allows you to start discussions on different kinds of subjects; climate change, genetic engineering, cloning, the balance between culture and nature, and how these things can communicate with each other. So, although the content of my work is grounded by a social issue, it is also a scientific and biological one. It concerns our society. I think that art always has to have that component. The chicken is the biggest immigrant of the world. If you are happy with it, because it gives you meat and eggs, then it belongs to you. But you have to know why it belongs to you – and if you accept the chicken, you accept something else. That is, you are accepting that you are embracing diversity. I like to seduce people. I think art is about taking people into your world. Art should not be an untouchable bubble.

AB: How did the CCP develop into the Planetary Cosmopolitan Chicken project?

KV: It was about giving back. The global is thriving while the local is not, and the global only exists because of the generosity of the local. With the PCC, the cosmopolitan chicken crossbreeds with the local community chicken. I have set this up at farms in Havana, Detroit, Zimbabwe, Addis Ababa and elsewhere. We are crossbreeding diversity with productivity. Now everyone is talking about diversity, but that is just a hashtag diversity. Nobody is actually practising it. It’s only in their mind.

The Ark, exterior view, entrance building of LABIOMISTA, designed by Mario Botta, Genk (BE). © Koen Vanmechelen, 2019. Photo: Jeroen Verrecht.

AB: What was the starting point for Labiomista? When did you begin to think about making this project?

KV: The starting point was that I had to leave my previous studio, an old factory building that we rented in Hasselt, a city 30 minutes away from here. I believe in the serendipity of things. I had a fantastic studio, but the city was expanding and the factory was going to be demolished to make room for new developments, so I took the opportunity to make a move. If the city hadn’t been changing, I probably would have stayed there, and that probably would have also meant limiting the future.

When I was searching for a new space, I realised that the new studio had to be better. At a reception, I met the mayor of the city of Genk and told him that I was looking for a new studio. Genk, due to its mining history, is a cosmopolitan city. The mayor told me: “You are dealing with ‘cosmopolitan questions’, this could be a match.” So it was clear from the very beginning that it was not only about creating a new physical space, but also about making a real project together. The first seeds for Labiomista were planted.

AB: The site of Labiomista is an old zoo, perhaps an interesting coincidence.

KV: We sat down with the mayor to talk about what might be possible and, at the very end, he said: “We also have a place that has been vacant for 20 years; it’s the former mining site and zoo of Zwartberg.” I decided right there and then, having not even seen its current state: this will be it. A few days later, we visited the site and saw, thankfully, that all the old animal cages were no longer there. I was intrigued by the site’s position between the city, the national park in Genk, the local industries and its people. All the ingredients were present. Fourteen days later, I had thought out the whole masterplan for Labiomista.

AB: You make a strong case for the function of art as a solution to contemporary problems. Was Labiomista envisaged primarily as a way to rebuild the communities of Genk? Having the support of the city, which has entrusted you to make a positive difference using the city’s land, presumably comes with a lot of responsibility?

KV: With art, I think, you can raise questions. If we don’t talk to people in the city, if we don’t acknowledge them as communicating vessels, the project will never succeed. This is an artwork in evolution. Also, Labiomista is a community project, more than a touristic one. Tourism is a consequence of allowing the public on to the site, but it’s not the purpose of the site. That is why, for instance, it is so important to not have a restaurant here. I want Labiomista to stimulate the neighbourhood, so that people here want to develop something themselves. By not supplying places to eat and drink, you shape the desire to go out into the nearby community. I think this is very good – creating a shortage. A shortage makes things fertile. Also, artworks need that kind of contemplation. I see this as a pregnant site; you don’t need all these kinds of disturbing elements. Nature and culture have the chance to do what they need to do.

AB: Labiomista is organised very clearly into sections. Did you know from the start that it would include all of these components, or did things change as the project developed?

KV: Because the site was at the border of the city and the national park, I knew that Labiomista had to be a place that transitions from human life to wildlife. That’s how the park is shaped. It’s like entering a new world before it has formed an existence. That’s why I call it a pregnant site.

AB: What was your process for thinking about how to shape the contents of the park?

KV: The first major part of the park that you enter is the villa; there, you are confronted with the past, present and future. The scenography shows the history of the mine and the zoo; the present is represented through the Library of Collected Knowledge; the future is the dining room, a place to sit together and work, because this is, after all, a working place. People from all over the globe come together, sharing ideas to put into the community, and that has to grow even further. That’s what we call OpUnDi Genk – the Open University of Diversity – which is also an important section. So the villa is all about human presence.

The Battery – Studio Koen Vanmechelen, exterior night view, LABIOMISTA, Genk (BE). © Koen Vanmechelen, 2018. Photo: Kris Vervaeke.

The Battery is our studio. Because of the energy floating around, where we work, it has a clear statement. On one side of the studio, you see exotic birds from different continents. They are fruit- and seed-eating birds. On the opposite side of the studio, there’s a big cage with predators, also nearly extinct – a couple of Steller’s Sea Eagles. That’s conflict – if you opened those two cages, the eagles would eat the birds. In between of all of this is us working. Seeing the conflict between pray and predator, nature and culture, that’s where all the questions come from, and with these questions we go back to us human; back to the foundations of our project. This is the way it works.

When you leave the building, you go into the park, where you see domesticated animals, ostriches, llamas, alpacas, nandus and emus. Before you reach this wildlife, it’s a little bit of a labyrinth. The path is like a snake, shaped through the landscape, as we didn’t want to cut down any of the trees. This is the part where we challenge the brain, to put things together. The Labovo amphitheatre illustrates this way of thinking, the complexity of the brain. It’s a speakers’ corner. Finally, you end your walk in Nomad land, near some allotment gardens; a concept I created and that we are implementing with the city. We created a picnic place, a place for meeting, somewhere to host local food and drink trucks.

AB: How do you think a project such as Labiomista can make a difference to, or influence, the wider problem of environmental catastrophes and issues related to sustainability?

KV: I think it can help because it raises all of these questions. Labiomista is a new world, before existence has started, as it were. In this stadium, you can create a thinktank, like a living structure, continuously in evolution. A project such as Labiomista is like many of my projects. It is community-based, like the projects we do in Zimbabwe or Detroit, and this is because I believe that communities are our new identities of tomorrow. They function as a little lab, a testing case for how projects can survive, or not. This is a big change; before it had to come from the state, by the government, to set up a big project. Communities have the power to test things, based on trial and error. They can set up projects that come from the bottom up, not top down.

The Labiomista 2019 season runs until 3 November. The park is open Tuesday to Sunday.

Click on the pictures below to enlarge

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